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.


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

My interview with film director Nia Dinata

Nia Dinata is one of Indonesia’s most important film-makers. Known for tackling subject matters such as abortion, polygamy, and sexualities in a profoundly refreshing way, the films of teh Nia have received worldwide acclaim outside the geographically parochial national film industry of Indonesia. I had the valuable opportunity to ask teh Nia about her views on gender in Indonesian cinema and the current trend of religiously themed films. This interview is one of my many interviews with members of Indonesia’s film community, its producers, directors, critics, and scholars.

The formidable film director and producer Nia Dinata. Source: The New York Times.

Length of interview: 24 minutes
Location: Kalyana Shira Films, South Jakarta, February 2012.

Alicia Izharuddin: Do you think there’s been a change in representations of women in Indonesian film?

Nia Dinata: Little change. Not as significant as people expected just because there are more women behind the scene does not mean it translates immediately to just portrayals of women on the screen. I don’t think it happens directly. But I see little changes here and there. It’s not as significant as the number of women who are now behind the cameras and behind film-making. I think we still need to work on that.

AI: What are we looking for? What kind of images of women that are not being shown enough in film right now?

ND: I feel that it’s still very rare for women to be heroes, as the major protagonist in a film. Not Or other minority characters, not just women – gay men, lesbian women. Mostly the heroes are still men. The kind of portrayal of women if they are female heroes like the films I watched last year, they are mostly women who are religious. If they are heroes, they should be religious. Have you done that research?

AI: Yes, I am doing that research.

ND: Most of the heroines have to be healthy, very religious, very conservative in their choice of lifestyles. So there’s still not enough room for women who are not religious. Or religious but they do not want to show it, they think religion is a private matter.

AI: So they don’t wear the jilbab.

ND: Yes. Women who are less ‘white’. Maybe a bit ‘grey’. Because we have a lot of films where we have the hero or heroine who have ‘grey’ characters – not black or white.

AI: Grey, as in ambiguous?

ND: Yes, ambiguous. I think it’s very rare to have that kind of characters. Ambiguous characters. I think Indonesian people are afraid of ambiguity. They are still afraid to admit that actually human beings can be a saint and evil. We are complex.

AI: But is that one of the problems with film-maker is that they’re too scared that audiences cannot accept complex characters.

ND: I don’t think it’s a matter of fear. It’s more a matter of ignorance. They didn’t even realise that ambiguity exists, that there are different gender portrayals or characteristics. Because there are not many women film makers who are also aware of gender issues.

AI: You’ve been known to make films about women that have been discussed before, like abortion, polygamy. What do you think is your approach to portraying men and masculinities?

ND: Oh I don’t know what my approach is. I’m not an expert in masculinity! If you like this world is already very masculine. The earth, I believe, is very feminine in the beginning. But in time, it became more masculine. Maybe there’s no relation to film at all. But in general, femininity is still considered a threat, a weakness. I have no approach to portraying masculinity.

AI: Because one of the films you produced, Quickie Express, was used in my class to study masculinities. The reason why I found it interesting is because …

ND: They’re not masculine at all.

AI: Even though they’re not masculine, they try to be. But in their efforts to be masculine, it becomes comedic. What is also interesting in the film is that you find many examples where you find the male sexuality is humiliated, being undone. Did you have to anything to say there about men in that film?

ND: Actually, the film was a parody. I love doing satire. And the film was a satire of society. And the reason why it’s so successful in terms of box office [sales] is because the public was mistaken. The film was mistaken for a very masculine film. People who have power and decide what films to watch are generally men – the masculine force. Of course it’s fun for me to see that actually they’re being put into this strategy and they eat it all up. And most of them still find it fun to watch. A small group [of male audiences] find it the opposite. Even the Om Rudi character who is very masculine and turn out to be gay. It’s an expression of while we can make films, we might as well use it to express our beliefs.

AI: Unfortunately the film was never really rigorously analysed. But when I watched it, I thought, so many things that could be unpacked. In your opinion, do you think it is possible for male film-makers to make representations of women that are very meaningful?

ND: I do. But we’re lacking is consciousness, mindfullness. Especially when we’re making films. Most of the male film-makers I believe they’re capable of making films about women in a very inspiring light, not necessarily positive. However, when they do it, they do it unconsciously. And when they don’t do it, they [also] do it unconsciously. We’re not brought up to do critical thinking of trying to analyse, criticise the society, and the imbalanced portrayals of men and women in the media. Unless it’s people like you or me who’ve taken classes on gender, women’s psychology or stuff like that in college. Most people are not trained especially in Asia to see with critical eyes about those things. I believe that male film-makers are not also not trained in those things. And when I point out, ‘oh I like that portrayal of women in this film or several others’. But I believe a man did that portrayals unconsciously, but not without real intention but because the story flow very well, it looks very artistic, the characters, not the women look stronger but not with mindfullness that it is important [to portray women in a meaningful way].

