I will be giving a public talk this coming Saturday, 30th April 2016 (5-7 pm), in Silverfish Books in Kuala Lumpur based on a forthcoming book chapter entitled ‘The New Malay Woman: The rise of modern female subject and transnational encounters in postcolonial Malay literature.’
Synopsis of my talk:
The new Malay woman in modern Malay literature emerged during a period of unflattering and sexualised representations of female characters in the Malay literary canon and low brow fiction by male writers of the 1960s. By contrast, the emancipated new Malay woman, a creation of women writers, is a departure from her literary predecessors and contemporaries of passive, self-sacrificing domestic women. She is a product of early postcolonial modernisation and other institutional policies to elevate the Malay community in Malaya. The new Malay woman in Malay literature was created by women at a specific time in Malaysian history and was instrumental in promoting the advancement of Malay society in the 1960s.
Many who enter the hallowed halls of libraries, universities, and colleges will find that rooms, parts of and entire buildings are named after people, very usually men. These people and their families have bequeathed large sums to make such an infrastructure possible for the benefit of knowledge. And for that, we all are very grateful.
I, for one, enjoy working in the (upper and lower) Gladstone Link of the Bodleian Library, a rather unglamorous subterranean space dotted with warning signs to readers that the ceiling is hazardously low. There are so many books on history, critical theory, film, and literature in the Gladstone Link that they must be squeezed vertically on mobile shelves (see image above). The Gladstone Link is named after the 19th-century British prime minister William Gladstone who, so it happens, was also credited for the invention of the ingenious space-saving mobile shelves.
While doing research on female indentured labour and their legacy in Malaya, I found that Sir John Gladstone, father of William, was a prominent slave owner in the Caribbean and an advocate of indentured labour. In fact, John Gladstone introduced indentured labour into the Caribbean after slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1833. He was a chair of the West Indian Association and an MP, making him both a politician and a planter who owned more than 2000 slaves in the Caribbean.
Now, the link between slavery and the Gladstones is downplayed in British history and biographical writings (see Quinault, 2009), mostly likely due to shame and embarrassment. More embarrassing it seems because slave-owning families continue to benefit from huge reparations after abolition. John Gladstone was paid the modern equivalent of £5 million after abolition, but continued to profit afterwards in the sugar industry on the backs of indentured labour in the Caribbean.
The juxtaposition between the tranquil and edifying space of the Gladstone Link today and the Gladstone Link With Slavery is horrifying and nauseating. In a distant past far from the polite society in middle and upper-class Britain, the ‘Gladstone coolies’, named after their master, were flogged with cat-o-nine tails for misconduct on the plantation and rubbed salty pork pickle into their wounds (Erickson, 1934). Although they were not slaves, indentured labourers were still less than human.
While William Gladstone had a rich political life, defecting from Conservative during his early years as MP to a Liberal prime minister, and administering over electoral reforms that gave working class men the vote, his position on slavery was less salubrious. His position on the matter as a young Tory MP was the same as his father the slave owner. Reasons behind their rejection of absolute emancipation were both pragmatic and righteous; to protect the family’s financial interests that had also helped propelled them into politics and that black people (and later the Indian) lacked a morality to govern themselves.
The Gladstone Link is indeed an ironic name for its link with slavery and the wealth that helped build not just institutions of learning but Britain itself. Other places named after people linked to slavery (Tate, Rhodes) are ‘rehabilitated’ today through the different kind of wealth they leave behind; in education, culture, and the arts for the general public and the world.
Should contemporary users of such spaces boycott them to resist colonial complicity? Massive Attack for instance have refused to perform at Colston Hall in Bristol where slaves were once sold to traders. In the case of libraries that weren’t used in the direct exploitation of people but nonetheless had benefited from it, the answer is less clear due to how inextricably linked wealth and access to knowledge are to the bondage of history.
Erickson, Edgar (1934) ‘The introduction of East Indian coolies into the British West Indies’, The Journal of Modern History, 6, 2, pp. 127-146.
Quinault, Ronald (2009) ‘Gladstone and slavery’, The Historical Journal, 52, 2, pp. 363-383.
When I first heard about the film Violette (2013, dir. Martin Provost), I had little knowledge about the life and work of the French writer, Violette Leduc (1907-1972), on which the film was based. What drew me to the film was the fact that she was one time a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir. Imagine being a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir!
