On women’s laughter in Malay horror (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a two-part post on the pontianak and women’s laughter in Malaysian horror cinema. Read Part 1.

Evil-Queen-laughing

Consider laughter’s capacity to upset and as a vehicle of resistance. More specifically when women laugh at men, laughing at patriarchy, laughing at power, laughing from below. Situated below speech in the register of communication, laughter can confound thanks to its multifarious meanings. It is pregnant with meaning that is not immediately accessible by reason and rational thinking. Its semantic elusiveness can be a form of resistance against the male-dominated symbolic order. It not only has the ability to inflict cracks in the micro-structures of patriarchy within the confines of a film narrative but to tear down the fourth wall.

Women’s voice in film is projected differently from men. In classical Hollywood cinema, the male disembodied voice-over has an omnipotent presence that emanates from the centre of the narrative, through and beyond the cinematic frame. By contrast, women’s voices in film are confined purely within diagetic space reinforcing the role of the female body in film as objects of the gaze. In response, female filmmakers have experimented with feminist cinematic approaches by dislodging women’s voices from the female image or the voice-image de-synchronisation, and deploying the female voice-over and voice-off instead. As Kaja Silverman argues below:

To disembody the female voice [via de-synchronisation] would be to challenge every conception by means of which we have previously known woman in Hollywood film, since it is precisely as body she is constructed there (1988, p. 164)

When heard but not seen, women’s hysterical laughter at patriarchy offers a diversion away from the corporeality of feminist politics. Resistance without the need for women’s bodily display offers a panacea to what Sandra Bartky calls the ‘feminine narcissism’ in both normative and transgressive subjectivity.

The sonic subjectivity of the laughing woman occurs within what Teresa De Lauretis calls a ‘space-off’, ‘the space not visible in the frame but inferable from what the frame makes visible’. Without the oppressive structures of the gaze, the ‘space-off’ represents a respite from the prevailing control of gender:

It is here [in the space-off] that the terms of a different construction of gender can be posed – terms that do have effect and take hold at the level of subjectivity and self-representation: in the micro-political practices of daily life and daily resistances that afford both agency and sources of power or empowering investments (De Lauretis, 1988, p. 25)

The pontianak’s disembodied laughter draws attention away from the materiality of a woman’s laughter and to the affective range of women’s voice and knowledge. It denies the cinematic unity of women as bodies and the ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ they provide. By departing, if momentarily, from women’s bodies as a site of resistance, disembodied laughter seeks to reclaim space through sonic means.

Discomfort with women’s laughter arises from what Deborah Cameron refers to as the gendered ‘distribution of linguistic resources’ that results in women’s exclusion from verbal expression in the public sphere. This is not to say that women are prohibited from speaking in public in toto but rather such prohibitions are sanctioned in subtle ways through a gendered division of linguistic labour within institutions in the public sphere. Certain forms of speech are registered as gendered (such as gossiping, nagging, shrill and strident speech) and assigned lower value and diminished authority. Speech designated as ‘feminine’ is negatively valued and as a consequence frequently evacuated from domains of power. Inadvertently but no less a consequence of gendered demarcation of speech, women are historically shut out from speaking from positions of institutions of authority, principally in the law as judges, as religious leaders, professors, and politicians.

Across cultures, women were either ritually or socially denied to speak with authority, seriousness, and symbolic gravity in the presence of men. With rare exception, under-representation of women in politics and prohibition against Muslim women delivering the Friday sermon to male worshippers are testament to the denial of the female public voice. When permitted to speak, a woman’s voice is channeled down a lower register where it is trivialised, mocked, and dismissed.

In conclusion, a woman’s laughter unleashes the power of the female voice to pierce the patriarchal edifice. To upend the threat of male dominance, all a woman needs to do is laugh with abandon. It is an apposite counter to the rapture of mass hysteria suffered by young Malay women, interpreted as a collective cry for help. And so a laugh is more than just a laugh, more than the voluntary spasms of the diagphram.

Although she emerges from a place of victimhood, the pontianak is a woman who is given a second chance to reclaim justice and what is hers to begin with. The extreme range of emotions that the Asian monstrous/feminine impresses upon others (from loving and seductive to terrifying) throws into sharp relief how the dark affect of anger, jealousy, vengeance, and schadenfreude can easily place ‘real’ femininity in the domain of the grotesque. But the anti-patriarchal terror of the pontianak’s laughter thinly conceals the precarity of women’s desire to undermine patriarchy. After all, the pontianak’s laugh signifies a momentary pyrrhic victory before she is vanquished by a man.

Occasionally, as in Anak Pontianak (1958), she survives the prevailing moral order that wipes out spirits and demons. But when her survival means forever stalking the earth alongside the other undead of legend, beautiful and untouched by age, she is made lonesome by the frail shortness of human life. There is indeed something about women’s laughter in Malay popular culture, its persistence in folk horror, and its derisiveness in discourses of Malay decorum. It is a vehicle for affective knowledge in a public sphere filled with gendered transgressions. Women’s loud shrieks and excessive laughter constitute temporary bursts of respite and resistance in a culture replete with impositions on women’s voices.

