Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Plight of Malaysian Women

What does it mean to be a woman in Malaysia today? On the surface it all seems rosy doesn't it? We can earn degrees in whichever field we choose to, we can get good jobs, buy our own property, drive cool cars, wear nice clothes, dye our hair, hang out with friends at cool and funky restaurants and clubs, smoke like a chimney, drink like a fish and the list goes on. So does that make us a liberated lot? Do you think we are oh so lucky as compared to our sisters in other parts of the world? Luckier than the little girls in some African countries who have their breasts ironed when young so as not to appear an alluring target for would be rapist. So rife is rape in such societies, that desperate mothers resort to mutilating their daughters in such a manner as a means of protection. Luckier are we than the victims of female infanticide in rural India? Luckier than the women in Basra, Iraq, who get shot on the streets for not being 'appropriately clad'? I think not.

On the surface yes, we indeed live in a blessed land, Muslim country notwithstanding, we can still walk the streets and feel the wind in our hair. However gender bias and a deeply ingrained disrespect against women is very much present in our society today. And you know what? I think a lot of us actually accept it as part of our daily life. Men and women alike, we accept it, and as such we encourage it. Let me give you an account of what modern Malaysian women encounter the moment they step out of their homes to illustrate my point.

If you do not drive out of your homes or apartment buildings, and if the nice foreign or in some cases local security guards do not try to be funny with you, your ordeal truly starts the moment you step out of the gates. Get ready to be honked by a dozen or so cars as you make your way to the bus stop or wherever else. You think honks are okay? well how about those that are so............desperate to get your attention that one honk will not do. What you get is a loud blaring horn that threatens to make you go deaf! and when you turn to look at the perpetrator, he either smiles, waves, whistles, or does all three? does it make you happy or pleased that someone who is obviously on his way somewhere, actually took the trouble to waste his time performing that gross act for your benefit? or how about those that just drive past, wind down their windows and scream "hi" or some other more insulting words? or if you are about to cross the road and you find that the cars are slowing down, but not slow enough for you to cross cos they just want to look at you? does that make one feel like a beauty or very, very, annoyed with the Veterinary Department for putting the wrong animals in cages?

Oh how about when you get into a cab, and the cab driver wants to know your whole life story, why you are late for work and why you are dressed so sexily? and whether you are a 'friendly' person whose dream is to hook up with cab drivers. And these are just the friendly ones mind you. The other type (the animal who did not make the cut to get into the zoo) will very conveniently rape you before dropping you off at your destination. And what of those who drive to work? Well these girls will have male drivers tailing them, trying to road-bully them and the very friendly ones will pull up next to you and either stare, grin or wink at you while waiting for the traffic light to turn green. Oh and if you try to assert yourself, display impatience or make your displeasure against other road users known, you will be deemed a very aggressive woman. Your one act on the road will start people talking about how aggressive and rude women have become these days. So what is so out of the ordinary about a woman being aggressive or rude. I am not saying it is acceptable civic behaviour. What I find offensive is that people harp on the fact that a woman deigned to behave in that way. It is the gender that becomes an issue. When the real issue should be why are Malaysians (no reference to gender) being so aggressive and rude.

So the whole getting to work ordeal is over right? now its time to get down to work and get serious no? remember all those fellows who horned, winked, did cat calls etc? well some of your male office mates are from that species too. The passive ones will constantly check you out as you walk pass their desk, forming all sorts of pictures in their minds. The more vocal ones will make explicit jokes and sexual innuendo. Even your male boss might be one of the culprits. What to do? Tell them off? be sarcastic and sharp? ignore them? ohh.........but if you don't accept it then you're really kampung. Not at all like a hip modern KL girl who talks sex with the guys. Like yeah rite! We don't need blokes like this to tell us about being modern. We can figure that out for ourselves.

