The recent fatwa on assumed female homosexuality has opened another can of worms. Yet again, the Malaysian religious authorities insist on tightening their grip on Muslim women by policing the way they dress, and who they choose to love, without fully understanding the complex nature of human sexuality. Meanwhile, a worrying proportion of the Malaysian public see this form of moral safeguarding as an exclusive issue pertaining to Malaysian Muslims only – other Malaysians need not apply; lacking the prerequisite of being a Muslim and not being an Islamic scholar, their criticisms will be seen as simply a nuisance to the Malaysian political machinery.
While this is all happening, there is yet another attack on women’s private space. In Amina Wadud’s book, ‘Inside the gender jihad‘, she explains why Muslim women can claim the feminist adage, ‘the personal is political’ as their own battle cry:
A prime theoretical contribution of the contemporary analysis of women’s oppression can be captured in the slogan “the personal is political.” What it means is that the subordination of women by men is pervasive, that it orders the relationships of the sexes in every of life, that a sexual politic of domination is as much in evidence in the private spheres of the family, ordinary social life, and sexuality as in the traditionally public spheres of government and the economy. The belief that things we do in the bosom of the family or in bed are either “natural” or else a function of personal idiosyncrasies of the private individual is held to be an “ideological curtain that conceals the reality of women’s systematic oppressions.”
This includes the prescription of traditional gender performance by society as simply following the natural order of things. Malaysian women are continuously reminded of their place as good mother, wife, nurturer, as reflected in the vast majority of women in nursing and teaching positions, and unpaid homemaking. In the more private realms of sexuality, women are conditioned to subordination. Amina Wadud continues by saying:
For the feminist, two things follow upon the discovery that sexuality too belongs to the sphere of the political. The first is that whatever pertains to sexuality – not only actual sexual behaviour, but sexual desire and sexual fantasy as well – will have to be understood in relation to a larger system of subordination; the second, that the deformed sexuality of patriarchal culture must be moved from the hidden domain of “private life” into an arena of struggle, where a “politically correct” sexuality of mutual respect will contend with an “incorrect” sexuality of domination and submission.
An interesting case in point is the Malaysian pop singer Ning Baizura’s public fall from grace by the local media in 2000. Revealing more than just her sexual preferences to a local edition of the men’s magazine, FHM, Ning discussed elevator sex, blindfolds and whipped cream, a thing for Latin men’s derriere, and group sex fantasy, involving five men – which caused the most shock. Her interview elicited not only considerable media attention, but a huge outcry from Malay Muslims who demanded a public apology for disgracing all Malays and Muslims.
Ning Baizura’s “private” and “incorrect” sexual fantasies became a subject of public scrutiny and judgment, fit for an equally public “correcting” so to speak. Her sexuality belongs to a larger system of communal values, not her own. Perhaps revealing a little too much information about her personal life, she did not really offend anyone and being only a pop singer and celebrity, she did not choose to represent Malay society.
But why conflate sexual fantasies and preferences with actual behaviour into one of the same thing? This is the kind of discussion members of the Malaysian fatwa council refuse to be publicly engaged in. It is not enough making up theories about what makes a pengkid, and it is bad enough that men have the last say on what is right and not right about female sexuality, muftis have to overcome their prudishness and unwillingness to allow a more women-friendly discourse in the fatwa decision-making that lie at the roots of the council.