Big Love: Appropriating feminism in advocating polygamy

Originally posted at Muslimah Media Watch

Members of the Ikhwan Polygamy Club in Malaysia. Source: Utusan Melayu

Stories about polygamy tend to surge and ebb in the media, but they never fail to intrigue people. Recently in South Africa, a Zulu man married four women–all at once–making the most popular story on the BBC news website (you can watch the clip here). In the video, a male wedding guest gives a thumbs-up to the marriage(s), claiming that the “world” suffers from monogamous marriage breakdowns as a result of adultery. Later, the narrator serves up a classic: with all those wives, what man will have time to cheat? So, yes, it seems to be all about sex and keeping the man carnally satiated as to not go astray. But what do the wives have to say?

From one Muslim wife’s perspective, there is Hatijah Aam, founder of the Ikhwan Polygamy Club in Malaysia. Running what sounds like a matchmaking service, Hatijah herself introduced her husband to a future co-wife, a mother of seven. The club has been successful at marrying men and women from neighboring Thailand and Indonesia, and even as far as Australia. The virtues of polygamy, according to her, echo the stuff in religious texts I’ve become so accustomed to: it helps single mothers, “old maids”, and former sex workers (a new addition!) out of what is ostensibly abject misery.

Looking at the social context in Malaysia, it’s understandable how polygynous relationships can thrive: women are chronically at an economic disadvantage, a female-initiated divorce is a difficult, laborious process, and if it is successful, women shoulder the stigma and burden of being fair game to any Malay-Muslim man. Pinning on former sex workers, single mothers, and divorcees the label “unwanted goods” says a lot about the precarious status women have in society; women are not only defined by their marital (and sexual) status, but also seem to lack agency to better themselves.

For a while I’ve been interested in what women in polygamous marriages have to say about their relationship with their husband, co-wives, and with their faith, particularly when feminist buzz words like “choice”, “rights”, and “consent” are used. Take for instance this argument: in a monogamous marriage, a woman has the right to choose her spouse, and so in principle a woman should also have the same kind of rights to allow her husband to marry another. It will be interesting when the role of rights and agency are raised in response to legislation against polygamy in numerous countries across the globe. There’s also an argument that “feminist” polygyny allows women “to have it all”: work hard and have a great arrangement with co-wives who will look after their kids (providing of course that the co-wives aren’t so career-minded).

Like polyamory and open marriages, polygamy is not common for obvious reasons, jealousy being the main one. And while for the few women whose rights are respected and protected (in some countries), how do their choices impact on all other women in general? Will a concept of polygamy that is truly women-centric subvert a system in which some women see sharing a husband the only way out of economic or social hardship? Will every wife have a happy sex life? Tightening conditions on such marriages may appear as posing restrictions on a woman who wants to express her rights, but at the same restricts men from marrying women for exploitative reasons often disguised as noble ones. In Indonesia, laws are made increasingly lax to accommodate men who wish to tie the knot multiple times, even if they lack the financial means (or the guts) to tell their first wives.

Polygyny, alongside housewifery and pornography, is just one of the few issues women have been grappling with distinguishing between whether it’s feminist or not. And so a belief in ending oppression in all its many guises should be the compass of every feminist if one finds themselves lost. To end, I leave you with Hatijah Aam saying that polygamy should be something beautiful, rather than something disgusting. I say, fair enough–keeping in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Reconstructing the deconstructed: some thoughts on transnational feminist activism

The genetic material that connects us people with pre-historic creatures are the hox genes; genes that determine the basic shape of the body – signalling where the front and back, top and bottom of the body of more complex organisms (this includes worms I’m afraid) would be, essentially. Now, the discovery of the hox genes kind of proved what Darwin had wanted to say all along: that we are all related and our evolutionary ancestry can be traced way back in what he had elegantly allegorised as the tree of life. If related in modern genetic terms, the hox genes would be right at the roots of this tree from which further genetic extension (or branches) would go on to create diverse creatures on this earth.

