Call for articles: #LoyarEqual – Feminist and women’s rights week on Loyar Burok

I am hosting Feminist and Women’s Rights week on Loyar Burok. Below is a copied and pasted info from Loyar Burok.  p/s: SEND YOUR ARTICLES TO ME! Let’s flood (a subsection of) the Malaysian blogosphere with feminism!

Why feminist and women’s rights week?! Because battling gender-based violence and discrimination is still relevant in Malaysia and more urgent than ever. Because Malaysia is fast becoming one of the rape capitals of Asia. Because survivors of sexual assault are blamed for “inviting” rape and not protecting themselves enough. Because there are still too few women in politics. Because women are expected to do the housework, paid or otherwise. Because women’s bodies are exploited and turned into sex objects at every opportunity. Because women’s rights are human rights.

Fundamentally, feminism offers a framework for everybody to view and examine the inequality, dominance, and oppression around them; it’s not about women trying to dominate men, or about being ‘western’ or elitist. And so feminism is not just for women but for everybody. Sexism also affects men. Unrealistic social expectations require all men to be masculine, strong, unemotional, uncaring, and primary breadwinners whether men like it or not, capable or not. Inequality and disrespect towards women and girls diminishes the relationship men and boys have with their mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, and other female-identified people.

If you would like to share your experiences of sexism and / or thoughts on gender-based injustice and feminism then you’ve come to the right place!

What to submit: Photos, video, comics, 800 – 1,000 word articles, short stories, and poems in Bahasa Malaysia or English on the theme of feminism and women’s rights.
Deadline for submissions : Friday, 14th October 2011
Where to submit:

Need help in finding a topic? Here are suggested issues related to feminism you can cover:

Sexual harassment and violence
Sex work and the sex industry
Sexuality and the body
Female participation in Malaysian politics
Parenting and equality
Fat acceptance
Ethical eating
Men and feminism
Gender in film, media, and pop culture

Articles will be published on Loyar Burok from 17th to 23rd October 2011. So get cracking 😀

The lacuna: Where is the missing canon of Malaysian feminist fiction writing?

A version of this post was first published on Kakak Killjoy

The question above may seem far ahead of its time, as the influence of feminism – in whatever form of feminism we as Malaysians can recognise – has yet to have an established place in our literature. Fiction-writing has long been central to Western feminisms; many who call themselves feminists would have read or heard of The Yellow Wallpaper, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Awakening, Fear of Flying, The Bell Jar, or inspired by the work of Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Nawal el-Sadawi, Audre Lorde, Ursula Le Guin, and the many US and UK-based feminist writers on the internet. But we as Malaysians enjoy Western feminist writings in a more vicarious way, as we have too few inspirational local texts to call our own. Too few to develop a semblance of a canon of Malaysian feminist writing. Even rarer still are those that address contemporary concerns.

The question that people are quick to ask is, what makes a novel or a whole body of literature feminist?

According to feminist literary theorist Cheri Register, feminist fiction should have the following qualities:

  • serves as a forum for women
  • helps to achieve cultural androgyny
  • provide role models
  • promote sisterhood, and
  • augment consciousness-raising

In literature or fiction writing, feminism comes out of the page demanding the reader to think more critically about the socio-political situation the female and male characters experience. At times, characters inspire their readers in questioning and challenging the oppressive status quo and hopefully spur readers into doing, being the same. In other words, feminist writings raises a reader’s consciousness to oppression and injustice that are regarded as common sense – “women always want to be mothers, love housework and gossip, subservient to their husbands and other men, and mustn’t be too ambitious” – “this is the way things are, always been, and will always be”

Feminist heroines in literature are rarely one-dimensional people. In fact all would often reflect the complex nature of its readers; from trail-blazing free spirits like Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, indomitable like Celie in The Color Purple, conflicted like Mira in The Women’s Room, to uncompromising like Imrah in Ombak Bukan Biru. They attain self-actualisation without a male love interest or life-affirmation through heterosexual marriage. They are women who love education and learning and aim for the best, their sense of self are tested and questioned at every turn by sexist, racist, and classist societal norms.

In the case of Celie, Mira, and Imrah, all of whom experience difficult, intimate relationships with men and made to the end of the story unmarried, a little scarred by emotional trauma, yet fulfilled and hungry to take on life’s many challenges. Sometimes it seems as if in feminist writing the boundaries between representation and the ‘real’, entertainment and political didacticism are often blurred as most feminist literature are political and emancipatory in its implicit objective.

The dearth in feminist characterisation in Malaysian literature can be attributed to the socio-political straightjacket that threatens writers critical of the status quo into self-censorship or be censored. The few and far in between that do exist appear in the maddeningly rare portrayals of extraordinary women as adventurers, scholars, and saints in the writings of Siti Zainon Ismail and Fatimah Busu. The other possible obstacle to the lack and loss of feminist writing is Malaysia’s under-appreciated reading culture; books are not cheap and older books often do not get reprinted. People do and would want to read non- “classic” Malaysian fiction published prior to 2000. Fiction by pre-merdeka writers depicting the lives of women at the cusp of modernity by Rayuan Sukma, Kamariah Saadon, Jahlelawati, and Rokiah Abu Bakar are now largely forgotten.

