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we can do itFeb 16 – When I told a friend that I would not publicly excoriate the Aziz Ansari case (a terrible date mixed up with actual sexual assault and harassment cases exposed in the wave of the #MeToo movement) because I believed it would only harm the cause, he said that was the same excuse given by Malays to avoid calling out racism in their own community.

I have always tried to avoid publicly criticising women’s rights activists in particular, (though I did call out the “Wanita Bantah Politik Toksik” movement for their partisanship), because I believed the sisterhood should appear strong and united. Any concerns or disagreements could always be expressed in private.

I felt that the tiff  between CNN host Ashleigh Banfield, who said Ansari’s accuser was at fault for not leaving during her sexual encounter with the comedian, and the Babe.net reporter who broke the story, Katie Way, only gave ammunition to critics of the #MeToo movement. Already, idiot men were claiming they now didn’t know how to behave around women.

Women had to wait decades for such a reckoning to come. So what if there were a few bad apples?

But perhaps my friend had a point.

While I still believe in the sisterhood and the necessity for women to help each other and to fight the bigger enemy – patriarchy – I realise that the one thing women need to do first is to stand up for themselves.

We need to learn to demand for things we want, to speak up when we’re uncomfortable, and to physically assert ourselves in public spaces. It does take a fair bit of courage, I admit, but we have no one but ourselves to rely on.

When someone I knew touched me in a way that made me uncomfortable, I told him I didn’t like it. I didn’t tell him right there and then; I only texted him after our meeting. Before that, I was wrestling with myself about whether I should just keep quiet, but I knew not saying anything would only make me feel worse. So I went ahead and just told him what I thought.

In the case of a woman who was slapped by a man at a bus stop in Penang for not wearing a headscarf, some friends disagreed with my saying that she and the other women at the bus stop should have retaliated against the man. They felt it would be more prudent to call the police.

Sometimes, in such incidents, especially when you are surrounded by other people (women, in fact), you should fight back in self-defence. The women should have ganged up on the assailant and taught the asshole a lesson. The mere act of standing up to protect yourself is sometimes enough to scare off bullies.

Of course, there are structures of inequality at work, home, and society at large that often leads to gender-based violence like rape, sexual harassment and abuse that cannot be resolved in a fistfight. Religious fundamentalism and racial inequality complicate women’s issues further.

Sexism and gender discrimination hamper countless women’s careers, while stifling gender roles in the bedroom frequently lead to women having bad sex.

However, women have no choice but to be more assertive in getting what they want, simply because no one else is looking out for them. Not even the sisterhood, sometimes.

When I made a politically incorrect remark on Facebook several months ago, the online mob was quick to burn me at the internet stake. What particularly galled me was the gleeful participation of many “activists” who had benefited from my coverage over the years of their so-called cause for human rights. Even worse, women activists were among my attackers.

Some of the people who encouraged my work and ambitions, in fact, were men with political ideologies completely opposite to mine.

My experience taught me that sisterhood means nothing to some people. So if we want to achieve something – whether it is to get a promotion, build a shelter for abused women, or change policy at the highest levels – then we need to amass power and influence for ourselves. We need to be ambitious. We need to put ourselves first before others.   

Being driven and self-serving isn’t necessarily selfish. We ourselves must be in a position of strength before we can help those weaker than us. We must have power in order to serve.

Women have it harder from the get-go. But so what? We will just roll up our sleeves, ignore insults and criticisms, and soldier on in the fervent belief that we are right.

Then, when we have reached a position of power, we can make the world listen to us and fight injustice.