Gender and racial discrimination is something many women from Asian backgrounds face. It’s something we reluctantly and relentlessly put up with on professional and personal fronts all around the world.
Inequality. Favouritism. Sexism. Misrepresentation. These are the challenges women commonly face growing up Asian or living in a society where typical Asian cultural values, patriarchal norms and Confucian ideals are upheld.
As I wrote in this post Why Males Are the Favoured Sex In Asian Cultures, in many Asian cultures often women are seen as either passive or overbearing, and all round less capable than those who are born or endowed with certain contrasting biological traits. In many Asian cultures, ‘boys over girls’ or ‘man over woman’ is often how the mentality goes at home, at work, in social settings and countless situations in between.
Throughout my childhood in Singapore, Malaysia and Australia, this sentiment surrounded me in both subtle and non-subtle ways. As a kid I never agreed with this train of thought. At times I rebelled against it. These days I still don’t agree with it.
Being a woman of Asian background doesn’t mean one can’t have an opinion or achieve goals or do what one wants to do. A body with a mind and all its physical, emotional and mental attributes is a person who is their own individual. This is probably what many Asian women believe in; we believe in ourselves in the face of marginalisation.
Choosing and being proud of individuality
Traditionally a quiet Asian woman is seen as someone with no backbone, no voice and more of a submissive follower than a leader. There is the long-held perception within Asian cultures that it’s more honourable to be male rather than female. A kind of patriarchal responsibility comes with being an Asian male: the expectation to look after elders and carry on the family name and bloodline and this is a source of pride. On the other hand, traditional Asian families seek to marry women off – women are given away and seen as ‘not a long-term investment’ so to speak.
Given the freedom of choice to stand their own ground, more and more women of Asian background are constructing a sense of ownership around their name and who they stand for. When the 1950 Marriage Law banning arranged marriages was passed in China under the leadership of Mao Zedong, women rushed to register their names to have claims on inheritance. In many Confucian societies and places such as China and Malaysia, Chinese women (ironically) do not change their last name (with the exception of Japan where married women are required by law to take their partner’s surname). They retain their last names but might be informally known by their partner’s last name. Then there is rù zhuì (入赘) as Jocelyn Eikenburg of Speaking of China writes about, which relates to the instances where Chinese men ‘marry’ into a more-well-off woman’s family for a more practical future and perhaps take on a woman’s last name.
Taking on another name never appealed to me. Don’t ever intend on changing my name. To me, my own name speaks of who I am, what I’ve attained and carry on my shoulders today: an education, the lessons learnt from my ancestors, the places that I’ve worked, the money I’ve earned which is rightfully mine. My name speaks of my history, my present stories and experiences of being Chinese Australian. Every name is part of a generation, every name is a generation and a culture in itself, every name is a someone.
Consequently, women of Asian background are commonly stereotyped not just as submissive but having limited roles. The majority of Confucius’ five hierarchical relationships is centred on the family with an emphasis on women being compliant wives and mothers. Having biological children is regarded as sort of a currency – status and pride – in Chinese culture. On an Asian woman’s part, natural procreation is exclusive and sacred as it’s a sure means to preserve one’s heritage and name by blood.
The main Confucian text Analects dating back to the Classical Period in China echoes this, alluding to the virtues of filial piety and the notion that a good woman is an illiterate one. Women in that period were relegated to kinship roles and accorded with wishes of closely-related men.
With careful planning, thought, engaged action and hard work, there’s no limit to what any woman regardless of race can achieve. The more one works hard at something, the more opportunities one creates for themselves and the more one gets noticed. Since 2006 in China female registration at universities surpassed that of males and employment to population ratio of women stands at 73%.
Moreover, these educated women are increasingly choosing career over family today in the post-One Child Policy era – and they are increasingly termed ‘leftover women’ or shèng nǚ (剩女). To many of these women, shèng nǚ is synonymous with victory and marriage is companionship that one can get by simply cohabiting. As Autumn Asborough of West Dates East writes about being pressured to have a Chinese son in a Chinese family, there are many reasons to not have babies and stresses adoption is always an option.