Film poster for Berbagi Suami (Love for Share, 2006) directed by Nia Dinata

AI: When I ask that question, I keep thinking about Perempuan berkalung sorban as an example of a male film-maker who is trying to say so many things about a woman’s experiences in a difficult and conservative environment. I just wondered why more women were not involved in a project like that?

ND: I cannot stand watching Perempuan berkalung sorban because there’s a lot of pretentiousness in it so I don’t know.

AI: Did you think it was too preachy?

ND: Yes, too preachy and that’s why I thought it was pretentious.

AI: Another thing I was wondering, back to women behind the camera. Why do you think there are not as many women behind the scenes? There is definitely a rise in the number of women producers. But the one who is calling the shots, the director, women in that role are still so few. Is there are reason why?

ND: It’s generally like all over the world right?

AI: Yes, of course. But is there a specific reason here in Indonesia? Because I’m comparing Malaysia. In Malaysia, we don’t have many women film-makers. We don’t have a very big population, but that’s not a good enough reason. But I wondered if there’s about the culture in film industry that is probably macho, not just male-dominated. Does it make more difficult for women in any way?

ND: I don’t think so. The environment is making it difficult but it has to come from the woman herself. Because I think this kind of progress that we’ve been through, the environment is very friendly at least the one that I’ve been through to both women and men. I think it has to come from the women herself to have the need and longing to call the shots. Because if they don’t try it they don’t know how exciting and invigorating for anybody to be able to visualise their thoughts.

AI: Do you think it’s something to do with power and leadership, and maybe women are not as willing to take up that role?

ND: Yes, I think it has something to do leadership, and something to do with the belief that women are better at organising and managing so they become very good producers. Which is true. So most people, they end up falling into that belief and decide for themselves, ‘I want to be a producer, instead of I want to be a director.’

AI: My last question; pertaining to films that feature a lot of Islamic elements in them. In the last few years, there have been a number of films about Islam and Muslim people. It was like a trend, however, they were not many women were who responsible for these films. Is there a reason maybe that Islam as a topic that may be too sensitive for women film-makers to take up?

ND: But for me, it’s all about trends. It’s all about big waves in Indonesia that have been for the past 4,5 years. It’s very trendy to even wear the jilbab, to be a born-again Muslim, to belong to a certain group of pengajian, another form of arisan. All my friends, say ‘Let’s join this pengjian. The ustaz is very nice. Let’s meet once or twice a week’. For them, it makes them happy because it is very trendy. It is trendy to launch your fashion, and after fashion it is movie and music. Which is why men love to do something based on their brain, not their heart. Their brain says Islam will make a lot of profit. But if you look deeper, the men are not even Muslims. So it’s just making a commodity out of Islam.

AI: But there are also a number of film-makers who get questioned about their qualifications to make films like that. Hanung Bramantyo gets questioned a lot about the kind representations of Islam and Muslims in his films, because they are more you could say ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’. He is questioned about how good a Muslim he is, his actors are for example. To me, I find it interesting because the personal side of the film-maker is also being put in the spot.

ND: Well, it depends. When Hanung made Tanda Tanya, he has every right to make it because he has questions about Islam [in Indonesia] himself. Somebody whose name I don’t want to mention, who are Catholics who make religious films I don’t think it is fair. Because for me, it is fair for business. But content-wise, it is not. Everybody can make any film for the sake of business but I won’t watch that film because I get to choose what I want to watch. But it depends, if somebody makes a film that has questions about religion criticising religion, that’s fine, anybody can make. Anybody in their stage in life will have questions like that. It would be nice to have those questions up on the big screen. But if you’re making films that are very, very conservative, very black and white, without any critical thinking at all in your film where you are not even a Muslim. It’s kind of strange to me. It’s like putting business as your religion. I think people who are criticising film-makers who make films about religion are very shallow people because anybody can question about their religion, or question the existence of God.

AI: In Malaysia, we’re very conservative and we can’t just make films that question Islam. But in Indonesia, I also notice that those who are conservative share that same view.

