What is Orientalism?

Because an elegant definition of Orientalism cannot go ignored in the academy:

Orientalism, to David Said, is known as Eastern culture and is typically thought of as a combination of Asian, Japanese, Siamese, Chinese and other non-European cultures. The concept of Orientalism relates to music because it creates a stereotype for the different types of music in different Eastern cultures. For example, in the movie Lady and the Tramp, there is a scene with two siamese cats. These cats not only have accents and very think eyes, but they are introduced into the scene with “Oriental” music made of up chimes, bells, and even gongs, because they are siamese cats, trying to hypnotize the dogs in the scene.

Source: Shit My Students Write

Book review: The Rey Chow Reader

(Crossposted from Elevate Difference)

Edited by Bowman, Columbia University Press

Not many theorists would re-imagine Jane Eyre as a Maoist. However, postcolonial thinker Rey Chow does and with great aplomb. Furthermore, it’s not in the context of English literature in which Chow invokes the fictional heroine, but rather the issue of Orientalism in today’s academia. According to Chow, the Maoist Jane Eyre is a romantic and a self-styled victim that is embodied in the non-native scholar of East Asian studies who bemoans the loss of cultural “authenticity” in an increasingly globalised world. Chow’s deft and even fanciful portrayal of the latter-day Orientalist that demonstrates her creative ingenuity and unconventional analytical mind is evident throughout the collection of her essays, The Rey Chow Reader, edited by Paul Bowman.

These qualities are important in the primary themes tackled in her writings—sexuality, racism, and postcolonialism. In the post-Edward Said world, the Orientalism of yore is not only outmoded but a disgrace to the Western academic code of practice, but Chow is perceptive to detect the more subtle Orientalisms she finds still pervasive in the academy, particularly in East Asian studies in Western institutions. Not only are academics (and often highly respected icons; Julia Kristeva for one) safe from Chow’s relentless critique of latter day Orientalism, the works and words of art house film-makers Zhang Yimou and Bernado Bertolucci also go under her microscopic scrutinising gaze.

She is also self-aware of her own position in the ivory tower that she turns this gaze towards herself in an essay about her early career in academia; scholars from the former colonial frontier during the dissolution of the British empire such as herself (Chow hails from Hong Kong) were seduced by the imagined prestige of English literature that rendered Chinese writing less superior and intellectually legitimate. Chow’s essay on the postcolonial-ised scholar is a subdued call to arms for the reclamation of one’s own scholarship and by effect, cultural identity, even if one cannot readily give up the tools fashioned by the master.

It becomes clear that Chow is also deeply political. ‘Seeing is Destroying’ charts the changes in the US discourse of war since the devastating bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to today’s brutality of war made sophisticated. These historical observations are perhaps nothing new, however, her concept of the target has chilling resonance of the primordial hunt. As the target in the hunt for America’s national Other, first Japan, then the USSR, and now the shadowy figure of the Muslim terrorist, it is reduced to an object on which the trigger is on perpetual threat mode. What links ‘Seeing is Destroying’ with most of Chow’s essays is visuality and the continued technological advancements that make the act of seeing increasingly powerful and more instrumental in xenophobic and sexist control.

Chow’s tentacle-like approach to a diversity of disciplines that probes into every crevice of detail promises a thrilling experience and an inspiration to younger scholars of postcolonialism like myself. Perhaps the level of microscopic detail that Chow magnifies throughout her merciless analyses on Orientalism in film and her idiosyncrantic salad-bowl approach to theory may not appeal to everyone, but Chow has certainly created a fan in me.

How colonialism created 'religion'

This is an essay I’ve written for a course on postcolonialism and the study of religions. Writing this opened my eyes about the taken-for-granted terms and values we place on what could be perceived as religion in non-Western contexts. This is not an exhaustive discussion of the way European conquest helped construct ‘religion’ in different parts on the colonial map, but it nonetheless raises our awareness about the insidious effects of Western scholarship on the way we see the world.

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Introduction: Imagining and appropriating categories

The foundations of the academic study of religions rested on a colonial pursuit characterised by the need to control resources, both human and economic. Out of this pursuit emerged the manipulations of the category ‘religion’ from beyond the colonial centre and onto its periphery, the ‘frontier’. The use of the category ‘religion’ facilitated the European struggle with cultural pluralism that went with the increased exposure to so-called uncivilised and exotic societies which dotted the colonial map (Chidester 1996:2-3). Supporting the evidence of ‘religions’ on the frontier were presuppositions informed by Western conceptual frameworks which sought to create, to various degrees of success, a universal and transcendentalist concept of human ritualistic behaviour and faith systems. Presuppositions in themselves help shape the construction of any discipline, but with regard to the concept of ‘religion’, presuppositions have determined to a dramatic extent the very nature of its object of study and often at the brutal expense of social reality (Flood 1999:65).

The constellation of categories and ideas that emerged throughout the history of the study of religions tells us more about the fabric of Western culture and values during its time than about its intended object of study. For instance, the concept ‘religion’ is the product of historically and culturally-specific discursive processes of Western Christianity, and as Balagangadhara has noted, Christianity has generally served for Western scholars as the prototypical example of a religion, by effect standing as a fundamental yardstick for the study of ‘other religions’ (Balagangadhara 1993:307). Bearing in mind the dependence of the study of religions on such categories, one should therefore acknowledge that the discipline is founded on a analytical framework that is unmistakably Christian in its orientation.

Even with the historical origins of ‘religion’ laid bare, the category still retains its uncontested and “pre-theoretical” privilege that is often taken as “common sense” with the assumption that all cultures have some concept of a religion (Balagangadhara 1993:284-5). The category ‘world religions’ that is still in use today implies a clear-cut and universal concept of religion that is not only easily distinguishable but also assumed as a perennial feature of any culture in any time of history. To be categorised as a ‘world religion’, what are presumed and understood as religious ideas and practices need to clearly identified as having fulfilled a certain checklist of characteristics, often oriented around principle features of Christianity such as sacred texts and proselytisation (Hirst and Zavos 2005:5). A limiting feature of the category ‘world religion’ is that it must be extracted from its regional and cultural enmeshments in order to be displayed in the supermarket of religions, almost as a consumer product. This inevitably means the narratives of tradition must be abstracted and distorted in the transference from a predominantly diachronic dimension (the notion of tradition) to a synchronic one (the notion of a religion spread out across the globe, almost outside of time) (Flood 1999:235).

In light of this academic and social reality, this essay will trace the historical development of the forms of knowledge that contributed to the category formation of religion, set against the backdrop of European colonial expansion in India. Then I shall discuss at length the implications of colonial interventions in the study of religions on modern ‘Hinduism’, and some thoughts concerning the future of the discipline. Some of the questions that I seek to engage in this essay include: how much (or little) should the study of religions retain its categories and epistemic frameworks from its original point of reference, Western Christianity? To what extent does the use of religion as an analytical category help to sustain specific relations of power? What can scholars working within the discipline do to problematise their Eurocentric assumptions about religious and cultural systems in non-Western contexts? And finally, if the study of religions is a valid enterprise for the understanding of ‘religion’.

Power, knowledge and Orientalism

The work of Michel Foucault and Edward Said form a pair of critical lenses on the instrumentalisation of power and knowledge in the construction of the study of religion from within the context of colonialisation. Foucault’s work draws our attention to the power relations implicated in knowledge which renders all truth claims suspect. As a critic of the modern project of the European civilisation, Foucault calls into question taken-for-granted authoritative systems of power that govern and shape individual identities, or ‘docile bodies’ of knowledge (Ludden 1993:250). If disciplines are regimes of power, then the study of religions as a discipline is a “technique for assuring the ordering of multiplicities … [used] as procedures of partitioning and verticality … [Disciplines also] define hierarchical networks … bring into play the power relations, not above but inside the very ntexture of the multiplicity” (Foucault 1977:218-20).