I’d like to see feminist theory as the hox genes of global feminist activism. As unchanging and “un-evolveable” as the hox genes, the basic tenet of feminism (end to oppression based on gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, and class) would form the shape, direction, and ultimately the destiny of feminist politics. Mutations in feminist theory would mean that its perspective on ending oppression will be distorted, and in some cases, as good as dead. From an immutable and intact set of basic theories and goals come the social movements that take on a variety of modes based on historical, geographical, cultural, and religious circumstances, producing what we recognise today as localised and grassroots feminisms around the world.

The idea of a superstructure transnational feminism does not make a lot of sense to me. In fact, I find discussing global sisterhood boring and a little pointless. I attended the Feminist Theory and Activism in Global Perspective conference at SOAS today wondering what it really wanted to achieve, and left the conference still wondering. On the one – more positive – hand, there exists the idea that transnational feminism breeds solidarity. No doubt showing support as an emblem of solidarity is great, but effective activism needs a real understanding of the multiple contexts that influence it. Solidarity alone is not enough.

To be fair, it’s great seeing an international panel of feminist speakers talking about their work and how they can be raised as transnational feminist issues. Issues such as violence against women, working with women in zones of conflict, and postcolonial literature all have transnational appeal, but I find it unusual for feminist academics and activists to seek connections with others who don’t necessarily share the same contextual circumstances that are so crucial in addressing localised hegemonic patriarchy. Is a conference on transnational feminism something like the UN of feminist activism? We all know that the UN is far from perfect.

It seemed a little ironic to me that today’s conference did not include a talk on bridging Muslim and Western feminism, as that appears to be like the hottest topic of all time and basically the ultimate narrative of reconciling two very different feminisms. And so I went home today feeling a little cheated by a pretty bombastic line-up of talks that only rang hollow to me. We know that grassroots feminism is efficient and effective. Tinkering with it by including external intervention that has yet to be proven effective and most certainly complex to manage can distance the site of activism from those who know it best. In other words, why bother?

Jamie Oliver, food, and Eurocentrism

Because this is how Americans tend to look
Jamie Oliver: Because this is how Americans tend to look

If you follow Jamie Oliver’s cooking programmes, alternatively known as The Naked Chef, you’ll notice that his cool and effortless boyish attitude to cooking strikes a chord with the young, mostly male, upwardly-mobile, and aspiring members of the British middle class; it’s about an obsession with fresh, locally-sourced or grow-your-own ingredients, and recipes firmly grounded in French/Italian cooking traditions. He’s deeply committed to getting Britain cooking at home again, and so none of those ready meals and takeaways plaguing busy families. But he has done so by entering the homes of lower income families in some of the roughest neighbourhoods in the country, who, by Jamie’s middle class standards, have Britain’s most deplorable eating habits. He is persuasive to some, patronising to others.

Ever so commercial-savvy, Jamie is also the face of the local supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, and his mantra is clear: cooking can be easy, quick and should be inexpensive. You can also adopt the Jamie Oliver lifestyle by buying his stylish dining and kitchen products whilst reading his eponymous magazine. But it doesn’t end there, he’s all about kids eating nutritious meals in school and teaching them to start cooking from a young age too, because it’s never too early to be have bourgeois aspirations. So far so caring and generous, but very commercial.

His newest television project, called Jamie’s American Road Trip, aims to spread his love of funky fusion cooking in the United States, which comes with a US-inspired cookbook too (launched on the day of his first episode no less). Eschewing the usual tropes of American food and travel itinerary, Jamie rubs shoulders with ex-gang members in Los Angeles, immigrant communities and the homeless in New York City, and other marginalised and disenfranchised groups. Told through the medium of local food and recipes, Jamie brings to the table some pretty interesting stories of life in America today despite his naive geniality and earnestness which I found awkward at times, but it is his ignorance and Eurocentric views about food that I found just difficult to swallow.

