New piece on New Mandala: Rape and the pantomime of misogyny

I have a new piece up on New Mandala published on 19th February where I try to grips with the violent misogyny in Malaysian politics. It is a mere platitude to argue that these male politicians are misogynistic. What’s more pertinent to ask is, why are they are using their platforms to air these views, why do they need to display their hatred of women so openly.

For better or worse, formal politics has been conceptualised as dramaturgy where politicians are actors who perform an ideological script.1 In Malaysia, the farcical tragicomedy of politics bears exaggerated elements of performance and dramaturgy which is why it may be useful to understand Malaysian politics as pantomime. In a pantomime, emotions are whipped to a frenzy when a villain or hero walks onto the stage. It is a theatrical mode that relies on the hyperbolic qualities of the hero, villain, and fool. It is through re-thinking Malaysian politics as a pantomime that we can perhaps understand its tacit and explicit endorsement of sexual violence against women.

Formal politics as pantomime is a little different from populist politics in that extreme views are attributed to political actors who are otherwise revered in person and for their other public accomplishments. But politics as pantomime shares a continuity with populism in that there is an acknowledgement that politics is artifice because the promotion of populist views may be necessary in spite of the politician’s own personal conviction. As a theatrical form, pantomime is open to a participating audience who may sing, heckle, and laugh. Despite their distance from political actors, there is an emotive register of the Malaysian public who react to the theatricality of Malaysian politics in the arena of public discourse.

Read the rest here.

New column on the Malay Mail: Are we ready for post-nationalism?

I have a new column out on the Malay Mail, Are ready for postnationalism?, published on 13th February 2015.

It’s nice to see the dust settling after a week of nationalistic confabulation. In its wake, the political appropriation of the life and achievements of Tunku Abdul Rahman last week left a distinct kind of aftertaste. It is the sickly sweet obsession with national belonging and the notion of anak bangsa.

Anak bangsa has an ideological connotation different from warganegara or rakyat. All three terms mean “citizen” but anak bangsa implies a special kind of belonging, one that is familial and comes with filial responsibilities.

Read the rest here.

New column on the Malay Mail: The economics of virginity in patriarchal Malaysia

My column on the Malay Mail, The economics of virginity in patriarchal Malaysia, published 2nd February 2015:

Let’s forget that the hymen is central to the idea of (female) virginity.

Focus instead on virginity as a cultural and social form of control. When we do this, we will discover that virginity is only a construct rather than a “real” thing. Once we recognise that virginity is a man-made idea and serves the interests of straight male sexuality, we can expose its sinister purpose.

Read the rest here.

Against fluff feminism

Every so often, ‘feminism’ would bubble up to the surface of the Malaysian mediasphere. It would be shared and retweeted on social media, but it would not stimulate a lengthy (documented) discussion on what it really is, what its aims are, and how people often get it ‘wrong’.

This post is on the latter concern; how people often get feminism ‘wrong’. ‘Wrong’ in this sense means a few things and not the opposite of ‘correct’. ‘Wrong’ here means the mis-interpretation of feminism, that it is a “bra-burning, man-hating, lesbian” enterprise on a warpath to destroy hapless men everywhere.

Being ‘wrong’ in this sense is not necessarily about ignorance, but about unexamined prejudices and naivety. This is not a permanent condition; people can get it ‘right’ after a recognition and critical assessment of this ‘wrong’.

Another way people get feminism ‘wrong’ is by only professing that feminism is about ‘equality’ in its most superficial sense. Equality in the superficial sense refers to establishing equal opportunities for women and men in every arenas of public and domestic life without addressing and dismantling what causes inequality.

Identifying the problems why inequality continues to persist is about pulling the rug from the complacency of everyday life. Being ‘right’ about feminism is about being confrontational, uncomfortable, uncompromising, and provocative towards people and institutions that willfully stand in the way of women.

Fluff feminism, on the other hand, is about being nice and a bland celebration of consumerism and ‘empowerment’. It is the kind of feminism that even sexists and misogynists can get behind because it does not rock the boat of patriarchy. In fact, fluff feminism’s adoration of celebrity and commodified femininity reinforces sexism.

We already live in a society that regards women as the archetypal consumer; she loves to shop because she is obsessed about her looks, clothes, and make-up. This is a society that polices how women look. The tragedy is, women happily self-police themselves, internalising the consumerist narrative of “shop til you drop”. We also must endure a society that worships the unholy trinity of fame, money, and power. So using celebrity to ‘re-brand’ feminism does little to illuminate the hard work and concerns of people who have neither fame, money, nor power.

Fluff feminism reinforces the status quo. It makes no demands, it asks no questions. It is allergic to critical examination and reflection. It is about accommodating all choices that women make as ‘feminist’ because she chose it – whether it is pursuing a satisfying full-time career or giving up work to have ten children or getting a Brazilian wax.

To make feminism ‘fun’ and less ‘scary’, anything can be feminist so long as it is prefaced with ‘choice’. But change on the individual and societal level is unsettling and uncomfortable. The embrace of discomfort and anxiety is radical. Insisting on comfort and convenience is not.

This post is not about putting down women who may be fluff feminists, but an attack on fluff feminism itself. There is a difference between critiquing politics and disparaging a group of people. Women are not born fluff feminists, but they can become fluff feminists when they do not view the world from a critical lens.

New essay on The New Inquiry

The New Inquiry has kindly published an essay I’ve written on Islamic astronomy, ritual, and outer space in their January issue on ‘Stars’. Here is an excerpt:

Astrological and cosmological inquiry by medieval Muslim and Arabian scholars (that is, they wrote in Arabic) were concerned with the link that connected the earth and the night sky, and humankind’s place in it. The religious impulse to make sense of this “place” would animate scientific debates about the stars in the ninth to 14th centuries—the “golden age of Islam.” In turn, the legacy of Muslim scientists or natural philosophers of this period would inspire Islamic practice in outer space in the 21st century, with dubious results.

For centuries, the stars out in outer space provided humanity with a sense of wonder, mystery, and the divine. Through gazing upon the stars and stripping away their distant secret, a mastery of extraterrestrial worlds and dreams of conquest became inevitable. Thus in the present century, Islamic science and space exploration would together at last arrive at a spectacular conclusion: an achievement of greater proximity to the stars to better understand humankind’s place and space in the universe. Not only would Muslims arrive in outer space, but through techno-theological discourse, they would able to make space for Islam among the stars.

Read the rest here.