While Foucault suggested that the human sciences, as an organic machine of power, produced objectified bodies of knowledge, Edward Said on the other hand analysed the complex and subtle ways in which European subjectivity was sustained and reinforced at the expense of conquering, dominating, and objectifying a world of colonised “Others”. In Said’s critique of the colonial body of knowledge which he had termed Orientalism, he states that the fundamental hierarchical divide between the East and West that is pervasive in much of European interpretation of the ‘Orient’ mutually reinforced the motivations and justifications of colonial conquest (Said 2004:60-2) Orientalism also produced, according to Said, a venerated set of factualised statements about the Orient that became so widely accepted as true that it “determined the content of assumptions on which theory and inferences can be built” (Ludden 1993:251).

Upon conquering new territorial space, European settlers had also entered a new epistemological space that had to be under their command. Thus, local languages had to be learned to master new European territories. “Classical” languages such as Persian and Sanskrit as well as those in “vernacular” forms were understood to be the prerequisite form of knowledge, and as a result the first learning institutions on the colonial periphery were established to teach officials the local languages (Cohn 1996:4). Through mastery of local languages, colonial administrators were able to classify and categorise their subjects, issue commands, collect taxes, maintain law and order, and eventually new forms of knowledge that could further establish their position on the frontier (Cohn 1996:5). And through knowing the ‘religion’ of the Other, European settlers could not only understand the ‘Oriental’ with whom they came into contact, but provided a means of control.

Through the prism of Orientalist imaginings, religions in the ‘Orient’ were understood to be timeless and unchanging, standing outside the frame of historical, social, and cultural contexts in contrast to the Eurocentric conception of history, religion, and culture that is underpinned by the firm belief in the progressive evolution of Western society (King 1999:91). What became apparent for anti-Orientalist, post-colonial theorists today is the mismatch between descriptions of certain Asian and African ‘religions’ and the lived realities of those who populate the ‘Orient’. However, far from passive objects, those supposedly representing Oriental ‘religions’ constructed by colonial administrators, missionaries, and scholars, paradoxically, utilised and resisted Orientalist concepts in anti-imperialist projects. This is illustrative of the impact ‘Hinduism’ as an Orientalist construct on modern India and national identity.

The modern invention of ‘Hinduism’

Today, ‘Hinduism’ has been taken axiomatically to denote a religion embraced by a majority of the Indian people in South Asia. Although used by the indigenous Indians themselves before European conquest, the term ‘Hindu’ did not connote a specific religiosity only until the nineteenth century due to Orientalist influences (Chaterjee 1992:147). As a Western explanatory construct, ‘Hinduism’ first grew out of the British legal taxonomy to describe and govern the religious Other in India who was not a Muslim, Christian, Parsee or a Jew (King 1999:99). Dividing (and by effect, constructing) identities along religious lines echoed the ecclesiastical approach in contemporary Britain regarding matters concerning marriage and divorce, property, and religious worship (ibid.).

In the systemisation of Indian identities under colonial order, Richard King has pointed to two significant ways that contributed to the notion of ‘Hinduism’ as a singular, homogenous religious entity: first, through locating the essence of the Indian faith in certain Sanskrit texts and secondly, by the tendency to define and compare Indian religion using contemporary Western understandings of Judaeo-Christian traditions as an epistemological yardstick. These two processes, interwoven and constituting each other, became the main features of the “Westernisation of Indian religion” (King 1999:101). Western presuppositions about ‘religion’ inspired by Protestant theology that placed great emphasis on the role of sacred text at the heart of its believers led the to the scholarly focus on certain Indian literary traditions in the belief that they held the key to understanding ‘Hindu’ people as a unified entity. Many of the early translators of Indian texts were European Christian missionaries, who, in their translations and critical editions of Indian writing, played a significant role in producing a homogenised and reductionist written canon through the Indian materials (Frykenberg 1991:40). As a result, the Indian religious traditions of the oral and ‘popular’ variety were either neglected or dismissed as a degradation of contemporary Hindu religion into superstition practices that did not reflect ‘their’ own texts.

Though the construction of modern ‘Hinduism’ was not a project conducted unilaterally by European scholars, missionaries, and colonial administrators, but a project in collaboration with certain elitist communities belonging particularly to the brahmin castes, hence the contemporary British tendency to emphasise texts representative of the upper caste as central to the Hindu faith. Such a collaboration helped established ‘Hinduism’ to the status ‘world religion’, as first presented famously by Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament in Chicago in 1893 (Frykenberg 1991:42). The resulting effect of the text-centred ‘brahmanisation’ of Indian religious life as a whole is an anti-historical understanding of an Indian religion that points to the pretensions of an ‘essence’ of ‘Hindu’ people. Such a notional and synchronic approach to conceptualising ‘religion’ is characteristic of Saidian Orientalist discourse that effectively, whether inadvertently or consciously, dehumanise and manipulate the ‘Oriental’ (King 1999:104).

Implications of the Orientalist conceptions of ‘Hinduism’

European colonial influences left an impact on Indian religions and culture that can still be felt to this day. According to Richard King, one of the most enduring images of Eastern ‘religions’ characterised by the contemporary Western imagination is on the one hand possesses the mysticism and spirituality unlike one perceived in modern Western culture, and on the other, the backward fundamentalist. These notional dichotomies constructed and propagated through European influence soon were taken up as ideological arsenal against colonial power: the claim that ‘Hinduism’ can be meaningfully referred to the religion of ‘Hindu’ people became to be supported by founding parents of modern India, Mohandas Gandhi and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (King 1999:98).

The invention of ‘Hinduism’ as a rubric under which Hindus were defined experienced a curious turn of events in the hands of the Indian people. First, the notion of the text-based ‘Hinduism’ as the idealised and pure model of the Indian religion became adopted by different strands of Hindu revivalists, fundamentalists, and nationalists that sought to recover their place as the originals people of India with an antagonism imbued against Indian Muslims (Gold 1991:534). Convinced by the impression purported by European scholars of the “corruption” of the Hindu religion by superstition and therefore in need of reformation, various ‘Hindu reform movements’ began to emerge in the nineteenth century. Equipped with dubious writings on Indian religious history by British historians, the movements’ commitment to restoring ‘Hinduism’ to its former glory was soon to become entangled with the rise of a nationalist self-awareness that was based on romantic notions of a precolonial India unified by that one faith, ‘Hinduism’ (King 1999:101).

Christian theologically-influenced presuppositions about the place of ‘founders’ of religions were adopted by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (the Pan-Hindu Movement) that placed a great deal of importance on the historicity of figures such as Rama and Krishna as proof of Hinduism’s genuineness (King 1999:40). While for Indians abroad, the unified ‘Hinduism’ was important as it could be explained by outsiders of the faith as a respectable religion, something that could be passed down to their children in religious education, and above all, form the basis for a sense of collective action (Van der Veer 1993:42-3). The Western influence on Indian religions is so prevalent that today what most Religion Education courses mean by ‘Hinduism’ is actually an Orientalistic and neo-Vedanticisation of Indian religion. Even after the end of official colonial rule in South Asia, religion became a key driving force in state-level conflict and acts of violent resistance. Deployed by political leaders to gain support, religion emerged as an obvious analytical category for which to interpret the politics of the Subcontinent, used by social scientists to examine election data and elucidate the crystallisation of the nations’ political patterns (Hirst and Zavos 2005:4).

Reconceptualising a ‘religion’: ‘Hinduism’ today

Regardless of the suspect definitions that fill the category ‘Hinduism’, religious systems do have a presence in that they provide frameworks for certain rationalisations and actions in the daily lives for individuals, communities, and as a nation but keeping in mind that certain popular ideas, beliefs, and practices between religious systems do not have clear-cut boundaries as they sometimes traverse across ‘religious’ categorical lines. As Harjot Oberoi had once pointed out:

[Scholars often] think, speak and write about Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism, but they rarely pause to consider if such clear-cut categories actually found expression in the consciousness, actions and cultural performances of the human actors they describe (Oberoi 1994:1).

