The Gift of Listening

By: Diana Rahim
[Transcript of speech given on International Women’s Day 2015 in Hong Lim Park]

Imagine the 1960s. Everything around you is heavy with the scent of tropical heat and greenery. Somewhere in the village my grandmother directs men to carry the furniture from the house into the truck that would drive their possessions to the family’s new home. My grandfather came home from work to this scene. He wasn’t informed. He had not wanted to move but my grandmother had planned it anyway. Dumbfounded, all he could do was follow.

In my mother’s stories about my grandmother, there is rarely talk about how the women of the time were beaten down by society or their husbands. How they were forced into marriages with men twice their age they barely knew. Instead, she always spoke with awe about these moments of assertion from her mother. How she yelled at her husband when she found him incompetent or how she singlehandedly planned their move when he refused to leave the village during a dangerous racial riot. My grandmother was always in my mind an image of peacefulness. She was gentle, but she was also a woman who knew how to find power in whatever spaces left for her, collect them, and wield it when necessary. Especially when it came to protecting her loved ones. She learned from her mother.

My great-grandmother was a fiercer woman. At her time, she divorced her husband who refused to get another job that would sustain her and the kids. She wasn’t afraid of stigma. At 40, she lost her 12 year old son, marking a significant spiritual turning point in her life. She turned her pain into something beautiful. Throughout her life she was stubborn in her willingness to love and forgive even the people who pained her most. There were times when this seemed a weakness, simply because she looked so pitifully frail and broken when she cried. She allowed herself to be openly vulnerable. Yet, she also had a fiery temper and blistering sarcasm. She contained multitudes. She wasn’t afraid to be all of them. I know now how brave she was to show to the world her gaping wounds.

Whenever I applauded their moments of speaking up to their husbands or taking charge of a situation, my mother would always be quick to add that women at their time were still treated badly. The only reason why these moments were compelling was precisely because they were subversive. Because they weren’t treated as equals. One musn’t mistake the replication of power, silencing or putting down another person, as empowerment, even if women are the ones doing it. In fact, if women are doing it to other women, it is a real problem.
The struggle for women’s equality is diverse. Ideally the multiple struggles by everyone they happen side by side, in solidarity. But in reality there is a hierarchy happening because there are factors that position women differently. Race, class, sexuality, where you live. Etc.

For example, I can’t speak women’s issues without also talking about my race. Growing up malay, I knew too many girls who did not feel fair enough for beauty. I knew girls with whitening creams in their pockets, aspiring to fairness that they saw in their chinese classmates. In the context of the Muslim community, the only women’s issue that seems important enough to be discussed all the time is modesty or the hijab or whether you’re a “real muslim” or a “practising muslim” if you don’t dress accordingly. It’s not that these things aren’t important, but it’s telling that these are what are talked about most rather than domestic violence, marital rape or single mums.

It’s important to think about this in the context of Singapore. Whose voices are shouted over and whose are prioritized? Whose experiences are triviliazed or forgotten? Is our ‘empowerment’ built on the suffering of other women? Like the archetypal strong, businesswoman who is a paragon of female power but has a domestic worker she pays below minimum wage and doesn’t bother to talk to. Do we listen enough to the other women in our lives, the ones who do not speak? Do we give them space to speak? This was why I wanted to talk about my late grandmother and great-grandmother instead of myself.

There is so much we can learn when we are willing to listen to the women around us. My grandmother and great-grandmother for example taught me how power needen’t be something violent or assertive. It was also the willingness to be vulnerable in a world that punished it. Theirs was a soft kind of power, and I hope they passed it to me by blood.