‘Let your (younger) brother go first’ and ‘Look after Mabel’ was what my folks constantly said about my brother, to me. They also encouraged me to get a suitor the moment I finished university, preferably a Chinese-Malaysian guy. No comment about my love life on the internet. But I will say that despite constantly being told to sit down, shut up and play safe as a kid, I dreamt of being an independent, self-sustainable persona who climbed the corporate ladder wearing freshly pressed suits, confident at my job and doing it well while pursuing a creative passion on the side. After climbing out of phases of unemployment and writer’s block, today all that is a reality: affording my own way through life working a day job and outside of that writing a book which I have no idea when will get done.
It’s a scientific fact that different sexes experience different physical and emotional spectrums. In many parts of Asia, those with an uterus and who have periods are literally regarded as the weaker sex. Talk of periods and the side effects of periods here are generally taboo, regarded as unclean and unholy in the eyes of certain religions. Talk of or showing signs of distress is also regarded as a sign of weakness in Asian cultures priding on excellence in achievement.
Despite one’s limitations and the challenges faced physically and emotionally, there’s no reason why one can’t soldier on, put on a poker face and get the job done. Although menstrual leave is a legal right for women Japan, South Korea and China, many women choose not to take it due to social stigma and it’s usually not paralysing. Some have argued period leave is not necessary and it can lead to more inequality in the workplace, and not every woman gets a period. When China’s swimmer Fu Yuanhui admitted she swam on her period during the Olympics and felt tired because of it, Chinese media focused on reporting how a woman could swim – and she finished fourth in her race.
Honestly I’ve never felt awkward about talking about periods or acknowledging feeling flatter than a pancake when it comes. Never taken a day off because of it and just keep going about my day popping a stack pills (maybe I’m one of the lucky ones). Every man and woman and any gender in between will sweat, sneeze and get sick and feel not the best at some point. All of us have countless natural bodily functions, and periods are natural bodily functions, no exception.
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Labels don’t define us
Defining gender is complex. Gender isn’t confined to a box and commonly thought of as socially constructed roles and behaviours. Not all of us identify with being man or woman and might identify as genderqueer or ‘in-between’ third gender instead – which is okay since each of us are entitled to feel how we want to feel and love who we want to love. Traditionally gender fluidity has been frowned upon and unspoken in Asian cultures. However these days more of those of Asian descent identify with being queer and negotiate fluid identities within supportive LGBTQIA+ communities and queer getaways. Similarly, there are different waves of feminism and different forms of sexism – so talking about gender discrimination is undoubtedly a complicated and sensitive discussion.
Equality is a hard fight. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, equality is the state of quantities being equal; more broadly in the context of human rights, equality is about opportunity, freedom, empowerment and respect for all. As competition, the chase for wealth and desire to get ahead dominate society today, often the status quo prevails in favour of particular classes, benchmarks and outcomes. Christy Birmingham of When Women Inspire writes to be gender inclusive means to open for all, any gender, anywhere. In other words, no two people can truly be equal across different aspects but there is the possibility for equal opportunity for each of us.
Gender specific labels arguably perpetuate the power plays between the different genders. Long-standing honorifics such as ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Ms’ and the terms ‘boyfriend’, ‘girlfriend’, ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ often have patriarchal undertones and are synonyms for ownership over another. Today many modern relationships see being a couple as two people having mutual respect for each other’s wants and individuality. Similarly, in Chinese culture a young woman is commonly addressed as xiăo jiĕ (小姐) and a married woman/head-wife tài tài (太太). That said, traditional labelling – which includes the words ‘woman’, ‘man’, ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ – has its place in today’s society: it reflects how different each of us are, the ideals some of us believe in and is a means to distinguish ourselves, traits and capabilities from each other.
To me, we are more than the salutations affixed to us. No one is better than the person next to us, no better in terms of personality and we can give and all learn from each other. It’s probably why I don’t like being addressed by ‘Miss’ or ‘girlfriend’ or ‘little girl’, much preferring to be called by my name in the first instance. In the context of relationships with two or more people, the words ‘partner’ and ‘friend’ sit fairly well with me as each word tends to recognise distinct individuals as whom they are on a level playing field. Personally I like being a part of something because of who I am, what I do and what I can offer to someone and the bigger picture.
In recent times, ‘Tiger mum’ is a common phrase used to describe Asian mothers with strict parenting styles, demanding their children focus rigorously on academic studies. As debated in the media, ‘Tiger mum’ conjures up the image that an Asian woman who isn’t all passive has the ugly potential be a demanding disciplinarian, hot-headed authoritarian. On the other hand in traditional Chinese families, the male breadwinner in the family is usually unwaveringly regarded as right in most instances.
