Recently I attended a live music event at a cafe in South Jakarta. It was held in commemoration of the International Anti-violence Against Women Day. At one point the MC asked the mostly female performers to share their experience as women, and I was expecting to hear about women empowerment, seeing that it would be a perfect opportunity for it. To my surprise, however, I found the opposite.
One of the performers recalled growing up in an all-girl school, which she said was a “really tough environment.” The lesson she learned from the experience, however, was not that of empowerment, but that a girl should not be “sok kuat” (acting tough).
“When you act tough, you will be perceived as challenging people and asking for trouble,” she said. “You have to realize that no matter how strong you are, there are still so many people stronger than you. And no matter how tough you are – well, you’re still in a skirt. So be safe and smart for your own good.”
This message offended me, though I didn’t say anything, as it wasn’t that kind of forum and I also was not sure what she was really trying to say. But her comment reminded me of my own experience.
I grew up in a homogenous community that can be defined by these three words: rich, Chinese and Christian. I hated it, because I was far from belonging in the rich-kid club. Unlike most of my school mates, who were driven to school by their parents or chauffeurs, I had to take public transport since junior high. Taking public transport meant longer commuting time and a lot of walking. Every day I had to walk pass a building complex that had many construction workers. They would catcall me every time they saw me, even intentionally walked across me to intimidate me. This happened every single day in my own neighborhood, and they were strangers who did not even live there.
Increasingly I was bothered by the thought of why I allow them make me feel unsafe to walk in my own neighborhood. So one day I decided I’d had enough. I told myself I would confront them if they ever did that to me again. I was walking past the complex again when one guy started to catcall me, so I turned around and walked into the building, where he was asking who was in charge. A guy who apparently was not happy that I confronted them shouted to intimidate me, “What? What?”
Calmly I told him that I needed to see his boss. More people became aware of my presence, and then one old man approached me to ask me what was wrong.
I said, “I live here and your men have been harassing me. Your men have no manners and I’m not OK with it!”
The old man became very angry: “Who did that? The next time anyone does that, you tell me. Someone needs schooling very soon.”
Can you guess what happens after that? From the next day onwards and for years to come until the day I moved out, they never once catcalled me again.
I should have done it long ago.
This story is not about my acting tough to the construction workers; it’s about standing up for yourself. You may fear that people will cause you harm, and you may be physically weaker compared to others – we all feel that way too – but nothing will change if you’re resigned to your situation and think that playing safe equals being smart. The more you let people step on you, the more they will take from you. Be brave for your rights. Never live under intimidation. It’s not worth it. In my case, I earned back my right to walk home free from harassment.
Women have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go to achieve equality. Wouldn’t a message that we should not “act tough” take us back into living under that exact oppression we have been trying to free ourselves from?
People may say I’m asking too much and that I’m not being realistic. There are violent people around and there is no such thing as an ideal world. Well, yes, of course I’m not being realistic, because that is what dreams are, they are not supposed to be realistic . You can dream of world peace and I will call you unrealistic, but should you give up your dream just because it’s not realistic?
I realize we are not living in a perfect world, but I want to create a better world for our future generation and our kids and this demands a better message for our daughters and sons. After all, who doesn’t want their kids to live in a world where they can walk around feeling safe and secure?
CJ Camelia Jonathan is a green-haired petite lady who sings and shouts. She is an aspiring singer-songwriter and collaborative art maker who enjoys intellectual conversation with strangers. She worships her holy trinity; Nina Hagen – Bjork – Imogen Heap and is currently working as editor, music director, sound engineer for Narrative Design podcast. Tweet her @CJcamjoe.