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’.
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
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.
Note: This was a paper presented at the International Conference on Gender and Sexuality in Asia (CoGen 2018) in Monash University, Sunway Malaysia in November 2018. Friends who have followed my research and talks in recent years know it’s a product of years of my fascination with Dato Vida.
In a music video limited to a cotton candy pink colour palette, a middle-aged Muslim-Malay woman in a large tiara over her hijab sings and dances with an unabashed message of female sexual desire and narcissism. She sings to the viewer: “I want you” with “I want” on disco repeat. “I am fun. I am pretty. I am beautiful. I’m a queen. I inspire your desire,” she continues with a glint in her eye.
The singer is Datuk Seri Hasmiza Othman or better known as Dato Vida, a Malaysian entrepreneur of women’s beauty products. Her astronomical rise in Malaysian mass culture is attributed to her eccentric personal style of overstatement jewels and sequins, gaudy make-up, and as the model of her own skin-bleaching products. To little surprise in a society defined by conservative social and cultural mores, her notoriety for extravagant self-promotion and penchant for all things pink and lapidary have attracted public mockery and bewilderment.
On 11 May 2018, large vehicles hauled trolleys full of briefcases stuffed with cash worth millions in multiple currencies, jewelry, hundreds of luxury handbags and watches from the homes of the former Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor. With echoes of the Marcos, the mind-boggling accumulation of status objects in their different residences was met with public shock and outrage. In the months to follow, Najib Razak and Rosmah Mansor were arrested and charged with multiple counts of breach of trust, money laundering and tax evasion, mostly arising from the 1MDB scandal. The couple have pled not guilty to the charges and vehemently defended their innocence. They are embroiled in the world’s biggest financial scandal and subject to global and nation-wide derision typically reserved for disgraced public figures.
My paper reflects on the excesses of Rosmah Mansor, wife of the former Malaysian prime minister, and Dato Vida, the popular Malaysian female entrepreneur, both of whom in different ways embody the apotheosis of the gendered effects of Islamic modernity and post-capitalist modernisation.
For this paper (which still requires so much more research!!), I conducted face-to-face and telephone interviews with middle-aged Malay-Muslim women over the age of 50 who are active in politics and the corporate world (names have been changed to protect their identity). In our conversations, I identify attempts by Rosmah and Dato Vida at legitimacy through personal narrative, charisma, and celebrity as a way of understanding forms of informal power that women who possess the trifecta of ethnicity, religion, and super wealth have.
Max Weber’s concept of charisma has been used to explain Southeast Asian state formation and leadership, but here I wish to utilise it from a feminist perspective as there is a lack of analysis of power, authority, and charisma from a gendered lens. Charisma is understood as ‘the extraordinary and personal gift of grace’ (Weber 1919) that grants particular individuals authority and legitimacy. It is defined by the size of one’s following, it promotes ‘irrational’ devotion, charisma is unstable but a necessary starting ingredient in the ‘objectification’ and ‘routinised’ control of political action. Thus, Weber does not regard charisma as only intrinsic to certain individuals but sees it relationally, in the number of followers, as social exchange and as strategies of ‘routinisation’.
I am not necessarily saying that both women Dato Vida and Rosmah Mansor have plenty of charisma – not least Rosmah, as I will explain further below. Rather, I am performing an exercise in comparing and contrasting the two women who have much in common though one fails while the other succeeds in the sphere of public acceptance. It may help explain how this trifecta of ethnicity, religion, and super wealth protects other transgressive public personalities such as the transgender business woman Nur Sajat and Neelofar from moral opprobrium and leaves others more vulnerable to disrepute.
My research participates in the affective turn in the sociological and anthropological research and the cultural studies of Southeast Asia. For this reason, I am also interested in the paradoxes of Malay-Muslim femininity that they embody – pious yet immodest and over the top – and the affective registers they produce among Malay-Muslim women. I do this by focusing on one particular emotion most closely associated with the Malay community – ‘malu’ – loosely defined as shame or / embarrassment. I consider the ways in which Weberian charisma and the personal narrative interact with notions of ‘malu’ as a powerful form of political affect.
Crazy rich Malays
The expansion of the affluent middle-class Malay class or the Melayu Baru can be considered a direct product of Malaysia’s affirmative action policies to eradicate poverty and transform the traditionally rural Malay community into university-educated, white-collared professionals ready for the capitalist market. Malay women in particular experienced the most dramatic transformation that accelerated their participation in the public sphere as modern and educated workers who must also be family-oriented mothers and wives.
Malaysia’s path towards modernisation converged with resurgent Islam from the late 1970s that sought to redraw gendered boundaries in the public sphere. The emergence of successful female entrepreneurs can be traced to the longer history of Malay entrepreneurship from the 1960s who were predominantly farmers, rural workers, and petty traders in cottage industries (Shamsul 1999).
Shamsul AB argues that the Malay middle-class were themselves not only the vanguards of the dakwah movement but demonstrated ‘tendencies of neoliberalism and its internal contradictions’. I quote him at length here:
On the one hand [the Malay middle-class] is highly in favour of the continued expansion of the market and promotion of aggressive individualism, thus making it hostile to tradition. On the other hand, its political survival depends upon the manipulation of and persistence of tradition for its legitimacy, hence its attachment to conservatism, notably in areas concerning the nation, religion, gender and the family (1999: 104).
Personal narrative – charisma and celebrity
Both Dato Vida and Rosmah Mansor share similarities that demonstrate aspects of feminine excess and transgression. Both women rely on personal narrative to defend their excesses. Dato Vida through her much-publicised narrative of personal struggle from hardship to success and excessive performative piety, Rosmah Mansor through her 2013 autobiography and speeches about her domestic ‘struggle’ when her husband is away. Both are middle-aged women whose looks have been mocked for verging on the female grotesque. Their claim to power and status is disputed to be illegitimate. Dato Vida holds a fake doctorate and has built a corporate empire founded on skin whitening products that are said to contain toxic substances while Rosmah’s ruthless pursuit of power and wealth is now under criminal investigation.
Dato Vida appeals to working-class Malay-Muslim female consumers through the combination of her much-publicised personal story of fortitude as a struggling single mother and her startling sartorial presentation. Keen to demonstrate her wealth and piety, Dato Vida constructs a personal narrative of struggle and prayer that powerfully connects with her female audience. In her research with Bedouin women who follow the lives of Egyptian female actors, Lila Abu-Lughod (1995) states that working-class female audiences strongly identify not with the fame and wealth of female film stars but their desire for repentance and piety.
