As I count the hours to the day I return to Malaysia, I’m compiling my notes and thoughts for a small research project on media images of women in the capital. But I’ve already started collecting preliminary data; my immense curiosity in the representation of Muslim Malay women in the current media took me as far as binging on toxic levels of Malaysian online television recently. So in a way, this post will serve as an introduction to an analysis of the popular trends affecting Muslim Malay women as depicted in the media in Malaysia today.
Far from the most progressive form of mainstream media, Malaysian television plays host to boring gender stereotypes in film, advertising and, most prominently, in women’s programs. Yet, it’s a place where women rule. The majority of programs, whether they’re dramas, sitcoms, or day-time talk shows, are aimed at women. Not only does this suggest that a bigger proportion of the TV audience is female, but also implies the fact that more women spend more time at home than men do.
Further, the growing visibility of women in hijab on television in recent years goes hand in hand with the glamorous and ’sellable’ image of the hijab and the increased religiosity of the mass media. Personally, I find the diversity of Muslim women on TV a positive change, but when I watch two extravagantly-dressed women talking on a half-hour segment about nothing but pillows and mattresses, I begin to feel a disconnect between the image and the message: it’s all looks but zero substance.
The following was written by guest contributor and fellow Malaysian feminist, Mohani Niza. Writing on the “New Malaysian Femininity’ in the films of Yasmin Ahmad, she presents a Malay womanhood that contrasts squarely with the misogyny and whore/virgin stereotypes typically found in Malaysian cinema.
In 2004, Yasmin Ahmad, famed for her Petronas advertisements depicting multi-racial Malaysia released the movie Sepet, to much controversy and praise. It won a string of foreign film awards, a legion of fans local and abroad but was also lambasted by certain quarters who felt that the movie threatened the moral fabric of Malay/Muslim life in Malaysia by showing its Malay female protagonist “betray” her bangsa (race) by falling in love with a “kafir” (infidel) .
Sepet centers on the relationship between Orked (Sharifah Amani), a teenage Malay girl who has just graduated from secondary school and Jason (Choo Seong Ng), a pirated VCD peddler. This is followed up with Gubra in 2006, which tells the life of an older Orked, now married; and in 2007, Mukhsin, the prequel in the Orked trilogy which depicts Orked’s childhood in a sleepy Kuala Selangor kampung (village).
The character of Orked marks a departure from the typical heroines we see in Malay films. Unlike most Malay women we see on screen, Orked represents a refreshing take on what it means to be a young Malay woman in Malaysia, a rapidly modernizing country which has to delicately deal with globalization and also the paradox of a multi-racial society, still raw from the May 13th 1969 racial riots. As Khoo Gaik Cheng notes in her book Reclaiming Adat: Contemporary Malaysian Film and Literature, “Socio-economic forces, state-initiated, and the cultural development of the NEP years (National Economic Policy 1971-90) had produced a burgeoning discourse about subjectivity among the children of the NEP themselves: what is it like for urban Malay women and men to be both modern and Muslim?”. in his review of ‘Mukhsin’ Michael Sicinski writes that “… transnational feminist theorists would do well to examine Ahmad’s work, since like them, Mukhsin is about complexifying the world, deepening interconnections, delving into the messiness of the conundrums that women face, and moving outward, forging even more connections.”
Since I became an activist at the age of nineteen, I have spent more than two decades of my life defending Muslims and the image of Islam. During my twenty-two years of living in Europe, I must have attended hundreds of conferences, seminars, public debates and lectures where I tried my best to dissuade people from the negative image of Islam that is so prevalent in the international media of late.
But there were moments when it seemed as if this was an uphill struggle where every battle won was soon followed by a string of defeats, thanks to the actions of Muslims who took it upon themselves to ‘defend Islam’ on their own parochial and short-sighted terms; and whose actions and words did untold damage to the image of Muslims. I recall one particularly bitter episode when I was asked to speak about the universalism of Islam – that took place just when the Taliban were occupied with the task of blowing up the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. It seemed pointless to continue then, and despair has been my lot for the past few years.
