‘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.

On women’s laughter in Malay horror (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a two-part post on the pontianak and women’s laughter in Malaysian horror cinema. Read Part 1.

Evil-Queen-laughing

Consider laughter’s capacity to upset and as a vehicle of resistance. More specifically when women laugh at men, laughing at patriarchy, laughing at power, laughing from below. Situated below speech in the register of communication, laughter can confound thanks to its multifarious meanings. It is pregnant with meaning that is not immediately accessible by reason and rational thinking. Its semantic elusiveness can be a form of resistance against the male-dominated symbolic order. It not only has the ability to inflict cracks in the micro-structures of patriarchy within the confines of a film narrative but to tear down the fourth wall.

Women’s voice in film is projected differently from men. In classical Hollywood cinema, the male disembodied voice-over has an omnipotent presence that emanates from the centre of the narrative, through and beyond the cinematic frame. By contrast, women’s voices in film are confined purely within diagetic space reinforcing the role of the female body in film as objects of the gaze. In response, female filmmakers have experimented with feminist cinematic approaches by dislodging women’s voices from the female image or the voice-image de-synchronisation, and deploying the female voice-over and voice-off instead. As Kaja Silverman argues below:

To disembody the female voice [via de-synchronisation] would be to challenge every conception by means of which we have previously known woman in Hollywood film, since it is precisely as body she is constructed there (1988, p. 164)

When heard but not seen, women’s hysterical laughter at patriarchy offers a diversion away from the corporeality of feminist politics. Resistance without the need for women’s bodily display offers a panacea to what Sandra Bartky calls the ‘feminine narcissism’ in both normative and transgressive subjectivity.

The sonic subjectivity of the laughing woman occurs within what Teresa De Lauretis calls a ‘space-off’, ‘the space not visible in the frame but inferable from what the frame makes visible’. Without the oppressive structures of the gaze, the ‘space-off’ represents a respite from the prevailing control of gender:

It is here [in the space-off] that the terms of a different construction of gender can be posed – terms that do have effect and take hold at the level of subjectivity and self-representation: in the micro-political practices of daily life and daily resistances that afford both agency and sources of power or empowering investments (De Lauretis, 1988, p. 25)

The pontianak’s disembodied laughter draws attention away from the materiality of a woman’s laughter and to the affective range of women’s voice and knowledge. It denies the cinematic unity of women as bodies and the ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ they provide. By departing, if momentarily, from women’s bodies as a site of resistance, disembodied laughter seeks to reclaim space through sonic means.

Discomfort with women’s laughter arises from what Deborah Cameron refers to as the gendered ‘distribution of linguistic resources’ that results in women’s exclusion from verbal expression in the public sphere. This is not to say that women are prohibited from speaking in public in toto but rather such prohibitions are sanctioned in subtle ways through a gendered division of linguistic labour within institutions in the public sphere. Certain forms of speech are registered as gendered (such as gossiping, nagging, shrill and strident speech) and assigned lower value and diminished authority. Speech designated as ‘feminine’ is negatively valued and as a consequence frequently evacuated from domains of power. Inadvertently but no less a consequence of gendered demarcation of speech, women are historically shut out from speaking from positions of institutions of authority, principally in the law as judges, as religious leaders, professors, and politicians.

Across cultures, women were either ritually or socially denied to speak with authority, seriousness, and symbolic gravity in the presence of men. With rare exception, under-representation of women in politics and prohibition against Muslim women delivering the Friday sermon to male worshippers are testament to the denial of the female public voice. When permitted to speak, a woman’s voice is channeled down a lower register where it is trivialised, mocked, and dismissed.

In conclusion, a woman’s laughter unleashes the power of the female voice to pierce the patriarchal edifice. To upend the threat of male dominance, all a woman needs to do is laugh with abandon. It is an apposite counter to the rapture of mass hysteria suffered by young Malay women, interpreted as a collective cry for help. And so a laugh is more than just a laugh, more than the voluntary spasms of the diagphram.

