Public seminar at National University of Singapore this month

Silence and consent

My dear followers and readers of this blog,

I will be presenting my early findings of my new research project on non-veiling in Malaysia in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS) on Wednesday 23rd March 2016. This is going quite exciting for me as it’s the debut of my first post-PhD project. Those residing in Singapore and in the neighbourhood, do drop by and say hi!

Non-veiling and down-veiling narratives in Malaysia

nonveiling

 

Project statement in English

It would be wise to establish that, in Malaysia, the dichotomy between the unveiled and veiled woman as oppositional and mutually exclusive is a reductive one, masking the shifting subjectivities of women who wish to unveil but cannot, women who remove the veil but choose to eventually re-veil, women who veil part-time, and women who down-veil (transition from niqab/tudung labuh to simple tudung). I would like to suggest that the sartorial practices of Muslim-identified women in Malaysia exist on a continuum of identities rather than a simple binary of non-veiled and veiled. The significance of establishing this continuum would be to illuminate the ethical agency of Muslim-identified women and their negotiation and struggles with faith, culture and politics of the everyday – all of which constitute the micro-politics of (non)veiling identities. Such a continuum of identities will also be able to reveal the contradictions, respectively, within the community of women who veil and women who do not. Recognising the imbalance of social capital between Muslim women, this study also aims to bring out the voices of women who do not wear the headscarf and challenge normative assumptions of non-veiling as passivity and non-compliance with regards to culture and faith-related matters.

Please contact me (alicia [at] um [dot] edu [dot] my) if you’re interested in participating in this project

Kenyataan projek dalam Bahasa Kebangsaan

Bagi saya, wanita yang bertudung dan tidak bertudung tidak semestinya wujud bertentangan antara satu sama lain atau hitam-putih. Sebaliknya, isu tudung-tidak bertudung menyelindungi kepelbagaian sosok wanita yang bertudung tetapi ingin membukanya, wanita yang menanggal tudung tetapi akan bertudung semula, wanita yang bertudung “separa waktu”, dan wanita yang bertukar daripada tudung labuh kepada hijab biasa. Saya ingin mencadangkan bahawa amalan permakaian wanita Muslim di Malaysia wujud secara berperingkat dan bukannya binari yang mudah. Dengan memaparkan permakaian tudung secara berperingkat, saya ingin menunjukkan bahawa golongan wanita yang bertudung dan tidak bertudung masing-masing tidak konsisten dan serupa. Projek ini juga prihatin kepada kelebihan wanita yang bertudung dari segi kapital sosial di kalangan masyarakat Melayu Malaysia. Oleh yang demikian, projek ini mendahulukan suara-suara wanita yang terpencil terutamanya mereka yang tidak memakai tudung dengan tujuan memecahkan persepsi terhadap wanita tidak bertudung sebagai pasif dan berlawanan dengan budaya dan kepercayaan agama.

  • Adakah anda seorang wanita yang tidak memakai tudung/hijab? Dan jika tidak, mengapa? Apakah cabaran dan tekanan yang anda hadapi sebagai seorang wanita yang tidak bertudung?
  • Dari mana datangnya pilihan anda untuk menanggalkan tudung?
  • Jika anda bertudung dan diberikan pilihan, adakah anda akan memilih untuk bertudung?
  • Jika anda bertudung labuh atau berniqab, adakah anda ingin atau sudah bertukar kepada hijab biasa? Jika ya, mengapa?

Sila berhubung dengan saya (alicia [at] um [dot] edu [dot] my) untuk menyertai dalam projek ini

Thinking intersectionally about Malay women and the tudung

I have been thinking a lot about intersectionality and women who do not wear the tudung lately and it is not so much because the concept is de rigueur right now as I have been accused of not being intersectional enough in my viral article, Asal-usul obsesi Melayu dengan tudung (The origins of the Malay obsession with the tudung) published in my column in the Malay Mail Online on 15 October 2015.

