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Sexism through the eyes of fiction

Feminist dystopias supply alternative ways of looking at the sexual discrimination that has been so rampant in our daily lives

In Naomi Alderman's award-winning novel The Power (2016), an event occurs called the Day of the Girls.

Young girls across the world discover they can deliver electric shocks at will. Soon, they wake up the same power in older women.

Overnight, the tables turn on centuries of gender imbalance. In Saudi Arabia, women set on fire the cars they (at the time of the novel's publication) are not allowed to drive. In Moldova, a major source of human trafficking, former sex slaves tear apart the men who keep them captive.

In the United States, a woman running for senator loses control during a debate and zaps her male opponent on stage. Voters say they are outraged - as they said in real life when a certain presidential candidate talked of grabbing women by the genitals - but then, they elect her anyway.

The Power comes to mind with the recent furore around the allegations of more than 50 women that they had been sexually harassed or assaulted by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

In the wake of Weinstein's fall from grace, numerous women and men have come out to name those who assaulted them in the past, not just producers, but ministers, agents, sports doctors and more.

Women over the world - myself included - took to social media to post about their own experiences of harassment and assault under the hashtag #metoo, first begun a decade ago by activist Tarana Burke and revived in the wake of the Weinstein accusations by actress Alyssa Milano.

Many have expressed surprise and upset at the prevalence of #metoo among the women they know. In a way, so was I.

The revelations that these things had also happened to so many around me - some very close, who had, until now, not said a word about what they went through - left me shaken.

But awful as these stories were, I was also heartened to know I was not alone in speaking out.

Apart from true accounts, feminist dystopias can also supply alternative ways of looking at the sexism that has been so rampant in our daily lives that it has become too difficult to unpick.

Literature has given us a slender, though recently burgeoning, selection of worlds run by women, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 novel Herland, in which three male explorers stumble upon an isolated utopia of women capable of reproducing without men.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is the frightening notion that we may be on the brink of the dystopia of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985).

In this chilling totalitarian future, women are stripped of all independence and become the property of men. Those who are still fertile become Handmaids, assigned to men of status for impregnation.

The book, which has been made into an award-winning television series by Hulu, inspired protests of "Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again" when US President Donald Trump was elected. It is a dire warning of what can occur when women's reproductive rights are controlled by men.

Then, there is The Power, which won the Bailey Women's Prize for Fiction earlier this year, where the ability to deliver electric shocks makes women practically invulnerable to the sexual predation so pervasive in society.

Unwanted grope on the MRT? Shock those wandering hands. Catcalled on the street? Shock them to shut them up. Powerful man asks you to come alone to his hotel room and give him a massage? This would probably not happen as you could just shock him and leave.

But unlike Alderman's the Day of the Girls, the power women command in real life - often through movements such as #metoo - does not materialise overnight.

It is a slow kind and one that is painful to wield.

Most sexual assault cases go unreported. In Singapore, for instance, a survey of about 500 people aged 17 to 25 released by the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) in 2015 found that one in three has experienced sexual assault or harassment, but only 6 per cent sought help.

If given the choice, no survivor of sexual assault would want to dredge up the memory of what they underwent. Not to mention what awaits them when they do: scepticism, victim-blaming, accusations of "witch hunts" and "jumping on the bandwagon".

Women who speak out about sexual harassment are often told they are overreacting. Much of the power of #metoo comes from the sheer volume of people using the hashtag - surely, people are slowly realising they cannot all be overreacting.

As The Power takes a dark turn, women begin abusing their power to hurt men. One should rightly feel horror at the depictions of male oppression and sexual violence in the book, but as Alderman has pointed out in interviews, nothing happens in the book to men that has not been happening in reality to women all the while.

"We don't have to ask what they'd do if they were in control," says a woman in the book. "We've seen it already. It's worse than this." If the book horrifies readers, why doesn't real life?

The book, of course, is not real. Women cannot look forward to one day be endowed with the capacity to electrocute those who harass them. The power that we do have, however, is that of words.

The way things are is the result of culture, and culture is built on stories - on enough people coming to believe, over time, that things should be a certain way.

Stories are what we have to break the culture of silence around sexual harassment and assault, whether in the form of trail-blazing dystopian fiction or a Facebook post opening up about a trauma that society taught us to hide.

It is not exactly electrifying change, but we have to start somewhere.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2017, with the headline 'Sexism through the eyes of fiction'. Print Edition | Subscribe