What is feminism? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it is the “belief in and advocacy of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes expressed especially through organised activity on behalf of women's rights and interests”. In 2015, actress Emma Watson also said that “if you stand for equality, then you’re a feminist” in a live Q&A for the United Nations’ HeForShe Movement. But for everyday people, feminism has varying meanings and depths that come from personal experiences. We spoke with six individuals who shared what feminism means to them.
What feminism means to me
“[Feminism means] being able to speak up when things aren't right, fighting for what you deserve and women empowering women,” shared Charmaine Soh, captain of Singapore’s National Netball Team. The team is currently working with ASICS, the Japanese sports equipment brand, in support of their #SoundMindSoundBody theme for International Women’s Day. “I feel that this tagline is more relevant than ever before, not only for women but for men as well. I hope to inspire people through the power of netball, sport, and active lifestyle.”
For Alicia Pan, co-founder of the Yoga Movement, feminism entails “advocating women’s rights to participate equally in all things vital to humankind”. Malaysian content creator Alicia Tan echoes this sentiment, simply saying that it’s all about “women empowerment”.
“For me, feminism means equality among all genders. It’s about having equal rights and access to opportunities regardless of your sex or gender identity,” shared Clozette Philippines Country Manager Geoffrey Ledesma, who heads an all-female team.
Yu Ren Chung, Deputy Executive Director & Advocacy Director at Women’s Aid Organisation, a non-profit organisation that aims to end violence against women and promote gender quality in Malaysia, said, “Feminism means recognising that gender imbalances that unfairly benefit men exist, and we need to correct these imbalances.”
“For me, feminism means recognising the needs of any oppressed group, especially those existing outside patriarchal norms,” shared Emil Hofileña, a Filipino writer and budding film critic. He added that aside from recognising their needs, we need to allow and empower that group “to decide on the best ways to express their identity and the best ways to work towards what they need”.
“It feels great that the world is progressing to appreciate and respect women — our capabilities, our voice, our rights, and how women deserve equal opportunities, equal respect, equal rights,” Alicia T. mused. But, as we all know, this is a long journey that continues to this day.
“My initial perception of feminism was that it was an ideology that had been overrated,” Alicia P. recalled. But as she matured and immersed herself in the business world, she started seeing the signs of inequality. “[It’s] a dog-eat-dog world where women would be subtly disregarded. I now strongly believe there is a place for feminism — especially in the corporate world.”
On the other hand, Charmaine used to see feminism as an idea, rather than a concrete concept. “My initial perception of feminism was [of] women being dainty yet strong and women fighting for our rights.” It has since changed, she said, given that she’s seen women being more vocal about asserting their rights. She also counts female leaders in Singapore as great examples of leading the charge. “Today, I believe that women are capable of accomplishing anything we put our minds to … women are empowering women and this is not the end, but the start to a beautiful future.”
“At first I thought that feminism is simply a movement that says women should be ‘the same’ as men,” Geoffrey considered. “I later learned that it is more complex and has a much deeper meaning than that.” He shared that he’s come to understand that women aren’t asking for “special privileges” but that they’re calling for “equal access to the social, political, and economic opportunities that men have”.
Similarly, Emil said his initial perception of feminism was very raw and misinformed. “I remember not being able to understand at first why it was necessary. I thought it was a new trend, and I thought it was just a more aggressive way of championing women’s rights — and only women’s rights.”
He shared an instance when he was asked if he would identify as a feminist and answered no. “I didn’t know enough about it at the time to be able to say yes, but I remember thinking that openly associating with feminism meant inviting trouble from men.” That changed, he said, when he moved from an all-boys high school setting to a more diverse college environment. “Majority of my college blockmates were women, and they were probably the first people who made me realise I had much to unlearn.” He learned about casual misogyny and how anyone, even someone like Emil who grew up with strong female figures, can contribute to it.
“Growing up, I never really thought about feminism at all. I think it was a slow introduction and realisation on my part, on what feminism was and why it was important,” Ren Chung explained. Since he started working in a women’s rights organisation very early on in his career, his understanding of feminism changed. “A big part of my understanding of feminism stems from learning about women's rights issues as part of my professional work — like learning about domestic violence, sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination at work, women's representation.”
Feminism at work
“When I first started working, our office was in a small house. I never thought twice about staying back late to work, when I needed to or felt like it. But I started to observe that my women colleagues wouldn't [do the same] unless there was someone else in the office too,” Ren Chung remembered. “It wasn't that my colleagues didn't want to work late sometimes. Rather, they felt unsafe being alone in the office, and unsafe travelling home late. This is just one example but experiences like this made me realise the various ways life was easier for me as a result of my gender.”
“I have worked with strong, passionate, and inspiring women in the advertising and creative industries,” Geoffrey observed. “Looking back, all of my past mentors are amazing female leaders, who have been very influential in my career.”
