‘Romantic’ sexual violence, mediated intimacy and the single Muslim woman in Malaysia

“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%):

avid readers chart

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’.

Tema cinta yg digemari

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:

tema cinta yg digemari1

tema cinta yg digemari2

tema cinta yg digemari3

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:

pekerjaan watak lelaki lain

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:

Watak perempuan

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.

Pengajian Gender untuk Semua #1: Pengenalan kepada konsep ‘seksualiti’ dan Queer Theory

Seksualiti merupakan satu perkataan yang secara lazimnya dihubungkaitkan dengan hubungan seks antara lelaki dan perempuan. Namun, ini adalah satu pemahaman istilah yang terlalu sempit. Sebaliknya, seksualiti merangkumi segala yang bersangkut-paut dengan perasaan cinta, hasrat (desire), hubungan intim (intimacy), perkahwinan, kawalan sosial, politik, ekonomi, dan agama. Berpegang tangan antara kekasih adalah satu tanda seksualiti seseorang.

Seksualiti sebagai kategori penyelidikan mempunyai sejarah yang bermula dari abad ke-19 dengan penubuhan bidang seksologi yakni bidang saintifik mengenai seksualiti manusia. Dalam kata lain, abad ke-19 merupakan titik permulaan di mana seksualiti dikenalpasti secara saintifik, namun sebagai satu patologi yang boleh diubati.

‘Homoseksualiti’ adalah rekaan sains perubatan semata-mata… 

On Foucault's nexus of power and knowledge, plus some criticisms
Michel Foucault, bapa kajian kritis mengenai teori seksualiti

Sebelum kategori seksualiti yang normatif (heteroseksualiti) diusulkan, kategori homoseksualiti dikaji dahulu. Homoseksualiti dicipta pada tahun 1870-an sebagai satu kategori penyakit minda dan mempunyai sifat-sifat yang hanya boleh dikenalpasti oleh pakar psikiatri.

Mengikut Michel Foucault (1926-1984), seorang homoseksual menjadi satu ‘species’ yang mempunyai ciri-ciri yang boleh dikenalpasti melalui kaedah yang bersifat saintifik. Ini bermakna: melalui wacana perubatan dan penyakit mental, homoseksualiti pertama kali dikenalpasti sebagai satu identiti. Ini tidak bermaksud orang yang bersifat homoseksual tidak pernah wujud sebelum tahun 1870-an, cuma istilah identiti ‘homoseksual’ yang digunakan buat pertama kali diberikan kepada perbuatan dan amalan yang berdasarkan cinta sejenis (same-sex desire).

Mengikut hasil pencarian Foucault dalam History of Sexuality Jilid 1, corak pengaturan dan regulasi sesuatu masyarakat mula berubah daripada regulasi hukum-hakam agama kepada regulasi yang bersifat sekular – melalui sains perubatan. Individu di masyarakat Barat-Kristian beralih daripada membuat pengakuan (confession) dosa seksual di gereja kepada pengakuan mengenai seksualiti mereka kepada para doktor. Perubahan sosial ini sesuai dengan perkembangan sains and teknologi sekitar revolusi pengindustrian dan fahaman humanisme pasca-Pencerahan. Masyakarat pada zaman 1800-an yang mengagungkan sains seperti teori evolusi dan sains genetik disarankan dengan pengaturan sosial yang bersifat saintifik bagi memastikan kemajuan dan kesejahteraan manusia sejagat.

Daripada gagasan Foucault datangnya Queer Theory 

Pendekatan ‘queer’ terbit daripada angkatan aktivis gay dan lesbian yang memperjuangkan hak-hak golongan homoseksual.

Perkataan ‘queer’ yang digunakan dalam aktivisme LGBT di Amerika Syarikat pada akhir dekad 1960-an mempunyai maksud yang bertentangan dengan maksud yang menjelekkan golongan LGBT. Objektif disebalik penggunaan perkataan ‘queer’ yang asalnya digunakan untuk menghina lelaki homoseksual adalah untuk ‘memulihkan’ dan meneutralkan bisa homofobik yang terkandung dalamnya, tidak terlalu berbeza dengan golongan berkulit hitam yang menggunakan perkataan ‘nigger’ sesama mereka atau penggunaan perkataan ‘slut’ dalam gerakan Slutwalk. Ini merupakan satu contoh ‘reverse discourse’ atau wacana berbalik yang diusulkan oleh Foucault.

Sumbangan terbesar Foucault kepada Queer Theory adalah teorinya mengenai cara kuasa (power), wacana (discourse), dan bahasa/ilmu (language/knowledge) saling berinteraksi untuk mencipta realiti. Kuasa yang mengatur sesuatu masyarakat (melalui undang-undang, pihak politik dan agamawan) dikuatkuasakan melalui manipulasi wacana (misalnya melalui propaganda). Wacana yang sempit menghasilkan ruang bicara awam dan persendirian yang sempit.

