Feet in yellow shoes tiled floor Taking a look at myself

Women wear what they want to in Singapore, or How awesome it is that there is no catcalling in Singapore

Sure, you have heard that Singapore is a safe and clean city. Or that it’s the most expensive city in the world to live in. (This is mostly skewed by the price of cars, which are not essential, but that is another story.) But what you may not know is that women wear what they want to in Singapore. It’s remarkable, and simultaneously a sign of old stereotypes/gender roles and a sign of hope in the face of gender issues in Singapore. There are a few things that I really like and admire about Singapore, and this is one of them.

The recent video of a woman walking in New York City has gone viral because it shows just how much harassment a woman can receive just by walking around in NYC. I’m glad that they are drawing attention to this issue, because this is at the root of what I don’t like about NYC. Catcalling is nonexistent in Singapore, which one reason why I think women can have the freedom to dress as they wish.

My feet in yellow shoes

Taking a look at myself

Fashion freedom

In Singapore, at first, I was a slightly appalled at first that so many women wore short dresses and skirts around campus, offices, malls, wherever. I found myself thinking things like “that’s too short” or “that is too see-through.” Or even “that is way too fancy for just being on campus.” The thing is, women here can wear whatever they want to, without having to worry about their safety, or other people thinking that they are slutty. In fact, you could maybe say that most people in Singapore are quite conservative when it comes to sexuality, but that is also another story.

In any case, I was judging them, and by standards that I would say almost sound like the ultra conservatives who blame the victims (I’m ashamed to say).

BUT I’ve realized now that I’m not truly offended or appalled by the way that they are dressing…I’m actually jealous of them. I’m jealous that they feel confident and secure enough to walk out of their homes in clothes they like. Jealous that it’s not a big deal to them.

Most of all, I’m jealous that I haven’t been able to do the same.

Why I feel this way

I grew up in New York City in the United States. Though it has gotten a lot safer since my childhood, I still don’t feel comfortable enough to wear short dresses or things of the sort. I don’t like feeling eyes on me when I walk down the street. Though I haven’t had nearly as many bad experiences as some friends, I find it affects me much more than I think it does.

A friend once had a breakdown after one incidence where a man in a car asked her “How much?” This was in broad daylight. That sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous. If I remember correctly, she was so upset that she was nearing the point of hurting herself. She’s also been followed home and grabbed in the past. You can blame the neighborhood and say that she shouldn’t have been out at night by herself. But that’s not fair. When can women stop changing their own actions just because there might be some jerk out there who will objectify her?

My response to her was she should take taxis more often to go home, because that seemed to be the best solution. But then there are still guys who are waiting to follow women into their buildings to grope them and then run away. It never ends.

You can say that it is a compliment to be noticed and given attention. Sure. The well dressed man who tries to be nice to me late at night at the bus stop is just as much harassing me as the homeless man who tells me I’m beautiful. This awesome blogger makes the point that, random women never say hi to her.

What I want to know is, what is going through these guys’ minds?

To the women of Singapore

To the women of Singapore, it’s hard to really explain how it feels. It isn’t something that you can easily understand from the outside, though that video may give you an idea. This also goes for men who try to understand how women feel. You feel violated. You feel small, and you feel like you want to become smaller each time an incident happens. And you might feel dirty, and you hate yourself a little more. There is sexual harassment in Singapore, but it’s different. I’m not trying to downplay the Singaporean woman’s experience here. I just want to make clear that the situation is much different in other parts of the world.

It’s not just the verbal harassment, though. Visual harassment happens too. You can feel someone’s eyes on you, and in a way dig into you.

I remember reading an article about women in the Middle East who chose to wear full burkas. One girl said she felt safer. But this isn’t necessarily true! Yes, wearing full burkas blocks eyes from your body, but there are still occurrences of rape of women who are so fully covered that you cannot possibly argue it was her “fault” for dressing too sexy.

But she probably felt safe because she was somewhat safer from the glaring eyes of men. The eyes!

If the eyes can be a weapon, then what are the women supposed to do? Be more invisible?

Sometimes just the verbal and non-verbal harassment are irritating, but sometimes it gets violent. For example, this is bad, and this too.

Child and parent on veranda

To a better future for girls and women!

Gender issues in Singapore

By no means am I saying that sexism is not a problem in Singapore. Gender issues in Singapore may be unique to the country. Recently, there was some interesting talk about Focus on the Family, a sex education initiative that runs in the junior colleges (similar to high school level). It openly promotes gender stereotypes. There is subliminal emphasis on gender roles in Singapore, and the ultra feminine style of clothing doesn’t help this (mostly skirts and dresses, very few pant suits for women).

There are public ads on the buses for women to call the police if they get molested. With “molested” in huge bold letters, it tells women to not be a victim. But who will tell the men to not victimize the women? Why is that not on a public ad? Why is the onus placed on the woman? Plus, there is no fine for molestation that I could see. So it probably won’t get engrained into the subconscious, ’cause that’s kinda how things work in Singapore. The responsibility is on the woman to report molestation events. This in itself has negative connotations of “getting someone in trouble” or “making a fuss.”