The film charts her journey into writing, from being an appendage of a gay writer who could never return her love and lust to being a groundbreaking literary success. What he does offer her instead is an instruction to write, anything and everything she knows. And so she does. After he leaves her to fend for herself, she embarks on a reinvention of herself, with her first manuscript in hand, to Paris.
Leduc’s journey into writing and the occasion that led to her discovery by de Beauvoir appear cosmically serendipitous. Her chance encounter with Le Deuxième Sexe in an acquaintance’s apartment (“A woman has written a big book?”, she thinks aloud) ignites a desire to meet the writer herself.
Leduc stalks de Beauvoir in a Parisian cafe. The scene is established through Leduc’s female gaze; with her back turned to the feminist philosopher, Leduc spies on de Beauvoir using the mirror of her compact case. De Beauvoir’s first depiction as an image in a lady’s compact case is both ironic and trivialising.
When Leduc throws herself (and her manuscript of L’Asphyxie) in de Beauvoir’s direction, it appears that her literary career and its trappings (shoulder-rubbing with artists and willing patrons) are sealed. De Beauvoir adores her manuscript and is keen to mentor Leduc, who was only a year younger. Leduc is the opposite of de Beauvoir; her words spill from a body electrocuted by feeling and desire. She is shameless and openly erotic bordering on desperate in contrast to de Beauvoir’s restraint and cerebralism.
Their homes are further extensions of their opposing personality and state of mind; Leduc lives hand to mouth in a shabby rented room. De Beauvoir lives in an elegant multi-roomed apartment. Shortly after winning the Prix Goncourt for The Mandarins, de Beauvoir would purchase an even more luxurious apartment, pushing the gulf between her and Leduc further.
Pushing past forty by the time her (still unsuccessful) novel L’affamée is published, Leduc is portayed as a woman regressing into adolescence. She is tormented by the thought of being a bastard child and her mother’s maternal transgressions (“My mother never held my hand”), themes that reoccur since her debut, L’Asphyxie (1948). And yet, her mother dotes on Leduc. In one poignant scene, an emotionally exhausted Leduc is bathed by her mother, like a placid baby at bathtime.
Abandonment issues strain Leduc’s relationship with everyone she sexually desires, both women and men, along with insecurities about her lack of beauty. She attributes the unrequited desire she has for Simone de Beauvoir and her general lack of luck as a sexual woman in libidinous French culture to her apparent ugliness.
Her sexuality is written on the pages of her books. They are autobiographies of a woman’s sexuality. Her writing may evoke the contemporary criticism that women, like Lena Dunham’s écriture du jour, write in a ‘confessional’ style that pepper with TMI. They can come across as self-absorbed and narcisstic. But Provost’s portrayal of Leduc depicts a woman who does not love and credit herself enough. Her insecurities undermine the high regard the male French intelligentsia (Sartre, Camus, Genet) have for her.
Soon, and rather predictably, the emotional labour inscribed in her writing takes a toll on Leduc and she is admitted into a sanitarium to ‘recover’ via a treatment of electric shocks. Rather than a moral tale of a woman who writes and desires that ends tragically, Leduc’s episode in hospital is followed by a great literary and erotic flourishing.
Following de Beauvoir’s advice, she goes on a solo walking trip through small provincial towns, writing and wanking as she absorbs the bucolic landscape around her. She is pursued by a younger man, a builder, and yields to his attentions. The film reaches it climax when Leduc publishes her first bestseller, La Bâtarde (1964), to great national acclaim that seals her reputation as a feminist writer.
What compels me most about Violette is that it is a film about écriture féminine. It is a style of writing that may not appeal to many readers for reasons they may not realise or able to articulate. Cixous may be on the money in Le Rire de la Meduse (The Laugh of the Medusa) when she argues that the history of writing is founded on the exclusion of women and their expression. When women did write, they write in a manner as to be recognised and understood by patriarchal culture. And then enter écriture féminine and its subversion of the very grammar of writing. When women produce écriture féminine, they create
A world of searching, the elaboration of a knowledge, on the basis of a systematic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity (Cixous, 1976: 876)
It takes courage and self-belief to write words that overflow their typographic vessel with affect and hot bubbling desire. The écriture féminine of Violette Leduc is, to echo de Beauvoir’s foreword to Leduc’s La Bâtarde, “a world full of sound and fury, where love often bears the name of hate, where a passion for life burst forth in cries of despair”.
