Two steps forward, one step back: On Dalam Botol, Malaysia’s first ‘gay’ film

Written for the LSE equality and diversity blog

For a country keen on displaying its hyper-modernity, Malaysian law and social attitudes on sexual morality in general have always had a conservative bent. While there are pockets of change, much of the public discourse on sex and morality are dominated by sexist and homophobic language. A blanket government control on discussion and representations of sexuality in the media regularly results in sensationalism, misinformation, and the deepening of greater confusion about sexual and gender diversity. This confusion is reflected in the new film by Raja Azmi Raja Sulaiman, Dalam Botol (In a bottle). While the film signals a small but momentous phase in the country’s censorship laws on the depiction of homosexual characters in the media, the film itself stands as an intriguing cinematic object of fascination and curiosity as it secured 1 million ringgit ($330,000) at Malaysian cinemas.

Dalam Botol tells the story of a man who undergoes a sex reassignment surgery to please his male lover, stores his severed penis in the eponymous bottle, only to be rejected by his lover. Dejected, the transsexual man/woman returns to his village and falls for a woman. Although based on the experiences of the producer’s friend who regretted having a sex-reassignment procedure, the film has been pointed out as misleading by Malaysian LGBT activists as it conflates gay with transgender identities.

While Raja Azmi claims to tell a love story with a cautionary twist, its narrative is not easily separated from how alternative sexualities and genders are perceived in Malaysia where gay men are sometimes confused for trans women who need to undergo sex reassignment surgery to become female, while both transgender women and gay men are sometimes subsumed under the category ‘effeminate’ men. Furthermore, Raja Azmi’s insistence that the film’s moral subtext should function as a deterrent against sex reassignment surgery serves only to reinforce the assumption that transgender and homosexual identities are not only temporary but a deplorable state of affairs to be rejected.

To be fair to Malaysia’s cultural genealogy of genders and sexualities, the conception of gay identities did not come into public currency until the 1980s. Even then, the term closest to the Western understanding of the word ‘gay’ is pondan, a derogatory word used for effeminate men or transwomen. The term ‘homosexual’ has different connotations in different cultural and economic contexts. But with the expansion of the ‘global gay’ emanating from the ‘Anglophone’ world reaching the industrialised capitals of the developing world, Malaysia included, we find localised conceptions of the ‘global gay’ in hybridised gay identities. Malaysian gay identities are savvy consumers of Western LGBT media and have close ties with human rights organisations, but they are also concentrated in the urban centres of the country. How the LGBT community in Malaysia perceive Raja Azmi’s film is very much a product of this global cultural exchange and local politics.

The conflict in conceptions of transgender and homosexual identities exist between Malaysian LGBT groups and the cinematic vision of producer and scriptwriter Raja Azmi may arise from linguistic and class differences. Many middle-class Malaysian gay and lesbians adopt the epistemological separation of gender and biological sex developed by Western sociologists and sexologists and understand their work in English, while most working class Malaysians do not have access to knowing much gender theory.

The fact that media attention on alternative genders and sexualities in recent Malaysian films have only come to the fore in recent years with films like Dalam Botol, 2 Alam (Two Worlds), Bukak Api (Open Fire), Pecah Lobang (Broken Hole), and numerous Malay television dramas with transgender characters demonstrates a new but limited awareness about non-normative gender and sexuality. Lesbian characters in films such as Rozana Cinta ’87 (Rozana Love) did not court great controversy in 1987. It was only during the public humiliation of the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 when the country’s dominant discourse on homosexuality was re-established with a politically homophobic turn and pushed gay identities in the spotlight. Last December, Awzan Ismail, an openly gay Malay Muslim man received death threats after posting a Youtube video for a gay youth acceptance campaign ‘It Gets Better’.

The level of negative attention targeted at Awzan Ismail was significantly disproportionate compared to the videos posted by his fellow gay and lesbian Chinese Malaysians. The hostility and misinformation on sexual and gender minorities in Malaysia appear to boil down to much of the attitudes and social and religio-political hegemony of the majority Malay Muslims.

Historically, Malaysia’s social fabric has been shaped by racial politics under the paternalistic thumb of largely Malay Muslim politicians. While the country is on the surface a peaceful multi-ethnic nation, underneath the veneer lie racial tensions arising from the constitutionally-sanctioned superiority of the Malays and indigenous groups, termed the bumiputera, which make sensitive issues such as race, sexuality, and religion a minefield for those who challenge the conservative status quo.