Despite our massive bookshops, they’re not home to local fiction. Instead, they impose on Malaysian readers a concept of globalised reading culture whose terms and tastes are shaped by global corporate mega companies that thinks Malaysians are interested in 20th century military and war history in the western world, chick lit by and for middle-class white women, and a mass of cookbooks which require ingredients that will never be available in your nearest Giant or Carrefour supermarket.

Heavy-handed laws against artistic expression (whether official and self-imposed ones) have done little to stifle the subversive writings of Shahnon Ahmad, Salleh ben Joned, sprouting of the local LGBT short story genre, and erotic writing. But much of Malaysia’s subversive writings are and have always been dominated by men; whether it’s written by men or edited or published by men. Feminism, or its much friendlier and less subversive guise, “women’s rights and issues”, hardly makes a ripple in the local literary world that’s begging to be cool, insurrectionary, and relevant again.

Women’s writing is invidiously expected, like in the English publication world, to be about shopping and getting Mr. Right. It would be a particularly victorious day for disrupting our stubbornly stagnant gender politics when Malaysia has its own version of Indonesia’s sastra wangi, the deeply political, erotic, disturbing, and exhilarating genre by young women writers critical of Suharto’s authoritarian regime.

Taking a brighter view on things, the relative safe issue of “women’s rights” may remove many obstacles (such as the label of “controversy” or “immorality”) that hinder female writers from crafting complex characters and thought-provoking plots to stir a reader’s feminist consciousness. There are many socio-cultural arenas that await Malaysian feminist writing; transgender issues, disabilities, eco-feminism, food politics, and consumerism to name a few. Most feminist novels, whether staged in the present, in the distant future or in an alternate reality, are a commentary of the writer’s time. Perhaps the paucity of current feminist writing by Malaysian women is symptomatic of a complex but quiet and subtle malaise characterised by simply a lack of interest?

Recommended titles:
Jalur sinar di celah daun by Zaharah Nawawi
Pulau Renik Ungu by Siti Zainon Ismail
Salam Maria by Fatimah Busu
Ombak bukan biru by Fatimah Busu

Short stories
Polishing by Charlene Rajendran
Short message system by Mercy Thomas
Bahawa hidup itulah cintaku by Anis Sabirin

For non-Malaysian English language titles, here is a long list of recommendations.

More thoughts on femininities in Indonesian Islamically-themed cinema

Empowered femininities?

It is worth exploring the relationship between women and film religi in which female characters assume the role of boundary markers of nation and religion. The reference to women as markers of the boundaries of national ideology is a common theme in post-colonial nations-states, serving as symbolic representations in the rhetoric of inclusion and exclusion. During the New Order, women were assigned as not only procreators of the state but also as an index of what defines the state, as demonstrated in the marginalised manner in which women are portrayed in Indonesian cinema (Sen 1995: 94). Furthermore, women’s images in film are often used for either sensationalistic purposes or as symbolic marker of the nation’s moral order. Should that moral order be challenged by liberated female sexuality and non-heteronormative behaviour, it is usually restored by the end of the film through the punishment of female characters who over-stepped their gender roles (Sen, 1994: 138).

Aripurnami (2000) comments on the way women have been portrayed in Indonesian cinema as domineering, unreasonable, and prone to wild emotional outbursts in stark contrast to their often stoic male counterparts who stand victorious when struggle over dominance, independence, and self-actualisation end in their favour (2000: 55-57). Although there is a wealth of data on the diversity of women’s lives, Aripurnami argues that they are reduced to one-dimensional images. The richness of Indonesian women’s lives is said to be “buried under the ‘impressions’ created and captured by film-makers, scenario writers, directors, directors, actors, and by the audience” (2000: 60). Now in the post-authoritarian period we find the image of the woman appropriated for other political and religious narratives in a climate in which multiple political voices struggle for legitimacy, and it remains to be seen whether Muslim femininity in film religi is also woven in these new political imaginaries.

Women who wear the hijab in the Western media have long attracted attention as a commonly-used marker for Islam and in many cases, religious ‘oppression’. As in the Western media, women in the jilbab in film religi represent some element of Islam but often instead appear as visual symbols of modern social narratives grounded in Islamic principles. Ayat-ayat cinta was particularly groundbreaking in that one of the film’s main love interest is woman in a niqab or face veil revealing only the eyes. If Western Europe is preoccupied with the negative symbolism surrounding the full-face veil and aims to effectively ban it, more positive depictions of the full-face veil in film religi can only be understood as subversive. To explore the greater complexities in representations of pious women in film religi, one must do away with the binary (and indeed Orientalist) logic of the ‘veil’. The film Ayat-ayat cinta is a case in point here: the films follows the life of an Indonesian male graduate student, Fahri, in Egypt, his pursuit for marriage and the apparent challenge of selecting between two women – Aisha, a young woman of Turkish-German descent in a niqab, and Maria, an Egyptian Christian-Copt who does not cover her hair.

