Sunday, May 05, 2013

Being a Woman in Malaysia

"Feminism is the radical notion that women are people."

Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler

Still the most nail-head-hitting definition of feminism I know.

This post retells two of the recent stories I shared on the Malaysian Atheists, Freethinkers and Agnostics (MAFA) Facebook page on the subject of feminism, gender equality and sexism which I wonder if they will make you as angry as they made me.

You see, I always laugh a bitter laugh whenever they tell me that the fight for gender equality is over. We have won the war, they say. Women can now get educated, vote and work. The feminism movement should be put out to pasture to graze on the sweet, sweet grass of women's liberation. Why then, I ask, do the ghosts of inequality still haunt me every day? Why am I still seeing their ghoulish mocking faces in broad daylight?

Shortly after discovering that my gestating child is a baby boy last month, I started working on his name immediately. Names are something special to me, and even back in my high school days, I wondered why children are expected to carry their father's names. Why is it the cultural standard for my people, the ethnic Chinese? Why is it so for the Malays, Indians, and the other assorted minorities in Malaysia? Perhaps my fixation on surnames and patronyms stemmed from my history of being teased for mine, which is a homophone for the male organ - I don't know - but it always struck me as very odd that women would be okay with this arrangement.

The nobility of motherhood was deeply impressed upon me by society and school all my young life - y'know, the 9-month-long pregnancies and excruciatingly painful labour that they have to endure to bring every new person into this world. Why is it that as soon as the babies are out, everyone decides that it is fair to stamp these neonates with their father's name? I mean, every single cell, every molecule, in every human being who ever lived were made and assembled entirely in their mother's womb out their mother's flesh and blood. Theoretically, only half of the nucleus in one measly cell out of the billion bajillion cells in a newborn came from the father, from that one sperm that could. Even if you take the genetic or "intellectual property" viewpoint that half of the kid's DNA came from dad, it still seems ridiculously unfair to name every single baby after the male parent. It deeply upsets my sense of justice.

Hyphenated surnames are quite unsightly for Chinese names, so I decided that my child will bear his mother's name. I felt a sort of mild gut resistance to that idea initially but then I remember that this decision to allow your child to carry the name of your spouse is readily made every single day by almost every mother in the world in all of time without any fuss. Since, I don't even have to suffer the hardships of carrying our kid to term or experience the agony of bringing him out, why should I feel even a smidgen of entitlement at all? The boy is my son. He is my son no matter what name he bears because half his genes came from me and nothing will ever change that. I am not so insecure as other men that I need him to carry my name to reassure myself of that immutable fact.

The next step I took was phone the Registrar of Births and Deaths' office to find out if it can be done. A female staff member there answered my call and when I put my query to her, she was taken aback. She said no one has ever asked her such a thing before. And no, my child cannot carry his mother's surname, she told me. There is actually a rule in the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1957 (Act 299) that does not permit it. Article 13A says,

The surname, if any, to be entered in respect of a legitimate child shall ordinarily be the surname, if any, of the father.

Suck It
The Man says suck it, Woman.

"Is there any way around it?" I asked the lady.

She thought about it awhile and said, "Well, you can declare the child illegitimate. He or she will then take the mother's name."

Sainted copulating faeces! So, if I name my child after his mom, he is by default illegitimate? Are women considered so lowly in this country that only bastards are allowed to take their mother's name? The fact that a man's privilege to name his offspring after himself is protected by law is indicative of how sexism is legislated in this country. The fact that no one saw any problem with this is evidence of how sexist our culture and society are.

Tomorrow, the 13th General Election of my country and many are hopeful that it will finally turned this leaky, sinking ship of a country around after it was helmed for more than half a century by a radically racist, incredibly inept and cartoonishly corrupted government.

Google Commemorating PRU 13
If you noticed, that is what today's Google Doodle is celebrating.

GE13 YouTube
... and YouTube too.

One of the most hotly challenged issues is the providence of special rights and privileges for the ethnic Malay majority of this country in our constitution, and we cry so foul because it is racist, it is unfair, it is wrong to be discriminated against for not being Malay. However, we are completely silent when 50% of our population is being discriminated against by law and by society for not being men.

