I have been thinking a lot about intersectionality and women who do not wear the tudung lately and it is not so much because the concept is de rigueur right now as I have been accused of not being intersectional enough in my viral article, Asal-usul obsesi Melayu dengan tudung (The origins of the Malay obsession with the tudung) published in my column in the Malay Mail Online on 15 October 2015.
Within days of the article’s publication, comments on Twitter and emails began to trickle in, then tweets condemning my piece and expressing some distaste towards me flooded my timeline. When feminist countering views to my article began to emerge, they sang a similar tune: that my critique of a culture pressuring Malay women to wear the tudung elided two important elements in the debate; choice and agency.
Fair enough, choice and agency are abstract notions nearly every woman are thought to have, in addition to our ability to reason, rationalise and make decisions. But it is important to note their significance and currency in this debate. Choice and agency in themselves have a talismanic quality; that their very utterance would be enough to end a feminist conversation – her choice, her empowerment, end of story. Women’s choice and agency are a defiant win in the face of a deeply patriarchal culture.
It would be a little bit patronising to suggest that I don’t know the means through which choice, agency, and the patriarchy operate. But having been schooled by said countering views nonetheless, I was still left with an unanswered issue; what about women who do not wear the tudung? Why are they subjected to so much abuse? And more crucially, what makes their abuse different from other women? Will the pressure and public abuse of women who do not wear the tudung illuminate some uncomfortable truths about modern Muslim Malaysia?
To say that all women – whether they wear the tudung or not – suffer patriarchal abuse is to sweep under the carpet the specificities of being a woman who does not wear the tudung and her specific challenges in Malaysia. Because there are differences between Malay women, whether if it is because of their regional and class background, linguistic abilities, academic credentials, and yes if they wear the headscarf or not, we will be impacted very differentially by patriarchy.
A middle class Malay woman in the city who wears the tudung is going to experience sexism very differently from a working class Malay who doesn’t wear the tudung in small towns outside the Klang Valley. Although women’s attire in general is policed in Malaysia, we are policed differently because of our respective social differences. If you wear the headscarf, every strand of hair needs to be tucked away and other arbitrary notions of sartorial modesty may be acquiesced accordingly. Women who do not wear the tudung present a different kind of challenge. Tudung-less non-Malay women move more freely in shorter skirts and short shorts. Tudung-less bodies interpellated as ‘Malay’ will be disciplined differently or diminished altogether.
In Kimberlé Crenshaw’s seminal article, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Women of Color’, the political specificities of Black women’s activism were either ignored or erased because they were too similar to white women in their subjection to patriarchal sexism, and yet too different because their black identity and experiences of racism. Due to their intersecting position between racism and sexism, their experiences were dismissed or erased entirely in both anti-sexist and anti-racist political action:
The need to split one’s political energies between two sometimes opposing groups is a dimension of intersectional disempowerment [my emphasis] that men of color and white women seldom confront. Indeed, their specific raced and gendered experiences, although intersectional, often define as well as confine the interests of the entire group. For example, racism as experienced by people of color who are of a particular gender – male – tends to determine the parameters of antiracist struggles, just as sexism as experienced by women of a particular race – white – tends to ground the women’s movement (Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins’ 1991: 1252)
In almost similar ways, Malay women who do not wear the tudung and their specific experiences are being erased by the deleteriously non-intersecting view that ALL women are subjected by sexism and misogyny. Malay women who do not wear the tudung are similar to women who wear the tudung because of sexist gender policing they experience. But women who do not wear the tudung are significantly different because of their visibility as women who deviate from normative interpretations of Islam and contemporary Malay culture.
I would like to argue that the experiential specificity of Malay women who do not wear the tudung be addressed along two strands; their gendered subjectivity and Muslim identity. I would argue that unless and until these two strands are addressed as separate spheres of cultural pressures, Malay women who do not wear the tudung will continue to be erased from feminist debates on their bodies, sexuality, and very being.
Malay women who do not wear the tudung may face the same patriarchal policing of their gendered subjectivity as women who wear the tudung in a multitude of contexts; as inferior to men’s inherent ability to lead and dominate the public sphere and discourse. But as Muslims, Malay women who do not wear the tudung face a different kind of policing and subordination. Their very visibility as women who do not cover themselves sufficiently mark them out as Other to the normative articulation of Malay femininity.
Much of the criticism that cashes on the currency of agency and choice adopt the politicised stance of covered Muslim women in countries hostile to the hijab and Islam generally. The position of these women becomes a feminist act because their decision to wear the hijab is expressed as a symbolic resistance to a culture that demand their ‘exposure’ to the secular gaze. Muslim women who wear the hijab in Europe are confronted by the patronising white saviour complex of the militant activist group Femen keen on participating in the enduring crusade of ‘saving brown women from brown men’.
But in Malaysia, the pressure on women is quite the opposite. The cultural and institutional pressure on women to cover may well be a subliminal rejection of the secular gaze and its imperialistic definitions of democracy and human rights. And here I might make a provocative suggestion: the politicised articulation of women who cover for ‘feminist’ reasons, citing agency and informed choice, may collude with the Islamic sphere of action that subordinate Malay women who do not wear the tudung.
So long as the majority group of women – women who wear the tudung (and their being the majority have greater leverage to navigate spaces because of their success in fulfilling normative expectations of Malay femininity) – ignore the differential impact of the patriarchal mode of gendered and religious policing, they will continue to be complicit in the specific subordination of Malay women who do not wear the tudung.
To conclude, I would quote Crenshaw on the political implications of ignoring the intersectional oppression of women at the margins:
Because women of color experience racism in ways not always the same as those experienced by men of color experience racism and sexism in ways not always parallel to experiences of white women, antiracism and feminism are limited, even on their own terms. (Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins’ 1991: 1252)
To think within the parameters of political intersectionality is to argue that gender and religious-based struggles in Malaysia will be limited so long as it does not address the specificities of women who reside within the margins of normative femininity in Malaysia. I would not deny that normative femininity itself is diverse and within it consists of contradictions. However, the same normative femininity – because of its normativitiy and majority status – allows it to be more privileged, more representable, and vocal enough to drown out the differences between women.
Kimberle Crenshaw. 1991. ‘Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and women of color’ Stanford Law Review Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 1241-1299.