#MeToo and the deafening Malaysian silence

I’ve talked about sexual harassment quite a bit. In light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the global domino effect it had across other industries and institutions within and outside the US, it seemed inevitable that Malaysian liberal circles felt compelled to join in the conversation, albeit in small-scale curated debates and scattered hashtag activism on social media rather than full-on exposé of the scale of misogyny in Malaysian institutions of power and privilege. Early last December, I was invited to speak on BFM, a radio station known for its progressive programming, about the ‘post-Weinstein effect’, how it might irreversibly change men’s behaviour and more importantly, why it hasn’t left an impact in Malaysia.

But let me share how it all started and unfolded. In November 2017, the host of Feminist Fridays on BFM, Juliet Jacobs, invited me to be a guest on the show and handed me a carte blanche on any topic. I suggested the Weinstein scandal and how it might play out in Malaysia. She had instructed me to listen first to an earlier recording of Feminist Fridays on that very topic featuring ‘three feminists’. Unfortunately, the episode didn’t pull back the curtains of unspoken abuse prevalent in Malaysian culture. Although the three guests discussed with great nuance sexual harassment in Hollywood and the social media activism it generated, they did not speak as victims themselves, an irony when #MeToo is really about that.

I felt that there was a reluctance to steer the discussion inwards, towards our own deeply problematic society, right down to the women’s respective industries and professional circles. There were certainly no empirical examples, much less names of people or organisations, divulged in the episode. Perhaps it would put the guests at litigious risk. So the conversation between these ‘three feminists’ was left mostly in the abstract and reduced to personal views, far from an attempt to interrogate the systemic sexism that runs insidiously deep in our culture. To put it rather bluntly, the discussion was consigned to irrelevance the moment it started.

To that, I volunteered to step into the ring and identify the possible stumbling blocks facing Malaysian women from opening up beyond using the hashtag and taking calculated risks at naming perpetrators of sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual violence:

1. I am pretty certain, though a national survey will have to confirm (or nullify) my suspicions, that ‘sexual harassment’ as a criminal category  is not widely understood in the public consciousness. Sexual harassment is fundamentally instances of unwanted sexual attention whether in the form of speech, text, or actions. A person can lodge a police report with reference to Section 509 of the Malaysian penal code, although its Victorian language requires an urgent update:

Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any person, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen by such person, or intrudes upon the privacy of such person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine or with both.

2. Malaysia is mired in an all-consuming culture of male impunity. Men implicated in crimes of high profile corruption and murder walk bold and free in the open, confident that their reputation will be rehabilitated soon enough. They may be lambasted as pariahs abroad and in private, but in Malaysia criminal men of wealth and power will shamelessly criminalise others who speak truth to power. Sexual harassment, especially when it is wrongly understood as a lesser crime, will be deemed both a luxury and risk to conquer in such a culture.

3. Although women shouldn’t have to shoulder the moral responsibility to stand and suffer for speaking out publicly against men’s bad behaviour, women protected by power, wealth, and connections should not stay silent. That said, high-profile women, female politicians and even prominent feminist activists in Malaysia have not participated in the #MeToo movement in any meaningful way. They have not used their status and platform to name and shame perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence. It would be implausible that they have never been victims themselves and that all men in positions of power in Malaysia are innocent of sexual harassment and violence. If anything, I would argue that the women in question see little political expediency for the time being to use their voice and legitimacy in the service of local and transnational feminist struggle.

Men can’t flirt or pursue women anymore? A perversion of the debate

My BFM interviewer, Chua Ern Teck, who stood in for Juliet while she was away for the Christmas break, was apologetic that he, a man, was interviewing me. I didn’t think much of it at the outset but when the questions came in, I quickly sensed the ‘male aftermath’ framing of the debate used in the interview. The ‘male aftermath’ of the Weinstein scandal can be characterised in three ways:

• First, that men now have to deeply reflect on and be accountable for their past and future behaviour
• Second, men’s silence and reluctance to engage meaningfully with actual rather than hypothetical instances of abuse and violence against women
• Third, a preoccupation with the so-called witch-hunt of men who are condemned for ‘being men’ and proving their masculinity through the sexual pursuit of women

The ‘male aftermath’ occurs alongside male backlash, of men fighting back with defamation suits and proclaiming the dangers of false accusations. Consequences that follow such a high profile reckoning is currently framed as bad news for men, who all expect to be rounded up for past behaviour that was never consciously registered as bad or criminal. A profession of blameless male ignorance becomes a familiar chorus: “I had no idea”, “I didn’t know you felt that way”, “I’m sorry if what I did offended you”. Meanwhile the reckoning machine is portrayed as merciless as it continues to claim high profile resignations, dismissals, and suspensions – a mere disruption to the careers of powerful men who have annihilated entire lives of women.

In my BFM interview, I was asked about how men should manage the prospect of being friendzoned by women now that so many men have been accused of grievous sexual misconduct. Rather than respond to a trivialising line of questioning, I questioned why the pressing need to reflect on the potential epidemic of friendzoning at this important cultural moment. Jessica Valenti in her article for The Guardian has an answer:

There’s a reason so many people are conflating bad and sometimes criminal behavior with romance: traditional ideas about seduction rely on tropes of women witholding sex and men working hard to get it. It’s a narrow notion of heterosexuality – one that does a good job excusing abusive behavior.