Aisha and Fahri meet during a kerfuffle on a tram involving the harassment of two white non-Muslim tourists by the locals, an event that demonstrates the pluralist attitudes of both Aisha and Fahri contrasted against the intolerant, xenophobic views of lay Egyptians. Fahri is represented as a hardworking student who takes his religious obligations seriously. Fahri later marries Aisha, disappointing Maria who later falls into a coma, and two other women; a fellow Indonesian student at Al-Azhar university where they both study, and an Egyptian neighbour and victim of domestic abuse who later accuses Fahri of rape when he rejects her advances. Thrown into jail and sentenced to death by hanging, Maria poses as the only witness to Fahri’s innocence. When Fahri is acquitted, he fulfils the request of the ailing Maria by taking her as his second wife on her deathbed, upon which Maria converts to Islam.

Not long after a brief polygamous arrangement, Maria dies leaving Fahri and Aisha together at last. Ayat-ayat cinta generated a great deal of academic interest within Indonesia and the nature of popular films depicting Islamic piety as demonstrated in the scholarly writings by Indonesian scholars (Hakim, 2009). Ayat-ayat Cinta was not the first widely acclaimed Indonesian film to engage with the topic of polygamy. Berbagi suami (Love for share), written and directed by Nia Dinata, is strikingly different from Ayat-ayat cinta; the film takes a critical stance against polygamy and focuses on the distress and suffering of its female characters who are hard done by polygamous marriage. Berbagi Suami does however share a few similarities with Ayat-ayat Cinta in that both are in agreement that polygamous marriage is not only allowed according to Islamic scripture, but suggest that polygamy can be a difficult and stressful arrangement for those directly involved. But that is where similarities end; Berbagi suami is situated in the vast urban sprawl of Jakarta, characters of various class backgrounds and class populate the screen, and most importantly, the film captures the gritty reality of the inequalities suffered by women in polygamous arrangements. In contrast to Ayat-ayat cinta, Berbagi suami was far less successful in the domestic market and gained the ire of conservative clerics (Hatley, 2009: 56).

Ayat-ayat cinta depicts central female characters who wear the face-covering niqab, a hijab, and who no headscarf at all. Most notably, Maria the Copt-Christian who does not cover her hair is portrayed as morally-upstanding as Aisha who covers her face. In fact, it is Noura, the veiled neighbour who has betrayed Fahri and accuses him of sexual assault. Thus, on a superficial level, the women in Ayat-ayat cinta challenge the moral binary of the headscarfed woman versus the unveiled woman, a binary that is popular in religious television dramas in Indonesia (Nef-Saluz, 2007: 41-42). As the conventional trope in Indonesian soap opera dictates, characters in the jilbab often play the righteous and exceedingly well-mannered women in contrast to the carefree nightclub-going jilbab-free women of dubious moral standing. However, jilbab-free Christian women in film religi (Ayat-ayat cinta and Syahadat cinta) are virtuous, pious, and eventually convert to Islam for the Muslim man they love.

A few Indonesian films with female characters at the centre of the narrative in the last decade dealt explicitly with ‘women’s issues’, issues pertaining to motherhood and abortion (Perempuan punya cerita, Women’s stories, 2007), polygamy (Berbagi suami, Love for share, 2006) and Pasir berbisik (Motherhood, 2001). Perempuan berkalung sorban (Woman with the sorban necklace, 2008, dir. Hanung Bramantyo) is one such example; and like the other preceding films of similar themes, Perempuan berkalung sorban courted controversy particularly from the head imam of Jakarta’s Istiqlal Grand Mosque, Ali Mustafa Yaqub, who objected to the negative depiction of abusive pious men. The film received received praise, however, from Meutia Hatta, Indonesia’s women’s issues minister for challenging retrogressive socio-religious norms (Belford, 2009). Based on the novel of the same title by Abidah El Khaleiqy, Perempuan berkalung sorban is centred on the trials and tribulations of strong-willed Annisa, a daughter of a kyai, the head of the pesantren (Islamic boarding school) and community. Annisa is intent on challenging the norms of her conservative Islamic upbringing by insisting on studying far from home in Yogyakarta, much to the disapproval of her parents. To quell her independent spirit, Annisa is made to marry a son of another kyai but soon suffers from physical domestic abuse, marital rape, and the humiliation of being in a polygamous marriage without her consent. After a difficult divorce, Annisa reinvents herself as a women’s refuge counsellor then religious school teacher in her father’s pesantren where she distributes non-religious novels to her students despite criticisms from her father as un-Islamic.