Hailing from Kelantan, one of Malaysia’s poorest and socially conservative states yet has a tradition of economically resourceful and entrepreneurial women, Dato Vida resists the stereotypes of the passive Muslim woman. She was raised in a family who lost a fortune forcing the young Hasmizah to be entrepreneurial from a young age. Multiple business failures and a family tragedy that resulted in the death of her children became part of her public narrative. Through sheer marketing savvy, Dato Vida has proven to be resilient despite accusations of fraud that would have otherwise decimated the reputation of public figures.
Pn. Marlini, 63, senior corporate trainer, on Dato Vida’s charisma:
Dato Vida uses herself as a marketing tool. I have respect and admiration for her because she is clever, but she is also manipulative. She manipulates women to buy her products. What is truly incredible is that even when her products were found to be unsafe [by the Malaysian Ministry of Health], thousands of women still bought her products!
In the figure of Dato Vida, we find the notion of Islamic modesty stretched and challenged, bringing into focus the conditions for its flexibility when it comes into contact with neoliberal consumption and individualism. She is emblematic of working-class Malay Muslim feminine aspirations, challenging the limits of Islamic morality in her overt assertions of female desire and consumption. Her popularity and success can be attributed to the local socio-economic and cultural transitions that help construct competing Malay-Muslim femininities, each with economic agency and versions of social capital. I would also argue that Dato Vida’s public articulations, self-representation, and connotative associations fill the discursive void in Muslim feminist discourse in Malaysia that remains uncritical of neoliberalism and capitalism.
Due to time constraints, I have less time to elaborate on Rosmah Mansor’s life story in my presentation today. But I will include a response from a Wanita UMNO branch leader whom I will call Pn. Fatimah, 60, who argues that Rosmah Mansor’s attempt at developing charisma is more unstable within her own party. Please pardon the gossipy language:
In UMNO, support for leaders is ‘depan muka’ (by appearances) only. Loyalty is very important, so members are told to defend the behaviour of their leaders. Deviating from the party line can result in loss in favour, ostracisation and expulsion.
[The truth is] nearly all of Wanita UMNO do not like Rosmah but they defend her. They believe that much of the criminal misconduct is her doing, not Najib’s. Najib was too weak [because Rosmah was very dominant]. […]Rosmah has a reputation within UMNO to be indulgent, vulgar but she is incredibly confident, sure of herself and can be really fun.
I also have to state that Rosmah used her autobiography, launched by Mahathir Mohamad in 2013, to defend herself from accusations of living a lavish lifestyle at the taxpayer’s expense. In it she argues that she had money saved since her childhood and had earned millions from selling her recording album to ministers. Her album, however, was never released to the public.
Both women rely on attempts to develop charisma through celebrity, mass mediated means and the power of pop music. Celebrity is a necessary factor in amplifying reputation in the public sphere through mediated means. Turning to celebrity means the reconstruction of personas as ‘intimate strangers’ (Schikel 1986) who combine social and physical distance and affective proximity through media apparatuses. Like charisma, celebrity is a necessary prerequisite for power relations.
Malu and Malay modernity
In this section of my presentation, I insert their personas into debates about the productive role of ‘malu’ or shame, embarrassment or shyness as a way of thinking about how malu may be reinforced or eroded as a consequence of socioeconomic and religious transitions within Malay society.
In the Malay Archipelago, ‘malu’ is been mobilised to reinforce hierarchy and deference towards those with higher social status. To know shame (‘tahu malu’) or have shame (‘ada malu’) serves to instill moral consciousness and virtue in oneself. ‘Tidak tahu malu’ on the other hand is to suggest immorality and brazen impropriety. ‘Malu’ is also gendered; malu compels women to show self-restraint and shyness, wild aggression or amok among men. In anthropological literature, ‘malu’ is regarded a fundamental concept necessary to social cohesion and conformity.
I would argue here that ‘malu’ mobilised as a political affect during the fallout of the Najib administration, his implication in the 1MDB scandal and loss of Barisan Nasional. Perhaps aware that the meaning of ‘malu’ as shamelessness was weaponised against him, Najib began an attempt to rehabilitate himself in a campaign to ‘reclaim’ malu in photo-ops with the caption, ‘Malu apa, bossku?’ (What’s there to be ashamed of, boss?).
Diametrically opposed to ‘malu’ is ‘sombong’. ‘Sombong’ or arrogant is a damning social criticism in the Malay Archipelago (Wikan 1990). To be seen as sombong is enough to discredit and delegitimise power. Thus, accusations of ‘malu’ and ‘sombong’ are mobilised as ‘affective rationality’ (Marshall 1997) that circulate discussions around the personhood and exploits of Rosmah Mansor and Dato Vida. Affective rationality relies on the mass harnessing of similar emotions towards public figures and helps to sanction power.
On Rosmah Mansor:
If we look at previous PM’s wives, they played mainly a supporting role to their husbands. They were more self-restrained (tidak menonjolkan diri). For instance [the former PM] Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s wife. [By contrast], Rosmah appears to upstage her husband, the country’s CEO. She crosses the line and plays a political role by meeting with foreign dignitaries such as meeting the Saudi family [Pn. Marlini].
Pn. Marlini and her female friends do not have any sympathy for Rosmah:
No one I know has any sympathy for her. Rosmah has proven herself to be “too much”; too greedy and has too much desire for the limelight and that is her downfall. She doesn’t endear herself to the people. Instead she is sombong.
At times ‘malu’ can stand in the way of progress. UMNO branch leader Pn. Fatimah likes Dato Vida’s persona because she doesn’t use ‘malu’ as an obstacle to success. She admires her and believes that Dato Vida is a ‘hard worker’ who isn’t ashamed to put herself out there (tak usah malu, tak usah segan) even when she challenges norms and is embarrassing to many people. What’s more important is that she is advancing the cause of Malay entrepreneurs, says Pn. Fatimah.
There are other divergences that pit Rosmah and Dato Vida apart. Rosmah is constructed as a manipulative gold-digger who is accused as the cause behind Najib’s corruption and fall from grace. ‘Gold-diggers’ is a gendered label that mines from a discourse of women’s undeserved social mobility. In contrast, acceptance of Dato Vida’s more deserving wealth and influence is ascribed to her piety and her apparent warmth (tidak sombong), factors that mitigate against accusations of negative shamelessness. Furthermore, her entrepreneurial spirit dovetails with the longer history of the Orang Kaya Baru and the widely-accepted contemporary neoliberal narratives of corporate individualism and capitalist success.
What does it say about a community in which female success is mediated through capitalist consumerism, wanton extravagance, and a public persona that exaggerates aspects of Muslim femininity and piety? And what about female failure?
As Weber argues, charisma is unstable and transient and relies on a number of strategies. I’d argue that women turn to different strategies to develop informal power. They mine cultural narratives of femininity and entrepreneurship; they may struggle to establish legitimacy and use celebrity to amplify their reputation.