The reason why women are ridiculed and devalued for their hyper-personal writing is because they are perceived to lack critical acumen. Their writing is measured against the literary success of men. Indeed, I sometimes find autobiographical feminist writing unchallenging and intellectually lazy.
And yet Violette Leduc and the film about her literary career fascinate me on an intellectual level. Though I have wondered what and how Leduc would write if she had an intellectual background like Simone de Beauvoir. Would she write very differently and more self-consciously? Would she abandon writing of the body in favour of the mind? Would her writing be less about herself and acknowledge other women like her who had come before and those who will emerge in decades to come, in a different place?
Cixous, Helene (1976) ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen), Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 875-893
First published in my now defunct academic blog, ‘Alicia Izharuddin’, on 14th September 2014.
In the last leg of my rather prodigious series of travelling this year, I went to Scotland for the first time during a thrilling period of the nation’s history. My visit there was made more exciting, however, by the prospect of going to the country’s first and only women’s bookshop, Reading Lasses in Wigtown, on the coast of the Scottish South-west peninsular. To top my excitement further, I was booked to stay above the shop itself for two nights. Lodgings in a women’s bookshop! As you can imagine, my delight was not easily contained…
Like its more well-known Welsh counterpart, Hay-on-Wye, Wigtown is Scotland’s official town of books and comes to life during its annual literary festival – and I, the book-lover, did not know this important bit of information! Smaller than Hay, Wigtown is effectively a one-main street market town, with three or four pubs. It was declared a book town in 1997 and boasted around 20 second hand bookshops. Sadly, like Hay and everywhere else in the UK, bookshops are rapidly closing down. 6 now remain in Wigtown. Those who are still going, like Reading Lasses’s owner, Gerrie, are passionate romantics and bucking the prevailing trend.
What is the bookshop like? Or rather, how would the average academic feminist bibliophile find it? Upon entering the shop, the ‘gender’ of the bookshop did not manifest itself instantly. The books are arranged according to rather conventional genres (thrillers, children’s, history, fiction, film and television) and upon closer inspection, most of the books are not targeted at female readers or concern women at all. There is, however, a rather good ‘biography’ section, featuring biographies of women both well-known and not. Between the Katie Price and Martine McCutcheon autobiographies, are some real gems, the biographies of Margaret Sanger, Dorothy Wordsworth, and women of science and letters of the 18th and 19th century.
Sad to say, the difficulty of selling the books contributed to Reading Lasses’s rather diminished title of ‘women’s bookshop’. In fact, all the good stuff are relegated to the shed behind the shop. In the shed lay some real treasures of women’s studies sold at £1 a piece (£2 for hardbacks). There were back copies of Feminist Review and other feminist academic journals from the 1980s and 1990s and many, many books on sex and sexuality, gender studies, and key texts of feminist theory sold at, I repeat for emphatic effect, £1 a copy.
The sheer amount of women’s and gender studies books printed between the 1970s to 1990s (concurrent with the institutionalisation of feminism into academia) was symbolic of the zeitgeist and demonstrates how not so far (mainstream) feminist discourse has come. As I browsed, I started to imagine how many of the books that were collecting dust in the shed could have been written today; the Caitlin Morans, the Hadley Freemans, the Laura Bates, who write rather pedestrian books that are unlikely to last the test of time.
Because we stayed at the bookshop, we were entitled to a 10% discount on book purchases and food (Gerrie is a real foodie, so the breakfast and lunchtime meals are very good). There is only one double bedroom (plus one single bed) for guests – tastefully decorated, a kitchen area with mini fridge, and a beautiful nautically-themed bathroom awash in blue, all priced at £65 a night. Like any wonderful bookshop owner will tell you these days (the venerable London Review bookshop included), they don’t do it for the money. If you dream of being locked in a women’s bookshop for the night (or two), Reading Lasses is the only place in the UK where you can.
