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The term “female empowerment” has many kindred terms and catchphrases that are just as broad and open to interpretation. “Lift up other women”, “women supporting women” and “women can do anything a man can do, or better” is another one. The first time you hear it, it may send a slither of a chill through your veins, right up to the tip of your arm hairs. The next hundred times, it starts to lose its meaning when they’re more like echoes rather than statements with accountability.
The role of women have always been told through the narrative of something greater. You can call it “society” or put it more bluntly as “patriarchy”. Think of the restrictive (physically and socially) fashions that served as a signpost of your class or perhaps even your morality. While you may think this was during the times that you see preserved as black and white snapshots in museums, in reality, it’s a not so distant past. In the UK, women had won the same terms to vote as men, as late as 1928. It was only in the 1960’s that we entered the workforce on a large scale and not in replacement of men at war, but in addition to them.
Today, as girls we gleefully rehearse for the oppressive storylines through which our stories will be told. We do so willingly, in hopes that we can play the protagonist (whom more often than not is played by a male figure) when we grow up. While the plot is not so outwardly cruel or blatant as they were before, it seems that by default, women play a supporting role. Part of the reason is because at home and in the workplace, disproportionate pressures placed on us. “You can have it all”, is another supposed empowering term. To me, it actually accentuates how much that’s been subverted to mean: “you should be able to do it all, this is what women fought and died for”. More colloquially put, it would be: “you made the bed now lie in it”.
This is not to say that women are not in control of our lives. We very much are, especially once we recognise that the lines we’ve memorised by heart aren’t from our own minds or hearts. Just four years ago, I was at a friend’s birthday in Crete. Sitting around the living room of the rented villa, I was acutely aware I was the only female not in the kitchen that was putting away the supermarket shop for the big party that evening. The boys asked me, “if you and your boyfriend both worked the same hours and came home, who would cook dinner?” Without hesitation, I boldly answered, “me”. It took a good 30 seconds or so for my brain to process the sound of my voice and what I had just said. I didn’t believe that at all – sure I love to cook and admittedly, I revel in my domesticity. But for that to fall immediately, non-negotiably on my shoulders, without anyone telling me to accept it? I was, and to an extent I still am, in that role of “Woman 419408” in the credits. But now at least I know and I can act.
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As a woman of colour, the play in which I am expected to participate in, is a little darker.
Now that’s an idiom I’ve only recently adopted. Born in Singapore, I grew up in the UK and spent summers in South East Asia. They were very much holidays rather than trips “home”. As an adult at nearly 30 (oh my gosh), I’ve only just realised that people see me as a Chinese female, rather than how I perceive myself: a body full of life – albeit with the new development of severe hayfever – and a portfolio of skills I am blessed enough to perform as my job. As for the production in which I “star”, it was written, directed and the music score composed by those without any similar shared experiences to me. The lines I read in the wings, waiting for my brief moment onstage, almost omit that I am a minority. So I too forget the face I see in the mirror – until I face racism or ignorance. Then I reminded I am not one of them. I am reminded that just because my skin is light and my “people are successful as doctors and accountants”, I am certainly not one of the main actors or invited to their after parties.
Outside of my analogy, you can see this unfold in how the Stop Asian Hate movement was virtually ignored by mainstream media, until it got its own hashtag. The onus for speaking on behalf of voiceless (silenced) victims of hate crimes, the majority of which were the elderly, fell on fashion designers and influencers. In the lead up to Lunar New Year on the 12th of February this year, there was a reported violent attack on Asians almost daily. The likes of Prabal Gurung, Philip Lim, Tina Craig and Chriselle Lim, shared the stories and featured their own family members to bring awareness to the atrocities.
It had to get slightly embarrassing to stay mute on the topic, before fashion and lifestyle labels starting declaring their support. And even now, there is still a noticeable silence from beauty brands, for whom the highest performing markets tend to be APAC. If we really did have autonomy to tell our own stories, why aren’t they immediately validated?
In the UK, British Vogue covered it through my thought piece, “I’ve Experienced The Insidious Chill Of Casual Racism”: Why The #StopAsianHate Hashtag Is So Important. Online, OG blogger Susie Lau and Crazy Rich Asians actress Gemma Chan spoke out against the racism against the East and South East Asian community (ESEA). In the States, that acronym roughly translates to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).
It was International Women’s Day last week and Farfetch asked me about the theme of 2021, #IChooseToChallenge. It is more important now than ever to challenge people’s perception of you. Identity is a huge topic I struggle with (less so now). Yet, I remember my therapist who I fondly quote with the accompanying “#Hayleysays”, that told me that I need to know who I am and defend that. Otherwise, there is a hole and other people’s opinions will fill it. The result has been that I assume the beliefs that other people have of me and model myself after that. Toxic or what?
Social media, both a blessing and a curse, has been the very reason ESEA and AAPI individuals have been able to speak out and educate others. Gradually, more and more women of colour are learning to improvise. We are no longer confined to a script. We can envision ourselves as the financiers, producers, casting directors and editors of the show. The thing about women’s empowerment is that it’s only as strong as the most oppressed. And so that is where we should start.