Annisa’s tribulations and ideals bear some semblance to the politics of Muslim women’s rights in Indonesia. In her book on Indonesian women’s leadership in Islamic organisations, van Doorn-Harder (2006) revealed the significant role and socio-religious influence Muslim women have in challenging the patriarchal reading of Islamic scripture. The major cause of concern after Suharto stepped down from power was the emerging public presence of extremist Islam such as Laskar Jihad1 in which women were marginalised. When extremists assume political power and influence, women are often become the first victims, rendered invisible and voiceless. In August 2006 the Majles Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) held a congress in Yogyakarta at which women were not even admitted into the building of the venue (van Doorn-Harder, 2006: 38). Regardless of these concerns, Muslim women in Indonesia have access to the thousands of institutions where women are trained to become specialists of Islam, allowing them to learn the holy texts and interpreting them (van Doorn-Harder, 2006: 1-2).

Among these institutions is the pesantren, where female and male students spend much of their formative years studying Islamic texts. These schools have produced female intellectuals, preachers, and feminist activists who actively engage in religious debates equipped with substantial knowledge of holy scriptures (van Doorn-Harder, 2006: 2). Women’s active participation in public discourse and leadership does not mean Indonesia is a feminist utopia. Women in Indonesia, as in the rest of Southeast Asia, wield a relative amount of freedom to move and resist repressive force and have greater economic autonomy and physical mobility than many women elsewhere in the Muslim world. But not far beneath the veneer of economic and social egalitarianism, there are intersecting inequalities that underlie specific contexts. Even when religious institutions promote women’s education, greater participation, and even leadership, hierarchical organisational structures of the home and faith-based groups deny women direct leadership. For example, the women’s branch of the Muhammadiyah movement continues to be subservient to the men’s despite exhibiting strong and capable leadership (van Doorn-Harder, 2006: 43).

The image of the apparently “empowered” woman in Perempuan berkalung sorban joins the coterie of male writers and film-makers of the post-New Order generation interested in the struggles of being female in Indonesia, namely Riri Riza and Hanny Saputra who gained critical acclaim for their films Eliana Eliana (2002) and Virgin (2005) respectively (Clark, 2010: 95). In light of this Clark (2010) suggests that this is an example of young and privileged Indonesian men’s pro-feminist attempts at challenging the normative gender dynamics and constructing non-patriarchal models of subjectivities and practices (Clark, 2010: 95). In this respect, predominantly male film-makers of film religi are chiefly involved in constructing the performative discourse of Muslim femininities. How sincere and politically motivated such male-constructed images of strong Muslim women are remains to be seen. Which brings me to an important caveat; depictions of “empowered” or strong female characters in Indonesian film need to be carefully examined and not taken simply at face value. Krishna Sen (1994: 135) stresses that when analysing images of strong women, one must ask to what effect and in whose interest is this strength mobilised in the film? And so at this juncture, it would be instructive to bring forward a set of questions related to the contexts in which images of women (strong or otherwise) are produced in film religi; such as what influence do feminist critiques of representations of women have on religious film-making in Indonesia? How much influence and agency do Muslim women have in the film industry, especially in the production of religious films?


  1. Aripurnami, S. (2000) Whiny, finicky, bitchy, stupid, and ‘revealing’: The image of women in Indonesian films, in Indonesian women: The journey continues by M. Oey-Gardiner and C. Bianpoen (eds.), Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, the Australian National University: Canberra.
  2. Belford, A., Film spurs debate over women’s role, Jakarta Globe, 1 March 2009
  3. Clark, M. (2010) Maskulinitas: Culture, gender, and politics in Indonesia, Monash University Press: Caulfield.
  4. Hatley, B. (2009) Love, religion, and social difference: Two films about polygamy and Indonesian society, in Yvonne Michalik and Laura Coppens’ Asian hot shots: Indonesian cinema, Schüren.
  5. Sen, K. (1994) Indonesian cinema: Framing the New Order, Zed Books.
  6. Sen, K. (1995) Repression and resistance: Interpretations of the feminine in Indonesian cinema, in Culture and society in New Order Indonesia: 1965-1990 by V. Hooker (ed.), Oxford University Press: Kuala Lumpur.
  7. van Doorn-Harder, P. (2006) Women shaping Islam: Indonesian women reading the Qu’ran, University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago.

Why I chose the path of academia despite sexist microaggressions and my own demons

First published on Kakak Killjoy

If you’re a woman or girl and you have plenty of facts, ideas, and thoughts in your head it’s easier to keep them there. Once they come out, be prepared to be shot down in flames by people who think you’re showing off and trying to being pseudo-intellectual. Even comments by people who say that you’re being “academic” marks you out as a kind of anomaly, because women in general are not really meant to be very clever or intellectual. “Clever enough” is a nice and attractive attribute. *Very* clever is not. Those who are very clever are actually pretty scary, ball-busting types that men usually admire from afar but up close men realise that they’re not girlfriend or marriage material. For that reason, many clever women play down their intelligence.

For a long time I chose to stay silent and kept my head full of thoughts to a point that it distressed me. After all, my thoughts do not matter. Who did I think I was anyway? And what might people think I was up to and trying to be? I’m not qualified enough to comment let alone say something about anything under the sun with authority and be taken seriously for it. My thoughts are not important, etc etc. These are the common put-downs that I self-sabotage myself with.

