Dear Ms. Alicia,

In replying to your letter, I will probably admit to only this: perhaps I accidentally casted my net too widely by not using enough qualification when I criticized Farrelly some days ago.[1] I qualified my statement at the beginning but later, I did away with it. I tend to do this because I typically define something early and then, purely for the sake of convenience, use concise term with the expectation that my readers will understand its meaning. For instance, when I write liberal, I refer to classical liberal and not just general liberals who may or may not adhere to the tenets of classical liberalism. Such method usually works. After reading your letter, I discover that that expectation of mine fails in this instance. I should have tirelessly used the qualification until the very end. I may have been sloppy in that sense but I am not guilty of laziness or other accusations of yours.

When I referred to authoritarian feminism with respect to the burqa controversy several days ago, it was not my intention to paint feminism as authoritarian as a whole. I am merely referring to a strain of feminism that is authoritarian. Feminism as advocated by Farrelly clearly belongs to a strain of authoritarian. The litmus test for this is simply her call to use state power to ban the wearing of burqa.

You are right how a political belief such as feminism, or any political belief for that matter, is diverse and complex. Contrary to your assertion, I am well aware of that. The presence of diversity however does not negate the fact that the call for the ban of burqa has been based on feminism, whatever strain that is. It is exactly due to diversity that this can happen.

Neither is this illiberal opinion is a fringe one within feminism. Current development suggests that it is well-subscribed. Not standard — I do not claim so; I merely asked — maybe but popular nonetheless. Unless this illiberal opinion is somehow being overly represented in the media, its popularity is a proof enough that it is a major opinion within feminism. The fact that the debate is being played out in the open is another proof. Such debate suggests that this illiberal fraction within feminism exists. If it did not exist, there would not have been a debate.

I certainly did not base my thoughts on only two articles. You appear to be well aware of the burqa debates within feminism, and perhaps, the larger debate surrounding the burqa. I believe you yourselves are well aware of how popular the call to ban the burqa is among feminists. It is easy to find feminists who disagree and agree with the ban.

I am picking on illiberal feminism and feminists who are supporting the ban. It is this illiberal strain of feminism as advocated by Farrelly that I call authoritarian. If you do not belong to this authoritarian feminism, then good for you.

As a side point, just because one does not have the power to coerce others does not mean authoritarian thoughts do not exist. Authoritarian thoughts and actions can exist independently of each other. Being a fringe also does not mean one does not have the ability to wield the “weapon of authoritarianism.” It is a fallacy to think otherwise. History has shown how minority groups can be authoritarian. But I am digressing. Before there is any misunderstanding, I definitely am not pointing out feminism in this specific case within the confined of this specific paragraph. I am merely proving a point, and a secondary point at that for the purpose of this reply.

So, what if Farrelly exhibits authoritarian tendency? Farrelly is not a spokesperson for feminism, as you have argued.

True. But this argument is quite irrelevant. If it were relevant, it would raise a question: are you a spokesperson for feminism? What right do you have to speak on behalf of any kind of feminism then? The use of ‘we’ by you would be certainly questionable, if we apply the logic of she-is-not-a-spokesperson without being unfairly selective about it.

My point is that this illiberal tendency within feminism exists and Farrelly is only an agent of it. Perhaps you are a liberal manifestation of feminism. It is unproductive to dismiss Farrelly so easily, given the popularity of the illiberal view. On top of that, Farrelly, after all, writes for an influential mainstream newspaper in Australia. Whatever right you claim, it is claimable by Farrelly as well. It is both a strength and a weakness of diversity within feminism.

After all that, I think since both of us disagree with the ban, I feel there is little to discuss. Indeed, I think there is little room for harsh words. The unkind words scented with personal attack early in your letter are quite unnecessary. Disagreement can be addressed in a civil manner.

Now that the issue of burqa is out of the way, there is one last order of business. It involves reverse discrimination – or positive discrimination or affirmative action, depending which term one prefers – for women. I have made my position clear earlier and my opposition is largely due to my concern for tokenism. For your benefit, allow me to provide a brief explanation with the hope that this disagreement will evaporate in my favor.

If any woman, and indeed, anybody, suffers from endowment effect that necessarily means that she or he does not start at the same starting line and indeed behind, they need to be empowered through skills. Train them. Educate them. A more refined approach is required to address historical accident.

Merely putting them in a position because of affirmative action is counterproductive. Such tokenism will adversely affect society through incompetence, disfranchise the capable and ultimately create unfair generalization of women as a whole.

Reverse discrimination in this manner is what referred to when I wrote beyond tokenism. I despise sentences that go “[a]nd what is this fear of the demands that women may make beyond tokenism that you speak of? A dystopian future of emasculated men?” It is clearly out of context. But I guess, effective rhetoric demands so. It is the cherry on top I suppose.

