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.
Portrayals of liberal Muslim women in film is groundbreaking on many levels. In a time where the veil is a symbol of subjugation, films about Muslim women like ‘Caramel‘ (2007) by Nadine Labaki, with a narrative composed of universal themes like love and sex can stunningly shatter stereotypes. It is an anomaly amongst the more mainstream media imagery of women from Islamic countries; it revolves around a beauty salon in which its characters tackle issues of virginity before marriage (by way of hymen reconstruction), disappointed love, and even lesbianism. More commonly, the sexuality of Muslim women is a mystery. Often she is portrayed as sexless and submissive, covered from head to toe, even though in reality only a small proportion of Muslim women actually do so.
‘Caramel’ offers a rare glimpse into the private lives of Muslim women and that their lives can be no different from women living in more liberal societies. However, one can argue that Lebanon has a reputation of being more progressive than its regional neighbours, but their differences are often cosmetic. In ultra conservative post-revolution Iran, the subject of romantic love and even sex is carefully depicted; often symbolically and abstract– imbued with Persian philosophy, and flying white doves. Even the adoring gaze between lovers was deemed too hot for mullahs: the first love story to come after the revolution was about a pair of blind lovers! While the Muslim world constructs sex and womanhood around some well-defined limits, Western popular culture re-hashes over and over again the image of the belly dancer.
There are a couple of reasons why feminism has a difficult time taking root in many places; first, it’s because there is widespread suspicion of its origins. Historically and currently (by the Bush Admin), it has been abused to spread imperialism. It has strong associations with the privileged and ironically, paternalistic women who like to tell Muslim women what not to wear. Also, because it is home to lipstick feminism. Renee at Feministe has posted a good argument against women who claim empowerment from fashion and make-up but often forget the many other women who are tragically disempowered to keep lipstick feminism alive:
When women who are middle/upper class engage in a debate as to whether an article of clothing, or makeup is suitably feminist what they are ignoring is that they are in a position to engage in this particular conversation, because they exist with class privilege.
A woman who is making less than 1USD per day does not have time to concern herself with whether or not patriarchy is informing her clothing choices. This woman must deal with trying to provide subsistence for herself and her family under brutal economic slave labour. Her class location informs her position, as the realities of her daily lived experience extinguish the angst that lipstick/utility feminists engage in.
Regardless of your position regarding performing femininity through make up and or clothing, what cannot be denied is that any purchase within our capitalist economy is predicated on the exploitation of women. The cult of I blinds us from the reality that in our debate about agency and autonomy, we are completely obscuring the degree to which we personally are responsible for the impoverishment of others. Class position we posit is based on meritocracy, but I must ask, who works harder than a sweat shop labourer? Though feminism is a movement to end oppression against women, often times the failure to acknowledge privilege leads to the marginalization and exploitation of the most vulnerable within our society. Class division is not a flight of fancy, and to ignore the ways in which the Cult of I, turns us into oppressors is to decide unilaterally that only certain women matter.
Update: Here’s an article posted at The F-Word that got me questioning about how I identify myself as a feminist and here’s a bit of defending the post’s title (Lipstick feminism is not feminism): I like lipstick and I do believe that to some extent it boosts my self-confidence, it assures me that I look pretty. There I said it, I need make-up for self-esteem sometimes. But then again, without make-up and new clothes I’m still me, the same self-assured woman-Muslim-feminist-daughter-lover-cook-pianist-artist who does not need to put everything I enjoy into boxes labeled feminist or not, ‘cos that’s just silly.
Are you a Muslim woman living in the US/Europe? Is there too much attention on your veil? Do you hate being defined by your veil? Then you might agree with Faisal al-Yafai’s article in the Guardian’s Comment is free today. The veil, he argues, is a prominent focus on the mainstream feminist agenda. Too much focus he reckons. One possible reason why obstacles Muslim women face in obtaining education and work take the backseat to a piece of head cover is because western feminism hasn’t won its own war yet. He writes:
One of the dilemmas feminists in the west face is the lack of an overarching narrative. With initial struggles for voting, education, equal pay and abortion rights largely won, feminists have grappled with less tangible issues such as family-friendly working hours, glass ceilings and societal expectations. Unable to agree on big themes, feminists have grasped at small issues. That would explain why nothing – absolutely nothing, not forced marriage, not losing their sons and daughters to bombs from the air, not being denied an education – nothing seems as important as the veil.
It is why feminists have struggled to work out a coherent response to coercion. The Taliban forcing Afghan women to hide under burqas is condemned; the Tunisians, Moroccans and Turks forcing them to uncover is not. But coercion is coercion.
Since it’s Ramadhan I thought it might be quite appropriate that I have a special religious feature in my feminist/Malay lit blog. So in today’s post I’d like bring to your attention a little known novel by Fatimah Busu, ‘Salam Maria‘ (or Hail Mary) published in 2004. Unfortunately it’s in Malay, and almost impossible to purchase even in Malaysia as many big-name book shops don’t stock it. But don’t let these be stumbling blocks to discovering the beauty in ‘Salam Maria’. In Fatimah Busu’s allegory, the central character, Maria Zaitun, becomes a religious leader of a community for social outcasts who live in a rain forest called Hutan Beringin.
Though a devout Muslim, Maria Zaitun is ostracised by members of her village for refusing to conform to patriarchal ideals of womanhood. Even the village imam chases her out of the mosque in her time of spiritual need. It is however, a group of women: old, poor, and disabled, who offer her sanctuary in their humble home in Hutan Beringin. Her highly charitable and non-judgemental nature towards rape and incest victims gains the reverence of the forest’s inhabitants. Maria Zaitun is not just a spiritual leader, she is also an entrepreneur: she is the one who encourages these women to start a small cottage industry, sewing and selling specially-embroidered telekung or praying attire for Muslim women in the urban centres. This helps provide them with some form of financial independence and security.
NEW DELHI — An old woman missing her upper front teeth holds a child in rumpled clothes — who is wearing a Fendi bib (retail price, about $100).
A family of three squeezes onto a motorbike for their daily commute, the mother riding without a helmet and sidesaddle in the traditional Indian way — except that she has a Hermès Birkin bag (usually more than $10,000, if you can find one) prominently displayed on her wrist.
Elsewhere, a toothless barefoot man holds a Burberry umbrella (about $200).
Welcome to the new India — at least as Vogue sees it.
Vogue India’s August issue presented a 16-page vision of supple handbags, bejeweled clutches and status-symbol umbrellas, modeled not by runway stars or the wealthiest fraction of Indian society who can actually afford these accessories, but by average Indian people.
Perhaps not surprisingly, not everyone in India was amused.