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

“Romance imagines peace, security, and ease precisely because there is dissension, insecurity, and difficulty” (Janice Radway, Reading the Romance 1984, p. 15)

Lately I’ve become very interested in how heterosexual Malay-Muslim women talk about romantic intimacy in their pursuit of potential partners, and why sexual violence features so significantly in Malay language romance novels. The public reaction to the foregoing statement is sharply divided: many are ‘shocked’ and ‘worried’ that women relish the depiction of rape in romantic fiction while others are ‘unsurprised’ knowing that sexual violence is a recurring trope of romance fiction found typically in established presses like Mills and Boon and Harlequin.

My latest project engages with these contrasting reactions by bringing together two bodies of scholarship. First, the construction of Malay-Muslim womanhood is narrowly defined along conservative ideas of demure and modest religiosity. It is incongruent with the undercurrent of desire seen in the commitment to reading romantic fiction and explicit violence. What makes this project new and germane is its examination of media practices through which women can safely explore romance, intimacy, and sexuality on their own terms even if it means a fascination with sexual violence.

Second, heterosexual romance is a long-discussed topic in the analysis of popular literature by feminist critics. Since the publication of Janice Radway’s classic 1984 study Reading the Romance, the romance novel has been viewed as a form of escape from the drudgery of domestic life and a romanticisation of women’s subordination in ‘real life’.

Commitment to romance reading is underpinned by the twin complex of ‘deprivation’ and ‘fear’; feeling deprived of romantic attention and pleasure in real life, and management of fear of patriarchal violence (Radway 1984, p. 70). Radway has an explanation for the recurring depiction of men’s sexual brutality in romance novels, arguing that it stems from women’s conflicted desire to deal with it and tame it:

… romance’s preoccupation with male brutality is an attempt to understand the meaning of an event that has become almost unavoidable in the real world. The romance may express misogynistic attitudes not because women share them but because they increasingly need to know how to deal with them. (1984, p. 72).

Female readers’ ways of coming to terms with patriarchy via the romance can also be discerned in their distinction between ‘forceful persuasion’ and “true” rape. While both are non-consensual acts of sexual violence, the former is romanticised whereby acts of violence by the male love interest are re-interpreted when he eventually shows utmost tenderness and devotion towards the heroine. Similar to the fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’, there is a kind and loving prince who really exists within the ‘Beast’ and waiting to be rehabilitated by the purity of the heroine’s love.

To make sense of how ‘love’ and ‘romance’ are defined in modern Malay society, I turn to Wazir Jahan Karim’s classic research on discourse of emotions in Malay society (1990). Articulations of intimate and romantic emotions become intensified during courtship and mediated through traditional verse (pantun) and song. Because naked expression of love and desire is subject to moral censure and frowned upon, courting couples send each other lines of verse to convey their most intimate feelings. However, her ethnographic study on traditional Malays demonstrates patterns of male agency and female passivity in the expression of emotions during courtship. My research aims to study contemporary behaviour and female agency in articulations of love and desire in a media-saturated society. I have chosen two modern media practices for this project: committed romance novel reading and mobile dating/matrimonial usage.

What is ‘mediated intimacy’ and why it matters

The project utilises the concept of ‘mediated intimacy’ to examine its role in mate-seeking and romance amongst single, university-educated Malay-Muslim women in urban Malaysia. ‘Mediated intimacy’ is a concept developed by Rosalind Gill (2009) which describes ‘the ways in which our understandings and experiences of a whole range of intimate relationships are increasingly mediated by constructions’ from media culture.

I would propose that ‘mediated intimacy’ becomes a resource for thinking, talking, and practicing romantic ideals in a conservative society where divulging openly about female desire is frowned upon. Thus, narratives from fiction and other media sources become materials and a powerful influence in the way Malay-Muslim women understand their romantic identity.

This project uses Anthony Giddens’s notion of ‘textual romance’ (2013) that draws parallels between romantic fiction and online dating practices whereby intimacy and romantic fantasy are developed with an appropriate degree of distance, both temporal and spatial, and at one’s own pace.

Media practices play an increasingly important role in the reconfiguration of gender roles and romantic expectations of Muslim women who belong to generations that have undergone rapid processes of modernisation and increased access to higher education, white-collar employment, and migration to urban centres (Abu Lughod 2005; Kaya 2009; Chakraborty 2012).

There is a growing body of scholarship on the usage of online dating and matrimonial services by young Muslims in Muslim majority societies. In societies where young Muslim women are socially discouraged and restricted from mixing freely with the opposite sex, online and mobile dating apps have become an increasingly popular medium for connecting in safe and respectable ways (Kaya 2009; Chakraborty 2012; Bajnaid and Elyas 2017).

