Open thread: Guilty pleasures

I want to share with you a dark and shameful secret. So sit back and make yourself comfortable because it will be a guilt-ridden confessional joyride. Now, being a feminist supposedly involves being humourless and super-ethical about everything. All that makes it real difficult to deal with guilty pleasures sometimes. That’s because such pleasures often come in unfeminist and unethical shapes.

But why oh why do bad things have to be so bad they’re good?

Finger lickn good.
Kentucky Fried Chicken: Finger lickin' good.

Not many people know this but I love Kentucky Fried Chicken. That tantalising but delicately spiced aroma is instantly recognisable from a mile away – just don’t get me started on how good it tastes. I also can’t help but feel nostalgic about KFC: it’s reminiscent of my adolescent days when fast food was cool and no one cared about fat and calories. Unfortunately, the act of eating KFC in Britain has become a shameful pastime. With the country’s gastronomic conscience taken over by the likes of Jamie Oliver and being all aspirational about food nowadays, I feel beset by social pressure to eat my battery drumstick and wings in the privacy of my own home – usually while watching a high-brow DVD to cancel out the unrefined nature of my dining experience. Yes, I can be quite sad like that.

Do you feel guilty about the little things in life that you enjoy? Be it excessive shoe shopping, a love of doner kebab, staying up late on a week night, or simply taking long lunch breaks, I’d like to know 🙂

Book review: Ombak Bukan Biru by Fatimah Busu

ombak-bukan-biru4Fatimah Busu has a gift for telling stories of social alienation. Her stories are often a provocative social critique of Malay society but are easily accessible and good for philosophical rumination. In Salam Maria, her protagonist is a misfit, a social castoff who is forced to the depths of the forest to live with those of a similar fate. In Ombak Bukan Biru (The Waves Are Not Blue, 1972, Pekan Ilmu Publications), the turmoil of class, cultural and religious differences is told from the point of view of Imrah, a young Malay teacher from Kelantan.

Emotional, though paced at breakneck speed, Ombak Bukan Biru is a joy to read. From the beginning of the novel we know that Imrah has little patience for her boyfriend’s dalliances and leaves him with a broken heart and broken gifts from happier days. But a surprise visit from the school headmistress and an English guest teacher, Cik Celine, forms a kind of emotional distraction that relieves her from the painful break-up. Unbeknownst to Imrah of course, of the greater melodrama that will unfold following this chance meeting.

Celine and Imrah quickly become close friends and share a mutual enthusiasm for traditional court dancing, the tarian lilin (candle dance). Their friendship leads to an invitation to Celine’s home in Pulau Pinang where she meets her future love, Lawrence. Their relationship is encouraged by his family and Celine, but the same could not be expected from Imrah’s family. The clash of cultures she experiences is striking; while her white family and Lawrence are welcoming and permissive, her own family is uncompromising and suspicious of others different from themselves. The Malay attitude towards inter-religious marriage she discovers is both sexist and arcane. She learns from her deeply religious father that a marriage between a Muslim woman and convert (mu’alaf) is destined to doom. Feminine persuasion cannot lead a man to an Islamic way of life the way a man can lead a woman:

Read More »


Dear Readers,

Cycads is going to be temporarily stalled this week to make way for concert rehearsals and workshop meetings. The concert is this coming Sunday and I will be playing my man J.S. Bach’s praeludium in A-Flat BWV 886 (from his Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2) and for my choir. Also, I’ve been just dead tired all week. But how’s everybody doing anyway?

I need serious cheering up aka weekend round-up of favourite reads 16-18/1

There are days when I feel like tearing my hair out and never leave my flat. I’ll just return to the world when my hair grows out again. But following my better judgement, I’m going to have to recover from an agonisingly disappointing week for a couple of days with delicious cooking, fine entertainment on TV and coffee. So in the meantime, here are some stories that got me smiling (a little) the last few days.

Yours grumpily with love,


Nirpal Dhaliwal tears apart Amitabh Bachan’s huge ego in his piece, Slumdog Millionare could only been made by a Westerner:

The bitter truth is, Slumdog Millionaire could only have been made by westerners. The talent exists in India for such movies: much of it, like the brilliant actor Irrfan Khan, contributed to this film. But Bollywood producers, fixated with making flimsy films about the lives of the middle class, will never throw their weight behind such projects. Like Bachchan, they are too blind to what India really is to deal with it. Poor Indians, like those in Slumdog, do not constitute India’s “murky underbelly” as Bachchan moronically describes them. They, in fact, are the nation.

Read More »

Every woman's "big day" – what is it for?

Originally written by Bidisha at The Guardian’s Comment Is Free under the title, Wedlock throws away the key:

Wedlock. It’s the kind of word that ought to send chills down a modern woman’s spine. It describes with deadly aptness the prison-like qualities of that institution and evokes a cold sense of confinement and consignment. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but an Englishman’s castle is an Englishwoman’s jail. The hermetic seal of wedlock provides the perfect cover, the immaculate veneer which conceals at worst domestic violence and emotional abuse and, as a norm, a vast well-documented housework and childcare disparity between the sexes.

And still women go for it. Indeed, according to the bizarro-world values of Hollywood, we can’t get enough of marriage – and it’s making us go bonkers. Last year the ultimate real girl, Carrie Bradshaw, turned into a couture-drenched Bridezilla in the Sex and the City film. And this week we have Anne Hathaway – another real-girl heroine after her appearance in The Devil Wears Prada, a loving tribute to the fashion industry – in two marital movies, Bride Wars and Rachel Getting Married. In all three cases the husbands-to-be might as well be shop mannequins, mutely looking bemused while the action unfolds around them. The real drama is among the women, who all seem to have been infected by a particular microscopic bug that lives in off-white silk tulle and transforms them into nitpicking obsessives who’ll scratch out each other’s eyes for their chance to be queen for a day. It says something about the paucity of women’s lives that a marriage offers them their one and only opportunity to feel significant.