In an episode filmed in New York City, Jamie meets Egyptian-born chef Ali, who runs a restaurant popular with the large Egyptian community in Astoria. The chef was kind enough to prepare on camera his specialty, a tomato-based meaty broth which Jamie made references to minestrone. What sounded like someone making sense of familiar flavours ended up becoming a comment that suggested that “ethnic” cuisines simply orbited around Western European cooking. To make sense of non-European flavours and textures, “unusual” food must be viewed through European lenses. And so dim sum is like Chinese tapas, chapatis look like Indian pancakes, kuih-muih can only be translated as Malaysian cakes. “You are degrading my cooking and culinary culture”, says Chef Ali to the Naked Chef. Clearly flabbergasted and apologetic, Jamie goes on to make another racist mistake in New Orleans.

On last night’s programme, Jamie recounts the devastation caused by hurricane Gustav, marvels at the resilience of the human spirit and the taste of gumbo. There he meets Leah Chase and she shows him how to make a quick and proper gumbo. While adding into the cooking pot some okra, Chase talks about the history behind the gumbo and how people brought into the South for slave labour hid okra seeds in their ears. She also asks Jamie whether Britons eat okra to which he replied yes, because the South Asian communities eat a lot of them and they’re easily available in “ethnic” areas in many cities around the country.

Again, Jamie annoys a guest on the programme by lumping together diverse ethnic communities and culinary traditions into a pot labeled non-White European and Other, and therefore more-or-less the same. He apologises for his general buffoonery and says that he didn’t mean to sound racist; he’s just unaware that his comments were hurtful.

And there’s another example that encapsulates Jamie’s Eurocentric worldview: inspired by the vibrant immigrant community in New York City, he sets out to select guests who represent it for his very own underground restaurant/dinner party, but they all turn out to be mostly White. They are also young, middle-class, and bourgeois just like him. To summarise my thoughts on his show, I find it successful at presenting the diverse and complex relationships Americans have with food, from anti-restaurant movements to free food programmes for the poor. But unfortunately, his show is limited to just that: it only presents but fails to be sensitive and insightful about what it is showing. It appears that Jamie Oliver’s world isn’t really as colourful and diverse in the truest sense as his approach to cooking, which is a pity for someone whom many believe has his heart in the right place.

Why I am against mainstream pornography

There was a time as a sex-positive feminist I believed that women should be able to enjoy porn if it floats their boat, and that all other avenues for female sexual desire should be open as long as elements so fundamental to the world of feminism and sex – choice and consent – are present. But all that changed after watching Tim Samuels’ BBC documentary Hardcore Profits. As a person who doesn’t watch a lot of porn I don’t think about it a lot, but it doesn’t take much to scratch the surface of the porn industry to find that it does more damage than fulfillment.

Samuels’ documentary reveals mainstream pornography as a hugely lucrative business operating behind the respectable and wholesome image of mobile network companies and international hotel chains. But it is the globalisation of pornography, via black market DVDs and the internet, that has the shocking and deeply devastating effect on the developing world. In several parts of Africa, easily accessible hardcore porn turns men into rapists. In his film, Samuels visits a remote Ghanian village where boys view American-made hardcore flicks in mud hut cinemas:

The village has no electricity, but that doesn’t stop a generator from being wheeled in, turning a mud hut into an impromptu porn cinema – and turning some young men into rapists, with villagers relating chilling stories of assaults taking place straight after the film’s end. In the nearest city, other young men are buying bootlegs copies of the almost always condom-free LA-made porn – copying directly what they see and contracting HIV. The head of the country’s Aids commission says porn risks destroying all the achievements they’ve made. It’s a timebomb, he says.

Now, I’m not one for simplistic cause-and-effect in arguing that porn creates rapists in men the same way violent films and video games inspire murderous intent, but I will argue that without education and a culture that respects women and girls in a place where male dominance is the law of the land, pornography can indeed have a disastrous effect on the social fabric. South Africa, where pornography is legal and explicit material is available at news stands and on the street, has one of the highest rates of sexual violence against women in the world – a fact made worse by AIDS. But it is a society that views male sexual aggression and female passivity as erotic that accentuates the truth behind the statistics.

