Women's issues are men's, too
The Government's review of women's issues is a further step in Singapore's journey towards gender equality. It requires not just changes in laws but also for men to free themselves from the trap of outdated social norms.
What is a man to make of the Government's review of women's issues in Singapore?
No less than what a woman should make of the consultative process, whose timeframe has been extended. This will lead to the publication of a White Paper in the second half of this year, instead of the first half.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam announced the review last September, with the aim of bringing about a cultural and mindset change on values such as gender equality and respect for women.
Put simply, women's issues are men's issues as well. How fairly women are treated influences men's ability to lead lives of dignity in a moral society guided by gender justice.
Consider how the Women's Charter of 1961 became a foundational document of Singapore. The charter helped to move women's rights from the aspirational realm to the normative sphere by giving legislative teeth to the protection and advancement of the rights of women and girls.
The abolition of bigamy under civil law, for example, was a revolutionary move that made the legal status of married women equal to that of their husbands.
Men learnt to live with that change. Bigamy did not disappear, but errant men knew that they would face the force of the law. Monogamy in civil unions became the intergenerational norm.
The alarming incidence of voyeurism today draws attention to the need for deterrent penalties. Indeed, Mr Shanmugam had said last year that the review had been sparked in part by incidents of voyeurism on campuses.
However, laws need to be accompanied by attempts to socialise men from the time they are young into instinctive abhorrence, not only of egregious sexual violence (including voyeurism), but of unfair treatment of women at home and in the office.
The review and the White Paper would have to look at issues such as how Singapore's family and labour laws should reflect its quest for gender equality more clearly than they do now.
However, there is a need for a simultaneous and deep mindset change among more men that internalises their acceptance of women's right to equality and respect. Increasingly harsh laws should not be necessary forever.
THE POWER OF CHANGE
That internalisation means more men acknowledging feminism - the attempt to advance women's rights on the basis of their equality with men - as a progressive force.
A progressive mindset means realising and rejecting how both men and women are trapped by the inherited notions, imputed expectations and imposed social roles of a patriarchal society.
Patriarchy signifies the existence of male domination, exercised through exploitative social structures of power and privilege and through individual relationships, that leads to systemic bias against women.
Patriarchy binds women in obvious social and economic ways - but as well, it hobbles insecure men who cannot see themselves coexisting with women who believe in feminist emancipation from patriarchy.
In this light, the decision to review women's issues in Singapore should raise hopes for gender equality. Its basis was articulated by Mr Shanmugam last September.
Observing the need to alter fundamentally how society views gender equality, he said: "It must lead us to think, not in terms of accepting differentials, and then seeing what can be done to correct that. We must instead start with accepting equality, and any differential treatment then has to be justified."
And equality must not just be formal, but substantive, he added.
Substantive equality today would have to account for women's greater participation in the workplace, their accompanying role as primary caregivers at home, their continuing vulnerability to sexual assault and abuse, and their susceptibility to unwanted physical attention and sexual objectification.
Most of all, though, substantive equality would have to answer to the principle that any differences of treatment between men and women must be justified within the overarching imperative of equality. Inequality cannot be rationalised in terms of gender differences.
WOMEN'S GLOBAL RISE
International omens are propitious in this regard. The elevation of the first woman to the vice-presidency of the United States, and the formation of the Estonian government, in which a woman heads the government and women form half the Cabinet, reveals the political possibilities of women's rise on the global map.
Admittedly, women's ability to break through the glass ceiling is a necessary but not a sufficient index of gender equality. Its domain extends far beyond the elitist realm of high achievers whose lives have little to do with those of working women who constitute the vast majority of the female world.
Yet, the success of women at the top does enthuse those on the lower rungs of society, in Singapore as elsewhere.
The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2020 ranks Singapore 54th out of 153 countries in closing the gender gap. Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, Rwanda and Germany top the list of achievers in broad-based gender equality.
Singapore - which is to say, its men, primarily - must do much better in achieving gender equality. They would do well to heed the words of Ms Christine Lagarde, the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund.
She argues that, apart from the moral imperative of equality, the removal of legal and psychological barriers to greater female participation in the workforce would make economies more resilient and spur growth across the globe. Consequently, a sexually more inclusive society would create greater economic space for men as well.
Every social reform needs a horizon by which to judge itself. One such horizon was provided by United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last year.
She was asked when there would be enough women among the nine judges of the court. "When there are nine," she replied famously.
Responding to expected incredulity at the idea of an all-female Supreme Court, she noted wryly: "Nine men was a satisfactory number until 1981."
The Supreme Court assembled for the first time in 1790. In 1981, Ms Sandra Day O'Connor became its first female justice. The second was Ms Ginsburg in 1993.
Justice Ginsburg's answer affirmed the logic of change: the need to reverse the inherited notion that a patriarchal order is permanent merely because it has prevailed to this day.
It is to be hoped that the patriarchal order that has survived the Women's Charter will begin to erode with the arrival of the White Paper.
Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.