Slowly I came to the realisation that it was not that I thought I knew something, whether it was enzymatic pathways or kinship in Malay communities, but that I KNEW something and I shouldn’t pretend that I didn’t. After all, it is too easy to be labelled vacuous and ignorant. Being a terrible student all throughout my school years damaged a great deal of self-confidence in my ability to learn and presenting my knowledge. Being (near) the bottom of the class several times somehow sealed my fate – I was never really going to amount to anything. I was not clever.

Yes, I had (and still have) serious insecurity issues and self-confidence has never been my strongest suit, but confidence is something I had to work on for many years. At a young age surrounded by family, friends, and strangers who valued extroverted, easy-going, good-looking, fair-skinned, straight-haired, and academically successful girls and me being the absolute opposite did not help. I was softly-spoken, reserved, introverted, loved books, had big and wild unruly hair, a gangly body, and an awkward disposition like a stray jigsaw piece that will not fit anywhere. I was not only not clever but I was actually ugly by Malaysian standards too.

Fast-forward to 10 or so years you have me overcoming the deep-set insecurities that kept me silent and imprisoned by my shyness. You could say that me being a confident academic now is a kind of Revenge of the Nerds, except for me it’s the Social Misfit 2: Back with a Vengeance. It’s the nerds and social misfits who bloomed late, bumbled throughout their formative years with the few friends who were similar in looks and general awkwardness who would later become happy and “cool” people who were comfortable in their own skin.

Ironically, I discovered that education would be my saviour. Despite being the root of my self-erasure, I sought education to reinvent myself. So I had to excel in university to be taken seriously. If that’s not enough, I had to be first both in class and department to be taken seriously. It’s been said that a woman has be twice as good as a man to be considered as good as a man.

So you could say that now is the springtime for nerds and social misfits, taking “revenge” on our more popular, good-looking, and successful “tormentors”. Except not really – overcoming shyness can only get you so far, because insecurity and self-doubt continue to linger when people still won’t take you seriously because you’re a woman. That said however I’m not worried about not ever combating my shyness and introverted nature. Because after all, like Julia Kristeva says, we’re all in the process of becoming, a sujet-en-proces; always on a journey into developing ourselves. It’s how intelligent women and girls are belittled that I am more upset about, because it means we will continue to have a culture in which women’s brains are not appreciated and there are only a handful of intellectually powerful and confident female role models to look up to. A handful rather than none at all is not equality but tokenism. Even though there are more women in university than men, we have the case of “You have a degree? That’s nice, dear. Now make me a sandwich”.

I chose to become an academic because I am passionate about teaching and I love learning. Being an academic will give me the legitimacy to help others succeed in education and in life, and guide them to see the world differently. I’ve been told many times by many people that Malaysian university students in local higher education are doomed to herd mentality and the tempurung complex (i.e. close-mindedness). But me being naïve and idealistic me, I believe that everyone with whatever learning ability have the potential to self-actualisation, including public university students in Malaysia.

Because I am easily triggered by self-doubt, being an academic allows me to take *myself* seriously. But I won’t be fooled by illusions; the eventual doctorate will never be enough to be an authority on anything because people will still dismiss academic qualifications on the basis that it’s just a book, academic speak is mutual masturbation, or that I’m just book-smarts but not smart smart. Never mind the status-conscious Malaysian culture that insists on publishing one’s academic or honorary titles at any opportunity, as someone young and female with a PhD probably wouldn’t get you very far. Or at least that was what I was told.

I will have to stop here otherwise this post will start to sound like a melodramatic cover letter – we don’t want to play into the over-emotional hysterical female stereotypes, do we? (*takes a minute to eyeroll*). All I want to say is there are many challenges for women and girls out there in their efforts to be leaders, intellectuals, and qualified experts of their own lives. These challenges are incredibly subtle, like the scourge of mansplaining, being told that we need “ qualified experts” to tell us how to run our lives, the idea that men make better leaders because they are not easily emotional, or the majority of male Nobel Prize winners confirm men’s intellectual superiority.

Women who argue with facts and use long, “big” words to disagree or state a well-argued case with a man are accused as overly sensitive, emotion-led, pretentious. When we use “big” words, we’re told that there are shorter easier words to use – which is coded language for don’t be elitist and show off your slightly extensive vocabulary. Women can never really win. Men who do the same are amazing. Yes, there are still many subtle intellectual double standards that pervade our culture, that we cannot help but internalise.

This is an opportunity for you to delurk and say hello

Most times when I write I have an imaginary audience in mind, an audience whose intelligence I would hate to insult. But if I want to be really honest, I would say that blogging is actually one big lonely exercise of making oneself feel rather important and soliloquies  – a kind of shrine to oneself – which is why I want you, Dear Reader out there, to delurk. Take a moment from lurking and reveal yourself, wave, say hello, share a bit about yourself, share what it is that brings you to this blog and what keeps you coming back. In return, you can ask me questions about anything.

Really, anything.