Read More »

Weekend round-up of favourite online reads 11/1

My current obsession with feminist science fiction led me to brilliant reviews of Vandana Singh’s The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet at both The F-Word and Ultrabrown. In my earlier post on Islam and feminism in SF I mentioned a few times about how the genre is used to critique some grand narratives of our times. But in lieu of feminist utopias, Singh’s anthology of short stories explores the more intimate worlds of emotional and mental isolation to great effect in what she calls speculative fiction:

So much modern realist fiction is divorced from the physical universe, as though humans exist in a vacuum devoid of animals, rocks and trees. Speculative fiction is our chance to rise above this pathologically solipsist view and find ourselves part of a larger whole; to step out of the claustrophobia of the exclusively human and discover joy, terror, wonder and meaning in the universe…

…I said earlier that speculative fiction is about what cannot ever be, or what cannot be as yet. But it is also true that when it uses symbol and metaphor in certain ways, speculative fiction is about us as we are, right now. This may be the case even if the story is set on another planet, in another age, and the protagonist is an alien. Because haven’t we all felt alien at some time or another, set apart from the norm due to caste and class, religion and creed, gender and sexual orientation?

Read More »

Notes on Islam and feminism in science fiction

I’ve been reading a lot about feminist science fiction lately, mostly of out fascination for its philosophical what-ifs and fantastic plots and situations. And as a casual reader of the genre rather than a fan, I am intrigued by the questions raised by feminist science fiction writers about culture and heteronormativity (guest contributor Gareth shares my views on these issues in his excellent review of the feminist SF classic, The Left Hand of Darkness).

The philosophical potential in science fiction got me interested in the depiction of Islam and Muslim women in science fiction writing – I wanted to know whether science fiction has some clues as to how different cultures and religions can live peacefully in utopic bliss, or not.

With popular media culture and media already full of negative portrayals of Muslims, it’s perhaps a little unsurprising then that science fiction has its fair share of ‘Arab baddies’. A number of novels depict a world taken over by extremist Muslims either far in the distant future or a world where Islam is presented in the seat of global power following a near extinction of the Europeans in the Black Death. Either way, the formula is the same: what if the anti-thesis of Western hegemony came into power?

The eponymous eye in Philip K. Dick’s novel, Eye in the Sky, directly refers to the all-seeing eye of God in a world where Muslim extremists rule and plagues are instantly willed by a divine presence. It’s interesting that Islamic extremism in the novel is made a convenient stand in for all that was bad about the United States in the 1950’s: from the paranoia of the McCarthy era to the growing influence of fundamentalist Christianity – perhaps Muslims in 50’s America were as little understood as extra-terrestrials that often constituted The Other in SF. The cover I thought, was pretty offensive as well – the ominous eye of God is illustrated as fearsome, tyrannical, malevolent. Allah = bad.

Read More »

Book review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

By special guest contributor, Gareth:

A few months ago, Alicia asked me why science fiction was such a boy thing and what is the point of the genre. I cobbled together an answer about science fiction being used to create a narrative space removed from the here and now into which pertinent questions and ideas can be tried out. Science fiction might not be science, but it does have an experimental edge. As for the boyish enchantment of the genre, I imagine that it has something to do with love of grand ideas and machines rather than human relationships and emotions. Then I remembered reading somewhere about women’s science fiction, and yet still feminist science fiction. A quick web search led us to Feminist SF, and I recommend a browse.

I have long been a fan of Ursula LeGuin, since reading her Wizard of Earthsea at primary school. I was enrapt by her bringing imagined cultures and worlds to life through her writing: a skill, I later learned, was informed by her understanding of anthropology. Quite apart from Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness is considered a cornerstone of feminist science fiction: not only does LeGuin conjure up a fascinating world in which to immerse the reader, she also asks us to think deeply about sex and gender.

The Left Hand of Darkness is about Genly Ai, a man sent as an envoy of a collectivity of human-inhabited planets called the Ekumen to an arctic world they know as Winter, and known to its inhabitants as Gethen. The book is an account of Ai’s mission to Gethen to begin interplanetary dialogue. Interleaved in Ai’s account are logs from a previous investigative mission, collected folk tales and the excerpts from the diary of a Gethenian friend. These help to give the reader a number of points of views in parallel. This is not Flash Gordon territory: Ai has no ray gun, his ‘ship’ is impounded in a Gethenian warehouse, he’s black, and the Gethenians, while fairer skinned, are not white.

Read More »

Idealising Islamic womanhood, internalising whiteness

Malaysian actress Wardina
Malaysian actress Wardina

The meteoric rise of Malaysian actress Wardina and singer Waheeda in the last few years was by no means an accident. For decades, women who wore the tudung (hijab) had longed for high-profile role models who shared their values and dress code. Representation is, of course, a good thing, but their popularity can be partly attributed to the public’s preference for fair skin.

The Malay skin colour can be best described as a spectrum of tones; from the dark brown (hitam manis) to ghostly pale (putih melepak) – all a result of a half-forgotten history of intermarriage between ethnic groups that co-exist in Malaysia and beyond. While there isn’t a social and economic divide based on colorism in the country; i.e. the rich and powerful aren’t necessarily pasty white or vice versa, there is a culture of implicit loathing of darker skin. The solution to this, however, is easy: whitening creams.

Read More »