Thus, the categories used by scholars of religious studies often do not fit ethnographic data and risk marginalisation, even erasure: the meaning of certain acts and practices may be lost because they cannot be conceptualised to closely reflect ‘authentic’ voices and developments of certain faiths. Furthermore, the category ‘religion’ often underestimate the fluid and shifting boundaries across other identities. Identities based on caste (class), gender, ethnicity, geographical regions, and kinship constitute each other as does religion in informing communal and individual identities, beliefs, and practices (Hirst and Zavos 2005:6).

The study of religions in India in particular has moved on from being more than focusing on metaphysical / transcendental dimension towards the historical and empirical side of religion in which the study of religions of contemporary Indian society is more about how people construct their religious worlds (ibid.). The problematic term ‘Hinduism’, however, is useful so far as a cursory understanding of diverse Indian traditions at an introductory, superficial level. Further, the active engagement with the the term by anti-imperialist movements has meant that ‘Hinduism’ had itself materialised in spite of Orientalism (King 1999:110).

Scholars today have wrestled with a more inclusive and non-essentialist understanding, far less a definitive one, of ‘Hinduism’ that captures the “ruptures and discontinuities, the criss-crossing patterns and ‘family resemblances’ that are usually subsumed by unreflective and essentialist usage” (ibid.). Some have suggested that ‘Hinduism’ be described as a ‘polythetic-prototypical’ concept, tremendously heterogeneous by character (polythetic) yet referred to as a kind of idealised construct (prototypical) by Westerners and Indians alike (Ferro-Luzzi 1991:192). While there is little consensus on the most appropriate use of ‘Hinduism’ as a signifier, there is little disagreement on the abandonment of essentialism and the acknowledgement of the heterogeneity of Indian religious phenomena as outlined by postcolonial critics of the study of religion. Bringing to light these issues can assist in overcoming the cultural and political elitism that perpetuate an idealised ‘Hinduism’ and potentially recover subaltern voices from the effacing and blanketing concept of ‘Hinduism’.

Towards the decolonisation of the study of religions?

Unless we turn our gaze upon ourselves we cannot realise the reconstruction of the societies in which we live (Phillips 1973:xii)

The question now is, ‘Whence do we go from here?’. It would be counterproductive to seek for a nostalgic return to pre-colonial cultural understanding of religion that aims to be representative of an authentic portrait of faith systems in the colonial periphery. As pointed out by Gayatri Spivak, there can be no return to a pure nativism following “the planned epistemic violence of the imperialist project” (Spivak 1985:250). By locating an approach to religions that predates European colonial expansion would then lead to further constructions of itself in inverse relation to Orientalist construction of mythic proportions. The study of religions today still has a purpose to pursue so long as the ‘object’ of its study remains, in reality ‘out there’, a vital force in the world and thriving independently of the meanings constructed via colonial texts that once claimed to represent it.

With regards to the colonial forms of knowledge imbricated within the discipline, categories such as ‘religion’ can still retain some value and validity insofar as its historicity and scholarly situatedness are acknowledged and negotiated in relation to its ‘object’ of study. Rather than a timeless, inert object, religions evolve with the times around the people who create its meaning and signs, adherents and non-adherent alike. As there is no pure, objective knowledge, the inquiry into religion cannot be neutral and value-free. All systems of knowledge are specific to certain epistemic traditions and embodied within particular cultural narratives, and therefore ethical neutrality should be recognised as impossible and undesirable (Flood 1999:220). Rather than the scholar assuming a detached position in relation to her object of study, meaning, knowledge, and ‘truth’ are generated in the interaction between the two. In other words, the observer is situated within the narrative of analysis as much as what is studied and related to as ‘religion’. Moreover, such self-awareness of the observer’s situatedness demands reflexivity and self-acknowledgement of ones’ purpose of research (Flood 1999:167).

‘Religion’ has been demonstrated in the accounts above to be a contested category, even “alien” and “invalid” (Smith 1964:62). ‘Religion’ as a term that is both historically situated and deployed, and thus a single, indisputable definition of religion cannot simply be established by academic decree. A minimalist definition of religion based on supernatural agents might exclude Buddhism, whilst a maximalist approach as one developed by Ninian Smart, would able to include secular worldviews such as humanism, Marxism, and nationalism. However, both approaches fail to take into account intercultural contact and conflict that comes into with the territory of religious studies (Chidester 1996:254). Because as terms that denote visceral human experiences and social identity, ‘religion’ as an analytical term does not belong solely to the academy, but is utilised and mobilised in political conflicts of “possession and dispossession, inclusion and exclusion, domination and resistance” (ibid.).

The question of whether or not the study of religions is by default invalidated because of its unfortunate links with certain forms of colonial knowledge lies in the issue of representation. Accepting that a representation of a religion is always likely to distort what is being represented can relieve scholars with a sense that representations are constantly open to critique and is continuously transformed to ‘perfection’. As innovations in the study of religions, David Chidester has suggested upon the “open, multiple, or polythetic definition of religion” (ibid.). By a polythetic definition of religion, Chidester proposes its usefulness in the inquiry into the so-called “family resemblances” through which the identifiable aspects of religion form part of an open set of “discursive, practical, and social strategies of symbolic and material negotiation” (ibid.).

Does this spell end of comparativist method to the study of religion? The answer lies in whether comparisons between religions must insist on demonstrating similarities and continuity, rather than extending the method to compare differences. The similarities and differences are not inherent between religions but rather are produced through the practices of comparison and generalisation. That being said, the journey forwards in a post-colonial study of religions requires a similar journey backwards (Chidester 1996:256), beginning perhaps with working towards untangling certain Western Christian comparativist presuppositions rooted deep within the process of category formation discussed thus far.

This essay does not ring the death knell for the study of religions but a call for a shift in its epistemic paradigms. The study of religions cannot be adequate as an adjunct of such disciplines as anthropology or Oriental Studies for example, because “religion has two ingredients: text and ritual that are often integrated” and thus the marriage of anthropology and philology is crucial (Flood 1999:223). By combining the analytical interests and methods of the two latter disciplines in the study of religions, anthropology can illuminate texts as textual studies can enrich anthropology (Freeman 1998:38-65). As discussed thus far, the inquiry into religions is an epistemic process that opens itself to a self-awareness of its assumptions and limitations that can, if need be, invite other theoretical frameworks developed in critical and feminist theory, reader-response criticism, and postcolonial criticism, some of which have consciously emancipatory agendas. Theories developed within these disciplines aim to challenge the legitimising forces in religion that are perceived as causing human suffering and suppressing social freedoms.

Finally, I take this opportunity to raise the issue of epistemological responsibility of historians and anthropologists of religions that appear to have all but emerged as a primary concern in the study of religions today. Self-interest, epistemic privilege, and institutional power differentials on a globalised level that reinforce problematic perceptions about ‘religion’ have gone largely uncontested in universities, school, and in political discourse. If anything, the lack of vocal and omnipresent reminders of the past helps the reification Western notions of ‘religion’. Helping students and societies at large become aware of history and sensitised to the variety of representations of spiritual traditions can break down monolithic views about the discrete, essentialist nature of human cultures that have been created in the laboratories of colonial political engineers. There is so much on the discursive level that scholars of religious studies can do, but this I believe should be the responsibility of inheritance that requires an inter-discursive dialogue across multiple levels to bring out a collective rethinking about ‘religion’ and its place in social reality.

Conclusion

The history of the study of religion is the dramatic story of the complex relationship between ‘Western’ concepts about the nature of religion and the often violent reality experienced by people and cultures all over the world under imperialist rule (Long 1986:3-4). Colonial influences that stubbornly remain in the way we understand ‘religion’ continue to shape the we study and talk about human cultures and societies. The project of righting wrongs would be the running background theme in the study of non-Christian religions in particular, with “the anthropological gaze [directed] towards the otherness of Western culture in order to dislodge the privileged position of dominant Western cultures” (Turner 1991:104). The need to rethink the category ‘religion’ corresponds with the idea that analysing religious experience and practices cannot be mediated via pre-made templates, but involve categories and frameworks that are expandable and fluid that can, to the best of the observer’s skills and analytical delicacy, closely reflect meanings as conveyed by adherents, the living embodiment of religion. In other words, meanings in religious practices and beliefs cannot be in themselves have conclusive value. The study of religion still has relevance so long as ‘religions’ – certain kinds of culturally-constructed practices, values, and ideologies – all persist to have enduring presence in the late modern world, especially when aligned with nationalism and ethnicity, and will likely continue to do in the distant future.

