Non-veiling and down-veiling narratives in Malaysia

nonveiling

 

Project statement in English

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

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

Kenyataan projek dalam Bahasa Kebangsaan

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

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

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

New column: Greetings from corporate academia

My new column in the Malay Mail online, published on 4th June 2015:

Private higher education in Malaysia has evolved into a new kind of species. Like a forest-dwelling creature adapting to its new habitat in denuded wastelands, private higher education has learned to transform its identity, priorities, and raison d’être in the surreal world of commercial academia. It might look like a mutant produced via the unholy union of commerce and education, but for many in Malaysia, it looks quite attractive. After all, a demand is met through supply (however overstretched, under-qualified, and overworked the latter is).

Read the rest here.

Academic style

Google ‘academic style’ and chances are you’ll get academic writing style and not academic sartorial style. How is a woman to know how to dress like an academic?

Deciding what to wear for work as an academic is supposed to be exciting. The academic identity exudes authority and expertise, and so it should seem obvious that sartorially, we should choose clothing that reflect, and whenever necessary, amplify those qualities.

But being a female academic is more complicated. Because as women, we are judged by how we look so much despite being in a job that trades on our intellectual faculties. It is so easy to make a misstep: we can be too dressy, too matronly, too frivolous, too decorative. Yes, we as women can be our own worst critic. I am also guilty for thinking that my female colleague looks like a Carmelite monk.

Pantsuits are quite unusual in academia. There is a deliberate emphasis on looking casual but smart. Chunky, exotic jewellery may be necessary for female anthropologists. Whatever female academics choose to wear at work, the balance between authority and approachability can be challenging to achieve. It’s mainly because the feminine image of authority is quite rare and lacking in diversity.

I turn to the British historian Lucy Worsley for inspiration. Her chic hairstyle and ever so smart dresses enhances my perception of her enthusiasm and expertise. She is the embodiment of the ‘nice work’ that academia is thought to represent. But hers is a style I can only aspire. After all, she wears bright and flattering coats and dresses because they’re good for television (well, she says so herself) and she is a self-professed lover of fashion. I can only dream to wear cute dresses and sexy shoes to work everyday.

The historian Lucy Worsley. I would like to think that academics can dress like this on a normal day at work.

The place where I work values modesty as an organising principle. There are signs to remind that the campus space is a morally conservative space. Bodies that pass through this space must conform to a regime that goes beyond sartorial control. If anything, the dress code is part of a bigger disciplinary programme to manufacture a certain type of citizen. The characteristics of the citizen in question is well rehearsed in the long-running lamentations about the multiple failures of the Malaysian educational system.

It is worth remembering that the university is not a hermetically-sealed bubble however much you may argue it is. Considering the campus’s relation to the wider cultural context and general attitude to style in Kuala Lumpur, we are not known to be particularly stylish people or a nation celebrated for its sophistication and style. My campus is not in London or Paris and it shows.

All this pondering and writing about ‘academic attire’ belies my rather diffident attitude about style. And here’s a confession: I have yet to update my wardrobe which currently consists of graduate student clothes and tatty blouses from my teenage years. I am hugely reluctant to shop and prefer spending my money on food and drink. My reluctance stems from a stubborn frugality and the flawed conviction that the mind is enough to create an impression.

Dear Reader, I will eventually make that leap into the mysterious world of clothes that befits the new academic once I have figured out the right kind of blouse, skirt, shirt, and trousers I am allowed to wear at work.

Mahasiswa – a universal identity or a Malay masculine one?

Mahasiswa, the people's spokesman [via The Nutgraph/Fahmi Reza]
Mahasiswa, the people’s spokesman [via The Nutgraph/Fahmi Reza]
The figure of the mahasiswa or male university student is in the news again, demanding the liberation of Malaysian academia from draconian government intervention. There is also a ‘rising star’ of student activism: 23 year old Fahmi Zainol, a young Malay man of utopian political and intellectual ambition.

As the president of University of Malaya’s student union, Fahmi is the official representative of the university’s student body. But how representative he and his vision are is more questionable.

From the top down, Malaysian public universities are Malay male cultural domains. Student unions are over-represented by Malays and are by sheer default led by Malay (or bumiputera) men despite the fact that Malay female students often outnumber the men on campus.

Citing his solidarity with ‘our brothers in Hong Kong’ (even though women and girls participate in the democracy protests), Fahmi speaks unconsciously in a language informed by patriarchal cultures and spaces within Malaysia that are compelled by visions of a ‘brotherhood’ of peace or justice, whether Malay, Muslim or both.

The problem lies with the predominant usage of ‘mahasiswa’ itself in student activist campaigns (Like Kuasa Mahasiswa or Student Power), usually without the need to include mahasiswi with the implicit understanding that mahasiswa refers to both male and female university students. Like ‘mankind’ and even ‘human’, such an implicit assumption of purported inclusion makes the exclusion of women convenient.

The general historical trend of student politics and societies in Malaysian universities has been characterised by segregation along gender, ethnic, state, and religious lines. However, there have been occasions in which students overcame segregation for a common political cause. The female and non-Malay faces of the UKM4 is one such example but they are relatively rare by comparison.

The Sri Kandi societies in Malaysian public universities are bastions of Malay female students and their political, if mostly auxiliary, organising on campus. And yet, ‘mahasiswi’ is either classed as secondary to the primary identity of mahasiswa or sidelined altogether in the present discourse on student activism.