The proposed project intends to shed light on the affordances and limitations of media practices that facilitate opportunities for emotional intimacy, romance, and marriage for Malay-Muslim women. Furthermore, this project seeks to identify the constituents that make up economies of desire that shape, limit, and enhance discourses of Muslim femininity and its aspirations. The research will be informed by studies that highlight the discerning nature of media consumption amongst Malay-Muslims in contemporary Malaysia (see Fischer 2008; Weintraub 2011; Md. Syed 2013), a society shaped by postcolonialism, neoliberalism, and globalisation much like the work by Randhika Parameswaran on young Indian female readers of Western romance fiction.

The redefinition of romance and intimacy in 21st century Malaysia by Muslim women will throw into sharp relief the transformation of women’s roles from colonial to the postcolonial-neoliberal present (Ong 1990; Stivens 2006). From the emergence of the New Malay Woman in the early postcolonial period to the contemporary Islamic model of femininity, the conflicting forces of modernisation, Islamisation, and neoliberalism have created deeply ambivalent constructions of Malay Muslim femininity.

I am interested in how rising conservatism across Southeast Asia is reshaping modernity and projections of gender in public and private discourses of agency, intimacy, failure and success. I am especially concerned that rising conservatism is contributing to the ‘illiberal turn’ in the economies of desire and notions of modern Muslim gender identities developed in mediated narratives of intimacy in romance fiction and Muslim dating services. I define the ‘illiberal turn’ in Malaysia as the domination in the public sphere of a broadly conservative approach to politics, law, and religious practice, with a tendency to restrict the freedoms and rights of minority groups and women (Peletz 2016).

Early data on Malay romance readers

In a small preliminary online survey I conducted with 87 female respondents in early 2017, nearly half were between the ages 21-25 years old (44.5%), and about a third were still in tertiary education (65.5%). Most were avid readers of romance novels (more than 8 a year, 32.2%):

avid readers chart

I created the survey to identify themes that readers look out for in romance novels. 26 readers chose ‘Husband of parents’ choosing’ aka arranged marriage, 44 chose ‘Love according to Islamic principles’ aka Syariah-compliant romance, most i.e. 60 readers enjoy ‘Love after marriage’ as the main theme’, while 23 readers like ‘Contractual marriage’.

Tema cinta yg digemari

Not being a reader of Malay romance fiction myself, I was certain the four themes above are far from comprehensive. So I let the respondents fill in other themes they enjoy. Note that ‘kahwin paksa’ (forced marriage) appears a few times:

tema cinta yg digemari1

tema cinta yg digemari2

tema cinta yg digemari3

In a question on the socio-economic background and professional status of the male love interest, respondents showed a great variety of high and low status jobs. Business owners, lawyers, medical doctors represented the majority of male characters in Malay romance novels (70-81%), followed by university students (52%) and ustaz or male Islamic teacher and preacher (44%). But in the respondents’ own answers, there are surprising results, such as fisherman, street burger vendors, and farmers:

pekerjaan watak lelaki lain

It’s hard to surmise for now if readers really do enjoy romance between women (much like themselves) and men in low-paying jobs. Novels like ‘Bang Guard Security Hatiku’ (Security Guard of My Heart) and ‘M.A.I.D’ that portray both male and female characters in low status precarious jobs perhaps combine both fantasy and mirror to the socio-economic uncertainty and inequality pervasive in Malaysian society. Such novels not only romanticise economic hardship and inequality but provide a narrative for adaptation and consolation in ‘real life’.

The survey asked respondents qualities of the female heroine they enjoy and perhaps relate to. A few have already stated a liking for ‘strong female characters’ in themes they look for in romance fiction. Others demonstrate a preference for the modest Muslimah which may suggest the cross-boundary quality of romance as fiction vs romance as real life:

Watak perempuan

The early data captures themes and qualities in heterosexual pairings in Malay romance fiction enjoyed by avid readers of the genre. In the research that follows, depictions of rape and other acts of male violence will be discussed with more detail with readers, authors, and publishers. It is tempting to arrive at the same conclusion as Janice Radway, but I believe there are other mechanisms of agency and desire at work amongst Malay-Muslim women. I am less interested in individual novels such as Ombak Rindu and their popularity, but more in themes of violence and inequality and how they fit into ideas of ‘romance’ and ‘intimacy’ readers learn, develop, and adopt for themselves in their own romantic quests.

