In recent news, the Women and Family Ministry released a series of posters on Facebook intended to “promote household harmony.”
The tip translates to:
“If you find (your husband) doing something that conflicts with your wishes, refrain from nagging. Say it with humour like “this is how to dress, my darling.” (Use a cute Doraemon voice and giggle coyly!)
There was backlash on the internet from people who pointed out the outdated ideas and patronizing tone of the article.
The ministry has since apologised and taken down the posters from their site.
This has led to a discussion on how Malaysians view traditional gender roles. Here are what some Malaysians think:
Society’s idea of “gender roles” start from birth
Gender roles are enforced onto children from the moment they are born.
“Blue is for boys, pink is for girls.”
“Stop sitting like a boy, you’re a young lady.”
“Boys don’t cry, you’re a sissy if you do.”
Sounds familiar? Well, it’s not uncommon for kids to hear these examples of people who believe in gender roles.
Jaya, a 20-year-old Chinese-Indian girl, shared an incident she observed during a family reunion.
“One of my relatives had a baby boy recently. As they scrolled through photos of the baby, my aunt and her 8-year-old cousin sister asked: “Why is the baby boy’s outfit pink?”
Jaya was irritated and felt restricted over these close-minded stereotypes.
“What does it matter if he wears pink? He’s a baby! He doesn’t know the difference!”
Society usually imposes these stereotypes upon children and they persist until adulthood. This plays an important function in forming their perceptions, opinions and views.
The impact of gender roles on career choices
More men and women in the 21st century are taking up jobs traditionally dominated by one gender.
Yet people will still pass judgement on your profession if it doesn’t match with your gender.
Kiran, a 23-year-old Indian man, has a brother who studies interior design.
Occasionally, his relatives still question him about his career choices, and he believes it’s due to his gender.
It got so bad that he considered dropping out of interior design to opt for something else, because of all the negative comments.
“If someone has an interest in something, why does it matter if they’re a male or female?” Kiran expressed.
Amanda, a 21-year-old Chinese girl who grew up in a traditional family, agrees the judgement of relatives can make it difficult to strike out to do what you want.
“When a man says he wants to be a male nurse, or a woman says she wants to be an engineer, they are fearful of the teasing and mockery they will face,” says Amanda.
“Furthermore, most people are unsure of what exactly they want in life, so conforming to these stereotypes prevents them from getting confused,” Amanda theorised.
“I had a friend who didn’t know what to study in university, so he chose business. He thought it’s common for guys to study and work in the business field,” she shared.
After graduating from university, he regretted his choice. He wished he had thought it over before going through with it.
For Amanda’s friend, he realised too late that he was simply conforming to society’s ideals of what a man should do, without consulting his own feelings about it.
Gender roles in Asian society
In our conservative Asian society, strict gender roles are the norm.
“The majority of Asians face this situation because it has been a generations-old practice,” Jonas pointed out.
For those who struggle with the roles given to them by their sex and gender, he believes they are not yet mature in their thinking.
“Understanding Asian attitudes towards gender roles requires a certain maturity in Asian children,” he justified.
A picture of Jonas.
According to Jonas, while gender roles are absolutely toxic, they’re a necessary evil, as it is “the way” of Asian cultural development.
Gabs expands on this traditional theory of gender roles. He used the example of a team of two partners where one is good in sales and one is good in finance.
“You don’t get them to do both 50/50, you get the sales guy to do sales and the finance guy to handle payroll,” says Gabs.
So when society says “men should go out and work at construction sites, while women should take care of children”, they see it as a division of labour that increases overall efficiency.
“The problem lies where people expect ALL men to conform to an idealised “perfect man” or expect ALL women to conform to an idealised “perfect woman,” he cautioned.
“Which is not ideal. You should be able to specialise in your chosen field based on your individual talents,” he concluded.
Gender roles can contribute to domestic sexism
Amanda recalled a story that happened when she was 8.
Her grandfather bragged to her about being a lawyer, and he belittled her grandma by saying she worked at a company with low pay.
In the end, she found out it was all a lie.
Her grandpa was not a lawyer. He was just a factory worker.
“He painted himself as a really successful man and looked down on my grandma to boost his own ego,” Amanda said.
Furthermore, he would expect her grandma to prepare every meal and scold her if she doesn’t do so.
He would expect her to do everything without question.
“It’s heartbreaking to know that my grandma needs to put up with this on a daily basis,” Amanda expressed.
In traditional gender role beliefs, the man goes out to earn money and provide for the family, while the woman stays at home to do house chores and take care of the children.
It is this kind of mentality that explains the reasoning behind the posters that the Ministry of Women and Family put up.
In these examples, gender roles are used to justify treating one gender as having ‘less value’ than another, simply because of the role they are expected to play.
A woman is not worth less than a man simply because she works at a lower-income job, or is a stay-at-home mom.
But on a positive note, there are families that are reversing the idea of traditional gender roles.
A family that breaks down gender roles
Airina is a 21-year-old Malay girl who grew up with her sister in a liberal household.
For Airina’s family, her parents divide the house work equally, and both of them contribute financially to the family’s future.
“When I was a kid, my mom used to leave home at 6 in the morning for work. My dad was the one who took care of me and my sister,” Airina recalled.
What Airina learned from growing up in this environment is that she does not have to act or do something in a specific way according to her gender.
“I wasn’t very keen on gender roles. Rather, I live according to what I feel is right,” she said.
Airina’s parents did not force gender roles on her and her sister while growing up, and she is grateful for it.
“I was allowed to study hard and get a stable job and I wasn’t told to find a wealthy man to support me,” she revealed.
“They did not address the issue directly but they had set an example for me,” she explained.
Should gender roles be abolished?
So where do we go from here? Should gender roles be completely phased out? Or are they still useful?
Jonas thinks gender roles still have utility.
“They help children as young as 4 to develop social awareness and understand their own identity,” Jonas said.
“For example, if you are a boy, you will understand how you are different from girls. You are taught how to interact with girls. This is a guide for how to interact with women as a well-adjusted man.”
On the other hand, both Airina and Amanda believe that people should focus on the other aspects in a person instead.
“It is more important to recognise a person’s individual capabilities, rather than solely focusing on what type of behaviour should define their sex,” Amanda reasoned.
In my opinion, there’s no wrong when it comes to instilling gender roles in a child. However, there is a limit.
I believe it is wrong only when the parents use gender roles as a motive to mould the child into an ideal version of themselves. In order to fit society’s expectations or the parents’ expectations.
We can use gender roles as a tool to guide the child, but we should allow our children some form of freedom to make a choice.
No one should be tethered down by the ropes of tradition.
For more stories like this, read: Are Malaysian Men Intimidated by a Confident Woman? and I’m a Chinese Girl Raised in a Traditional Chinese Family. Here’s My Story