I still have much more to research to find more answers including that on the relationship between charisma, celebrity, and malu from a feminist lens. But what I can tentatively say is that malu continues to be a powerful affective tool to rein in behaviour even of the most powerful people. A range of behavioural traits and practices interpreted such as sombong have powerful resonance in a community reconstituted by modernisation, Islamisation, and globalisation. But at the same time, individuals with charisma are able to mitigate the effects of malu as political affect.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1995. Movie stars and Islamic moralism in Egypt. Social Text. 42: 53-67.
Marshall, David. 1997. Celebrity and Power. Minneapolis, MN and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Schickel, Richard. 1986. Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity. New York: Doubleday
Shamsul A.B. 1999. From Orang Kaya Baru to Melayu Baru. In Culture and Privilege in Capitalist Asia, edited by Michael Pinches
Weber, Max. 1919. Politics as a Vocation.
Wikan, Unni. 1990. Managing Turbulent Hearts: A Balinese Formula for Living. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hughes-Freeland, Felicia. 2007. Charisma and celebrity in Indonesian politics. Anthropological Theory. Vol 7 (2): 177-200.
Sloane-White, Patricia. 2017. Corporate Islam: Sharia and the Modern Workplace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Plenty of research are re-discovering cosmopolitan female subjects and the ‘modern girl’ in the late colonial and early postcolonial eras. In my own work, I’ve added to the list the ‘New Malay Woman’ who was more than a consumer and image, but a literary voice and agent of change:
[She is ] independent, highly-educated, urban and urbane, modern, aspirational, outspoken and worldly. The new woman in modern Malay literature is not passive and docile as the archetypal tragic woman in ﬁction by female novelists in the 1940s and 1950s. She has experienced Western culture and lifestyles directly or remotely and is conﬁdent about the moral compatibility of Western and indigenous values. The modern female subject appropriates the possibilities of modernity for her own ends in a world that is shrinking and increasingly interconnected. Innovative narrative techniques found in the ﬁction of Malay women writers of the period, such as the literary autobiography and stream of consciousness foreground the female voice onto the page and into the public sphere.
I am guilty for not updating this blog, but my written work have been appearing elsewhere! Among them include an article in Signs journal, something I’ve been working on the past few years on unveiling and non-veiling practices among Malay-Muslim women and their reconstruction of self and identity. Another article is now published in Kajian Malaysia on the emotional reality of doing freelance and fixed-term academic work and strategies of mobilising the academic precariat.
Voluntary unveiling by Muslim women has largely been overlooked within the context of Islamization. In Muslim-majority societies where the hijab is not legally imposed on women, Muslim women who do not veil or are “free hair” face significant pressure as they embody, in very visible terms, deviance from normative Islamic practice. This article seeks to decenter the symbol of the hijab as the defining factor of these women’s lives by examining why Malay Muslim women remove the hijab and by reanimating a discussion on agency, failure, and reconstruction of self enacted through the practice of nonveiling. It examines the practices of the self that depart from local iterations of normative femininity and the processes of Islamization in Malaysia and how such processes inadvertently produce critical subjectivities and resistant bodies.
‘Precarious Intellectuals: The Freelance Academic in Malaysian Higher Education’, in Kajian Malaysia Vol. 36, No. 2, 1–20
What is the impact of the rising class of the academic precariat – defined as
academic workers contracted to teach and conduct research on short-term, zerohour contracts – on Malaysia’s rapid industrialisation of higher education? This article seeks to illuminate the employment pattern of this growing class of insecure academic labour at a time when there is a decline in tenured appointments and academic positions for new PhD graduates in Malaysia. The work environment of the academic precariat is characterised as flexible at best and exploitative at worst; an average academic precariat may experience a drop in wages commensurable with their qualification and experience, lack of employment benefits and office hours, and “docility” under the disciplinary management of a neoliberal institution. This article also seeks a sensitive reading of how freelance academics understand themselves by highlighting their affective or emotional labour and whose experiences are specifically shaped by insecurity, vulnerability and uncertainty. Taking a sociological approach to examining this phenomenon, this article argues that the rise of the academic precariat can be attributed to the discursive climate within and at the peripheries of Malaysian higher education that operates alongside the restructuring of funds into higher institutions of learning. Such a discursive climate surrounds the unstable semantic reproduction of the designation “academic” and its catch-all usage to describe individuals within and at the peripheries of academia. Arguing that the rise of the academic precariat is a bleak indication of the state of higher education in Malaysia, this article closes with strategies for mobilising resistance and marshalling support through the strengthening of unions for full-time, part-time and freelance academics.
I’ve also been lucky to review Andrew Weintraub and Bart Barendregt’s super fascinating edited volume, Vamping the Stage: Female Voices of Asian Modernities for the Dutch Southeast Asian Studies journal, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde.
I’ve been self-censoring myself for too long. Mostly out of fear of being poor again and of losing out on opportunities. But then I realised, much to my despair, that one can never win as a woman in academia, especially in Malaysian academia.
It shouldn’t take long to identify sexism in academia. But it requires an appetite of a beast to name it when it is the noxious air one breathes. In light of the male backlash against historian Fern Riddell’s request to be addressed as ‘Dr.’ to honour her academic expertise (see here), I feel empowered to say a few things:
1. I’m a tough person. But structural sexism in academia can eventually take a toll on a person, however tough she may be.
2. Writing about sexism in academia is hard. To quote Sara Ahmed, by pointing out a problem, one *becomes* the problem. This means writing about sexism in academia frequently results in the punishment not against perpetrators but its victims; the latter are deemed a bad team-player, can’t hack the work culture/status quo, and “weak”.
2 a. Writing about the problems within academia/my discomfort at work has resulted in friends of my head of department reporting back to her of my “bad behaviour” online. After a while, I became so careful of what I say (constantly agonising, “how will this come across?”) to the point of silencing myself.
3. With the exception of one person in my workplace (the gender studies dept), everyone is supportive of sexual harassment victims. But one is too many. Many women, sadly including those who call themselves “feminist”, are unlikely to support other women. The sheer number of friends who’ve evaporated/I’ve have to drop to preserve my mental health is quite remarkable for a village like KL.
4. I sometimes wonder why I’m seldom called to write/speak about gender and/or religion in local public forums while other people with less expertise are called and end up not really talking about gender or religion. I’m not invited to meet other international feminist scholars who visit my city. Maybe I don’t put myself “out there” enough and too modest. Perhaps it’s related to point #3.
5. Male early career researchers are hailed as “star” scholars and “most promising” academics “in the country” when they have only published little and/or in non-reputable local journals/less prestigious publications. Women scholars of similar rank and who have published more do not get that kind of recognition.
6. FEW people actually care about my research. And the few mostly reside outside Malaysia. NO ONE in my workplace/faculty wants to listen about my research or my publications.