Let merit be the major determination of who holds what. If women everywhere are more capable than any man anywhere is, then let all positions be dominated by women. I have no problem with that. What I have problem is tokenism brought upon by reverse discrimination.

If a capable woman is prevented from rightly reaching the top due to male chauvinists, then by all mean prosecute the chauvinists under some anti-discrimination laws. If a man is prevented from rightly reaching the top because of some tokenistic system, then you can see me actively dismantling that system. Equal representation is one that demands equality of outcome. As a libertarian, all I want is equality of negative individual rights. I want equality of opportunity as radiated from equal rights.

Oh, just because I do not believe in affirmative action for women does not mean that I have underdeveloped thoughts about gender discrimination. If you supposedly have developed advanced thoughts on the matter, then do share. I would very much like to find out how your argument will be different to those I have listened in the past, either in terms of gender, ethnicity or even business.

Until then, if you demand equality of outcome, then I am proud not to sit on the same side as you. I have raised my voice against demands for equality of outcome in terms of race and ethnicity. I will be a hypocrite if I do not raise my voice against equality of outcome in terms of gender. Merit is the only fair result to an outcome in most, if not all, situations.

With that, I believe I have my say for now.

Thank you for your letter. It gives me an opportunity to clarify my earlier thoughts with measured fashion.

Kind regards.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — Show me authoritarian feminism, and I’ll show you some poorly researched tosh: A letter to Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Alicia Izharuddin. Cycads. May 17 2010

5 Responses to “[2210] Of re:liberalism and authoritarian feminism”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hafiz Noor Shams, Nathaniel Tan. Nathaniel Tan said: heh, panjang gila 🙂 @__earth a reply. always enjoy blogwar. is that term still in vogue? […]

  2. on 18 May 2010 at 04:56 Cycads


    “are you a spokesperson for feminism? What right do you have to speak on behalf of any kind of feminism then? The use of ‘we’ by you would be certainly questionable, if we apply the logic of she-is-not-a-spokesperson without being unfairly selective about it.”

    No, I am not a spokesperson for the one and only feminism. However, I DO think that I have the right to speak on behalf of the kind of feminism I believe in, otherwise I cannot argue convincingly as one. The same goes for someone who speaks as a liberal would be representing/speaking in the name of liberalism in some way or another. Before I go any further, let me just say that I’m not concerned about who is THE spokesperson of feminism/liberalism but rather have issue with the initial conflation you’ve made of “authoritarian” feminism with feminism. That, and by backing up that argument with Farrelly’s article, the BBC, and affirmative action. But since you’ve pointed out this misstep in the post written above, I think we can safely move on.

    “Oh, just because I do not believe in affirmative action for women does not mean that I have underdeveloped thoughts about gender discrimination. If you supposedly have developed advanced thoughts on the matter, then do share. I would very much like to find out how your argument will be different to those I have listened in the past, either in terms of gender, ethnicity or even business.”

    Perhaps I DO have developed and advanced thoughts on the matter, and I say that as someone who knows it firsthand and has experienced gender-based discrimination herself and those of her mother’s, female relatives and friends.

    The reason why I had pointed out the under-developed nature of your argument is your fixed focus on discrimination that happens at the level of job appointments, and the discrimination that is based simply on unrecognised merit. The roots of gender discrimination is more than that and occurs outside of the workplace, but finds it way there eventually. Yes, we have educated and highly-trained women. In fact, there are more women in university than there are men now, which makes women in general more qualified (in numbers) than men. But in the end, who is the one cooks, washes, looks after the children and husband – the woman. Who worries about working overtime alone late at night in the office because the threat of sexual assault – the woman. Who is not promoted to the inner sanctum of a business company/other high-powered institutions when she gets pregnant or IN CASE she gets pregnant if she is young and newly-wed – the woman.

    Just because being a “dutiful wife and mother” are roles that women have always fulfilled does not mean that these are things she (and I) willingly and contentedly abide by, but rather, society expects it. A high-powered, decision-making job may not figure into a woman’s life if these expectations loom as a priority. Yes, you can say, “hire a maid, get the man to do equal housework and childcare, demand more maternity and paternity paid leave, etc.”, but are these things currently set up in favour of women?

    I would really appreciate it you can argue that all this isn’t true and have nothing to do with gender discrimination, and tell me if these are not developed enough arguments. Because there are more where that came from.

    For the record, I myself am not in favour of long-term affirmative action. Affirmative action cannot remedy conservative attitudes about women’s roles in leadership that easily nor does it effectively address the sexism that goes unchecked day in and day out in Malaysia. Perhaps this is something we can both agree with.

