A Malay poem for Black History Month

Since it’s Black History Month in Britain, I’d like to feature an unlikely poem by Malaysia’s greatest poet and dramatist, Usman Awang (1929-2001). Written in 1971, ‘Suara Blues’ (Voices of the Blues) is a critique of Western hegemony and racism. It is also a kind of clarion call for the return to ‘the centre’, the origin, the age of pre-colonisation, which was a popular theme in postcolonial writing at the time.

In Malay (English translation after the jump):

Suara Blues

Kemilau hitamnya paling indah
Disinar bulan di cahaya matahari
Ribuan sayap hitam
Di awan
Membayangi sebuah istana
Ribuan bayang hitam
Suara hitam
… dan murka hitam

Dicanang ke seluruh negeri
Mana pemburu mana penembak terpandai
Gugurkan sayap-sayap hitam.
Kerana hitam
Hanya kerana hitamnya.
Tiada tangan mencampakkan kacang
Tiada jari menaburkan jagung
Lapar, lapar yang hitam.

Burung hitam
Telah mereka dengar gema
Genta malam
Trompet hitam, jauh
Jauh di sana di Afrika
Adalah mereka saudara-saudara tercinta
Suara Blues

berazam berombak berkurung berteriak
perhambaan dari pembinaan tamadun
dari air mata tulang-tulang putih mereka
hanya kerana hitam, ya kerana hitamnya
lapar yang hitam, nasib yang hitam.

Dan kini di sini tanah air setengah hitam
Pasukan-pasukan penembak Diraja
Kemilau senapang ciptaan manusia tamadun
Jauh, jauh datangnya = Made in USA, Made in England

Mana seronok menjadi juara tembak
Pertandingan Kejohanan Pesta Gemilang
Berebutan sesamanya, berebutan seperti orang lapar,
Menjatuhkan sayap hitam.

Warna yang dibenci
Rupa yang dibenci
Suara yang dibenci

Bayang hitam yang dikasihi


Terbanglah cepat ke hutan
Ada gunung ada bukit ada sungai jernih
Adalah teman setia
Tiada keseorangan, tiada keseorangan
Di sini terhimpun seribu kekuatan.
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What is Islamic feminism?

There seems to be a lot of confusion about what Islamic feminism is for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Many who aren’t Muslim are quick to label Islam as a repressive religion especially to its womankind, and so essentially any kind of feminism a Muslim espouses can’t be real feminism. Many Muslims, however, don’t see the need to change 1400 years of Islamic tradition especially if it’s by Western-educated Muslim feminists. Furthermore, for many Muslims, subverting tradition seems unthinkable, even unIslamic, because many Islamic tenets remain unchallenged for centuries, and perhaps for good reason too: because God said so. So why rock the boat then?

There is a global shift from a world where women were largely uneducated and pretty much treated like chattel to a world that rewards women the social and economic independence to do what she wants. When this tide of change reached the shores of Islamic nations and communities, many male-interpreted Islamic laws tend to get in the way of women’s lives. This is where Islamic feminism steps in. Spearheaded by academics and activists, the movement’s greatest mission is re-reading the Quran from a feminist perspective and pressure for re-education and legal reform that will engender men and women equal in the eyes of the law and society.

The common understanding of feminism being Western and inherently incompatible with Islam is completely unfounded. While feminism is often considered a secular system of thought, its fundamental ideology of equality of the sexes and empowerment of women everywhere can be applied as a driving force to empower Muslim women (and disenfranchised Muslim men alike). What is Islamic about this brand of feminism is the Quran as its guide, and its aim to accommodate universal feminist values to the culture and lives of Muslim women. There is no way a Western brand of feminism is going to work say, in a village in Bangladesh, without taking into account the religious and social complexities that shape its existence. In short, feminist values has the potential to be indigenous as long as women realise that they will not be victimised by repressive traditions.

This is my quick and dirty definition of Islamic feminism, so it’s not complete. Anyone else has other things to add, feel free!