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

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

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

‘Homoseksualiti’ adalah rekaan sains perubatan semata-mata… 

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

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

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

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

Daripada gagasan Foucault datangnya Queer Theory 

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

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

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

Beberapa ikhtisar penting dalam Queer Theory: 

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

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

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

Persamaan / perbezaan antara Queer Theory dan teori feminis: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Performativiti’ 

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

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

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

rupaul_at_dragcon2c_april_2017
Rupaul, seorang ‘drag queen’ dan penghibur antarabangsa

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

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

Kesimpulan

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

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

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

Between sex and abstinence there is education and choice

This is my only column on the Malay Mail Online for the month of May this year. I haven’t been productive on Malay Mail Online as I would like to be and that’s likely to be because I’m doing so much writing elsewhere.

The development of a child’s sexuality is a taboo issue. Although there is no denial that as children, many will develop crushes and have ridiculous fantasies about them. From a young age, children will explore their bodies and learn to masturbate. But the idea of a child masturbating is an unspeakable horror for so many liberal-minded people that silence is the best cure for such hand-ups.

For legal and historical reasons we owe to Victorian laws, 16 is the age of consent. But before then, children are clouded with distorted ideas about sexuality and lack of useful information. Muslim children are more in danger of this knowledge vacuum because of the social disease of child marriage that plagues Malay Muslim families. Although taboo, it is not as if sexuality is not taught in school. Masturbation is likely to come up in Islamic Studies (Pendidikan Islam) in school but couched in restrictive and often lurid terms. No other classroom session will young children be inducted into the categories of human bodily fluids.

Read the rest here.

Sound, fury and écriture féminine in Violette (2013): a review

When I first heard about the film Violette (2013, dir. Martin Provost), I had little knowledge about the life and work of the French writer, Violette Leduc (1907-1972), on which the film was based. What drew me to the film was the fact that she was one time a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir. Imagine being a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir!

The film charts her journey into writing, from being an appendage of a gay writer who could never return her love and lust to being a groundbreaking literary success. What he does offer her instead is an instruction to write, anything and everything she knows. And so she does. After he leaves her to fend for herself, she embarks on a reinvention of herself, with her first manuscript in hand, to Paris.

Leduc’s journey into writing and the occasion that led to her discovery by de Beauvoir appear cosmically serendipitous. Her chance encounter with Le Deuxième Sexe in an acquaintance’s apartment (“A woman has written a big book?”, she thinks aloud) ignites a desire to meet the writer herself.

Leduc stalks de Beauvoir in a Parisian cafe. The scene is established through Leduc’s female gaze; with her back turned to the feminist philosopher, Leduc spies on de Beauvoir using the mirror of her compact case. De Beauvoir’s first depiction as an image in a lady’s compact case is both ironic and trivialising.

When Leduc throws herself (and her manuscript of L’Asphyxie) in de Beauvoir’s direction, it appears that her literary career and its trappings (shoulder-rubbing with artists and willing patrons) are sealed. De Beauvoir adores her manuscript and is keen to mentor Leduc, who was only a year younger. Leduc is the opposite of de Beauvoir; her words spill from a body electrocuted by feeling and desire. She is shameless and openly erotic bordering on desperate in contrast to de Beauvoir’s restraint and cerebralism.

Their homes are further extensions of their opposing personality and state of mind; Leduc lives hand to mouth in a shabby rented room. De Beauvoir lives in an elegant multi-roomed apartment. Shortly after winning the Prix Goncourt for The Mandarins, de Beauvoir would purchase an even more luxurious apartment, pushing the gulf between her and Leduc further.

Pushing past forty by the time her (still unsuccessful) novel L’affamée is published, Leduc is portayed as a woman regressing into adolescence. She is tormented by the thought of being a bastard child and her mother’s maternal transgressions (“My mother never held my hand”), themes that reoccur since her debut, L’Asphyxie (1948). And yet, her mother dotes on Leduc. In one poignant scene, an emotionally exhausted Leduc is bathed by her mother, like a placid baby at bathtime.

Abandonment issues strain Leduc’s relationship with everyone she sexually desires, both women and men, along with insecurities about her lack of beauty. She attributes the unrequited desire she has for Simone de Beauvoir and her general lack of luck as a sexual woman in libidinous French culture to her apparent ugliness.