Bibliography

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Why is it important to rethink masculinities in the Middle East?

I cannot help but post my essay up on its due day. It’s my baby, warts and all:

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Compared to the wealth of studies on women in the Middle East, men and masculinities of the region have, surprisingly, received less attention. Greater focus and interest in the Muslim woman and not the Muslim man in the Middle East may be indicative of the unremitting fascination with the ongoing oppression and the “private” world of women in a society largely known for the seclusion of women and girls. The tropes of inquiry – the hijab, the subjugation of women, female genital mutilation – emerge from a blend of genuine academic interest, feminist activism, and perhaps the “need to save brown women from brown men” mindset through research with a political agenda (Cooke 2002:468). It is then remiss of the academic world for assuming that men can be sufficiently understood if women in their social contexts are studied in depth. While such research have revealed much of the realities beyond the undifferentiated stereotype of the submissive Middle Eastern woman, more is to be done to deconstruct the image of the domineering Islamist male and the Orientalist imaginings of the desert sheikh.

There is a glaring lacunae in an understanding of masculinity that has been affected by the major strides that women in the Middle East have been making throughout the last century in terms of education, employment, sexuality, political representation, and general public presence. Indeed, what is not studied more rigorously are the changing dynamics of gender relations resulting from the increasing independence of women from the home and male members of the family, studies in which men are placed as the central analytical subject. Recent literature that have charted these changes reflect what can be understood as men’s anxieties and fears emerging from “notions still deeply imprinted on their inherited memory which have not adjusted accordingly” to the explosive gendered transformations of the public arena (Ghoussoub 2006:230). Women’s increased emancipation is then perhaps one source of a threat to the grip of a dominant masculinity, but other threats can exist externally for the male collective. Ghoussoub (2006:233) also counts the devastating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel which incurred a lingering dent on the pride of the Arab and Muslim world1, in addition to the unremitting European imperialist presence throughout the history of the Middle East – all of which represents a “symbolic castration in which men’s virility and hopes of progeny are threatened”.

There is then the assumption that the male sphere in the Middle East has been neatly divided into the ahistorical male who is at once authoritative and anti-women, and the “enlightened” male of modernist and moderate Islamic politics. While a culture of male dominance that emanates Middle Eastern societies at different levels and magnitude does incur the overstated notion of women’s oppression, it is pertinent to take into account how men participate in the practice of male dominance, and locate the different points of resistances men perform to diminish certain forms of dominance. In the case of men’s acceptance of women’s changing roles, Kandiyoti (1994:197) has pointed out some explanations which range from 1) exposure to Western and / or colonial ideals (Ahmed 1992:153) 2) new social classes arisen from these contexts and (Cole 1981:401) and 3) the rhetorically-inclusive nature of modernist-nationalist projects (Jayawardena 1988:8).

This essay attempts to reveal the complex nature of masculinity that cannot be taken for granted in relation to in-depth studies on Middle Eastern women. As Kandiyoti (1994:212) succinctly puts it: “behind the facade of male privilege lie ambiguities which may give rise to defensive masculinist discourse and genuine desire and contestation for change”. Therefore I will not dwell too much on the anachronistic yet popular representations of the hypermasculine Middle Eastern man, but aim to shed more light on the dynamic yet fragile characteristics of contesting masculinities that are contextualised against the backdrop of the reformation of women’s roles, the legacy of post-colonial struggle, and more importantly, the internal contradictions within the male collective in relation to the larger socio-political milieu.

I will explore these issues with reference to the influence of raï music on the construction of the politically-transgressive masculine identity in Algeria, and the musical genre’s ambivalent associations with Islam, politics, and women. This is will followed by looking at the formation of the ‘melancholite’ masculinity in the wake of Bourgiba’s dictatorship through Tunisian cinema. It is not an overstatement to say that popular culture represents to a certain symbolic or realist extent the hopes, aspirations, and the realities of society’s despair. I am confident that the medium of raï music and contemporary Tunisian film provides an alternative avenue for publicly articulating the “subtleties, nuances, and contradictions” of contemporary masculinities that sociological studies often cannot capture (Stollery 2001:50).

The masculinisation of raï music and the rise of the transgressive Algerian male identity

A number of theorists have suggested that within the Middle East and North African region (MENA), there exists, on a general level, a homology of patriarchal norms within both the private and public spheres (Stollery 2001:50). Arguably, the region shares a conceptualisation of a state that is, according to As’ad Abu Khalil, “a reflection of male supremacy within the family” in which “the leader is the father figure with the privileges of the use of force and social control” (1997:100). It can be argued further that the political situation in the Middle East is largely repressive at various levels. However, arguing from a Foucauldian standpoint, individuals are still able to find spaces for resistance in a variety of expressions, even in the most oppressive of circumstances (Foucault 1978:96). With that said, I will discuss the role of raï as an “explosive site for Magrebi identity” (DeAngelis 2003:276) and political resistance taken up by male raï singers and the largely male following of the musical genre.

Originated from Oran, Algeria, raï began as a folk musical genre that became popularised in cabarets and clubs frequented by the social elite during the colonial period where it had gained a reputation for being decadent and un-Islamic (ibid. 2003:276). Then in 1999, raï gained global attention with the release of the hit single Desert Rose featuring Cheb Mami and the British singer Sting. The musical genre is typically associated with youth and immigrant subcultures, and often described as risqué or vulgar (ibid. 2003:277). The question of whether raï is vulgar, however, is complicated by the nationalist and Islamist notion of the musical genre’s former associations with French colonial culture and resulting from such an opinion, the genre became labelled “inauthentic” by official Algerian cultural standards (ibid. 2003:281-82). But what was at the heart of the two political factions’ concern was really to do with raï as a form of social critique amongst young Algerians. Moreover, the cause of concern was implicated by the fact that raï became, as DeAngelis (2003:283) argues, “a subculture, [that] disrupts the hegemonic discourse of the nation, and allows for another way of imagining society and identity that does not necessarily fit with that proposed by the government or the Islamists”.

In spite of this, raï music continues to be performed at weddings and male circumcision ceremonies but outside these circumscribed spaces, raï retains a forbidden and a particularly masculine aspect which are evident in the lyrics of some songs on illicit love affairs and the dwindling numbers of female raï singer since the 1970’s (ibid 2003:286). By the mid-1980’s, raï became an implicit youth protest against the stifling morality and moribund economic policies of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) regime. While in France, it formed a mark of solidarity for Algerian migrants against the intensifying White racism (McMurray and Swedenburg 1991:42). The crackdown on raï by the successor Islamist party, Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), led to the assassination of the popular singer Cheb Hasni in 1994, and the subsequent exiles of fellow singers (Cheb) Khaled and Cheb Mami in the following years. In light of these events, raï singers developed a more overt political stance in their lyrics and a strong following among younger men who embraced the newly transgressive nature of the musical genre. Raï also became a marker in the hierarchicalisation among men that determined who could listen to it in whose presence. This is illustrated in the way only a few men would listen to raï in the presence of a male of superior status, whether a father, uncles, or older brothers (DeAngelis 2003:290).