Cute big bodies: Fashion for plus-size Muslim women in a Malaysian magazine

Malaysia is a fat-phobic country, and so it’s welcoming to see pockets of fat acceptance in the media. In this case, a rare fashion spread for “plus-sized” women in a local Muslim women’s lifestyle magazine, Nur.

"XXL: Still stylish and sweet"

Reading the text above, the use of the word “comel” (cute) to mean larger body is interesting; while it is certainly a euphemism, it’s almost certainly used to mean a larger female body. Does the word make fatness more positive by associating it with cuddliness and other possible endearing qualities related to cuteness? “Comel” is an ideal concept of youthful Malay femininity – it connotes a woman or girl who is ultra-feminine and non-threatening, and so to include different body shapes under the umbrella of “comel” is probably positive. Just as an aside note: we may find plus size-friendly fashion spreads/advice in the mainstream media in Malaysia, but signs of fat acceptance is still marginalised and consumer-oriented. A consumer-oriented form of fat acceptance (through the selling of products for a ‘niche’ consumer group) may actually be insincere. Thoughts?

More from Nur:

Is there an emergence of new masculinities in Indonesia’s Islamic cinema?

Indonesian singer and composer Opick.

When new femininities are introduced in the new wave of religious film-making, different strands of masculinities also emerge albeit in more implicit ways. Like heterosexuality, non-disability, and whiteness, masculinity is often referred to as ‘unmarked’ social category in which male dominance has been historically treated as the ‘norm’ while ‘gender’ is often taken to be a shorthand for women’s issues (Clark 2008:37). Changing gender dynamics resulting from women’s increasing (and empowering) presence in the public sphere inadvertently transforms men’s relationship with women. In Indonesia, what is little noted in contrast to women’s gradual emancipation is that socio-political upheaval and fragmentation of central powers coupled with the Asian economic downturn in 1997 have resulted in feelings of male disempowerment that has driven many men to seek solace in Islam and sometimes violent paths (Clark 2008:38). The concept of masculinities is employed in my study as it takes into account the multiplicity and fluidity of masculine gender performance.

Nilan (2009) has identified three distinct forms of “youthful” masculinities in contemporary Indonesia arising from the tensions between the “familial and pedagogic discourses that call them towards the role of the steady worker and reliable provider” and the “compelling discourses of heroism and macho bravado deriving from both local and global sources create pressure to construct their identity in terms of quite different kinds of masculine cultural practice (Nilan, 2009: 328). The three images of masculinities Nilan has delineated: the bearded male evangelists and all-male nasyid music groups, the hip but sensitive young man, and the belligerent preman (thug) with criminal tendencies all make prominent appearances in current Indonesia film and media. For Nilan, all three images are coded hypermasculine as they form prevailing and persuasive re-iterative performances that connote social influence, aspiration, power, dominance, and the antithesis to femininity (2009: 329).

Marshall Clark (2004, 2008) has explored the ways in men and masculinities in post-Suharto film-making reflect socio-economic trends in films such as Kuldesak (Cul-de-sac) (1998), and two film by Rudy Soedjarwo; Mengejar matahari (Chasing the sun) (2004), and 9 Naga (9 dragons) (2006) where grittier, more violent representations of men accentuated by their grimy, poverty-stricken surroundings take centre stage. Through these different instances of masculinity Nilan and Clark suggest that the construction of hegemonic masculinities has taken place in post-authoritarian Indonesian film and public discourse. Representations of hegemonic masculinities are not fixed states but the “configuration of gender practices” which are implicated in struggle for dominance and /or contingent on context (Connell 1995: 77). The contingent aspect of masculinities will play a significant part in my analysis of ‘new’ Muslim masculinities in film religi.

While Clark has demonstrated a turn for more violent, melancholic, and conflicting representations of masculinities in newer, mainstream Indonesian films, I propose that film religi may offer equally conflicting but ‘softer’ and more diverse portrayals of ‘new’ Muslim masculinities. Two films that befit our genre of interest, Mengaku rasul (Self-proclaimed prophet) (2008) and Emak ingin naik haji (Mother wants to go perform the hajj) (2009), demonstrate images of masculinities that are enmeshed in discourses of Muslimness. Rather than the portrayal of overt, physical violence as a shorthand for conventional masculinity, the two films showcase aspects of masculinity that are coded through a religious lens as emasculated, deviant, and/or disempowered. Like most portrayals of femininities in film and other forms of media, representations of dominant masculinities (or hypermasculinities) in particular offer clues to the conception of gender in society. Images that represent gender in mass media tend to be more simplified, exaggerated, and stylised than gender as practised in ‘reality’ (Connell 1987: 12). Much of New Order Indonesian cinema has been defined by Krishna Sen as “about men and what the films define as men’s sphere of action” while female characters play only “subsidiary roles so that women’s images and actions have a small and/or unimportant function in the narrative (Sen 1995: 116-133). However, the dominance of men in (particularly post New Order) Indonesian cinema is an ambiguous one.