Her sexuality is written on the pages of her books. They are autobiographies of a woman’s sexuality. Her writing may evoke the contemporary criticism that women, like Lena Dunham’s écriture du jour, write in a ‘confessional’ style that pepper with TMI. They can come across as self-absorbed and narcisstic. But Provost’s portrayal of Leduc depicts a woman who does not love and credit herself enough. Her insecurities undermine the high regard the male French intelligentsia (Sartre, Camus, Genet) have for her.

Soon, and rather predictably, the emotional labour inscribed in her writing takes a toll on Leduc and she is admitted into a sanitarium to ‘recover’ via a treatment of electric shocks. Rather than a moral tale of a woman who writes and desires that ends tragically, Leduc’s episode in hospital is followed by a great literary and erotic flourishing.

Following de Beauvoir’s advice, she goes on a solo walking trip through small provincial towns, writing and wanking as she absorbs the bucolic landscape around her. She is pursued by a younger man, a builder, and yields to his attentions. The film reaches it climax when Leduc publishes her first bestseller, La Bâtarde (1964), to great national acclaim that seals her reputation as a feminist writer.

What compels me most about Violette is that it is a film about écriture féminine. It is a style of writing that may not appeal to many readers for reasons they may not realise or able to articulate. Cixous may be on the money in Le Rire de la Meduse (The Laugh of the Medusa) when she argues that the history of writing is founded on the exclusion of women and their expression. When women did write, they write in a manner as to be recognised and understood by patriarchal culture. And then enter écriture féminine and its subversion of the very grammar of writing. When women produce écriture féminine, they create

A world of searching, the elaboration of a knowledge, on the basis of a systematic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity (Cixous, 1976: 876)

It takes courage and self-belief to write words that overflow their typographic vessel with affect and hot bubbling desire. The écriture féminine of Violette Leduc is, to echo de Beauvoir’s foreword to Leduc’s La Bâtarde, “a world full of sound and fury, where love often bears the name of hate, where a passion for life burst forth in cries of despair”.

The reason why women are ridiculed and devalued for their hyper-personal writing is because they are perceived to lack critical acumen. Their writing is measured against the literary success of men. Indeed, I sometimes find autobiographical feminist writing unchallenging and intellectually lazy.

And yet Violette Leduc and the film about her literary career fascinate me on an intellectual level. Though I have wondered what and how Leduc would write if she had an intellectual background like Simone de Beauvoir. Would she write very differently and more self-consciously? Would she abandon writing of the body in favour of the mind? Would her writing be less about herself and acknowledge other women like her who had come before and those who will emerge in decades to come, in a different place?

Reference:

Cixous, Helene (1976) ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen), Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 875-893

Competing ideological struggles and LGBTQ identities in multicultural Malaysia

I have an article published in a special issue on LGBT identities and cultures in Southeast Asia in Südostasien, a journal published by Stiftung Asienhaus, on LGBTQ identities in Malaysia today. It has been translated into German from English. Below is the article in English:

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Malaysia stands slightly part from its neighbours in the Southeast Asian region because of its distinct ingredients of Islam, multiculturalism and modernity. It is perhaps because of the uneasy balancing act of these ingredients that it has maintained a fragile social fabric of toleration between different ethnic and religious groups. Rapid, albeit uneven, industrialisation and pro-Malay-Muslim policies since the 1980s have produced one of the economic success stories of Southeast Asia. Yet, the comforts of modernity have somehow allowed the nation to stay calm and carry on despite alarming rates of human rights abuse, deepening Islamisation and corruption in recent years.

Islam, multiculturalism and modernity have shaped the discourse of gender and sexuality in Malaysia. Being a predominantly Muslim country with colonial laws that prohibit same-sex relations and Islamic laws that criminalise “cross-dressing”, Malaysia is a hybrid modernity with socio-political restrictions and opportunities. The use of Islam as a tool to appease the alienation of the Malay community has been a foregrounding theme since the earliest days of the nation. Though it seems that nearly everything in the public and private spheres of Malaysia is tainted by this alienation and its attendant, the racialisation of politics.

Globalisation of gender and sexuality

The story of LGBTQ identities in Malaysia parallels that of many others across the region. It has embraced the internationalisation of sexual identities and the “global gay”(i) and shares a discursive trajectory that began with HIV awareness campaigns in the 1990s although these have tapered off in the last decade. Its small community of activists employ the language of rights and Western labels of self-identification. However, specific events in Malaysian modern history would give the story of LGBTQ identities its distinctive flavour.