Men’s humiliation at being friendzoned takes its cue from a sexist culture that rewards men’s entitlement to women’s bodies. Friendzone has a tragic connotation because it results in men (read: Nice Guy™) being denied sexual access to women. There’s a reason why the perversion of the debate is so degrading. Men’s fears in light of the widespread reckoning and women’s fear of what men can do when denied sexual access have no equivalence. There is enough evidence to show that men are known to inflict extreme violence and kill women who reject them. To make them equivalent is an insult to women’s pain and trauma and to the long history of women’s pain and trauma.

From the ashes of annihilation

So what to do now? A global indictment of patriarchy at this present moment will not be complete when male perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence are not named and shamed. Women need to corroborate and use their whisper networks to identify, warn, and protect other women from future abuse.

To exact even an iota of change, manifested in the rise of women shattering their silence and men dragged down from the pedestal of impunity, we need to be reminded that sexual harassment and sexual violence do not occur in isolation. Rather, they happen because they are deeply embedded in a rape culture that shames women, discredits their testimony, and constructs victims as liars. Rape culture is web-like, connected to all discursive and physical spaces, public and private.

#MeToo is unlike previous reckoning of male violence against women. It is a rapid-fire public indictment of men after men of power whom hitherto were protected by money, connections, and their ability to make or break women’s careers. To be ignited by its passing torch means to be part of a global conversation and struggle.

But we need to be mindful that #MeToo has its limits and of the cultural, race and class specificities that made it possible and successful in the first place. To transplant #MeToo in the Malaysian context and expect similar results is a pipe dream that ignores previous Western feminist ideas and campaigns that have failed to take root in non-Western contexts.

On women’s laughter in Malay horror (Part 1)

This is an edited version of a conference paper presented at the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies conference in Seoul, South Korea in July 2017

The meaning of laughter, seen as springing from humour and moral degradation, has been a matter of philosophical preoccupation with human morality since the ancient time of Aristotle. And for much of the history of laughter, it is often interpreted with grim judgment. For all its suddenness and ephemerality, laughter can leave in its wake a lingering tenor of lightness and ambivalence, but also a countervailing darkness not far behind.

For some reason, women’s laughter is especially ugly and because of that it resides comfortably in the horror genre. In this post I’ll focus on the iconic laugh of the pontianak, the female vampire of Malay legend. Her laugh is a cornerstone of Malay-language horror and functions to elicit fear in men. There is a term in Bahasa Melayu, ‘mengilai’, that is specific only to women’s excessive, high-pitched laughter. The term is mobilised both in a context of supernatural horror but also as a way to undermine women’s pleasure of laughter. ‘Mengilai’ is associated with the grotesque and excess, a woman who laughs too much and too loudly, without shielding her gaping, convulsive mouth. Hags, witches, and evil women are represented to laugh in this manner. They are emblematic of undesirable Malay femininity, degraded simply by age and pleasure.

Why does the pontianak laugh and what does it mean? Why is her laugh a fixture in horror and why is it so threatening? And can women’s excessive laughter generate a powerful expression of feminist critique of patriarchy?

In scenes where the pontianak’s exaggerated shrieks of laughter fill the audiosphere of the victim and audience, we find that the point of origin of the laughter itself is immaterial. Her pale visage, hidden partially by a curtain of long hair, may be expressionless but her laugh is heard and very frequently not seen; we do not see her physically laughing. At times the laugh reappears as the closing credits roll when the film ends. I’d like to argue that her sonic subjectivity is formed through the play on physical absence and vocal presence – desynchronisation. According to feminist film theorist Kaja Silverman, desynchronisation counts as a strategy that disrupts cinematic conventions of gender.

The pontianak’s laughter anticipates the terror and painful death of male victims, setting the stage for the collapse of desire and patriarchal order, forcing open potentialities for feminist affective knowledge. Seemingly transcendental across time and place, the pontianak’s laugh signifies the transgressions of modern Malay femininity and the interruption to patriarchal control. Rather than an inexplicable outburst or an attempt at supernatural mimesis, the laugh of the birth demon in Malay language cinema indexes the boundaries of gendered Malay embodiment and anxiety of the modern Malay woman.

The laughing woman as grotesque

If the polite way for women to laugh is the inoffensive giggle, shielded with a hand to cover the aperture of laughter, then the wild shrieks of a woman’s laughter is truly grotesque. The female grotesque presents a challenge to patriarchal visual culture, as Mary Russo argues, because she assaults the male gaze thanks to the ‘destabilisation of female beauty’ and the realignment of the mechanism of (male) desire’. The laughing woman makes herself a different, subversive kind of spectacle that shatters her passivity and compliance to the male gaze. As a female grotesque par excellence, the pontianak belongs to the pantheon of Malay grotesquerie not simply through her status as visual spectacle (from which one may wish to look away) but also through her sonic excesses.

Women’s laughter in film especially in non-western cinema is under-appreciated. But attention to it illuminates powerfully aspects that make the convergence of film and gender so unsettling and subversive. The function of women’s laughter in film compared to that of men, though the latter certainly deserves separate attention, provides much food for thought. Scenes of women’s anti-patriarchal collective laughter are rare. The Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris’s 1982 film, A Question of Silence, is exemplary for its rare use of women’s collective laughter as an expression of power.