Although she emerges from a place of victimhood, the pontianak is a woman who is given a second chance to reclaim justice and what is hers to begin with. The extreme range of emotions that the Asian monstrous/feminine impresses upon others (from loving and seductive to terrifying) throws into sharp relief how the dark affect of anger, jealousy, vengeance, and schadenfreude can easily place ‘real’ femininity in the domain of the grotesque. But the anti-patriarchal terror of the pontianak’s laughter thinly conceals the precarity of women’s desire to undermine patriarchy. After all, the pontianak’s laugh signifies a momentary pyrrhic victory before she is vanquished by a man.

Occasionally, as in Anak Pontianak (1958), she survives the prevailing moral order that wipes out spirits and demons. But when her survival means forever stalking the earth alongside the other undead of legend, beautiful and untouched by age, she is made lonesome by the frail shortness of human life. There is indeed something about women’s laughter in Malay popular culture, its persistence in folk horror, and its derisiveness in discourses of Malay decorum. It is a vehicle for affective knowledge in a public sphere filled with gendered transgressions. Women’s loud shrieks and excessive laughter constitute temporary bursts of respite and resistance in a culture replete with impositions on women’s voices.

#MeToo and the deafening Malaysian silence

I’ve talked about sexual harassment quite a bit. In light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the global domino effect it had across other industries and institutions within and outside the US, it seemed inevitable that Malaysian liberal circles felt compelled to join in the conversation, albeit in small-scale curated debates and scattered hashtag activism on social media rather than full-on exposé of the scale of misogyny in Malaysian institutions of power and privilege. Early last December, I was invited to speak on BFM, a radio station known for its progressive programming, about the ‘post-Weinstein effect’, how it might irreversibly change men’s behaviour and more importantly, why it hasn’t left an impact in Malaysia.

But let me share how it all started and unfolded. In November 2017, the host of Feminist Fridays on BFM, Juliet Jacobs, invited me to be a guest on the show and handed me a carte blanche on any topic. I suggested the Weinstein scandal and how it might play out in Malaysia. She had instructed me to listen first to an earlier recording of Feminist Fridays on that very topic featuring ‘three feminists’. Unfortunately, the episode didn’t pull back the curtains of unspoken abuse prevalent in Malaysian culture. Although the three guests discussed with great nuance sexual harassment in Hollywood and the social media activism it generated, they did not speak as victims themselves, an irony when #MeToo is really about that.

I felt that there was a reluctance to steer the discussion inwards, towards our own deeply problematic society, right down to the women’s respective industries and professional circles. There were certainly no empirical examples, much less names of people or organisations, divulged in the episode. Perhaps it would put the guests at litigious risk. So the conversation between these ‘three feminists’ was left mostly in the abstract and reduced to personal views, far from an attempt to interrogate the systemic sexism that runs insidiously deep in our culture. To put it rather bluntly, the discussion was consigned to irrelevance the moment it started.

To that, I volunteered to step into the ring and identify the possible stumbling blocks facing Malaysian women from opening up beyond using the hashtag and taking calculated risks at naming perpetrators of sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual violence:

1. I am pretty certain, though a national survey will have to confirm (or nullify) my suspicions, that ‘sexual harassment’ as a criminal category  is not widely understood in the public consciousness. Sexual harassment is fundamentally instances of unwanted sexual attention whether in the form of speech, text, or actions. A person can lodge a police report with reference to Section 509 of the Malaysian penal code, although its Victorian language requires an urgent update:

Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any person, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen by such person, or intrudes upon the privacy of such person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine or with both.

2. Malaysia is mired in an all-consuming culture of male impunity. Men implicated in crimes of high profile corruption and murder walk bold and free in the open, confident that their reputation will be rehabilitated soon enough. They may be lambasted as pariahs abroad and in private, but in Malaysia criminal men of wealth and power will shamelessly criminalise others who speak truth to power. Sexual harassment, especially when it is wrongly understood as a lesser crime, will be deemed both a luxury and risk to conquer in such a culture.

3. Although women shouldn’t have to shoulder the moral responsibility to stand and suffer for speaking out publicly against men’s bad behaviour, women protected by power, wealth, and connections should not stay silent. That said, high-profile women, female politicians and even prominent feminist activists in Malaysia have not participated in the #MeToo movement in any meaningful way. They have not used their status and platform to name and shame perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence. It would be implausible that they have never been victims themselves and that all men in positions of power in Malaysia are innocent of sexual harassment and violence. If anything, I would argue that the women in question see little political expediency for the time being to use their voice and legitimacy in the service of local and transnational feminist struggle.

