“11 years later, I’m back to still talk about sexual harassment” — Ivy Josiah
There’s something quite chilling having to hear activists comment on our social climate where seemingly so much has progressed since, while so little has changed.
Monash had the privilege of inviting two of the most prolific female figures to deliver speeches as part of the Wom*n’s Officers’ independent speakers series on gender and sexuality. These two women are none other than YB Maria Chin and Ivy Josiah.
Ivy was the first to take the stage, citing that although things have changed over time, women are still faced with some pretty heavy adversities, just for being women themselves. Throughout her years of helping women via the Women’s Aid Organization, Ivy has concluded that domestic abuse itself was not an act on its own, but an entire system where the law treats women as less. This failed system, in turn gave men false pretense to discipline and mistreat women. As domestic violence was usually dismissed as a private matter that should be resolved at home, it took an entire women’s movement to establish laws and uphold their justice.
Ivy attributed the lack of respect towards women to unhealthy media portrayals. “Your bodies become different parts that can be sold,”, she quipped. Women are very often reduced, body parts become sexualized and commodified just to sell products, making them seem less human—the case of objectification. Covered up or not, women are still policed and accused of being perpetrators of assault.
And what do you do if you’re tired of being catcalled? Ivy advises girls to stand up and confront. Just a simple “what?” can be a good enough defense sometimes.
“So how do you genuinely compliment a woman then?” an audience member asked.
“If the girl feels uncomfortable, back up,” she replied. After having a big portion of the audience raise up their hands when asked if they have experienced any harassment before, Ivy also explains that it’s not just about what men say, it’s really about how they say things.
Never a dull moment throughout her session, Ivy also took the chance to school the male audiences on how to be better allies for women. “When you see something, say something, do something,” she adds. For men, this means having to actively eradicate casual misogyny and rape culture through their daily actions, respecting women even when ‘it’s just us boys’. Ivy also suggested starting from home and taking over chores to help out. Having male privilege in mind, she also reminded the audience to never ‘mansplain’, and never be cruel towards the queer community.
Reflecting the sentiments once ignorantly expressed about having gay people banished on an island, Ivy retorts “Since most men can’t control themselves upon seeing a woman in lipstick, or a skirt, then we might as well have them locked up too”. Touché.
After being introduced through YB Maria Chin’s long list of political and social involvements from AWAM to Bersih, the first thing she said upon receiving the microphone was “I’m a bit disappointed at the fact that you all only applauded at my political work but not my social work for women,” earning her the crowd’s immediate attention.
After being in activism for 50 years or so, same issues were discussed throughout the years. However, the changes she has witnessed include increased general awareness and understanding. While it’s easy to mislabel as being anti-Islamic, gender equality truly takes collective action that transcends race and religion. Even at her age, women are still struggling to make themselves heard. She then related this to a research she conducted across rural and city schools, where it was found that only boys are elected as head prefects. This was the perfect opportunity to perpetuate how women are merely subordinates to men.
Women in politics don’t have it easy, either. While the amount women in parliament has been raised from 20-ish to 32 since GE-14, their need to moonlight as family caretakers makes it even harder to juggle their political careers. She also reminded everyone that it had nothing to do with dressing, just deep-rooted socialisation and the authority some men have over women. Regardless of the amount of policies passed, the lack of change in attitudes would ultimately set us back in time.
Using another example, she explained how flood victims in fishing village would be quick to address their losses of boats, engines, and nets while forgetting the women who help out with finances too—hawkers and caterers who lost their cooking supplies in the flood.
On the topic of child marriages, YB Maria explained that across different laws, from civil to criminal consider children under 16 to be incapable of making decisions. Even the United Nation stressed about the importance of decisions being made in best interest of the child, which doesn’t seem to be the case for child marriages happening across the world. She however, commends the Sultan of Selangor for taking a brave stance to change the legal age of marriage to 18. All in all, there’s still a long way to go for women’s rights.
When asked how to go about people, especially women who do not identify themselves as feminists due to the negative connotation the word carries, Ivy who proudly claimed feminism as her religion suggested people to read up and educate themselves about it. It was important for people to unpack the word, as feminism is a radical notion that should be proudly owned by women. She also cautioned against using queer people as a distraction for real problems happening. Feminism should also be instilled from young, teaching boys about sexual boundaries and health.
As for Malaysia being a safe space for queer people, YB Maria doesn’t see it happening right now, as long as people do not make an effort to understand the community. “It’s not so much of promoting, agreeing, or disagreeing,” she added. She felt that it was vital that Malaysians understand the LGBT are essentially a part of society, and the way we should deal with it is by understanding their point of view and accommodating, not discriminating them. Pushing the issue underground would only make things worse. Ivy also reminded the floor to deal with the queer community humanely, and how no one should be discriminated against their identity.
Both Ivy and YB Maria also offered their views of challenges they faced as women in their respective fields. After coming back from the UK and learning about the different hardships women face, YB Maria was able to collectively mobilise and advocate for women’s rights. Ivy also expressed that she and her peers never felt alone standing up for women’s rights since the 80s, symbolising the sense of solidarity present. As YB Maria walked the audience through some of the difficulties of organizing Bersih, Ivy commended her by being a walking example of how both genders could work together.
“Have you been discriminated in the parliament?”
“Not yet, they wouldn’t dare.”
As for dealing with rape and assault victims, stigma must first be changed. Ivy suggested addressing them as survivors, not victims, and to work towards preventing a recurrence. Instead of victimising and placing the blame on them, support them by walking along with them.
The high prevalence in teen pregnancy has also been extremely alarming, especially for YB Maria, whose constituency receives about two cases weekly. While sex education is important, the myth of promoting casual sex should be debunked in order to progress further. This starts from changing attitudes of educators, and having the parents actively demand for adequate sexual education.
Even after the scheduled end time at 8pm (signalled when cold air was cut off), both guests were still eager to take on a few more questions in hopes of creating a cascade of awareness and to inspire a few more audience members to do better. The rather small, intimate setting of the Plenary Theater made it that much better for audiences to treat it as a safe space to inquire and learn more. The next best thing I can do as a (rambly) writer is to (exceed my usual word count and) pass their word on to the next person who reads this.
Article by LingJie Tuang
Photos by Nobel