Then its lunch time, but you are too busy to join the gang, so you decide to go for a solitary lunch later at your favourite coffee joint. Now sadly some men think that when a woman eats alone, she ardently hopes for prince charming to walk up to her. Yes that's why a lot of girls can be seen hanging out solo these days, we are waiting for dashing knights and princes to come and sweep us off our feet. Never mind that some of these blokes who approach us look worse than the villains in any fairy tale and some even older than our fathers and grandfathers. Ohh............but they have oodles of confidence all right. They will come up to you and present their business card, saying that you should call them sometime! Well if a guy was smart enough to rise to the level of say general manager, you would think that he would have some amount of emotional intelligence to understand that, that sort of treatment can really piss people off, especially a fairly intelligent woman who is enjoying 'me' time alone and was in no way giving out signals that she is a prostitute looking for clients! That sort of treatment is insulting. Besides the bloke who thinks you should be lucky to get his name card, there is the other sort who normally operate either in pairs or groups. Even if the restaurant is empty, they will take a table near you and proceed to make you as uncomfortable as possible by staring or sniggering in your direction, and the bolder ones will get really loud with their 'admiration' if the outlet in question was a mamak or coffee shop. Now who should be embarrassed and humiliated in this situation? you or the morons? the morons right? or so you thought. Trust me, everyone else in that restaurant will look at you as if you should be embarrassed. Some will even look at you with pity, instead of doing something to stop the noisy blokes. Because in Malaysia it is 'very normal behaviour' men do that, women must humbly accept. Even if 'you' in question happen to be a chief executive officer having a teh-tarik at the mamak and blokes in question happen to be truck drivers. It is very accepted behaviour, and if you make a fuss about it, then my aren't you are bitch!

How about weekends, when you just want to trawl shopping malls by yourself or with some of your girlfriends. You think nothing can or will happen in a nice friendly Malaysian shopping mall? think again. If you parked at the basement car park, well have we not all heard the horror stories that can happen to women in car parks. Okay so you got out of the car park safely and can start shopping now. Whether alone or with friends, most Malaysian women would have experienced this at some stage in their life. One or a few blokes might be so be-dazzled by your countenance and that of your friends, that they/he decide to stalk you through the mall. Yes you enter one store, he/they also enter, you pick up an outfit, they are not far off watching you. You turn to look at them, they pretend to look elsewhere then continue staring at you. On and on it will go untill you decide to stop and just stare at the bloke untill he gets uncomfortable and walks off/ or if you are the scared sort, you run, hide, and voila lose him. You spend so much time dealing with the pervert and his crap, your whole shopping trip gets screwed up.

Don't we girls just love to glam up and paint the town red with our girlfriends or friends of both genders. Don't we? Well while you are painting your face in front of your bedroom mirror for your night out, did the thought cross your mind that you might actually come home that night or early the next morning a different person? many have you know. The stories of young women getting drugged and raped by strangers and even those they thought were friends are legend. With the help of many an unscrupulous bartender, many men who unfortunately cannot seem to get laid without resorting to drugging their partners, have committed rape. Many a time, there is so little evidence and in most cases of course it goes unreported. And they just continue doing it, thanks to all the tip hungry and helpful bartenders out there. It is abettment to rape, this is what all these bartenders are participating in!

So you have shopped, gone partying, and now want to take a holiday without a male companion in tow. Who says you can't? you're an independent woman right? Well take steps to ensure your holiday does not turn into a horrifying personal experience. Even in your hotel room be very, very, careful. Even the room service bloke can be a sexual pervert. If you have ordered room service, stand at the open door and hold it while the waiters deposits the tray on your dining table, see him out then lock the door. If you did not order anything and some dude dressed as a waiter rings your door bell. Ignore it. Call room service and ask them what is going on. Being alone in your room safely is only the start. Even if with friends, be careful when hiring local guides to take you to remote tourist areas and such. You never know what the fellow could turn out to be. On the whole just be very careful and vigilant at all times, there's nothing like the scent of a female alone that can make the nostrils of a sexual pervert flare up.