I’ve always had a bit of a headstrong side to my personality. My folks have called me stubborn more times than I can count: I was called stubborn when I didn’t want to play with my Barbie dolls but with my brother’s Hot Wheels toy cars. Called stubborn when I refused to wear a dress to a family wedding. Called ‘no brain’ when I insisted on studying Arts at university. Each time I felt not only scorned but also in the wrong. Meanwhile my brother never seemed to get yelled at anything he did. Ironically, those who call others stubborn are in fact being stubborn themselves – and no one really comes out on top.
Speaking up is harder than it is
The capacity to speak up and actively engage in who we want to be differs across the world. Different beliefs are entrenched in different places. Educational and personal development opportunities differ in different places. Hence, the scale of human rights varies across the world. For instance, while women in Saudi Arabia are now allowed to drive they still need male testimonials if they want to run a business. As the abortion of female babies surged by 170% between 2001 and 2011 in India, maternity harassment complaints are on the rise in Japan.
Even in privileged first world countries such as Australia where there are vocal gender equality campaigns, subtler casual bias against women is prevalent. According to the Cracking the Glass-Cultural Ceiling report from Diversity Council Australia which surveyed over 230 culturally diverse businesswomen, Muslim women admitted corporate workplaces in Australia commonly see those wearing the hijab as subjugated and not capable to lead. Only one in ten respondents felt their leadership traits were recognised at work. In addition, Thai women who moved to Australia for a better life have silently suffered domestic violence and rape at the hands of their white Australian partners.
Therefore it has always been, and still is, a challenge for Asian women to speak up let alone make their mark in Australia. As Malaysian-born, ex-ASEX-200 entity CEO Ming Long said, in Australia Asian employees who don’t conform to being quiet are often labelled as aggressive and thus disliked. She also mentioned that employers prefer hiring someone on the basis of cultural fit and ‘merit is a trap. It really depends on who’s defining it.’
While it’s encouraging to see more Asian women speaking up, there is also nothing wrong with keeping a quiet demeanour and actually being comfortable with it. After all, the model minority myth is still prevalent like it has been for decades, there are still millions of quiet and studious Asian students all around the world and patriarchal value systems where woman are happy to play obedient housewives show no signs of going away in many parts of Asia. Just like how not all woman want to have children, not all women are comfortable with making their mark by speaking out loud or verbally but prefer flying under the radar and being quiet achievers. And being a quiet Asian woman and really any other woman – one who might actually dress looking like a China doll because of a love for that look – doesn’t mean one doesn’t have an opinion and doesn’t want to express it.
Describing myself, I see myself as a woman of Chinese background living in Australia. Someone with a foreign-sounding accent, someone who likes to get things done while standing outside of the spotlight and a proud introvert. The way I prefer to articulate my thoughts isn’t in a space where everyone is debating over each other. The way I prefer to share my strengths isn’t in front of a big crowd. Rather an intimate arena where everyone is given a chance to say something but not required to do so or where ideas are articulated in written form is an arena where I feel like I can not only share but also somewhat feel a part of something.
Women come in all shapes and sizes and most certainly in all shades of colour and character. Some of us fit the stereotype, some of us don’t. And some of us might fit both stereotype and non-stereotype. Each to their own. Each of us has different ways of expressing ourselves. On recognising each other for who we are, author C. Joybell C. said:
‘We are all equal in the fact that we are all different. We are all the same in the fact that we will never be the same. We are united by the reality that all colours and all cultures are distinct and individual.’
Some might read this post thinking I dislike aspects of being Chinese and a Chinese woman at that, and dislike what Chinese culture is. Yes and no. While I like listening and being quiet and feel that’s important, to me sharing opinions is equally important when it comes to getting along and understanding each other. While I like being independent and standing on my own two feet, to me there is also much to learn from working, sharing and standing together with another and opening up to them. At the end of the day, each of us women is our own person with our own persona.
At the end of the day, it’s a right for each of us women to not be judged so quickly. Most importantly it’s a right for all women to have the opportunity to make the choices we want to make, and ultimately be who we want to be.
Have you encountered or seen gender discrimination?