Being of the unfair sex

PHOTO: Being of the unfair sex

My reaction is practically hormonal.

When Singapore Armed Forces open-mobilisation alerts flash across the television screen, I am seized by a second's panic. I spill the tea and clutch my head until the girl hormones slosh in, then I clutch at my bosom instead and remember I am a female in Singapore, which means no compulsory national service (NS) for me.

International Women's Day came and went way back in March - feminism sits uneasily with me as I am flawed - but it took a recent poll on NS to stir the hormones and make me think about what it means to be female in Singapore. The poll asked what NS means to Singaporeans.

Besides feeling thankful to the people serving in the army and remembering how crucial an entity it is, if I am horribly honest, I have to admit that it means it is an instance when I am shamefully diving for cover in my gender. Dodging compulsory NS.

I then thought about how few things in Singapore seem to sort me by my gender. And how utterly grateful I am for that because I do not really want to gain leverage through it or be outmanoeuvred through it.

I forget on most days that I am of the fair sex. Not being painfully conscious of your gender is good when you read about how horrific it is to be a woman in some countries today or back in the day when being one was like being a sexy bag of meat to be beaten, bought and sold by others. More like being a member of the unfair sex.

I do not belong to any social body - religious, familial - which makes non- negotiable patriarchal demands on how the female body is to be presented to the world: that I must either amp up the volume on my femininity to appear virtuous, or mute my femininity - also to appear virtuous. If I wear frivolously ruffled skirts and delicate, quirky accessories, it is for fun. I flit from social norm to social norm and construct a nest of an identity made up partly of sparkly, pretty things because I like it. Not forcibly feminine, just voluntarily enjoying being a woman.

And I can do that because I gratefully stand on the shoulders of battle-worn feminists through the years.

Who or what else should I thank? Meritocracy and technology - your ideas have a reach and value that are not attached to your physical presence or strength.

In the office, for only myself at least, it does not seem to matter whether I am male or female; as long as I turn in my work, I get paid.

Man or woman - it should not matter enormously as long as you have fire in your belly, light in your heart, and dreams and ideas in your head.

I tend to look past the gender of people unless they have a stereotypically masculine or feminine physical beauty which locks onto your eyes like a tractor beam. Instead, I have a rather bizarre way of seeing them based on how they behave. In my mind, they project avatars as animals, vegetables or minerals.

Here are a few examples: animal for the kind ones and sometimes intelligent ones (thankfully, there are many walking around who look like sweet golden retrievers or clever cats); vegetable for the ones with no personality; mineral for the ones who are arrogant yet as dumb as a sack of rocks.

One of my earliest experiences of being sorted and judged - and wrongly judged - by my gender was when I was a child. I felt society's eye in, of all places, the public loo.

I did not have much control over how I looked then, and had very short hair, tanned skin and looked like a young boy. So when I used the ladies, the, well, ladies clucked and tried to shoo me out. I had to protest that it was just a short haircut, while trying unsuccessfully to radiate femininity.

Later on in life, I was once asked whether I wanted to move into a particular line of work because I might want better work-life balance so I could reproduce. For a moment, I felt like a giant helpless womb sitting on an office chair. I was not asked if it was because of my professional interest in the work, but whether my uterus was feeling restless.

We are, of course, not free of the occasional hormonally charged decision, but I can imagine how dehumanising it would be if people judged us only by our gonads instead of our ideas and actions.

Perhaps I should also thank dumb luck for my growing up in a country where there is a fighting chance for equality.

I want to thank my own refusal to go along with bigoted views too, but I am afraid I have not done too much of that. I have not stood up, I am no feminist.

I am seated, I see myself and other people as strange avatars and I react to them accordingly.

I hope they look at me just as strangely too.

denise@sph.com.sg


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