Since the 1990’s onwards, raï has established an image of counter-hegemonic rebellion culture headed by the “fathers” of the folk genre, namely Cheb Mami and (Cheb) Khaled, and strong legion of male listeners who make up raï’s greatest fans, however, at the same time, raï retains some residual hegemonic elements as it is received by many critics as ambivalent towards women, reflecting the general conservatism of Algerian society (ibid 2003:289). Schade-Poulsen’s interviews with male listeners reveal their critical and negative attitude towards women portrayed in the songs, as well as towards women who frequent cabarets where raï is usually performed (Schade-Poulsen 1999:143). In contrast, the lyrics in a few of (Cheb) Khaled’s songs feature messages of women’ emancipation as exemplified in “Hada raykoum” (It’s your opinion 1985) (Rosen 1990:22) :

The young girl wants to be married
The divorced woman wants to break loose
The married woman wants a divorce
The married woman wants to break loose
The married woman wants to go wild

You’ve done what you wanted
You’ve done what you decided
My God, my God, the husband’s asleep

Gender egalitarianism is the central theme in Khaled’s 1996 international hit “Aïcha”. In the lyrics, a man laments that his love for a woman, Aïcha, is not returned as she wants only equal rights and genuine love:

She said, keep your treasures
I’m worth more than all that
Cages are still cages even though made of gold
I want the same rights as you
And respect for each day
I don’t want anything but love1

Analyses on the political nature of raï lyrics and in particular those more in favour of women’s emancipation are yet to be found in scholarly writings. Questions as to whether these be may be encouraging signs for female fans of raï, and if such lyrics cultivate a shift toward progressive attitudes towards women are waiting to be answered. These would be interesting sites for further investigation but in the meanwhile, raï is understood to be intertwined in a complex interaction between the political, personal, aesthetic, and religious, that simultaneously raises questions about its role as the voice of disaffected masculinity and Arab cultural authenticity (McMurray and Swedenburg 1991:42).

The melancholite cinematic masculinities of Bourgiba’s legacy

Modern Tunisian cinema is, alongside its literature (which will not be discussed herein), intensely expressive of the post-colonial state’s discontents (Gana 2010:111). What is particularly salient in the numerous critically-acclaimed films by both female and male directors is the representation of male angst against the backdrop of Habib Bourgiba’s autocratic legacy. The number of films made under the helm of male directors in the last three decades have been critical of the post-colonial Tunisian patriarchal order, calling for the advancement of gender-equal politics. The films that interrogated the conflicted post-colonial male identity range from Nouri Bouzid’s Rih al-sadd (or L’homme de cendres, or Man of Ashes 1986), Ferid Boughedir’s Halfaouine: l’enfant des terraces (Halfaouine: boy of the terraces 1990) and Un été à la Goulette (A Summer at La Goulette 1995), Jilani Saadi’s Khorma, la bêtise (Khorma, Stupidity 2002) and Ors el-dhīb (Tender is the wolf 2006), to Abdellatif Kechiche’s La faute à Voltaire (Blame it on Voltaire 2000) and La graine et le mulet (The secret of the grain 2007). In contrast to the Tunisian female film directors in whose films (not mentioned here) undertook a feminist cinematic endeavour to undo the normative construction of masculinity, male directors in the films mentioned above delved simply into the masculine experience by deploying a male protagonist as the film’s central subject whilst examining the transformations of the male homosocial space (ibid. 2010:112).

Herein, I shall devote my attention to Nouri Bouzid’s Rih al-sadd (Man of ashes 1986) as an exemplar of the father-son relationship symbolic of the conflictual inter-generational relationships between men in post-Bourgiba Tunisia. The popular and award-winning film is also a fine study of generational transitions involving the perpetuation, modification, and overt contestation of established masculinity (Stollery 2001:49). Rid al-sadd tells the story of the male protagonist Hechim whose memories of sexual assault as a boy torment him on the eve of his wedding. Told through these flashbacks, a jarring incongruency is depicted of Hechim between his younger and present self. On the one hand, he is the respectable man of the community, and on the other, the subordinated, humiliated masculinity at the hands of his abuser, Ameur, a carpenter with whom Hechim apprenticed. His subordinated masculine past also haunts him in his adult years cinematically as he is shown on the margins of the film frame during scenes showing the preparations for his marriage.

Hechim has three father figures in the film: his biological father, the carpenter Ameur, and Mr Levy, the father of his childhood friend whom Hechim regards with great respect and affection compared to the other two. The representation of the close relationship between the two was ground-breaking and controversial at the time Rih al-sadd was released as Mr Levy’s character belongs to a Jewish community in Sfax, where the film is set. Homosocial tenderness is depicted between Hechim and Farfat, a childhood friend who was also abused by Ameur. The idyll of intimacy from shared victimisation between the two, however, is later shattered by Farfat, who fatally stabs Ameur in the groin – an all too obvious attack on an older, more abusive order of masculinity.

Rih al-sadd interrogates the father-son relationship in which bad fathers are challenged while ideal ones are held in high esteem. This freedom to choose fathers is, according to Stollery (2001:62), harks back to a utopic past of cultural syncretism and inter-religious harmony rather than the divided ethnic and religious present. The shifts between fatherly nurturance and violence are perhaps suggestive of the psyche of the modern Tunisian men, torn between the demands of authority and self-actualisation, and thus representing what Nouri Gana (2010:112) calls melancholite masculinity. Gana reserves the term ‘melancholite’ to describe the neuroticism and anxieties embodied in the masculinity inherited from Bourgiba’s autocracy, that at the same time is preserved jealously against the challenges of feminist rhetoric and the rise of awareness of non-heteronormative sexualities. The greater presence of male homosexuality in the public discourse and the internationalisation of gay culture intensified homophobic disquietudes, and as a result eroded to an extent the forms of intimate male-to-male homosocial behaviour characterised by hand-holding, hugging, and kissing, casting a grim shadow on “traditional” Algerian masculinity (ibid. 2010:121).

The post-Bourgiba masculinity described by Gana as “suspended in a state of mutability that is simultaneously cultivated and frustrated” by the challenges faced in the gendered transformations of the public sphere can be captured in modern Tunisian film-making. The cinematic medium depicts the undoing of masculinity and manhood that is both arrested by the pull of nostalgia of an authoritarian and ahistorical patriarchy and the defiance to break out of the mould of rigid notions of post-colonial masculinity. As seen in the masculinisation of raï music in Algeria, there is again the tug of war between the calls for “authentic” cultural identity as glorified by contesting political discourses of the FIS and FLN, and the gravitational pull towards transgressive, “inauthentic” masculinity.

Fossiled masculinity, transforming masculinities: some concluding remarks

The prominent themes discussed above are the contradictions, contestations, and complexification within masculinities in relation to hegemonic masculinities. Hegemonic masculinities implied here are masculine-identified traits sanctioned institutionally as more powerful, more influential, often codified as controlling of women and subordinate men (Connell 1994:77). These are evident in the repressive institutions of the opposing Algerian political parties FLN and FIS, and those embodied by the older generation of men in Nouri Bouzid’s Rih al-sadd (Man of ashes) – of which both instances garner moral ascedancy over other men by virtue of an alignment with politicised Islam and age, respectively. These themes also track the historicisation of masculinity, capturing the “breaks” in the national gender narrative, just as the history of femininity in the Middle East witnessed a well-documented social evolution in the 20th century.

According to Connell, the very concept of masculinity and the norms of male embodiment is largely abstract and subject to change. More importantly, a set of expected norms is historically contingent, and therefore come into existence in specific circumstances both spatially and temporally. In light of this, Connell argues that there would be a struggle for hegemony in which older forms of hegemonic masculinity may be replaced by new ones (ibid. 1994:78). Connell suggests three other types of masculinities: complicit, subordinate, and protest masculinity – all of which contribute to the hierarchicalisation of masculine behaviour and attributes. However, as clear these distinguishing categories are, they are fluid and therefore ‘membership’ is sometimes difficult to identify (Connell 1994:73).

It is probably due to these conceptual ambiguities that I personally cannot confidently place a definition of the masculinities described in the examples discussed above. Hence, placing the raï-listening young men of Algeria in either the categories of subordinate masculinity or a kind of complicit masculinity may not be sufficient. The narrative in Rih al-sadd, on other hand, relies on the in-between position that Hechim assumes that can come to signify the unsettledness of masculine identities in modern day Tunisia. Yet such situational masculinities are for most times under the umbrella of hegemonic masculinity, attaining what Connell (1994:116) calls the ‘patriarchal dividend’ from which men may contribute to supporting hegemonic masculinity by exerting some power, however diluted, in certain circumstances such as through interactions with women and other more marginalised men.