It's a great time to be a feminist and a Muslim

Originally featured on the BBC today:

Some of the world’s leading Islamic feminists have been gathered in Barcelona for the third International Congress on Islamic Feminism, to discuss the issues women face in the Muslim world.

Some of the women taking part in the conference explained the problems in their home countries, and where they hoped to make progress.

ASMA BARLAS, Author, Pakistan

Religions always come into cultures, they don’t come into abstract and pure spaces. Islam came into a very patriarchal, tribal and misogynistic culture. One of the deepest damages to Islam has been its reduction to “Arabisation”.

Pakistani women protest

Islam is influenced by the culture of the country it enters

I’m not going to say that the Arabs are particularly misogynistic in a way that nobody else is, but I do think there are very particular traits and attitudes towards women that have crept into Islam.

I have a friend who has been studying the interface between what he calls the Persian models and the Arabist models of Islam in the subcontinent and surprise, surprise: the Arabist models are misogynistic, authoritarian, unitarian and the Persian models are much more plural and tolerant.

This is a fight on two fronts – on the one hand we are struggling against the kinds of oppression dominant in Muslim patriarch societies and, on the other, Western perceptions of Islam as necessarily monolithic, and confusing the ideals of Islam with the reality of Muslim lives.

If we read the Koran as a totality rather than pulling out random verses or half a line, that opens all kinds of possibilities for sexual equality.

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Shame and stupidity: a brief history of Malaysian womanhood

Malaysian women of different cultures and ethinicities welcome visitors from abroad in their colourful traditional costumes. They all smile benignly, and they all look beautiful. This is the ‘Malaysia, truly Asia’ tourism campaign. But wait – the lady in the sari (second from left) does not look Indian at all; she’s very light-skinned unlike the many Malaysians of South-Indian descent and does not have recognisably Subcontinental features. Why is she being represented as an ethnic Indian when it is only her dress that is doing the representing? Perhaps what’s underlying this campaign is not about celebrating racial diversity after all. Perhaps this is an image that celebrates a kind of bland homogeneity that is expected of the Perfect Malaysian womanhood.

In a Perfect Malaysia, women’s bodies are defined by a deeply entrenched patriarchal-political and religious discourse. Such definitions of womanhood emanates from a continuous control over the female body either legally or culturally, predating the conception of Malaysia. In colonial Malaya, the Women and Girls’ Protection Ordinance (WGPO) was first formulated to protect immigrant prostitutes from venereal disease and abuse that came with the trade. Today the WGPO, now called the Women and Girls’ Protection Act (WGPA), has evolved to ‘protect’ all women and girls of Malaysia by providing rehabilitation of those caught being involved in ‘immoral’ activities. In practice, the act has been actively enforced on women who frequent karaoke lounges and bars, while their male companions are left untouched.

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On menstruation

Mark Rothko
He understands the ladies: American artist Mark Rothko evokes the many depths of red in No. 301.

This Friday will be an exciting opportunity to participate in the first ever (in the UK) woman-led mixed congregation, and being all for equality in religion that I am, it’s something I would hate to miss. Growing up in Malaysia, I had always felt that segregation in the mosque meant that men were reserved the best seats in the house of God. Like the amazing views that come with boxseats at the opera, men can enjoy places right in front with the imam without the curtains or walls as forms of deliberate obstruction. Women, however, are often left with a disembodied voice to lead their prayers.

But I may not able to attend Friday prayers this week as I will be on my period. For many years I never gave much thought about my periods; they come and go, and often make me cranky and unattractive. Although I was brought up being fully aware of the things I could not do during menstruation: pray, swim, fast, jump up and down too much, read or even touch the holy Qur’an, and of course have sex. The Qur’an tells me that I will soon be ‘unwell’, should not exert myself on the prayer mat, (and that my man should keep his horny urges to himself):

And they ask thee about menstruation. Say: It is harmful, so keep aloof from women during menstrual discharge and go not near them until they are clean. But when they have cleansed themselves, go in to them as Allah has commanded you.