Men can’t flirt or pursue women anymore? A perversion of the debate

My BFM interviewer, Chua Ern Teck, who stood in for Juliet while she was away for the Christmas break, was apologetic that he, a man, was interviewing me. I didn’t think much of it at the outset but when the questions came in, I quickly sensed the ‘male aftermath’ framing of the debate used in the interview. The ‘male aftermath’ of the Weinstein scandal can be characterised in three ways:

• First, that men now have to deeply reflect on and be accountable for their past and future behaviour
• Second, men’s silence and reluctance to engage meaningfully with actual rather than hypothetical instances of abuse and violence against women
• Third, a preoccupation with the so-called witch-hunt of men who are condemned for ‘being men’ and proving their masculinity through the sexual pursuit of women

The ‘male aftermath’ occurs alongside male backlash, of men fighting back with defamation suits and proclaiming the dangers of false accusations. Consequences that follow such a high profile reckoning is currently framed as bad news for men, who all expect to be rounded up for past behaviour that was never consciously registered as bad or criminal. A profession of blameless male ignorance becomes a familiar chorus: “I had no idea”, “I didn’t know you felt that way”, “I’m sorry if what I did offended you”. Meanwhile the reckoning machine is portrayed as merciless as it continues to claim high profile resignations, dismissals, and suspensions – a mere disruption to the careers of powerful men who have annihilated entire lives of women.

In my BFM interview, I was asked about how men should manage the prospect of being friendzoned by women now that so many men have been accused of grievous sexual misconduct. Rather than respond to a trivialising line of questioning, I questioned why the pressing need to reflect on the potential epidemic of friendzoning at this important cultural moment. Jessica Valenti in her article for The Guardian has an answer:

There’s a reason so many people are conflating bad and sometimes criminal behavior with romance: traditional ideas about seduction rely on tropes of women witholding sex and men working hard to get it. It’s a narrow notion of heterosexuality – one that does a good job excusing abusive behavior.

Men’s humiliation at being friendzoned takes its cue from a sexist culture that rewards men’s entitlement to women’s bodies. Friendzone has a tragic connotation because it results in men (read: Nice Guy™) being denied sexual access to women. There’s a reason why the perversion of the debate is so degrading. Men’s fears in light of the widespread reckoning and women’s fear of what men can do when denied sexual access have no equivalence. There is enough evidence to show that men are known to inflict extreme violence and kill women who reject them. To make them equivalent is an insult to women’s pain and trauma and to the long history of women’s pain and trauma.

From the ashes of annihilation

So what to do now? A global indictment of patriarchy at this present moment will not be complete when male perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence are not named and shamed. Women need to corroborate and use their whisper networks to identify, warn, and protect other women from future abuse.

To exact even an iota of change, manifested in the rise of women shattering their silence and men dragged down from the pedestal of impunity, we need to be reminded that sexual harassment and sexual violence do not occur in isolation. Rather, they happen because they are deeply embedded in a rape culture that shames women, discredits their testimony, and constructs victims as liars. Rape culture is web-like, connected to all discursive and physical spaces, public and private.

#MeToo is unlike previous reckoning of male violence against women. It is a rapid-fire public indictment of men after men of power whom hitherto were protected by money, connections, and their ability to make or break women’s careers. To be ignited by its passing torch means to be part of a global conversation and struggle.

But we need to be mindful that #MeToo has its limits and of the cultural, race and class specificities that made it possible and successful in the first place. To transplant #MeToo in the Malaysian context and expect similar results is a pipe dream that ignores previous Western feminist ideas and campaigns that have failed to take root in non-Western contexts.

On women’s laughter in Malay horror (Part 1)

This is an edited version of a conference paper presented at the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies conference in Seoul, South Korea in July 2017

The meaning of laughter, seen as springing from humour and moral degradation, has been a matter of philosophical preoccupation with human morality since the ancient time of Aristotle. And for much of the history of laughter, it is often interpreted with grim judgment. For all its suddenness and ephemerality, laughter can leave in its wake a lingering tenor of lightness and ambivalence, but also a countervailing darkness not far behind.