In the film’s ending, three women are in court for murdering a man in a boutique. A motive behind the murder proves elusive. The film’s protagonist, a feminist psychiatrist, provides a defense but the proceedings are interrupted when one by one, every woman in the court including the defendants themselves, inexplicably break out in loud uncontrollable laughter. The men remain unmoved, perhaps perplexed by the show of solidarity. They watch the women laugh as they walk out the courtroom. Even the psychiatrist herself walks out of the trial laughing and the film ends there. Unsurprisingly, the film’s anarchic ending drew unfavourable reviews from critics who were incredulous of women’s ability to derive sadistic pleasure from the destruction of men. Reviewers of the film have stated that the film’s feminist message ‘will not be served well’ and it is the ‘most ferociously anti-male feminist movie’ they had ever seen. So what makes women’s laughter in film so threatening? Can it be even more ominous when situated within a humourless (or even horrific) context?

When her uncanny self emerges to terrorise the living, the pontianak’s laugh cracks through the cinematic frame. In many instances, the disembodied laugh of the pontianak occurs when she is pursued by men of a village who act as guardians of moral order. She laughs during scenes depicting her as a direct threat to the living, whether physically or psychologically. Before a stake is driven through her body, she laughs at her imminent annihilation. Her laugh dominates the audiosphere when she defiantly demonstrates her supernatural abilities, whether to fly (Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam, 2004), to effortlessly decapitate her head (Pontianak Menjerit, 2005), or paralyse men into submission by immediately transforming into a horrifying demonic spirit (Pontianak, 1956; Anak Pontianak, 1958; Gergasi, 1958).

As she leaps from tree to tree from her male pursuers, she laughs at their humanly limitations and mortality. Her laugh that shoots through the film’s soundtrack is one of defiance that the men cannot apprehend and destroy her, a mission that combines male desire and dread. Often only audible, her laughter further underscores her uncanny capacity to defy all that is humanly possible. We can declare that the pontianak’s high pitched laughter pierces through an unwitting man’s soul like a claw that rips through the soul of patriarchy.

A ‘monstrous maternal’ of Malay folklore, the pontianak is a symbol of thwarted motherhood. Having died at childbirth, she turns into a vengeful spirit who wreaks terror on the living. Her spectre can be seen at night in quiet graveyards or sitting on tree branches, sometimes accompanied by a ghostly infant in her arms. In the presence of people unfortunate enough to encounter the pontianak, she willfully transforms from a beautiful young woman into terrifying hag with claw-like fingernails. Her very long hair that sometimes falls down to her ankles conceals a hole in the back of her neck through which a stake is struck to subdue and destroy her. In cinematic representations, the pontianak returns from the grave to kill the men who have wronged her.

Women make the minority of casualties and do not count as the pontianak’s main victims. Instead, women serve as a conduit into the mortal world who provide access to its men. They become bewitched under the spell of the pontianak and transform into femme fatales themselves, attacking men on the pontianak’s behalf. Pregnant women, however, a target of vengeance fueled by maternal jealousy, are vulnerable to supernatural attacks. Murderous attacks on pregnant women is a motif in films featuring the ‘monstrous feminine’ (An especially grisly example is the 2007 French film Inside). As Erin Harrington argues in Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror, it is a scenario whereby a ‘mirror-framing of victim and villain pits one expression of maternal drive against another, and asks us to consider how each woman might be an extension, or alternative resonance, of the other’.

But the pontianak is not always so fearsome. Her gentler side as either loving wife, mother, or lover is constitutive of the Asian monstrous/feminine that stalks Asian horror narratives. She is also a sympathetic figure who displays a range of emotions and when she has a back story that embellishes the aforementioned myth of her origins, she plays parts other than the villainous undead. Switching between beauty and monstrosity, affectionate and murderous, the pontianak makes for an ambivalent spectre who, in a few films, is not vanquished but rather is subdued by her role as wife and mother. The open laughter of the pontianak in Gergasi (1958) precedes the uncanny oscillating display of grotesque monstrosity and conventional feminine beauty. Here, the male hero and love interest does not fear the pontianak but appears determined to love and transform her monstrosity into a romantic and reproductive potential. It is the romance of Beauty and the Beast in reverse: a man’s love tames the grotesque behaviour and physicality of a woman, a woman who has all the beastly means to destroy him.

The meaning of the pontianak’s laugh

The pontianak’s laugh alone signifies the intangible and non-visual excesses of the monstrous feminine, a figure who traffics in both desire and repulsion. In her text that has redefined gender in horror cinema, Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine draws our attention away from the female victim in horror to the female monster – monstrous feminine – a cinematic phenomenon that takes its cue from the tradition of male unease with female reproductive abilities. In spite of its expansive parameters ranging from witches, virginal women with deadly vaginas (vagina dentata), vampires, to the rape-revenge femme castratrice, the monstrous feminine implies that there is something always-already monstrous about the female body.

We may also argue that women’s bodies are always-already grotesque. They are more easily subjected to a diminished or degraded status than men because of cultural taboos and other sensitive meanings associated with various openings, orifices, and matter that leak out of the female body. As women are culturally defined by their bodies, women’s physical expression that exaggerate elements of the grotesque body will be met with derision and censure. From a cynical feminist perspective, these stock female monsters along with the all-encompassing categories of the monstrous feminine and gynaehorror reinforce the conflation of femininity with female reproductive function, and making women synonymous with slits, openings, cavities, cracks, and orifices. In short, in the horror genre, women are yet again defined by their bodies. Thus some attention away from these reductive metaphors is perhaps overdue.