The spaces of resistance that the masculinities assumed by fans of raï and the male protagonist Hechim in Rih al-sadd also depend on the porosity of the institutionalised hegemonic masculinity that is upheld by the state, itself an entity subject to fierce contestations. This view concurs with the suggestions of anthropologists Andrea Cornwall and Nancy Lindisfarne that the control of any type of masculinity is “never totally comprehensive” nor does it “ever completely control subordinates” (Cornwall and Lindisfarne 1994:5). One therefore cannot come to a definite conclusion if the participants of this gender matrix can benefit from their position in the hierarchy of masculinities, however porous each category may be, or whether all men pay the price for male dominance in some way. One must also be mindful not to de-emphasise the role of power relations in the relationships between masculinities. By focusing on the aspect of power invested within these relationships, there would be less of a need to undertake the more difficult task to labelling a man on the individual level as belonging to a particular masculinity type. Hence, the study of masculinity is not about head-counts, but rather a “question of relations of cultural domination” (Connell 1993:610).

My focus on contemporary Algerian and Tunisian masculinities – both North African yet on the margins of the Middle East – offers at best a few pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that will form a picture of Middle Eastern masculinity that is in many ways diverse, evolving, yet rooted to certain similar cultural and religious particularities. This is perhaps then a good opportunity to say that Islam as an analytical category is not monolithic but nonetheless affects the construction of masculinity in a significant way for better or for worse. It is then best to avoid the essentialisation of Islam that is perceived to be applied uniformly by all men in the Middle East and the way it often “obscures the dramatic changes that have occurred in the body of its values and even rituals throughout history when Islam was being constantly blended local customs and cultures” (Abu Khalil 1997:3). If Islam is indeed an important component in the formation of masculinity, then what is less understood are the multiple interpretational trajectories of Islam’s religious texts that lead to how idealised manhood or masculinity are constructed in a more nuanced, socially-specific way, how the different forms of power over women and other men are legitimated, and how these powers are perpetuated and maintained. And indeed, these processes of the ‘Islamisation’ of masculinity and power cannot exist in a vacuum, but subject to and affected by other sociological factors. Alongside the state, which has been identified above as constituting both abstract and material manifestation of hegemonic masculinity, the music (Whiteley 1999:219) and film industry (Mayne 1985:83) have been traditionally dominated by men and thus the products emerging from these cultural factories cannot be dismissed as entirely innocent of male bias, both at the level of production and reception .

Finally, I would like to raise questions for future reflections concerning the routes by which men of the Middle East make towards creating spaces for resistance, which can contribute to illuminating the ways masculinities transform and adapt to the changing landscape of power characterised by economic and social inequalities, the impact of globalisation, and the assent of women. Consequences of masculine resistance can thus be anticipated in various ways, and are not necessarily in favour of gender equality, but nonetheless may shed light on how they are transported or obstructed across different spaces (keeping in mind the context-specific nature of masculine identity). It is my hope that out of this patchwork of ambiguities emerge a better understanding of the means whereby the greater scheme of patriarchy is reproduced both between and within genders.

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When did talking about race become taboo?

"Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution"

Whenever I’m back home in Malaysia, I’m frequently faced with the annoying question of what race I am. It’s annoying because it jumps right at me from nowhere, from people I hardly know, from strangers. Yes, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that some Malaysians are just rude but one thing is for sure, talking about one’s racial/ethnic background is actually no big matter, I’m just annoyed at having to explain why I look different all the time. Sometimes racial background is something to be proud of, something to remind oneself that our identities go far beyond “I”. But a strange thing happens when we talk about race in abstract terms, perhaps about other people – race, as a subject, suddenly becomes taboo.

A few weeks ago Channel 4 ran a series of documentaries under the title Race: Science’s Last Taboo. For starters, there is no substantial scientific basis for determining race – there is very little genetic variance between people of different colour. Socio-politically, the defining line of race becomes wobbly when mixed parentage individuals are involved. But we cannot dispose of the term race so easily as what we have at stake is the collective oppression of people who are not White.

In the film Race and Intelligence, journalist Rageh Omar picks apart the history of the “science” of race, and the racist assumptions that have been left unchallenged about Black people and low IQ. Words like “shocking”, “controversial”, “politically incorrect”, and last but not least “taboo” are built around the programme to sensationalise the fact that a few seemingly intelligent people in the scientific world were/are racists. The world was aghast when molecular biologist and discoverer of the structure of DNA James Watson made claims that Black people are less clever than other people, simply because he is a world famous scientist, and scientists who have made monumental discoveries are expected to be morally accountable for their pronouncements. Or are they really?

Long before Watson’s faux pas, scientists have been known to have an uneasy relationship with race. The repugnant history of the abuse of scientific authority led to colonial domination, slavery, human zoos, and the Jewish holocaust. Beginning with the development of social/cultural evolution as a scientific theory for human diversity in the 19th century, scientists and anthropologists clamoured for recognition by building upon a discourse that placed people on a kind of evolutionary ladder – Whites at the top, Blacks at the bottom. A hundred years later, eugenics became a valid science that pursued the ethnic “purity” of White people. In the United States where eugenics was rigorously studied, scientists operated largely from the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in New York – of which interestingly, James D. Watson was director and president for 35 years. The world of scientistic racism is small indeed.

And so apparently, race became taboo in the scientific community after the Third Reich collapsed in 1945, I’m not sure says who but it’s been mentioned a few times throughout the series. By extension, the subject of race is also taboo outside scientific discussion. Before we go on discussing further, a definition of taboo:

A social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.

For White people, talking about race is indeed very difficult. The social custom of silence around race stems from the fear of sounding racist and reluctance to accuse others of racism, while at the same affirms a delusion that racism is not a big problem anymore. It’s disheartening to watch White people become defensive when they are asked about racism, especially when they perceive it as a test to see how racist they are.

The blogosphere is abuzz with people talking about race from many angles, some are people of colour, some White. Perhaps hidden behind names and avatars, the fear of sounding racist is mitigated, and perhaps those of us with access to the wealth of the internet are more attuned to the diversity of opinions on race (when we look for it). On the street or at a fancy dinner party where ‘polite’ conversation is expected, is race an appropriate subject? When we step away from the computer, are people out there going to respond favourably to a chit chat on race? As a person of colour, I am torn by how an integral component of my identity has become an issue on which people consciously tread carefully or avoid talking about altogether or dismissed as something not worthy of discussion in this so-called post-racial world. How can honesty, engagement, and resistance come from taboo?

Looking at religion through white-tinted glasses

Source: Wikipedia

Looking back, I knew that I never wanted to be a student in religious studies, but oddly enough, here I am digging into it and taking apart the psyche of believers (and non-). If the case is still true in today’s terms, being a scholar in religious matters in Malaysia would really mean studying Islam, wearing the pre-requisite tudung labuh, and doomed with career prospects as expansive as the opinions of the cow-head protesters on non-Muslim places of worship. Because as a woman, that would invariably mean teaching pendidikan Islam (Islamic education) at primary and secondary school level, and not at the helm of any of the many Islamic learning and research institutions around the country.

But mind you, it’s not the theological aspect of religious studies that appeals to me, but rather the strictly secular and emotionally uninvolved analysis of world religions; its historical, sociological, psychological, and philosophical dimensions of faith, from a so-called “objective” point of view, and most importantly how religious teachings have impinged on gender relations in the postcolonial context (and just as importantly, outside of that context). Being at the School of Oriental and African Studies in theory should be a good place to study religions given its wary stance towards Eurocentric academic culture and well, hippie outlook to the cultures of Africa and Asia.

But imagine my groans of disappointment when I realised that I had to immerse neck deep into the world of 20th century French intellectualism personified by Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, to understand the mystical and practical mechanisms of religion. My disappointment can be summed up in, ironically, Foucauldian terms, in which the study of religions as a discourse (specific to SOAS) is governed by principles, statements, and analytic approaches dominated almost entirely by the theses of dead White European male philosophers (with Claude Levi-Strauss who’s just joined in). And as a result of these governing structures, how we produce academic analyses or “truths” about world religions are done pretty much by the guiding hands of these men. And according to Foucault, how these structures arise are determined by who wins the competition of discourses. Emerging victor in the power struggle of discourses are the notoriously difficult post-existentialist French thinkers. Hurray!