7. Finding female collaborators within/outside academia is challenging. Often, one must either be a non-critical, non-threatening friend or a threatening competitor.
8. Think about it, why aren’t there any female versions of Farish Noors or Syed Farid Alatases, and as many? How many women have crashed and burned by sexism before they could be tenured professors?
9. The day that ‘gender’ is “niche” and “for women” is over. Gender underpins and encompasses all human activity and relations, get over it. Same goes with the urgency and intellectual significance of the “private”, “intimate”, “domestic” and “family”.
10. Just because YOU as a woman have had more opportunities, ease, and success in academia does not mean that sexism in academia does not happen.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’ve never doubted the support and friendship of those who stayed and still *talked* to me despite my stormy two years 2016-2017. Let’s make academia better, in ways small and great.
“Romance imagines peace, security, and ease precisely because there is dissension, insecurity, and difficulty” (Janice Radway, Reading the Romance 1984, p. 15)
Lately I’ve become very interested in how heterosexual Malay-Muslim women talk about romantic intimacy in their pursuit of potential partners, and why sexual violence features so significantly in Malay language romance novels. The public reaction to the foregoing statement is sharply divided: many are ‘shocked’ and ‘worried’ that women relish the depiction of rape in romantic fiction while others are ‘unsurprised’ knowing that sexual violence is a recurring trope of romance fiction found typically in established presses like Mills and Boon and Harlequin.
My latest project engages with these contrasting reactions by bringing together two bodies of scholarship. First, the construction of Malay-Muslim womanhood is narrowly defined along conservative ideas of demure and modest religiosity. It is incongruent with the undercurrent of desire seen in the commitment to reading romantic fiction and explicit violence. What makes this project new and germane is its examination of media practices through which women can safely explore romance, intimacy, and sexuality on their own terms even if it means a fascination with sexual violence.
Second, heterosexual romance is a long-discussed topic in the analysis of popular literature by feminist critics. Since the publication of Janice Radway’s classic 1984 study Reading the Romance, the romance novel has been viewed as a form of escape from the drudgery of domestic life and a romanticisation of women’s subordination in ‘real life’.
Commitment to romance reading is underpinned by the twin complex of ‘deprivation’ and ‘fear’; feeling deprived of romantic attention and pleasure in real life, and management of fear of patriarchal violence (Radway 1984, p. 70). Radway has an explanation for the recurring depiction of men’s sexual brutality in romance novels, arguing that it stems from women’s conflicted desire to deal with it and tame it:
… romance’s preoccupation with male brutality is an attempt to understand the meaning of an event that has become almost unavoidable in the real world. The romance may express misogynistic attitudes not because women share them but because they increasingly need to know how to deal with them. (1984, p. 72).
Female readers’ ways of coming to terms with patriarchy via the romance can also be discerned in their distinction between ‘forceful persuasion’ and “true” rape. While both are non-consensual acts of sexual violence, the former is romanticised whereby acts of violence by the male love interest are re-interpreted when he eventually shows utmost tenderness and devotion towards the heroine. Similar to the fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’, there is a kind and loving prince who really exists within the ‘Beast’ and waiting to be rehabilitated by the purity of the heroine’s love.
To make sense of how ‘love’ and ‘romance’ are defined in modern Malay society, I turn to Wazir Jahan Karim’s classic research on discourse of emotions in Malay society (1990). Articulations of intimate and romantic emotions become intensified during courtship and mediated through traditional verse (pantun) and song. Because naked expression of love and desire is subject to moral censure and frowned upon, courting couples send each other lines of verse to convey their most intimate feelings. However, her ethnographic study on traditional Malays demonstrates patterns of male agency and female passivity in the expression of emotions during courtship. My research aims to study contemporary behaviour and female agency in articulations of love and desire in a media-saturated society. I have chosen two modern media practices for this project: committed romance novel reading and mobile dating/matrimonial usage.
What is ‘mediated intimacy’ and why it matters
The project utilises the concept of ‘mediated intimacy’ to examine its role in mate-seeking and romance amongst single, university-educated Malay-Muslim women in urban Malaysia. ‘Mediated intimacy’ is a concept developed by Rosalind Gill (2009) which describes ‘the ways in which our understandings and experiences of a whole range of intimate relationships are increasingly mediated by constructions’ from media culture.
I would propose that ‘mediated intimacy’ becomes a resource for thinking, talking, and practicing romantic ideals in a conservative society where divulging openly about female desire is frowned upon. Thus, narratives from fiction and other media sources become materials and a powerful influence in the way Malay-Muslim women understand their romantic identity.
This project uses Anthony Giddens’s notion of ‘textual romance’ (2013) that draws parallels between romantic fiction and online dating practices whereby intimacy and romantic fantasy are developed with an appropriate degree of distance, both temporal and spatial, and at one’s own pace.
Media practices play an increasingly important role in the reconfiguration of gender roles and romantic expectations of Muslim women who belong to generations that have undergone rapid processes of modernisation and increased access to higher education, white-collar employment, and migration to urban centres (Abu Lughod 2005; Kaya 2009; Chakraborty 2012).
There is a growing body of scholarship on the usage of online dating and matrimonial services by young Muslims in Muslim majority societies. In societies where young Muslim women are socially discouraged and restricted from mixing freely with the opposite sex, online and mobile dating apps have become an increasingly popular medium for connecting in safe and respectable ways (Kaya 2009; Chakraborty 2012; Bajnaid and Elyas 2017).
The proposed project intends to shed light on the affordances and limitations of media practices that facilitate opportunities for emotional intimacy, romance, and marriage for Malay-Muslim women. Furthermore, this project seeks to identify the constituents that make up economies of desire that shape, limit, and enhance discourses of Muslim femininity and its aspirations. The research will be informed by studies that highlight the discerning nature of media consumption amongst Malay-Muslims in contemporary Malaysia (see Fischer 2008; Weintraub 2011; Md. Syed 2013), a society shaped by postcolonialism, neoliberalism, and globalisation much like the work by Randhika Parameswaran on young Indian female readers of Western romance fiction.
The redefinition of romance and intimacy in 21st century Malaysia by Muslim women will throw into sharp relief the transformation of women’s roles from colonial to the postcolonial-neoliberal present (Ong 1990; Stivens 2006). From the emergence of the New Malay Woman in the early postcolonial period to the contemporary Islamic model of femininity, the conflicting forces of modernisation, Islamisation, and neoliberalism have created deeply ambivalent constructions of Malay Muslim femininity.
