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.

New publications

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.

Abstract for ‘”Free hair”: Narratives of Unveiling and the Reconstruction of Self’ in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 44, no. 1 (Autumn 2018): 155-176

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.

Toughness in academia is never enough

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.

On being like Robyn Penrose

Robyn Penrose is a newly minted lecturer in women’s studies and English literature who specialises in the ‘industrial novel’, fiction written in the mid-1800’s that reflected the values and anxieties of the British industrial revolution. She is a feminist academic with an unflagging belief in uprooting social injustice inside and outside the classroom. She joins anti-nuclear marches and strikes against cuts to university funding. Ever the empowered woman of the 1980s, she is also assertive and confident and is clear about what she wants. Somehow the ‘imposter syndrome’ endemic in higher education does not exist in her dictionary.

She is a fictional character after all and springs from David Lodge’s classic 1988 campus novel, Nice Work, in which our academic heroine is pressured by her dean into shadowing a factory manager at work in a higher education-meets-industry programme. Although a character from the Thatcherite 1980s, she is a figure of our times. As an early career researcher who came to a full-time teaching position from a fixed-term research fellowship in a prestigious research university, Robyn does not know if she can keep her job when the next national budget looms. Universities across the UK since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership have faced inexorable cuts to research, teaching, and upkeep. New appointments are frozen and people lose their jobs.

The precarious nature of academic employment, then as now, involving applying to diminishing jobs and accepting them anywhere in the country and beyond has hampered any attempts at a typical romantic or marital relationship. Robyn’s boyfriend whom she’s been with since they were undergraduates at Sussex has accepted a job a great distance away. They see each other every other weekend and the arrangement feels more like a long-distance relationship. But it works for her as she doesn’t believe in marriage and the bourgeois idea of romantic love. Her boyfriend agrees with her as he is slow to develop his own opinion. She does develop meaningful relationships with others, namely with a female colleague and fellow feminist. Though her greatest triumph is her intellectual and sexual conquest of one Vic Wilcox, the middle-aged factory manager whom she is assigned to shadow.

There are many instances in the novel which suggest that Robyn Penrose is a caricature of a feminist academic, all righteous and dominating. Her ability to transform Vic Wilcox from a boring and predictable family man life who sneers at women’s studies into an effortless enunciator of Tennyson and Saussurean semiotics is the stuff of fairy tales for academics. But she is nonetheless an admirable woman of intellectual ambition whose work is admired by established figures in the field. Who wouldn’t want to be offered a tenure-track job in an elite US university based on the strength of an unpublished book manuscript? She speaks and acts in the manner of her thinking and beliefs; unpretentiously provocative, bold, and forthright. She can talk about her sex life in the same breath as structuralism and metonymy. A sapiosexual’s idea of a really sexy pillow talk.

As a caricature, albeit lifted from the lived experience of the author who was an academic himself, Robyn Penrose ticks many of the identifiable and aspirational boxes. As a feminist academic, the boundary that separates professional and personal life is never really clear. She defines the morality that gives shape to her vocation and sexuality rather than having it imposed by others, not least prudes, anti-intellectual people, and sexist men. It makes me wonder how many women out there harbor a fantasy to be like Robyn Penrose whose mind challenges and ignites desire in the most unlikeliest of people. Because I do.

Lessons learned

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve been appointed Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies, my first real job after the PhD. Unlike my cohort, I hadn’t spent too much time applying for many jobs and had been interviewed for only two. Penniless and exhausted, returning to Malaysia seemed like a good idea. It chimed with my old ambition of teaching Gender Studies – back when I didn’t quite understand what it was – at the University of Malaya. And yes, Dear Reader, I got the job.

Being a full-time academic came with the financial independence that I never really had all throughout my 20s. With financial assistance from my parents and younger sister who helped with the initial down-payment, I finally had my own home and car. Most transformative and powerfully addictive of all, I had a disposable income. Being poor for so long leaves behind a psychological scar tissue; to put more simply, the reversal of fortune did not change my attitude with money. Moreover, I had always been cognisant of the precarious nature of jobs and how the living wage anywhere I lived was never commensurate with the rising cost of living.

It took a bit of time thinking about my research trajectory – which would define my academic profile and employability – and whether I wanted to stay in film and cultural studies. It was important to have a putative cut-off time when I knew what research I wanted to do, stick with it, and let it define me for the next five years (or more). I thought very carefully about why I transitioned from the biological sciences to Gender Studies 8 years ago and reassessed if my work was meaningful to me and others.

There have been a few interrelated challenges during the first two years of my career. The sexual harassment allegations that several women and myself have made against AFR resulted in a significant falling-out with many former friends and allies. I should have not been surprised that outrage against sexual harassment is only lip service, only a crime that occurs to others far away – not something their friends would commit, certainly not men who have made a reputation for themselves as ‘progressive’, ‘feminist’, and ‘intellectual’. I had to watch many ‘friends’ and ‘feminists’ express disbelief and when presented with testimony from victims, vacillate on who they thought were the real perpetrator and victims. Others chose to downplay, deny, and accuse me and other women whom I hardly knew but shared the unfortunate fate of being sexually harassed by AFR of lying and planning his downfall. Of course this should have been hardly surprising but it nonetheless was painful and distressing in lived experience. In cases related to gender-based violence and discrimination, women are first presumed to be liars before they are innocent and vindicated.

The emotional impact of the collective sexual harassment case aside, I began to chart my early phase of my academic career in earnest – determining what and where I should publish (the answer to ‘when’ is always ‘now’ but ends up being deferred thanks to the journal publication cycle), and what conference should I organise and when. Teaching was a given – there was little choice on what I could teach but I have been hugely fortunate to teach courses on subjects I really love – feminist and gender theory – and in something I have past professional experience: gender, science and technology.

It all sounds smooth-sailing for those outside looking in but it isn’t always like that. There seems to be two intellectual time-space trajectories running in parallel in my workplace. When working on my own research and teaching, the intellectual time-space trajectory is stimulating, rapid, and at times, frantic. I design the syllabi and prepare all teaching materials from scratch. Every class feels like a high-wire act. Managing, writing, and revising research becomes (on hindsight) an exhilarating race against time. The other intellectual time-space trajectory relates to the habitus of my workplace. There is less urgency for academic publication and rigour; tenured staff either do not publish or do so collectively in dubious Beall’s list journals. The level of discussion during public seminars is low, meandering, and unchallengingly non-intellectual.

Since starting my academic career, I am beginning to fully appreciate my strengths (integrity and hard graft) and weaknesses (failure at building strategic alliances and undiplomatic honesty). I realise now I cannot do everything but while I’m still in my 30s and able-bodied, I should push my boundaries and step out of my comfort zone. My self-knowledge has made me less anxious about my abilities (I can teach and publish in good journals!) and made me more confident at mapping out a future brimming with ambition. Here’s to several more decades as an academic!

An undergraduate course I’m teaching this semester – Gender, Science and Technology

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I’m happy to announce that I’ll be teaching Gender, Science and Technology (AZEA 2306) again for the second 2016/2017 academic semester at the Faculty of Arts and Social Science, University of Malaya. Undergraduate students within the faculty (especially in the English and Media Studies department) and international exchange undergraduate students are encouraged to register. All students are welcome to audit.

In this course, students will enjoy the opportunity to explore the exciting ways in which science and technology contribute to our understanding of gender and sexuality. The course will also explore the following themes and subjects:

• Sexuality and technology
• Digital and cyber-feminisms
• Computers, video-games and gender
• Species and gender, consumption of animals
• Feminist science fiction
• Gender and reproductive technology