This is somewhat late, but in a mercifully brief moment of vanity, I’d like to post a summary of Dove Grey Matter’s blog health in the past year, based on hits, number of comments, and overall awesomeness. This is what WordPress found out:
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. But you might well be able to sell a book based on its cover. The world of Malay book jackets of the past (circa 1960’s to mid 1970’s) was a different place then, where nude women as decorative elements were apparently no big deal. Nowadays, more chaste illustrations of women in the tudung (headscarves) are de rigeur and few publishers would venture anywhere above the (arbitrary) knee-length axis of morality. Somehow I don’t think the reasons for the change were motivated by aesthetics or feminist consciousness.
The following books were discovered in my library and it is my (dis)pleasure to share with you some recurring themes, both illustrated and suggested in the titles. Because they’re potentially Not Safe For Work, I’ve posted them after the jump:
Or rather, there are too few female critics to dislike. By ‘no one’ I mean the people who find strongly opinionated women intimidating, those who fall to their feet in worship at the altar of an equally opinionated male critic – the same idolised figure with whom a few would love to share a teh tarik, beer or other beverages of choice. The world of critique is often a boy’s club, and the critic is often male. But what kind of critic am I referring to? you will ask.
By critic I mean someone who doesn’t simply criticise something, but a person who speaks and writes critically with value judgment on issues related to popular public discourses – namely the arts, culture, and politics. The popular, often male critic is someone whose opinions are like gold dust, however little or much they say their words are of great, *uncontested* value. Critics are found in many places – television, magazines, newspapers, and blogs – but the extent of which they are disliked can be easily measured in online forums where there is interaction with the reading and equally critical public.
Women’s critical pieces on discrimination and gender-based violence are quickly shot down in flames by an angry online mob or by a single, disgruntled and often persistent ‘fan’. Female commenters are often either put off or subdued into frustrated silence by trolling behaviour. The trolls, while not always gender-specific, are recognisably masculine in attributes – macho, patronising, and zealously intent on dominating conversations in their favour, however misguided, offensive, confused, and ill-informed they are. To say that men’s critical pieces are never rubbished in this way is not true either, but the scarcity of influential women’s critical writing and reviews coupled with the disproportionate sexism and belittling of the female writer makes a case worth interrogating.
But beyond the ostensibly boundless and illusory equal playing field of the internet, the greatness of literature and film are dictated by male arbiters who would often dismiss the many films and books either made by women or are targeted at women. Of course a few ‘women’s’ films and books remain worthy of mention and tokenistic significance, but even fewer can topple the towering edifice of great *Master*pieces.
We have a big problem in our hands when the most influential (and perhaps only) intellectual and cultural movers and shakers of the country are male (and insert other privileges here). It means that a male style of discourse – dominating, macho, and dismissive of femininity – will always be the order of the day if one wants to be heard, be respected, and attain authority.
In the spirit of the hugely popular Privilege-denying Dude meme that’s been circulating the feminist blogosphere, my fellow feminist compadres Tariq and Munira, have started the long overdue Privilege-denying Malay guy. Of course there is no denying that Malay privilege is enshrined in Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution and has long since become the chest-beating mantra of many Malay Malaysians, but other privileges ensconced by being born male, middle-class, able-bodied and straight remain sorely overlooked and the source of much annoyance to many.
Sometimes a humorous and subversive reaction to annoyance is more productive than a frothy-mouthed post on the failures of Malaysian politics, Islam in Malaysian, and Malay men in general. A few pithy words can capture the multifarious nature of the privilege-driven ecstasy that is the Malay guy:
My first piece on the Malaysian legal blog, Loyar Burok:
Underage marriages are not simply perversions of marital norms but an index of our unequal society.
The news concerning the marriage of a 14-year old girl and 23-year old man reveals a thing or two about what can be expected of young women and of our society as a whole. While it is chilling enough to witness the unflinching approval from the state honcho of Islamic affairs regarding this matter, it also raises the question about the power of parental consent that made the union happen.
The notoriously unchallengeable maxim that “parents know best” seems eerily at work here, in that the teenage girl’s marriage becomes apparently acceptable because her parents have expressed their consent. But is that tantamount to the girl expressing consent as well? The young bride appears to exert little to no voice or agency because being a child, she is deemed to know no better both legally and in lore. But then, she would be expected to shoulder wifely duties pertaining to marriage, children, and the household that even most fully-grown women struggle with, all while still on the cusp of adolescence.
If anyone is wondering why there is such an outrage over what seems on the surface a marriage between two willing individuals who smile for the press, then they have little concern over the future of the child bride, and of future child brides who will take the cue from this precedent that has come with an official stamp of approval. If there was a more depressing portrait of unequal power relations in a marriage, it would be between a girl and an adult man. She would be beholden to a man who will have more leverage in deciding if she finishes school, enters university, and gains work experience.