Within days of the article’s publication, comments on Twitter and emails began to trickle in, then tweets condemning my piece and expressing some distaste towards me flooded my timeline. When feminist countering views to my article began to emerge, they sang a similar tune: that my critique of a culture pressuring Malay women to wear the tudung elided two important elements in the debate; choice and agency.

Fair enough, choice and agency are abstract notions nearly every woman are thought to have, in addition to our ability to reason, rationalise and make decisions. But it is important to note their significance and currency in this debate. Choice and agency in themselves have a talismanic quality; that their very utterance would be enough to end a feminist conversation – her choice, her empowerment, end of story. Women’s choice and agency are a defiant win in the face of a deeply patriarchal culture.

It would be a little bit patronising to suggest that I don’t know the means through which choice, agency, and the patriarchy operate. But having been schooled by said countering views nonetheless, I was still left with an unanswered issue; what about women who do not wear the tudung? Why are they subjected to so much abuse? And more crucially, what makes their abuse different from other women? Will the pressure and public abuse of women who do not wear the tudung illuminate some uncomfortable truths about modern Muslim Malaysia?

To say that all women – whether they wear the tudung or not – suffer patriarchal abuse is to sweep under the carpet the specificities of being a woman who does not wear the tudung and her specific challenges in Malaysia. Because there are differences between Malay women, whether if it is because of their regional and class background, linguistic abilities, academic credentials, and yes if they wear the headscarf or not, we will be impacted very differentially by patriarchy.

A middle class Malay woman in the city who wears the tudung is going to experience sexism very differently from a working class Malay who doesn’t wear the tudung in small towns outside the Klang Valley. Although women’s attire in general is policed in Malaysia, we are policed differently because of our respective social differences. If you wear the headscarf, every strand of hair needs to be tucked away and other arbitrary notions of sartorial modesty may be acquiesced accordingly. Women who do not wear the tudung present a different kind of challenge. Tudung-less non-Malay women move more freely in shorter skirts and short shorts. Tudung-less bodies interpellated as ‘Malay’ will be disciplined differently or diminished altogether.

In Kimberlé Crenshaw’s seminal article, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Women of Color’, the political specificities of Black women’s activism were either ignored or erased because they were too similar to white women in their subjection to patriarchal sexism, and yet too different because their black identity and experiences of racism. Due to their intersecting position between racism and sexism, their experiences were dismissed or erased entirely in both anti-sexist and anti-racist political action:

The need to split one’s political energies between two sometimes opposing groups is a dimension of intersectional disempowerment [my emphasis] that men of color and white women seldom confront. Indeed, their specific raced and gendered experiences, although intersectional, often define as well as confine the interests of the entire group. For example, racism as experienced by people of color who are of a particular gender – male – tends to determine the parameters of antiracist struggles, just as sexism as experienced by women of a particular race – white – tends to ground the women’s movement (Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins’ 1991: 1252)

In almost similar ways, Malay women who do not wear the tudung and their specific experiences are being erased by the deleteriously non-intersecting view that ALL women are subjected by sexism and misogyny. Malay women who do not wear the tudung are similar to women who wear the tudung because of sexist gender policing they experience. But women who do not wear the tudung are significantly different because of their visibility as women who deviate from normative interpretations of Islam and contemporary Malay culture.

I would like to argue that the experiential specificity of Malay women who do not wear the tudung be addressed along two strands; their gendered subjectivity and Muslim identity. I would argue that unless and until these two strands are addressed as separate spheres of cultural pressures, Malay women who do not wear the tudung will continue to be erased from feminist debates on their bodies, sexuality, and very being.

Malay women who do not wear the tudung may face the same patriarchal policing of their gendered subjectivity as women who wear the tudung in a multitude of contexts; as inferior to men’s inherent ability to lead and dominate the public sphere and discourse. But as Muslims, Malay women who do not wear the tudung face a different kind of policing and subordination. Their very visibility as women who do not cover themselves sufficiently mark them out as Other to the normative articulation of Malay femininity.