Al-Baqarah, verse 222.

By being regarded as something ‘unclean’ and an ‘illness’, menstruation can come across as a weakness in women. But it certainly is a reminder of fertility and youth; in the film ‘Caramel’ (2007), Jamale, a woman ‘past her prime’, tries to deceive other women and herself that she is much younger than she actually is by inflicting upon herself certain embarrassments associated with periods, such as stains on her clothes and being debilitated in the ladies toilet by the desperation for sanitary towels. Yeah, we’ve all been there.

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A little more on feminist porn…

The article at the Guardian today perhaps further substantiates my previous article on feminist porn and its growing influence in academia and the arts:

It could only happen in the country that gave us Emmanuelle, Monica Bellucci in an anal rape scene and two young actresses romping through a hyper-violent bad-girl road movie with real-life sex and a title so rude it could not be advertised on buses.

‘Pornography is a marginalised but populist genre and in this sense it is a reflection of social tensions,’ said Cervulle. ‘When minorities take part in this socially popular form of expression, they have the chance to break free of the dominant cultural force.’

A group of French intellectuals has now gone one step further in the quest to integrate hardcore erotica into mainstream cinema by holding Paris’s first alternative pornographic film festival: a no-holds-barred celebration of X-rated action that organisers say showcases a new wave of progressive porn that not only titillates but empowers.

Gone, for the most part, are mechanical character portrayals and cringe-worthy storylines; gone, too, are films made by – and solely for – men. On show at the Brady cinema for the past three days have been dozens of productions catering to both genders and every sexual preference. With names such as Deep, Strap-on Motel and Post-Apocalyptic Cowgirls they may sound like the same old material, but those in the know claim they are revolutionary.

Read the rest here.

Blurring the lines between social critique and pornography

I’ve come to terms with the idea that women have negotiated with age-old kinky fantasies, repackage them into female desire-driven works and named them ‘feminist porn’. And by ‘feminist porn’ I mean erotica made by women for women while at the same time trying everything in the postfeminist handbook to dispel the bad conscience of being complicit in the objectification of women so inextricably linked with pornography.

Apollo: Greek mythological figures make regular appearances in science fiction

The reclamation of female sexuality is to my mind one of the last frontiers of feminism. Since the advent of The Pill, women have recognised their desires as a God-given right and have expressed it in a myriad of ways – from the mass consumption of the euphemistic ‘romance novel’ to the glorification of rabbit-inspired vibrators. But in the literary domain where sex is not usually for sex’s sake; a smorgasbord of sexual perversions in Dinar Rahayu’s novel, ‘Ode untuk Leopold von Sacher-Masoch‘ (2002) became part of a social movement.

Among the figures portrayed in ‘Leopold’ are the main characters Jonggi, a masochist, and Dinar, a transsexual. Jonggi sees himself as an incarnation of Apollo and Dinar a valkyrie. The author draws attention to Apollo being sent to earth to serve several people, women in particular, as a slave and to Dinar who serves Odin. Dinar sacrifices her virginity to Apollo so that she is able to leave the world of Gods. Later in the novel, the line between the mythological and the real characters is drawn. Dinar is described as a man, who changes his sex because due to his experiences in the era of Norse mythology he believes to be a woman. The novel also depicts, on various occasions, Jonggi abused by his mother, brother, a group of women, and finally his teacher Kartika.

Confusing? Yes. One of a kind? Not really. Like the alternate visions of reality in Nabokov’s ‘Ada‘, Dinar Rahayu directly refers to Greek and Norse mythology to describe her characters and their sexual complexities. And like ‘Ada’, the employment of complicated science fiction/fantasy elements in the narrative distract the reader from the real disturbing issues at hand; namely incest, sexual abuse and humiliation –  and so essentially, the abnormal is acceptable because the reader engages with characters who constitute the non-existent, the alien, the Other.

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