ND: But that’s the risk of being a film-maker. If you want to tackle those issues you have to be prepared. But the difference between Malaysia and Indonesia is that you can actually do anything in Indonesia, it’s just a matter of whether you’re ready to be criticiesd or not. But in Malaysia, even when you have the intention it doesn’t mean you can materialise that intention.

AI: [Laughs] Yes, it’s tragic like that.

ND: Move to Indonesia to make films. [Laughs]

AI: [Laughs] OK, I think that’s all we have for today. Thank you, Teh Nia.

On skodeng visual culture

Marshall McLuhan perhaps never foresaw how the global village would one day become like a Malay village where a person’s code of morality was carefully circumscribed and their private life is everybody’s business. One aspect of the online Malay village is the exchange of saliva-inducing moral tut-tutting and cruel assassination of character between internet users via the ‘skodeng’ video. These are videos of people in intimate situations uploaded online by voyeuristic moral vigilantes. The details of many of the videos are in Malay and are searing with judgmental commentary. Many are tagged with the now notorious word ‘skodeng’ or spying. The videos, made in the idiom of amateur/gonzo salaciousness, are captured using mobile phones or digital cameras.

‘Skodeng’ is the byword for the contemporary state of Malay sexual morality. It is not simply a Malay person’s expression of prurience, sexual frustration, and the need to punish others, but a product of state-sponsored moral policing that entices the volunteering public into positions of ancillary power. Members of the public have always been a part of the controlling of bodies, erotics, and movement within its imagined communities. The more commonly applied methods of moral policing come in the form of raids by religious officers who act on tip-offs from members of the public. And moral vigilantes officialised under the auspices of federal and state religious authorities – like Badan Amal Makruf Nahimunkar (disbanded in 2005), the Putrajaya Islamic Council Volunteer Squad, and RELA – have been never low in supply.

On Valentine’s Day in 2011, the Malaysian state of Selangor’s religious department rounded up 80 Muslim individuals for committing khalwat in an operation called ‘Ops Valentine’. The nine-hour operation, which began at 8pm, was a two phase event involving visits to the recreational and public parks around Selangor and raids in budget hotels. Sexual relations outside of wedlock is considered a sharia offence for Muslims under the Section 23(3) of the Sharia Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act 1997. Along with the case of Ops Valentine, state governments and religious authorities have been known to assign the role of moral enforcers to less official citizen volunteers termed ‘mat skodeng’ (male spies/peeping toms).

Moral policing has been described as a political tool to shore up the moral vote, but it has become a social tool with far-reaching consequences. By enlisting vigilantes to assist in the moral policing, religious authorities may have inadvertently unleashed a phenomenon in which members of the Muslim public take it upon themselves to expose furtive activities of other people to humiliate and possibly, blackmail. Instead of reporting to religious authorities, however, skodeng voyeurs resort to another kind of vigilante ‘justice’: video evidence and the threat of shame.

The moral high ground also comes with a privileged view of the moralising gaze. According to the feminist activist and web media expert, Jac SM Kee, one’s legitimacy or moral ‘right’ to see (and judge) coincides with their their privileged social and religious position in society. Malay people are institutionally privileged and a version of their faith Islam is often used by the state as a stick to beat people with. When religion is used as a state tool to intimidate, those with a righteous streak have a convenient source of legitimacy that the aura of Malay privilege and state Islam provide.

The ability to look with dehumanising intent is a position of power; the male gaze determines the mainstream ways of eroticised looking, the touristic gaze looks on from a position of seclusion from the reaches of the exotic Other, the white gaze reduces the non-white into insignificance. Once legitimised by being the on the ‘right’ side of morality, one feels emboldened and justified to look and judge. But the moralising gaze gains much of its power from seeing without being seen. Once the tables are turned against them in which they are exposed and subjected to scrutiny, they lose their power and pleasure.

There’s no mistaking that the skodeng video exists as part and parcel of our sex-tape, nip-slip, invasive papparazzi-style image-saturated society in which forbiddenness, desiribility, and erotic legitimacy are mediated through audio-visual material. Skodeng videos are part of a visual culture where the boundaries between the public and private are tantalisingly thin. One major cost of media voyeurism is the devaluation of privacy and the privileging of spectatorship over interaction that renders the viewer passive but hungry for more.

It may not be a stretch to suggest that mediated voyeurism, with regards to the production and viewing of skodeng videos, is not an isolated expression of social deviance and state intervention, but rather exists in a constellation of the more banal world of reality television and its close cousins: curated television programmes of home or amateur videos of embarrassing or extraordinary circumstances such as police car chases or animals performing improbable acts caught on tape, all of which are sadly available on Malaysian television.

