The joys and sorrows of writing

Truman Capote: The archtypal writer look

I often feel the compulsive need to write (though much of the product of that compulsion remain unpublished) to channel anger, frustrations, anxieties, but very rarely I write about joy or when I am overjoyed. Joy is to be enjoyed in the moment. I take pictures instead. Writing is a therapeutic process, and the miracle of creation is when one’s thoughts take form on a blank page. But it is a miracle not without its pains. The following are some useful quotes by some great wordsmiths about the joys (and often sorrows) of writing:

The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamouring to become visible.
(Vladimir Nabakov)

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.
(Truman Capote)

The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air.  All I must do is find it, and copy it.
(Jules Renard, “Diary,” February 1895)

If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
(Toni Morrison)

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood.  I’d type a little faster.  (Isaac Asimov)

Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.
(Franz Kafka)

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
(George Orwell, “Why I Write,” 1947)

Writing is a struggle against silence.
(Carlos Fuentes)

True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.
(Alexander Pope)

What is the writing process like for you?

Feminism in Malaysia is dead, long live feminism

So much to say, but so little space to do so. Credit | themaroonstar

It takes not knowing enough (or choosing to ignore) about the ways of the world to make a foolish optimist. This is the lesson I learned about sisterhood, in which the ways of the world happens to be ‘just how people are’ in Malaysia – too busy for activism, frustrated, idealist non-doers, too scared to make a stand for one’s beliefs, apathetic. But is saying ‘feminism in Malaysia is dead’ a fair assessment of the movement today?

It may be. When the feminist movement first got its rightful attention, the spotlight shone on upper-middle class women in Britain and Egypt who had plenty of time to realise that they were being short-changed by society for far too long. They had the time to think, write, and organise. The latter part – organise – was and still is the bedrock of social justice movements. However, organising as a team much less a movement is not exactly a strong trait amongst Malaysian feminists I know who have invaluable things to say and share, whose experiences can be beacon of inspiration to others.

Time is a privilege, and admittedly, I perhaps have more time than others do. Or do I really? I’m constantly job-hunting, applying for jobs, reading insane amount of books, writing up my upgrade chapter, writing a paper for publication, and preparing for a conference paper, all while living a modest, incredibly frugal life with little time (and money) for shopping, meeting with friends, and to be a normal laidback persyn. But it’s a fulfilling life and one that I’ve chosen to commandeer. My more active form of feminism fits in momentary gaps between work when I write. Its latent form runs continuously through my thoughts and speech. I don’t have much time, so I *make* time for feminism.

Writing on feminism as a Malaysian is a lonely, sometimes pointless process. Nonetheless, some form of documentation on feminist activity and thoughts need to exist in Malaysia and therefore needs more than a single writer to make it happen. Written work on our ideals, principles, hopes and fears become proof that we exist. A webzine that functions as a reservoir for current Malaysian feminist politics will place us in a network of other media-savvy social justice activists who write and argue remarkably well on issues that matter to Malaysian feminists. In other words, we are not one issue navel-gazers but belong to a constellation of inter-connected, always buzzing social justice movement in Malaysia.

A webzine was proposed by a friend who called upon other opinionated feminists to become founding members. Names for the webzine were suggested, voted for, and then … a long silence. Ten e-mails darting out from my furious fingertips to re-ignite interest made no difference whatsoever nor did taking upon myself to create the founding blocks of our webzine was enough to get a hint of excitement. Everyone else is too busy to care. But perhaps it was my over-enthusiasm and my single-minded determinism to “take over” the project that ruined the collective mood and motivation. Only the Al-Mighty knows.

In a country where we’re used to being spoonfed, lulled into being followers and not take risks, taking charge is not our best suit and thought to be best left to attention-seekers. Hierarchy is apparently the enemy of equal relationships, but without a working structure consisting of constitutive members who are delegated roles (some more important and responsibility-heavy than others) to materialise a dream project, nothing will happen.