A nebulous kind of homophobia and transphobia would emerge concurrently with the increasing awareness of global LGBT discourse in Malaysia. Since the 1990s, non-normative sexual identities become more visible in public discourse and associated with Westernisation. Sadly, this visibility had come with a price; indigenous non-normative practices and identities which thrived and were tolerated for decades (ii) were being viewed as deviant and sinful in Islam. Effeminate male traditional wedding organisers and bridal make-up artists, and court dancers who reside in ‘specialised homosexual villages’ (iii) have gradually disappeared since the 1980s. The lack of political will to protect vulnerable groups from violence and discrimination in Malaysia has caused many to go underground and silent.

Male homosexuality was thrust into the public consciousness in the late 1990s with the political dressing-down and imprisonment of the former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, for the crime of sodomy and corruption. Lurid descriptions of same-sex relations made front page news nearly every day during Anwar Ibrahim’s trial. It was a public tar and feathering that appeared to guarantee the end of his political career. The former deputy prime minister continues to battle for his freedom today.

By the 2000s, homosexuality and gay male identities were firmly established in the Malaysian public consciousness but the latter continued to be toxic. In 2010, Azwan Ismail, a Malay-Muslim man, received death threats after posting a Youtube video titled ‘I’m gay and I’m okay’. The repercussions following Azwan’s attempt to connect to a global queer mediascape demonstrated the limits of national boundaries. There has not been a high profile online campaign to promote acceptance of gay identities in Malaysia since.

The transgender communities in Malaysia have made important inroads by challenging the state sharia court’s ruling against ‘cross-dressing’ as unconstitutional in 2014. However, in 2015, their victory was short-lived as the federal court overturned the decision in favour of the sharia court in a larger campaign of the sharia court’s growing supremacy over the constitution that guarantees protection from gender-based discrimination.

Patriarchy and fundamentalism

A comment about patriarchy is important here, too. The oppression towards LGBTQ identities in Malaysia is a reflection of the deeply patriarchal society that is increasingly repressive towards Muslim women. The mark of patriarchy is felt even in the progressive spaces of LGBTQ activism; compared to the gay men and transwomen, transmen, the experiences and voices of queer and lesbian cis-gendered women (or women born female) against repression are rarely heard. This transwomen and gay male-dominated LGBTQ discourse in Malaysia may be attributed to the legacy of HIV awareness activism of the 1990s that was couched in more acceptable terms of public health management. By contrast, queer and lesbian cis-gendered women have had fewer opportunities at raising public consciousness for different interest groups.

As the country falls into a period of deeper discontent with its leadership, it sees the government employing strategies to demonise sexual and gender minorities to consolidate support from a conservative electorate. Bizarrely, the present Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, has condemned LGBTQ people as dangerous as the terrorist organisation Daesh. This has dangerous ramifications for a nation that has great difficulty in managing the diversity of cultures, beliefs, gender and sexuality.

When a visitor arrives in Malaysia, she may be mesmerised by the dizzying cornucopia of consumerist pleasures and hyper-modernity. An image of multicultural harmony invoked in our delight in food hides both the ideological imagination and reality of deteriorating standards of livelihood and wellbeing. As the country enters the new year with scandals ravaging the economy, politics, and the environment, the hope for women and other minorities in Malaysia remains particularly dim. The crackdown on Malaysian civil society and the pervading fear threaten to cripple and choke any effort to bring issues on LGBTQ into the public sphere.

Footnotes:

i Dennis Altman, Dennis. 1996. Rupture of continuity? The internationalization of gay identities. Social Text 1: 77-94.
ii Michael Peletz. 2009. Gender Pluralism: Southeast Asia Since Early Modern Times. New York and London: Routledge.
iii Peletz. 2009. Gender Pluralism, pg. 186-187.

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 column on the Malay Mail: The economics of virginity in patriarchal Malaysia

My column on the Malay Mail, The economics of virginity in patriarchal Malaysia, published 2nd February 2015:

Let’s forget that the hymen is central to the idea of (female) virginity.

Focus instead on virginity as a cultural and social form of control. When we do this, we will discover that virginity is only a construct rather than a “real” thing. Once we recognise that virginity is a man-made idea and serves the interests of straight male sexuality, we can expose its sinister purpose.

Read the rest here.

Is being called a prostitute misogynistic?

Upon arriving home from secondary school many years ago, I was slightly taken aback to find that someone had stuck ‘Slut’ on a post-it note on my backpack. I knew what the word meant and I was sure I was not that, thought my socially-awkward, pimply 15 year old self.

Years later in university, and still called a slut for making a Malay couple change seats in a computer lab (long story), I became determined to uncover the other meanings of this word and its similes.