Beberapa ikhtisar penting dalam Queer Theory: 

Pendekatan ‘queer’ menolak binari gender dan seksualiti yang terdiri daripada homoseksualiti dan heteroseksualiti / maskuliniti dan feminititi.

Identiti ‘queer’ adalah segala perbuatan, pendirian dan gaya hidup yang melanggar norma-norma yang mengongkong individu.

‘Queer’ bersifat subversif dan menyongsang demi mencari jalan yang baru untuk mengekspresi gender dan seksualiti.

Persamaan / perbezaan antara Queer Theory dan teori feminis: 

audre-lorde-in-front-of-a-007
Audre Lorde, tokoh teori feminis

Kedua-dua mempunyai pendirian yang kritikal terhadap peranan gender dan seksualiti yang binari, tradisional dan normatif dalam masyarakat. Kedua-dua juga memegang pada pendapat bahawa gender dan jantina adalah konstruksi sosial.

Karya pemikir-pemikir utama Queer Theory juga merupakan tokoh-tokoh feminis – seperti Judith Butler, Teresa de Lauretis dan Audre Lorde.

Kedua-dua teori feminis radikal dan Queer Theory menolak heteroseksualiti atas dasar penindasannya terhadap wanita dan lelaki gay. Aktivisme feminis dan LGBT muncul bergiat di sekitar tahun 1960 dan 1970-an sewaktu perjuangan hak-hak asasi membasmi perkauman di Amerika Syarikat berlaku.

Namun, terdapat pelbagai perbezaan yang mewujudkan satu jurang antara teori feminis dan Queer Theory.

Misalnya, teori feminis bermula daripada persoalan mengenai perbezaan antara gender dan jantina/seks, manakala tumpuan Queer Theory lebih kepada jantina/seks dan seksualiti. Walaupun teori feminis radikal yang aktif pada zaman 1970-an dan 1980-an adalah sangat kritikal terhadap heteroseksualiti, kini teori feminis kurang memberi perhatian kepada isu homoseksualiti dan heteroseksualiti.

‘Performativiti’ 

Jika gender dianggap satu konstruk sosial – yakni terbentuk daripada proses sosial dan budaya yang boleh dimanipulasi dan berubah mengikut rentak zaman – maka ia tidak timbul secara semulajadi dalam diri seorang perempuan atau lelaki. Sebaliknya, gender harus dipupuk, dipelajari, ditegaskan, dan dikawal sepanjang hayat. Tidak cukup untuk digelar ‘perempuan’ or ‘lelaki’ di saat kelahirannya atau dalam sijil kelahiran, keperempuanan dan kelelakian harus ditonjolkan dan bagi Judith Butler, ia seolah-olah ‘dilakonkan’ di pentas sosial.

Performativiti‘ merupakan konsep yang dikemukakan oleh Judith Butler untuk menunjukkan bahawa gender dan seksualiti bersifat seperti ‘persembahan’ atau lakonan yang mengikuti ‘skrip’ yang ditetapkan oleh norma masyarakat. Bagi Butler, gender seolah-olah satu ‘lakonan’ yang dilakukan oleh individu mengikut syarat-syarat permakaian dan perlakuan. Dalam kata lain, gender bukan sesuatu yang sedia ada tetapi sesuatu yang perlu diusahakan dan diulangi sepanjang hayat.

Dari sisi lain, gender yang bersifat performatif bermaksud gender dibentuk atau dikonstruk melalui tindakan seorang individu yang mengisyaratkan identiti gender beliau. Bagi Butler, gender tidak wujud dalam ‘batin’ atau teras identiti seseorang individu. Gender adalah sesuatu yang dizahirkan sahaja.

rupaul_at_dragcon2c_april_2017
Rupaul, seorang ‘drag queen’ dan penghibur antarabangsa

Drag’ adalah istilah yang digunakan oleh Butler sebagai kiasan atau metafora bagi menerangkan gaya seorang individu memaparkan identiti gendernya. ‘Drag’ merujuk kepada persembahan drag atau permakaian pakaian yang bertentangan dengan identiti gender seseorang. Istilah ‘drag’ digunakan bagi individu biasa kerana gaya pemaparan gender bagi kebanyakan orang sama ada melalui make-up atau memakai tali leher dan business suit adalah sementara dan untuk di ‘pentas’ awam.

Bagi kebanyakan individu, gaya dan bahasa badan, cara permakaian dan pertuturan diatur dan dikawal apabila di tempat awam atau di situasi yang tertentu, seperti acara formal atau temuduga untuk kerja. Mengikut pendapat Judith Butler, kami sentiasa mempersembahkan diri mengikut citarasa diri, norma masyarakat, dan protokol tertentu.

