From 15th May 2020 till 15th June 2020, EMPOWER Malaysia organised an essay competition for aspiring writers aged 13 to 23 with the theme “The Freedom to Express Myself without Fear”. Shafiqah Alliah, 22, recounts her experience in overcoming stereotypes and how she is slowly conquering the fear in expressing herself.
“They know what to say if spoken to. They laugh really; they get angry really; while I have to look first and do what other people do when they have done it.”
-Virginia Woolf, The Waves
My story is different than most stories that you would usually hear, there’s a twist to my experience with expressing myself without fear. I could not name a distinct troll or bully who has instilled this fear to express. The violence of my fear, softer and subtler, comes from within myself and the people whom I trust – the fear was incessant. There is no indelible experience I could vividly recall, probably because there are countless of them and know all the wounds have been stitched. They have become scars which will always be a part of me. People, norms and expectations have caged me and I’ve let them. I became an imitation box, nameless, faceless and voiceless.
I spent the majority part of my life allowing people to stifle my voice. “A woman should not speak like that”, “Perempuan tak manis cakap tentang hal macam tu”, “Silence is golden, my dear”, “Be demure”– these were constantly chanted to me. I nodded and learned each phrase by heart, not knowing these are the attempts to silence me as a woman.
I took no notice of it. To me, being the “good” and “sweet” girl were the trophies I had to constantly claim, which in turn has subtly instilled fear and prevented me from expressing myself freely. At first, it was hard to recognise the toxicity. It was equal to an addiction, probably still is. It felt intoxicating to be the silent, good girl and to bask in all the praises. I became so addicted to it until living by people’s approval became an affinity. I was being robbed off my identity and was losing my voice in a bid to live up to the expectations. Till this day, I still question my individuality. My voice could only become loud when it is echoed with theirs.
It was later in life when I started to notice that the narrow template I live by has translated itself into a myriad of issues. I was always afraid to state my opinions and was careful with my language as I was constantly afraid of offending someone. I apologised a lot and I stayed quiet. It was more heartbreaking when I could not respond to the question “What do you think?” without thinking about what other people would approve of. I keep mum in conversations because it was hard to tickle an opinion out of myself. I was trained not to have one especially on issues where women “should not” be talking about. Even when I did have an opinion, I had to tread carefully lest I was assassinating my “demure” character. The feeling of wanting to say something but could not seem to put your words together because of the numerous buzzing voices in you was distressing. It was like drowning and wanting to breathe. I was gasping for air.
I started to have a taste of my voice and freedom after discovering this amazing place called university. It was a lively place of growth. Here, I had the chance to meet and befriend brave, intelligent and opinionated people. Every time they sang the unique melody of their voices I would constantly think “How do they do that?”, amazement and curiosity filled this “sweet” girl’s mind.
She started to weave a dream to be like them, to be able to express freely. Their voices were full of energy and loud with confidence. So I embarked onto this journey of learning, not just the language but my voice. We read literature, talked and argued over characters and became dearer to each other. Their energy was mesmerising. They pulled me into wild directions: up, down, round and round. I remembered closing my eyes and letting my mind swayed. Witnessing and basking in their bravery and confidence in expressing, I found my voice. Joining them in a growing unison, I started to chime in during our discussions, pinching in ideas now and then. They were small and in between, short and brief moments, but oh, they felt powerful!
Then, there were the kind and thoughtful educators, whose energy would always allure me to voice out and share my opinion. They would smile and nod even when I stuttered. Each well-received opinion built into the foundation of my courage. I learnt a new reincarnation of kindness. They helped me grow into a brave woman who had a rather late budding. Aside from the ones in books, they were the real characters who have shaped my voice and my freedom. I was no longer walking blindly in the dark. I was exposed to light and guidance. There were hands holding me at all time.
After such experience, I have vowed to myself not to be afraid anymore. I am tired of my stomach swimming and I am done of feeling fearful. I am now staring at my fears in the mirror and recognising its toxicity. Although its shadow is lurking, I can see glimpses of hope. My face starts to form and I am starting to have a name other than the “sweet” girl. The notes and melody of my voice are waiting to be sung. I could not stay passively quiet forever. It is time to claim and stand for my life.
My demure days are behind me. I know I could not possibly turn into a confident woman with a strong voice after a day. My powerful voice will not reincarnate itself magically in one night. It will be a progress. Chiming in during discussions today, stating an opinion publicly tomorrow and writing my stories the day after, these are my ammunition. I will find my power in them and I will claim back my freedom. I will do the hard work of fine-tuning my voice so I can express myself to my heart’s content.
I will take baby steps every day. I will conquer the dark voices. Every day will be a fight but I will not stop. My voice is too powerful to be silence now. It yearns to be expressed and to reach other people. I will claim my freedom, I will have my voice. She is burning and she is on fire. Let the world hear HER voice.