Sexual violence is commonly connected with sexual exploitation. And no matter what porn stars tell you; that they enjoy their work, have the freedom of choice and consent, the pressure to perform a wide variety of sexual acts (which gets more and more extreme by the day) and go condom-free is great.

I am now anti-mainstream pornography, and do not support the appropriation of feminist language that seeks to validate an “anything goes as long as it’s good for me” rhetoric in the politics of female sexual pleasure. I am, however, still a sex-positive feminist, and believe that sexual pleasure that is respectful and non-exploitative is important to the feminist experience.

Ramadhan book club: Our Stories, Our Lives

Originally published at Muslimah Media Watch, with thanks to The Policy Press.

Our Stories, Our Lives is an anthology of a diverse group of women in Bradford, England, offering a glimpse into their lives and their issues with reconciling their Muslim identities with being British. With the media’s daily onslaught on the image of Muslims and assumptions about so-called conflicting alliances (Islam and the West), a “proud British Muslim” would sound like an oxymoron to many. But it isn’t, and talking to many Muslims in Britain will tell you just that.

The book–edited by Wahida Shaffi–is based on an oral history project called OurLives (also coordinated by Shaffi) and presents stories of 20 women between the ages 14 to 80, and their thoughts on being female and Muslim in Britain. Perhaps what makes it more interesting is that all stories are told against a geographical backdrop that has been historically colored by immigration and racial tensions. As the epicenter of the Rushdie affair in the 1980s, Bradford became a shorthand for the fragile relationship the country has with its Muslim population that will last for decades.

Though as inspiring as most positive portrayals of Muslim women in the media, this is not the Muslim Women Power List that has been making its publicity rounds the last few months. Rather, these are women a lot like your mother, grandmother, daughter, and friends. Their stories are so deeply personal that you sometimes think you’re reading a private journal dripping with confessions and secrets. Far removed from the overarching debates about the hijab and burqa that seek to define Muslim womanhood are real women who struggle with their faith while balancing their careers and private life.

The most touching story in the book is Syima Merali’s dilemma of choosing between having to serve alcohol in her restaurant or suffer financially. Wearing the hijab and selling alcohol became a testing time for Merali, made more difficult by castigation that her earnings are haram. The compromise she makes  echoes the many difficult compromises practicing Muslims make in a secular, predominantly non-Muslim country.

Another piece I found inspiring is Elana Davis’ “Music ‘n’ Motherhood”, in which she talks candidly about raising three sons the Islamic way single-handedly and teaching street dancing in college. As a young convert who wears her Islamic identity proudly, Davis’ represents a face of Islam in Britain that now exists on the margins of history: Black Muslims have been in Britain since the 16th century and black conversion to Islam has been a growing phenomenon in the last two decades. Also a hijabi, does Davis find her street dancing and love for hip hop in contradiction with her religious identity? No, she says.

“Someone told me actually that I shouldn’t wear my scarf because I teach dance. I think if you listen to what everybody’s got to say, you will get confused, as at the end of the day, I became a Muslim for myself. I’ll learn myself, and if I do something wrong, that is something that I’m going to have to deal with, with God – nobody else”

There are several stories of unflinching patriotism from women who came to Britain to find a land of opportunity and freedom to dress and express their religious and cultural identities however they please. Some found their British identity a refuge from the personal limitations placed by tradition and ancestral culture. While most British Muslims are expected to be two-dimensional characters defined by ethnicity and religion, women like Sensei Mumtaz Khan, whose job as a ju-jujitsu teacher appears to trump her Islamic and Afghan identities. For Khan, ju-jitsu forms a core component of her life as she remains, contentiously, a cultural Muslim.

