Women's march in Kuala Lumpur on International Women's Day 2020. Picture by Miera Zulyana.Women in countries like India, Indonesia, Nepal, Mexico, and Spain marched on International Women’s Day (IWD) for various issues, ranging from gender equality to tax-free sanitary pads, femicide, and fuel price increases.

No one marched in Malaysia on IWD. There were just mere hashtags on Twitter.

Granted, there are movement restrictions here, but women still marched in countries with far worse Covid-19 epidemics than us. The absence of a street demonstration shows a degree of apathy among Malaysian women on issues of gender equality, who aren’t motivated enough to defy lockdown rules to advocate for action.

To be fair, the apathy isn’t unique to women or feminist issues; it cuts across gender, race, and class amid the coronavirus pandemic, as Malaysians appear willing to sacrifice their fundamental liberties and civil rights to the State that justifies various intrusions in the name of public health.  

A few hundred women did march in KL last year on IWD to protest against child marriage, among other issues. However, the “activists” who spoke at the demonstration did not identify themselves, supposedly to avoid cyber-bullying.

This is peculiar. Advocacy requires ownership. If so-called activists can’t take responsibility for their speech and actions, how can ordinary women be encouraged to share their experiences to push for public policy change?

The act of advocacy necessitates conflict, a desire to change the status quo that will definitely upset those invested in preserving the establishment. What are today’s Malaysian feminists saying, or not saying, when they don’t dare face any backlash to their opinions?

How can we start the monumental effort of pushing the government and other stakeholders on issues like sexual violence, child marriage, and equal pay, if we can’t even take nasty insults on social media?

I learned about feminism in my late teens from a women writers’ workshop organised by the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM). The workshop trained me to write letters to the editor on gender equality and civil liberties. My first job, straight out of college, was as a social worker at AWAM, where I helped give counseling to women who suffered rape and domestic violence.

Nearly 15 years later, Malaysian feminism seems to have lost a certain spirit or boldness. Instead of stepping out, guns a’ blazing, to fight the patriarchy, Malaysian feminism now prefers to post snarky tweets bubble-wrapped in anonymity. And even those tweets don’t dare to spell the word “rape”, ostensibly to avoid triggering rape survivors, but inadvertently preventing women from acknowledging the act of violence and advocating against it. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself, to quote JK Rowling.

Somehow, this sterilised cancel culture is called activism, even though it rarely moves policymakers to action and fails to generate public support across wide segments of society. Online posts, competing with billions of pieces of content every second, often resonate only with people who already agree with you in the first place. Convincing fence-sitters or critics requires face-to-face interaction, multiple engagements, and a genuine desire to understand where the other side is coming from, so as to address their concerns.

The burning anger of women’s rights advocates – so crucial to fuel the battle against centuries of sexism and misogyny – still simmers in post-2020 Malaysian feminism, but it is misplaced.

Instead of targeting institutions and patriarchal structures that perpetuate cycles of violence and gender inequality, “advocates” these days prefer to target individuals who offend them online.

Instead of rallying up grassroots support to convert people to the cause, they prefer to speak to their echo chambers in “safe spaces”.

Instead of opposing acts of gender-based violence that result in women’s deaths, they get more outraged at men who sleep around without telling their lovers.

This modern-day anger juxtaposes with a bizarre fear expressed through trigger warnings and preferred anonymity that propagate a victim mentality over serious attempts to change the status quo that come with consequences.

Facing these consequences is crucial to spark change. Transforming a patriarchal system that will result in millions of men losing their privileges requires self-sacrifice. If even self-proclaimed advocates aren’t willing to face consequences, how can they possibly mobilise other women to change the system?

If those in power ignore your demands on social media or your small two-hour street protest, it’s clear that tweets and a fun gathering with colourful placards aren’t enough to antagonise change.

Worse, Malaysian advocates now appear to say that only "privileged" women are capable of speaking up or standing up for themselves, contradicting the inclusive nature of feminism that exhorts every woman to recognise, and to oppose, the patriarchal roots of incidents of violence and gender inequality in her life. Because the personal is political.   

I have experienced sexual assault. I have refused to stay silent in my news reporting, despite threats of incarceration from misogynistic men in power. I have received intense attacks on social media from both conservatives and liberals.

I don’t engage in so-called “pick me feminism” because I don’t care for male approval; my goal is to challenge and to defeat any man who tries to stop me from doing what I think is right.

Of course there are consequences. I have literally paid for those consequences. But I consider it my duty to be assertive. If I fail to assert my efforts to change the system, what example am I setting as a feminist?

The Malaysian women’s movement has done remarkable change, like getting the Domestic Violence Act passed in 1994. However, sexual harassment, rape, and terrifying acts of violence against women still occur, like a man shooting his wife dead while she was sleeping.    

Despite the expansion of the media environment since the early 2000s, with social media enabling direct reach to individuals, Malaysian women’s rights leaders today, ironically, seem to shy away from public advocacy. Instead, it is the old-generation feminists who are still speaking out and getting sought for media comments.

Some of the post-2020 challenges are new, like grappling for survival in the wake of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. But some are as old as time – sexual harassment in the workplace, rape by entitled male acquaintances, and domestic abuse from a once beloved husband.

With the power to engage far-reaching audiences in Malaysia through social media – as a stepping stone, but not to completely replace grassroots advocacy – the new generation of women’s rights leaders should be even more emboldened and brazen to promote the feminist cause.

Learn from the struggles of feminists from previous decades who brushed off petty and offensive remarks because of their singular focus on smashing the patriarchy, no matter the cost. There were no “safe spaces” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings then; there were actual safe spaces for women seeking shelter from abusive spouses instead.         

Malaysian feminism should regain her roar and continue to combat actual gender-based violence, instead of promoting a culture of fearfulness, weakness, and timidity.