A legacy of disempowered masulinities appears salient in the two films discussed here. In Emak ingin naik haji, the roles of the three main male characters are positioned in relation to the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Zein is an impoverished artist who intends to fund his elderly mother’s trip to the holy land; successful businessman Haji Sa’un is planning his sixth pilgrimage in an effort to ‘improve’ his piety but still feels inadequate in religious matters; while Pak Joko is convinced that going to Mecca will improve his political image and boost his mayoral campaign. All three men are driven by different desires, some more noble than others but their relation to the pilgrimage becomes a yardstick to how ‘good’ a Muslim they are. Pak Joko’s well-publicised pilgrimage echoes Suharto’s visit to a number of holy sites in the Arabian peninsular in 1991 at the peak of his regime’s Islamisation programme. Their masculinities are also performed through their intimate relations to power and money, of lack of both. When Zein fails to fulfil his duty as the breadwinner and he submits to robbing Haji Sa’un’s house, the sight of the qur’an stops him in his tracks. Pak Joko takes advantage of his influence to cheat on his wife, while Haji Sa’un, as the head of the household, is overcome by his materialistic children and has little religious influence to educate them the value of money.

Mengaku Rasul (Self-proclaiming prophet) is a critique of ‘deviant’ religious teachings dressed as exploitative of women and unscrupulous politicking. Guru Samir is the charismatic leader of a new Islamic sect and self-styled latter-day prophet. Told in flashbacks, the film begins with a young woman, Rianti, who is admitted into hospital following an arson attack on a ‘cult’ meeting with Guru Samir in a village hall. Previously, Rianti followed the ‘cult’ led by Samir after leaving her drum-playing, tattoo-covered boyfriend, Aji. Aji goes after her and discovers that Samir is not the man his followers believe he is – adulterous, deceitful of his ability to perform miracles. In order to win Rianti back, Aji has to prove that Samir is a fraud but he is also determined to end the cult’s deviant practices, which include praying for Samir to absolve his follower’s sins, paying for an ‘exclusive’ course that will guarantee a place in paradise, and having faith in Samir’s status as prophet, a messenger of God. Aji and Samir are portrayed as unlikely opposites of Muslim men, ‘good’ Muslim against ‘bad’, respectively. On the one hand, Aji is not the conventional Muslim hero typical of other film religi; we do not know if he has had a rigorous religious education or if he even prays or knows how to read and speak Arabic. But on the other hand, Samir is in elaborate Muslim gear, in a turban, beard, and flowing one-piece garment. When Aji and Samir’s stepson burns a meeting hall down, they uncover the mystery behind Samir’s many miracles. But before Aji can warn Rianti of Samir’s extraordinary duplicity, she had all along planned to murder him.

In Mengaku Rasul, deviant Muslim practices are accentuated by unprincipled and lascivious passions. The portrayal of Guru Samir as the religious fraud who takes advantage of his influence ends with his death, occurring during the throes of passion with his new wife, Rianti. Samir personifies a Muslim masculinity that has gone astray not only from the righteous path of Islam, but from the normative image of man as trusted head of the home and community. Mengaku rasul joins other Indonesian films that engage with the contested topic of polygamy, but is firmly critical of it. Van Wichelen (2010) locates the newly reconfigured Muslim masculinity within the revival of debates on polygamy in Indonesia after the end of the New Order regime, with particular interest in the publicised endorsements of polygamy by male media personalities and popular preachers. Like the differences of views on polygamy evident in the three films discussed above, the polygamy debate is a lively and contested ground, mainly coming from enthusiastic proponents within upper middle class socio-economic groups, book publishers, and even women, in contrast to the relatively silent critics of the practice (van Wichelen, 2010: 76-78).

Clark, M. (2008) Men, masculinities and symbolic violence in recent Indonesian cinema, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 3(1): 113-131.
Clark, M. (2010) Maskulinitas: Culture, gender, and politics in Indonesia, Monash University Press: Caulfield.
Connell, R. (1995) Masculinities, Allen and Unwin: Sydney.
Sen, K. (1995) Repression and resistance: Interpretations of the feminine in Indonesian cinema, in Culture and society in New Order Indonesia: 1965-1990 by V. Hooker (ed.), Oxford University Press: Kuala Lumpur.
Van Wichelen, S. (2010) Religion, politics and gender in Indonesia: Disputing the Muslim body, Routledge Research on Gender in Asia Series Routledge: Oxford.

Fiesta Feminista 2011 is on 25 to 27th November in Kota Kinabalu

For those still not in the know, the second Fiesta Feminista is taking place on 25 to 27th November 2011 in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, in East Malaysia. From the website:

Fiesta Feminista is

  • an initiative by the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG)
  • a regular event that happens once every 3-4 years
  • a process of learning about and advocating for issues of feminism, human rights, and democracy in Malaysia
  • a platform for people of all classes, ages, ethnicities, beliefs, gender identities and sexual orientations, locations, and abilities
  • a safe space where thinking out loud is respected and where people can engage each other on fair, equal, and non-violent terms

FF 2011 begins on the International Day Against Violence Against Women which also marks the start of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence (November 25-December 10). For more information about this global campaign, including how you can take part, please visit the campaign site.