Small social transformations are constantly afoot in Malaysia and the country’s increasingly politicised youth appear to set the wheels of change into motion. Independent films by Malaysian film makers engage more positively with LGBT issues than films that grab national headlines like Dalam Botol. It will, however, still take time when a critical mass for change is reached in the country’s seats of power to witness a greater level of social acceptance of trans and gay people in Malaysia.

An excerpt from my dissertation on ‘traditional’ same-sex eroticisms in Indonesian fiction – Part 2

First in the series of excerpts from my MA dissertation I looked at the tolerant attitudes toward homoerotic relations in Indonesian religious boarding schools as depicted in the novel Mairil. Below I explore the way the Indonesian tradition of the gemblak and warok relationship is framed in a novel by Enang Rokajat Asura. Unlike Mairil, however, homoerotic relationships in Gemblak are portrayed as problematic and in tension with the demands of “modern” codes of sexual norms:


One of the most enduring figures in Indonesian non-normative sexual traditions is the warok-gemblak relationship. The warok is part master of ceremonies and leader of the reyog, a theatrical performance unique to the rural East Javanese province of Ponorogo, and part power broker (Wilson 1999 – web article). Intimate same-sex relationships between men were condoned and accepted as normal for unmarried men in Ponorogo up until recently, while extra-marital heterosexual relationships were seen as morally and spiritually corrupting. According to one warok, “association with women will cause brittle bones, a soft stomach and a loss of spiritual strength,” adding “that’s why I’ve grown to be a man who harbours a hatred of women (ibid). The basis of the warok’s homoerotic relations with his gemblak lies in the polluting nature of heterosexual intercourse with women. The warok forfeits sexual relations with the opposite sex to preserve his spiritual power. As believed in the Tantrayana Buddhist tradition from which warok/gemblak practices originate, sperm is considered a central source of power which can be converted into a higher level of consciousness. Thus, it serves as an ascetic ritual that promotes sexual abstinence and transforms erotic desire into spiritual attainment. In place of a wife or female partner the warok has a gemblak, or a young boy who acts as companion and intimate partner, as well as jatilan dancer in his reyog troupe (ibid).

The gemblak is normally chosen for his poise and physical appearance, characterised typically as androgynous and light in facial complexion which is sometimes enhanced with face powder (Wilson 1999: web article). A beautiful gemblak is a matter of immense pride for the warok whom he would dress in the finest of clothes. Youth is a determining factor to becoming a gemblak as well, as the gemblak is usually between the ages of eight and sixteen years. During performances, the gemblak is sometimes known to dress in feminine attire, such as the kebaya blouse, a wrap-around skirt (jarik batik), and a scarf (sampur or selendang; Kartomi 1976: 87). In selecting a gemblak, the warok would send a delegation to the home of the boy’s parents to “propose” (lamar), similar in ritualised speech used in traditional heterosexual weddings. For the boy’s “hand”, his parents would be paid in the form of livestock, one for each year of the boy’s time as the warok‘s gemblak (Wilson 1999: web article).

During one’s time as gemblak, he is supplied with food, clothing, and even formal education, thus such an arrangement poses economic benefits for many poor villagers in addition to attaining considerable social prestige and protection of the warok. Mirroring the heteronormative set-up at home, the gemblakperforms the domestic chores for the waroksuch as washing and cooking, besides being his constant companion. Being a gemblakis accepted as a certain stage in one’s path to manhood for many young boys, and go on to stay with their warok until their late teens. The warok played an active role in choosing the gemblak‘s wife and in many cases performed the religious rites at the wedding. On marriage, the gemblak‘s attractiveness to men is said to diminish (ibid). It is worthwhile to note that it may be imprecise to classify the warok-gemblak relationship as homosexual, as being a warok is part of a profession that involves sexual asceticism, and does not necessarily denote a selfhood organised around sexual desire (Boellstorff 2005:45).