To fully appreciate the cultural significance of the pontianak, she has to be understood as a reconstruction within a dynamic socio-cultural space, standing in as a metaphor for the violence against women and the violence of being women. She is imagined as a figure who indexes the dark half of modernity and its moral antagonisms about women. The pontianak no longer lurks the village but haunts the underbelly of cityscapes. In the latter, the murderous streak of the pontianak appears less to do with revenge than as supernatural vigilantism, going after unwitting wayward men who use women’s bodies for instant sexual gratification. Through the erotic cum fatal entrapment of men the pontianak becomes instrumental in a cautionary tale that implicates the minefield of male-female relations in modern Malay society (Pontianak, 1975). Representations of the pontianak are replete with symbolic contradictions. Torn between tradition and modernity, she is emblematic of birth and destruction, sonic presence and physical absence, and what Kristeva calls the ‘abject’.

When denied the traditional aspects of femininity and dignity, Malay women will turn (in)to spirits as their means of resistance. But such forms of resistance takes advantage of sexist conception of women as the weaker sex. Inspired by Islamic belief, the integrity of Malay women’s constitution – body, mind, and spirit – is traditionally thought to be more vulnerable to a range of moral and spiritual deviations. The spirit world consisting of benign and malevolent unseen beings (makhluk halus) is central to the Malay-Muslim cosmology and summoned, involuntarily and otherwise, during moments of distress.

Accounts of spirit possession and mass hysteria, the latter of which only women are susceptible, connect extreme impurity (toilets and menstrual blood) with the spirit world. Those who appear to succumb to these phenomena are reported to cry and laugh uncontrollably, display superhuman strength, and speak in a disturbingly strange voice. Women and girls have been reported to fall under the spell of a mass hysteria in manufacturing factories where they are overworked or in boarding schools where the rigidness of the Malaysian education system proves too much to bear. Explanations for spirit possession and mass hysteria often are caught between a belief in supernatural interlopers and ‘rationalist’ interpretation of mental illness with neither prevailing in public discourse.

The pontianak’s laughter is located in the extreme end on the register of Malay embodiment. Modulations of embodiment between halus (refined) and kasar (coarse) are part of the everyday reproduction of bodies and values consonant with a transcendental order that pervades the lifeworlds of certain peoples in the Malay archipelago. Seen as central concepts in the aristocratic Javanese worldview, halus is all that is sophisticated, polished, and restrained in contrast to the disorderly, rough, and bawdy which register as kasar. Behaviour understood as kasar, from everyday informal and intimate speech to loud laughter is unevenly sanctioned across age, gender, and kinship lines. Socially permissible forms of laughing for women are limited to barely audible giggles. Loud and unrestrained laughter for all women is dishonourable although a degree of transgression by some women is given more leeway than others. Older women, unburdened by the restrictions of feminine youth, have the tacit permission to laugh openly and tease men. By contrast, Malay men’s laughter further reinforces his dominance over others present around him.

In Part 2, I’ll continue with the feminist commentary on the role of women’s laughter in subverting patriarchy and the reconceptualisation of the pontianak’s laugh as feminist resistance

Free hair as critical subjectivity

Something exciting is afoot in Iran. Since 2014, women have been wanting to throw off their hijab and live more authentic lives. Led by journalist Masih Alinejad, many have taken to social media to protest against compulsory hijab. Using the slogan ‘My stealthy freedom’, they post photos and videos of themselves defiantly unveiled. In response more than 7000 undercover police officers were deployed to apprehend women in ‘bad hijab’ and for the removal of hijab inside private vehicles.

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Source: The Guardian

The Guardian has published photos of Iranian women throwing off their hijab as an expression of their desire for liberty and equality. Their faces are obscured by the hijab flying in mid-air but they are not voiceless. Each has a powerful critique of body policing and religious hypocrisy. One of them raises our attention to the limits and doublespeak of ‘equality’:

From the time I went to school I always heard that we all are brothers and sisters, that we are all equal. But in real life there was no equality – I had to cover up for the men. How is that equal? How come they didn’t have to cover up for me?

Perhaps the tide of dissent was too hard to quell. In late 2017, the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced that the moral police can no longer arrest women for ‘violating the Islamic dress code’ which includes using nail polish, heavy make-up and loose headscarves. This sounds like a step forward since the heavy-handed imposition of the hijab in 1979. However, violators of ‘bad hijab’ are ordered to take lessons from the police on ‘good Islamic’ behaviour. Hardly a feminist progress.

The ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ movement is particularly poignantly resonant to me and my own research on unveiling in Malaysia. While women in Iran cannot as yet live their lives unveiled in public, they can find solidarity with Malay-Muslim women in Malaysia who also desire to unveil, succeeded to do so, and live the rest of their lives without the hijab.

In my research, I am interested in what motivates every individual to remove the hijab. The hijab is not enforced in toto in Malaysia however young girls are introduced to it in school as part of the school uniform. If we regard schooling as a systematic process of socialisation and discipline to produce docile bodies, then the hijab-as-uniform is incorporated to such bodies making its removal difficult. Although the state and its institutions (the school and religious bodies) impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ Muslim identity – one that is ethnocentric, anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-diversity – women who turn their backs to the hijab each have different, complex reasons to unveil.

