#Fellatio: A Writer’s Freedom of Expression and Sexism

Animah Kosai‘s interpretation of the Ask Lord Bobo fellatio issue, and where she thinks we should go from here.

Over the past two weeks over Twitter, I have become aware of a battle raging over an Ask Lord Bobo article published on The Malaysian Insider shortly before Christmas addressing a woman — “What to get your man for Christmas”.

When I read the article, I was amused and dismissed it as the usual type of joke many of my guy friends tend to e-mail us. Yes, I am amused at sexual jokes and laugh at them along with my guy friends. But I do know that not everyone can take these jokes in the same way.

There are articles published all over the place which will offend someone. Whether it is some makcik in Alor Setar, a gay person in PJ, a politician — someone will be offended. A writer cannot be expected to have every kind of person peering over his shoulder as he writes. I write. My own inner censor is loud enough, do I want someone else telling me what I can and cannot write?

Yes, I want freedom of expression. I will fight for freedom of expression. Many of my friends are writers and I have had to comfort those who have had threats against them because they dare to write what others only feel but keep hidden.

What a writer writes and publishes for the world to see, defines him. Awareness of that will keep a writer aligned to what he stands for. If I were to write a sexual satire which goes viral, then that is what I will be known for. If I write about human rights and fight for the oppressed, then that is what I will be known for. We all know and expect what Farish Noor will write about. We all know and expect what Haris Ibrahim will write about. We were all shocked when Raja Petra’s conduct ran contrary to what he had written about for many years.

A writer will stand for something. Many of us have the highest respect for LoyarBurok as it is so clear that they stand up to fight and create awareness on many human rights issues including gender rights. So when Lord Bobo, being a figurehead of LoyarBurok is depicted as answering a woman in a manner which has been seen as portraying her as a sex object, it shocked many women, including LoyarBurok supporters. Of all “people”, Lord Bobo is sexist?

Yes, I said I dismissed it as a joke. I can take it from a friend. But this was coming from the mouthpiece of LoyarBurok who has a strong brand as a champion of the downtrodden. It would have been different if LoyarBurok merely published a piece written by an individual. In that case, to defend an individual’s freedom of expression makes sense. What has happened here is that the strong brand of LoyarBurok is now perceived as sexist. I don’t consider the people behind LoyarBurok as sexist. They are incredibly committed and hardworking for the cause. But some people are beginning to perceive LoyarBurok, and with one broadbrush their various entities as sexist — and therein the problem lies.

Sexism is a serious problem in Malaysia, and one that is not fully appreciated.

Women in Malaysia encounter sexism every day. A comment such as, “oh, you’re a woman, are you sure you can handle it?” to the portrayal of women as helpless whining humans in advertisements are sexist. In fact we are so used to women being portrayed in a lesser and disempowering manner, that it has become deeply embedded in our psyche. We do not recognize sexism when it stares us in the face. Even women. I did not initially recognise the sexism in the Lord Bobo article. It is sexist because it assumed a woman to be a mere sexual object whose existence it was to please a man (it would have been okay if it had been balanced to show that the man too was a sexual object designed to please a woman, but it was one way). And you know why I didn’t realise it? Because we women are portrayed so widely in that manner that we have come to believe it as true.

And this is why more and more women are stepping up to fight sexism.

We have been disempowered for centuries. Despite forming half of the world population, there are less than 10% of us on the Boards of Fortune 200 companies, as political leaders. In Malaysia, the figures are deplorable. Less than 8% of women are in parliament with a miserable 3% in Cabinet.

We need to stop believing that we are the lesser gender. We cannot rise and fulfill our own dreams if we fall for perpetuated stereotype of helplessness. The media, TV dramas, films (local and abroad), schools (and their textbooks), parents, governments all contribute, often unconsciously, to women’s disempowerment.

Jokes, no matter how innocent, such as the Lord Bobo satire inadvertently lends itself to the stereotype. I am sure the writer did not think, “Aha, how shall I bring women down today? I shall write a satire about her being a sexual object.”  Of course not. But he (or she) is still in that women stereotype stupor so many of us are in.

Until women are fully emancipated (in the way men are) and don’t buy into that stereotype, sexist jokes are going to continue being a problem.

What alarmed me more than the Lord Bobo article was the battle on Twitter. Some women spoke against the article. That is fine. Some people defended the article. That is also fine. Freedom of expression respects all points of view. What is not acceptable in my view are the many tweets which attempt to shut up the women who spoke against the article. Some were merely “it was a joke, you have no sense of humourlah” type tweets which on the face of it seems innocuous enough but can be deeply damaging. The “it was a joke, you have no sense of humourlah” type retort can be found in AWAM’s educational sexual harassment video. In it a man uses it to brush off a woman who has stood up to him against sexual harassment. This leaves her doubting her own feelings of hurt and she begins to question whether she is to blame. In other words he has just denied her, her own feelings. Her natural reaction is to feel she was wrong in raising it, despite her feelings which she can’t quite explain. So the next time it happens, she will still feel hurt but keep quiet. This is disempowerment.

This needs to change. We should welcome public discourse and different viewpoints. But we should also strive to make it comfortable so that women feel safe to speak up without retaliation, humiliation or dismissal.

I know most of the men did not intend to shut them up (at least I hope they didn’t), but when women witness these hard debates going on, they would rather stay away, keep the peace and allow the misogyny to remain.

I am a firm LoyarBurok supporter and offer them my services from time to time because I believe in LoyarBurok’s cause, and the people with them are my friends. I don’t believe in banning Lord Bobo or staying away from the excellent programmes LoyarBurok continues to deliver.

What Lord Bobo has done, perhaps unwittingly, is opened the pandora’s box to an issue that has long laid dormant but been a fundamental feature of Malaysian life — Sexism. So let’s talk about it.

Animah Kosai is a lawyer, a coach for Sekolah Aktivisme (one of LoyarBurok’s initiatives) and a co-founder of Surya Women.

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Posted on 6 February 2014. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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