Published in 2008, Gemblak: Tragedi Cinta Budak Homoseks (Gemblak: The Tragic Love of a Homosexual Slave) tells the story of Sapto Linggo, a young man who escapes the reyog to marry his sweetheart. As a gemblak, Sapto was barred from forming intimate relationships with women and other men. The warok, Hardo Wiseso, is respected by villagers as a wealthy benefactor of young boys who become his gemblak but is greatly feared for his spiritual powers and the use of his whip (usus-usus), which no one dares challenge. By eloping, Sapto turns his back on a tradition he feels immoral and un-Islamic. His wife, Lastri, however, is the warok’s daughter and their union is wrought with guilt and doubt about its legitimacy. Without the blessing of Lastri’s father, their marriage is feared by Sapto to be susceptible to doom. Upon learning the news of his younger brother, Prapto’s proposal to become his former warok’s gemblak. Sapto returns to his village and his desire to end the warok-gemblak practice is ignited. Like Sapto, Prapto is very handsome and is poised, like his older brother, to become the warok’s favourite gemblak.

The efforts of Sapto to end an “abominable” tradition (perbuatan terkutuk) of the warok-gemblak relationship is framed as a heroic feat. Prapto is eventually rescued but this elicits the anger of the warok who assaults the physically fragile Sapto with his whip. But Sapto’s beating is interrupted by the presence of his friend, the shaman Legong Kamplok, who challenges Hardo Wiseso in a keris1 fight. Hardo Wiseso is killed during the struggle and Sapto’s mission is ostensibly accomplished. However, all does not end happily for Sapto and his wife when their first child is born with congenital defects. The baby, Toeggoel, has an oversized head with bulging eyes, suspected to have polio, has “black” skin, and is covered in hair (tubuh anaknya dipenuhi bulu yang lebat). Sapto is convinced that the birth of such an unusual child is somehow connected to his past as a gemblak, eloping with his employer’s daughter, and getting married without a wali2, which goes on to implicitly suggest that the child may be illegitimate. The novel ends on a sombre note: several years later, Sapto gains employment as a teacher, and is a farmer on the side to make ends meet. He has also written a novel based on the life of his child, Toenggoel. However, his earnings are not enough to fund Toenggoel’s medical treatment and he is barred from inheriting Hardo Wiseso’s wealth. His struggles to end the warok-gemblak tradition had come with a heavy price. The “dark” days of his past as a gemblak are “imprinted” on his son’s physical disabilities; they form a reminder of a tradition that will not cease to cause the suffering of many young men. In the end, Sapto descends into deep depression and is haunted by the menacing voices of his warokfrom beyond the grave.


Sapto’s tale is told against the transformation of a sleepy rural life into a village marked with different tell-tale signs of modernity. Homes previously made from bamboo are replaced with concrete walls. Villagers begin to have access to television, many have satellite dishes planted on their rooftops. Before, there were no means of personal transportation, now the villagers own cars and pick-up lorries. These transformations are a welcoming sight for Sapto. The changes sweeping Sapto’s village appear to reflect his opinions with regard to traditional practices of the reyog and other homoerotic traditions. Religious concerns about homosexuality surface following Sapto’s exposure to Islamic reading material and discussions with those he deems more knowledgeable:

Sebahagian pengetahuan tentang agama yang diperolehinya dari hasil membaca dan diskusi dengan orang yang lebih pinter tentang itu, menjadikan Sapto semakin gelisah. Persekutuan antara lelaki dengan lelaki menurut pemahaman agamanya adalah perbuatan sia-sia dan dibenci Tuhan. (p. 39)

(My translation):

Being informed about religion obtained from reading and discussions with those more learned in religious matters caused Sapto to worry. Intimacy between men according to his faith is frivolous and an abomination.

Without the access to higher education, books, and like-minded people, Sapto would not have known about the modern society at large that disapproves of same-sex relations. For him, young men and their parents should not have to submit to the demands of the warok given the financial opportunity. Villagers have long been tied to the reyog tradition because of the economic returns and protection the warok provides. But the arrival of modernity to the village should bring new ambitions and opportunities that were previously denied to them and the impetus for breaking with oppressive traditions. In time, new values will replace old ones, and homoerotic traditions may eventually become extinct. But the future is an ambivalent place, muses Sapto, as traditions can survive by adapting different ways to cling to the present and even hybridise into new forms:

[…] tiba-tiba saja Sapto ingin jadi tua, memutar cepat jarun hidupnya agar bisa mengetahui apakah kebiasaan itu akan terus berlanjut atau akan dengan sendirinya mati seiring perkembangan rasionalisasi dari pelakunya. Sapto seperti ingin hidup dalam sepuluh tahun ke depan, agar bisa memastikan tanggapan orang pada tradisi penggemblakan itu. Sapto pernah membaca artikel, bahwa sebenarnya pikiran-pikiran ortodok, primitif tidak semuanya mati dan terkubur masa tapi kini hadir dalam modifikasi zaman. Ia pun jadi khawatir perlakuan gemblak itu akan menemukan tempat yang baru dalam sebuah modifikasi, maka semakin panjanglah penderitaan itu. (pp. 35-36)