For some reason, women’s laughter is especially ugly and because of that it resides comfortably in the horror genre. In this post I’ll focus on the iconic laugh of the pontianak, the female vampire of Malay legend. Her laugh is a cornerstone of Malay-language horror and functions to elicit fear in men. There is a term in Bahasa Melayu, ‘mengilai’, that is specific only to women’s excessive, high-pitched laughter. The term is mobilised both in a context of supernatural horror but also as a way to undermine women’s pleasure of laughter. ‘Mengilai’ is associated with the grotesque and excess, a woman who laughs too much and too loudly, without shielding her gaping, convulsive mouth. Hags, witches, and evil women are represented to laugh in this manner. They are emblematic of undesirable Malay femininity, degraded simply by age and pleasure.

Why does the pontianak laugh and what does it mean? Why is her laugh a fixture in horror and why is it so threatening? And can women’s excessive laughter generate a powerful expression of feminist critique of patriarchy?

In scenes where the pontianak’s exaggerated shrieks of laughter fill the audiosphere of the victim and audience, we find that the point of origin of the laughter itself is immaterial. Her pale visage, hidden partially by a curtain of long hair, may be expressionless but her laugh is heard and very frequently not seen; we do not see her physically laughing. At times the laugh reappears as the closing credits roll when the film ends. I’d like to argue that her sonic subjectivity is formed through the play on physical absence and vocal presence – desynchronisation. According to feminist film theorist Kaja Silverman, desynchronisation counts as a strategy that disrupts cinematic conventions of gender.

The pontianak’s laughter anticipates the terror and painful death of male victims, setting the stage for the collapse of desire and patriarchal order, forcing open potentialities for feminist affective knowledge. Seemingly transcendental across time and place, the pontianak’s laugh signifies the transgressions of modern Malay femininity and the interruption to patriarchal control. Rather than an inexplicable outburst or an attempt at supernatural mimesis, the laugh of the birth demon in Malay language cinema indexes the boundaries of gendered Malay embodiment and anxiety of the modern Malay woman.

The laughing woman as grotesque

If the polite way for women to laugh is the inoffensive giggle, shielded with a hand to cover the aperture of laughter, then the wild shrieks of a woman’s laughter is truly grotesque. The female grotesque presents a challenge to patriarchal visual culture, as Mary Russo argues, because she assaults the male gaze thanks to the ‘destabilisation of female beauty’ and the realignment of the mechanism of (male) desire’. The laughing woman makes herself a different, subversive kind of spectacle that shatters her passivity and compliance to the male gaze. As a female grotesque par excellence, the pontianak belongs to the pantheon of Malay grotesquerie not simply through her status as visual spectacle (from which one may wish to look away) but also through her sonic excesses.

Women’s laughter in film especially in non-western cinema is under-appreciated. But attention to it illuminates powerfully aspects that make the convergence of film and gender so unsettling and subversive. The function of women’s laughter in film compared to that of men, though the latter certainly deserves separate attention, provides much food for thought. Scenes of women’s anti-patriarchal collective laughter are rare. The Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris’s 1982 film, A Question of Silence, is exemplary for its rare use of women’s collective laughter as an expression of power.

In the film’s ending, three women are in court for murdering a man in a boutique. A motive behind the murder proves elusive. The film’s protagonist, a feminist psychiatrist, provides a defense but the proceedings are interrupted when one by one, every woman in the court including the defendants themselves, inexplicably break out in loud uncontrollable laughter. The men remain unmoved, perhaps perplexed by the show of solidarity. They watch the women laugh as they walk out the courtroom. Even the psychiatrist herself walks out of the trial laughing and the film ends there. Unsurprisingly, the film’s anarchic ending drew unfavourable reviews from critics who were incredulous of women’s ability to derive sadistic pleasure from the destruction of men. Reviewers of the film have stated that the film’s feminist message ‘will not be served well’ and it is the ‘most ferociously anti-male feminist movie’ they had ever seen. So what makes women’s laughter in film so threatening? Can it be even more ominous when situated within a humourless (or even horrific) context?