I will be returning to Malaysia in November to attend Fiesta Feminista and will be reporting the event for Kakak Killjoy. Can’t wait!

Does Ustazah Pilihan have the X-factor?

On 1st October, Islamic lifestyle Astro channel, Oasis, is launching the first episode of Ustazah Pilihan (Ideal Ustazah). Similar in format to the reality talent show Imam Muda (Young Imam), a woman will have to jump through various hoops to prove that she’s the most qualified religious teacher of the land. Each contestant will be faced with a barrage of tasks, trained and monitored by two mursyidah (mentors) in issues that concern Muslim women over the course of 8 weeks.

There’s little to know if this reality show is actually any good until it’s on of course. But that doesn’t stop anyone from making basic conjectures about the show from the little information available online and dividing them neatly into the good, the bad, and the whatevs.

The Good: the most obvious is that this is a competition where women are being competitive, hence making a point that they’re demonstrably good and highly capable, in religious matters. Also, it is a programme in which the production team consists entirely of women. So there’s a notch for women making a mark in the production level of the competitive world of television and media in general. The reality talent show formula shows yet again that Islam is not stuck in the past, but rather utilises elements of popular culture to make the concerns of Muslims fresh, relevant, and to some extent, trendy.

The Bad: The competition already limits itself to a narrow definition of what will make an ideal ustazah as only women who are young (applicants between 18 to 27 years of age only need apply) and cover their aurat (codeword for wearing the tudung/hijab) are allowed to participate. It is unlikely that lesbian and trans women are allowed to compete let alone make it through the auditions.

The Whatevs: the show already has got some flak from mainly male bloggers and commenters who are “concerned” that the programme will turn into a kind of meat market attracting lascivious men who are keen on ustazah-types. On top of this concern is the feeling that Ustazah Pilihan may make Muslim women too uppity for their own good and being excellent in an (public) arena dominated by Muslim men. So yeah, women can be serious about a career in religion, but not too serious or too good lest they outshine and topple men from their sacred pedestal.

Catch Ustazah pilihan on Astro Oasis, 1st October 2011.

On the NGOisation of feminism in Malaysia and how it may exclude many Malaysians

There was an article in the Star online today about pressuring the government into making sexual harassment a crime in Malaysia. 11 NGOs stressed the urgency since the rising numbers of incidences are making public spaces not only unbearable but increasingly dangerous for women and girls. But the language in which harassment or any gender-related issues for that matter is used is most often in sedate legal terms and in official statements that are supposed to engage equally sedate government officials.

It seems as if no one can really talk about feminist activism in Malaysia without mentioning various relevant NGOs in the country. This is mainly to do with how the dominant discourse on feminism in Malaysia works. But first, what is discourse? Discourse basically means the ways in which a particular topic is talked and discussed in the public and private arena. This includes the rules of what makes something “true” or “false”, important or not important. In the case of the discourse of feminism in Malaysia, a feminist or gender-related issue needs to be framed as an NGO issue to be regarded an important issue, at least important enough to get news space in the mainstream media.

Before anyone thinks that this post is a hate-on of NGOs, it’s not. Far from it. If anything, constant pressure on the government to make public spaces safer is of utmost importance all the time. As part of civil society, feminist NGOs form an integral aspect of building non-state and non-market interest in raising awareness to societal concerns, like everyday justice and discrimination. But the voice of the ordinary public is often missing from the picture; women and girls who fear walking the streets on broad daylight on their own are not figured in discussions on sexual harassment. Men have little to say about how harassment affects their lives and the lives of others.

The most detrimental effect of depending on the legitimacy of NGOs to make a feminist issue important is that it excludes many people outside NGOs; many other women and girls, and men in particular, from being part of a bigger movement. No one will feel that they have a stake in creating social change if they’re not being listened to. The ultimate danger is that feminist issues become exclusively women’s issues and nothing that concerns men. Even though men will walk in solidarity with women under the banner of anti-discrimination and violence, it is not a discourse that men can enter.

The dry and staid language used in the discourse of feminism in Malaysia also exclude many younger feminists in Malaysia who are inspired by the creativity, irreverence, and upbeat spirit of new feminism. An example of new forms of feminist expression in combating violence, harassment, and victim-blaming is Slutwalk. To delegitimise Slutwalk as irrelevant, offensive, and self-defeating is to miss the bigger picture; that younger women are serious about rape and slut-shaming. Do we all need to funnel our anger and disaffection down the narrow and dry language of statistics, referendums, statement letters, and petitions to be taken seriously?

To diminish the legitimacy of younger feminists who do not use the language of NGOs and the insistence that feminist issues must be a point of engagement with the government will marginalise many who do not have class and power-based access to creating change. Malaysia is mired by a culture of deference to the hype of status that will never help status-less young and so-called unqualified people from being heard. In sum, the challenge of addressing harassment and victim-blaming lies little in the hands of the government and a small coterie of NGO activists, but the entire public. And it is important that as many people as possible have access to and legitimacy in discussing the gender-related fears and anxieties that affect their everyday experiences.