The very exciting Feminist Reading Group will start this month on Saturday 19th December 2015 at 11 am – 1pm at AWAM. For the next three months, we will meet once a month to discuss classic and culturally relevant texts on feminism. It will be a fabulous opportunity to engage critically with feminist issues of our times.
Time: 11 am – 1 pm
Venue: AWAM No. 85, Jalan 21/1, Sea Park, 46300 Petaling Jaya
Further incentivising factors: Light refreshments and very nice people
Format of the reading group:
Each meeting will be a discussion of one text (attached). For the reading group to be successful, participants are required to read the assigned text before the meeting – it’s that simple!
Purpose of the reading group:
The reading group is a safe space for developing critical thinking and communication about feminist identities and ideas. It is about honouring the work of other feminists and being part of a bigger picture of championing feminism in Malaysia.
The themes of the three reading group meetings (see attachment for brief outline of the themes):
It is a curious thing when an illustrious offspring of someone so famous would remain eclipsed in the shadows of their parents. Perhaps this is warranted and justified in a meritocratic society we all aspire to where, with the exception of political dynasties and monarchies, famous parents do not always produce equally famous children. Begotten DNA is no promise for fame but maybe some fortune.
Such is the case for the extraordinary life of Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx and perhaps the most illustrious of the Marx children considering the breadth of her political and literary contributions. Eleanor, or Tussy (which rhymes with ‘pussy’), would be remembered as her father’s first biographer who fought hard to protect his intellectual legacy in late nineteenth century Britain and across the channel. And yet, many know and will continue to know so little of her.
In ‘Eleanor Marx’ (2014, Bloomsbury), biographer Rachel Holmes has brought to life a woman who lived a full and exemplary public life. However, as Holmes notes, much is to be desired in Eleanor’s private life that led to her tragic demise. There are many telling scenes in this book that reveal plenty of the contrast between the gendered ‘practice’ and ‘theory’ of socialism as imagined by Eleanor and Friedrich Engels, Marx’s closest collaborator and patron.
First, there is the impoverished bourgeois-bohemian existence of the Marx family (consisting of paterfamilias Marx, Jenny Marx née von Westphalen, Helen Demuth the housekeeper, the three Marx daughters, plenty of pets and Engels). Poverty led them to live a peripatetic life across London punctuated by many trips to spa towns and the seaside for the very Victorian phenomenon of touristic convalescing.
Second, there is the Marx family arrangement that spoke volumes about the realities of the sexual division of labour within a radical family:
For every hundred meals they cooked, Marx and Engels expressed an idea; for every basket of petticoats, bibs and curtains they sewed together, Marx and Engels wrote an article. For every pregnancy, childbirth and labour-intensive period of raising an infant, Marx and Engels wrote a book.
Recognising the limitations of women within her own household and yonder in the mills, Eleanor decided to rebel and lived like a woman so unlike others of her time; unwed and childfree yet living as a ‘wife’ with her ‘husband’, the repellant Edward Aveling, whose parasitic nature is reminded with every mention of his name.
For whatever the inconsistencies within their radicalism, Marx wrote ‘the theory’, Eleanor was ‘the practice’ personified. Eleanor’s childhood and adulthood would be intricately linked with Marx’s magnum opus, Capital. The birth pangs of writing and publishing the 3-volume work took a toll on the Marx’s family finances and livelihood. Still unfinished after Marx’s death, Eleanor and Engels took charge of writing and editing the rest.
And third, although she lived unlike an archetypical Victorian woman, Eleanor was gifted with a morality and unconditional love that were comparable to melodramatic heroines of lesser fiction. Her discovery of her father’s secret love child with their housekeeper may have toppled him from his place on the pedestal, but her deep friendship with her half-brother late in her life would prove to be a source of strength during the darkest hours of her union with Edward.
The reader seethes at the things she sees but Eleanor chooses not to see: Edward’s frittering of their shared earnings and his ultimate betrayal of marrying in secret a young actress that rapidly led to Eleanor’s downfall – an alleged suicide by prussic acid poisoning. An inquest to establish if she had killed herself or murdered followed suit. She was, in the rather unflattering words of her ‘husband’ Edward, “as healthy as a horse” before her untimely death at age 43.