When her uncanny self emerges to terrorise the living, the pontianak’s laugh cracks through the cinematic frame. In many instances, the disembodied laugh of the pontianak occurs when she is pursued by men of a village who act as guardians of moral order. She laughs during scenes depicting her as a direct threat to the living, whether physically or psychologically. Before a stake is driven through her body, she laughs at her imminent annihilation. Her laugh dominates the audiosphere when she defiantly demonstrates her supernatural abilities, whether to fly (Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam, 2004), to effortlessly decapitate her head (Pontianak Menjerit, 2005), or paralyse men into submission by immediately transforming into a horrifying demonic spirit (Pontianak, 1956; Anak Pontianak, 1958; Gergasi, 1958).

As she leaps from tree to tree from her male pursuers, she laughs at their humanly limitations and mortality. Her laugh that shoots through the film’s soundtrack is one of defiance that the men cannot apprehend and destroy her, a mission that combines male desire and dread. Often only audible, her laughter further underscores her uncanny capacity to defy all that is humanly possible. We can declare that the pontianak’s high pitched laughter pierces through an unwitting man’s soul like a claw that rips through the soul of patriarchy.

A ‘monstrous maternal’ of Malay folklore, the pontianak is a symbol of thwarted motherhood. Having died at childbirth, she turns into a vengeful spirit who wreaks terror on the living. Her spectre can be seen at night in quiet graveyards or sitting on tree branches, sometimes accompanied by a ghostly infant in her arms. In the presence of people unfortunate enough to encounter the pontianak, she willfully transforms from a beautiful young woman into terrifying hag with claw-like fingernails. Her very long hair that sometimes falls down to her ankles conceals a hole in the back of her neck through which a stake is struck to subdue and destroy her. In cinematic representations, the pontianak returns from the grave to kill the men who have wronged her.

Women make the minority of casualties and do not count as the pontianak’s main victims. Instead, women serve as a conduit into the mortal world who provide access to its men. They become bewitched under the spell of the pontianak and transform into femme fatales themselves, attacking men on the pontianak’s behalf. Pregnant women, however, a target of vengeance fueled by maternal jealousy, are vulnerable to supernatural attacks. Murderous attacks on pregnant women is a motif in films featuring the ‘monstrous feminine’ (An especially grisly example is the 2007 French film Inside). As Erin Harrington argues in Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror, it is a scenario whereby a ‘mirror-framing of victim and villain pits one expression of maternal drive against another, and asks us to consider how each woman might be an extension, or alternative resonance, of the other’.

But the pontianak is not always so fearsome. Her gentler side as either loving wife, mother, or lover is constitutive of the Asian monstrous/feminine that stalks Asian horror narratives. She is also a sympathetic figure who displays a range of emotions and when she has a back story that embellishes the aforementioned myth of her origins, she plays parts other than the villainous undead. Switching between beauty and monstrosity, affectionate and murderous, the pontianak makes for an ambivalent spectre who, in a few films, is not vanquished but rather is subdued by her role as wife and mother. The open laughter of the pontianak in Gergasi (1958) precedes the uncanny oscillating display of grotesque monstrosity and conventional feminine beauty. Here, the male hero and love interest does not fear the pontianak but appears determined to love and transform her monstrosity into a romantic and reproductive potential. It is the romance of Beauty and the Beast in reverse: a man’s love tames the grotesque behaviour and physicality of a woman, a woman who has all the beastly means to destroy him.

The meaning of the pontianak’s laugh

The pontianak’s laugh alone signifies the intangible and non-visual excesses of the monstrous feminine, a figure who traffics in both desire and repulsion. In her text that has redefined gender in horror cinema, Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine draws our attention away from the female victim in horror to the female monster – monstrous feminine – a cinematic phenomenon that takes its cue from the tradition of male unease with female reproductive abilities. In spite of its expansive parameters ranging from witches, virginal women with deadly vaginas (vagina dentata), vampires, to the rape-revenge femme castratrice, the monstrous feminine implies that there is something always-already monstrous about the female body.