The Malaysian feminist movement, as it were, is also burdened by the problem of inter-generational differences that don’t always see eye to eye. While younger feminists are not heard in activist circles on the ground, they have the advantage of using new media to gain attention and mobilise. The liberal activist scene in Malaysia has relegated ‘gender’ to the backburner of social injustices as race takes centre stage. Feminist activist-writers are poised to rectify this, only if we care enough to make the effort to organise, organise, organise.

Dahulukala – Sebuah manifesta berangkap

Dahulu kala
saya pernah percaya
tudung itu bukan sahaja
harus bagi wanita solehah
tapi juga bagi awek lelaki
soleh dan yang memejam sebelah mata.

Dahulu kala
saya pernah dituduh
kurang ajar dan lemah pedoman
jika mencabar kepimpinan lelaki
yang tidak berbeza rupa dan sifat
kepimpinan seorang perempuan.

Dahulu kala
saya pernah percaya
kewanitaan itu lumrah
yang disempurnakan jodoh
dan cahaya mata.
Cita-cita dan kerjaya hanyalah
lamunan anak mentah.

Dahulu kala
saya pernah dituduh
penyibuk dan lantang
jika bersuara tentang
penindasan harian kecil dan besar.
Jangan persoalkan kuasa,
salah maupun yang benar.

“Itulah ragam manusia”
“Jangan kerana mulut badan binasa”

Dahulu kala
Saya pernah percaya
manusia banyak kelemahan.
Yang perempuan berakal satu.
Lemah lelaki lemah lagi perempuan
yang dihambai
gergasi ghaib bernama patriarki.

Tetapi kini
saya bangkit dari lamunan dan kritikan.
Seribu satu keraguan ditepis.
Dari kelemahan timbul satu kekuatan
yang menumbang seribu satu ego.

Saya percaya
feminisme bukan nilaian KPI
dimana segalanya mesti dicapai:
Badan ramping, suami yang kacak.
Anak yang comel, cerdas, dan bijak.

Saya masih percaya
kepada harapan dan daya
kaum hawa dan adam
dalam perjuangan bersama.

Jiwa dan raga yang ingin menyala –
Itu dahulu kala.
Semangat yang berbuak-buak –
Sekaranglah waktunya!

Hello to new readers and long-time followers!

One of the smaller joys of blogging is knowing that you have regular readers who are interested in what you have to say on often rather disparate topics. The disparate part is really interesting to me, because every newly-minted post can be a wildcard (hence a turn-off for some who like predictability; but that’s so not you, dear reader). And so it takes real interest in the blogger and how she writes that brings readers back for more. Am I patting myself on the back more than I should already? Maybe. But yeah, this is a warm Hello to my new and regular readers and here’s to another exciting and hopefully more prolific year! Cheers!

A feminist’s take on love

First published at Loyar Burok as part of #LoyarBerkasih’s Valentine edition.

When one cares enough to wonder about the moment a woman becomes a feminist, their overheated imagination conjures a woman done wrong by a male lover or wronged by simply being overweight and unattractive by society’s arbitrary standards, or imagined as a homosexual misandrist who wants to tilt the world’s balance in favour of womankind. Though powerful enough to endure the test of time, these stereotypes are thankfully few. But what about the many other feminists who love romance, Mills and Boons, chocolates, roses, and dare I say it – men?

Many will be surprised that flesh and blood feminist individuals are some of the happiest people you know who, rather than wanting to stamp out the hearts and flowers of Valentine’s Day, want to celebrate love and their loved ones albeit in all its kitsch, consumerist glory. There is of course nothing intrinsically wrong with accepting flowers and taken out for dinner on a day hazier than usual with romance. I join the misunderstood category of feminists who enjoy romantic dinners by candlelight with cheesy Whitney Houston piped in the background, not caring perhaps for one day much of the superficiality of Valentine’s Day.