Now I find myself again in such a situation, after it was announced that the Fatwa Council of Malaysia has just issued a fatwa declaring that the practice of Yoga is haram and thus forbidden to Muslims. Overnight I was bombarded by emails and sms-es from my Islamist friends in Indonesia where I teach at two Islamic universities, who asked: “What is wrong with you Malaysian Muslims, and haven’t you got anything better to do?” How do I reply to such a question when I am forced to ask it myself?
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.
Dia melekapkan mata kanannya ke lubang paku tiga inci itu dengan hati berdebar-debar. Nafasnya terhenti sejenak bila melihat tubuh putih gebu yang sedang basah berkemban sahaja. Dadanya terdedah. Sharifah membuka ikat kain kembannya. Kain kuyup itu dikirai-kirai. Rambutnya yang lebat hitam terhurai lepas hingga ke paras pinggang berbuai-buai lemah. Badan putih melepak begitu lembut. Begitu memberahikan.
(An excerpt from ‘Tembelang’ by Yahya Samah, 1966)
I’m writing a brief and casual analysis of the similar themes employed by Yahya Samah’s novel ‘Tembelang’ and U-Wei Shaari in his 1993 film “Perempuan, Isteri, dan …”. The two themes in both bodies of work: voyeurism and the cheating wife, seem effective enough to show how preoccupied Malaysians are about certain aspects of sex and sexuality. I must point out by saying that both voyeurism and adultery are not social deviations exclusive to Malays, but what strikes me as uniquely Malay is the “berkemban” scene in ‘Tembelang’ and in “Perempuan…”.
I’m surprised that I did not discover this earlier. I’m also shocked that an academic of his stature is completely ignorant about what Feminism is generally about. Azly Rahman really thinks that women of Malaysia needs “Kampong-ism” to combat problems like sexual discrimination and other gender-biased conundrums. In this piece in Malaysiakini he uses Islamic principles and his own conjectures to support this brilliant philosophical branch.
1. Women are not inferior to men; they exist in “smart-partnership” in a “win-win” situation to men, both in practical living and in religion. Only biologically and in social function there may be slight variations.
There is a danger of abusing this so-called “smart-partnership” between (Muslim?) men and women. I have strong reasons to believe that this is what he means by the concept of “Equity” between the sexes, then he’s got serious issues to contend with. In “Equity”, men and women have specific and separate gender roles to fulfill, with hopes of ensuring peace and harmony in the land. Each of their roles (remember: different) have equal value. For example, the role of husband as breadwinner has equal value as wife who does the domestic duties at home. This can create pressure on the man whose “rightful” duty is to provide for his wife and children, and for the wife if she chooses to work outside the home. What does a man under pressure to do? Predictably, he might consider seeing other women, and almost certainly, causes family breakdown. It is unfortunate that patriarchal societies insist on the man being the head of the family, instead of promoting equal partnerships between husband and wife, mother and father.
Mainstream feminism on the other hand, recognises “Equality” for both sexes, in that (using the husband-wife model again) spouses share equal responsibilities in all aspects of homemaking and childcare. There is less pressure and more flexibility for both.
Last time I was back home in KL I was eager to find out whether there were any good books written in Malay. Being in the UK for a while made me miss all things Malay – so I started with books. I know for a fact that KL in particular is a host to a number of good bookshops, and some can be pretty darn huge (though I wonder who even buys books nowadays?). However on my return to my Malay-speaking homeland I was disappointed to find a dismal number of books in the Malay language. If you’re asking, “What about all those novels with lots of ‘Cinta’ and ‘Rindu’ on the titles? There are loads of them!”. Oh yes, there are many, but they are, to put it kindly, fit for the bin.
My first (and hopefully last) visit to the mammoth-sized waste of space, The Pavillion, in Bukit Bintang presented to me the possibility that Malay writing has no space in this shopping orgy we call Malaysia. Upon discovering Borders (yet another unnecessary American import), I skimmed past aisle label after aisle label looking for “Bahasa Malaysia”, and gave up. I couldn’t find it. So I asked one of Border’s very few staff to show me the goods.