Kesimpulan

Seksualiti – sebagai satu kategori – adalah sesuatu yang bersifat historikal. Ini bermaksud konsep heteroseksualiti dan homoseksualiti hanya boleh digunakan dengan tepat daripada zaman 1870-an. Ini adalah kerana definisi, ciri-ciri dan kategori bagi mengenalpasti heteroseksualiti dan homoseksualiti hanya bermula pada 1870-an

Namun, definisi, ciri-ciri dan kategori heteroseksualiti dan homoseksualiti pada zaman itu menggambarkan kedua-duanya sebagai penyakit mental.

Kecenderungan kita untuk menggunakan binari dan dikotomi untuk klasifikasi gender dan jantina mencerminkan corak bahasa dan logik kita tanpa menyedari bahawa fenomena dan realiti sosial dan biologi adalah lebih kompleks dan bukan hitam-putih. Malah, fenomena dan realiti sosial, biologi, gender dan jantina boleh dilihat sebagai kepelbagaian warna dalam pelangi.

The rise of the modern female subject in modern Malay literature in the 1960s

The following is an excerpt from an early version of my book chapter on modernity and the ‘new woman’ in 60s Malay literature. It’ll be discussed at my public talk this Saturday in Silverfish Books, Kuala Lumpur:

Source: https://sweeling1995mediaculture.wordpress.com/

Extant literature in both Malay and English makes it rather clear that there appears to be a divide in the literary preoccupation of male and female fiction writers with regards to the depiction of women. Under the penmanship of Malay male writers, female characters are depicted as the playthings and subordinates of men. Women writers of modern Malay fiction writing, on the other hand, were confined to the vague notion of “women’s issues” (Maimunah, 1986). For Rosnah (2003: 35), there has been a gradual shift in the focus of women’s novels between the 1930s to 1970s from the instrumental importance of education for women to the life experiences and the soul (kejiwaan) of women. This is a rather extensive span of time that elides the many transformative historical moments for women, such as women’s participation in nationalist struggle, rise in women’s employment and increased recognition of women’s contributions in the public sphere. In her rather reductive assessment of the portrayal of women by Malay fiction writers, Ungku Maimunah states that female characters can be neatly divided into “positive” and “negative” representations. While the “positive” or “negative” portrayals of women are not explicitly defined, one is led to assume that they comprise of binary oppositions of faithful and self-abnegating women on one hand and on the other hand, openly sexual and morally ambiguous women in the context of a modernising new nation.

Sequestered within the “positive” and “negative”, I would argue, are elements of the modern female subject; 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 (Rosnah. 2003: 37). 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 literary voice onto the page and public sphere.

The meaning of the ‘modern’ woman is problematised here to bring to bear the Eurocentric baggage of the word ‘modernity.’ Modernity has been associated with the linear narrative of progress that mirrors the development of ideas and industrialisation in Western Europe. It follows a culturally specific historical and intellectual trajectory with origins in the Enlightenment. At the same time, modernity is embodied (Appadurai, 1996) and a sensorial experience (Berman 1983), albeit an uneven one. In studies on British and American culture between 1890s and 1910s, the “new woman” demonstrates a number of bare similarities with the new woman identified in modern Malay fiction of the 1960s:

Defined by her commitment to various types of independence, the stereotypical American New Woman was college educated and believed in women’s right to work in professions traditionally reserved for men; she often sought a public role in occupations that would putatively improve society (Rich 2009: 1)

That the new woman would only emerge in the 1960’s Malaya is not an indication of a delayed modernity in which the Eurocentric historicism of “first in the West, and then elsewhere” is reproduced (Chakrabarty 2009: 6). Instead, the new woman of Malaya is a social phenomenon and literary construct of non-Western modernities. The notion of ‘multiple modernities’ is adopted here to examine the ways in which modernising societies undergo “structural differentiation” in which arenas such as family life, modern education, and mass communication for example are defined and organised differently (Eisenstadt 2000: 1-2). The new Malay woman’s embodiment of modernity is a critique of Eurocentric historicism which constructs passive ex-colonial subjects whose modernity is a pale fabrication of the West.

In the fiction by Malay women writers, there is an embrace of certain institutions of modernity – mass education, urbanisation and female participation in the public sphere for instance. However, there is also a moral suspicion about the dangers of ‘Westernisation’ that underpin many aspects of modernity. The revival of Malay nationalism in the 1960s found expression in the literary arena, primarily through institutional efforts to elevate the status of the Malay language and culture. Several novels of this period would become the ‘canon’ of modern Malay literature and develop a discursive space for the reflection of the meaning of progress for a new nation. However, women writers were excluded, formally and otherwise, from the ‘canon’ by their male peers, literary scholars and historians despite their significant contributions. Women members of Angkatan Sasterawan or ASAS 50 (Generation of Writers, a national association for Malayan writers), Kamariah Saadon and Jahlelawati, have been forgotten by scholars of modern Malay literature. The contributions of another group, Angkatan Sastrawanis, are also buried as a footnote in the history of Malay literature (Campbell 2004: 82). Thus, to argue that that women in Malaya were de facto emancipated during this period would be an overstatement..