But Eleanor’s life story is no simple melodrama. A tireless agitator for the eight-hour work day, education for the disenfranchised working-class, and the ‘woman question’ in the capitalist mode of production, Eleanor would be at every major trade union conference, speaking to an admiring and inspired crowd. She remained influential as a friend, political collaborator, and later as a mentor to younger generations of working class unionists less privileged than herself, a daughter of Marx who grew up with little formal education but was exposed to a world of art, literature and culture from a young age. The rate of her industry was prodigious: she would go on to write in multiple languages for international presses and produce the first translation of Madame Bovary into English, among many other things.
Eleanor’s fiery spirit and voice emit from the page through correspondences to her sister, revealing a woman driven by an unshakeable belief in economic justice but also doubt as her feminine person is sometimes dismissed within the socialist fold. I am often left unsettled by Holmes’s portrayal of the destructive relationship between Eleanor and Edward Aveling. For all her projections of contemporary feeling onto Eleanor as a feminist, she appears unwilling to suggest that Eleanor was perhaps emotionally abused by Edward. The pattern of abuse is there yet feebly ameliorated by Eleanor’s declaration of love and forgiveness for his moral weakness.
After her death in March 1898, followed by Edward’s a mere four months later, Eleanor’s afterlife is a dramatic coda. Cremated and placed in an urn, her remains were placed in a glass cabinet of the British Communist Party’s office for many years until a police raid signalled a more traditional interment with her family in Highgate cemetery in 1956.
For whatever remains of her extant work, her co-authored essay ‘The Woman Question’ (1886) continues to appear in socialist-feminist reading lists. Capital and the safeguarding of his correspondences are as much Eleanor’s legacy to readers today as her father’s. Eleanor is a woman of our political times – a woman who lives passionately and breathes her politics. And yet, her life is also a feminist puzzle; how to square a life of radical theory and practice with the life-destroying facets of sexism and misogyny within radical theory and practice?
I cannot remember what I was doing in the British Library one fine afternoon in 2014, but I had found a who’s who of Malay literature published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. In it was a short biography of Anis Sabirin, a name I was faintly familiar with for being the singular critical voice against the sexism of Malay male writers in the 1960s. Soon after, I requested an inter-library loan from Leiden via the SOAS Library to read her collection of essays, Peranan Wanita Baru (The Role of the New Woman, 1969). This book is largely forgotten now, but her critique is still fresh. There is no other book like it since; a collection of essays on Malaysian women in development, economics, Malay culture, and contemporary Malay literature. An intention to write a full length essay stewed in the backburner for many months until an opportunity came to write a column for the Malay Mail commemorating International Women’s Day of 2015. The column is intentionally in Malay as a kind of homage to a Malaysian feminist writer:
Anis Sabirin. Satu nama yang jarang sekali menjelma dalam wacana feminis di Malaysia. Suatu ketika di penghujung dekad 1960-an, beliau terkenal sebagai suara yang lantang mengkritis penggambaran wanita yang seksis dalam sastera Melayu moden. Beliau bagaikan perintis feminis moden yang berpencapaian tinggi, lain daripada tokoh-tokoh feminis-nasionalis terkemuka seperti Shamsiah Fakeh dan Sybil Kathigasu yang datang sebelumnya.
Malaysia pada zaman 1960-an sebuah negara yang baru mengenali pembangunan moden dan hidupan kosmopolitan yang banyak memanfaatkan golongan wanita di bandar. Dapat dilihat di zaman ini ramai wanita yang bekerja dan berkerjaya berikutan bilangan mahasiswi di universiti yang meningkat.
Lahir pada tahun 1936 di Johor Bharu, Anis Sabirin adalah antara wanita generasi moden 1960-an yang menyambut peluang melanjutkan pelajaran hingga ke tahap PhD dalam bidang ekonomi di Amerika Syarikat. Beliau pernah menetap di San Francisco dan Los Angeles selama 20 tahun dan giat menulis fiksyen dan puisi dalam bahasa Melayu dan Inggeris. Esei-eseinya tentang isu wanita dalam Peranan Wanita Baru dan majalah Dewan Sastera menempatkan Anis Sabirin antara penulis wanita bersifat feminis yang terawal di Malaysia.
