Nov 6, 2004
Women have moved on but society's in time warp
By Zuraidah Ibrahim
EDUCATED women here have been getting the metaphorical black eye or two lately.
How's this for starters: This week, to snag some publicity for a birth control programme, a committee chided tertiary-educated women for going for abortions, citing how the number of abortions among this group had seen a three-fold rise since 1988.
Riding on this statistic, a committee member rued the sorry state of educated women, adding that some who went to his clinic for abortions told him they didn't want babies to block their career paths.
What these statements omitted to mention was the inconvenient fact that the total number of tertiary-educated women had also jumped - four-fold. In other words, the proportion of tertiary-educated women going for abortions has actually declined.
One wonders, too, if the doctor was too quick to suggest that married women were torn between child and ambition, as if these were the only factors at play.
The choice may not be so cut-and-dried. Even if work gets in the way, it is hardly fair to characterise all the women concerned as heartless climbers of the corporate ladder, the way some of these discussions are wont to do.
The woman may be driven more by fear than by ambition - the fear of companies not willing to hire pregnant women, or of juggling the bundle of joy and the burden of work with a husband who is not willing to share the load.
The main point that the committee was trying to make was a valid one: educated Singaporeans who are not ready for children should know better than to resort to abortions; they should avoid conception through birth control.
But, have you noticed how the onus is placed on the woman? The experts could have chosen to highlight the fact that a rising number of tertiary-educated men are making their wives pregnant before they are ready for it.
No, instead, the accusing looks are directed at the women. It is as if Singapore's men share no responsibility for birth control; as if they are innocents seduced into surrendering their seed by the predatory females of the species.
One doctor on the committee acknowledged that part of the problem could be that the gap between marriage registration and traditional ceremonies made it embarrassing for these women if they became pregnant.
This is revealing of the state of morality and men-women relationships here. But more of that later.
Next, witness the letters to the Forum page lamenting the Singapore woman's lack of womanliness, her 'barbed exterior' and her insistence on putting career above everything else.
The onslaught against the Singapore woman comes amid this vexing concern that more men here are marrying foreigners or keeping them as mistresses. The prevailing sentiment - if the letter-writers and these men who marry foreigners are to be believed - is that women here are too difficult and therefore deserve this fate of being passed over for foreign women.
The presumptuousness of these letters in assuming that every woman's desire is to be wedded is exceeded only by their sheer chauvinism.
What about the role men play? How do they contribute to keeping a relationship happy and healthy?
The discussions, while they may be passed off as just idle chatter, reveal much about the mindset that still govern all of our lives here.
Singapore women have made enormous leaps in education and many have become independent, strong-minded, driven people, no different from Singapore men bred on the same ideals.
But here's the rub: The men just have not kept up.
More of them seem to be caught in a time warp. A time when women stayed at home, cooked and took care of their men's needs or, in a slightly updated version, women went to work but still found themselves left with taking care of the house.
In the second version, the men want their women to be their economic equals. But in everything else, they want to be more equal than their women.
This mismatch between what Singapore women have become and what Singapore men still are is really the reason behind the recent letters berating women and why it's so convenient to place the blame on abortions by educated women - on only them.
Society has some catching up to do.
For some reason, a woman's advance is always measured in terms of trade-offs she must make - between career and family - whereas a man's is never that.
In politics too, women politicians are constantly being asked that question. Few of us journalists ever ask male politicians about the trade-offs they make.
This mindset seeps into many other decisions - including whether to have or keep the baby. The responsibility of keeping the baby as implied by the doctor rests with women.
And worse, for those women who have to get rid of their babies because they have not gone through their traditional vows, why the insistence on face? What is being transgressed here? Society's expectations that a couple must not have copulated before marriage? Or, the veil of hypocrisy that it goes on but let's not tell the whole world?
If the marriage is legal, so should the baby-making be.
But no, for the sake of maintaining some myths about female virginity and tradition, abortion is the chosen way out.
The expectations on Singapore women are huge. At the workplace, they are supposed to be equal to men even though they earn less. At home, they contribute to the family income yet bear the larger burden of rearing children.
Yes, I know, there will be men who will say they are doing their fair share, they are as liberated as their women.
I have met these specimens too and some are very dear to me, but I would hazard a guess they are not the overwhelming majority of men.
For all that they have delivered, Singapore women have a right to be demanding and, yes, difficult even.
And if women decide not to have children, don't be quick to blame them. Men, and the rest of society, should also look at themselves in the mirror.
Well said! But is anyone listening?