Judge a book by its cover?: Women and sex on retro Malay book covers

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:

Naked/semi-undressed women simply for decorative/titillating purposes


Temasha Tinta (Back cover)

Sensationalist/sexually-suggestive titles, Malay-style


Woman as femme fatale


Woman as submissive/passive/defeated object

Of course these are simply selected book covers and not representative of how women are illustrated. I just wanted to show how suggestive Malay book jackets were during a time when local literature and publishing in the 1960’s were experiencing a significant turning point in Malaysia’s cultural history. Perhaps it implicitly illustrated a socially relaxed time – albeit one in which controversial subjects were dominated by male writers – when sex and sexuality were discussed openly and read by the masses.

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.


  1. Somehow, it’s not the nudity that offends me, but one of them – the one kneeling and begging for forgiveness (I’m guessing) – that somehow ticked me off.

  2. Hi! Love your article, btw.
    My standpoint? If we had malay books with those kinda covers, I wouldn’t be reading 50 shades of Grey


    1. haha! I wouldn’t be too sure. Most of the books I think have a very male-centric take on sex and sexuality. Whereas I believe 50 Shades of Grey appeals to women because it is from a woman’s erotic point of view.

  3. Interesting to see. I was not part of Malaysia at the time. I love also the fitting Kebayas and sarongs, much nicer than the current attire. So you can see the cultural changes thru the book covers…
    thanks for sharing.

    1. Women still wear fitting kebaya and sarong these days. Although I would hasted to add that wearing them on a normal day to the shops will attract the wrong kind of attention. In other words, tight kebayas and sarong somehow have always exuded a very seductive kind of female sexuality and attire. Of course it’s perfectly acceptable to wear tight-fitting kebaya even when you wear the tudung at a wedding or high profile dinner/event and no one blink. But that’s another story altogether.

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