Pada tahun 1963, beliau pernah menyampaikan kritikan yang menyengat di Majlis PENA yang berlangsung di Universiti Malaya. Dalam ucapannya, penulis lelaki popular seperti Yahya Samah, Alias Ali, Keris Mas, dan Kala Dewata sering mengisi novel mereka dengan watak pelacur dan mangsa rogol sebagai ‘perencah’ cerita. Menurut Anis Sabirin, watak wanita yang menggiurkan menjadi ‘barang dagangan’ bagi menyara kehidupan seorang sasterawan lelaki.
Dari sudut pandang sekarang, Malaysia pada dekad 1960-an adalah seperti negara yang asing. Mungkin sukar untuk kita bayangkan bahawa pasaran novel picisan di zaman dahulu penuh dengan seks dari muka depan hingga ke belakang. Seperti majalah lucah, kulit buku Temasya Cinta oleh A. Samad Ismail dan Patah Dayong oleh Yahya Samah dihiasi imej wanita yang telanjang. Mengikut Anis Sabirin, perempuan dalam novel-novel seperti ini ‘sudah menjadi barang yang rosak dan merosakkan.’
Sangat mengejutkan jika kita membaca esei-esei yang dihimpun dalam Peranan Wanita Baru terbitan Utusan Melayu pada tahun 1969. Tajuknya – Peranan Wanita Baru – mengacu kepada wanita 1960-an yang sedang melangkah ke zaman paska-kolonial yang penuh perubahan sosial dan budaya. Seiringan dengan itu, gerakan feminisme gelombang kedua di Amerika Syarikat baru sahaja berputik di pertengahan 1960-an.
Anis Sabirin begitu peka kepada kehendak wanita moden yang dibelenggu pemahaman adat dan agama yang kuno. Menurutnya, sudah ramai wanita 1960-an yang berpendidikan tinggi dan mempunyai daya saing di tempat kerja tetapi ditekan oleh beban rumahtangga. Beliau menggaris dengan terang-terang bahawa kemajuan wanita terletak di luar rumah:
Nanti bila pergaulan bangsa kita menjadi bertambah bebas, kenyataan ini boleh-lah di-buktikan, bahawa wanita yang bekerja itu hidup-nya menarek daripada sa-orang wanita yang dudok di-rumah, dan sebab itu dia tidak payah berlumba-lumba memikat orang lelaki untok memboktikan daya penarek-nya.
Peranan Wanita Baru merupakan satu-satunya buku yang menyasarkan bara terhadap patriarki yang tertanam degil di akar umbi budaya Melayu. Boleh dikatakan bahawa belum pernah adanya buku yang sepertinya malah ia lenyap dari wacana feminis Malaysia. Soalnya mengapa?
Suara lantang Anis Sabirin dalam Peranan Wanita Baru mungkin tidak mendapat sambutan yang meluas di kalangan wanita dan lelaki Malaysia. Penulis wanita yang berani mencabar lelaki akan disisih secara terang dan halus. Meskipun sumbangan wanita dalam dunia sastera Malaysia dianugerahkan bermacam pingat dan piala, mereka tidak diagungkan seperti lelaki sejawatnya. Tidak ada sasterawati Melayu yang dikenali umum seperti Shahnon Ahmad dan A. Samad Said.
Setelah 46 tahun sejak terbitan Peranan Wanita Baru, bagaimana pula pembaca novel popular sekarang yang dihidangkan dengan keasyikan kahwin kontrak dan ombak rindu? Di mana pergi peredaran zaman yang memberi peluang kepada wanita seluas-luasnya pada tahun 1960-an itu?
Pendirian tegas Anis Sabirin tentang isu wanita jauh berbeza daripada wanita Malaysia yang menulis dalam bahasa kebangsaan di waktu kini. Namun penulisannya masih segar dan relevan. Sebagai seorang wanita yang giat menulis tentang isu wanita, saya mengambil iktibar darinya dan mengkagumi esei-eseinya yang bersifat feminis dan ‘global’ yang muncul sebelum kemudahan internet dan arus globalisasi.
Hujah feminis yang dikemukakan dalam Peranan Wanita Baru adalah bukti bahawa masa depan wanita di Malaysia tidak menentu. Kekangan dahulu sama seperti kekangan sekarang. Suasana zaman atau zeitgeist yang kini diungkapkan oleh wacana ‘demokrasi’ dan ‘hak asasi’ tidak menjamin kemajuan dan pencerahan. Namun, perjuangan feminis di Malaysia yang kini semakin memuncak akan meninggalkan kesan yang lebih bermakna dan sejarah yang lebih diperingati oleh generasi yang akan datang.
