When ‘feminist’ and ‘gender’ become embarrassing dirty words in academia

Frustration | Credit: http://flickr.com/photos/unwrittenphotography

I am a research student in gender studies in one of the constitutive colleges of the University of London and feel extremely privileged to be part of such a thriving intellectual community. But one brief episode of anti-intellectual feminism in the main building’s lift was enough for me to rethink the breadth of my social bubble.

Last week, I shuffled into a lift with two other students (one woman and one man) and as the doors closed in on us there began a conversation that surged the lava within me. The female student started talking about an essay on politics and social media she was writing. Inspired by the slogan ‘the international is personal’, she marvelled at how clever it sounded but was stumped that such an amazing framework of thought so neatly fitted into a single, powerful phrase is derived from the work of (* in a self-conscious, embarrassed whisper *) feminists.

In a mocking, incredulous tone, she mentions that there were issues raised in her gender classes that chimed with the subject of her essay and it seems, unbelievably, chimed with her as well. By then, I had nearly dropped everything I had at hand and wanted to evacuate the lift screaming (in my head, of course. I was, after all, surrounded by an intellectual community. What would others think?).

The school’s library is stocked aisle upon aisle with books on feminism and gender. Much of contemporary academic work in the social sciences, art, philosophy, law, and to a certain extent, even the hard sciences owe a great deal to feminism and its intellectual product, feminist theory. To remain up to date and relevant, scholars outside of gender studies have referred to the contributions of feminist scholars, and so I’m not one to believe that gender studies as a discipline lacks prestige or legitimacy. But the way one can laugh at the idea of studying gender in this day and age seems to suggest some wildly contrarian views in academia that I wasn’t aware of until now.

But perhaps the way gender and feminist theory have become so normalised in academia that it risks (and indeed sometimes criticised for) being depoliticised, defanged of its original motivation to right the wrongs of social structures, one can teach and learn feminist theory without seemingly moved or provoked by its political potency. And so the butch, meddling, oversensitive stereotype of the feminist continues to creep into a student’s imagination and everyday conversation, even when feminist women and men are ordinary people who, on a superficial level, are no different from themselves.

Although this is just one female student in a huge network of lecturers and other students who may know better, and thus not entirely representative of academia as suggested in my title, I think the depoliticised nature of feminism and its misrepresentation in media and folk discourse have resulted in the perpetuation of ‘feminist’ as a dirty word, no matter how worldly, clever, media-savvy, and sensitive students in one the most prestigious colleges in the UK are.

What is Orientalism?

Because an elegant definition of Orientalism cannot go ignored in the academy:

Orientalism, to David Said, is known as Eastern culture and is typically thought of as a combination of Asian, Japanese, Siamese, Chinese and other non-European cultures. The concept of Orientalism relates to music because it creates a stereotype for the different types of music in different Eastern cultures. For example, in the movie Lady and the Tramp, there is a scene with two siamese cats. These cats not only have accents and very think eyes, but they are introduced into the scene with “Oriental” music made of up chimes, bells, and even gongs, because they are siamese cats, trying to hypnotize the dogs in the scene.

Source: Shit My Students Write

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.

Read More »

Book review: The Rey Chow Reader

(Crossposted from Elevate Difference)

Edited by Bowman, Columbia University Press

Not many theorists would re-imagine Jane Eyre as a Maoist. However, postcolonial thinker Rey Chow does and with great aplomb. Furthermore, it’s not in the context of English literature in which Chow invokes the fictional heroine, but rather the issue of Orientalism in today’s academia. According to Chow, the Maoist Jane Eyre is a romantic and a self-styled victim that is embodied in the non-native scholar of East Asian studies who bemoans the loss of cultural “authenticity” in an increasingly globalised world. Chow’s deft and even fanciful portrayal of the latter-day Orientalist that demonstrates her creative ingenuity and unconventional analytical mind is evident throughout the collection of her essays, The Rey Chow Reader, edited by Paul Bowman.

These qualities are important in the primary themes tackled in her writings—sexuality, racism, and postcolonialism. In the post-Edward Said world, the Orientalism of yore is not only outmoded but a disgrace to the Western academic code of practice, but Chow is perceptive to detect the more subtle Orientalisms she finds still pervasive in the academy, particularly in East Asian studies in Western institutions. Not only are academics (and often highly respected icons; Julia Kristeva for one) safe from Chow’s relentless critique of latter day Orientalism, the works and words of art house film-makers Zhang Yimou and Bernado Bertolucci also go under her microscopic scrutinising gaze.

