AWARE Not Really Aware Of The Principle of Equality

Feminist Naomi Wolf has met her match in Singapore.

The outspoken advocate against cosmetics and plastic surgery industries could not persuade women rights group Aware (Association of Women for Action and Research) to change their minds about adopting a more inclusive attitude towards men in their membership.

The best-selling author of The Beauty Myth and The End of America was invited as a guest speaker at the annual Singapore Writers Festival on Nov. 1, 2014. She gave a lecture on feminism and her dialogue session was moderated by former Aware President Dana Lam.

In Aware, ordinary membership is only open to women. Male members can be associate members of Aware with fewer participation rights.

Below is a transcript of the full exchange between Lam and Wolf:

Caleb, a male participant in the audience: How do you think that men can be more involved in feminism, and perhaps a remark to Dana, given what she (Naomi Wolf) said about feminism having to be more inclusive, would Aware consider including men as full members? (gasps from the crowd, followed by applause)

Dana Lam was silent for a while.

Constance Singam, a former Aware President: I like to answer that question…which is why it was taken over by the group of women, who took over Aware in 2009. Because we have that as part of our constitutional review. We want to include men.*

*Singam was referring to the March 2009 takeover of AWARE by a group of conservative Christians led by Thio Su-Mien and Josie Lau.

Lam: We were, we were considering it. (laughter in reaction to Lam’s hesitance)

Naomi Wolf: How can you legally exclude men?

Silence in the crowd.

Wolf: Well, that was a weird vibe. (Laughter in the crowd)

Lam: If you identify as a feminist, which is you believe in the equality of the rights of the individual, I think that is more important a commitment than to point finger at one organisation, which is set out specifically, for the objective of correcting the imbalance that exists in the society.

Wolf: I did that. He (the audience) didn’t do that. I’m the one who did that. He didn’t do that. (more laughter in the crowd)

Lam: No, no, no. Because Aware has always been taken to task for not admitting male members in the leadership especially. For some time now, we do have male members as associate members, they don’t have full membership rights. So this has been taken against us. But this is an organisation set up by women to correct the imbalance that exists in society. So until that problem is resolved, I think it’s too early for us to think of us involving men.

Wolf gave an unconvincing laugh.

Lam: You know, you can join in the conversation. You are invited to the roundtable discussion. You are invited to the events, and what we need is an evolution..

Wolf: I guess I will respectfully very very much disagree with what you just said. (To applause in the crowd)

Lam: The problem is we have a situation where what we need is to have the space for women to come together to articulate their problems.

Wolf: I don’t think it’s an either or. I don’t see why it’s an either or. You know, look, I don’t live here, and you are doing very important work and I respect your leadership. That said, I think we are in a turning point. I don’t want to be part of any organisation anywhere that leaves people out on the basis of their gender, or their race, or their religion. (To more applause in the crowd)

Wolf: I understand your comments that women need space on their own or men will take over. My view is a) if we are so passive that allowing men or including men means they are going to take it over, we need to work on ourselves. And b)…

Lam interrupted: We do! That’s why we have an organisation that allows us to work on ourselves.

Wolf: But we shouldn’t, like, keep him (the audience) out if he wants to be a feminist. (laughter in the crowd)

Lam: He doesn’t have to be in Aware to be a feminist.

Wolf: But again, let me circle back because this freaks people out, but I always like to go there. How can you legally exclude someone on the basis of their gender?

Some members of the audience: There is no gender equality under the laws of Singapore.

Wolf: There is no gender equality in Singapore? Really?

Singam: There is (gender equality) in our constitution, which has to be approved by the Registrar of Society.

Wolf: Okay. Is it illegal, like if he shows up and said that ‘I want to come in’?

Lam: That we are against his constitutional right? He could…

Wolf: He could make a lot of friends…

Lam: The gentleman, it was a man who just told me that we have five minutes more…Time’s up. Can we just take one last question?

Wolf: I feel that like, let’s just heal this bridge. (More laughter and applause)

Wolf: I just want to say you know your organisation. But I don’t see any reason you couldn’t have events, spaces, discussions for women, sometimes women do need to talk about things without men being around, and also ways of including men.

Let me give you an example. I was just down the campus in Columbia, and that was covered in the Straits Times. There was this protest that a woman is carrying around a mattress because she was assaulted. And now the whole university has shown support. And all these men are carrying around mattresses. It makes me cry. I was there and I see all these young men dragging around this mattress (laughter in the crowd) all by themselves, as a way to participate and to show support. It was absolutely organic, coherent, humane, healing. As a survivor of sexual violence myself, I found it healing to see these men carrying the stuff around and finding a role. There are so many ways of embracing men as feminists.

Lam: No doubt about it at all. But Ms Wolf, we are an Association of Women for Action and Research. And we work in collaboration with men and other organisations all the time! But we are an Association of Women for Action and Research! So unless we change our constitution, change our names, and the time might come for that. But the time is arguably not now.

Singham and some members of the audience: Yes!

Lam: Erm. Do we call it a day now?

The Straits Times report on this exchange on Nov. 3, 2014 noted that “no knockout punch was delivered” by either women, but featured a quote from an interview with a participant that was supportive of Wolf’s view.

“From that exchange, I think she (Lam) perpetuated the idea that feminism is men-hating, which is exactly what Naomi Wolf was arguing against,” said student Thanusha Raj, 22.

According to Wolf’s Facebook, all seems well regarding her friendship with the Aware members.

“I met a group of inspiring activists for (delicious) Chinese food afterwards in a giant bright mall — everything here is super clean super orderly and super bright…and these women started AWARE, the women’s organization, thirty years ago. They led the fight against policies that paid uneducated women not to reproduce….brought sexual harassment into the discussion…and pioneered other firsts. Humbling.”


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