Tensions that oscillate between postcolonial optimism and anxiety vis-à-vis modernity were deeply felt in the booming literary scene in 1960s Malaya. Having gained political independence in 1957, Malaysia entered a rich cultural decade of the 1960s defined by the consumption of Western popular culture and the adoption of Western aesthetics in local literature, filmmaking, popular music, and fashion. However, the moral landscape of postcolonial cosmopolitanism is typically refracted through a sexualised representation of women’s bodies in modern Malay literature during this period. Anis Sabirin’s critique of modern Malay novels by male writers in Jenis Perwatakan Wanita links the anxiety of Western-style “individualism” and “materialism” with the degradation of women. The scene of sexualised modernity is set in Jenis Perwatakan Wanita in the night clubs, massage parlours and B.B. Park, a shopping arcade in Kuala Lumpur (1969: 130). Sabirin comments on the rise of the erotic novel in the Malay fiction scene, comprising of both high and lower brow books by male novelists such as Shahnon Ahmad, A. Samad Said, Alias Ali, and Malungun, to name a few.

Women in the writings of these men, Anis argues, both destroy and are destructive to themselves and others (Perempuan sudah menjadi barang yang rosak dan merosakkan (1969: 132)). Her focus on these “destructive” women falls witheringly on the popular character of the urban prostitute found in high and lowbrow literature. Anis is just as critical of the “good” village girl idealised in modern Malay literature. For Anis, the symbolic innocence of the village girl belies an ignorance “untested” by experience and worldliness (1969: 133-134). In her essay “Peranan Wanita Baru” (“The Role of the New Woman”), Anis argues that women are caught in contradictory roles in modern society. No longer expected to be stay-at-home wives and mothers, women are expected to be just as educated and career-oriented as men. The new woman, however, embraces the dilemmas of modern life. Intelligent and employable in male-dominated professions, she is also desirable on her own terms and has sexual agency. She will not be tolerated being treated as a second-class citizen and demands that she is given the same opportunities as men (1969: 7-8).

While prominent, mainly male, writers were producing didactic fiction in the service of national development and elevating the status of the Malay language in the 1960s, female writers seized the new opportunities opened up to women to explore the limits of femininity and complex psychological and social narratives. But it is misguided to suggest that the narrative direction taken by women writers of the period qua women is an inward and exclusively domestic one in contrast to the outward projection of narratives concerning the nation by male writers. The 1960 novel Hari Mana Bulan Mana (Which Day Which Month) is a groundbreaking example of the expansion of a woman’s personal world and its relationship with other women in the public sphere. Sal, the lead character of Hari Mana Bulan Mana, is a newspaper reporter in Singapore prior to its separation from Malaya and the epitome of the “new” woman (Campbell 2004: 109, 112) who uses her role as a working woman in journalism to bring public attention to the plight of female victims of abuse and their abject poverty. Although not explicitly feminist, Sal’s consciousness about the status of women in modern Malaya also opens her eyes to the oppression suffered by her feminist activist friend, Zamilah.

The texts discussed in this chapter are a reflection of a rapidly changing society. Class-based and communal conflict in 1964 and 1969 indicate the cracks of a new nation. Despair and dissatisfaction arising from the yawning economic gap between the majority of poor Malays in the village and the minority of wealthier Malays in the urban centres are visible in modern Malay fiction of the period. Moral distinctions are also made between the “Westernised” Malay and the hapless rural Malay. Affluent, Westernised Malays are portrayed as out of touch with the vast majority of the nation’s people (rakyat). Remote from modernity, rural Malays who work the land suffer from community conflict and the cruel hand of nature’s onslaughts (Hooker 2000).

Reference:

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minneasota Press.

Berman, Marshall. 1983. All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity. London: Verso.

Campbell, Christine. 2004. Contrary visions: Women and work in Malay novels written by women. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka: Kuala Lumpur.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. Provincialising Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Eisenstadt, Shmuel Noah. 2000. “Multiple modernities.” Daedalus 129(1): 1-29.

Hooker, Virginia Matheson. 2000. Writing a new society: social change through the novel in Malay. New South Wales: Allen and Unwin.

Katz. Tamar. 2000. Impressionist subjects: gender, interiority, and modernist fiction in England. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Rich, Charlotte J. 2009. Transcending the new woman: multiethnic narratives in the progressive Era. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Rosnah Baharuddin. 2003. Wacana wanita Melayu dan sastera. Bangi: Penerbit UKM.