(My translation):

Suddenly Sapto wishes to become older, and to turn the clock forward to learn if the (reyog) tradition will last or will perish on its own as its practitioners become more rational. Sapto wishes to live ten years in the future to discover society’s attitudes towards the gemblak tradition. Sapto had once read an article which said that not all orthodox and primitive ideas die and become forgotten but continue to survive through modifications to suit the times. He fears the gemblak tradition will serve a new purpose by adapting contemporary norms, thereby prolonging the gemblak’s suffering.

Sapto’s anxieties exhibit a markedly melancholic portrait of manhood. The challenges of modernity have cast a grim shadow on traditional dimensions of masculinity and male (hetero)sexuality. Melancholy manhood is born when a loss or crisis of old conceptions of manhood has taken place but has not been accompanied with the adequate psychosocial and hermeneutic readjustment necessary for its resolution (Butler 1995:27-28). In the case of Sapto, an awareness of “modern” homosexuality raises a crisis of masculinity and his sense of self that are deeply intertwined with “traditional” male homoeroticism. As he leaves tradition he is thrust into unfamiliar psychosocial territory where a new form of masculinity must somehow be constructed, a form of masculinity that is perceived to be under threat by male homosexuality. His uniquely masculine anxiety with regard to homosexuality in Indonesia as an element of modernisation embodies the political homophobia pervading the country in recent years (Boellstorff 2004:480). Coded as masculine, political homophobia is enacted on non-normative male sexualities as a reaction to the socio-political uncertainties that are imagined to threaten the “manhood” of the nation (ibid:481-482).

In contemporary Indonesia, as in much of Southeast Asia, many variants of transgendering and same-sex relations have been redefined as contaminating rather than sacred mediators and as a result subjected to processes of secularisation and stigmatisation. The condemnation of non-normative gender and sexual behaviour reflects the changing moral standards brought about by the perceived demands of modernisation (modernisasi) and development (pembangunan) (Peletz 2009:216). The official opinion held by the local government with regard to the warok-gemblak relationship is that it is immoral and in conflict with the ‘national personality’ (kepribadian bangsa), mainly because it is viewed as nothing more than “socialised homosexuality” and thus a risk to the social order (Wibowo 1996:3). These views are echoed by modern reformist groups such as Muhammadiyah and prominent kyai from the well-known pesantren Pondok Modern Darussalam who have pressured the Ponorogo local government to suppress the reyog tradition to accommodate their brand of religious ideals (Wilson 1999: web article). Today, the reyog is a dying art due to the influence of state run education systems that dissuade young boys from participating, and the emphasis on the construction of the heterosexual nuclear family as the foundation of the nation (ibid).

Despite these developments, queer Indonesians (mainly men) find tradition a space to establish a sense of belonging and footing in culture and history (Boellstorff 2004:470). References to tradition are often accompanied with invocations of the past, both real and imagined. In her work on the traditional cross-dressing practices of the bissu in Southern Sulawesi, Sharyn Graham Davies highlights the ways present day bissu evoke a more tolerant past in which their cultural forebears played key roles in royal courts and guarding the sacred regalia (Davies 2010:76-84). Recounting the past acts as an empowering strategy through which the bissu confirm not merely their existence in society but also allows them to stake a claim in national history, a discourse of belonging. It is important, however, to note that not all gay Indonesians find any meaningful connection with traditional homosexual practices, past or present. Instead of legitimating their sexualities through history, some homosexual Indonesians claim belonging and authenticity by the performance of good deeds (prestasi) in the present (Boellstorff 2005:35). Others may be more interested in distancing themselves from what are considered old-fashioned ideas of homosexuality, particularly those that refer to cross-gendering as a characteristic. For instance, men who identify themselves as gay will sometimes vehemently distinguish themselves from banci or waria (terms that, besides signifying transgender identities, also describe effeminate men, and, occasionally, masculine women) (Oetomo 1996:260-261). Those who do turn to tradition can vicariously enjoy the legitimacy certain same-sex practices can sometimes bring, particularly when such traditions, as in the case of homosexuality in the pesantren, are tied with Islam and respectability.

