The recent imposition restricting female singers/dancers from performing in a mixed-sex audience in the northern Malaysian state of Kedah is just another heartbeat away from the talibanisation of the country. Malaysia has claimed to being an example of moderate Islam against a backdrop of multiple ethnicities and religions, and there have been praise for the country for successfully keeping that balance. But in spite of these proud claims and admiration, Malaysia has received many a spotlight for being intolerant, sexist, and just plain ridiculous. The latest in the list of shame is the further infringement of women’s rights to be heard and seen in the artistic arena.
The Malaysian women’s movement has failed to define itself as feminist for various historical reasons, and as a result failed to benefit from mainstream feminism’s expansive narrative. The first few women’s groups have been largely politically motivated at the doorstep of the country’s political independence in 1957. In the decades that followed non-governmental organisations became the avenue for the local women’s movement to focus on the protection and refuge for victims of domestic abuse and rape. The 1970’s became a time of Islamic revivalism and disillusionment with the west in Malaysia, and became a trying time for local women in general. The religious resurgence meant a greater control over the private lives of Muslims, and women became a threat to the country’s moral decline.
Not much has changed for women since the 70’s and 80’s; there are still a few female politicians in powerful decision-making positions, and women are still generally regarded as natural homemakers; the latest $4.2m effort to get more women into the workforce is getting women into professional housekeeping. What made me grit my teeth was the desirable prerequisite for employment: must love housework. Like all women do eh?
Like with other women’s groups struggling to regain their rights in Muslim countries, the theme of their arsenal is the re-interpretation of the Qur’an and hadith, both of which have been misread to suit patriarchal tastes. However such endeavours were not to be tolerated by those who walk Malaysia’s corridors of power: an important book by Sisters in Islam was banned for blasphemy – the same reason why the printing of ‘Allah’ in Malay bibles was outlawed. The book, “Muslim women and the challenge of Islamic extremism”, is a collection of essays on the state of Muslim women’s rights by female activists and academics from various countries; mostly Muslim nations, some not. How a book already used as academic text in some European countries be denounced as dangerous to the stability of a country is lost to me.
The word ‘feminism‘ has provoked a lot of ignorant bile from many quarters, from religious leaders to even distinguished academics. Such distrust emerge from the lack of respect for women as equals and feminism’s imagined associations with the wicked West. Banning women from performing in front of menfolk suggests the insecurities of men’s social and spiritual position in society. And it is this control of those who remain behind socially (professional housewives and not politicians) and perceived as morally weak (read: single sex entertainment) that musn’t be tolerated by all Malaysians, and not the banning of books, reggae, pop and rock concerts.
NB: I’ve corrected some grammar and overall mess in this article – Sigh, the joys of writing in my non-native language..