    And as your problem with the “dystopian future of emasculated men”, let me just say that I had said that purely with tongue in cheek. The level of resentment and discomfort that men can have with the increasing social and political empowerment of women is not new nor is it unusual. Women are simply expecting things have been denied to them for a very long time, and disruptions to the status quo can be met with anxiety, hostility, and in some cases, sensed as something quite emasculating.

  3. on 18 May 2010 at 10:34 Hafiz Noor Shams

    Like I’ve said, the same right that you claim is claimable by Farrelly.

    Furthermore, I made no such conflation between the two. Like I’ve said, I’ve made qualifications. There’s no misstep, only misunderstanding. If there was a misstep, I would have apologized.

    On affirmative action, I fear there is a misconception here between it (affirmative action) and discrimination. I see you have made an unstated link that makes affirmative action and discrimination synonymous. I read your reply and I realized that you wrote about discrimination rather than affirmative action despite claiming to write about affirmative action. This link should be dismantled. Although they are related, they are not synonymous.

    Perhaps, you should differentiate between affirmative action and discrimination more clearly in your further thoughts if you haven’t. Once that is done, I don’t think there will be much misinterpretation with what I have written anymore. If you do not, I don’t see how you have a more developed thought on the matter.

    Such differentiation is a prerequisite to understanding of the issue. Not just within genders equality, but equality as a whole. This is important given how the idea of affirmative action has sadly proliferated and dominated discourse of equality and thus, limiting creativity in addressing inequality.

    I am neither stating that discrimination does not exist nor am I condoning it. What I oppose is affirmative action. I do not favor affirmative action in the short term, or in the long term. One can speaks of discrimination and address its roots without thinking of affirmative action.

    The tongue-in-cheek statement is unnecessary, nor the justification that you gave is. If one seeks equality of rights, anxiety is not an issue. I think a lot of men with egalitarian tendency are more comfortable it more than you realize. The fact remains, equal rights is okay. Special rights (yes, affirmative action or a more explicit example, 30% quota typically demanded by women groups), that’s something else. It is a horrid day if one gets somewhere because of her or his gender.

  4. on 18 May 2010 at 13:39 Cycads


    “Perhaps, you should differentiate between affirmative action and discrimination more clearly in your further thoughts if you haven’t. Once that is done, I don’t think there will be much misinterpretation with what I have written anymore. If you do not, I don’t see how you have a more developed thought on the matter.”

    I chose to discuss gender-based discrimination because it is intrinsically linked to affirmative action. Let me spell this out in a very basic way so you can understand:

    1. Why do we think we need affirmative action? Because women are poorly represented in decision-making positions.

    2. Why are women poorly represented in these roles? because it’s likely that gender-based discrimination is at work.

    And this is where I am most interested and it is the issue of discrimination. I don’t understand why you think that I have misinterpreted discrimination and affirmative action as synonymous, because they do not mean the same thing. How condescending.

    “This is important given how the idea of affirmative action has sadly proliferated and dominated discourse of equality and thus, limiting creativity in addressing inequality.”

    I find it so interesting that those who argue against affirmative action are the same individuals who have benefited most from it, both gender-wise and racially 🙂 But that aside, no one has experienced the benefits short-term affirmative action can offer if more women were added to the higher rungs of politics, business, academia, and religious institutions. You cannot make parallels between Malay affirmative action and those for women here, and fear that we have the female version of excessive Malay privilege. The history behind the two cannot be anymore different. I personally don’t see anything wrong with short-term affirmative action for women, particularly if it’s done in a nuanced manner: in that it has a use-by date, clear goals, and the desired affect: change in chauvinistic attitudes.

    Your big talk about equality says nothing about the detailed nature of the gender inequality that we all face. This absence has meant that you are not interested in helping people attain it, but rather you’re interested in just talking about what *shouldn’t* be done rather than what *should* be done. There is inequality out there, but do you know what it looks like rather pontificating about concepts and ideas about liberalism and whatnot? You lament about the loss of equality and the dent on the spirit of egalitarianism when a woman is chosen for a job because she is a woman, but you say nothing about the perennial positive discrimination that occurs in favour of men.

    You say nothing about the real reasons why women are still not getting the top jobs in politics, religious institutions, business, and universities. Why? What does your liberalism say about problems?

    I am confident that you do not experience discrimination in any way because you are a man, and because you may not, you will not understand what discrimination really means in reality. You are only too happy to ponder on the potential evils of getting a few women to influential positions rather than thinking that this may have positive results in the long run. You prefer to talk at length about the death of egalitarianism without referring to discrimination that serves as a barrier to any kind of equality. No, you prefer to navel-gaze on single issues like affirmative action and disqualify the experiences and voices of women because they do not fit into your mode of thinking and debating style. Such a shame. Implying that my experiences as a woman and survivor of discrimination is an under-developed exercise in explaining gender inequality smacks of arrogance on your part. That’s okay, Hafiz, I understand, the male hubris and privilege are more than obvious now. I will stop pursuing this argument because I know it will just frustrate me to no end.