Much of the criticism that cashes on the currency of agency and choice adopt the politicised stance of covered Muslim women in countries hostile to the hijab and Islam generally. The position of these women becomes a feminist act because their decision to wear the hijab is expressed as a symbolic resistance to a culture that demand their ‘exposure’ to the secular gaze. Muslim women who wear the hijab in Europe are confronted by the patronising white saviour complex of the militant activist group Femen keen on participating in the enduring crusade of ‘saving brown women from brown men’.

But in Malaysia, the pressure on women is quite the opposite. The cultural and institutional pressure on women to cover may well be a subliminal rejection of the secular gaze and its imperialistic definitions of democracy and human rights. And here I might make a provocative suggestion: the politicised articulation of women who cover for ‘feminist’ reasons, citing agency and informed choice, may collude with the Islamic sphere of action that subordinate Malay women who do not wear the tudung.

So long as the majority group of women – women who wear the tudung (and their being the majority have greater leverage to navigate spaces because of their success in fulfilling normative expectations of Malay femininity) – ignore the differential impact of the patriarchal mode of gendered and religious policing, they will continue to be complicit in the specific subordination of Malay women who do not wear the tudung.

To conclude, I would quote Crenshaw on the political implications of ignoring the intersectional oppression of women at the margins:

Because women of color experience racism in ways not always the same as those experienced by men of color experience racism and sexism in ways not always parallel to experiences of white women, antiracism and feminism are limited, even on their own terms. (Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins’ 1991: 1252)

To think within the parameters of political intersectionality is to argue that gender and religious-based struggles in Malaysia will be limited so long as it does not address the specificities of women who reside within the margins of normative femininity in Malaysia. I would not deny that normative femininity itself is diverse and within it consists of contradictions. However, the same normative femininity – because of its normativitiy and majority status – allows it to be more privileged, more representable, and vocal enough to drown out the differences between women.

Reference:

Kimberle Crenshaw. 1991. ‘Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and women of color’ Stanford Law Review Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 1241-1299.

Guest blog: Why can’t women wear short skirts?

Source: detail from photo by Rosea Lake
Source: detail from photo by Rosea Lake

Today we have a guest blog by Kaberi Dutta. Kaberi who is a nineteen year old Malaysian studying Social Anthropology and Law at SOAS, and hoping to alert people to the importance of feminism, one argument at a time.

*****

Having grown up as a Malaysian Indian girl, who studied at an International school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I have been exposed to many different cultures and perspectives, which I am grateful for. However, as a result of various exposures, I have come to find certain faults in Malaysian society that, although I do my best to understand and respect, urge me to question these ‘rules’. Before I explain, I’m not biased against my own culture- Western culture too has many faults, some of which are more extreme (in different ways) than our own, but as a Malaysian, I feel more passionate and justified discussing my own culture.

There’s no avoiding the recent surge in the policing of women’s attires, from the woman who was required to cover her legs with a towel to visit a relative in hospital to the two women who were made to wear sarongs to cover the skirt that was barely above their knees. As a teenage-cum-woman, I was already disgraced at the attitudes of these institutions that forced these women to cover up their bodies, thus humiliating them, but it wasn’t until my own experience with body policing that I felt the need to speak up. Earlier this morning, I went to the Damansara Public Library to study for my exams- dressed in a long shirt and a short skirt (admittedly, well above my knees). After sitting down at a table for a brief ten minutes, I was handed a notice highlighting the dress code for the library and although I wasn’t instructed to leave, my embarrassment caused me to quietly pack my things and return home. I have multiple issues with this including the double standard that is in place when enforcing such rules as well as the reasoning itself behind dress codes for women. Before I elaborate, I’d like to highlight my reason for wearing the short skirt that was at the brunt of this issue.