We may also argue that women’s bodies are always-already grotesque. They are more easily subjected to a diminished or degraded status than men because of cultural taboos and other sensitive meanings associated with various openings, orifices, and matter that leak out of the female body. As women are culturally defined by their bodies, women’s physical expression that exaggerate elements of the grotesque body will be met with derision and censure. From a cynical feminist perspective, these stock female monsters along with the all-encompassing categories of the monstrous feminine and gynaehorror reinforce the conflation of femininity with female reproductive function, and making women synonymous with slits, openings, cavities, cracks, and orifices. In short, in the horror genre, women are yet again defined by their bodies. Thus some attention away from these reductive metaphors is perhaps overdue.

To fully appreciate the cultural significance of the pontianak, she has to be understood as a reconstruction within a dynamic socio-cultural space, standing in as a metaphor for the violence against women and the violence of being women. She is imagined as a figure who indexes the dark half of modernity and its moral antagonisms about women. The pontianak no longer lurks the village but haunts the underbelly of cityscapes. In the latter, the murderous streak of the pontianak appears less to do with revenge than as supernatural vigilantism, going after unwitting wayward men who use women’s bodies for instant sexual gratification. Through the erotic cum fatal entrapment of men the pontianak becomes instrumental in a cautionary tale that implicates the minefield of male-female relations in modern Malay society (Pontianak, 1975). Representations of the pontianak are replete with symbolic contradictions. Torn between tradition and modernity, she is emblematic of birth and destruction, sonic presence and physical absence, and what Kristeva calls the ‘abject’.

When denied the traditional aspects of femininity and dignity, Malay women will turn (in)to spirits as their means of resistance. But such forms of resistance takes advantage of sexist conception of women as the weaker sex. Inspired by Islamic belief, the integrity of Malay women’s constitution – body, mind, and spirit – is traditionally thought to be more vulnerable to a range of moral and spiritual deviations. The spirit world consisting of benign and malevolent unseen beings (makhluk halus) is central to the Malay-Muslim cosmology and summoned, involuntarily and otherwise, during moments of distress.

Accounts of spirit possession and mass hysteria, the latter of which only women are susceptible, connect extreme impurity (toilets and menstrual blood) with the spirit world. Those who appear to succumb to these phenomena are reported to cry and laugh uncontrollably, display superhuman strength, and speak in a disturbingly strange voice. Women and girls have been reported to fall under the spell of a mass hysteria in manufacturing factories where they are overworked or in boarding schools where the rigidness of the Malaysian education system proves too much to bear. Explanations for spirit possession and mass hysteria often are caught between a belief in supernatural interlopers and ‘rationalist’ interpretation of mental illness with neither prevailing in public discourse.

The pontianak’s laughter is located in the extreme end on the register of Malay embodiment. Modulations of embodiment between halus (refined) and kasar (coarse) are part of the everyday reproduction of bodies and values consonant with a transcendental order that pervades the lifeworlds of certain peoples in the Malay archipelago. Seen as central concepts in the aristocratic Javanese worldview, halus is all that is sophisticated, polished, and restrained in contrast to the disorderly, rough, and bawdy which register as kasar. Behaviour understood as kasar, from everyday informal and intimate speech to loud laughter is unevenly sanctioned across age, gender, and kinship lines. Socially permissible forms of laughing for women are limited to barely audible giggles. Loud and unrestrained laughter for all women is dishonourable although a degree of transgression by some women is given more leeway than others. Older women, unburdened by the restrictions of feminine youth, have the tacit permission to laugh openly and tease men. By contrast, Malay men’s laughter further reinforces his dominance over others present around him.

In Part 2, I’ll continue with the feminist commentary on the role of women’s laughter in subverting patriarchy and the reconceptualisation of the pontianak’s laugh as feminist resistance

Free hair as critical subjectivity

Something exciting is afoot in Iran. Since 2014, women have been wanting to throw off their hijab and live more authentic lives. Led by journalist Masih Alinejad, many have taken to social media to protest against compulsory hijab. Using the slogan ‘My stealthy freedom’, they post photos and videos of themselves defiantly unveiled. In response more than 7000 undercover police officers were deployed to apprehend women in ‘bad hijab’ and for the removal of hijab inside private vehicles.