Feminist fall in (and out of) love, but many are also realists. As Audre Lorde once prescribed: “Each time you love, love as deeply as if it were forever / Only, nothing is eternal.” But taking the step to actualising and maintaining acts of love is notoriously difficult for anyone of any political and ethical inclinations. A few times I had withheld the possibility of starting relationships simply because I was neither prepared nor religious enough to wear the tudung for a potential male partner, despite the fact that the demographic of guys I found attractive were not exactly the portrait of saintly masculinity. It became clear that coming across as demure, restraint, and exceedingly modest was most comely for an available young Malay woman, but to neither any of these traits did I bother aspire and for others, that was my tragedy.

This recurring episode of self-restraint from a chance at love was set in a small college in rural Perak years ago and is perhaps only representative in backwater towns of the recent past. And so experiences such as mine cannot possibly extrapolate in broader, more generic terms the demands a man can make on how a woman should look, or can it? Do many “open-minded”, successful, outspoken, feminist Malay women have more difficulty finding a Malay guy who will accept her for what she is lest she challenges his “manhood”? There is undeniably a pattern out there that concurs with this knotty issue.

But the feminist continues to find love even when their love may prove to be unrequited as we are apparently unlovable angry people. Why are feminists are so angry, not to mention oversensitive and argumentative? For the same reasons why people love. They say that the closer someone or something is to you, the more sensitive and hurtful you become when something goes wrong. Feminist individuals are no different in this matter, and often take social injustice to heart with fire and passion. Who likes a cold, dispassionate lover anyway?

When ‘feminist’ and ‘gender’ become embarrassing dirty words in academia

Frustration | Credit:

I am a research student in gender studies in one of the constitutive colleges of the University of London and feel extremely privileged to be part of such a thriving intellectual community. But one brief episode of anti-intellectual feminism in the main building’s lift was enough for me to rethink the breadth of my social bubble.

Last week, I shuffled into a lift with two other students (one woman and one man) and as the doors closed in on us there began a conversation that surged the lava within me. The female student started talking about an essay on politics and social media she was writing. Inspired by the slogan ‘the international is personal’, she marvelled at how clever it sounded but was stumped that such an amazing framework of thought so neatly fitted into a single, powerful phrase is derived from the work of (* in a self-conscious, embarrassed whisper *) feminists.

In a mocking, incredulous tone, she mentions that there were issues raised in her gender classes that chimed with the subject of her essay and it seems, unbelievably, chimed with her as well. By then, I had nearly dropped everything I had at hand and wanted to evacuate the lift screaming (in my head, of course. I was, after all, surrounded by an intellectual community. What would others think?).

The school’s library is stocked aisle upon aisle with books on feminism and gender. Much of contemporary academic work in the social sciences, art, philosophy, law, and to a certain extent, even the hard sciences owe a great deal to feminism and its intellectual product, feminist theory. To remain up to date and relevant, scholars outside of gender studies have referred to the contributions of feminist scholars, and so I’m not one to believe that gender studies as a discipline lacks prestige or legitimacy. But the way one can laugh at the idea of studying gender in this day and age seems to suggest some wildly contrarian views in academia that I wasn’t aware of until now.

But perhaps the way gender and feminist theory have become so normalised in academia that it risks (and indeed sometimes criticised for) being depoliticised, defanged of its original motivation to right the wrongs of social structures, one can teach and learn feminist theory without seemingly moved or provoked by its political potency. And so the butch, meddling, oversensitive stereotype of the feminist continues to creep into a student’s imagination and everyday conversation, even when feminist women and men are ordinary people who, on a superficial level, are no different from themselves.

Although this is just one female student in a huge network of lecturers and other students who may know better, and thus not entirely representative of academia as suggested in my title, I think the depoliticised nature of feminism and its misrepresentation in media and folk discourse have resulted in the perpetuation of ‘feminist’ as a dirty word, no matter how worldly, clever, media-savvy, and sensitive students in one the most prestigious colleges in the UK are.

Between worlds: the jilbab and being transgender in Indonesia

It is a scene that wouldn’t be unfamiliar in France or Belgium: a woman’s hijab is snatched away by strangers on the street from her head despite her protest. She is told she shouldn’t wear it, or rather, she has no right to because her wearing it mocks other women and femininity itself. But it is not an episode of Islamophobic rage that is recounted by Shuniyya Rumaha Haiibalah, but an incident in her native Indonesia that would later become the title of her best-selling memoir, Jangan lepas jilbabku! (Please do not remove my jilbab!)