I am interested in how rising conservatism across Southeast Asia is reshaping modernity and projections of gender in public and private discourses of agency, intimacy, failure and success. I am especially concerned that rising conservatism is contributing to the ‘illiberal turn’ in the economies of desire and notions of modern Muslim gender identities developed in mediated narratives of intimacy in romance fiction and Muslim dating services. I define the ‘illiberal turn’ in Malaysia as the domination in the public sphere of a broadly conservative approach to politics, law, and religious practice, with a tendency to restrict the freedoms and rights of minority groups and women (Peletz 2016).
Early data on Malay romance readers
In a small preliminary online survey I conducted with 87 female respondents in early 2017, nearly half were between the ages 21-25 years old (44.5%), and about a third were still in tertiary education (65.5%). Most were avid readers of romance novels (more than 8 a year, 32.2%):
I created the survey to identify themes that readers look out for in romance novels. 26 readers chose ‘Husband of parents’ choosing’ aka arranged marriage, 44 chose ‘Love according to Islamic principles’ aka Syariah-compliant romance, most i.e. 60 readers enjoy ‘Love after marriage’ as the main theme’, while 23 readers like ‘Contractual marriage’.
Not being a reader of Malay romance fiction myself, I was certain the four themes above are far from comprehensive. So I let the respondents fill in other themes they enjoy. Note that ‘kahwin paksa’ (forced marriage) appears a few times:
In a question on the socio-economic background and professional status of the male love interest, respondents showed a great variety of high and low status jobs. Business owners, lawyers, medical doctors represented the majority of male characters in Malay romance novels (70-81%), followed by university students (52%) and ustaz or male Islamic teacher and preacher (44%). But in the respondents’ own answers, there are surprising results, such as fisherman, street burger vendors, and farmers:
It’s hard to surmise for now if readers really do enjoy romance between women (much like themselves) and men in low-paying jobs. Novels like ‘Bang Guard Security Hatiku’ (Security Guard of My Heart) and ‘M.A.I.D’ that portray both male and female characters in low status precarious jobs perhaps combine both fantasy and mirror to the socio-economic uncertainty and inequality pervasive in Malaysian society. Such novels not only romanticise economic hardship and inequality but provide a narrative for adaptation and consolation in ‘real life’.
The survey asked respondents qualities of the female heroine they enjoy and perhaps relate to. A few have already stated a liking for ‘strong female characters’ in themes they look for in romance fiction. Others demonstrate a preference for the modest Muslimah which may suggest the cross-boundary quality of romance as fiction vs romance as real life:
The early data captures themes and qualities in heterosexual pairings in Malay romance fiction enjoyed by avid readers of the genre. In the research that follows, depictions of rape and other acts of male violence will be discussed with more detail with readers, authors, and publishers. It is tempting to arrive at the same conclusion as Janice Radway, but I believe there are other mechanisms of agency and desire at work amongst Malay-Muslim women. I am less interested in individual novels such as Ombak Rindu and their popularity, but more in themes of violence and inequality and how they fit into ideas of ‘romance’ and ‘intimacy’ readers learn, develop, and adopt for themselves in their own romantic quests.
This is Part 2 of a two-part post on the pontianak and women’s laughter in Malaysian horror cinema. Read Part 1.
Consider laughter’s capacity to upset and as a vehicle of resistance. More specifically when women laugh at men, laughing at patriarchy, laughing at power, laughing from below. Situated below speech in the register of communication, laughter can confound thanks to its multifarious meanings. It is pregnant with meaning that is not immediately accessible by reason and rational thinking. Its semantic elusiveness can be a form of resistance against the male-dominated symbolic order. It not only has the ability to inflict cracks in the micro-structures of patriarchy within the confines of a film narrative but to tear down the fourth wall.
Women’s voice in film is projected differently from men. In classical Hollywood cinema, the male disembodied voice-over has an omnipotent presence that emanates from the centre of the narrative, through and beyond the cinematic frame. By contrast, women’s voices in film are confined purely within diagetic space reinforcing the role of the female body in film as objects of the gaze. In response, female filmmakers have experimented with feminist cinematic approaches by dislodging women’s voices from the female image or the voice-image de-synchronisation, and deploying the female voice-over and voice-off instead. As Kaja Silverman argues below:
To disembody the female voice [via de-synchronisation] would be to challenge every conception by means of which we have previously known woman in Hollywood film, since it is precisely as body she is constructed there (1988, p. 164)
When heard but not seen, women’s hysterical laughter at patriarchy offers a diversion away from the corporeality of feminist politics. Resistance without the need for women’s bodily display offers a panacea to what Sandra Bartky calls the ‘feminine narcissism’ in both normative and transgressive subjectivity.
The sonic subjectivity of the laughing woman occurs within what Teresa De Lauretis calls a ‘space-off’, ‘the space not visible in the frame but inferable from what the frame makes visible’. Without the oppressive structures of the gaze, the ‘space-off’ represents a respite from the prevailing control of gender:
It is here [in the space-off] that the terms of a different construction of gender can be posed – terms that do have effect and take hold at the level of subjectivity and self-representation: in the micro-political practices of daily life and daily resistances that afford both agency and sources of power or empowering investments (De Lauretis, 1988, p. 25)
The pontianak’s disembodied laughter draws attention away from the materiality of a woman’s laughter and to the affective range of women’s voice and knowledge. It denies the cinematic unity of women as bodies and the ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ they provide. By departing, if momentarily, from women’s bodies as a site of resistance, disembodied laughter seeks to reclaim space through sonic means.
Discomfort with women’s laughter arises from what Deborah Cameron refers to as the gendered ‘distribution of linguistic resources’ that results in women’s exclusion from verbal expression in the public sphere. This is not to say that women are prohibited from speaking in public in toto but rather such prohibitions are sanctioned in subtle ways through a gendered division of linguistic labour within institutions in the public sphere. Certain forms of speech are registered as gendered (such as gossiping, nagging, shrill and strident speech) and assigned lower value and diminished authority. Speech designated as ‘feminine’ is negatively valued and as a consequence frequently evacuated from domains of power. Inadvertently but no less a consequence of gendered demarcation of speech, women are historically shut out from speaking from positions of institutions of authority, principally in the law as judges, as religious leaders, professors, and politicians.
Across cultures, women were either ritually or socially denied to speak with authority, seriousness, and symbolic gravity in the presence of men. With rare exception, under-representation of women in politics and prohibition against Muslim women delivering the Friday sermon to male worshippers are testament to the denial of the female public voice. When permitted to speak, a woman’s voice is channeled down a lower register where it is trivialised, mocked, and dismissed.
In conclusion, a woman’s laughter unleashes the power of the female voice to pierce the patriarchal edifice. To upend the threat of male dominance, all a woman needs to do is laugh with abandon. It is an apposite counter to the rapture of mass hysteria suffered by young Malay women, interpreted as a collective cry for help. And so a laugh is more than just a laugh, more than the voluntary spasms of the diagphram.