Being an independent Malaysian women also means you travel outstation via public transport quite a bit. Barring flights where most of your fellow travelers are civilised or they have no choice but to be civilised, travelling by bus is another story all together. Legion are the horror stories I have heard from female friends. If you are unfortunate enough to get a bloke who is mentally programmed to hit on every female that comes his way, sitting next to you, be prepared! Oh actually be really bitchy and tell him off, or tell the bus driver you want to change seats. Either that or a stony silence should do the trick too. Now this is a story I heard from a friend. It was a late night bus and well most of the passengers were sleeping, including her. Except for one nasty pervert who was sitting right behind her. When she awoke, she found his hand on her thigh! She should have screamed and awoken the whole bus. Being too nice a girl, she just sort of removed his hand.

At some point we independent working gals would also want to purchase a home of our own. Once again be careful. As you come and go from work and social engagements, some very deprived pervert out there could be watching. A single female staying all on her own is a perfect burglary victim and of course there are worse things that could happen. Why even women who stay with their families; housewives, young women, teenagers and even little girls have been gang raped by burglars in front of their horrified family members. So who says we are safe at home? It's only a matter of time before some bloody burglar who needs a screw comes knocking!

Not safe at home, not safe on the streets, harassed at public places and at the office, in short the easiest target of crime in oh so safe Malaysia, could it get any worse? why of course it can! we live in a VERY Asian society remember? where decorum is prized above all else, especially among the fairer sex. Asian women must be polite, soft-spoken, respectful of elders, not aggressive and too vocal, should never express an opinion which goes against our social and cultural norms, never be radical in temperament and the list goes on. Despite the fact that society acknowledges that our women have the capability to be independent and successful in their own right and deserve to be respected for it, there is still a deeply ingrained gender bias. Even if a women were to be elected Prime Minister someday in the future, this deeply ingrained bias will still be deeply entrenched. For all the intelligent women there are around us, some very famous ones too, the very idea of a women who has a mind of her own and dares to go against the grain, creates a lot of uneasiness. So what is it to be? we can be intelligent and independent career women, earning handsome salaries to help support our households, but at the same time we should possess the temperament of a geisha? Is that what makes the Asian women so unique? capable yet subservient?

We have a fairly active women's movement in Malaysia consisting of several nongovernmental organisations. Their most notable campaigns being on the issue of rape and violence against women. What triggers violence against women? a lack of respect. Why do we lack respect in the eyes of men? because biologically we are the weaker sex. We are the helpless deers and men the fearsome lions and tigers. But this is civilised society and the rules of the jungle do not apply here. Besides the fact that we are weaker and thus easily over powered by men? why do they prey on us in the form of rape, physical violence and harassment? why? it's because they do not respect us. Why are we harassed on the streets, in our workplaces, in public places and such? because these men have no respect for us as individuals.

What raises my ire is that society as a whole, not just men, but women too, seem to complacently accept this total lack of respect. Have you ever complained about the kind of harassment you had to endure in public places? I know I have. The response I got from men and women alike were: " Oh don't make a big deal about it. Just take it as a compliment that they find you attractive." Oh is that how I should take it? as a compliment? I should be happy that some scumbag leered at me? Have you ever vented your frustrations about the direct and in-direct sexual harassment you were subjected to at work? Did the person you were complaining to say:"It must be difficult being attractive." That is the sad state of the Malaysian mindset today. You gotta take it as a compliment, humbly accept what being female brings you, or rue the fact that you are attractive and perhaps dress in an unattractive manner to protect yourself. Why should you? never, never, be influenced by what tepid minds say. As far as I am concerned, having laws against rape, molest, incest and such is not enough. There should also be laws to protect a woman's basic dignity. Nobody should have the right to hoot, whistle, cat call, and harass a woman. By doing this they are guilty of infringing upon her private space and threatening her basic right to go about in public undisturbed. This will send a message to all those disrespectful bastards that they have absolutely no choice but to start respecting us, whether they like it or not. Oh but of course that is never going to happen. We will cease to be Malaysian if our men actually decided to behave and treat us with respect.