We cannot discount how high profile moral policing has created a culture of surveillance in Malaysia in which an unseen eye ensures that we are at our best behaviour. To briefly invoke Foucault: those who are observed (or think they are observed) and controlled by an unseen eye will end up observing themselves and disciplining their every move. The fear of the law, fines, CCTV, nosy neighbours, and now personal video devices are part of this culture of surveillance.

Somehow acts of observation and control have shifted from the self to being exerted over others in this culture of surveillance. One also wonders whether concerns about the lack of integrity that the police and other guardians of social order have in Malaysian society means that we resort to privatised methods of securing personal safety and order. And in the case of securing moral order, the lack of trust in authorities distorted by a warped sense of righteousness means that ordinary individuals can reinstate a veneer of morality in their own twisted way.

The author wants to thank Jac SM Kee for her contribution to the writing of this post and journal article. This post is a condensed, truncated, and deliberately florid version of a journal article in progress. Please refrain from citing this piece without my permission.

On the viability of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ as categories in Malaysia

The first thing that would be useful when thinking about genders and sexualities in Malaysia is that the categories of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are far from native and natural in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. What is meant by ‘native’ and ‘natural’ refers to the fact that gender and sexuality are relatively recent loanwords. And as loanwords, they have a history and serve particular functions. Does the fact that ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are loanwords from the English language and emerge from a Western medical, sociological and philosophical tradition mean that their meaning in the Malaysian context is foreign and out of place?

When ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ and their different linguistic incarnations reflective of the country’s multilingual fabric appear at all, they are sporadic, infrequent, and usually enmeshed in the discourse of academia, feminism, and human rights. ‘Gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are words and currency of those privileged by education and class background. Having rigorous knowledge and interest in gender and queer theory is often the preserve of liberal, queer, activist and/or intellectuals. So there is a spectrum rather than a discrete know/don’t know in the level of knowledge and use of the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia.

The entry of new terms into a language and the development of those terms are governed by multiple factors beyond the will of one individual. Although the viability of terms in a language will require the consensus of collective acceptance and use, the fate of the terms’s cultural connotations are harder to predict. We can have the words ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in public usage, but how would people react to these terms? What are the assumptions, misconceptions, prejudices, and the kind of curiosities these words invite? But above all, why does an interrogation into the genealogies of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia matter at all? The answer to these questions has huge political implications with regard to the state of queer and feminist activism in Malaysia. Because language matters.

The banning of the LGBT rights festival, Seksualiti Merdeka, in 2011 precipitated the circulation of false descriptions and connotations of the festival in the Malaysian media as a ‘free sex’ event. With ‘merdeka’ to mean ‘independence’ or ‘liberation’ but with ‘seksualiti’ not gaining much linguistic traction in Malay, the very name of the festival became subject to misunderstanding. However, machinations leading to such a misunderstanding was far from innocent.

News reports and opinion editorials about transgender, gay, and lesbian individuals in Malaysia in the local mainstream media activate and reproduce transphobic and homophobic sentiments in a moralising tenor. Outside the manipulation of emotive issues and moral panics that serve partisan politics lies a broken linguistic and cultural landscape that seems, at first sight, inhospitable to the development of a local gender and sexuality discourse.

First and foremost, let us consider the westernness of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’. In the present situation, the words ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are already in usage and in circulation in Malaysia. There’s not much we can do about that. Of course words do become obsolete and ‘die out’, but I’m not convinced that the terms used in one of the most influential discourses in recent times will become obsolete anytime soon. In opposition to Francis Fukuyama’s eurocentric assertions of the ‘end of history’, our history of gender and sexuality in Malaysia is only beginning to be told.

In their current usage, we have to pick up and analyse the perceived and ‘real’ cultural connotations of the terms, i.e. as concepts, they are ‘western’. Of course this accusation is true, as concepts ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ emerge out of western philosophy (which was once upon a time, an amalgamation of medicine, politics, mathematics, among other pre-specialised disciplines).

Even the discourse of biological sex did not begin with the oppositional or complimentary notion of sexual dichotomy. In Greek philosophy (and throughout much of western thought), women were considered lesser men or simply ‘incomplete’ as people. For instance, morphologically, the naming of women’s sexual anatomy (vagina, or the invagination of the women’s ‘penis’) was once part and parcel of the discourse that justified women’s inferiority. It would take hundreds of years for feminist theory to pick up on misogynist philosophical texts of a bygone era to develop what we can recognise today as gender theory. There are certainly differences in female and male anatomy, but the way they are talked about have changed during the course of history.