It would be fair to assume that the most useful analytic tools are also the latest ones, those that have yet to be proven obsolete and irrelevant. The same way scientific analysis today relies on the latest research and the latest lab techniques and equipment. But is this really true for the study of religion? The search for the origins of spiritual worship became the main agenda of anthropologists in the 19th century, dominating the discourse on religion at the time. Emerging from the discourse were terms like “primitive cultures” and “totemism”. And yes, this led many anthropologists to “backward” communities in Africa and Latin America that were thought to be at the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder. The anthropology of religion later took a different course when more and more researchers found that there was no basis in their racist assumptions, and developed other critical outlooks. Then feminist approaches to religion arrived, which I will talk about soon.

So, what can we say about the implications of Western thinking on the study of world religions? If put in other words, what can institutions in economically-developing nations learn from this discourse which obtains its authority from mainly White male academics? Anything useful, or nothing at all? How useful are the thoughts of philosophers, hailed as experts at explaining the mysteries of faith, particularly when some are not afraid to be personally (rather than empirically) biased against one religion from another? I’m talking about Levi-Strauss here, and his ill-informed Orientalist comments about Islam which he had conveniently constructed as Buddhism’s opposite:

Symbolic of Moslem culture … [is the accumulation of] the most subtle refinements – palaces made of precious stones, fountains of rose-water, dishes of food coated with gold leaf and tobacco mixed with pounded pearls – and uses them as a veneer to conceal rustic customs and the bigotry permeating Islamic moral and religious thought… This great religion [Islam] is based not so much on revealed truth as on an inability to establish links with the outside world…Moslem intolerance takes an unconscious form among those who are guilty of it; although they do not always seek to make others share their truth by brutal coercion, they are nevertheless (and this is more serious) incapable of tolerating the existence of others as others (Levi-Strauss, 1992).

Returning to the structure of the study of religion in Malaysia, where the primacy of Islam permeates all levels of public education, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, can a secular study of faith be possible and not maligned as something with an evil agenda? Like inter-faith dialogue, all religions in question are viewed as equals as are the participants in the dialogue. For the case of the study of religions as an academic discourse, this means an open arena for teachers, students, and teaching material, regardless of the participant’s religious backgrounds. Those involved in the study of religions can develop an appreciation of other cultures and systems of worship, and from a structuralist’s point of view, discover deeply connected links and similarities that we all in this global village share. Perhaps these are just some things many Muslims in Malaysia can learn to appreciate.

From the crypt: A most "nebulous" concept that national unity

This was my very blog post, written on The Star Online’s citizen’s blog nearly three years ago.  It’s a response to Johor’s Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) Abdul Ghani Othman’s comments on the “abuse” of the term ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ and pointing out how UMNO politicians continue to reproduce colonial strategies to maintain racialised power. NB: The post you are about to read is (embarrassingly) polemical and has been edited to death by The Star editorial team.

Johor MB Abdul Ghani Othman tested the waters of public tolerance by announcing the evils of unifying the nation under the umbrella policy “Bangsa Malaysia” (Malaysian Race). The Johor Umno chief scoffed at the concept:

“After 49 years of independence, we should be more mature and not try to produce nebulous concepts whose origins are not clear … The concept,  if subjected to abuse, can threaten national stability.”

After nearly 50 years racial bigotry still occupies the country’s seats of power.

We have adopted our former colonists’ legacy of “Divide and Conquer” and further perpetuate a separatist culture that benefits one of group of people over others by reinforcing the social constructs “Malay” and “The Others”. For 49 years these social constructs iterated in the Constitution maintained the power dynamics that favoured the Malay race.  Amending the Constitution would invite “disorder”, stated the Deputy Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak.

Hishamuddin Rais, a keen and articulate observer of Malaysian politics, illustrates beautifully Umno’s obsession with the preservation of racial divides in his blog, Dari Jelebu.

Lest we forget, a unifying social construct made up of all existing ethinicities once freed Malaysian from colonisation.  So the Malays’ suspicions of  “The Others” is not unfounded – unified social constructs within “The Others” have the potential to replay history.

Historically, as pointed out by Hishamuddin Rais, the creation of such social constructs by the British were deeply rooted in economic greed. Today the Malay agenda is largely about figuring out ways to gain a larger share of the nation’s wealth beneath the surface of Malay pride.

It’s anyone’s guess that such a concept will threaten the Malays’ position as “The Princes of the Soil”. By implementing Bangsa Malaysia, all ethnicities will share the right to equal opportunities and create a national identity which sees that everyone stands equal before the Constitution. The Bangsa Malaysia concept is “unfair” because it will out the Malays as the economically and educationally disadvantaged race.

In fact, it is Umno’s greatest fear that Malaysia will evolve into becoming Singapore where the Malays are pushed into the margins of society.  In essence Malaysia is the Malays’ final refuge and by protecting this refuge the identity of the Malays as the pivotal race is crucial.

The empowerment of this identity is evident in the superior position given to the Malay language and Islam.  Take away all the symbols of Malay supremacy and they are left with nothing.

While abroad, I am ambivalent about professing myself as Malay. More often I am indeed proud of my culture and language but at the same time I find it hard to relate to other Malays who share my pride.

I hate to make distinctions based on race, and I hope that Malaysians will eventually mature and adopt a race-less outlook as well.

It is disheartening that those at the pinnacles of power are the ones fighting over the redefinitions of race while people like myself would rather see Malaysians as Malaysians.

Questioning the veil, questioning the questioner

First published at Muslimah Media Watch. An edited version is published on altmuslimah.com

Source: BBC News website

Today we witness postcolonial Orientalism coming to grips with its obsession with the hijab. While the white French elite seem fixed on debating its symbols, the British media are asking why women choose to wear it. Once, the obsession was an obvious desire to unveil Muslim women (think postcards of semi-naked North African women during the colonial period of the turn of the 20th century).

Such pictorial colonial fantasies are now a thing of the past. Now, French men have now moved from openly desiring topless Moorish young women to getting angry at the concealed women who once incited the fantasies of their colonial forefathers. While the anger and frustrations are expressed by some in the forms of bans and Islamophobic language, others seek the object of their frustrations and ask them, “Why must you cover?”

In an item called Questioning the Veil on BBC 4’s Woman Hour yesterday, two guests, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed and Marnia Lazreg were asked that very question. The reasons why many women take up the hijab should be obvious, shouldn’t it? It’s a personal choice. But both agree that free will has little to do with it. And I absolutely agree with them that women’s sartorial choices must be respected but at the same time those choices are influenced by overarching political and social narratives.

But let’s meta-analyze why the two guests are on the program, almost pitted against each other, and talking about a subject that’s been discussed ad infinitum with more and less the same conclusions: most women make the choice to wear the headscarf, some women are coerced into wearing it. Most reasons are rooted in the spiritual, some are simply an act of resistance against the superficial definitions of femininity. Case should be closed, but…no.

By constantly focusing on the hijab, the real issues that are most important to us women are glossed over–issues regarding economic and social struggles that in reality are the factors of oppression, not the hijab. In Britain, Muslim women from South Asian backgrounds are the most disadvantaged in society, and the same can be said for women of Moroccan ancestry in France. It is all too easy to pounce on the weakest members of society (the women, the minorities, the Muslims) in an effort to reinforce the superiority of White European culture. To avoid appearing bigoted and xenophobic, this superiority is couched on enlightened values associated with the freedom of the individual. As Michelle Goldberg in her piece at the American Prospect puts it:

The debate about headscarves, veils and burqas is a synecdoche for larger, more fraught questions of cultural identity in the age of mass Muslim immigration. Islam is changing European life in a way that makes many Europeans unhappy, but it’s hard for Europeans to talk about without seeming racist or xenophobic. The one place where Europeans do feel confident about defending the superiority of their own culture is in sexual matters. Feminism and sexual liberation become tools of nationalism.