As many are aware, growing up as a teenage girl is widely known to be filled with pressures from peers and society itself. Society places pressures on girls to conform to a certain image: in Western cultures, it’s always shifting but the current pressure is to look quite similar to Kim Kardashian- curvy with a full bum and breasts. In Malaysian society, it’s more of the opposite- girls are expected to dress modestly and not show off excess skin by wearing revealing clothing. What with all the external influences we are exposed to, being comfortable in one’s own skin has become increasing hard to do. The statistics alone for eating disorders represents this- since the 1960’s, the number of emergence of eating disorders has doubled. Shockingly, the age at which one becomes vulnerable to these pressures is continuously getting lower- reports have shown that an increasing number of children have fallen in to eating disorders at ages as young as six. This article, however, is not to do with the pressures of image as a girl, however (not to say that men and boys don’t suffer from eating disorders) I am just explaining that given all these pressures, I am proud of the fact that, to the most extent, I am comfortable with my body, and this reflects in the way I choose to present myself, and dress. I wear short skirts because I feel comfortable in them, the exact same reason that on other days, I wear jeans. My choice of clothing is a reflection of what I feel comfortable in, nothing more. I don’t wear short skirts to grab the attention of men and neither do a lot of girls. Why is that not okay?

Relating this to the incident that occurred this morning, women aren’t allowed to wear short skirts because they are deemed provocative. My biggest question is why are they deemed provocative? The word ‘provocative’ is defined as being ‘intended or intending to arouse sexual desire or interest’ and as I have stated, that was not my intention. And if provocativeness arises from intent, then doesn’t it deem that I am the only person who can define my clothing as being provocative, since I am the only person who could accurately know my intentions? For anyone else to define clothing as being provocative, would merely be making an assumption. However, taking the definition of the word loosely and agreeing that I didn’t intend for my clothing to lead to ‘sexual desire or interest’, let’s assume that people were effected in a sexual sense by my clothing. Is that my fault for wearing what I feel comfortable in, or the fault of the men who objectify women and see them merely as sexual beings? In a culture where victim blaming has risen, what with women being told not to dress a certain way to avoid being raped (in extreme cases), I think we’re tackling this problem all wrong. Instead of demanding that women dress a certain way so as not to make men sexually aroused or uncomfortable, shouldn’t we actually teach men to respect women irregardless of what they are wearing?

That issue aside, I was also angered regarding the huge double standard in place when it came to enforcing the dress code of the library. Having studied there for nearly a week, I had witnessed men in flip flops and shorts, to no comment by the librarian, but the moment a women breaks the rules- she has to change? I understand why in certain areas one must dress a certain way- I would never wear a short skirt to a temple or church out of respect for the religion- but if you believe that an area needs to have a dress code, then it should be enforced without gender bias. I’m not going to be defiant and try to return to the library in a short skirt, but at least make sure that the men are following the rules too. I see no reason why they should be exempt.

New essay on The New Inquiry

The New Inquiry has kindly published an essay I’ve written on Islamic astronomy, ritual, and outer space in their January issue on ‘Stars’. Here is an excerpt:

Astrological and cosmological inquiry by medieval Muslim and Arabian scholars (that is, they wrote in Arabic) were concerned with the link that connected the earth and the night sky, and humankind’s place in it. The religious impulse to make sense of this “place” would animate scientific debates about the stars in the ninth to 14th centuries—the “golden age of Islam.” In turn, the legacy of Muslim scientists or natural philosophers of this period would inspire Islamic practice in outer space in the 21st century, with dubious results.

For centuries, the stars out in outer space provided humanity with a sense of wonder, mystery, and the divine. Through gazing upon the stars and stripping away their distant secret, a mastery of extraterrestrial worlds and dreams of conquest became inevitable. Thus in the present century, Islamic science and space exploration would together at last arrive at a spectacular conclusion: an achievement of greater proximity to the stars to better understand humankind’s place and space in the universe. Not only would Muslims arrive in outer space, but through techno-theological discourse, they would able to make space for Islam among the stars.

Read the rest here.

What is teh tarik enlightenment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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