She is also self-aware of her own position in the ivory tower that she turns this gaze towards herself in an essay about her early career in academia; scholars from the former colonial frontier during the dissolution of the British empire such as herself (Chow hails from Hong Kong) were seduced by the imagined prestige of English literature that rendered Chinese writing less superior and intellectually legitimate. Chow’s essay on the postcolonial-ised scholar is a subdued call to arms for the reclamation of one’s own scholarship and by effect, cultural identity, even if one cannot readily give up the tools fashioned by the master.

It becomes clear that Chow is also deeply political. ‘Seeing is Destroying’ charts the changes in the US discourse of war since the devastating bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to today’s brutality of war made sophisticated. These historical observations are perhaps nothing new, however, her concept of the target has chilling resonance of the primordial hunt. As the target in the hunt for America’s national Other, first Japan, then the USSR, and now the shadowy figure of the Muslim terrorist, it is reduced to an object on which the trigger is on perpetual threat mode. What links ‘Seeing is Destroying’ with most of Chow’s essays is visuality and the continued technological advancements that make the act of seeing increasingly powerful and more instrumental in xenophobic and sexist control.

Chow’s tentacle-like approach to a diversity of disciplines that probes into every crevice of detail promises a thrilling experience and an inspiration to younger scholars of postcolonialism like myself. Perhaps the level of microscopic detail that Chow magnifies throughout her merciless analyses on Orientalism in film and her idiosyncrantic salad-bowl approach to theory may not appeal to everyone, but Chow has certainly created a fan in me.

Book review: The Material of Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures

By Susan Hekman, Indiana University Press

This is a book for the post post-modernist thinker. Written by professor of political science, Susan Hekman, The Material of Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures seeks to alleviate the theorist’s conundrum with the material consequences in the event of natural disasters and destruction. Many theorists today are curiously silent on tsunamis, terrorist attacks, and earthquakes and Hekman sees this as a problem of post-modern thinking.

Philosophy from the second half of the twentieth century onwards has been largely preoccupied with what is called ‘the linguistic turn’—an understanding that all reality is only perceivable through language. Also known as linguistic constructionism, the trend fails at taking into account the tangible elements of concepts and theory. A new way to theory-making or ‘settlement’ is in order and feminist theory is, argues Hekman, at the forefront of this breakthrough. And this is because no other system of thought is invested heavily on the experiences of oppression often imprinted on the body the way feminist theory is. However, the body alone is not enough to represent ‘matter’.

Hekman argues that non-human matter have agency too in that they are not always predictable and in that regard, somehow have a ‘life of its own’. This makes the relationship between human and non-human all the more interesting if a little unsettling. To illuminate the mechanics of this relationship, Hekman adopts Andrew Pickering’s unglamorously-named concept of the mangle; things get mangled up when humans and non-human agents meet, producing inevitably messy outcomes. Hekman sees the mangle at work in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the prenatal sonogram. Both display the way different discourses (poverty and abortion) work with and against non-human elements (dangerous weather conditions and medical apparatus). The mangle represents an important link between the abstract realm of ideas and the world ‘out there’.

The underlying argument throughout Hekman’s thesis is, if crudely put, that philosophers are out of touch with reality. However, Hekman does not challenge the circumstances that grant philosophers the privilege to talk about society and yet seem to not be able to incorporate “real life” into their work. The critique of lofty intellectualism remains frustratingly absent here. While the mangle is undoubtedly a useful concept to understanding material destruction, Hekman makes a bold (if rather morbid) leap in suggesting that feminist theoretical approach to the body holds the key to new ways of understanding death and destruction of epic proportions.

The Material of Knowledge is a slow-burning demonstration of Hekman’s linear thinking towards the new ‘settlement’. As a proposal for a new theoretical tool to approaching pain and material devastation, Hekman’s book leaves the reader with more questions than answers. To begin with, the concept of the mangle seems to absolve itself of refinement both by virtue of semantics and theoretical characteristic, and I am left wondering whether Hekman had backed herself into a theoretical corner where to understand material destruction is cook up an analytical mess.

This evokes a level of pessimism and an assumption that multiple elements of living and non-living persuasions affect each other on a more or less equal playing field; an event is simply a web of things and lives thrown in together, which leaves one to ask: where are we in Hekman’s new settlement? Where is human agency in the midst of mangled discourses and wordlessness of fear and pain? It would be difficult to recommend Hekman’s latest book for the uninitiated in post-structuralism and post-modernism as this slim tome can be a slog for even the well-versed. The Material of Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures does however inspire optimistic thoughts about the role of feminism in contemporary philosophy and the slow march of theory towards grasping reality.