But such claims for authenticity are not without problems. While compelling, they are anthropologically problematic as it often refashions Western, twentieth century identity categories such as “homosexual” into local discourse in anachronistic ways, rendering such claims analytically and factually dubious (Stychin 2004:958). The pitfalls of seeking an authentic gay utopian past looms large, as “’traditional culture’ is increasingly recognised to be more an invention constructed for contemporary purposes than a stable heritage handed on from the past” (Hanson 1989:899). Recuperating “traditional” homoeroticisms risks the Western romanticism of a tolerant and accepting non-Western society, masking the reality of persecution, discrimination, and violence that may have occurred in the past and continue to do so on a daily basis for many sexual minorities today. Not only does conventional understanding of tradition posits a false dichotomy between tradition and modernity as fixed and mutually exclusive states, but it also reproduces the conception that the West is the source of liberated gay and lesbian identities while traditional (often read as non-Western) remains in the clutches of backwardness (Grewal and Kaplan 2001:665).

Tradition, however, is not a static body of practices and beliefs passed down from one generation to another. Rather, it is an on-going interpretation of the past that reflects contemporary concerns. As Jocelyn Linnekin asserts, “the selection of what constitutes tradition is always made in the present; the content of the past is modified and redefined according to a modern significance” (1983:241). Only certain elements of the past are selected in the creation of tradition. These chosen elements can be situated in different contexts where they gain new meanings for those involved in the process (Handler and Linnekin 1984:280). In response, one can argue that historical accuracy is not particularly the point, because as a political rhetoric it commands the rewriting and re-imagination of a nation’s history in more inclusive terms. And from a Foucauldian standpoint, such discourses can be mobilised into a political reality.


1A traditional dagger

2A male witness at an Islamic wedding ceremony, usually the bride’s father.

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Forbidden Love: Indonesian LGBT book covers

The following are just a few of the many books I will have to plough through this summer.

Cinta Terlarang – Sebuah Novel Untuk Dewasa (Forbidden Love – A Novel For Adults) by Andre Aciman. Synopsis (translated from Indonesian by yours truly):

Elio, a young Italian man, has fallen head over heals for Oliver, his American guest over the summer. Disturbed by his “unnatural” feelings for Oliver, Elio tries hard to ignore them. Despite having extraordinary good looks, being popular with ladies and a great conversationalist on the topic of books, Elio prefers being a bit of a loner. Unbelievably, however, Oliver reciprocates but soon returns home to marry a woman. Betrayed, Elio cuts all ties with his summer fling but deep within his heart, his love for Oliver isn’t that easy to extinguish. He spends year after year trying to convince himself that their love wans’t just a summer fling.

“Cinta Itu Tidak Dosa”- Sketsa Perjalanan Cinta Terlarang, Kumpulan Puisi (“Love Is Not a Sin” – Sketches of Forbidden Love, A Collection of Poems) by Y.F.Nata

Perempuan Semusim – Kisah Nyata Metamorfosa Lesbian ke Heteroseksual (A Woman for a Season – The True Story of a Metamorphosis from Lesbian to a Heterosexual Woman) by Amitri Dinar Sari.

Mairil – Sepenggal Kisah Biru di Pesentren (Mairil – An X-rated Story in a Islamic School) by Syarifuddin

Gemblak – Tragedi Cinta Budak Homoseks (Gemblak – The Tragic Love of a Homosexual Slave) by Enang Rok Ajat Asura.

Beri Aku Dunia – Banci Juga Manusia (Give Me a World – Transsexuals Are Also People) by Andy Stevenio

‘Cinta Terlarang’ is certainly a theme here. Now we have Cinta terlarang, Cinta Terindah – Sebuah Novel (Forbidden Love, The Most Beautiful Love – A Novel) by L. Benako Aksara.

A bumpy road, just like Malaysian sexual politics: A review of Body 2 Body – A Malaysian Queer Anthology

Body 2 body (2009) is the product of Malaysia’s young, hip and well-connected who’ve banded together to compile a collection of short stories and essays on living la vida non-normative. Edited by local art scene stalwarts Jerome Kugan and Pang Khee Teik, Body 2 Body is a landmark of sorts, mainly as the first anthology of local LGBT writing and as tangible evidence of Malaysia emerging out of the dark ages. Unfortunately, eclipsing this Book-of-Records significance is the violently uneven standard of writing. At times reasonably good (Brian Gomez and Shahnon Shah’s) but jaw-droppingly appalling in others (Abirami Durai and Jerome Kugan’s).

