“How long can she survive in this little bubble of acceptance and safety that we’ve created for her?”
It’s a question that terrifies me as I watch my 12-year-old niece play hopscotch on our front veranda.
My fears are not unfounded. The world out there is undeniably dark and frightening in an almost unprecedented way.
Already, Rhea fights prejudices and racism in a secular school where acceptance is handed out sparingly and with plenty of conditions. Try telling your daughter or niece that the world isn’t really a fair place. Or a safe one. Especially for women. And that she would have to conform into a softer,
subtler version of herself (complete with the appropriate knee-length skirts) that’s more acceptable because society doesn’t quite view differences kindly. That being different and unique isn’t a goal she should aspire to.
Try smoothing out her rumpled hair, wiping the tears off her cherubic cheeks and telling her gently that being a girl can, at most times, be more of a burden than a blessing. That there are people who still believe that women invite rape because of the way they dress or behave. That there are people who think marrying off our young is the answer to curbing the rising number of statutory rape cases. That child-brides still exist, while pregnant teenagers are forced out of school to get into marriages they’re ill-prepared for. That gender biasness, glass ceilings, sexual harassment and discrimination may be the new battles she’ll face as she grows up. That there’ll be less and less safe spaces for her as she embraces womanhood and its own set of complexities that comes with growing up.
I long for Rhea to live in a world where she can flourish and be who she wants to be. If that makes me a feminist, then so be it. After all, feminism isn’t quite as dirty and socially “divergent” a word as conservative politicians and zealous religious officials make it out to be.
What’s been long associated and dismissed as snarling bra-burning women from the West with a vendetta against men is actually “... a word that simply means that everyone regardless of their gender and sexuality deserves equal rights,” explains Angela M. Kuga Thas.
The oft-misinterpreted trope that denotes a huge divide between genders isn’t true, insists Angela.
“The truth is that feminism benefits everyone — not just women — and it’s important to get as many people (both men and women) as possible on board with the real meaning of the word. This way, we can all be treated as equal human beings, regardless of gender and sexuality.”
That’s why this graphic novel exists!” chips in Mischa Selamat. It’s a rainy evening, and I’m sitting here at a cosy café in downtown Bangsar with five out of the six women writers who recently launched Revolusis : Pencetusan , a Bahasa Malaysia graphic novel that aims to develop counter narratives on the principles of gender equaling and non-discrimination.
“There really aren’t enough narratives out there that showcase girls and women in a positive light without falling back to usual character tropes in an environment that perpetuates certain ideas of gender roles and expressions,” continues Mischa, an administration head before adding: “We
simply want to assure young adults that they can be whoever they aspire to be.”
How the story got told
For storytellers Angela, Mischa, Serene Lim, Huda Mutalib, Illya Sumanto and Juana Jaafar, the journey to Revolusis has been somewhat of an adventure. “The idea was first mooted by KRYSS (Knowledge and Rights With Young People Through Safer Spaces), a local advocacy platform focusing on working towards greater gender equality and promoting sexuality rights. They gathered a group of women writers back in September 2016 and raised the idea of creating alternative female stories,” recalls Serene.
“The idea of creating an alternative voice was something we’ve always wanted to do,” explains Angela who co-founded KRYSS. “There aren’t enough diverse voices in literature to facilitate social communication and change. We wanted to provide a different approach to get people thinking without scaring them off!”
She goes on to relate that it was only a year later when enough funds were raised to get this vision moving. “We ran a graphic novel workshop (none of us have written for graphic novels before!), got our writers together and began discussing how to approach the writing as well as the storyline of this novel.”
“We were six different women coming together with the same desire to see this idea brought to life,” says Huda, adding: “The process wasn’t easy. We all had different perspectives and approaches.”