Sabirin, Anis. 1969. Peranan Wanita Baru. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbitan Utusan Malaysia.

Ungku Maimunah Mohd. Tahir. 1986. Women fiction writers and images of women in modern Malay literature. Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. 1(2), 155-171.

Alat-alat tukang kepunyaan penindas tidak akan meruntuhkan rumah penindas

Source: Pachamama.org

“Alat-alat tukang kepunyaan penindas tidak akan meruntuhkankan rumah penindas. Alat-alat itu boleh menewaskan penindas hanya buat seketika, namun ia tidak akan menjamin perubahan yang murni. Perkauman dan homofobia adalah perkara yang kian dialami oleh kita semua. Saya menyeru kepada semua untuk menyelam ke dalam minda masing-masing dan ‘menyentuh’ unsur-unsur yang menimbulkan ketakutan dan kejelekan yang wujud di sana. Lihat wajahnya. Waktu itulah isu-isu peribadi yang berbaur politik mulai memberi pencerahan kepada pilihan hidup kita”.

– Audre Lorde, The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, 1979

Alat-alat tukang penindas merujuk kepada bahasa, teori dan struktur wacana feminis Barat yang menepikan suara wanita lesbian, berkulit hitam dan yang berasal daripada masyarakat membangun (dunia ketiga). Di sini Audre Lorde menyampaikan satu amaran; di mana satu bahaya dalam bentuk keganasan epistemik (epistemic violence) akan ditimpa wanita yang bukan berkulit putih dan tertindas selagi kategori ‘wanita’ tidak memartabatkan perbezaan antara wanita dari segi bangsa, bahasa, agama, identiti seksualiti, dan latarbelakang kelas.

Keganasan epistemik adalah satu bentuk keganasan yang halus tetapi mempunyai kesan yang memudaratkan wanita biasa, khususnya yang bukan dari golongan elit. Keganasan ini disebarluas melalui penjanaan ilmu, maklumat yang digunakan untuk mengetahui dan membantu. Bahasa tidak bersifat neutral, malah ia bersangkut-paut dengan budaya dan politik untuk melindung kepentingan kumpulan-kumpulan tertentu.

Audre Lorde menyaran kepada wanita yang memperjuangkan feminisme untuk meneliti dan membongkar struktur bahasa dan rangka wacana feminis yang digunakan; dari manakah ia datang? siapakah yang dijadikan tokoh dan idola? Bahasa dan ilmu mampu digunakan untuk menggerakkan fahaman seksis terhadap wanita. Namun bahasa dan ilmu juga boleh menjadi benih dan substrat kepada kesedaran wanita dan perubahan. Audre Lorde mengungkapkan kuasa bahasa dan ilmu dengan kata-kata Simone de Beauvoir: “Daripada pengetahuan yang jujur mengenai keadaan kehidupan ini akan kita menimba kekuatan dan sebab-sebab untuk bertindak” (2003, Lorde: 28)

Rujukan:
Audre Lorde. 2003. ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, disunting oleh Reina Lewis dan Sara Mills. London dan New York: Routledge. pp. 25-28.

Teori dalam Pengajian Gender – jadual kuliah

‘Teori dalam Pengajian Gender’ AZEA 1103 merupakan kursus elektif Ijazah Dasar dalam Fakulti Sastera dan Sains Sosial di Universiti Malaya. Kuliah adalah setiap hari Selasa di Fakulti Sastera dan Sains Sosial, Universiti Malaya. Sila berhubung dengan saya untuk maklumat lanjut.

Kursus ini adalah pengenalan kepada teori feminis dan melatih pelajar dalam menggunakan teori feminis dalam penulisan, perdebatan, hujah lisan dan penyelidikan. Ia menggabungkan dan mengkritik ilmu dan teori daripada negaara Barat, Asia dan Malaysia dalam pengajian gender dan seksualiti.

Minggu 1 (23 Februari 2016) – Pengenalan kursus – maksud teori
Minggu 2 (1 Mac 2016) – Tubuh, identiti, gender dan sekualiti
Minggu 3 (8 Mac 2016) – Definisi wanita dalam falsafah dan agama
Minggu 4 (15 Mac 2016) – Epistemologi feminis
Minggu 5 (22 Mac 2016) – Feminisme Liberal
Minggu 6 (29 Mac 2016) – Feminisme Marxist
Minggu 7 (5 April 2016) – Feminisme Radikal

New column on the Malay Mail Online – Asal usul obsesi Melayu dengan tudung

For good reasons and bad, my article on the tudung was one of the most talked about pieces on gender, Islam, and feminism lately (social media metrics: 13,000 Facebook ‘Likes’, more than 6000 Facebook ‘shares’ and over 300 Twitter ‘tweets’). Piece is written in Bahasa Malaysia:

Nampaknya perempuan yang tidak memakai tudung di Malaysia sudah menjadi spesies yang terancam. Soalnya diancam oleh apa dan siapa. Bukan pemburu haram tetapi satu budaya yang mempunyai sejarah yang pendek.

