In June 2011, I was invited to put in a submission for the University Women’s Association Singapore Gender Studies Book Prize.
Awardees are amongst the best female students who took the Gender Studies module, were selected based on the prize-winning essays they submitted, and each received a book prize of S$2,000. What follows is the narrative account that I submitted and won in response to:
“What are some of the biggest challenges facing women in Singapore today, and how can insights from the field of Gender Studies help to shed some light on how to understand, as well as address, these issues?”
“You’re a girl,” my mother would say, “learn to defend yourself from the boys.” So she signed me up for taekwondo lessons. I learnt that girls were more vulnerable than boys.
“You’re a girl,” my father would say, “learn to be ladylike.” So he, too, signed me up for ballet lessons. I learnt that girls had to be graceful.
Although my parents eventually enrolled me in piano lessons instead – they decided it was the most gender-neutral option after their temporal parenting crisis – these initial expectations of me were to be my first gendered challenge: How was I, a six-year-old, to be both tough and demure simultaneously? In retrospect, I never did realize how diffusive and insidious such gender indoctrination was, quietly seeping into my subconscious through the words and actions of adults around me.
“You’re a girl,” the boys in my class would tease, “but you have no boobs and no figure!” I was only thirteen and beginning to experience my first taste of the male gaze at work. I learnt that girls had to look pretty and have shapely bodies.
“You’re a girl,” my girl friends would say, “stop shouting or the boys won’t like you.” Apparently, there were endless rules that I simply couldn’t keep up with. I learnt that girls had to be passive and obedient.
The onslaught of mixed messages shot at me from all directions was confusing. But what was most surprising was that the pressure to transform into the perfect ‘girlfriend material’ was most strongly felt among girls themselves. We were, indeed, our harshest critics and body police.
“You’re a girl,” my boyfriend would say, “let me get the door for you… let me pick up the tab… let me carry the load…” As a woman in my twenties, I was already accustomed to such infantilizing treatment. I thought nothing much of it until a closer look at our national policies exposed how institutionalized and politicized such gendered expectations actually is.
As a geographically vulnerable country with few resources and a declining population, women in Singapore have been charged with the double burden of productive work in the economy and reproductive caregiving in the home. In the civil service, these social expectations are solidified in contractual terms: Spouses and dependents of married female employees do not enjoy health benefits unlike those of male employees. I learnt that women’s incomes are meant to be supplementary to that of men’s who are still traditionally deemed to be breadwinners and heads of households. I learnt that women’s work is devalued from unequal pay.
With institutionalized policies to have female employees grounded and tasked simpler desk jobs upon marriage and childbirth, air stewardesses from our world class Singapore Airlines also face gender prejudice at forked roads. I learnt that women have to choose between achieving successful career and nurturing a loving family. Or risk death by exhaustion. Such biopower disciplines women into playing second fiddles to men in the workplace simply by virtue of their life course. Our country seems to confuse women’s abilities to reproduce with women’s duties to reproduce.
It is confusing to be a woman in Singapore with contradictory expectations and challenges unique to our sex. We grow up with mixed messages, face social prejudice, work through structural inequalities and tolerate systemic discrimination. Our gender identities become somewhat detached from our autonomy to the extent that our womanhood is eventually reframed through practices and discourses that are in fact effects of institutions. Indeed we have to be fed “You’re a girl” adages from all angles, lest we forget how powerless and infantile we still are.