This brings me to the outcry at the recent sexist attacks towards the female members of DAP: Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud, Young Syefura Othman and Jamila Rahim (Melati). In a meeting with the press, the three women objected to the attacks for attempting to ‘dishonour’ their womanhood (menjatuhkan martabat wanita).

When Dyana, Rara, and Melati were labelled ‘pelacur’ it was aimed to silence and shame them for their political beliefs. And this is not the first or last time. It is a strategy with multiple historical precedents that reminds women they do not belong in Malaysian politics. The reasons why women are under-represented as leaders in politics are laid bare yet again.

There is no male equivalent for ‘pelacur’ in both meaning and use. It is used against women and as a way to emasculate men. However, I take issue when ‘prostitute’ is cast as the ultimate symbol of feminine moral laxity and dishonour. Is being called ‘pelacur’, ‘sundal’ or ‘jalang’ really so bad? Does this mean being a prostitute, or to use the political term, sex worker, is the worst a woman can be?

If the very term ‘prostitute’ is inherently misogynistic, then it reinforces the mutually exclusive dichotomy of ‘good’ women/female sexuality versus ‘bad’ women/female sexuality. ‘Good’ female sexuality is pure and virginal while its corresponding ‘bad’ is slutty and free with her body. ‘Good’ women deserve protection and respect for their restraint while ‘bad’ women do not.

Who gets to say which woman is ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Nobody.

The thing about sexual stigmatising terms is that they can be both abusive and a source of resistance. It is abusive when the perpetrator uses it with the aim of shaming a person into submission. Sexual epithets of abuse is used when perpetrators lack the vocabulary and intellectual capacity to disagree or show displeasure, not because the words in and of themselves are abusive or taboo.

By contrast, women who want to reclaim female terms of abuse – prostitute, slut, slag, cunt , sundal, jalang – do so to neutralise their toxicity. Slutwalks that have now taken place around the globe aim to do just this; to show that sexual terms of abuse would have no effect on women when the patriarchal dichotomy of female sexuality is exposed for what it is.

Sex workers who are the ‘real’ prostitutes become the target of violence when they are emblematic of ‘bad’ female sexuality. Women who distance themselves from their sisters in the sex industry do no favours either, because all women are victims of misogyny and all can and will become targets of sexist abuse when they incite even the slightest displeasure.

So is being called a prostitute misogynistic? It depends on your intended meaning and effect. By right, prostitute and pelacur, along with sundal and jalang, should not be so toxic as they are now. They need to be reclaimed by all women who care about the integrity of their bodies and sexuality and those of others. Reclaiming stigmatising words is like intercepting ammunition and throwing them back, defused.

Scholarship on the scrap heap of an ailing higher education

First published in The Malay Mail on 29th January 2014.

As someone in the business of reading, writing, and reviewing academic articles, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Writing academic articles is not easy and it rarely gets any easier after years, even decades (so I’m told) in academia.

So when someone or a team of authors produces a poor paper, it is quite forgivable but not forgivable enough to be granted a publication in a decent journal or book.

Recently, a dear friend emailed me a copy of a journal article on whether LGBT identities were natural or an “ideology.” The article was written by two authors affiliated with a public university in Malaysia and published in a journal of biological science even though the methods for investigating the object of study have nothing to do with biology or the sciences.

Besides being riddled with many grammatical errors, the article is a weird composite of government propaganda, superficial theology, journalism, and a few scholarly citations. It cites the prime minister’s branding of LGBT communities as a “scourge” and state-sanctioned measures to “correct” these communities so that they become more hetero and normative.

Passages that allude to homoerotic activity from the Quran, the Bible, and the Torah are thrown in for good measure as if an authoritative definition of contemporary non-normative sexuality can be gleaned from them.

To find an answer to their research question, an interview with a “former LGBT practitioner” was conducted in which the informant was asked a variety of questions framed in a pathologising manner (Is your identity a disease? Do you have a “real” type of body? When did you start noticing these symptoms?).

Like a cipher, the informant responds in an obedient fashion, parroting anti-LGBT truisms long debunked by experts, activists, and LGBT communities.

The boogeymen of LGBT discourse—liberalism and human rights—are invoked and mutually reinforce each other in both the literature review and findings, making the study itself redundant.

What is there to investigate when the authors already know their answer before carrying out their qualitative research? What is the point of an objective “scientific” study when they have pre-judged categories like “menace” and “disease” for LGBT identities?

Every argument in this article will laughed out of town by the academic community committed to the field of Queer Theory and Gender Studies.