Budaya ini mula menyerap ke dalam sanubari rakyat Melayu-Islam sejak akhir 1970-an. Ini merupakan zaman pembangkitan Islam yang mendapat ilham daripada revolusi Islamik di Iran yang berjaya menjatuhkan kerajaan Reza Shah Pahlavi yang sekular dan didukung oleh Amerika Syarikat.

Read the rest here

A response to my piece and my corresponding response.

On Anis Sabirin the Malay feminist writer (and translation of my new column)

pwb coverI 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:

The Malay writer Anis Sabirin. Source: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
The Malay writer Anis Sabirin. Source: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

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.

My translation:

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.

What is teh tarik enlightenment?

This is my first column on The Malay Mail, published 3rd December 2013

Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani was something of a charismatic maverick and crusader of anti-colonial ideas in late nineteenth century Egypt. His informal engagement with the public evokes a scene not dissimilar to a small forum led by Socrates. Surrounded by earnest disciples in cafes, Al-Afghani would hold court on ancient Islamic science and Western philosophy, appealing to the dispossessed lower and working class who would feel out of place in the hallowed halls of Al-Azhar University.

The ultimate goal of Al-Afghani’s thought was to avenge the degradation that European imperialism had brought to the Islamic world. But he did not reject all things Western or European in toto. By shrewdly adopting Western tools of modernity such as the printing press, Al-Afghani wrote articles and published pamphlets to disseminate his exhortations against the West. So influential was Al-Afghani that he was attributed as the architect of the politicisation of Egypt’s public sphere in the 1870s. Within a few years of his arrival in Egypt, nearly all of Egypt’s newspapers were run by his devotees. His most notable disciples would later become leaders of postcolonial Egypt and later, Iran, his homeland.

More than a 100 years later, something similar is afoot in urban peninsula Malaysia. Groups of Malay men meet at 24-hour restaurants rattling off names of white men both dead and living: Spinoza, Kant, Mill, Hayek, Habermas. To make applicable and complimentary to the local context, iconoclastic Muslim thinkers such as Ali Shariati are invoked. Is this some kind of intellectual renaissance unseen since, well, who knows? Perhaps. But what is certain is that it is what Clarissa Lee calls the birth of our salon culture.

This loose collective of individuals organise book discussions, lectures, and produce books translated into Malay, the language of its audience targeted for intellectual and Islamic reform. IKD has recently published Immanuel Kant’s foundational text What is the Enlightenment? in Malay, signalling an attempt to herald a Malay kind of Enlightenment. Now is as good a time as any to investigate the rise of this community.

These names and ideas bandied about during the Enlightenment have a talismanic quality. They appeal to idealists. The Kantian man stands apart from the rest of society thanks to his superior faculty to reason and freedom from the shackles of fear and dogma. He and his ilk form the public sphere, a potent site for contesting against the state. With the right conditions, Islamic reform and Islamic secularism may be imminent. These grandiose ideals may be the seeds of an intellectual framework for a new Malaysia.

There are, however, detractors who are cynical of this fledgling intellectual trend and quick to denounce earnest verbiage as “pseudo-intellectualism.” Such criticisms should be disabused from the short-sighted ignorance of the power that ideas have in the bigger picture of history. Ideas alone, often slow in its path towards eventual action, have resulted in social transformations and political revolutions. Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet on imperialism and capitalism inspired revolts against colonial subjugators in Asia and the Middle East.

There is a naivety like the rush of first love in this intellectual movement. Their often uncritical adoration of Western philosophy is attributed to a lack of awareness of the vast corpus that challenges its androcentric Eurocentrism. But like Al-Afghani, we should not throw Western theory out with the bath water. After all, Malaysia as a country was founded on Western ideas; the nation-state was a created as a European political project, the rule of law, Parliament, and our education system are all imported without us resisting against its foreignness. And yet, other concepts — female emancipation, freedom of speech, civil liberty, gay rights — are attacked as being alien to our “culture.”

What is more interesting to observe is how pockets of this intellectual community are inspired by Indonesian civil society made up of key contemporary feminist, literary and socio-political figures. Women make a significant presence in Indonesian intellectual circles. But the urban Malaysian salon culture, which is keen on attracting the working class Malay, remains stubbornly Malay male-dominated. This gendered intellectual exclusion can also be witnessed in Singapore where an emerging intellectual book culture is dominated by young Singaporean Malay men.