Although she emerges from a place of victimhood, the pontianak is a woman who is given a second chance to reclaim justice and what is hers to begin with. The extreme range of emotions that the Asian monstrous/feminine impresses upon others (from loving and seductive to terrifying) throws into sharp relief how the dark affect of anger, jealousy, vengeance, and schadenfreude can easily place ‘real’ femininity in the domain of the grotesque. But the anti-patriarchal terror of the pontianak’s laughter thinly conceals the precarity of women’s desire to undermine patriarchy. After all, the pontianak’s laugh signifies a momentary pyrrhic victory before she is vanquished by a man.
Occasionally, as in Anak Pontianak (1958), she survives the prevailing moral order that wipes out spirits and demons. But when her survival means forever stalking the earth alongside the other undead of legend, beautiful and untouched by age, she is made lonesome by the frail shortness of human life. There is indeed something about women’s laughter in Malay popular culture, its persistence in folk horror, and its derisiveness in discourses of Malay decorum. It is a vehicle for affective knowledge in a public sphere filled with gendered transgressions. Women’s loud shrieks and excessive laughter constitute temporary bursts of respite and resistance in a culture replete with impositions on women’s voices.
I’ve talked about sexual harassment quite a bit. In light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the global domino effect it had across other industries and institutions within and outside the US, it seemed inevitable that Malaysian liberal circles felt compelled to join in the conversation, albeit in small-scale curated debates and scattered hashtag activism on social media rather than full-on exposé of the scale of misogyny in Malaysian institutions of power and privilege. Early last December, I was invited to speak on BFM, a radio station known for its progressive programming, about the ‘post-Weinstein effect’, how it might irreversibly change men’s behaviour and more importantly, why it hasn’t left an impact in Malaysia.
But let me share how it all started and unfolded. In November 2017, the host of Feminist Fridays on BFM, Juliet Jacobs, invited me to be a guest on the show and handed me a carte blanche on any topic. I suggested the Weinstein scandal and how it might play out in Malaysia. She had instructed me to listen first to an earlier recording of Feminist Fridays on that very topic featuring ‘three feminists’. Unfortunately, the episode didn’t pull back the curtains of unspoken abuse prevalent in Malaysian culture. Although the three guests discussed with great nuance sexual harassment in Hollywood and the social media activism it generated, they did not speak as victims themselves, an irony when #MeToo is really about that.
I felt that there was a reluctance to steer the discussion inwards, towards our own deeply problematic society, right down to the women’s respective industries and professional circles. There were certainly no empirical examples, much less names of people or organisations, divulged in the episode. Perhaps it would put the guests at litigious risk. So the conversation between these ‘three feminists’ was left mostly in the abstract and reduced to personal views, far from an attempt to interrogate the systemic sexism that runs insidiously deep in our culture. To put it rather bluntly, the discussion was consigned to irrelevance the moment it started.
To that, I volunteered to step into the ring and identify the possible stumbling blocks facing Malaysian women from opening up beyond using the hashtag and taking calculated risks at naming perpetrators of sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual violence:
1. I am pretty certain, though a national survey will have to confirm (or nullify) my suspicions, that ‘sexual harassment’ as a criminal category is not widely understood in the public consciousness. Sexual harassment is fundamentally instances of unwanted sexual attention whether in the form of speech, text, or actions. A person can lodge a police report with reference to Section 509 of the Malaysian penal code, although its Victorian language requires an urgent update:
Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any person, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen by such person, or intrudes upon the privacy of such person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine or with both.
2. Malaysia is mired in an all-consuming culture of male impunity. Men implicated in crimes of high profile corruption and murder walk bold and free in the open, confident that their reputation will be rehabilitated soon enough. They may be lambasted as pariahs abroad and in private, but in Malaysia criminal men of wealth and power will shamelessly criminalise others who speak truth to power. Sexual harassment, especially when it is wrongly understood as a lesser crime, will be deemed both a luxury and risk to conquer in such a culture.
3. Although women shouldn’t have to shoulder the moral responsibility to stand and suffer for speaking out publicly against men’s bad behaviour, women protected by power, wealth, and connections should not stay silent. That said, high-profile women, female politicians and even prominent feminist activists in Malaysia have not participated in the #MeToo movement in any meaningful way. They have not used their status and platform to name and shame perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence. It would be implausible that they have never been victims themselves and that all men in positions of power in Malaysia are innocent of sexual harassment and violence. If anything, I would argue that the women in question see little political expediency for the time being to use their voice and legitimacy in the service of local and transnational feminist struggle.
Men can’t flirt or pursue women anymore? A perversion of the debate
My BFM interviewer, Chua Ern Teck, who stood in for Juliet while she was away for the Christmas break, was apologetic that he, a man, was interviewing me. I didn’t think much of it at the outset but when the questions came in, I quickly sensed the ‘male aftermath’ framing of the debate used in the interview. The ‘male aftermath’ of the Weinstein scandal can be characterised in three ways:
• First, that men now have to deeply reflect on and be accountable for their past and future behaviour
• Second, men’s silence and reluctance to engage meaningfully with actual rather than hypothetical instances of abuse and violence against women
• Third, a preoccupation with the so-called witch-hunt of men who are condemned for ‘being men’ and proving their masculinity through the sexual pursuit of women
The ‘male aftermath’ occurs alongside male backlash, of men fighting back with defamation suits and proclaiming the dangers of false accusations. Consequences that follow such a high profile reckoning is currently framed as bad news for men, who all expect to be rounded up for past behaviour that was never consciously registered as bad or criminal. A profession of blameless male ignorance becomes a familiar chorus: “I had no idea”, “I didn’t know you felt that way”, “I’m sorry if what I did offended you”. Meanwhile the reckoning machine is portrayed as merciless as it continues to claim high profile resignations, dismissals, and suspensions – a mere disruption to the careers of powerful men who have annihilated entire lives of women.
In my BFM interview, I was asked about how men should manage the prospect of being friendzoned by women now that so many men have been accused of grievous sexual misconduct. Rather than respond to a trivialising line of questioning, I questioned why the pressing need to reflect on the potential epidemic of friendzoning at this important cultural moment. Jessica Valenti in her article for The Guardian has an answer:
There’s a reason so many people are conflating bad and sometimes criminal behavior with romance: traditional ideas about seduction rely on tropes of women witholding sex and men working hard to get it. It’s a narrow notion of heterosexuality – one that does a good job excusing abusive behavior.
Men’s humiliation at being friendzoned takes its cue from a sexist culture that rewards men’s entitlement to women’s bodies. Friendzone has a tragic connotation because it results in men (read: Nice Guy™) being denied sexual access to women. There’s a reason why the perversion of the debate is so degrading. Men’s fears in light of the widespread reckoning and women’s fear of what men can do when denied sexual access have no equivalence. There is enough evidence to show that men are known to inflict extreme violence and kill women who reject them. To make them equivalent is an insult to women’s pain and trauma and to the long history of women’s pain and trauma.