Our Stories, Our Lives allows the voices of Muslim women to be heard rather than be silenced and spoken for (often through the mouthpiece of the media and community leaders, who are always men). But the ever-expanding body of research and books on British Muslims shows that much more is needed to feed the political and public interest in an extremely visible but misunderstood religious minority. It also indicates that there is little informal communication bridging different ethnic and religious groups here, and no end to the mystification of Muslim women in sight.

Hegemonic masculinities can mess up your kids

Apologies for falling off the face of the blogosphere. I’ve been buried underneath research papers over the past week – reading and reviewing articles on masculinity and its influence on gender disparity in education – part of my slave work until the end of this month, thankfully. From reading so many of them I’ve been struck at how hegemonic masculinities often ruin the schooling experience for both girls and boys.

Primary education is often seen as an extension of the home where female teachers are viewed as nannies rather than role models. It also pays poorly, and is undervalued as simply ‘women’s work’, no different from childcare, cooking, cleaning, etc. – all factors that drive men away from teaching younger kids. There’s another side of primary education that’s a product of its reputation as a woman’s work and that is the reinforcement of hegemonic masculinities amongst certain male teachers. This means male teachers tend to toughen-up their image, make excuses for “boys will be boys” behaviour, and adopt profoundly sexist attitudes towards female teachers and pupils. The very few male teachers who refuse to submit to hegemonic masculinities by applying feminine attributes such as care, nurture, and patience into their teaching and interactions with school children often face the challenge of being labeled a sissy, gay, and accusations of paedophilic inclinations.

Apparently the huge concern over the lack of men in the classroom lies in the belief that boys desperately need male authority figures or the cool older brother they never had to make school life enjoyable and successful. In other words, boys need male role models. But mind you, officially, male role models do not come in all shapes and sizes and sexualities. They need to be “real men” who can wield authority and power better than female or gay teachers.

There is a difference between masculinity and the damaging effects of hegemonic masculinities here. Unlike masculinity as gender performance, the hegemonic construct is the more dominant, hyper-normative version that many men seek to attain. But as long as dominant masculinity remains heterosexual, racist, sexist, elitist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist in the highest order, very few men can attain its prestige.

This brings me back to issues parents have with adult-child interactions outside the home. These issues become perverted into fear when every male stranger with a camera, or who offers to take their children to school, or happens to be a person of colour are viewed as untrustworthy, dangerous, sick criminals. Essentially, a knee-jerk reaction. Men training to become teachers avoid the anxieties of being boxed into every parent’s rogues’ gallery by steering clear of teaching primary education altogether.

How did we arrive in a society that views men around children with distrust? Could it be the same hegemonic masculinities valorised in Dolce and Gabbana ads and GQ magazine the same ones capable of perverting our thoughts full of child abusers lurking at every corner? The same powerful image of a man as the head of the family, who gets his way because he’s a “real man”, and valued for being strong but devoid of interpersonal skills, is the same mythical male role model young boys are made to look up to. It’s not surprising that toys aimed at boys tend to reflect the rougher, tougher, and predominantly male trade such as the army, construction work, and race car driving.

It is the same less-than-benevolent hegemonic masculinities that overpower the weak that many parents expect to defend, inspire, and educate their children. Until there’s an acceptance for diverse masculinities in the classroom, the playground, and in the home, hegemonic masculinities will die as they cease to be dominant. Maybe then we can finally address our fears about those ‘really bad men’ on the street.

Open thread: Sex education. Why are we so afraid?

When I was growing up, sex was everywhere in the household, except that the word ‘sex’ was never mentioned. Books about violent crimes against women were littered around the house and I read every one of them, thinking to some degree that I was reading – and learning – about sex. Living with a single mother who loved salacious stories about illicit affairs and rape but who at the same time warned my sister and myself against getting pregnant without telling us how meant that the voyage to sexual discovery was a lonely one.

Sadly, many other Malaysians are made to go ignorant about their bodies far into adulthood. Today’s article at the Nut Graph (generously excerpted below) reveals the sexual ignorance in Malaysia of both endemic and appalling proportions (a survey found that there are young adults who think that a woman can get pregnant just from sleeping in the same bed with a man) and asks why there is so much foot-dragging in implementing sex education in school.

