The Aiyoh Watlah! awards is back!

The annual spoof awards ceremony organised by Joint Action Group Against Gender Equality (JAG) takes place today and those attending will be glad to know that Ribena Berry, one of award-winning actor Jo Kukathas’ most beloved stage personas, is hosting the shindig.

Just in case this is the first time you’re hearing about Aiyoh WatLah!  it’s basically a mock salute to individuals, institutions and policies that said the most sexist, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic statements in the past year.

To give you an idea, when the awards were first held in 2012, declarations that wives who don’t satisfy their husbands are the cause of illicit sex, and that humanity will become extinct because of homosexuals, were among the winners.

As it’s always been done, members of the public are invited to submit contenders for the awards in their respective categories. That is then whittled down by a committee of JAG members who verify and rate the submissions, and choose the final list of nominees. Lastly it’s up to the public to choose the winning dingers via an online poll.

This year’s poll, which ended April 26, tallied a total of 1,391 votes across various categories. Among the nominee highlights are several mind-blowing judicial decisions in the Right on Track category.

In an interview with the Aiyoh WatLah! nominations committee – Meera Samanther, president of Association of Women Lawyers (AWL); Tan Beng Hui, All Women’s Action Society (Awam); and Tashia Peterson of Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) – it appears that this year’s event comes with two important updates.  

First update is the event name: It’s now Aiyoh WatLah! instead of Aiyoh Watlah!? awards.

Public feedback was the reason. The quizzical? simply didn’t cut it with online voters.

But Tan quickly assures: “We dropped the ? but that does not mean we have stopped questioning sexism.”

The second update is less conceptual and more physical. Traditionally held in the Klang Valley, this year’s event moves a few hours north of KL, to the city of Ipoh.

Despite their mildly controversial implications, this year’s updates to the Aiyoh Watlah! awards pale in comparison to the brow-raising, head-scratching and groan-inducing reactions that the award nominees have received from the public.

Tan Beng Hui (3rd from left), Meera Samanther (4th from left), Tashia Peterson (3rd from right) and Lee Wei San (far right) can be seen in this photo of last year's Aiyoh Watlah! nominations committee member. Photo: JAG

Tan Beng Hui (3rd from left), Meera Samanther (4th from left), Tashia Peterson (3rd from right) and Lee Wei San (far right) can be seen in this photo of last year’s Aiyoh Watlah! awards nominations committee.

For JAG, the awards is a way to invite the public to join in a collective reality check on what’s happening in the country.

The trio of women recall a JAG meeting in 2011, when members were discussing how it felt as though they were being bombarded everyday by “news” about Seksualiti Merdeka, says Tan, referring to the banning of a local sexuality rights festival.

“The problem was that this ‘news’ insidiously conflated an event that celebrated LGBT lives with Bersih, a movement for free and fair elections.”

Appalled at how the media was used to promote hatred against a marginalised group, she says JAG responded “by staking a claim to what gets sold as ‘news’.”

“We quickly remembered all the nonsensical statements about women we had been feted to by our politicians in the past, and decided this was what deserved attention. It was conceptualised as a way to raise awareness about the sexism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, which they perpetuate, while allowing us to have a good laugh about the ridiculousness of it all,” says Tan.

Measuring public nausea

In 2012 , all three nominees in the Ad Nauseum category (changed to Enough Already! in 2013) made references to prostitutes but there have been none since. Have we learnt something or have we just shifted to other hobbyhorses like the LGBT community and women in politics?

“We wish that this was because our politicians and public officials have been reformed and understand it is not all right to be bigoted towards those in the sex industry,” says Tan.

Let rip: Theatre stalwart and director Jo Kukathas drilled it into the audience that beyond the laughs, the Aiyoh ...Wat Lah? awards hopes to affect a change in the sexist mindset among the powers that be in Malaysia.

Jo Kukathas as Ribena Berry at a previous Aiyoh Watlah! awards ceremony.

But it’s more likely the media did not capture statements of this nature, says Peterson, adding that JAG can only nominate what is reported, and what it can verify. “It would seem the current flavours of the day are the LGBT community and women in politics. What they have in common is falling on the ugly side of Malaysian politics,”

Meera ponders how ‘progress’ would be measured – when there is less of such statements or when the public call for them to stop? “Meanwhile, we have had great voter and audience support over the years and will keep aiyoh-ing as long as there are aiyoh statements and actions to be nominated,” she says.

Winners should take to heart that the organisers mean no harm. “It is sometimes quite tempting but it is not our intention to publicly shame those behind the offensive statements or actions,” says Tan.

“Changing mindsets is a thankless job, and hard to measure. But we are the same people who helped ensure that issues around violence against women became something that most Malaysians today know is wrong. ”

Aiyoh WatLah! awards ceremony takes place on May 10, from 3pm to 5pm, at Sarang Paloh Heritage Hotel, Jalan Sultan Iskander (Hugh Low Street), Ipoh. Call PWW at 05-5469715 for details.