To begin with, Brian Gomez’s ‘What do gay people eat?’ is a cracking tale of parental ignorance transformed into heart-warming acceptance. Gomez brings to life his central characters, a pair of middle-aged Indian parents who are about to welcome their son and his boyfriend to home-cooked food for the first time. Agonising about what gay people eat (hint: not traditional Indian food as initially presumed), the dad soon learns that yes, gay people are just like everybody else and are not transported en masse from “the West”. At many turns funny and true to life, Gomez sets a fine example of a well-executed short story, something sadly not followed by others in Body 2 Body.

Don’t let a short story fool you into thinking it’s literary child’s play. The first rule in writing one, however, is simple: a good short story should not betray it’s primary descriptor: “short” (a memo Joyce did not read when he wrote The Dead). And because it is constrained by brevity, a good short story should also effectively evoke a moment in time and not a saga stretched out in six pages.

Overall, all the entries in this anthology do not have a problem with being short and sweet. The quality of story-telling in a few contributions, however, leaves plenty to be desired. Jerome Kugan’s ‘Alvin’ about an on-and-off relationship between two hard-partying men is more like a poorly edited film with arty pretensions than an engagingly-written story. The couple, Alvin and Jay, share some relationship highs like tender conversations after sex, and lows like lack of commitment, and soon drift apart without proper goodbyes as moody anti-romantics do. To end his postmodern romance, Kugan’s epilogue for Alvin and Jay reads like a kinky French-Spanish film played on fast-forward:

A year later, Alvin and Jay are a couple, sharing an apartment in Mont Kiara. After a few months of lousy sex, they decide to have an open relationship. Jay meets Gochi, 26yo hottie originally from Singapore but working in KL to be closer to his mature Japanese expat boyfriend. Jay has sex with Gochi and offers threesome [sic] with Alvin. Alvin protests at first but after threesome [sic], confesses that he has fallen in love with Gochi. Jay is devastated, think it’s his fault, goes to Frangipani to get drunk. While drunk, he meets 40yo Hansen and 28yo Maria, a bisexual couple from London. Jay has sex with Maria while Hansen watches and masturbates. Later, Hansen fucks Jay while Maria sucks his cock. Jay is moaning as he is fucked, thinking of Alvin.


Abirami Durai’s ‘Have you seen my son?’ shows great promise of being about trans-acceptance but is impeded by a flimsy sequence of improbable events and cliches: Alex is returning home from studying abroad and as friends and family do, they welcome the return of the prodigal son with bated breath at the airport. But it’s Anna who returns, not Alex. The shock and surprise of a transgender homecoming is severely offset by Anna’s entire family and friends not recognising her at all save for our narrator, Anna’s best friend. The two return to Anna’s home separately after her familyandfriends shuffle quietly back into the cardboard cut-out where they come from. There, we see Anna packing her old stuff to leave the family home for good because being literally invisible to her parents is much too unpleasant. As old friends do, the narrator and Anna reminisce about old flames until the dad suddenly walks in and asks Anna about Alex’s whereabouts. This leads to Durai’s ambiguous message on pseudo trans-accceptance; Anna’s dad is still clueless (or in denial or just visually impaired?) that she’s really his son, but compliments on how pretty she looks instead. At least he thinks she’s pretty! That’s gotta be good, right? Right?

Perhaps quirkiness verging on the surreal is a new and uniquely Malaysian writing style that I’ve yet to come to grips with. And maybe the schlock of the new will eventually herald substance and maturity. A bumpy road of a read made up of an uneven mix of good and substandard writing may one day smoothen out by work that are published not because they were the only ones lying around the editors’ desk. Body 2 body is nonetheless a praiseworthy effort in putting non-normative genders and sexualities on the local literary map, but the schoolteacher critic in me cannot refrain from saying, “Can do better!”.

Muslim feminists have too much to worry about already to think about homophobia

Once a week I meet with people studying gender in the Middle East and we talk about the assigned articles we’ve read during the week. Last week, it was about sexuality and homophobia. Emerging from our discussion on homosexuality rights in the Middle East (particularly in Lebanon and Palestine) is the question why many Muslim feminists have failed to include sexuality rights on their agenda. Not one, but two people answered by saying that Muslim feminists have too many issues on their hands to fight for gay rights, which suggests that homosexuality rights is not really an Islamic feminist issue and that more pressing injustices – FGM, polygamy, personal status laws governed by the Sharia court – Muslim women’s issues essentially, should always take precedence.