2000
Source: The Guardian

The Guardian has published photos of Iranian women throwing off their hijab as an expression of their desire for liberty and equality. Their faces are obscured by the hijab flying in mid-air but they are not voiceless. Each has a powerful critique of body policing and religious hypocrisy. One of them raises our attention to the limits and doublespeak of ‘equality’:

From the time I went to school I always heard that we all are brothers and sisters, that we are all equal. But in real life there was no equality – I had to cover up for the men. How is that equal? How come they didn’t have to cover up for me?

Perhaps the tide of dissent was too hard to quell. In late 2017, the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced that the moral police can no longer arrest women for ‘violating the Islamic dress code’ which includes using nail polish, heavy make-up and loose headscarves. This sounds like a step forward since the heavy-handed imposition of the hijab in 1979. However, violators of ‘bad hijab’ are ordered to take lessons from the police on ‘good Islamic’ behaviour. Hardly a feminist progress.

The ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ movement is particularly poignantly resonant to me and my own research on unveiling in Malaysia. While women in Iran cannot as yet live their lives unveiled in public, they can find solidarity with Malay-Muslim women in Malaysia who also desire to unveil, succeeded to do so, and live the rest of their lives without the hijab.

In my research, I am interested in what motivates every individual to remove the hijab. The hijab is not enforced in toto in Malaysia however young girls are introduced to it in school as part of the school uniform. If we regard schooling as a systematic process of socialisation and discipline to produce docile bodies, then the hijab-as-uniform is incorporated to such bodies making its removal difficult. Although the state and its institutions (the school and religious bodies) impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ Muslim identity – one that is ethnocentric, anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-diversity – women who turn their backs to the hijab each have different, complex reasons to unveil.

‘Free hair’ is the term used to describe a Malay-Muslim woman who doesn’t wear the hijab. It’s a great term with a double meaning; ‘free’ as in the absence of the hijab but also free to mean liberation from imposition. ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ also uses the adjective ‘free’ in both meanings constituted in ‘free hair’. It also articulates a liberal ethos of equality with men. Men do not need to cover, so why do women? I have developed ‘free hair’ as a concept to be used for more universal reflection in my forthcoming article, ‘Free hair: Unveiling and the reconstruction of self’ (2018):

It can be argued here that ‘free hair’ is more than simply about being non-veiled and in opposition to the hijab as it often is in popular representations. ‘Free hair’ constitutes a personal aesthetics and ethics that is in such an intimate reflexive relationship with the hijab as to redefine the privileged meanings of veiling. Put another way, ‘free hair’ is the materialisation of a subjectivity that re-orders the prestigious associations with veiling in order to construct a more harmonious non-veiled self.

However, I would be hard-pressed to argue that the removal of the tudung and being ‘free hair’ comes from a critical rejection of Islamic consumer culture and capitalism. Women may replace one idealised femininity with another version of femininity with its own accoutrements of consumer beautification.

‘Free hair’ as a critical subjectivity that aspires for authenticity and perfection of personal aesthetics is conceived not simply as a practice of self but also as operating in an affective economy that processes feelings of failure and negativity into radical expressions of liberation.

 

Not all women who take off the tudung feel completely liberated initially. Being free hair is a process, it takes time to come to terms with a new identity and status. Women who choose to remain free hair will be beset with perpetual internal and external conflict. Their lives become open-ended, a series of acts and articulation of both joyful defiance and dispiriting negotiation. ‘Free hair’ is indeed a style of life, a life as an obstacle course for women who dare to dissent and live more authentically.

Post-liberal jihad: Muslim feminism during a time of cruelty and despair

I’ve written a commissioned article for The G-Blog on the present challenges of Muslim feminism in Malaysia and globally, linking it to wider structures of war, (post)-neoliberal economics, and the rise of alt-right political narratives.