The marginalisation of female university students or mahasiswi could really mean a few things; that the default figure of student leadership is male and Malay and that female presence within the walls of academia is undervalued (an understatement many would contend). The over-representation of mahasiswi by their sheer numbers on Malaysian campus does little to dismantle the male stranglehold of academic culture and its future.

Reasons behind the failure of mahasiswi to be at the forefront of student activism right now may lie in the way protest and civil disobedience are regarded as politically and morally transgressive in Malaysia. But what is more likely is that protests are masculine spheres of action. They are ritualised as brute physical mobilisation, agitation, and direct collision with the state. At times, protests co-opt militaristic and imperialistic nomenclature, such as ‘occupy’ to make transgressions and law-breaking more respectable.

Mass protests are sites of sexual violence in order to render women and girls especially vulnerable to a kind of humiliation and fear that men are supposedly immune to. Risks of sexual violence, trauma, and shame alone can alienate female protestors from taking a leading and confrontational role in mass protests.

There are multiple disciplinary regimes – legal, religious, and culture ones – that hem in young Malaysian women from attaining their full potential. These disciplinary regimes are also at work within the physical compounds and imaginary of the Malaysian campus. Student activism in Malaysia is disinterested in gender and sexual politics unlike the feminism on US and British universities that tackle sexual violence.

The normative structure of student politics in Malaysia that mimics the status quo of Malaysian politics is left untouched despite the present uprisings. So many things need to be disrupted, resisted, and dismantled within the supposedly precious space of academia to get to the root of the problem – hegemonic Malay Muslim male authority.

The finishing line

Of course I’ve always known that I’ll get to the finishing line sooner or later. But the actual experience of being so near it, half-running/crawling towards it, and overwhelmed by feelings of euphoria and total disbelief, exceeds the capacity of words and description. I submit my PhD thesis on the 27th of June 2014.

I have micro-managed my way towards the finishing line. Like a marathon runner who has organised the provision of snacks and drinks in strategic places, I wanted to ensure that the submission process is as stress-free as possible. I stayed productive all throughout the PhD, (almost) meeting deadlines for my supervisors’ perusal and kept writing and rewriting, punctuated by me rewarding myself with solitary meals and booze.

I accepted the pain that I chose to inflict upon myself but I made sure that stress brought about by de-motivation and procrastination were kept to a minimum. Looking back, I am impressed, incredulous, and grateful that I have made it this far.

The finishing line is nigh and I am wordlessly overjoyed.

A Malaysian scholar remembers Stuart Hall

First published in my Malay Mail column on 27th February 2014:

A great intellectual died on February 10, 2014. His name was Stuart Hall, dubbed the “godfather of multiculturalism.”

As the tributes by academics made up of peers and admirers alike came flooding in, I thought about the impact of Hall’s work concerning identity and culture on Malaysians.

I believe that some of us, as postcolonial subjects like he was, too can claim to be moved by his ideas and share his vision. But it is his contribution to Cultural Studies as a discipline that has most influenced me as a scholar.

Earlier this year, I bought a ticket to attend a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham in June with the hope to meet him.

I did not know that it would become a memorial for Stuart Hall. Hall, who was an erstwhile director of the Centre, championed the much celebrated (and mocked) “Cultural Studies.”

The political influence and notoriety of the CCCS meant that those of us who wanted to study film, television, magazines, and “trashier” aspects of popular culture often sought sanctuary behind the Centre’s authority. A similar kind of debate about intellectual legitimacy is reignited in academia today in its defence of the Humanities.

What makes Stuart Hall so special and unique? It would not be an understatement to suggest that a great intellectual is chiefly a product of circumstances. A Rhodes scholar at Merton College in Oxford University when the empire was crumbling, Hall knew, as a Jamaican, he did not fit comfortably in the staid and exclusionary protocols of Oxford. His work on identities and culture were as much a searing ideological critique of racism as an attempt at making sense of his status as an outsider trying to fit in.

The 1960s was an exciting time for critical theory and its influence on popular culture. Picking up from where the Frankfurt School had left off, the study of mass media was gaining respectability through its associations with semiotic-based structuralism and psychoanalysis.

At the same time, it was a period of total disillusionment with Soviet communism. The British New Left, to which Hall belonged as a key figure, needed a new focus and vision.

The counter-cultural 1960s was a wellspring of possibilities, both political and cultural, and it was obvious that Hall and his cohorts wasted no time. Rather than remain in critical theory, which was (and is) pessimistic in outlook on why revolutions have failed, Cultural Studies in its departure was committed to social change, offering a more positive programme and tools for successful rebellion.

As a scholar whose research keeps Hall’s memory alive, I find his prose electric. Electric in that its forthright style is a stunning example of both intellectual non-conformism and resistance.

And it is defiance of the established intellectual order that would be his greatest gift of inspiration to generations of scholars dedicated to Cultural Studies.

Resistance to hegemonic ideologies about the myth of the nation and national culture was something Hall wanted people to wake up to and participate in. However, it was the very resistance and postmodernism, particularly the latter’s characteristic demolition of hierarchies between high and low culture that Cultural Studies relied on, that contributed to the depoliticisation of Cultural Studies, much to Hall’s dismay.

Today, anyone can select willy-nilly a particular media text, examine it long enough to unlock their own hidden meanings of resistance and say they are doing Cultural Studies. The meaning of resistance can be decoded into anything and in danger of meaning nothing at all.

While this might have upset Hall to some degree, this is the legacy of openness and unpredictability of Cultural Studies as a discipline that we should welcome during these troubled times in academia.

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.