There are certainly parallels between our local burgeoning intellectual community with that it aspires to mirror. Women were excluded from participating in world-changing philosophical debates in 18th century France. Their views were thought to lack weight and while their very presence amongst male thinkers (wannabe or otherwise) were inhibiting the freedom of intellectual homosociality these men enjoyed. Women opt out from late night discussions in 24-hour restaurants because being female in public at night is risky in Malaysia. Who knows what other reasons that account for their absence?

What are the other dynamics of exclusion at work in this emerging intellectual culture? Why do the chattering classes unproblematically choose to meet at 24-hour restaurants? Should they question the political and economic conditions that allowed them to discuss “liberty” and “rights” on cheap teh tarik while migrant labourers do the 3D jobs (dangerous, dirty, and difficult) that Malaysians won’t do? Liberty and rights for whom exactly? In the society where 9-to-5 jobs are privileged as the ideal, who is there to challenge the ethics of 24-hour sit-down restaurants if not the enlightened ones?

Perhaps one shouldn’t expect too much from an emerging intellectual class that is still learning the lessons of what a truly democratic society means. What took Europe several hundred years, two world wars and numerous fatal lessons from feeling superior to the rest of the world, Malaysia is only beginning to jump off the coat tails of empire since only the last century. Globalisation and super fast media may speed up the intellectual awakening of the elites in developing societies while the rest of humanity waits patiently for their turn.

The geography of urban intellectual culture in the Malay archipelago

First published on THE STATE magazine, 10th October 2013

Everyday for six months last year, I took the mikrolet from a major bus stop in South Jakarta to my home. A kind of share taxi, the blue mikrolet—number 36—would take around fifteen passengers at a time, following a looping route that covered one small area of South Jakarta. On the route, there was one stop that would prove to be always intriguing, intimidating, and irresistible: Salihara.

Like an oasis in the dusty and chaotic urban sprawl of the megalopolis, Salihara is a complex of smaller parts: one part cafe, other parts amphitheatre, book and DVD shop, and an inviting lecture room with lush carpeting and flattering lighting. The main building itself is a symbol of democratic renewal, echoing the architecture of modernisation in decolonising countries during the 1960s. Eminent poets, writers of edgy feminist novels, Islamic activists, and film makers are regularly seen here, either as invited speakers or self-invited customers of the cafe.

Just outside of Salihara is Pasar Minggu, literally the Sunday market by name but in actuality a marketplace all week. But Pasar Minggu is light years from the bucolic idyll of the farmer’s market. Traders and street food merchants sell their wares on the ground, just inches from the exhausts of slow moving traffic.

The sights and smells of Pasar Minggu miraculously disappear in the understated but elegant surroundings of Salihara. Built in 2008 primarily as an arts venue, Salihara is the brainchild of members of Indonesia’s most eminent and creative civil society. On most days of the week, poetry readings, dance and theatrical performances, lectures, and panel discussions on Islam, cinema, and feminism take place. They are attended by an engaged public, who have come to this place to challenge the status quo. In one panel discussion consisting of Islamic clerics, a member of the audience asks, “What is God?” to which one of the clerics answers, with radiant confidence, “God is but a mantra that one chants to the heart.” One will never witness such an exchange in Malaysia.

In Malaysia, a small but growing group of Malay men are inspired by the intellectual energy of Salihara and determined to create a small public sphere modelled after it. It is a game of catch-up, as they see their Indonesian cousins moving far ahead, while Malaysia is left in the dust in the intelligentsia stakes. The Malaysian chattering classes gravitate towards the enclave of Bangsar, in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, as the spiritual hub of the burgeoning intellectual scene. Bangsar has all the trappings of such a place; full of high-end watering holes, cheap food offered in 24 hour sit-down restaurants, and located between the hubbub of the capital and the expansive and desirable suburbia of Petaling Jaya. Here, the local rich and sophisticates, the White migrant community, and all manner of aspirational wannabes dine, drink, and are seen. They tend to eat the same things here; Indian Muslim fare of rotis and sweet teas—food of the people.

Salihara and the hip Telawi area of Bangsar are roughly reminiscent of Jurgen Habermas’s imagining of the public sphere. A place where civil society—a motley group of writers, journalists, artists and activists—come together and form a super league of dissenting voices against both the state and the prevailing threat of Islamic extremism to democracy and civil liberties. They are keenly aware of Habermas’s ideas and take advantage of their potential, along with those of the Enlightenment that drive their discussions. In this liberal marketplace of ideas, one can be a magpie, picking up works of key philosophers at random to add intellectual panache to political concepts. In this liberal marketplace of ideas, the misogyny of Rousseau and Spinoza are airbrushed out, the disregard of non-White plight of countless others are wilfully ignored. Ideas become fetishised commodities, whose provenance and context are often obscured.