There was for a moment a mental jawdrop, but then I realised that this state of affairs isn’t surprising at all; feminism has always been about picking and choosing issues that mattered most to its members who have experienced those issues first hand. White feminists are never really going to care about Black feminists, and perhaps mostly because it’s nearly impossible to place oneself in another’s shoes and understand what it’s like to endure life as a Black woman.

In the case of Muslim feminism, to say that all its members are straight, cis and able women is a bit of a stretch, but this certainly is reflected in their movement – that Muslim feminism is for straight, cis and able Muslim women. Compared to the widespread violence implicated on gay men in Iraq, female homosexuality in the Middle East in general is relatively sheltered from persecution. This is perhaps due to the practice of gender segregation in public and private spaces, restrictions on the movement of women and girls, and the fact that female sexuality and desire are very often devalued. And according to Iman al-Ghafari:

Erotic relations among women are devalued as a temporary substitute for the love of men, and are considered of no real threat to the dominant heterosexual system as long as they remain undercover, or in the closet.

The two huge obstacles to pursuing gay rights activism within the Islamic feminism framework are perhaps the apparent prohibition of same-sex relations in Islam and the deeply homophobic attitude that prevails many Muslim communities. With only the story of the prophet Lut (AS) and the morally corrupt citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah that is hyper-reduced to a story of sodomites (but not their other sins and the dubious doings of Lut (AS) himself) as legally/socially-binding final word on homosexuality, self-identified gay Muslims have very little to defend themselves with from the systematic condemnation often reserved for criminals.

What is being attacked in homophobic societies here are not actually the identities “gay”, “lesbian”, or “homosexual” the way we understand them but really the ‘feminisation’ of men and the ‘masculinisation’ of women. Notions of masculinity/femininity and sexual identities in the Middle East are not commensurable with those constituted within Eurocentric psychological/ psychiatric/ feminist jargon. To be a man and have sex with another man, as long as he stays ‘on top’, does not necessarily make him gay. In fact, in some Muslim communities, to be the penetrator in whatever form of sexual relations often equates with a kind of hypermasculinity. Those who do identify themselves as “gay” however gain the validation of their identities through the internet, media, and social circles. Arguably, most who do call themselves gay belong to the middle class.

It should matter a great deal to Muslim feminists to take on board other ‘non-traditional’ issues like sexuality, not to mention transgender and disability. These non-traditional issues can benefit greatly from the activism work and academic rigour that Muslim feminism is particularly strong at. Perhaps then Muslim feminism is not only about Muslim women; which is not a bad thing, but an ever-broadening movement that rises to the challenge whenever oppression and Islam intersect.

The hidden penis: on censorship, the female gaze and the queer eye

Memory can sometimes be a strange beast. While thinking about this piece, I suddenly remembered an article that Cath Elliot wrote on the Bad Sex in Literature award two years ago under the title, Flaccid prose and the first comment the article provoked:

flaccid is an unnecessary man-hating word to use in the title. I’m all for feminism, but not man-hating.

It struck me as odd why anyone, the commenter in particular, whom I assume to be a man, would find the word – just the word – offensive. For me, describing the unerotic depiction of literary sex, written mostly by men, as “flaccid” is an example of Elliot employing the English language at both her creative and acid best. But oozing from the depths of a corrupt imagination, the word “flaccid” is a probably used as an accusation of something else, something accused as man-hating and deeply un-feminist. Somehow a flaccid penis = an inactive, disappointing, poor-performing male-associated sexuality. Did the commenter think the word implied those things, too?

I’ve been thinking for some time about the neglect of the penis as an object of visual pleasure, and the censorship that deems the male genitalia as “overtly sexual”. My thoughts come from the frustration with the hypersexualisation of women’s breasts in the media, whatever shape and size they might be, as acceptable and even harmless. Representations of the penis, especially when erect however, have been treated with more sensitivity, perhaps more nervously, and have an aura of taboo. Though I have to admit it’s not fair to equate the erotic symbolisms invested within the representation of women’s breasts with the penis and say ‘heck, yeah’ to equal opportunity objectification, I think it’s more important to explore examples in film and media that prefer to maintain the double standard in the treatment of sexualised and dehumanised anatomies.