From the ashes of annihilation
So what to do now? A global indictment of patriarchy at this present moment will not be complete when male perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence are not named and shamed. Women need to corroborate and use their whisper networks to identify, warn, and protect other women from future abuse.
To exact even an iota of change, manifested in the rise of women shattering their silence and men dragged down from the pedestal of impunity, we need to be reminded that sexual harassment and sexual violence do not occur in isolation. Rather, they happen because they are deeply embedded in a rape culture that shames women, discredits their testimony, and constructs victims as liars. Rape culture is web-like, connected to all discursive and physical spaces, public and private.
#MeToo is unlike previous reckoning of male violence against women. It is a rapid-fire public indictment of men after men of power whom hitherto were protected by money, connections, and their ability to make or break women’s careers. To be ignited by its passing torch means to be part of a global conversation and struggle.
But we need to be mindful that #MeToo has its limits and of the cultural, race and class specificities that made it possible and successful in the first place. To transplant #MeToo in the Malaysian context and expect similar results is a pipe dream that ignores previous Western feminist ideas and campaigns that have failed to take root in non-Western contexts.
This is an edited version of a conference paper presented at the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies conference in Seoul, South Korea in July 2017
The meaning of laughter, seen as springing from humour and moral degradation, has been a matter of philosophical preoccupation with human morality since the ancient time of Aristotle. And for much of the history of laughter, it is often interpreted with grim judgment. For all its suddenness and ephemerality, laughter can leave in its wake a lingering tenor of lightness and ambivalence, but also a countervailing darkness not far behind.
For some reason, women’s laughter is especially ugly and because of that it resides comfortably in the horror genre. In this post I’ll focus on the iconic laugh of the pontianak, the female vampire of Malay legend. Her laugh is a cornerstone of Malay-language horror and functions to elicit fear in men. There is a term in Bahasa Melayu, ‘mengilai’, that is specific only to women’s excessive, high-pitched laughter. The term is mobilised both in a context of supernatural horror but also as a way to undermine women’s pleasure of laughter. ‘Mengilai’ is associated with the grotesque and excess, a woman who laughs too much and too loudly, without shielding her gaping, convulsive mouth. Hags, witches, and evil women are represented to laugh in this manner. They are emblematic of undesirable Malay femininity, degraded simply by age and pleasure.
Why does the pontianak laugh and what does it mean? Why is her laugh a fixture in horror and why is it so threatening? And can women’s excessive laughter generate a powerful expression of feminist critique of patriarchy?
In scenes where the pontianak’s exaggerated shrieks of laughter fill the audiosphere of the victim and audience, we find that the point of origin of the laughter itself is immaterial. Her pale visage, hidden partially by a curtain of long hair, may be expressionless but her laugh is heard and very frequently not seen; we do not see her physically laughing. At times the laugh reappears as the closing credits roll when the film ends. I’d like to argue that her sonic subjectivity is formed through the play on physical absence and vocal presence – desynchronisation. According to feminist film theorist Kaja Silverman, desynchronisation counts as a strategy that disrupts cinematic conventions of gender.
The pontianak’s laughter anticipates the terror and painful death of male victims, setting the stage for the collapse of desire and patriarchal order, forcing open potentialities for feminist affective knowledge. Seemingly transcendental across time and place, the pontianak’s laugh signifies the transgressions of modern Malay femininity and the interruption to patriarchal control. Rather than an inexplicable outburst or an attempt at supernatural mimesis, the laugh of the birth demon in Malay language cinema indexes the boundaries of gendered Malay embodiment and anxiety of the modern Malay woman.
The laughing woman as grotesque
If the polite way for women to laugh is the inoffensive giggle, shielded with a hand to cover the aperture of laughter, then the wild shrieks of a woman’s laughter is truly grotesque. The female grotesque presents a challenge to patriarchal visual culture, as Mary Russo argues, because she assaults the male gaze thanks to the ‘destabilisation of female beauty’ and the realignment of the mechanism of (male) desire’. The laughing woman makes herself a different, subversive kind of spectacle that shatters her passivity and compliance to the male gaze. As a female grotesque par excellence, the pontianak belongs to the pantheon of Malay grotesquerie not simply through her status as visual spectacle (from which one may wish to look away) but also through her sonic excesses.
Women’s laughter in film especially in non-western cinema is under-appreciated. But attention to it illuminates powerfully aspects that make the convergence of film and gender so unsettling and subversive. The function of women’s laughter in film compared to that of men, though the latter certainly deserves separate attention, provides much food for thought. Scenes of women’s anti-patriarchal collective laughter are rare. The Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris’s 1982 film, A Question of Silence, is exemplary for its rare use of women’s collective laughter as an expression of power.
In the film’s ending, three women are in court for murdering a man in a boutique. A motive behind the murder proves elusive. The film’s protagonist, a feminist psychiatrist, provides a defense but the proceedings are interrupted when one by one, every woman in the court including the defendants themselves, inexplicably break out in loud uncontrollable laughter. The men remain unmoved, perhaps perplexed by the show of solidarity. They watch the women laugh as they walk out the courtroom. Even the psychiatrist herself walks out of the trial laughing and the film ends there. Unsurprisingly, the film’s anarchic ending drew unfavourable reviews from critics who were incredulous of women’s ability to derive sadistic pleasure from the destruction of men. Reviewers of the film have stated that the film’s feminist message ‘will not be served well’ and it is the ‘most ferociously anti-male feminist movie’ they had ever seen. So what makes women’s laughter in film so threatening? Can it be even more ominous when situated within a humourless (or even horrific) context?
When her uncanny self emerges to terrorise the living, the pontianak’s laugh cracks through the cinematic frame. In many instances, the disembodied laugh of the pontianak occurs when she is pursued by men of a village who act as guardians of moral order. She laughs during scenes depicting her as a direct threat to the living, whether physically or psychologically. Before a stake is driven through her body, she laughs at her imminent annihilation. Her laugh dominates the audiosphere when she defiantly demonstrates her supernatural abilities, whether to fly (Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam, 2004), to effortlessly decapitate her head (Pontianak Menjerit, 2005), or paralyse men into submission by immediately transforming into a horrifying demonic spirit (Pontianak, 1956; Anak Pontianak,1958; Gergasi, 1958).
As she leaps from tree to tree from her male pursuers, she laughs at their humanly limitations and mortality. Her laugh that shoots through the film’s soundtrack is one of defiance that the men cannot apprehend and destroy her, a mission that combines male desire and dread. Often only audible, her laughter further underscores her uncanny capacity to defy all that is humanly possible. We can declare that the pontianak’s high pitched laughter pierces through an unwitting man’s soul like a claw that rips through the soul of patriarchy.
