story | Wisha Jamal, Assistant Staff Editor
photo | Cai Lize
As Professor Nirmala Rao, the Vice Chancellor of the Asian University for Women, takes the stage in the Performance Hall, all is quiet. The audience of nearly sixty people– students, faculty and the public (nearly all female)– sit expectantly, waiting for her to begin. The silence is charged with the audience’s experiences, anxieties and hopes for a common end: equal opportunity, fairness, and freedom.
It’s been more than a week since March 8th, when women (and allies) all over the world took to the streets for International Women’s Day (IWD). The fact that these protests happen is itself a testament to the tremendous strides feminism has made in the last century or so. Despite this, very few people (except those who spent the day chanting ‘not all men’) will contest the idea that we still have miles to go before we reach a truly equal society.
With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it’s time to look back and reflect a little more on what IWD really means and whether we do it justice here at Yale-NUS College.
The theme for this year’s IWD was #BalanceForBetter, representing our aspirations to create an equal world, where we can balance all our interests rather than propping up one group at the expense of all others. Here at Yale-NUS College, students and faculty tried to create this balance through a multitude of events all over campus.
An all-day photo exhibition in the Library entitled ‘A Place To Call Home’ was set up in coordination with the Association of Women in Action and Research (AWARE). It features the challenges faced by single mothers and their families. The stories told in these pictures and the accompanying testimonials rectify the misconceptions that single-parent households (especially those run by mothers) face. Such misconceptions include the supposition that single mothers are somehow ‘irresponsible or immoral’, or that children raised by single mothers can ‘never have fulfilling childhoods’ or the ‘same stability that a two-parent family can provide’.
Similarly, the ‘Womxn of the World Unite!’ photo exhibition in the Elm walkway featured the profiles of an impressive number of individuals (all female or non-binary) who dedicated their lives to resisting patriarchy. The individuals ranged from household names such as Frida Kahlo, who used folk art to explore questions of identity and gender, to lesser-known heroes such as Dr. Hayat Sindi, a Saudi Arabian woman who is now one of the world’s leading bio-technologists.
The most intriguing part of this exhibition is quite possibly the ‘x’ in ‘womxn’. According to Dean’s Fellows Olivia Dure and Rachel Tan, who set it up, the x represents non-binary or non-gender conforming individuals who are often left out of the conversation on gender equality. Tan says, “It’s not just about women’s rights, it’s also about gender rights or non-gender conforming rights.” Ms. Dure adds, “I have seen work by other folks who talk about how focusing only on the gender binary is something that is feeding into white patriarchal systems of supremacy.”
These exhibits are just two of many initiatives on campus that help reclaim space for and celebrate the efforts of women and non-binary individuals, not just during IWD but beyond it too. Other projects include the ‘Women in Science Panel Discussion’, the recently introduced ‘Pink Hour’ at the gym, which aims to create a workout space free of “hypermasculinity”, and the ‘Take Back the Night’ initiative, which aims to facilitate dialogue about sexual wellness and provide a platform to support survivors.
In light of all these initiatives, one may think that the Yale-NUS community is close to achieving the gender equality that most of the world lacks. However, the question remains: have we done enough?
A reflection on the most prominent International Women’s Day event at Yale-NUS College may help us answer this question better. Ms. Rao’s talk, ‘Closing the Gender Gap: Access to Higher Education for Women in Asia’ was an eye-opening reminder of the harsh reality women face outside the comfort of the Yale-NUS Campus, with countless girls unable to access education because they were born in conflict-stricken countries, or into families that don’t believe in educating women, or religious communities that are hesitant to send daughters to institutions that are co-educational.
In comparison to the hurdles faced by Ms. Rao’s own students at the Asian University for Women, members of our community seem to be extremely privileged. We should certainly acknowledge our privilege, take pride in the effort it took to attain it, and extend our efforts beyond campus to create a safer, more equal world for everyone.
Having acknowledged just how privileged members of our community are, the question remains: have we done enough? The answer, in my opinion, is no. For instance,The Common Curriculum boasts of very few female authors (Philosophy & Political Thought 2 features a grand total of three female philosophers out of fourteen) and no non-binary ones. And while we have individual courses that focus on issues of gender and sexuality, the college doesn’t offer a major or minor in Gender Studies. We must create a greater academic space for marginalized gender groups if we are to better understand the nuances of the conversation on gender.
There is room to improve on the administrative side of things too. Ms. Tan says, “I think at this point many people from our student community, or even staff and faculty, may feel like gender pronouns are very American centric language. Some people still feel uncomfortable using them or aren’t really sure why they’re using them or how to use them. So more education on this point might help. Or administratively and logistically, we should think about how we can better support a student who is transgender or changes their sex.”
Most people will not deny that our college is doing better than most when it comes to gender issues. But regardless of all the feminist events and initiatives on campus, there is still an uphill task ahead of us. So perhaps a more worthwhile exercise would be to reflect on what we can do every day, not just on March 8th, to fight the good fight.