The dynamic Sangeeta Nambiar, founder of Play Acting Drama Centre, invited me to give a keynote speech for International Women’s Day to a group of her teenage drama students on the topic of Feminism: A Misunderstood Concept. The Play Acting Drama Centre specialises in theatre and communication skills for adults and children and the incredible Finally She Spoke is also one of Sangeeta’s initiatives, tackling issues of sexual violence and harassment, FGM and the cultural and social stereotyping of women.
The event at Goodman Arts Centre was a celebration of International Women’s Day and consisted of six powerful monologues delivered by the students and then was followed by two panel discussions. I was a panellist along with the incredible Lavinia Thanapathy, best selling author and Chair of Inspiring Girls Singapore and the lovely Michelle McFarlane, Founder of BWN Asia, It was such an inspiring day, the teenage students spoke with such passion and confidence, reciting various monologues, including stories written by audience members. Lavinia and Michelle delivered incredible speeches and made some very interesting insights about feminism and women’s empowerment from personal, local and a global perspectives.
I felt very touched to be the recipient of Iconic Role Model for the Youth award presented by the girls, what an honour.
If you missed it, I wanted to share my speech with you to celebrate International Women’s Day 2019. There are so many amazing women and girl activists out there working towards equality for women but there is still work to be done. If your sister, daughter , partner or friend is interested in equal rights for women and girls then you might want to read this.
‘Happy International Women’s Day!
I’d like to thank Sangeeta for inviting me here today to talk about such an important subject and one that I feel very passionately about.
When I was invited to be a part of today, I thought a lot about my feminist odyssey and how I identify with that word? It is loaded with conflicting meaning; embodying strength, independence, emancipation and sisterhood, but also misandry, unattractiveness and paradoxically, a desire to look manly. Feminist interpretations can also be vastly different, depending on whether you are from eastern or western culture.
Either way, I don’t profess to be an expert on feminist theory and literature but I can tell you about is my journey to consciousness and what I’ve learnt about equality and empowerment that I can share with you.
I’d describe myself as sassy, opinionated, independent and strong willed. Eventhough I love my feminine curves, wearing makeup, buying beautiful shoes and dresses for myself, I have no tolerance for the objectification of my appearance by others or the underestimation of my intelligence and ability or the gender stamping of my actions. I like surrounding myself with strong, opinionated men and women who are not intimidated by my nature and I’ve always revelled in my natural rebellion against society’s expectations of me. So does any of that make me a feminist?
I was raised by a phenomenal single mother, a career woman who taught her three girls to be independent, adventurous and brave, to safeguard our own sense of worth and draw strength from each other, rather than relying on men to solve our problems for us. I was raised to question, debate, be curious and seek adventure and have life goals beyond marriage and children and define my own measures of happiness and success.
Stories of incredible female wisdom, strength and ingenuity have fascinated me, since I was a little girl. Characters that appealed in literature were the unusually strong Swedish girl, Pippy Longstocking and the intelligent and stubborn Anne of Green Gables. As a teenager and into womanhood I discovered great wisdom in the literature of Dr Maya Angelou and Zora Neale Hurston, helping me to shape my understanding of myself as a woman of colour. I then continued my discovery of empowerment through literature by specialising in the depiction of the female in ancient Greek and Roman epic poetry at University.
However, I have also felt deeply frustrated that art and literature, two of my passions, have long been the playground of men. You only have to look back in history to discover a catalogue of forgotten proto feminists like the pioneering 19th century Austrian explorer, Ida Pfeiffer, the most famous travel writer of her time, whose thirst for knowledge saw her travel to places no European man would ever dare to travel, to the 17th century Italian artist, Artemisia Gentileshi, who managed to transcend the great restrictions put on women of her time to be considered one of the most vital artists of the Baroque period, with such peers as Rubens, Caravaggio and Vermeer. So why is it that both of them were almost completely written out of history until a recent interest has uncovered their stories? There lies the problem of suppression and a lack of equal rights socially and economically that we are still dealing with today. That frustration has long driven my passion for the empowerment women.
Luckily, today, through Instagram and my community of female friends, I have come to know such contemporary art authors, as the Jealous Curator, who challenged the establishment and published her own art history book, deliberately placing all the forgotten female artists back where they belong.
I have also come to know and admire the black civil rights activists Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the feminist buzzword of the moment, ‘intersectionality’ back in 1989 and Tarana Burke, the founder of the original #Metoo movement in America in 2006, long before it was hijacked and taken over by Hollywood.
Like many women, as a working professional, I’ve seen and experienced inequality in pay and status, had male colleagues take credit for my hard work and been made to feel that I was too strong, bold, smart, and even too irresistible, to excuse inappropriate sexual conduct and poor performance in my male counterparts in the workplace.
Sexual discrimination, sexual violence and economic injustice are challenges that all women face today and these experiences have greatly influenced the way I think and feel about myself, my work and the relationships I have with men. It has also fostered and cultivated a rising sense of responsibility to fight against these injustices for myself and for other women from different backgrounds, age ranges, classes, abilities and orientations.
However, contemporary feminism is now contending with new issues such as the rise in female chauvinism and the need for intersectional awareness and representation today.
Those women, along with countless others, have shaped my values and identity and sharpened my consciousness and sense of responsibility so today, I feel proud to say that I now relate positively and consciously to the word ‘feminist’.
Here is a little wisdom that I would like to pass onto you on your journey as young women.
- Focus on liking yourself first and don’t get hung up on likeability. Choose what YOU love and feel passionately about in life and you will find your inner confidence, contentment and success.
- Respect is a minimum standard so don’t compromise on the need for equality and economic injustice many women still experience around pay and opportunity.
- Use the great opportunity the internet offers your generation to be a part of the fourth wave of feminism online – use it to find your own heroines from around the world that you can look up to and learn from. Read books about great women from history and from outside your culture.
- Don’t let the limiting beliefs of others shape your life or career trajectory. It is often deeply rooted in their own sense of worth and unconscious fear of your skill, strength or intelligence, leading to your empowerment.
- Believe in sisterhood. Find communities of women outside of your relationships with friends and family that offer mutual support, positive nurturing and inspiration.
- Stand up for all women. Until we all enjoy the basic freedoms that we do in first world cultures, we are ultimately not free or equal.
- As girlhood activists today, you have a responsibility to educate the men and boys in your life. Teach them that strong women who are powerful are not to be feared but to be respected and admired.
- Stand up against injustices, not only for yourself but also for others. It is always the right thing to do. Silence and passivity only strengthens the persecutor.
- And finally, don’t forget that supporting women, means ALL women, not just the majority culture. Commit to championing women of colour, different faiths, ability, age, class and sexual orientation and alleviate unconscious bias that overlooks, disempowers and separates.
If contemporary feminism is going to be a sustainable continuum then these thoughts and considerations now fall into your hands as well as mine. Embrace them responsibly. Thank you.’
Thank you to all the fantastic women and men out there who are supportive of equal rights for women and girls. If you would like to read our article for International Women’s day last year you can find it here.
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