Before we go to the excerpted article, I wish to ask you, dear readers, where did you get your sex education from? And whether it’s true that knowledge fuels curiosity even more?

Let’s talk about sex … and how ignorant our youth are about it.

Anyone remember the Malaysian science syllabus in secondary school? The chapter with diagrams of male and female genitalia, and little explanation about what to do with them? Perhaps you had a teacher who, with a deadpan face, stuck strictly to the scientific facts about the diagrams and said nothing else about hormones or feelings or sexual intercourse.

Perhaps no one, neither your parents nor teachers told you what sex is for, why people do it, how it is done, when you should have sex, who you should have it with, and the emotional and medical consequences.

Little wonder then that reports about incest and abandoned babies in school toilets or garbage dumpsites have been regular features in our newspapers. Heart-breaking too, are stories of young women who face arrest and prison simply because they “didn’t know what to do” with their dead newborn.

The Nut Graph is both intrigued and appalled by a 30 Aug 2009 New Straits Times report that cited surveys to demonstrate just how uneducated our youths are about sex.

In one survey, conducted by the National Population and Family Development Board, some of the things youths were clueless about were where a foetus develops, and what the male and female reproductive organs are.

In another survey, conducted by Universiti Malaya, there were youths who thought that a woman could get pregnant just by sharing a bed with a man.

At the same time, youths are found to be more sexually active than ever. So, if many youths are exploring something they have little knowledge about, not to mention the maturity to handle, we shouldn’t blame them if they don’t behave responsibly.

Malaysia is still ambivalent on having formal sex education in schools. Till today, there is no formal syllabus. Instead, it is incorporated into subjects like Moral Studies, Islamic Studies, and Biology, says the Education Ministry.

Past government attempts to introduce sex education in schools have seen much tip-toeing around the topic. The government chose to weave sex education into other subjects or tried to deal with it solely in the context of HIV/AIDS. Such measures are of course inadequate.

In the 1990s, there was even debate as to whether the term “sex education” should be used for fear of misunderstanding. The official term accepted then was “family health education”, underlying the patriarchal value that having sex is only for pro-creation and not for pleasure.

But sex education could be so much more than about reproducing to start a family or to stem a disease like HIV/AIDS. Teaching youngsters about sex should involve teaching them about self-respect, responsibility, choice and consequences. A girl must know she has the right to say “no” and a boy must know that girls are not sex objects. Comprehensive sex education could go beyond the scientific and medical facts to address other dimensions like gender equality and sexual diversity, morality, culture and human rights.

Because, beyond the headlines about baby-dumping are larger stakes if sex education is ignored. Our society is already grappling with rising crime, including domestic violence and sexual crimes. There is also rising healthcare costs to consider. Sexually transmitted diseases happen because people don’t know how to take precautions to protect themselves, resulting in additional burdens to the public health care system and a loss in working hours. There is also gender and sexual discrimination which can be addressed through sex education.

It’s hard to fathom just what the authorities are afraid of in the words “sex education” and in teaching the subject itself. Greater knowledge about sexuality does not automatically lead to higher incidences of teenage sex. Ignoring sex education does not mean youths will not have sex, either. The common parental wisdom when dealing with teens, that they’ll do anyway what you tell them not to, is worth remembering. That being the case, isn’t it better for youths to be equipped with knowledge?

Read the rest here.

Book cover of the day: The Haunted Vagina by Carlton Mellick III

Apparently, this is the author’s best work:

“It’s difficult to love a woman whose vagina is a gateway to the world of the dead . . .”

Book description:

Steve falls madly in love with Stacy, but it isn’t until they move in together that he hears voices coming from Stacy’s southern junction. When a skeletal creature makes it’s way through Stacy into their world, Stacy convinces Steve he must go exploring to find out where this mysterious passage leads. After his fist foray, Steve almost doesn’t make it back from the alternate world, but the next time Stacy sets him up for a full spelunking.

