Friday, November 15, 2013

AWARE and Purple Light's "rape"

The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) recently shared an update on Facebook (
Ever wonder if speaking up about sexism really creates change? Here's one case where it has!

Earlier this year, AWARE learned of "Purple Light", a marching song sung by many NSmen, which included the lines: 
"Booking out, see my girlfriend
Saw her with another man 
Kill the man, rape my girlfriend
With my rifle and my buddy and me."

We were troubled that NSmen were bonding over misogynist lyrics about committing sexual violence against women. So we raised our concerns with MINDEF and SAF.

And now we have excellent news: MINDEF and SAF have confirmed that they took steps to investigate. They will "immediately halt" the singing of these lyrics, which they describe as "contrary to the values of [their] organisation".

It's really encouraging that MINDEF and SAF are prepared to listen to feedback, recognise this as an issue and take action on it. Thumbs up!
Before I provide a *gasp* short comment (in less than my usual 2,000 words), I like to say that when I did my Basic Military Training (BMT) in 2002, there was such a song sung with the above lyrics.

Any way, I think it is important to support this because it is not about women's rights or protection from violence. It is about G/gender and how we continue to construct it.

First, I believe AWARE should be applauded and supported for raising this. It has been a blindside to many folks when it comes to partaking in seemingly silly or trivial singalongs that in the process normalises sexual violence.

I do have my gripe against advocates who border on "feminazi" when it comes to policing the word "rape" such that even the boundaries of commentary and satire with the most self-aware and conscientious intent get controlled. I feel it is important that everyone gets involved in the discourse on rape, including the most offensive. But any way, I don't intend to discuss that in this post.

The abovementioned army singalong talks about revenge on infidelity using sexual assault or rape. It is mentioned in the context of serving in the military and losing your girlfriend, and coping with the perpetual sense of loneliness in the midst of service. But (as some have still yet to understand...) the context still does not justify sexual assault, or "she deserves it" kind of rape (in layman speak).

Looking at the lyrics in isolation, disregarding the context, I still feel it is still an unnecessary remark. Does it make you more capable of coping in the army? Does rape or joking about it make you closer with your army mates so you can serve the nation better? I'm sure there are other ways of creating camaraderie and building a team, apart from the ritualistic normalisation of rape that was/is (?) rampant in the army.

Why "ritualistic"? Well, people think nothing of it after saying it or being part of it, or they end up reasoning "Nah, it's nothing much really. Don't take it too seriously."

Now let's look at the singalong with respect to creating the desirable male in the military. Traditionally (and maybe some of it still hold true today), men in the military, in order to be more "man" enough to serve, are either exposed to or indulge themselves (or both) in misogyny, homophobia, racism, swearing and so on.

Any way, I recall one episode of unnecessary racism when I was doing my in-camp reservist training this year. One of the instructors made a remark about recording long names, and said something along the lines of "pretty easy... unless it's an Indian name, because they're damn long". I uttered "fuck" in disgust, while an ethnic Indian battalion mate seated near me looked down and said "WTF, that's fucking racist" (see, we cursed). We later registered our complaint, but on hindsight, we should have stood up and called the guy out in front of everyone and told him what he said was unnecessary and has offended some of us.

Racism is a different animal from sexism and misogyny, but there are folks who are aware and conscious enough. In the same reservist training, another instructor, in the context of explaining how to subdue a threat, said "...gang bang him", but apologised before and after saying it. It was strange, but I got the impression that while he wanted to convey a concept that everyone else already understood, he was conscious of it. I honestly didn't see it as an attempt to trivialise the situation or the metaphor. So is that correct? Will people on different points on the feminist spectrum have the same view on this?

From this episode, it did show, for me, that there is already some degree of (de)sensitisation towards sexual violence such that such terms and metaphors used in the context of military training resonates with the folks receiving them.

It is not because these men are disrespectful towards women which is still not the issue by the way. It is that after many generations of conditioning, it appears that men or male-bodied persons are facing greater challenges in defining, constructing and reinforcing their masculinity, and maybe impress and impose it on others too.

I have to keep emphasising: It's not about the feelings or rights of women or females here, but about men and males and their "masculinity".

It was previously done with generous doses (even if they meant it or not) of misogyny, sexism, aggression/violence (or threats of violence), homophobia, transphobia, racism, even class and so on. Yup, the act of "being a man" traditionally involved (partly or fully depending on the individual concerned) putting others down. In the historical context of military and war, perhaps it helped soldiers (who already had some prejudices) cope? Perhaps they needed some rhetoric that resonated with their prejudices, for example, towards female sexuality or race? I don't know. But in today's context, we can do without these.

Back to "being a man" or "manning up", more attention should be focused on how we continue to define, construct and reinforce the flimsy (singular) idea that is masculinity/manhood - i.e. we aspire towards a certain behaviour, a certain body type and a certain social relationship with our environment and other people, just to prove we're "a/the man".

Once we strip the unnecessary isms and phobias from the construction of all things "manly", we will soon realise that there are a lot of traits that are not exclusive to males (and females). Here, binarism is fucked (ah, violent language with implications of sexual assault).

I don't speak for AWARE, but as how I see it, they do their advocacy in the context of a generally ignorant and gendered population, and sometimes, the issues they address do not immediately reveal the overarching themes they champion or fight against, because I do not believe many people will be able to understand them. Even if the AWARE activists and volunteers articulate these, it will still be lost on some.

Not everyone is sensitive to Gender (capital letter there), so things have to move at the pace of, with all due respect, the lowest common denominator in a gendered society. That is why some men and even women have taken this advocacy to be something that is "all about women's rights", when it is actually about how in the process to guarding our manliness/womanliness and maleness/femaleness and their supposed (dichotomous) distinctions, we end up using violence and oppressing others.

Lowest common denominator... If there's a better term, please let me know. In the process of advocating same-sex marriage, there are some factions within the LGBT, feminist and intellectual communities who argue that such a movement is complicit in heteronormality with its prized trait of monogamy, and somehow goes against the grain of sexual diversity (emphasis on consensual) for instance.

Again, it is not as if same-sex marriage advocates are all shallow or dumb, but they are merely dumbing down the message for others to understand enough to have a change in mindset. In the process of doing so, they use themes that resonate with their preexisting biases (is preexisting bias a tautology?). It appears less confrontational. It's like deflecting a punch instead of blocking it stiffly at a right angle.

If we turned the spotlight on masculinity and how we define and mould our maleness or manliness, there will be lots of people who say "that's natural, what!" or "that's how/what men should be". It'll be lost of them and nothing changes. It's not that "women's rights" is the low hanging fruit, but the issues discussed so far have indicated greater accessibility to a larger number of Singaporeans, and hopefully, it'll lead to greater reflection on masculinity and Gender in general.

The mundane always appear to be the most innocent, when in fact, it plays a role in reinforcing harmful prejudices. AWARE did the right thing, and well, it is never too late to call MINDEF/SAF out on this. I support this.