A ‘monstrous maternal’ of Malay folklore, the pontianak is a symbol of thwarted motherhood. Having died at childbirth, she turns into a vengeful spirit who wreaks terror on the living. Her spectre can be seen at night in quiet graveyards or sitting on tree branches, sometimes accompanied by a ghostly infant in her arms. In the presence of people unfortunate enough to encounter the pontianak, she willfully transforms from a beautiful young woman into terrifying hag with claw-like fingernails. Her very long hair that sometimes falls down to her ankles conceals a hole in the back of her neck through which a stake is struck to subdue and destroy her. In cinematic representations, the pontianak returns from the grave to kill the men who have wronged her.
Women make the minority of casualties and do not count as the pontianak’s main victims. Instead, women serve as a conduit into the mortal world who provide access to its men. They become bewitched under the spell of the pontianak and transform into femme fatales themselves, attacking men on the pontianak’s behalf. Pregnant women, however, a target of vengeance fueled by maternal jealousy, are vulnerable to supernatural attacks. Murderous attacks on pregnant women is a motif in films featuring the ‘monstrous feminine’ (An especially grisly example is the 2007 French film Inside). As Erin Harrington argues in Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror, it is a scenario whereby a ‘mirror-framing of victim and villain pits one expression of maternal drive against another, and asks us to consider how each woman might be an extension, or alternative resonance, of the other’.
But the pontianak is not always so fearsome. Her gentler side as either loving wife, mother, or lover is constitutive of the Asian monstrous/feminine that stalks Asian horror narratives. She is also a sympathetic figure who displays a range of emotions and when she has a back story that embellishes the aforementioned myth of her origins, she plays parts other than the villainous undead. Switching between beauty and monstrosity, affectionate and murderous, the pontianak makes for an ambivalent spectre who, in a few films, is not vanquished but rather is subdued by her role as wife and mother. The open laughter of the pontianak in Gergasi (1958) precedes the uncanny oscillating display of grotesque monstrosity and conventional feminine beauty. Here, the male hero and love interest does not fear the pontianak but appears determined to love and transform her monstrosity into a romantic and reproductive potential. It is the romance of Beauty and the Beast in reverse: a man’s love tames the grotesque behaviour and physicality of a woman, a woman who has all the beastly means to destroy him.
The meaning of the pontianak’s laugh
The pontianak’s laugh alone signifies the intangible and non-visual excesses of the monstrous feminine, a figure who traffics in both desire and repulsion. In her text that has redefined gender in horror cinema, Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine draws our attention away from the female victim in horror to the female monster – monstrous feminine – a cinematic phenomenon that takes its cue from the tradition of male unease with female reproductive abilities. In spite of its expansive parameters ranging from witches, virginal women with deadly vaginas (vagina dentata), vampires, to the rape-revenge femme castratrice, the monstrous feminine implies that there is something always-already monstrous about the female body.
We may also argue that women’s bodies are always-already grotesque. They are more easily subjected to a diminished or degraded status than men because of cultural taboos and other sensitive meanings associated with various openings, orifices, and matter that leak out of the female body. As women are culturally defined by their bodies, women’s physical expression that exaggerate elements of the grotesque body will be met with derision and censure. From a cynical feminist perspective, these stock female monsters along with the all-encompassing categories of the monstrous feminine and gynaehorror reinforce the conflation of femininity with female reproductive function, and making women synonymous with slits, openings, cavities, cracks, and orifices. In short, in the horror genre, women are yet again defined by their bodies. Thus some attention away from these reductive metaphors is perhaps overdue.
To fully appreciate the cultural significance of the pontianak, she has to be understood as a reconstruction within a dynamic socio-cultural space, standing in as a metaphor for the violence against women and the violence of being women. She is imagined as a figure who indexes the dark half of modernity and its moral antagonisms about women. The pontianak no longer lurks the village but haunts the underbelly of cityscapes. In the latter, the murderous streak of the pontianak appears less to do with revenge than as supernatural vigilantism, going after unwitting wayward men who use women’s bodies for instant sexual gratification. Through the erotic cum fatal entrapment of men the pontianak becomes instrumental in a cautionary tale that implicates the minefield of male-female relations in modern Malay society (Pontianak, 1975). Representations of the pontianak are replete with symbolic contradictions. Torn between tradition and modernity, she is emblematic of birth and destruction, sonic presence and physical absence, and what Kristeva calls the ‘abject’.
When denied the traditional aspects of femininity and dignity, Malay women will turn (in)to spirits as their means of resistance. But such forms of resistance takes advantage of sexist conception of women as the weaker sex. Inspired by Islamic belief, the integrity of Malay women’s constitution – body, mind, and spirit – is traditionally thought to be more vulnerable to a range of moral and spiritual deviations. The spirit world consisting of benign and malevolent unseen beings (makhluk halus) is central to the Malay-Muslim cosmology and summoned, involuntarily and otherwise, during moments of distress.
Accounts of spirit possession and mass hysteria, the latter of which only women are susceptible, connect extreme impurity (toilets and menstrual blood) with the spirit world. Those who appear to succumb to these phenomena are reported to cry and laugh uncontrollably, display superhuman strength, and speak in a disturbingly strange voice. Women and girls have been reported to fall under the spell of a mass hysteria in manufacturing factories where they are overworked or in boarding schools where the rigidness of the Malaysian education system proves too much to bear. Explanations for spirit possession and mass hysteria often are caught between a belief in supernatural interlopers and ‘rationalist’ interpretation of mental illness with neither prevailing in public discourse.
The pontianak’s laughter is located in the extreme end on the register of Malay embodiment. Modulations of embodiment between halus (refined) and kasar (coarse) are part of the everyday reproduction of bodies and values consonant with a transcendental order that pervades the lifeworlds of certain peoples in the Malay archipelago. Seen as central concepts in the aristocratic Javanese worldview, halus is all that is sophisticated, polished, and restrained in contrast to the disorderly, rough, and bawdy which register as kasar. Behaviour understood as kasar, from everyday informal and intimate speech to loud laughter is unevenly sanctioned across age, gender, and kinship lines. Socially permissible forms of laughing for women are limited to barely audible giggles. Loud and unrestrained laughter for all women is dishonourable although a degree of transgression by some women is given more leeway than others. Older women, unburdened by the restrictions of feminine youth, have the tacit permission to laugh openly and tease men. By contrast, Malay men’s laughter further reinforces his dominance over others present around him.
In Part 2, I’ll continue with the feminist commentary on the role of women’s laughter in subverting patriarchy and the reconceptualisation of the pontianak’s laugh as feminist resistance