Have you ever heard anyone say: "It must be difficult being a woman." A lot of people do, Be they men or women. That one remark speaks volumes about how women and their lot in life are perceived. It also tells us that at some deep level society accepts that women are to be treated as such. That acceptance keeps us where we are - shackled.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Guide to Understanding Writers

Writers in my opinion are one of the most misunderstood people around. I have come to this conclusion after spending a fair amount of time in this line of work. Eight years to be exact. After much exasperation and frustration thanks to my dealings with non-writers whom I had the misfortune of interacting with in the course of my work, I felt compelled to sit and write this post. My primary objective is to air my grief! The secondary objective being to put into perspective the general traits and characteristics shared by those that possess the soul and temperament of a writer.

To be a writer, one must have a deep and consuming love affair with the language one writes in. Language is the vehicle and the weapon of the writer. Not the quill, the pen, the typewriter or the computer keyboard. A good writer expertly uses language to engage and captivate an audience the same way lawyers use the law to convince the court of the merit of their case. Although a mastery of language is important, not all good writers must necessarily be grammar experts as well. The sentence must sound right of course, but one need not be a grammar technician.

Writers might lead mundane lives. Trudging to work day after day like the rest of the multitudes. But their thoughts, views, opinions, beliefs and convictions seldom are. To an average person a pair of Nike shoes is just that.

A writer for instance will look at that same pair of shoes and see a whole story behind it. The shoe is seen as a product of cheap labour. Produced by poor workers in sweat shop like factories in a third world nation bent on transforming its once marxist like economy into a popular exporter of consumer goods. While the severely exploited workers who toil long hours under slave-like working conditions, were once peasants who were lured by the promise of a better life in the city only to become bonded labourers.

Yes we writers are deep sorts. We are anything but superficial. By this I am of course excluding those that produce 'chick-lits' and all those stereotypical romance novels. But the producers of these sorts of fiction must be applauded too. For if not for them, the masses would not be compelled to pick up books of a story nature and get acquainted with language.

Back to my point on the nature of writers. We are always observing, thinking, creating. With every breath a thought is formed. If it's exciting enough to last more than a few minutes, we run for pen and paper to scribble it down in the hopes of expanding upon that thought later. For us, beneath the surface of everything there is a 'something'.

To write about something in an intelligent and convincing manner for more than five paragraphs, one has to be well-informed on the subject matter, be it an essay on female infanticide or a book on the Mughal empire. Must one have a deep and abiding passion for the subject? not necessarily, but before the writer begins to write, he or she must have done a fair amount of research, and if possible interviewed people who would be able to shed more insight on the subject being written about. In this manner, we writers are like actors and actresses who research the personalities, way of life and mannerisms of the characters they are going to portray.

Now for any writer what I have rambled on about is pretty basic. It is so basic I should not even be writing about it! However I felt compelled to write this down because many a time I have had the misfortune to meet people who gravely doubt a writer's ability to write intelligently about a subject matter which the writer in question was not qualified in.

What these people fail to comprehend is that we writers are essentially communicators. It is in our very nature to absorb the essential facts and ingredients of a subject matter before we begin communicating it to an audience in written form. Plus being a communicator and a 'creative type', we have the knack of presenting the information in a highly readable manner.

You see having the knack of capturing the reader's attention is at the heart of our career. If nobody felt compelled to read us, what are we then? That is why from very early on in our career, we have compulsively developed the art of capturing and holding an audience not unlike an entertainer.

To all those who doubt our capability to write intelligently in fields we were never trained in, I have this to say: If you want your very scientific or technical subject matter to interest the general public, hire a writer. If you want a piece loaded with jargon and technicality, hire someone who is qualified in the said field to write. Then decide what is your original objective in commissioning the piece. Did you want to inform and educate your target audience? or did you want your audience to be impressed with your writer's command of the subject knowledge and be thoroughly bored or worse still intimidated by the information presented?