Asking Muslim women why we choose to wear the hijab shifts the attention away from the asker’s insecurity of their own ideas of freedom and sexuality (if you’re comfortable with how everybody expresses their freedom and sexuality, how Muslim women dress should be the least of your worries). In Orientalist discourse, the stereotypes of Muslim women produced from assumptions about the hijab reveals a lot more about Western attitudes about sexuality and social mores than it does about the “mysterious” Muslim women. And so, through the prism of an Orientalist, Muslim women are pretty much everything a so-called liberated Western woman is not. If the definition of a Muslim woman were to be defined using a yardstick alien to her culture, it will not only explain very little about the person in question, but she will always be something inferior, lacking in enlightened qualities. And so despite evidence that many women are happy to cover up, questions about the hijab continue to have forgone conclusions.

I’m fed up by the fact that positive views women make about the headscarf fall systematically on many deaf ears. It’s time that the tables are turned on the curious people who more often than not have misconceptions and pre-conceived views about Muslim women and what we wear, in which we study their motives and question their curiosity about our lives. Enough about us, we should be asking, “Why do you want to know?”

Guest post: Asian fetishism is sexist and racist

The following is a guest post by regular commenter, Gareth:


I am a white Englishman with an Asian girlfriend. I believe the so-called ‘Asian fetish’ is both racist and sexist, and here is why.

Being a white, straight man gives me a ton load of privilege, and that privilege is systemic and global. I am aware of my various privileges and can learn to ‘check them in at the door’, but I can never get rid of them. My privileges are not just to do with me, but they emanate from a system of privilege and prejudice with global reach. Everyone who is white or a man has these privileges, and they are not mitigated by being poor, working class, disabled, gay or being part of any other oppressed minority: you just get the mix of certain privileges with certain prejudices against you (this is intersectionality; more on that later).

My privileges put me at the top of a significant power differential when it comes to interactions with others who do not have my privileges. This means that I should be keenly aware that my privilege begets power, and power can be abused. Using this power is racist and sexist.

Sufferers of Asian fetishism often describe their malady as an ‘appreciation’. Try looking that word up in a dictionary; its original meaning is ‘to set a monetary worth on something, to appraise’. Now, we are so used to this word being used to describe non-monetary praise, we are not aware that is still an objectification and commodification of that we appreciate. The male gaze is sexist when all it sees is a smile, breasts, legs, bottom and so forth. The sufferer of Asian fetishism takes this sexist objectification of women and adds skin tone, cheekbones, small build and slit-eyes into the mix. The sufferer of Asian fetishism does not care what your name is as long as it does not sound too white; he can not tell the difference whether you are Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian or Chinese. Prejudice is based on preconceived opinions. There is no doubting that Asian fetishism is prejudiced, and, when this prejudice is coupled with power differential of privilege, it is definitively sexist and racist.

Asian fetishism has previous, and its history is intimately connected with abuse of power. The image of the odalisque reclining on silk cushions in an Ottoman harem, attended by a black eunuch was the Asian fetishism of the 17th and 18th centuries. This image of Asian sexuality appeared at a time when France and Britain were beginning to compete for supremacy over the Ottoman Empire. There is so much sexism and racism that could be unpacked from the odalisque image, but we shall move on. The women of the Indian subcontinent were the next focus of fetishism during the expansion of the British Empire. The power differential there is obvious. The Pacific campaign of the United States during the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War (read that as: war, war, war) were the backdrop to the specific fetishisation of South-East Asian women during the 20th century. Sufferers of Asian fetishism probably do not realise how much their diseased desire is influenced by popular Western culture and its spinning and retelling of war stories. After all, the classic lines of modern Asian fetishism, ‘Me so horny’ and ‘Me love you long time’, come from the 1987 Vietnam war film Full Metal Jacket.

(The ‘Me Love You Long Time’ scene from Full Metal Jacket)

Intersectionality is the combination of two or more dichotomies of privilege-prejudice, like sex and race. Whereas it is clear that the intersectionality of prejudices should lead to the observation of a more intense prejudice, what is often observed is the obfuscation of prejudice. By that, I mean that the sexism is covered up by appealing to cultural appreciation — these women are so cultural/ethnic/interesting — and the racism is covered up by appealing to sexual appreciation, in turn disguised as ‘love’ — Asians are so beautiful.

Notes on interracial and (post)colonial traveling

Some interracial couples may have some misgivings about traveling abroad together, particularly to places that are reputed to be intolerant – Saudi Arabia, Dubai and a host of other predominantly Muslim countries are quick to come up as examples. I can kind of understand why. The ghost of anti-miscegenation laws, racism, and the effects of migrant sex work and pornography (I know, Muslim countries don’t necessarily have these issues, all at once) have a role to play in society’s ugly perception of interracial relationships, but I don’t think couples have that much too worry about as long as they stay respectful of the places and peoples they visit.

But while traveling in my own country Malaysia as one half of an interracial couple who is female and of darker skin tone, I was struck by the patriarchal attitudes and imperialist nostalgia/longing that exist at the heart of tourism.

Some things I noticed:

1.Everybody ignores me. In shops, restaurants, and hotels, I become invisible. Unless I open my mouth no one is going to give me a second look much less acknowledge my presence. Perhaps as a woman I am viewed as the insignificant, meek and mute half. And perhaps as a local, a native, I am unimportant and someone not worth to impress. But it’s also likely that I am often viewed as the gold-digging Asian stereotype, but without the mini skirt and platform shoes. Crudely put, the White man is viewed as the one with the money, making him a worthwhile object of attention and reverence.

2.“Good afternoon, Sir!”, “Can I help you, Sir?”,”Yes, Sir!”. Going to places with my boyfriend and being greeted with “Hello, Sir” and “Good afternoon, Sir” makes my blood boil. Never would the complimenting “Ms”, “Madam” or even “Ma’am” be accorded to someone like me (See 1). Again, the White man is revered as a most valuable and esteemed customer, adding a kind of prestige to the establishment, “See, a white tourist has walked into my shop, he must have been reading Lonely Planet. How my heart swells with pride.”

3.We started seeing ourselves as “squirm-inducing” subjects. Being a product of conquest and racism, specific combinations of heterosexual couplings (Older, larger, White man/Younger, smaller-built, Asian woman) have mushroomed across the post-colonial, developing world. Southeast Asia sees no shortage of this classic combination. And so it doesn’t help that in Malaysia, local women are meant and made to be fetishised. Airline companies built their image upon the looks and curves of their female flight attendants (Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia, I’m talking to you), who are the first in line to welcome visitors from abroad (“Before you feast your eyes on the beauty of our country, feast your eyes on our women first!”). Which brings to me the trickier issue of coming to terms with being complicit in perpetuating the myths about women of “the Orient”. Ourselves fitting the stereotype, looking at other interracial couples like us can be a discomforting experience.

4.Many tourists depend on imperialist nostalgia to inform their interest in the places they visit (yes, sometimes former colonised subjects, too). English cottages, once homes of British officials of yore, which have been opened to the public as hotels and restaurants in hilltop destinations in Malaysia recreate the delights of colonial high-living, are obvious examples of such places. Coined by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, imperialist nostalgia is defined as longing for the culture that their colonial ancestors have destroyed while at the same time making racial domination seem innocent and pure. In Yogyakarta, it came as hardly a coincidence that the Dutch represented a significant proportion of tourists from Europe. However, compared to Singapore and Malaysia, traces of Indonesia’s colonial past appear to be have been greatly diminished. Other than the odd word in public spaces that can be recognised as Dutch, colonial memories exist in more subtle ways. So I wondered what was drawing many visitors from Holland to Indonesia?

Traveling is a privileged act of observing and of vicariously experiencing the lives of others. Once a preserve of the elite few, travel has become democratised to allow the rest of the world to wield the power of the gaze, brush against the Other and come out unscathed, and be a conquerer of the unbeaten path. But what of travelers who are self-conscious of how their presence impact on the observed? Macon D’s blog Stuff White People Do catalogues some thought-provoking writings along these themes. But what about the power-relations that impact on non-White tourists? I have to admit, my thoughts on this are still pretty undeveloped, so comments would be most appreciated.