According to the authors of the article, “LGBT” is at once a “sexual orientation”, a “habit”, “abnormal instinct”, an “attitude”, and a product of the “ideology of free sex.” These contradictory claims seem to be plucked out from nowhere no thanks to a cavalier grasp of concepts.

This academic article is an alarming indicator of how awful Malaysian higher education can be on different levels; from the teaching of students, their research training, the supervision by members of the academic staff, the quality of written work that is passed off as “research”, to the ethos of the researching and teaching members of faculty.

How did such an article manage to be published in an academic journal, a vital currency in an academic career, at all? It would be too easy to assume that the authors are ignorant or lackeys of the government and religious authorities. We can start with the structural problems in Malaysian higher education. The abandonment of the humanities and social sciences in Malaysian universities is a major factor in the production of appalling research.

Poor funding, no thanks to the undervaluing of the humanities and social sciences, has driven away many talented researchers and teachers. Poor funding also means poorer resources for research. Subjects in the humanities and social sciences do not need laboratories and heavy equipment that are worth hundreds of thousands of ringgit.

But scholars of these fields do require generous funding for field research, conferences abroad, plenty of new books, and access to a variety of international journals subscribed by university libraries.

Without access to supervision and mentoring by scholars who have published in decent journals and access to many good books and journals, those with an intention to produce good research will be lost at sea with a broken compass. Structural limitations lead to low research output and ultimately, low academic standards.

However, not all in the humanities and social sciences in Malaysia are doomed. A few universities, some born as fraternity twins with another foreign university, have attracted research-active academics keen on reviving the humanities and social sciences, not least the study of gender and sexuality.

To cite Michel Foucault, there is power and desire in knowledge production. This makes academic knowledge production anywhere, not just in Malaysia, a less innocent enterprise than what many believe. Cloaked in scholarly language, pernicious ideas can gain an air of authority or worse, “truth.” This is why government propaganda masking as research is dangerous.

This does not mean that Queer Theory and Gender Studies are neutral in their approach to gender and sexuality either. They are products of a particular time, place, and people that later developed in a particular, if more globalised, direction. Most are Western in origin and derive from psychoanalysis, Western philosophy, and activist literature that require a reframing from a decolonising lens.

If Malaysian scholars wish to be recognised for their intellectual output in the study of gender and sexuality, they must participate in the existing dialogues, rather than abusing the modes of intellectual production in the service of repressive politics and state religion.

Higher education in Malaysia is treated like a commodity that can be bought and sacrificed at the altar of party politics. And like commodities that have no long-term intrinsic value, it is disposable and destined for the scrap heap once it has served a poorly conceived purpose.

Mapping gender in public toilets of the non-Western world

First published on The State Magazine on 10 July 2013

Toilets: we need them as we all pee and shit. It seems as if our most basic homeostatic functions exist outside of time and space, abiding by their own internal laws. This article, however, is about the laws that are external to the corporeal vessel: the social and cultural realities we live in that reinforce how we answer the call of nature. More specifically, it is about gender and the public toilet.

Toilets in our homes are almost always shared between women and men, girls and boys. Public toilets, on the other hand, are strictly segregated by gender. Call it the domestic politics of economic convenience; it would cost too much to have separate toilets in ordinary homes. In the public sphere—where we share toilet seats with other buttocks of unknown provenance—suddenly all sense of sharing (a toilet) with the opposite sex is lost.

Public toilets have not existed in their gendered form since time immemorial. They emerged alongside urbanisation, improved sanitation, and enforced privatisation of bodily functions in 19th century Europe. Since their inception, public toilets for women (introduced decades after the male-only facility) was subjected to fierce objection. Ideas of women relieving themselves in small ʻrest roomsʼ outside the confines of their homes (where they should be) was shocking and morally transgressive.1

Today, the architecture of public toilets imposes strict notions of gendered hygiene. Toilet bowls are usually white to make the smallest of impurities visible. The gap beneath cubicle doors allow for surveillance, both benign (is anybody in?) and gender policing (cis-womenʼs feet point outwards, and individuals with penises usually inwards). Within, women can chat with others present and spend time looking into mirrors, while men avoid eye contact with other men as much as possible. 2

Transgress the laws of the cis-sexist gender divisions signposted in binary atavistic symbols, and you could face violent repercussions. Trans* people and butch women have all faced the aggressive force of gender policing in public toilets. Homophobic attacks against gay men or men suspected as gay in public toilets are also rife. What is considered a ʻpublic convenienceʼ for all can turn out to be an oppressive menace to those who do not conform to mainstream gender and sexual identities. Public toilets are therefore sites of gender and sexual privilege.