He continues: “As a queer person myself, I’m happy that I’m working for a company that values inclusivity. I believe that all people must have equal access to opportunities in the workplace regardless of their sex and gender identity.”
There are other industries where female empowerment and gender equality is still a work in progress. For example, the content creation industry is largely female-dominated but there’s a big existing pay gap between male and female content creators. Still, beauty content creators like Alicia T. find empowerment and fulfilment in what they do. “Working as a beauty content creator has brought me so many opportunities, joy, and independence… that made me feel powerful as a woman.”
In Charmaine’s experience, she noticed a stark inequality in the male to female ratio in her previous career in management consulting. “The proportion of men to women in my firm was approximately 70 to 30 per cent. Being in an industry with predominantly male leaders was tough as it seemed like the voices of women were not heard.” Even then, she made it a point to “be confident, stand my ground and stand up for my rights as a woman.”
Since Alicia P. has left the business world for teaching the benefits of fitness, she can’t help but marvel over the strength that comes with femininity, in different forms. “The industry is filled with so many interesting people. I love watching how men and women run on the same amounts of fuel when it comes to fitness — and even how some women overpower men when it comes to strength,” she observed. She also says it’s “refreshing” how people have come to accept women with strong bodies, a vast improvement from years ago.
Feminism at home
Children can be taught feminism at home, too. Emil recounted how important it was to have strong female relatives to look up to once he started gaining a deeper understanding of feminism. “All my aunts and cousins chose exactly what they wanted to do with their lives. Stereotypes about women in the working world didn’t apply to them, especially since they were given the opportunities they deserve,” he shared.
He also saw how women didn’t “have to stop being nurturing parents or loving partners”. After all, feminism isn’t outright rejection or abandonment of feminine traits and roles, as Emil said. Rather, it’s empowering women to embrace their femininity that comes in different forms. Men in the family can also help teach feminism at home.
“I appreciate the fact that most of them were quiet and gentle people who never felt the need to express their masculinity by putting down women,” Emil said about his family setting. “I recognise how their being non-traditionally masculine did not negatively affect my development at all. If anything, they continue to be reminders that men don’t have to dominate the family unit and that they can work together with their partners to achieve whatever the family needs.”
How to practise feminism
That said, what can we, as regular folks, do to practise feminism in our daily lives and contribute to achieving gender equality for everyone? For Alicia T., it’s very simple: “Respect women and believe in our capabilities.”
This goes hand-in-hand with being aware of what’s going on in your social and professional circles. “Everyone can play their part by just being aware and standing up for women who have been restricted or stripped off any basic rights,” Alicia P. suggested. “It happens all the time. We just need to be [more] aware.”
Geoffrey added that it’s very important to educate yourself on the meaning of and your own gender biases. “We live in a patriarchal society so a lot of us may not realise the micro-aggressions and sexism that exist everywhere in our lives.”
Once you become more aware and educated, don’t be afraid to use your voice. “Speak up! Don’t be afraid to give your opinion at work or in a social setting,” Charmaine said. She also said it’s very important to take care of your mind and body and live a well-balanced lifestyle. We agree: caring for your fellow women starts from taking good care of yourself.
Speaking to the men who are reading, you can be a feminist too. “The simplest way conceptually I think — especially for men — is to reflect honestly on ourselves and our own behaviours. Are we contributing to discriminatory or just toxic environments — at home, at work, or in public? And then commit to change for the better,” Ren Chung said. He also said that men need to listen: “As men, we generally benefit from our gender. If we don't listen, it's hard to imagine how gender inequalities affect women.”
He added, “I also think it's important to emphasise systematic change. We need public policies and organisational level policies that are feminist.”
I guess this is a very belated #InternationalWomensDay post, but I didn't mean for it to be haha. I was really just thinking about it. My whole life I've been trying to live up to these women, and to the thankfully non-toxic, non-macho men in my family. I'm always still trying.— Emil Hofileña (@EmilHofilena) March 9, 2021
For Emil, there are a lot of ways feminism can be enacted in men’s daily lives. “It can be as simple as stopping male friends from engaging in lewd ‘locker room talk’ or allowing women to complete their sentences without being spoken over, or avoiding making unfunny jokes about somebody’s appearance or way of speaking.”
In his personal life, he’s been actively engaging in conversations with his family about issues they “dismiss or aren’t aware of”, assuring his nieces that they can “assume roles that aren’t traditionally feminine” or “play with toys that are traditionally meant for boys”. He also makes it a point to link out to reviews written by female critics on his Twitter account, where he posts quick film reviews. “Film criticism (both internationally and in the Philippines) is dominated by male voices.”
Simply put, everyone can be a feminist and allies of feminism. It starts with educating yourself and working on treating everyone without any biases. In an ideal world, everyone’s equal — but the journey begins with a single step for every single one of us.
(Cover photo from: Jean-Baptiste Burbaud via Pexels)