How to teach Gender and Sexuality in Malaysia

It was a huge privilege to teach Gender and Sexuality at the University of Malaya between August 2015 and June 2019. Right from the outset of my appointment, I overhauled the syllabus to reflect current, local and global debates in the field of feminist and queer theory.

I felt that it was absolutely pertinent to dive straight into theory in the first lecture. It was my way of setting the tone with students who were on their first two weeks of ‘adding and dropping’ courses. Students who were put off by jargon and theory could drop the course but since I started teaching the course, only very few did.

A non-binary and non-normative approach to gender and sexuality was the guiding principle of the syllabus. Homosexuality and transgender/intersexed identities were not considered ‘other’ or ‘alternative’. Heterosexuality itself was provincialised and denaturalised to demonstrate its historicity rather than something that is ‘natural’, ‘normal’ or ‘common sense’.

Teaching gender and sexuality
Teaching Gender and Sexuality at the University of Malaya in December 2018 (Source: Yayasan Nusantara Instagram)

The course itself was quite theory-heavy. Students learn fundamental concepts like ‘performativity’, ‘drag’, ‘homonormativity’, and ‘intersectionality’ from reading classic texts by Judith Butler and Kimberle Crenshaw. Tutorials were conducted to discuss at least one essential reading (a journal article and/or a section of a book chapter) and students were assigned to write short essays or ‘reaction papers’ of no more than 500 words every week on their critical assessment of the texts. I have found that regular writing helps students with building confidence in articulating their argument and retention of ideas on exam day. It was also a way of identifying students who were struggling with the workload and personal issues. Irregular class attendance and failure to turn in reaction papers were often a sign of struggle.

The course spanned 14 weeks with one ‘reading week’ in between. In week 7 when students begin to show fatigue, there is a film screening following which students write a review using concepts learned in the course. I have shown Paris is Burning, Suffragette, Madame X and Perfect Blue as part of the syllabus.

Considering that homophobia and transphobia are institutionalised on Malaysian campuses, I was prepared for – rather than cautious of – the possible backlash to my course. However, my concerns were mostly unfounded; in the four years of teaching Gender and Sexuality from a pro-LGBTQ and feminist perspective, I had never received complaints or threats. In fact, student evaluations every year were very positive. I attributed my academic freedom to the slightly insulated professional status I had as a university lecturer and to the fact that moral-religious debates were kept outside the remit of the course syllabus.

I hope this brief post is instructive to lecturers interested in teaching Gender and Sexuality in Malaysia or who find themselves having to teach it. The course requires a thoughtful pedagogy and some chutzpah in the classroom to ensure teaching and learning approaches that are guided by social and structural justice 

Structures of feeling and dark laughter: A few more publications for 2019

Utter neglect has plagued this blog yet again. To my detriment I’m sure. I’ve missed opportunities to properly self-promote my work on this blog, the very place that launched my life in writing. To remedy that, here are some rather belated updates.

1. Back in February 2018, my friends Adil Johan, Nazry Bahrawi and me formed a panel and roundtable on cosmopolitan intimacies in Malay popular culture at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University. The fruit of our collaboration was a special section guest edited by Adil for Journal of Intercultural Studies (Volume 40, Issue 4) which featured our articles. The following is the abstract of my article, ‘The New Malay Woman’s jiwa as a postcolonial structure of feeling’:

Women from newly liberated postcolonial societies have produced fiction and non-fiction work with a critical view on women’s inferior status and discriminatory cultural practices that powerfully resonate with contemporary feminist opinions. However, their views are parallel insofar as an understanding of ‘women’ remains unproblematised. In this article, ‘women’ and ‘feminism’ are unpacked from a domestic cosmopolitan lens, particularly from the perspective of the postcolonial woman’s spirit of openness to the other. The postcolonial subject in question is the New Malay Woman, a cultural construction in the early years of Malaysia’s independence, a female figure formed through her critique of modernity and encounters with transnationalism. But it is through the New Malay Woman’s soul or jiwa, explicated in the essays and semi-autobiographical fiction of Malay women writers in the 1960s, that we find ‘structures of feeling’ overcoming facile parallels and temporal distances between the early postcolonial woman and contemporary feminist wherever she might be. It is hoped that from explicating the ‘structures of feeling’ that the meaning of ‘women’ and ‘emancipation’ as articulated by early postcolonial women writers is better understood.

The article builds on my earlier work on Anis Sabirin and Salmi Manja but brings into discussion ways of recuperating forgotten works by women in the Global South that situate Malay women writers of the 1960s both in their postcolonial context but also within a contemporary feminist histories of the present.

2. The article I’ve been slowly crafting on women’s laughter in Malaysian horror (that a male academic once said was “whimsical”, a backhanded way of saying it’s silly and probably pointless. Ha!), ‘The laugh of the pontianak: darkness and feminism in Malay folk horror’, is now published in Feminist Media Studies:

The laughing woman represents a special kind of excess and cautionary reminder of social and moral decay. With her head cast back, the open laugh of a woman is disparaged as a sign of provocation, disorder, and immorality. In many instances a woman’s open and hearty laugh is “grotesque” regardless of the multiple genres of laughter. This essay has two main aims. First, to interpret the meaning of the laughter of the pontianak, the female vampire, in Malay-language horror film and folk culture. And second, to rehabilitate the grotesque femininity of the pontianak by foregrounding the significance of women’s laughter as feminist resistance. With reference to scenes from Malay-language horror cinema from three different eras, an argument is advanced that the darker shade of laughter can mobilize resistance. “Dark” laughter is not only gendered but also linguistic and behaves in a range of specific speech acts. Moreover, the dark laughter in popular representations of the pontianak is part of a repertoire of her sonic subjectivity that stages the collapse of desire and patriarchal order, opening up potentialities for feminist affective knowledge.

My fascination with women’s laughter can be traced to multiple sources: my own enjoyment of laughter, of laughing loudly, and how and why it is, particularly in Malay media representations, the prerogative of female antagonists. The ultimate arch female villain of Malay folklore, the pontianak, as it turns out, has been laughing for decades since the inception of Malaya.