If there was an unmistakable example of property in human form being exchanged between two parties who have power, it would be between the parents of the girl and her “lawful” husband. From this transaction, not only will the man have purchased her chastity, but also the opportunity to police her transformation from girl to woman, her budding sexual awareness, and quite probably, her reproductive choices as well – all done under the guise of her pseudo-protection from other men and ironically, “illicit” sexual relations.
If this piece sounds disrespectful towards a couple who may really be in love and to what may potentially be a happy marriage free from the abuse of male power and privilege, then I will contend it is. However, we must remember that the men representing the voice of State morality and the whole shebang who see nothing wrong in this are actually hard at work to ensure we perform our circumscribed gender roles. Their approval are in tacit complicity with the inter-connected oppressions that can affect all women and girls. It sends out a message that not every girl’s potential and future of self-determination should be valued.
That child marriages happen at all in Malaysia with the express permission of the State and family remain one of the many, if more extreme symptoms of an unequal society. They are not social anomalies. In a society that privileges the heterosexual man in every respect and routinely corners women into limited career prospects and the imagined threat of spinsterhood, it comes to little surprise that for women, marriage is an attractive escape route out of desperation. This is where parents sometimes step in: to “protect” the child from the perils of single womanhood, parents would resort marrying her off. In the end, the ever-narrowing space for agency that is left to the teenage bride is used to make the best out of her situation.
It is little wonder why the popular saying, “silence denotes consent” that serves less as an illusion of feminine modesty than the blotting out of female agency has such enduring power in our culture. Silence is a powerful tool to keep both women and children (girls, in particular) in their place. While not every woman and child are subject to silence by authority, the threat of being reduced as property and voiceless objects is only rarely very far.
Most annual retrospectives look at “big” stories that grabbed the year’s headlines: war, natural and environmental disasters, celebrity “news”, famous deaths, the busting of confidential US diplomatic cables, to name a few. Few however would chart both the shock and banality of sexual violence committed by men against women and girls in the year gone past. Shocking, because most stories of rape are sensationalised, dehumanising, and strike a collective moral chord about the human capacity for evil. In the shadow of the Julian Assange allegations, rape becomes banal or rather banal-ised by the media when cases involving nobody particularly famous are accorded a few lines of mention, a postage stamp-sized acknowledgment, buried underneath other more “worthy” news and quickly locked up with key thrown away in the annals of a sick society. Indeed, crimes against women’s bodies, particularly of a sexual nature, happen year in and year out with routine-like mechanicality. But there is a rise in trends, showing rapid increase since 2005 (925 cases): over 2,400 cases of sexual violence against women were reported in the first 8 months of 2010, out of which only 119 have resulted in conviction. That’s something worthy of mention for the year 2010, I reckon.
So let us recall the year’s reports on rape in Malaysia as a sobering reminder of what is a fundamental symptom of a patriarchal and misogynistic society, shall we?:
A man rapes his teenage neighbour in Terengganu after “being overcome by lust over her beauty.”The rapist is reported to have been arrested for investigation. [Berita Harian Online, 18 January 2010]
“Good looking” serial rapist pleads not guilty in Melaka. [Utusan Malaysia Online, 2 February 2010]
March has a bumper crop of gang-rape reports
In Ipoh, a 15-year old girl was raped by 15 men. Only two suspects have been detained by the police. [The Star Online, 3 March 2010]
A college student in Petaling Jaya was raped by “foreign friends“. No suspects were reported to have arrested [The Star Online, 11 March 2010]
Meanwhile, in Sandakan, a 19-year old girl was raped by 4 men and managed only to escape after a fifth man tried to attack her. The police have been reported to launch a hunt for the suspected rapists. [The Star Online, 16 March 2010]
A nod to the appalling handling of the sexual assaults committed against Penan women and girls. Sarawak government officials continue to deny, dismiss, and make light of the abuses, claiming that the alleged victims were “very good storytellers“. [Ekklesia, 20 July 2010]
And finally, a man pleads guilty but pulled the classic victim-blaming get-out clause by claiming that the 15-year old girl he raped was “wild” and not even a virgin. [The Star Online, 17 December 2010]
While I can understand that listing down these news reports by month may seem like I’m highlighting way too much on the murkier aspects of our society (read: straight men and their male privilege, and an immature attitude towards sex and sexuality) and fuelling yet more fears which are perhaps unnecessary when there is enough awareness particularly where date rape (and subsequent victim-blaming. WCC Penang offers a handy list of myth vs reality of rape to counter all that victim-blaming and shaming nonsense) is concerned, demonstrating a calendar of sexual violence in Malaysia allows us to put the state of gender relations in perspective and throws the enduring question “why?” into sharp relief. Many more incidents I believe go unreported in a victim-shaming culture such as ours, which is why a compendium exhibiting the extent of rape in our country is important not only as stark reminder, but also as a simplified social barometer. What will this year’s calendar of events offer us?