‘Free hair’ is the term used to describe a Malay-Muslim woman who doesn’t wear the hijab. It’s a great term with a double meaning; ‘free’ as in the absence of the hijab but also free to mean liberation from imposition. ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ also uses the adjective ‘free’ in both meanings constituted in ‘free hair’. It also articulates a liberal ethos of equality with men. Men do not need to cover, so why do women? I have developed ‘free hair’ as a concept to be used for more universal reflection in my forthcoming article, ‘Free hair: Unveiling and the reconstruction of self’ (2018):

It can be argued here that ‘free hair’ is more than simply about being non-veiled and in opposition to the hijab as it often is in popular representations. ‘Free hair’ constitutes a personal aesthetics and ethics that is in such an intimate reflexive relationship with the hijab as to redefine the privileged meanings of veiling. Put another way, ‘free hair’ is the materialisation of a subjectivity that re-orders the prestigious associations with veiling in order to construct a more harmonious non-veiled self.

However, I would be hard-pressed to argue that the removal of the tudung and being ‘free hair’ comes from a critical rejection of Islamic consumer culture and capitalism. Women may replace one idealised femininity with another version of femininity with its own accoutrements of consumer beautification.

‘Free hair’ as a critical subjectivity that aspires for authenticity and perfection of personal aesthetics is conceived not simply as a practice of self but also as operating in an affective economy that processes feelings of failure and negativity into radical expressions of liberation.

 

Not all women who take off the tudung feel completely liberated initially. Being free hair is a process, it takes time to come to terms with a new identity and status. Women who choose to remain free hair will be beset with perpetual internal and external conflict. Their lives become open-ended, a series of acts and articulation of both joyful defiance and dispiriting negotiation. ‘Free hair’ is indeed a style of life, a life as an obstacle course for women who dare to dissent and live more authentically.

On being like Robyn Penrose

Robyn Penrose is a newly minted lecturer in women’s studies and English literature who specialises in the ‘industrial novel’, fiction written in the mid-1800’s that reflected the values and anxieties of the British industrial revolution. She is a feminist academic with an unflagging belief in uprooting social injustice inside and outside the classroom. She joins anti-nuclear marches and strikes against cuts to university funding. Ever the empowered woman of the 1980s, she is also assertive and confident and is clear about what she wants. Somehow the ‘imposter syndrome’ endemic in higher education does not exist in her dictionary.

She is a fictional character after all and springs from David Lodge’s classic 1988 campus novel, Nice Work, in which our academic heroine is pressured by her dean into shadowing a factory manager at work in a higher education-meets-industry programme. Although a character from the Thatcherite 1980s, she is a figure of our times. As an early career researcher who came to a full-time teaching position from a fixed-term research fellowship in a prestigious research university, Robyn does not know if she can keep her job when the next national budget looms. Universities across the UK since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership have faced inexorable cuts to research, teaching, and upkeep. New appointments are frozen and people lose their jobs.

The precarious nature of academic employment, then as now, involving applying to diminishing jobs and accepting them anywhere in the country and beyond has hampered any attempts at a typical romantic or marital relationship. Robyn’s boyfriend whom she’s been with since they were undergraduates at Sussex has accepted a job a great distance away. They see each other every other weekend and the arrangement feels more like a long-distance relationship. But it works for her as she doesn’t believe in marriage and the bourgeois idea of romantic love. Her boyfriend agrees with her as he is slow to develop his own opinion. She does develop meaningful relationships with others, namely with a female colleague and fellow feminist. Though her greatest triumph is her intellectual and sexual conquest of one Vic Wilcox, the middle-aged factory manager whom she is assigned to shadow.

There are many instances in the novel which suggest that Robyn Penrose is a caricature of a feminist academic, all righteous and dominating. Her ability to transform Vic Wilcox from a boring and predictable family man life who sneers at women’s studies into an effortless enunciator of Tennyson and Saussurean semiotics is the stuff of fairy tales for academics. But she is nonetheless an admirable woman of intellectual ambition whose work is admired by established figures in the field. Who wouldn’t want to be offered a tenure-track job in an elite US university based on the strength of an unpublished book manuscript? She speaks and acts in the manner of her thinking and beliefs; unpretentiously provocative, bold, and forthright. She can talk about her sex life in the same breath as structuralism and metonymy. A sapiosexual’s idea of a really sexy pillow talk.

As a caricature, albeit lifted from the lived experience of the author who was an academic himself, Robyn Penrose ticks many of the identifiable and aspirational boxes. As a feminist academic, the boundary that separates professional and personal life is never really clear. She defines the morality that gives shape to her vocation and sexuality rather than having it imposed by others, not least prudes, anti-intellectual people, and sexist men. It makes me wonder how many women out there harbor a fantasy to be like Robyn Penrose whose mind challenges and ignites desire in the most unlikeliest of people. Because I do.