Excerpt:

Situating Muslim feminism in the bigger picture

Let’s face it, times are bad. Full-time and secure paid work are drying up, and real wages are not catching up with the rising prices of basic essentials. More adults in their 20s and 30s continue to live with their parents because it is too expensive to live on their own. Millennials have inherited a post-2008 global recession that never really recovered and an overpowering culture of debt. And now we welcome 2017 on a low note. We watch a car crash in slow motion as global superpowers and their leaders prove themselves to be devastatingly anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and anti-peace. It will take a long time to offset the damage of their politics.

So what is the role of Muslim feminism during this period of cruelty and despair? Feminist-identified Muslim women of all ages are faced with challenges that crisscross faith and the secular arenas of their lives. It is time to connect the dots between different types of gender-based oppressions with those of male-dominated interpretations of religion. But being female and Muslim is not isolated from the economic and political reality either. In fact, the poor economic situation and political corruption have an impact on feminist and faith-based belief. The spiritual meaning of patience (sabar as being a component of one’s iman) and moral right or haqq are not used and reclaimed in the public discourse to alleviate the daily humiliations of Muslim women and non-normative people. Instead, sabar is distorted to justify domestic and national suffering. What is morally right becomes manipulated to condone the discrimination of women and people of non-normative genders and sexualities from attaining their full potential in the public sphere.

What does it mean to be young, Muslim and feminist today? For many young women, it means a whole new life; a commitment that transforms their way of thinking about the world, a new set of friends, and re-orientation of priorities manifested in their ambitions and daily practices. This commitment is synonymous with what is understood as ‘feminist consciousness’, a process of seeing the world from a gendered perspective and about being re-born as a feminist. However, the backlash that awaits them for articulating their feminist commitment is often hostile and violent. Rather than an apparatus and ideological framework for social justice, the iconoclastic demands of feminism are frequently judged as un-Islamic and inimical to local culture. Muslim feminism is not the default feminism for people who identify as feminist women and Muslim. When I conducted a focus group last September on what it means to be a Muslim feminist today, the responses I got were eye-opening: Muslim feminists are not entirely enamoured by the limits of ‘Muslim feminism’. Perhaps there is an assumption that being a Muslim feminist means looking at every feminist issue from a religiously-informed lens when not everything that is important to being a person is religious or Islamic.

Read the rest here and the Malay version translated by Sarahaida Khairuddin.

Ambivalent Malay-Muslim Women: Why They Reject the Hijab

I’ve been asked to write a blog post for The G-Blog on women who do not wear the hijab as a ‘counter’ opinion to other pieces on women who wear it. During the editorial process of the blog post, I was reminded again how sensitive the topic of the hijab is and that ‘strong’ views against the dominant current of opinions such as mine will face opposition. At the same time, I am reminded how the priorities of my views on Muslim women and veiling have shifted of the years; from defending women’s decision to wear all iterations of the hijab to being critical of social pressures on women to wear it. At face value, this isn’t much of a shift. In fact, they are usually part of the same argument. However, I have made it a point to emphasise in my own work the real pressures women face to wear the hijab, the lifeworlds of women who do not want to wear it but have to, and women who face abuse because they do not wear it. I feel that the foregoing side of the ‘same’ argument is given less air time in the contemporary discourse on the hijab. Perhaps because of this neglect, my criticism of social pressures is often seen as a critique of the hijab tout court. With all that taken into consideration, the following article I’ve written for The G-Blog is my modest attempt to reconfigure the terms of the contemporary discourse on the hijab:

I have always been interested in how the social influences the individual. My research project on the hijab helps me understand the relationship between society and the self. Of course, articles about Muslim women’s choice to wear the hijab have been written and dissected ad nauseam – and here I am writing about it again – so, what makes this piece different from the many others? Perhaps by proposing that both wearing the hijab and the rejection of the hijab cannot be reduced to choice.

In fact, I am forgoing the notion of ‘choice’ by illuminating the narrowing dimensions of Malay-Muslim women’s lives under the aggressive processes of Islamisation and how such limitations inform their decisions to wear or reject the hijab. These narrowing dimensions are experienced in the moral micro-management of Malay-Muslim women’s social landscape. My research assistant Zena and myself have been very privileged to listen and record the oral histories of women who have an ambivalent relationship with the hijab and capture elements of their social landscape.

Read the rest here.