There are clearly double standards in the practice of objectification of bodies. Female nudity – full frontal or partial – has long been a tool to beautify and sex-up commodities, homes and gardens, film narratives, calendars, book covers, just about everything that it has become banal. The banalisation of women’s naked bodies makes the images of naked breasts on British TV after 9 pm no big deal, because female breasts are not considered pornographic. Erect penises, however, are. The censored video of Girls’ ‘Lust for Life’ on the American MTV channel is a case in point. The original video, termed the “hardcore XXX gay porn” version, depicts the singer singing into another man’s penis and naked women frolicking about. In the edited, “clean” version, the offending penis went out while the breasts stayed.

Could the heterosexual male’s fear of being aroused by the sight of an erect penis be an issue here? Because surely, erect penises have hardly made a mark in the cinematic world dominated by male moguls and directors. Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane was apparently ground-breaking in the controversial sense when it became the first film to show an erect penis in a love scene. But to pass with an 18 certificate by the BBFC in 1976, Jarman altered the aspect ratio of the bottom half of the film to shrink the offending appendage to its erm, flaccid(?) state for the censors’ viewing. Things have changed little now, but the film nonetheless enjoys an uncensored version on British TV today, an artistically-rendered display of homoerotic affection on film, and 2 seconds worth of historical hullabaloo.

Chippendales in Las Vegas (source: Wikipedia)

The two examples above have been material made by and for gay men. Images made for a heterosexual audience however have often been stereotypically cheeky and comical (think Chippendales and The Full Monty) and not necessarily masturbation material. With that in mind, it’s interesting to note the similarities in the ways the male nude is represented for the straight female gaze – tanned, muscular, and exceedingly fit – with those usually made for the gay men’s gaze.

The nervous uncovering of men’s bodies for viewing pleasure has a lot to do with the psychoanalytic and consuming power of the gaze: when men expose their bodies (read: penis), their masculinity is put under intense scrutiny. Just as many women are insecure about their bodies, men are too. The insecurity that men feel about the size/shape of their penises and their sexual performance are perennial issues as old as the hills, but it has found its way to self-censorship in public discourse and the media unlike the insecurities many women have felt about their bodies in general – women’s insecurities attached to their notions of femininity and bodies have been exploited mercilessly.

An example of female exploitation reinforced by the hidden male sexuality/penis is particularly evident in Dennis O’Rourke’s ‘The Good Woman of Bangkok‘, a cinematic sex diary of a man’s sexual adventures with Thai sex workers. Although O’Rourke readily admits to the camera to being a client of one the sex workers, images of himself having sex with the sex workers are deliberately self-censored, keeping his sexuality and performance a secret. Here in the most exploitative of situations the power of the gaze is linked with the hidden penis; to watch is to exploit, being watched is to be exploited.

The penis is considered the “proof” of masculinity. But beyond that, across different cultures, it is valued as a symbol of mythic power and even seen as sacred. Exposing it for everyone to see, women and gay men alike, the penis risks devaluation not just of itself, but a man’s very notion of masculinity. It takes a man with a fragile identity to view himself this way of course, but it doesn’t help that we live in a homophobic society and in one that limits female arousal to six-packs and tight asses. So what now you ask? More naked men’s penises to empower the female gaze, and to deconstruct heterosexual masculinities and the meaning of the erect penis? I’m not exactly sure, but by pointing out the hidden-ness of the penis in our increasingly pornified media and popular culture is one way to start.

Review: He Likes Guys

My review of the gay short film collection, He Likes Guys, is now out on Feminist Review:

As a member of my college cinema club, I would show a film a couple of nights every month. Usually, the featured movie would be preceded by a surprise short film—nothing too long, but always something entertaining. Recently, I showed Laundromat (2007, 13 mins) by Edward Gunawan from a collection of acclaimed gay short films, He Likes Guys, to my unsuspecting audience. Little did I know that the DVD’s menu page featuring a buff torso would draw a variety of gasps—some amused, some more ambivalent, and even a rather repulsed, “Whaaat?!”

Fortunately, Laundromat promised nothing loaded with hackneyed gay stereotypes. In this smile-inducing drama, newly-cohabiting couple Lawrence and Joey bicker over their differences when doing the laundry. Their squabble later gets the attention of an elderly man who teaches them a small but profound lesson in the value of love, life and relationships. So far, so Zen-like.

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