  5. on 18 May 2010 at 22:36 Hafiz Noor Shams

    In engineering in the US, it is well documented that women are under represented. Even with strong affirmative action for women, the under representation prevails. This suggests apart that from discrimination, there are other factors that must be accounted. The importance of awareness and interest in the field is one example. If no one is aware of the opportunities in engineering or uninterested in it, no quota can raise the level of participation. If one is determined to reach the quota regardless, that action is likely to affect those who are more qualified adversely.

    Affirmative action assumes that all under representation with respect to demographics is due to discrimination. This is clearly false. This is one of its weaknesses.

    Active education and awareness will go a long way to increase representation beyond what affirmative action can do. Not only increase, it appeals to the idea of merit. Women with interest in engineering are likely to excel than women who gain admittance through affirmative action. The former might not have the competence to succeed in engineering.

    More generally, discrimination can be solved via other means. Affirmative action is not the exclusive solution and definitely not the best solution to discrimination. Yet, you insist that the discussion on discrimination is “intrinsically linked to affirmative action.” To be perfectly logically accurate, it is not. Affirmative action maybe intrinsically linked to discrimination, but the reverse flow is not true. Notice that the way relationship holds makes discrimination independent of affirmative action, which strengthens the case that discrimination can be solved without affirmative action.

    I repeat. The problem of discrimination can be solved without affirmative action. Anti-discrimination law that punishes discrimination is one example that markedly different from affirmative action. It has been done in the real world. Unlike anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action on the other hand does not prevent discrimination but only shifts the perpetrator of discrimination to other side. It turns victims into perpetrators, creating new victims along the way. In order words, it sees nothing wrong with the statement ‘two wrongs make a right.’

    Contrary to your assumption about me talking what shouldn’t be done rather than what should be done, I prefer certain paths. Like I said, the implementation of anti-discrimination laws is one. Opposing affirmative action is by no mean not doing anything. I feel reiteration will not lessen the impact of this argument: affirmative action is only one possible policy out of many. Realize that. Out of those many, I am only discounting only one of them. It is only a policy.

    But by discounting affirmative action, you accuse me of not addressing discrimination. Clearly, you take affirmative action as fused with discrimination.

    You clearly do not differentiate between affirmative action and discrimination. To you, when one speaks of solution to discrimination, affirmative action is the one crucial ingredient. Without it, one does not address discrimination. When I speak of how affirmative action is not the solutions to discrimination, you hence accuse me of not wanting to address discrimination. That is a leap of logic that cannot be left standing.

    If you are able to separate the two, that accusation should not have been made. This is a failure in logic and I am point it out. Yet, here you are, telling me that I am being condescending for pointing it out and for calling the leap as underdeveloped thought, which, I am happy to remind you, is the same term that you used to describe my opinion. Are you not being condescending when you state that? Why do you object to me reusing your term in completely the same fashion? They say do onto others what you would have others do onto you. There’s wisdom in that. So, you’ll forgive me if I find myself unmoved at your accusation. It’s double standard.

    And when I mention equality, it should be clear that those who have less rights (negative rights, not positive rights) before implementation of equality will gain more rights to a point to equality. Those who are discriminated against should not suffer discrimination any longer. That means no discrimination between men and women and in fact, beyond the realm of gender. Equality treats men and women equally. If men practice discrimination, equality necessitates that to stop. I do not feel the need to explicitly say that because it is the definition of equality. To reverse the discrimination is beyond equality.

    Just one last thing.

    I have not insulted you personally. All my points are directed against your points supporting affirmative action. I’ve been objective. Just because you claim to be a victim of discrimination does not demand me to agree with you on everything. If I refuse to agree with you, do I insult you? Surely, that’s frivolous. This again, highlights you not differentiating affirmative action and discrimination. I attacked affirmative action and you claim that I know nothing of discrimination and inequality, making as if I am denying there is discrimination. That’s phooey.

    Furthermore, you are making assumption about me being beneficiary of affirmative action. You do not know me. Your confidence is really just an act of poisoning the well. There is no basis but only prejudice as your foundation. All the terms like male hubris reflects that prejudice.

    Do you really need to make not only personal attack, but red-hearing as well? Note so far, I have neither made any assumption of you nor personally attacked you, despite you continually to do so. Could you offer me the same courtesy I have unilaterally given to you despite the temptation to retaliate? Cut short the distracting rhetoric and focus on the point.

    Of course, this assumes you will reply.

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