With a grin, Juana chips in: “We were a bunch of storytellers thrown together in a confined place to thrash out a story that we could all agree upon, with each of our perspectives and ideas woven into the characters and plots we created.” The writers spent a few weekends holed up together to flesh out a storyline, shares Angela with a grin, “...so Juana wasn’t kidding when she said that we were
literally huddled together over weekends for sleepovers so we could discuss and create a story worth telling!”
“Still, it was a safe space for us to bring out our perspectives,” says Serene. “It’s always important to exemplify what we’re trying perpetuate in our story. We listened to each other. No one’s ideas were
dismissed.” There are nods of agreement all around the table as the chambering student continues: “We made a decision from the outset to listen and be open to criticism from each other. We constantly went back to the drawing board to recreate and revisit our story when ideas didn’t work or when we didn’t agree on something.”
A new narrative
The story is deceptively simple. Five best friends, Vitya, Puteri, Tirana, Pen and Violet grow up in a patriarchal society where masculinity is glorified and femininity is looked down upon. They live in a world where gender stereotyping prevails and any difference to the traditional roles of men and women, isn’t accepted.
“Sounds familiar,” I mutter and they break into laughter.
“If we are to actively develop positive self-image, confidence and recognition that girls and women have a right to ‘choice’, then we must tackle not only female stereotyping but also male stereotyping and, indeed, all forms of stereotyping,” explains Angela.
“That’s what the story does,” chips in Mischa. “We tackle issues like sexual harassment, teenage pregnancy and how these protagonists deal with these very serious issues in their own ways.”
With each of the writers taking on a protagonist and putting their own spin on the characters, I wonder aloud as to how much of themselves do they see in each of the characters.
“I’m not exactly a writer, so it’s easier to write what I know,” admits Huda. “There’s part of Violet that I’ve based on my own experience, growing up in a constricting environment. I studied at a boarding school and soon found myself questioning the things I’d been taught which went against
my own personal moral compass.” A brief pause and she adds with a laugh: “But Violet is definitely a lot braver than I am!”
Smiling, Mischa confides that she identifies with her character Vitya “...at least about 85 per cent! Like Vitya, I was forced to conform throughout my teenage life and it had been difficult to say the least.” There’s a lot of similarities between Vitya and her, she continues with a grin. “In the book, Vitya used to sell kuih at the local market. Back in varsity, I went door to door selling nasi lemak!”
While Revolusis tackles serious issues such as teenage pregnancy, harassment and social prejudices, it’s really a story about acceptance. The five young women on the cusp of womanhood are as different as they come, from the more masculine Violet, shy retiring Vitya, to the vivacious Puteri who hails from a privileged background. “We want young girls to know that it’s okay to be different and unique. It’s okay to not conform. They’re not alone and like the band of best friends in the story, there will always be a sisterhood of women who will support diversity, challenge stereotypes, provide positive role models and inspire change,” adds Serene.
“This is just Book One,” promises Juana with a smile. “We hope to continue with the story of Revolusis and journey on with these five girls as they battle very real issues that we see out there in the world today.”
“It’s not easy for young girls these days,” admits Angela pensively. ”To tackle gender equality, we need to ensure that childhood is free of stereotypes which have a negative effect on how children feel about their place in the world. We can make a difference by providing them an alternative discourse about social acceptance and the importance of staying true to yourself, no matter what
the world or society dictates.”
As I observe my little niece out there on a sunny Saturday afternoon attempting to ride a bicycle built for bigger girls than her, I’m crossing my fingers that she’ll one day find a sisterhood of her own — like the band of best friends in Revolusis — as she navigates through life en-route to womanhood. In the meantime, I’ll be teaching her all about feminism and how she can do anything she wants — simply because girls can!
AUTHORS: Angela M. Kuga Thas, Huda Mutalib, Illya Sumanto, Juana Jaafar, Mischa Selamat & Serene Lim
PUBLISHER: Gerakbudaya Enterprise, KRYSS and EMPOWER
Retails at local bookstores including MPH and Kinokuniya.