#HeForShe

The closest thing that men might feel is getting hit on at a gay bar or gay nightclub. A quite good looking heterosexual male acquaintance of mine protested strongly to going into a gay club with the group. He didn’t explain why, but I could guess that it was because he hated getting hit on and felt up by other men. We went inside, and that is what happened. I couldn’t help but think to myself that if every man got a taste of this, a lot fewer would impose themselves on women. The sad part is that I don’t think he made the connection here that what he didn’t like about gay clubs is what women have to deal with everywhere, not just in clubs.

Last thoughts, Singapore is a pretty good place to be a woman

There’s social pressure to fit into a markedly East Asian influenced image of beauty for women in Singapore. But I would argue that the freedom to make your own choices trumps this. I admire this blogger for making her thoughts known on this. I hope that she continues to be herself. Insecurity is something that can run deep. Reinforcements of an ideal image of beauty only make it harder for women to feel good about themselves.

I have never felt unsafe in Singapore even at night walking alone. I’ve even started to feel comfortable wearing dresses and skirts. Still, I sometimes catch myself judging other women’s clothing choices. I’m accepting that it’s ok for them to wear what they want and respect them for ownership of their bodies.

I think it is amazing that Singaporean women, and by extension all women in Singapore, can choose to wear whatever they want to and not feel unsafe or judged by it.

It is a great freedom to feel that you have full control and decision making power over your own body.

What might be interesting now is that I’m going back to New York City in a few weeks. Although it will be colder weather, I’m sure that I’ll notice a difference and start to readjust my clothing choices.

I love NYC, but sometimes it feels like it is killing some parts of me slowly and this is one of the ways that it does.

 

What are your thoughts on street harassment? Have you been in Singapore?

  • Haha, I know just what you mean about fashion freedom. I was always a bit appalled by the micro-minis I saw in South Korea and China – I just couldn’t understand how they managed walking up and down the subway stairs, but I guess some girls had to cover themselves with their huge purses. I finally realized in China that some of those minis had spanx or something like it underneath them. But yeah, even though there are problems with sexual harassment, especially on public transportation, there’s just no catcalling. I ALWAYS felt completely safe wandering around strange Asian cities, no matter what time it was. I did have some weird encounters in Asian clubs, though, and had to get someone to pretend to be my boyfriend. Oh, sexism. My experiences in America have been strictly verbal/visual, but I understand what you mean about feeling small, and then kind of wondering what YOU could have done to avoid it. It’s so awful that our culture puts all the responsibility on women.

    • Yeah, I also didn’t realize for a while that some minis having the built in shorts or underwear things.

      I guess I would agree, I have always felt pretty safe in Asian cities. I was catcalled once in China, I think it was Shanghai, but that was one time out of the several weeks I’ve spent there over a few years. I did have some weird encounters in Asian clubs too. I think that can be mostly explained by cultural differences. I think “good girls” in Asia tend to not go to clubs, so guys in clubs might assume that you are loose if you go to clubs. That is just speculation, though, I haven’t talked much to guys to get what they really think.

      Yeah, I hate that the responsibility is on the woman for preventing things from happening to her. It’s like blaming a driver or a pedestrian for getting hit by a drunk driver. How are we supposed to defend against something that we have no control over?

  • I really liked your honesty at the beginning of this post and your willingness to tackle why you felt the way you felt about women dressing the way they do in Singapore. Patriarchy is no stranger to any country on Earth but hearing how there is no catacalling is a great relief given life in America. I would venture to say (and could be wrong in my estimates) that culture plays a part in the lack of catacalling in Singapore and other parts of Asia compared to America. There is definitely that “macho man” narrative that is evident in American culture that the men who participate in catcalling subscribe to. I’m assuming such narrative isn’t been hammered in most Asian countries although gender roles are quite apparent, including the way women are expected to dress as you have stated. Oh, and best of luck as you return to NYC!

    • Hey Mary, thanks for your comment! I really don’t like myself when I find myself judging other people. It doesn’t feel right, and it was when I was trying to explore where those feelings are coming from that I made that connection. I think you are right that it is about the culture. I’ve talked to other friends from Europe and Australia, and many didn’t realize it was so bad in the States. I also mentioned how many men get the idea that they are “entitled” to the attentions of women, and how that could go so very wrong. This is probably linked to what you mention, the “macho man” narrative, and sometimes catcalling just seems to be another “sport” for men to participate in. Frustrating!

  • It would be nice to live in a place where women don’t have to worry about being objectified day in and day out wherever they go. NYC definitely has that working against it. I could never live in Singapore though unfortunately, for a multitude of completely unrelated reasons, but it’s nice to know places like that exist. Gender stereotyping is not cool, but I guess it’s a tradeoff (and hopefully that will change with time).

    • I feel the same way in that I couldn’t live in Singapore for the long term, for other reasons. But when I am living there, this is something that I really appreciate. I’m glad that it is safe there and hope that it continues to change, for women and for minorities too. Thanks for reading and for your comment!

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  • Cassandra

    Very interesting observations, Chewy! I thought you raised an excellent point about how the “molestation” posters should also be aim to educate men as a preventative exercise, and not simply to inform women of what they should do after the fact.

    Of course, the posters and their message are also highly cultural. It’s fascinating to see how sexism changes forms from society to society.

    • Thanks for reading, Cassandra! I can’t take full credit on that point about the posters, though I can’t remember which friend I was with when we discussed it.

      You’re right, it is highly cultural. Singapore is an interesting place, though some people may find it hard to see that there is a culture there, it will indeed be interesting to see how sexism changes there!