Chapter 8 Contesting Feminisms: The AWARE Saga
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Contesting Feminisms 119 119 C H A P T E R 8 C H A P T E R 8 Contesting Feminisms: The AWARE Saga Theresa W. Devasahayam Introduction Introduction When the AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) saga broke out in April 2009, the opportunity to explore local forms of feminism was lost primarily because the issues that loomed large in the media were homosexuality and religion. The tussle between the “old guard”, painted as “liberals”, and the “new guard”, painted as the “Christian Right”, also stole analytical attention away from how different interpretations of feminism were expressed in Singapore. Instead in the saga, arguments often took place in silos where issues of sexuality rarely, if ever, overlapped with those of gender equality. To this end, debates over the right to one’s own sexuality and sexual orientation were cleanly cleaved from the debates over gender equality in the workplace or social injustice faced by women. This chapter argues that the debate on sexuality is as much part of the feminist discourse as is ensuring equal rights between men and women. As put forth by Abbott, Wallace and Tyler (2005: 198): “sexuality has been one of the main concerns of feminist theory … because feminists regard men’s control of women’s sexuality as one of the key mechanisms through which patriarchy is maintained”. Feminists have long been concerned with how women’s bodies have become the site of control by men through religion, the state, the media and medical practices (Dyer 1982; Bordo 1993). Feminist theorist bell hooks (2000: 154) encourages women to think inclusively when 120 Theresa W. Devasahayam she says: “all women need to know that they can be politically committed to feminism regardless of their sexual preference”. What she sees as a “necessary condition” in the fight for gender equality is sexual freedom: the scope of women to “envision new sexual paradigms” so as to reclaim their own bodies (bell hooks 2000: 150). From this perspective , sexual diversity is an intrinsic part of feminism. Beyond sexuality, feminist scholars, however, have been consumed with other areas of women’s lives marked by gender inequality. Intrinsic to liberal/reformist feminism is the emancipation from unnecessary social, political, or legal restrictions and the creation of a just society in which power and reward are distributed solely on the basis of ability and effort rather than gender identity. For this group of feminists, gender equality can be produced by transforming the division of labour through the repatterning of key institutions — law, work, family, education and media (Bem 1993; Friedan 1963; Lorber 1994; Pateman 1999; Rhode 1997; Schaeffer 2001). Others such as radical feminists have been concerned with women’s rights, while recognising that the systems of oppression prevalent in society’s most basic structures range from sexuality, class, caste, race and ethnicity to age, although asserting gender as the key feature of social stratification. Questioning the notion of woman as a homogenous category is at the core of black/postcolonial feminism: the assertion among these feminists has been on pinning down the experiences of particular groups of women within the larger subgroup of women based on ethnic difference, racialisation, colonialism and racism (Collins 2001). Flying in the face of previous schools of feminism that were preoccupied with equality, there have been feminists propagating what has been called difference feminism. The basic assertion among this group of feminists is that men and women are different — biologically , emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. These feminists have made arguments about women’s distinctive characteristics for ethical judgment (Day 2000; Friedman 1993; Gilligan 1982; Held 1993); the way women respond to caring behaviours based on their consciousness (Fischer 1995; Reiger 1999; Ruddick 1980); a female-style of communication (Bate and Taylor 1988; Crawford 1995; Tannen 1990, 1993, 1994); an inclination for women to be more emotionally open in their experiences than men (Beutel and Marini 1995; Mirowsky and Ross 1995); women’s unique fantasies concerning sexuality and intimacy (Radway 1984; Snitow, Stansell and Thompson 1983); and women’s capacity to promote peaceful living conditions with others and their Contesting Feminisms 121 lower levels of aggressive behaviour (A. Campbell 1993; Forcey 2001; Ruddick 1994; Wilson and Musick 1997). While this group of feminists are concerned with a just society, for them “women’s ways of being and knowing [are] a healthier template for producing a just society than are the traditional preferences of an androcentric culture [expressed by] male ways of knowing and being” (Lengermann...