I see this cultural assent of women's inferiority all the time, particularly now that we are expecting. The first thing anyone always ask after finding out that my wife is pregnant is, "Is it a boy or a girl?" We get very hearty congratulations when we tell them that it's a male child. When I share the fact that my wife and I were playfully expecting a girl before we found out, they always ask me why - and not in a curious way either but more in a surprised fashion, as if it is unthinkable why anyone would prefer girls over the clearly superior boys. Last week, one of the medical officers I worked with brought his 3-day-old kid to the nursery for phototherapy because of neonatal jaundice, and I struck up a conversation with him about being new fathers. As expected, he congratulated me for producing a male heir, and when I talked about wanting to have a girl initially and that my wife actually sewed a dress, he asked "Wouldn't you want to get a boy first, and then try for a girl later?"

When I told him that we only want one kid, he asked, incredulous, "You wanted your only child to be a girl?" Mind you that this came from a modern medical doctor, not some peasant from the Tang dynasty.

So women of Malaysia, how do you feel about being considered as being deficient compared to men before you are even born?

And this ingrained cultural preference for boys is not harmless. Even though Malaysia is nowhere as bad as say, India where it is illegal for doctors to reveal the sex of unborn children for fear of parents aborting female babies, this baseline misogyny has very real and very insidious effects.

Recently, I attended to the Caesarean birth of a baby by an Indonesian woman who married a Malaysian. She had to undergo a Caesarean section because we deemed that her previous Caesarean scar, done less than one year ago, had not healed sufficiently to attempt safe natural birth (or "trial of scar" as we termed it). I did the maths and realised that she conceived just 2 months after her last child was born. Then, we found out that she did not use any contraceptives because her husband  forbade her to use any while he refused to use condoms himself. That made no sense. When we pressed her for the reason, she said it is because her husband wanted a boy as soon as possible, as their first child was a girl.

We generally counsel women to space their pregnancies two years apart, particularly if there is a previous scar that can rupture and kill them with blood loss during subsequent labour. We counselled this woman and her husband previously, so he knew full well he was wagering his wife's life. The last I heard of her (as I was not her primary physician), she was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit for severe postpartum haemorrhage.

But congratu-fucking-lations, he got what he wanted; a teeny tiny baby wang between his second child's legs. The wife's health and safety was clearly secondary to this goal because after all, that's what women are good for, aren't they? Means to an end.

So no, the fight for gender equality is far from over. There are still battles to be fought in the hearts of all Malaysians. There are still unbroken shackles in our minds, legacies of our barbaric ancestry, which we must see broken. This is completely arbitrary and personal, but the day I lay down arms is when half of all children born in our country can expect to be named after their mothers, and they will bear their names without any shame. It was what I thought is fair all the way back when I was in high school, and it will still serve as what I think is fair now.

P.S. Since the wording of article 13A in Act 299 seems to suggest some flexibility in interpretation, I wonder if it can be challenged.

Ironically named feminist,
k0k s3n w4i


Rewarp said...

When you quoted the passage in the law, it does appear to be flexible. Only slight preferences given to the patriarchy. Get a lawyer to pester them if you are serious about it.

nicoletta said...

When Julian was born here in NZ I tried to apply for a Malaysian passport/citizenship for him...and was denied by the Malaysian government. Apparently in order for a child born overseas to be considered Malaysian, the father has to be Malaysian. The mother can be any bloody nationality and the child would still be Malaysian. It doesn't work the other way round, as I learnt.


And that's such a wonderful thing, letting your son take his mother's name :)

shanaz@RS said...

You're awesome for writing this because this stuff has just got to be said and you said it brilliantly.

Oh btw, did you know that if only one of the parents is Malay (doesn't matter if it's the mother or father), the child will automatically be Malay. In this case, the gender seems to simply not matter lah! Wow. :)

k0k s3n w4i said...

Rewarp: Depends on how you look at it. If a pair of husband and wife fight to name their kid after themselves, the law will favour the man. And I am serious about it. We'll see.

nicoletta: Oh, I didn't know about how the children of Malaysian women with non-Malaysians are considered aliens. This is far worse than the surname thing. So, what citizenship is Julian eligible for?

shanaz@RS: Thanks. I'm surprised not more people are saying these things. And no, I didn't know about the Malay clause. Also, I heard that it doesn't matter what race the mother belongs to - the kid's official race will be the dad's.