Just two foreign single women getting drunk in Paris: femininity adrift in Good Morning, Midnight (1939) and The Dud Avocado (1958)

Photo 30-06-2017, 1 41 08 PM
Source: author’s own copies 2017

Sasha Jansen and Sally Jay Gorce are the quintessential flâneuse in the birth city of the flânerie, Paris. They represent two sides of the flâneuse’s emotional inner landscape; aimless, lonely, and morally suspect on the one hand, freewheeling and liberated on the other. As single women, they defy the expectations of women in the city of love. They are elusive to love; Sally Jay is a happy bed-hopper, Sasha walks listlessly into crummy hotel rooms with shady men who promise only temporary love. They are a few decades late after the first generation of flânerie but they cannot escape the mark of marginality that comes with walking in Paris free from matrimony or responsibility as Hannah Arendt describes succinctly:

What all other cities seem to permit only reluctantly to the dregs of society – strolling, idling, flânerie – Paris streets actually invite everyone to do. Thus, ever since the Second Empire the city has been the paradise of all those who need to chase after no livelihood, pursue no career, reach no goal – the paradise, then, of bohemians, and not only of artists and writers but of all those who have gather about them because they could not be integrated either politically – being homeless or stateless – or socially. Pg. 174, Men in Dark Times

The two women are the semi-autobiographical protagonists of two novels, Sasha in Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys and Sally Jay Gorce in The Dud Avocado (1958) by Elaine Dundy, who undertake events drawn from the novelists’ lives, created from a place of ‘write what you know’. Both women are not natives to the city. Sasha is English but has become estranged from her origins in England by virtue of a divorce and death of her child. In Paris, she can reinvent herself, gaining employment as a sales assistant. Like Sasha, Sally Jay seeks fame and fortune in Paris through establishing a career in film and theatre. Paris is also an escape for Sally Jay from a protective family in provincial America.

Born Elaine Rita Brimberg in New York City in 1921, Elaine Dundy grew up under the thumb of her tyrannical father who forbade her to leave New York. Undeterred, she saved enough money for a trip to Paris where she hoped to start her acting career. When the career was not to be she moves to London where she watched others rise to great cultural heights and, for the men she knew, become the iconic Young Angry Men of the 1950s. After the birth of her daughter Tracy (who has recently published a book on her parents) Dundy’s ambitions in film and television were finished. Then a career in writing came a-calling.

Dundy and Rhys were born into affluence and whose creative lives were significantly shaped by highly influential male literary types; Dundy by her husband the leading theatre critic of the day Kenneth Tynan and Rhys by her erstwhile lover and benefactor Ford Madox Ford. In fact, their literary careers were said to be spurred by the men. The Dud Avocado, Dundy’s first novel, was written at the behest of her husband. Typical of sexist assumptions about women’s creative abilities, he didn’t think it would amount to much beyond being written. For Tynan would be deeply resentful of Dundy’s critical success following the publication of the novel. ‘You weren’t a writer when I married you, you were an actress’ he said to her angrily. Yet appraisals from other famous men flowed in, the great comic Groucho Marx said it made him ‘laugh, scream and guffaw’. Who said women couldn’t do comedy? Gore Vidal offered his word of encouragement, “You’ve got one thing a writer needs: You’ve got your own voice. Now go” while Ernest Hemingway praised her book for having characters who “all speak differently” unlike, self-deprecatingly, his own.

When we are introduced to Sally Jay Gorce, pink-haired and dressed in an evening dress in the morning because all of her day wear is in the laundry, it is too easy to think: quirky and adorkable. Easily compared to Holly Golightly, Sally Jay embarks on a metropolitan adventure to run away from a dull American life and a mission to be an actress. Her French is good enough and she gravitates towards other elite Americans in Paris. The meaning of ‘dud avocado’ only becomes apparent in the end of the novel when [spoiler alert!], our witty heroine corrects a would-be paramour on the nature of the ‘Typical American Woman’. Full of misfired charm, he creepily described the typical American woman as having ‘a hard center with the tender meat all wrapped up in a shiny casing’ like an avocado and ‘so green – so eternally green’. Well, having a mind of her own she won’t meet his expectations then. She resigns to simply being a dud avocado as she sips her cocktail.

Good Morning, Midnight also makes a reference to the protagonist’s state of being although in Sasha’s case it is derived from a poem by fellow depressive Emily Dickinson:

Good morning, Midnight!
I’m coming home,
Day got tired of me –
How could I of him?

Sunshine was a sweet place,
I liked to stay –
But Morn didn’t want me – now –
So good night, Day!

We first meet Sasha in her crummy hotel room in Paris, a new base from which to rebuild her life. Curtains are always drawn and she needs sleeping tablets to sleep. The streets of Paris and her daily routine of regular places to eat for lunch, dine, and then have a drink provide a much needed respite. In Paris, she is ‘saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set…’ (pg. 4), an image of a woman who has pulled herself out of a wreckage of a failed marriage and death of a child and struggling with mental health.

Regarded as ‘too depressing’ when it was first published, Good Morning, Midnight had been her fifth novel and precedes Rhys’s best known work, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), the radical prequel to Jane Eyre’s ‘mad woman in the attic’. Before the fame of Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys lived in obscurity but with an ambition to belong to the upper echelons of literary society. Born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in 1890 in Dominica, a tiny Caribbean island in what was then the British West Indies, Rhys is now known primarily as a ‘postcolonial’ writer before such a term was de rigueur, before notions of class, race, and gender became an inescapable framework from which to intellectually appreciate her output.

A white creole who schooled in Cambridge where she was an alleged victim of racism, Rhys lived a life troubled by alcohol abuse and financial difficulty. Biographers and critics have noted with surprise that Rhys was able to gather the discipline to write fine books despite her chaotic life without emphasising that many men in literature lived similarly precarious lives. That Rhys was a woman, somehow not white enough, a single mother, and that she clung to men for monetary support (a biographical detail that seems to suggest feminist failure) meant that her literary output seemed improbable and against the odds. Like many women after her up to this contemporary moment, her novels mirrored her life. As writers of semi-autobiographical fiction, they enjoy the privilege of (re)writing the self yet cursed by voyeuristic prurience of readers who seek out thinly-veiled self-confessionals of troubled women.

