• Nur Laili from ELEVEN

An Open Letter: To “Not All Men”

You may not know me, you may never have heard of me, or you may be an acquaintance, a friend, a close friend, a relative, either way, you must hear my story. More specifically, you must hear the story of your counterparts, the women around you, and more importantly the story of their quiet struggles that you may or may not notice.


You may have heard about what happened recently. One of your own, unfortunately, one of our own, if we regard ourselves as a Muslim first, published a distasteful post about some of the most honourable women in our community, our ustaazaat, or female religious teachers. Today, I’m not going to tell you about that incident. I’m going to talk about why that incident matters, why it is a deplorable speck amidst many incidents much like it. And remind you why this very well should and must matter to you, too.


But before that, let’s start with the quiet struggles I mentioned earlier. You see, when a girl is born, the first thing she is taught is how to sit. Her mother fusses over how she must pull her skirt over her knees, to not let the straps of her little pink dress fall over her shoulders. Then, we are taught how to approach others. How we should be mindful of looking a strange man in the eye for too long, regardless of how kind his shining black eyes may seem. How we should avoid standing too close to these strange men. How we should be mindful of what we say: to never be too outspoken, too bold. Who knows where that would lead us? And we are taught how we should move. Never alone. Never at night. And never in the company of only one guy, no matter who that guy may be.


Some of these things may sound familiar to you. After all, as kids, it’s common to hear the adage: “don’t talk to strangers”. But imagine if you are constantly drilled to remember these things. Every day, no matter where you go, be it at school, or at the HDB playground, or even at a distant relatives’ house, your mother has to remind you of these things. And every time, she gets frustrated whenever you forget, and break these rules.


If you ever remember a time where you could run out of the school gates, straight to the playground, and jump on the slide, without a care for informing your mother, not even for a second, then guess what? That is the male privilege that people are constantly posting about on your social media feed today. And I’ll be honest, because I must tell you this now if you didn’t know, as long as you are male, you will always have that privilege. Whether or not you acknowledge it. Whether or not you choose to use it. And whether or not you choose to abuse it.


Now’s the big twist: there are many men amongst you who are ever ready to abuse that privilege. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you, yes, you reading this, have abused it yourself at one point in your life. Because that’s the number of such men in this world.


And yet, there are some of you who are quick to jump to your feet and furiously type on your smartphones,

“not all men”.

Illustration by N B


You know, I’ve only told you the quiet struggles of a young girl, but I haven’t even begun to explain those of an adolescent, or worse, a lady. But maybe it doesn’t get worse over the years. Because it’s always just as bad, for any woman, at any age. And sometimes it’s something small; a remark or, in today’s age, a post that slips between the cracks. But no matter what it is, it remains a painful reminder of how something that we have tried to preserve for years, was snatched before our very eyes.


And sometimes we knew exactly what was happening. Sometimes we had learned everything, attended every sexual education lesson, heeded every cautionary tale, and followed every single rule there was. But sometimes, we just never expected it to happen, not to us. Because they always tell you how to prevent it, but no one tells you what to do if it’s happening, or about to happen to you.


So to those of you who want to argue “not all men”, why don’t you instead turn to the women around you and ask if they’ve ever experienced anything like this. Anything like what I’ve described. And I can guarantee to you, at least one out of the first two women you ask will say yes. And if they don’t, believe me when I say they are either hiding it or did not even realise the sexual harassment they faced. Because that’s how normalised it is.


I’ll give you an example, say you are a Muslim. Do you remember that first time someone teasingly said: “Why is your religion so strict ah?” Or how about the time everyone wanted to go eat at Subway (before it was halal), and you’d fidget around figuring out how to tell them that you couldn’t join them. Oh, and remember when you did tell them and they all looked at you like they wished you just decided to not eat with them that day? And remember how before you learnt about discrimination and what constitutes as racism and discrimination, you didn’t even know you could genuinely feel offended about these things?


Yeah, well, it’s the same thing. Except that this time, it’s towards women. And this time, even if you’re not doing anything harmful towards women, even if you are like those friends who awkwardly stood at the side of the classroom when a racist remark was made, you are part of the problem.


And you know what, it’s never fun to learn that you have privilege, or worse, that you were never using it the right way. It’s not fun to learn that people are being oppressed because of the very privilege floating above your head. Because more often than not, you’d like to think it’s a halo above your head, wouldn’t you? And as a Muslim, I get it. Confronting our sins isn’t fun.


But you know what’s also not fun? Seeing your fellow sisters suffer through years of trauma because of something they can never change. Or seeing them constantly question themselves, constantly blame themselves, because society has convinced them that somehow they are the problem. As if anything they did could’ve changed the outcome.


What’s not fun is crying a whole lot because you not only see this happening to your fellow sisters, but you let the horrid thought flit across your mind: “What if that happens to me?”


So I’m not here to give you a simple solution on a plate. You already had your cake, and boy, did you eat it. I’m here to remind you of the truth, our truth. And I’m also here to remind you that what you do with this information is up to you, but know that your actions could make a difference to a lot of people around you. Whichever direction you choose from here on out.

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