It had to happen sooner or later. With Barbie and now Hannah Montana merchandise dominating the tween to early teenage market in Malaysia, products for young Muslim women in hijab are starting to appear, particularly on the bookshelves. And they look very pink.
There are also whiffs of collusion with the Disney conglomerate’s marketing strategies; princesses sell. Now, I’m not the only one who thinks that princesses make one of the worst kind of role models. They’re expected to be beautiful, rescued by Prince Charming, and either acquire or inherit wealth and royal status patrilineally. But then, stories of princesses and other beautiful heroines make an obvious progression towards the Malay novel and its main theme: romance. The contemporary romance novel is pretty much the only form of Malay fiction writing popular today. So pervasive is the Malay romance novel that it’s even taught in schools as ‘Malay literature’.
I’m assuming that this is part of the mainstreaming of ‘Islamic culture’ to reach out to younger Muslim-Malaysians. It’s saying that you can be hip and with the times and still be a good Muslim. But here, to be hip is to be a sad carbon-copy of Disney princesses with blue eyes and fair-skin and colluder of Western gender stereotypes.
Other examples of ‘pink and feminine’ novels for Muslim young women:
Because woman did not fight back, man quickly took over the advantage and made her the scapegoat for all his vices and fears. […] He was intimidated by woman’s sexual desire, and so he invented the mutually exclusive virgin and whore. […] He was ashamed of growing old and ugly, and even more ashamed of being ashamed, and so he invented female vanity to exorcise and account for these fears.
Molly Haskell, excerpted from Reverence to Rape: The treatment of women in the movies
Haskell wrote her stinging review of sexism in film over thirty years ago but a similar scenario in current film-making still rings true: a male-dominated film industry will always make films that maintain the patriarchal heteronormative dynamic. And although she was talking about Hollywood film-making in general, negative cinematic representations of women can be found in mainstream Malaysian (read: Malay) cinema. If speaking in broad terms, it is perhaps the only form of representation accorded to Malaysian actresses.
From 1990’s onwards, burgeoning modernity (e.g. market-driven conspicuous consumption) and resurgent religiosity (i.e. Saudi-inspired interpretation of Islam) in the country became the conflicting forces that usually fought over the bodies of women. This resulted in a rather schizophrenic representation of the new NEP Malay (men and women) in film – full of capitalistic aspirations but rooted firmly in traditional, patriarchal orientations.
Despite the clunky title, Contrary Visions (2004, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka) offers a rather comprehensive review of novels by Malay women written between 1940 and 1995, including a couple of early Indonesian novels thrown in for good, hazy archipelagoan measure. Alongside Virginia Hooker’s Writing a New Society: Social Change Through the Novel in Malay (2000), Campbell’s book is pioneering stuff in the field of Malay women’s writing. In it, Malaysia’s political independence from British rule in 1957 serves as the ‘Big Bang’ in the course of women’s writing from which then on became more interesting, more daring. But how much more interesting and more daring really is it?
‘Contrary visions’ is the recurring theme in this book, and is supposedly reflected in the aspirations of the female leading characters. All of the novels reviewed, from the pre-Independence Panggilan Ibunda (Call of the Motherland, 1948) by Kamariah Saadon, to the politically conscious Anugerah (The Award, 1995) by Zaharah Nawawi, involve the issues of marriage and work – the latter either domestic or professional, and so any textual evidence of pragmatism in female characters about these issues are defined as a ‘contrary vision’ to the stifling Malay customs designed for the female sex.
Since it’s Black History Month in Britain, I’d like to feature an unlikely poem by Malaysia’s greatest poet and dramatist, Usman Awang (1929-2001). Written in 1971, ‘Suara Blues’ (Voices of the Blues) is a critique of Western hegemony and racism. It is also a kind of clarion call for the return to ‘the centre’, the origin, the age of pre-colonisation, which was a popular theme in postcolonial writing at the time.
In Malay (English translation after the jump):
Kemilau hitamnya paling indah
Disinar bulan di cahaya matahari
Ribuan sayap hitam
Membayangi sebuah istana
Ribuan bayang hitam
… dan murka hitam
Dicanang ke seluruh negeri
Mana pemburu mana penembak terpandai
Gugurkan sayap-sayap hitam.
Hanya kerana hitamnya.
Tiada tangan mencampakkan kacang
Tiada jari menaburkan jagung
Lapar, lapar yang hitam.
Telah mereka dengar gema
Trompet hitam, jauh
Jauh di sana di Afrika
Adalah mereka saudara-saudara tercinta
berazam berombak berkurung berteriak
perhambaan dari pembinaan tamadun
dari air mata tulang-tulang putih mereka
hanya kerana hitam, ya kerana hitamnya
lapar yang hitam, nasib yang hitam.
Dan kini di sini tanah air setengah hitam
Pasukan-pasukan penembak Diraja
Kemilau senapang ciptaan manusia tamadun
Jauh, jauh datangnya = Made in USA, Made in England
Mana seronok menjadi juara tembak
Pertandingan Kejohanan Pesta Gemilang
Berebutan sesamanya, berebutan seperti orang lapar,
Menjatuhkan sayap hitam.
Warna yang dibenci
Rupa yang dibenci
Suara yang dibenci
Bayang hitam yang dikasihi
Terbanglah cepat ke hutan
Ada gunung ada bukit ada sungai jernih
Adalah teman setia
Tiada keseorangan, tiada keseorangan
Di sini terhimpun seribu kekuatan. Read More »
Since it’s Ramadhan I thought it might be quite appropriate that I have a special religious feature in my feminist/Malay lit blog. So in today’s post I’d like bring to your attention a little known novel by Fatimah Busu, ‘Salam Maria‘ (or Hail Mary) published in 2004. Unfortunately it’s in Malay, and almost impossible to purchase even in Malaysia as many big-name book shops don’t stock it. But don’t let these be stumbling blocks to discovering the beauty in ‘Salam Maria’. In Fatimah Busu’s allegory, the central character, Maria Zaitun, becomes a religious leader of a community for social outcasts who live in a rain forest called Hutan Beringin.
Though a devout Muslim, Maria Zaitun is ostracised by members of her village for refusing to conform to patriarchal ideals of womanhood. Even the village imam chases her out of the mosque in her time of spiritual need. It is however, a group of women: old, poor, and disabled, who offer her sanctuary in their humble home in Hutan Beringin. Her highly charitable and non-judgemental nature towards rape and incest victims gains the reverence of the forest’s inhabitants. Maria Zaitun is not just a spiritual leader, she is also an entrepreneur: she is the one who encourages these women to start a small cottage industry, sewing and selling specially-embroidered telekung or praying attire for Muslim women in the urban centres. This helps provide them with some form of financial independence and security.