Haiibalah is Muslim and transgender. The hostile reactions from other women and men towards her decision to wear the jilbab (hijab) in public was based on the belief of the irreconcilability of being waria* (transgender) and expressing religiosity in the gender of choice.

While other waria do not mix gender identity with religious identity (as the video above shows, some transwomen dress as men in places of worship), women like Haiibalah attend prayers at the mosque alongside other cis-gender women much to disapproval of some, particularly those who argue that physical contact with Haiibalah’s biologically male body can render another woman’s prayers annulled.

Jangan lepas jilbabku! begins in 1997 when Haiibalah turns 16. The writer describes her gradual transition from male to female as eventful as the moment Indonesia regains its democracy at the end of Suharto’s dictatorial regime in 1998. She describes the kind of woman she wants to be: an ordinary woman, good-looking even without make-up, someone who wears the jilbab, independent, headstrong, and accepted. In school, Haiibalah is an active editor of the school’s Islamic magazine, and a popular student. Using her popularity and religious image as a social buffer, Haiibalah began experimenting with her appearance. She plucked her eyebrows into a pair of thin, arching crescents; suffice it to say, this led to other arched eyebrows. After being told that her eyebrows were seen as “inappropriate” for young men, Haiibalah went on to tackle what ostensibly is taboo: she, a transwoman, wearing a jilbab.

Haiibalah is one of many transgender Indonesians who are religious and adopt the jilbab, but how the transgender community see themselves is diverse. Some, like Haiibalah, identify as women—within them lies a woman’s soul (jiwa) in a man’s body. Others, on the other hand, view themselves as both male and female, and there are waria who identify as the third sex. Unlike Haiibalah, some transwomen who wear the jilbab attend prayers in male attire but revert to women’s clothing and feminine demeanor the rest of the time.

The waria community has long been stereotyped as hairdressers, make-up artists, and sex workers in Indonesia. In film, they are doomed to dehumanizing comedic roles. But transgender Indonesians, particularly the male-to-female waria, have witnessed the rise of high-profile media personalities, such as Dorce Gamalama, cited by many as Indonesia’s answer to Oprah Winfrey. Her success is a significant step towards more positive representation of the waria.

More recently, the well-received film, Realita Cinta dan Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reality, Love, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, 2006), foregrounds the relationship between a transwoman and her son. The film is a startling departure from older cinematic stereotypes of the waria, as it features a good-looking, affluent, judo-wrestling and salsa-dancing trans-mother. Jangan Lepas Jilbabku is not the first book by a transperson to make it to the best-sellers list. Both Jangan Lihat Kelaminku (Do Not Look At My Genitals) and Perempuan Tanpa V (Woman Without a Vagina) by Merlyn Sopjan are tales of personal triumph over transphobia, winning Sopjan fame and fortune as writer, later as beauty queen, AIDS activist, and mayoral candidate.

Although much of their media presence is highly sensationalized, the rising number of transgender Indonesians entering the public sphere in the face of increasing Islamization may be a strategy for acceptance. But as Haiibalah’s experiences attest, even religious expression is a gendered privilege. The hostility against transwomen like Haiibalah who adopt the jilbab as part their identity raises new questions about the hijab and femininity.

In this case, the jilbab becomes more than just a head covering, as it is perceived as a kind of privilege accorded to cis-gendered Muslim women. Also, it throws the issue of transphobia within sacred spaces into sharp relief. Denying a transwoman’s right to wear the jilbab highlights the fundamental notion that being a woman is reduced to a vagina attained at birth. Like public toilets, not only do places of worship pose as no-go zones for transwomen, but they undermine the assertion that transwomen are women.

Haiibalah sets a precedent for a public discussion on gender privilege and religious expression in Indonesia, and indeed, the discussion goes beyond the jilbab and praying next to other women, as it is fundamentally about power and privilege in religious communities.

*Waria is a combination of the words for woman (wanita) and man (pria).