More info on The Haunted Vagina (2006) by Carlton Mellick III, writer of the lost classic Razor Wire Pubic Hair, here and here. There seems to be an underlying theme here…

Seksualiti Merdeka: Coming to terms with the love that dares not speak its name

This was originally published over at Muslimah Media Watch last Monday, on the 31st of August – Malaysia’s national day, popularly known as ‘Merdeka Day’.

Who would have thought that sexuality rights were being celebrated in the historical and cultural heart of the Malaysian capital two weeks ago? Malaysia, like anywhere else (Muslim-majority or not) has long suffered from homophobia and transphobia in the most public of places: unsubstantiated accusations of homosexual behaviour landed one of the most influential politicians in recent times in jail and long-term disgrace. The media, meanwhile, which often sees itself as a moral guardian secondary to religious authorities, takes advantage of Malaysia’s conservatism to paint sexual minorities in the worst possible light. The recent (and very dubious) news report of a “wild” lesbian party attended by Malaysian Muslim women is one such example that smacks of self-righteousness and shameless prurience.

And so I was pleasantly surprised that Seksualiti Merdeka (which roughly translates as Independence of Sexuality) took place without noisy protests or arrests by the moral police. The annual event, launched in 2008, features a program of lectures, workshops, plays, and film screenings demonstrated a kind of unprecedented maturity to broaching issues of sexual identity, sex work, human rights, and moral policing. Malaysia is a country of contradictions, and these contradictions were also present in Seksualiti Merdeka. The event was officiated by Marina Mahathir a human rights activist and AIDS awareness campaigner–and the daughter of the former Malaysian premier, Mahathir Mohamed, who once barred visiting ministers and diplomats who were gay from entering the country and who deposed Anwar Ibrahim for allegedly committing sodomy.

Being surrounded by images that would often be regarded as offensive material and people who were interested in sexuality rights (or those brave enough to attend to satisfy their curiosity of how the sexual Other look like in non-stereotypical circumstances, i.e. not in gay bars and massage parlors) was new to me. Sitting at a film screening of Bukak Api (Open Fire, 2000), starring Malay-Muslim transfemale sex workers, in all its uncensored glory, was new to me. Bukak Api brought home the message that even in the most conservative societies, you can’t talk about AIDS, pregnancy, and violence against women without talking about sex. This is illustrated in a scene where one sex worker laments about being aware about AIDS only through snappy campaign slogans (”Love your family, stay away from HIV”) and nothing in terms of modes of infection and prevention, resulting in her unknowingly contracting the virus – sadly true to life.

Witnessing this sea change, I wondered whether the time has finally come for Malaysians to recognize sexual diversity as a non-threatening, normal, and ultimately, acceptable, fact of life. But then I began to notice with every event I attended that Seksualiti Merdeka attracted a crowd of the distinctively urban, foreign/highly-educated, English-speaking, relatively well-to-do, and liberal type. Perhaps not every Malaysian is ready yet. Perhaps not the young, working-class Malay-Muslim couples who get arrested for close proximity in cheap hotels or in their cars because they cannot afford to hire rooms in five-star hotels or go to places abroad where they are beyond the reach of snooping moral guardians.

Seksualiti Merdeka implicitly demonstrated the class divide that divides people’s opinions about sexuality: if you’re young, urban, well-educated, fluent in English and media-savvy you are likely to support open discourse on sexuality rights in Malaysia, and if you’re not all that then it’s likely you’ll find talking about such issues publicly inappropriate.

But leaving Malaysia a few days later, I realized that I was leaving a country with a potential to return power back to the people who, for decades, live under the paternalistic thumb of its leaders. It was great to see the freedom and effort in raising sex and sexuality as issues that concern everybody, hence the popular and highly-accessible venue Central Market. It was better that the event hasn’t yet reached a more representative audience than not exist at all. But real engagement about morality and rights to privacy needs to happen between those whose opinions are at odds with each other, and not between those who openly show their liberal colors.