Nafsu buas: the politics of imagined lust in Malaysia

‘Animalistic lust’ (nafsu buas) is a common spice in Malay tales of adulterous wives, transgender paramours, and homosexual men and women. ‘Animalistic’ or ‘buas‘ here is a blanket term for all that is unbridled and transgressive. Though derived from the Arabic word to mean ‘soul’, ‘nafsu‘ is often accompanied with pejorative connotations, and it is used a lot by the Malay media to demonise sexual minorities in Malaysia. Often scapegoated for everything that is immoral in society by the country’s moral vanguards; either elected into office or not, being a sexual minority is becoming more difficult and there are people who cheer for their living hell.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that the recent highly-publicised fatwa against tomboys exposes the powers-that-be’s obsession with the bodily control of Muslim women. While there are many, like myself, who only see the absurdity of the fatwa, proponents of this edict believe that curbing female homosexuality plays a crucial part in an ever-expanding list of ‘solutions’ to relieve Malaysia of its fear of disintegrating family units due to rising divorce rates and single parent households, pre-marital sex, and general moral apocalypse.

Not long ago between the 1970’s and 80’s, an unprecedented mass migration of young women from rural areas to the industrial towns of Malaysia lead to what can be described as a socio-cultural shock for many. Instead of being represented as role models of economic independence, many young Malay women, particularly factory girls or ‘Minah Karan‘ as they were popularly known, were accused of loose morals and sexual promiscuity and were systematically to blame for the social breakdown of an increasingly modernised Malaysia. Until the mid-1980’s, factory women in headscarves (tudung) were rare and associated with a secular, urbanised lifestyle that sharply contrasted against the more modestly dressed, university-educated women who were inspired by the Islamic resurgence at the time.

The allegedly hyper-westernised, morally-dubious behaviour of factory women was defined in the Malaysian mass media during this period as a public issue requiring intervention on the part of religious and political authorities. And so like the fatwa against assumed female homosexuality, the denigration of the Minah Karan is based on fiction more than fact. The National Fatwa Council of Malaysia, however, formulate fatwas by twisting nebulous assumptions and lack of evidence into solid preventive measures. In a tour de force interview with the director-general of the Malaysian Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), Datuk Wan Mohamad Sheikh Abd Aziz, we will (perhaps) understand their well-thought out and researched rationale behind this tomboy fatwa. Below is an excerpt:

Q: Is there any proof that if a woman dresses as a man, she will become a lesbian? What is the link between clothes and lesbianism?

A: Perhaps this is something that is different between the Islamic perspective and non-Islamic perspective.
Our approach is based on a rule of the maxim in Islamic jurisprudence – that we prevent the opportunity for some thing bad to happen. We believe this is a good approach in preventing something bad which is forseeable, based on research and other issues. This principle is used when determining a fatwa.

Back to the issue of clothes. We have said from the beginning that dressing is not the sole factor (in lesbianism). It is more about behaviour. Don’t forget, a pengkid might be very feminine, but she is a pengkid because of her behaviour and sexual desires.

Q: So, a pengkid has a sexual connotation?

A: Yes. This is what we are worried about. What is meant by pengkid is a person who is inclined to be attracted to someone of the same sex. It starts with the clothes and the behaviour. What we are most worried about is that this person might go to the extreme level. That is why we feel it is safer for each person to strive to follow or abide by his or her fitrah.

A woman would be more damai (at peace) if she had a man as a companion.

Q: The problem is, when it comes to the level of society, the understanding of this fatwa might be different. For instance, at the moment, a lot of men’s clothes have become unisex for women. So, for instance, on the days where I am going to a particularly rough place, I might wear a shirt and pants, and I might not wear earrings or bright lipstick. If someone sees me at that time, what would be the conclusion that person might have on my sexual preference?

A: That is a different issue. We are currently talking about normal conditions. If we talk about situations like you mentioned, then that’s the same as a male policeman going undercover as a woman.

Q: The niat (intention) of the fatwa is one thing, but its application is another. What is going to happen if someone who has heard of this fatwa starts harrassing a woman whom he feels is dressed or behaving like a man?

A: Let’s forget about the possibility of harassment by men.

: We can’t.

A: Alright. But what if the woman who behaves like a man attracts the attention of other women. Doesn’t that also present a threat of harassment?

Q: If that’s the rationale, then I’m better off dressed as a man. For, if I were to dress as a man, I would be harassed by fewer women than I would be by men, were I to be dressed as a woman.

A: (laughs) Actually, the danger to you would then be that you would be harassed by men, and there would be a new harasser (women). But a pengkid is not just about dressing. Dressing is just one of the factors. A woman might have a husband, wears a baju kurung and tudung. But if her behaviour and desire is towards other women, this is where the woman starts to neglect her husband or even leaves him for her woman companion.

*Sigh*. Read the rest here.

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.


  1. “Let’s forget about the possibility of harassment by men.”

    There’s the problem! Although violence against women, and general unpleasantness from men is commonplace, and sometimes even encouraged, around the world, fatwa upon fatwa has condemned the woman and given the man excuses. This call to mind the survey of women in Cairo that found a large number had been harassed by men on the street, and that, the more conservatively they were dressed, the more they were harassed. Men traditionally see the ‘covered’ woman as submissive, and the ‘uncovered’ as liable to complain. The Fatwa Council is simply extending their support for men’s unrestrained nafsu buas.

  2. Garzo sayang,

    Well said, and I’m glad you spotted that one!


    erm, no! and as Garzo pointed out, muftis can’t see the possibility of men taking advantage of the fatwa to harass and commit violence towards women. Many Muslim Malaysians who take it upon themselves to be moral vigilantes see it as their religious/moral duty to violate the rights and privacy of Muslim women.

    More on morally-upright peeping toms at link below:

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