Paris eventually gets the better of Sally Jay who, by the end of the novel, grows to despise the city after she loses her passport and failing to make a breakthrough in film or stage; ‘God, how I hated Paris. Paris was one big flea bag. Everything in Paris moved if you looked at it long enough’ (pg. 234). She had indeed looked at it long enough and decides to pack up and return home where she becomes a librarian and meets her happy-ever-after lover. But Sasha Jansen does not leave Paris, not least physically. She exits the buoyant promise and ebullience of the city and retreats psychologically into herself and submits yet to another man who will dominate and perhaps rape her. In fact in the closing pages of the novel, we are not certain that an actual man has come for her in her hotel bedroom or the ghost of past lovers who haunt her desolate inner chamber.

Despite her preferred theme of downtrodden women, Rhys, who died in 1979, currently enjoys a feminist literary legacy and fame that came too late for her, as she notes with irritation following the success of Wide Sargasso Sea. The Dud Avocado would live on to be a modern fairy tale for single women long after Kenneth Tynan threatened to divorce Dundy if she wrote another book. She continued to write and divorced him in 1964, Dundy writes victoriously in the 2007 republication of the novel one year before her death in 2008. The two novels represent something about women who have not only the privilege to travel abroad but also the relative freedom to become the protagonist – and indeed antagonist – of their life story. Women writers draw from their own lives – as much as men do though they are accused less often of this literary misdemeanor – because writing allows the rewriting of one’s life story when things do not turn out the way we want to.

Lessons learned

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve been appointed Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies, my first real job after the PhD. Unlike my cohort, I hadn’t spent too much time applying for many jobs and had been interviewed for only two. Penniless and exhausted, returning to Malaysia seemed like a good idea. It chimed with my old ambition of teaching Gender Studies – back when I didn’t quite understand what it was – at the University of Malaya. And yes, Dear Reader, I got the job.

Being a full-time academic came with the financial independence that I never really had all throughout my 20s. With financial assistance from my parents and younger sister who helped with the initial down-payment, I finally had my own home and car. Most transformative and powerfully addictive of all, I had a disposable income. Being poor for so long leaves behind a psychological scar tissue; to put more simply, the reversal of fortune did not change my attitude with money. Moreover, I had always been cognisant of the precarious nature of jobs and how the living wage anywhere I lived was never commensurate with the rising cost of living.

It took a bit of time thinking about my research trajectory – which would define my academic profile and employability – and whether I wanted to stay in film and cultural studies. It was important to have a putative cut-off time when I knew what research I wanted to do, stick with it, and let it define me for the next five years (or more). I thought very carefully about why I transitioned from the biological sciences to Gender Studies 8 years ago and reassessed if my work was meaningful to me and others.

There have been a few interrelated challenges during the first two years of my career. The sexual harassment allegations that several women and myself have made against AFR resulted in a significant falling-out with many former friends and allies. I should have not been surprised that outrage against sexual harassment is only lip service, only a crime that occurs to others far away – not something their friends would commit, certainly not men who have made a reputation for themselves as ‘progressive’, ‘feminist’, and ‘intellectual’. I had to watch many ‘friends’ and ‘feminists’ express disbelief and when presented with testimony from victims, vacillate on who they thought were the real perpetrator and victims. Others chose to downplay, deny, and accuse me and other women whom I hardly knew but shared the unfortunate fate of being sexually harassed by AFR of lying and planning his downfall. Of course this should have been hardly surprising but it nonetheless was painful and distressing in lived experience. In cases related to gender-based violence and discrimination, women are first presumed to be liars before they are innocent and vindicated.

The emotional impact of the collective sexual harassment case aside, I began to chart my early phase of my academic career in earnest – determining what and where I should publish (the answer to ‘when’ is always ‘now’ but ends up being deferred thanks to the journal publication cycle), and what conference should I organise and when. Teaching was a given – there was little choice on what I could teach but I have been hugely fortunate to teach courses on subjects I really love – feminist and gender theory – and in something I have past professional experience: gender, science and technology.

It all sounds smooth-sailing for those outside looking in but it isn’t always like that. There seems to be two intellectual time-space trajectories running in parallel in my workplace. When working on my own research and teaching, the intellectual time-space trajectory is stimulating, rapid, and at times, frantic. I design the syllabi and prepare all teaching materials from scratch. Every class feels like a high-wire act. Managing, writing, and revising research becomes (on hindsight) an exhilarating race against time. The other intellectual time-space trajectory relates to the habitus of my workplace. There is less urgency for academic publication and rigour; tenured staff either do not publish or do so collectively in dubious Beall’s list journals. The level of discussion during public seminars is low, meandering, and unchallengingly non-intellectual.

Since starting my academic career, I am beginning to fully appreciate my strengths (integrity and hard graft) and weaknesses (failure at building strategic alliances and undiplomatic honesty). I realise now I cannot do everything but while I’m still in my 30s and able-bodied, I should push my boundaries and step out of my comfort zone. My self-knowledge has made me less anxious about my abilities (I can teach and publish in good journals!) and made me more confident at mapping out a future brimming with ambition. Here’s to several more decades as an academic!