In Malaysia, they are also inspired by the text of the much-revered Malaysian academic Syed Hussein Alatas, Intellectuals in Developing Societies (1977), which outlines the characteristic and function of the public intellectual in Malaysia. One such delineated characteristic that rings true of the Malaysian smart set is their self-imposed distance from the rest of society and preference to mix with their own kind. This distance is further accentuated by the geography of their haunts. They may be eating the food of the people, at the prices of the ‘masses,’ but they socialise and plot for a better Malaysia only within the specific locations of the Telawi area.

Members of the intellectual elite in South Jakarta and Bangsar organise the development of ideas and performance around public book discussions, and the translation of ‘classics’ into Malay and Indonesian. Book publication of Anglo-European thinkers into Indonesian is a serious and long-established business in Indonesia. The country has long lived with a mono-language policy in the media and education throughout Suharto’s New Order (1966-1998). Malaysia, meanwhile, has had a more chequered history of national language policy since political independence in 1957. It has switched capriciously between English and Malay, while competing with Tamil, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Cantonese.

The rise of this particular kind of public sphere is set against a backdrop of a revived sense of democracy and political potential in the hands of the people. After the end of Suharto’s authoritarian regime in Indonesia and the Reformasi movement in Malaysia, a flurry of organisations filled the vacuum of a once forbidden public space. Members of these organisations and social movements are collaborative. They are often situated within a bus or Light Rail Transit stop from another, and they eat and drink together. But they do not socialise merely to assert their social capital. The ultimate goal of the fledgling intellectual culture in Malaysia is to challenge the status quo, displacing the power of the ruling government and heralding a Malay version of the Enlightenment. The recent publication of Immanuel Kant’s What is the Enlightenment in the Malay language offers clues to such a dream.

As a term much used in developmental and sociological studies, civil society requires further contestation within the context of Malaysia and Indonesia. It is the buffer between the state and society, but its members’ position is often closer to the higher rungs of the nation than ‘the rest.’ In Jakarta, there is an acute awareness of class privilege among the self-professed elites who are the inadvertent beneficiaries of decades of corruption under Suharto’s regime. There is a yawning wealth gap in Indonesia where the small middle class are squeezed between the über affluent and the abject poor. In Malaysia, where the broad middle class enjoy a history of relative economic and political stability, class awareness is less frequently acknowledged. And when they are, they are uttered between sips of expensive lattes.

The Malaysian intellectual community is male-dominated because its membership reflects the dynamics of its founders who are highly educated, heterosexual, Malay, and male. They meet after work and till late when it would be riskier for women to travel alone at night in a country where crime is on the rise. There is the banter and debating style in a company of men that only a few women, who are expected to be demure and accommodating rather than highly opinionated and bold, will feel at home with. Also, the ‘serious’ books the community reads are those mainly by other men. There are, after all, only a few female philosophers. In this constellation consisting of supernova male philosophers whose work are seen as an exciting challenge to an intellectually arid landscape. Philosophy, alongside the humanities and social sciences, learned outside the classroom are currently being recuperated in Malaysia after decades of abandonment in favour of ‘useful’ and ‘job-making’ spheres of knowledge like engineering, law, medicine, and the ‘hard’ sciences.

There is plenty of interest in combining Western philosophy and critical engagement with Islam, personal liberties, and rational reason in Indonesian higher education. Indonesia can attribute its ability to combine Islam and institutionalised intellectual endeavours to the founding of the Indonesian Associations of Muslim intellectuals (ICMI) in 1990. Their legacy can be felt in the country’s progressive civil society. But there are acutely few spaces for such things in Malaysian universities. The repressive University and University Colleges Act restricts socio-political engagement amongst students in ways deemed oppositional to the state. Its impact on student activism and critical expression has had a lasting legacy in Malaysian university life since its imposition in 1971. And thus, the Malaysian university is no place for the intellectual who nurtures some kind of political ambition.

The appeal of the European Enlightenment is a curious one in Malaysia. Although often critical of religion, the Enlightenment poses little threat to the idealism and aspirational radicalism of the Bangsar intellectuals. What matters it that the Malay incarnation of the Enlightenment will release them from the ball and chain of dogma and moral paranoia. They have little interest in postcolonial or feminist critiques of their idols. And this underlines the illusion of their special place in the geopolitics of ideas where gender, class, space, and time are of no consequence.

The above are snapshots from a personal observation that will be soon be part of a social history of a new intellectual and cultural phenomenon deeply rooted in political action in Malaysia, one that is inspired by social and cultural movements in Indonesia. Key members of the Malaysian intellectual culture flit in and out of the sphere of formal politics, and their influence within such realms remains to be seen. However, there is little to doubt that their influence is fast spreading amongst younger people who are newly politicised via the trending climate of democratic possibility that has resurfaced after many decades.