Anis Sabirin. A name we rarely hear in Malaysian feminist discourse today. She was known in the 1960s as a strident critic of the sexist portrayal of women in modern Malay literature. As a highly accomplished woman in modern Malaya, she was different from the kind of nationalist women of the likes of Shamsiah Fakeh and Sybil Kathigasu who are reimagined today as feminist heroines.
Malaysia in the 1960s was new to modernity and the cosmopolitan lifestyle that benefited women living and working in urban centres. Women of the period were pursuing careers outside the home and quickly filling the university where they were receiving gaining higher education.
Born in 1936 in Johor Bharu, Anis Sabirin belonged to a new generation of Malaysian women who embraced the opportunities in education that led to her pursuing a PhD in economics in the US. She went on to continue to living in San Francisco and Los Angeles for more than 20 years where she was active in writing fiction and poetry in both Malay and English. Her essays on women’s issues in Peranan Wanita Baru and in the literary magazine Dewan Sastera places her as among the earliest feminist voices in Malaysia.
In 1963, she delivered a stinging, if very memorable, critique at the assembly of Association for National Writers of Malaysia, PENA, in University of Malaya. In her speech, popular writers like Yahya Samah, Alias Ali, Keris Mas, and Kala Dewata regularly write into their stories prostitutes whose only function is to spice things up. According to her, sexualised imagery of women were ‘commoditised’ to line the pockets of male fiction writers.
From today’s perspective, Malaysia in the 1960’s might seem like a foreign country. It might strike as a surprise that many novels and penny dreadfuls of the time were filled with sexually explicitly and tawdry content. Like pornographic magazines, naked women grace the book covers of Temasya Cinta by A. Samad Ismail and Patah Dayong by Yahya Samad (see blog post for example). The women in these novels are depicted as ‘damaged and damaging objects’.
It will come across as a surprise to read the essays in Peranan Wanita Baru published in 1969 by Utusan Melayu. The title of the collection – The Role of New Women – is an address to Malaysian women who were experiencing new social and political realities of the postcolonial era. It was also a period that coincided with the rise of Second Wave feminism.
Anis Sabirin was sensitive to the constraints of custom and conservative interpretations of religion. She felt that women could compete for the best jobs in the work place but were held back by domestic responsibilities. It was clear to her that women’s progress lie outside the home:
When there are fewer restrictions on mixing between the sexes, we will find that working women’s lives are more interesting than the woman stays at home, and that is because the working woman is not as desperate to show her desirability to men
Peranan Wanita Baru is perhaps the only book in Malay by a woman that articulates directly at the deeply embedded patriarchal hegemony of Malay society. There has never been a book quite like it and it is somehow completely forgotten. Why?
The author’s strident voice may not have been well-received in Malaysia at the time and the decades that followed. Malay women writers who were bold and critical of men were marginalised in explicit and subtle ways. Although many women writers have been garlanded with awards for their literary achievements, they are not the nation’s Great Writers like Shahnon Ahmad and A. Samad Said.
Since its first publication 46 years ago, what do contemporary readers make of ‘contract marriage’ romances and rape myths in Ombak Rindu so popular in Malaysian fiction today? Where have the heady days of modernity and cosmopolitanism enjoyed in the 1960s that Anis Sabirin wrote about gone?
Anis Sabirin’s clear and vociferous voice is but a faint echo in the discourse on women’s rights in the Malay language today. But her’s is still fresh and relevant as ever. As a woman who writes on ‘women’s issues’ in Malaysia, I turn to Anis Sabirin for inspiration as a ‘global’ trailblazing writer far ahead of her time before the age of the internet and globalisation.
If the feminist issues raised in Peranan Wanita Baru are an indicator for anything, they are an unhappy reminder that the future for women in Malaysia is deeply uncertain. Malaysian women faced the same kinds of obstacles then as they do now. The human rights discourse and democracy that imbibe the spirit of the age cannot guarantee progress and enlightenment. However, it will seem like the current feminist wave will be more than a historical footnote in the annals of Malaysian women’s history.