But what of the idea of ‘concepts’ themselves? The methods in the development of an idea are perhaps western in origin, too. Concepts are frameworks for systematic thinking and analysis. They are the vessels in which discourse reside, but they are permeable to other elements – the cultural and historical. Take for instance the differences we see in women and men; how people talk about women and men, and why they dress the way they do. In systematic thinking and analysis, what groups women and men together in how we describe them is gender. How we systematically think and analyse the erotics and legal history of desire is conveniently described through the concept of ‘sexuality’.

Remember, the term ‘gender’ or ‘sexuality’ had not come into popular existence until the last century. This means that gender is a cultural and historical construction as much as it a social construct. Gender is also an analytical construction in that we now have a framework to understand how femininity and masculinity exist as ‘effects’ of political and religious culture. More recently, people have begun to talk about how even sexuality is constructed. The idea and discourses pertaining to homosexuality had only come into existence in the late nineteenth century. Before, what is considered same-sex practices did not have a name. Now, not only does the term ‘homosexuality’ exist, but so does the identity and personhood of the ‘homosexual’.

Accused as more western than ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are perhaps ‘homosexuality’, gay, and lesbian identities. Again, the westernness of gay and lesbian identities cannot be disputed as the origins of the discourse of homosexuality did emerge from the medical annals of European doctors and the reclamation of the discourse by gay communities did take place in the west. More belatedly, heterosexuality is now understood as a construct.

To ignore for a moment those who are still obsessed with the Kipling-esque binaries of east and west, globalisation is now the order of the day and changed how we think about world geopolitics. Globalisation of media and the internet assisted in the travel of ideas and concepts. Among them are the concept and connotations of gay and lesbian identities that were adopted by communities in their quest for belonging, identification, and legitimacy. Those with access to knowledge about gay and lesbian culture are those with class and educational privilege. The greater the privilege, the more savvy one becomes with the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’.

In a way, Malaysian public discourse picks up the terms gender and sexuality halfway in the narrative history of gender and queer theory, when the discourses regarding the two have developed in highly sophisticated ways in the west. By comparison, our own versions of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ remain remotely peripheral to the ways gender and sexuality are discussed in the west and neighboring Southeast Asian countries. As discourses, our ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are non-existent. Only until we develop our own discursive ‘centre’ of gender and sexuality can we begin to talk about decentering western ones.

Currently, we rely on the anthropological data of mainly western academics to piece together a puzzle that is the history of gender and sexuality in Malaysia. But will using the frameworks of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ to look into the past when such ideas may have been non-existent risks being anachronistic? A reflexive historian never forgets that we can only look through the prism of the present and construct a historical narrative using the modern conveniences of theories that help us ‘see’ gender and sexuality of the past.

Thanks to the accommodating nature of the Malay language in its absorption of foreign words, we have the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in the national Malay language dictionary. But surely this is not enough. Behind the definitions of terms lies a lack of depth. We are beset by a number of factors exacerbating the isolation and negative connotations of the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia. First, they are not used enough in the mass media and everyday parlance. Second, there is not enough interest in the studying of gender and sexuality. Third, our academic culture is stifled by rigid institutional barriers against ‘controversial’ and ‘liberal’ topics like gender and sexuality.

As concepts or theories, ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ needn’t be western if we can develop our own concepts and theories for even the notion of concepts and theories can be de-westernised. And with the critical mass of talk, writing, and visualising to develop a local discourse, the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ can be reclaimed from the clutches of negative connotations to become viable, positive, and culturally robust. In the mass of inconsequential commentary, there are gems to be had. During the age of globalisation where nation and local cultures are safeguarded from the ‘outside’, locality and indigenous concepts have greater legitimacy to withstand critique from within.

Sang Penari: the female body as a sexualised site of masculine struggle

At the time of writing, I was experiencing the warmth of critical acclaim bestowed on an Indonesian film that had just finished its all-too-brief exhibition at cinemas in Jakarta. The film, Sang Penari (The Dancer), is described by film critics as the apogee of Indonesian cinema 20111. Arguably the “best film” of last year, and further evidenced by its winning the award for Best Film at the Jakarta Film Festival. Based on the novel ‘Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk’ by Ahmad Tohari once banned under Suharto’s authoritarian regime2, it tells the story of the struggle between tradition, modernity, political struggle, and how it takes place on the female body, both literally and metaphorically.