The gendering of public toilets appears to be a largely Western obsession which is sometimes imposed on ideas about gender in non-Western contexts. In an early study on transgender identities in Indonesia, Tom Boellstorff begins with an anecdote about public toilets in Java that male-to-female transsexuals (waria) share with cis-men.3 Rather than being classed as a ʻthird genderʼ or a separate gender group, waria in Indonesia view themselves as men with womenʼs souls, or simply as women. Boellstorffʼs interest in public toilets and gender identity—that would be unsurprising to an Indonesian—underlines this Western obsession.

The flushing public toilet produces civilised binary-gendered subjectivities in non-Western cities. In the age of globalisation and transnationalisation of gender and sexual identities, fixed concepts of indigenous femininity or masculinity are called into question. We live in a media-saturated society where images of how we should be as women and men are trafficked across time and space, often without our consent. These are the visible representations of gender that we can turn away from and reject. But certain fundamental ideas about gender and bodily excretions—urine, faecal matter, menstrual blood, semen—in public toilets cannot be avoided and consigned to the realm of taboo.

Public toilets in India reveal the workings of gender and caste. In the stunning and thought-provoking documentary by Paromita Vohra, Q2P, the fast forward pace of urban development in India clashes with the stunted growth of basic human needs. Such a clash is also gendered: there are more spaces for men to pee and defecate than there are for women. In a much reviled law-defying custom, men pee in public because they can. It is unheard of for women to relieve themselves openly in public. The shortages of toilets for women in urban India is one of the many indicators of how unwelcoming the public sphere is for women.

The reason for such a numerical imbalance seems almost common sense: women need more space and time in public toilets. Women are believed to be cleaner than men, and to prefer a perpetually clean toilet. More pragmatically, because women sit down or squat as they pee, they simply take up much more room than men. Women are also temporally circumscribed: they are not to go out late at night or too early in the morning for safety and moral reasons. During the witching hour, men take over their space. The upkeep for toilets with such added luxuries while keeping them female-only can prove to be challenging for municipalities with limited means.

When there are public conveniences for women, the queue for available cubicles are longer and slower almost everywhere, not only in urban India. The flushing toilet is thus a privilege: large swaths of the Indian population do not have access to one. The opening of Starbucks in Indian cities was not only welcomed as a site of modern aspirational lifestyle, but also because it comes with a clean and functioning flushing toilet.4 Deep caste and class disparities intertwine with the public toilet in other more insalubrious ways. The lowest castes are historically assigned the role of manual toilet cleaners and scavengers of shit left behind by those of higher castes.

Perhaps minority views and tradition can offer equality in urinating practices and potentially unlock gendered spaces for bodily functions. In traditional Islamic texts, men who pee standing up are frowned upon. Instead, they should ease themselves in the same manner as their Muslim sisters. Feminist products such as ʻShe-peesʼ, a funnel-shaped device which facilitates discrete vertical urination liberate women and trans* folk from the humiliation of open-air squatting. Can peeing standing up or sitting down for both genders spell equality?

The humble flushing toilet has been touted by The British Medical Journal as the most important advancement in medicine since 1840. Besides saving millions of lives and putatively more, the toilet brings ʻdignity, privacy, safety [and] better living conditions.ʼ5 You will only miss the easily taken-for-granted toilet when itʼs not there. But how hung up are you about sharing (or not sharing) the public toilet with strangers of the opposite sex?

Public toilets add to the discourse that gender is a socio-cultural presentation for public consumption and policing. Some women will not leave home without applying make-up, while men generally do not. But at home, we tend to do as we please. What we can do at home is (mostly) private and (usually) outside the reach of public gender policing. Perhaps the unisex public toilet is the ultimate indicator of equality wherein gender is at once transgressed, undermined, and rendered obsolete. A future of unisex public toilets as a symbol of civilisation and sophistication has yet to arrive. In the meantime, the public toilet is a locus of transnationalism and globalisation, (re)producing gender and sexual identities as befits the ever-changing architecture of urban spaces and notions of civilised society.

Reference

1 Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (editors) (2009) Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, Temple University Press.
2 Sheila Cavanagh, (2011) Queering Bathrooms, University of Toronto Press.
3 Tom Boellstorff, (2004) ʻPlaying back the nation: waria, Indonesian transvestitesʼ, Cultural Anthropology, Vol 19, Issue 2.
4 Why Indiaʼs yuppies want Starbucks (itʼs not about the coffee), The Guardian, 30 October 2012
5 ToiletDay.org