Now I come to my second gripe. A writer is an individual who 'thinks'. We are thinkers. We think more than the average person on a huge variety of issues. We never accept everything and anything that is presented to us as 'The Bible'. That I assume makes us rather intelligent and discerning.

Taking this into consideration, I wonder why there are so.........very many people out there who think they can treat us as stenographers! Assuming that it is our jobs to write down every little thing they say. ( A common problem faced by journalists) True we must get the facts right or risk misleading the public. But as thinking people, it is our prerogative to decide which facts should be written, how it should be written, in what order it should be written, and which bits should be excluded.

Yet many a time, writers are reproached by ignorant ego maniacs wanting to know: " Why did you write it that way?" "Why did you not use the exact words I used?" "Why did you omit those facts? it was important you know." "That was not the way I put it!" I mean really, if our job was to merely write what has been conveyed to us word for word, without evaluating the information, we might as well go perform some non-cerebral blue-collar job.

There is however a reason why we are treated as such. It is contempt.There are two breeds of people who have this contempt for us. Type A have love hate relationships with writers. They are aware that we have the talent to both glorify and vilify them. Plus the ability to support our assertions with facts and convincing arguments. So they are rather wary of us to start with.

The ones with some dignity, avoid us like the plague and maintain and elegant silence when approached. These types are to be respected. Then however there are the types that somehow try to convince themselves that at some level we are really stupid and can be bought over with flattery, bribes and what they presume to be convincing arguments in their favour. Though nursing a great amount of contempt, they still persist in wooing us.

Type B sorts have a very low opinion of writers to begin with, and a hugely inflated opinion of themselves. The way they see it, we probably didn't do very well for ourselves in life. Which is why we ended up as writers. In their view, writing for a living is a third-rate job. For them the primary function of a writer is to serve them and make them look good. We are little more than serfs in their opinion.

For all their perceived intelligence, they don't seem to understand that a writer is not a scribe. When we write, we think first. There is no such thing as literally copying. While a scribe is a copyist. In ancient times, people employed as scribes copied down valuable manuscripts word for word. These scribes could be found in libraries, at imperial courts and in monasteries as monks who copied down religious texts for the purpose of preservation.

Some of these scribes were also educated slaves. For instance the slave cum scribe of Roman Senators followed their masters to the senate and political meetings, recording minutes and senatorial proceedings. No measure of a scribe's thoughts, opinions or personality went into the words they copied. Of course there are some writers who might whimsically refer to themselves as scribes. However this in no way means they are like the scribes of old.

Now these Type B sorts see us as the scribe of ancient times. They think it is our job to write of their glory. They see us as a medium through which they can communicate their views or basically what they think should be made known to a target audience. Hence the common phrase most writers would have heard at one time or another in their career: "Write nicely okay?"

What Type B people really mean when they say this is that they want you to write the said piece in a way that makes them, or whatever cause or view-point they are championing look glitteringly good! Don't they understand that writing of that nature is advertising? if that is what you want, hire an advertising agency who will assign a copywriter who will do a fantastic cosmetic job on you.

Or if you are a highly placed, or aspiring to be a highly placed politician or something along those lines, get a ghost writer cum spin doctor to spin a dazzling fairy tale about you. At this point I must add that these ghost writers cum spin doctors can be found hiding behind the facade of respectable writers and journalist. For fat pay checks they have sacrificed ethics and used their talents to mislead, twist facts and deceive their audience for the benefit of their paymasters. How can anyone blessed with such talent use it towards such ends? No wonder there is so much contempt against our kind.

In my opinion one does not become a writer merely because they fancy the written word. Writers I believe, have an in-built knowledge centre which they begin cultivating from a very young age. Many do not even realise this. This knowledge centre contains life's experiences, societal observations, knowledge acquired, as well as emotions and thoughts felt at different stages in a writer's life. This in total gives rise to an emotional or intellectual attitude. Excluding the writings produced to earn a living, most of a writer's serious writing will be in one way or another influenced by this knowledge centre. Without this, one is not a writer.