Set in an isolated agrarian village in 1963, only a few years before the militarist coup led by Suharto against communism in Indonesia in 1965, the film begins with a scene of lustful village men enthralled by the ronggeng dancer and a young girl, Srintil, who is destined to take the dancer’s place. When Srintil’s father is accused of poisoning members of the villege, including the ronggeng dancer – all of whom have eaten his tempe bongrek – both Srintil’s mother and himself take their own lives by eating their poisoned product to prove their innocence.

To recover the honour of her family’s name, Srintil decides to take on the role of the ronggeng dancer herself much to the dismay of her childhood sweetheart, Rasus. Unbeknowst to Srintil however is the ronggeng’s other social role of providing sexual services to the men of the village. Realising that Srintil’s sexuality now belongs to every men and not his alone, Rasus leaves the village to become a member of the army where he is trained to participate in the crackdown of communist activity in villages, of which Dukuh Paruk will eventually play host to with fatal consequences. Although the villagers of Dukuh Paruk are mobilised to take their own collective destiny into their hands by defying a feudalistic system that contributed to their impoverished state, expressed through the melding of agrarian-centric communist ideals and the ronggeng dancer’s mystical power to bless their revolutionary efforts, their agency is proven futile and eventually diminished in a massacre.

The superstitious beliefs that the villagers invest in the power of the ronggeng, though much to the physical expense of Srintil, underscore their ‘backward’ worldview and imminent failure in the face of encroaching modernity, as symbolised by organised military and media technology such as the radio, a tool to usher in the red revolution. More heartfelt and frustrating, however, is the use of the central figure – the dancer, her body and sexuality – as the battleground of ideals and struggle pursued and fought out to various degrees of force by the men in the film. Rasus is the figure torn between nation-building and the grip of tradition symbolised by his love for Srintil. The communist activist and mobiliser Bakar is the agent of change and conflict. The dalang of the roenggeng, who legitimises Srintil’s sacred/profane role is also complicit, alongside Bakar, in the downfall of Dukuh Paruk. Throughout the masculinised machinations that determine the village’s fate, Srintil is given little agency and is thrust into one violent tribulation to another while clinging to the desire to dance the ronggeng.

Similar to other films depicting prominent female characters situated in the throes of nation-scale upheavals such as Nia Dinata’s Cau Bau Kan (The Courtesan, 2002), the fictional women are often at the mercy of the men who oppress them through the use of sexual violence. Indirectly, they are at the mercy of the state. But somehow at the same time, they are held up as (suffering) symbols of the nation. In nationalistic discourse, the nation is usually portrayed as femininie, the state masculine. The iconography of the motherland has often been constructed as either a nurturing mother or sensuous female servant3 In Indonesian nationalist discourse meanwhile, the nation, at times regarded as ibu pertiwi (the motherland) is framed as an anguished and suffering female beauty4. But I would further argue that the feminised iconograpby of the motherland requires the guardianship from invading (male) forces. The nation as feminine is passive and helpless. ‘She’ is subject to the threat of masculinised violation. The idea of the nation violated by colonial/imperialist presence is translated in literature and indeed on screen into a central female figure, whose subjugation to unwelcome (male) violation is always a sexual one.

With Sang Penari, we witness a return of the suffering feminine body as site of cultural/national struggle. And now garlanded with accolades and acclaim, we witness something of a nostalgia for cultural/national struggle that takes place on a woman’s body. The film suffers from little protest and criticism of the misogyny central to the narrative because it privileges other aspects; the film’s artistry and the recovery of a repressed literary voice, while marginalising the major strides female film-makers and feminist critics are making in redressing the male-dominance of Indonesian film-making and discourse. The unproblematic sensibility that Sang Penari receives from audiences and critics alike is perhaps reflective of its time; a time when some semblance of feminism has made a mark in Indonesian public discourse, and with it a sensibility that gender equality has at least been established since.



1I n personal conversation with film critic and scholar Tito Imanda.

2 The novel ‘tie-in’, Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, enjoyed a prominent place in the best-seller’s corner in bookshops in Jakarta towards the end of 2011, re-emerging in print after decades of censorship.

3 ‘Virgin territories and motherlands: colonial and nationalist representations of Africa and Ireland’ by C.L. Innes (1994), Feminist Review No. 47, pp. 3-4.

4′ When the earth is female, and the nation is mother; Gender, the armed forces, and nationalism in Indonesia’, by Saraswati Sunindyo (1998), Feminist Review No. 58, pp.1-21.