Toughness in academia is never enough

I’ve been self-censoring myself for too long. Mostly out of fear of being poor again and of losing out on opportunities. But then I realised, much to my despair, that one can never win as a woman in academia, especially in Malaysian academia.

It shouldn’t take long to identify sexism in academia. But it requires an appetite of a beast to name it when it is the noxious air one breathes. In light of the male backlash against historian Fern Riddell’s request to be addressed as ‘Dr.’ to honour her academic expertise (see here), I feel empowered to say a few things:

1. I’m a tough person. But structural sexism in academia can eventually take a toll on a person, however tough she may be.

2. Writing about sexism in academia is hard. To quote Sara Ahmed, by pointing out a problem, one *becomes* the problem. This means writing about sexism in academia frequently results in the punishment not against perpetrators but its victims; the latter are deemed a bad team-player, can’t hack the work culture/status quo, and “weak”.

2 a. Writing about the problems within academia/my discomfort at work has resulted in friends of my head of department reporting back to her of my “bad behaviour” online. After a while, I became so careful of what I say (constantly agonising, “how will this come across?”) to the point of silencing myself.

3. With the exception of one person in my workplace (the gender studies dept), everyone is supportive of sexual harassment victims. But one is too many. Many women, sadly including those who call themselves “feminist”, are unlikely to support other women. The sheer number of friends who’ve evaporated/I’ve have to drop to preserve my mental health is quite remarkable for a village like KL.

4. I sometimes wonder why I’m seldom called to write/speak about gender and/or religion in local public forums while other people with less expertise are called and end up not really talking about gender or religion. I’m not invited to meet other international feminist scholars who visit my city. Maybe I don’t put myself “out there” enough and too modest. Perhaps it’s related to point #3.

5. Male early career researchers are hailed as “star” scholars and “most promising” academics “in the country” when they have only published little and/or in non-reputable local journals/less prestigious publications. Women scholars of similar rank and who have published more do not get that kind of recognition.

6. FEW people actually care about my research. And the few mostly reside outside Malaysia. NO ONE in my workplace/faculty wants to listen about my research or my publications.

7. Finding female collaborators within/outside academia is challenging. Often, one must either be a non-critical, non-threatening friend or a threatening competitor.

8. Think about it, why aren’t there any female versions of Farish Noors or Syed Farid Alatases, and as many? How many women have crashed and burned by sexism before they could be tenured professors?

9. The day that ‘gender’ is “niche” and “for women” is over. Gender underpins and encompasses all human activity and relations, get over it. Same goes with the urgency and intellectual significance of the “private”, “intimate”, “domestic” and “family”.

10. Just because YOU as a woman have had more opportunities, ease, and success in academia does not mean that sexism in academia does not happen.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’ve never doubted the support and friendship of those who stayed and still *talked* to me despite my stormy two years 2016-2017. Let’s make academia better, in ways small and great.

On sexual slavery and the question of what makes something ‘Islamic’

Salwa al-Mutairi, a Kuwaiti politican, gave a cold-blooded proposal for Muslim men to take female slaves, especially non-Muslim female prisoners of war, for sexual use (or rather rape). It has rather unpredictably come under fire.

Slavery is one of the most abhorrent forms of abuse of power in this modern age. But the basic principles of al-Mutairi’s views have validation in Islamic texts. Like it or not, the Qur’an does not make any mention about ending slavery per se. It does recommend the freeing of slaves, particularly those who convert to Islam. But it also spells out the status of the slave as a person a man can have legitimate sexual relations with and by implication is someone who is sexually available.

Notwithstanding the incongruence between modern sensibilities and what is spelled out in the Qur’an as a book of wisdom and guidance, the abolition of slavery is now the expected universal norm. Every country has declared an end to slavery within its borders by the twentieth century. In predominantly Muslim nation-states, motivations behind the end of slavery was not so much a religious calling, but rather a mix of socio-economic circumstances, diplomatic strategy, and European colonial influence. It is at this circumstantial juncture that the right decision to universally turn back against slavery was established.

This is not to say that slavery has been completely wiped out from the face of the earth; today, slavery continues to exist in sex trafficking and in domestic labor, which enslaves thousands of migrant female workers.

Any intellectual discussion about sexual slavery and gender in the modern age should not be about sex and desire, but about power and the human weakness to abuse it. To say that men have an insatiable sexual desire and therefore need to channel it in “legitimate” terms (i.e., through concubinage, slavery, and even marriage) is missing the point.

How so? First, it is an insult to even suggest that men are inherently powerless to the will of their penises. Second, the Qur’an mentions allowances to multiple female sex partners (where wives, concubines, and slaves are thrown into the mix) only in the context of economic power; only rich men can afford to have multiple sex partners, especially concubines and slaves.

What is perhaps more intriguing and sets more tongues wagging is the fact that a Muslim woman is championing the slavery of other women. This is an example of what academic Deniz Kandiyoti describes as the “patriarchal bargain.” The patriarchal bargain posits that women are just as capable of oppressing other women to maintain or to gain access to social advantage. It is without doubt that any person, woman or man, with political influence would always seek to maintain power and privilege by pandering to those with more power and privilege.

The more powerful and privileged in question are those in the Kuwaiti government, who already claim a litany of human rights abuses, such maintaining a legislation that strips domestic workers of basic rights and ignoring the extensive abuse of migrant workers. This adds an additional dimension – xenophobia – into the mix. Much of the abuses against migrant workers – many of whom are Muslims – in Kuwait rests on the xenophobic attitudes of employers who view the workers as less than human. The fact that al-Mutiari’s suggestion women from war-torn Chechnya be bought to suffer yet more human rights abuses in Kuwait underscores this fact even more.

So in the context of sexual slavery as supported by the clerics al-Mutairi mentions, the more troubling question arises: is sexual slavery “Islamic”? Just because it is not prohibited in the Book does not make it right in practice. Easy as that. Another relevant question will arise by implication: so what makes something Islamic? It has been proven time and time again that what makes something Islamic is not necessarily spelled out in holy texts, but embellished mainly through privileged interpretation and historical contexts. Furthermore, the fact that slavery was a common and acceptable pre-Islamic practice during the prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) time, and the fact that some slaves gained status and power over those lower in the pecking order does not mitigate the loathsomeness of slavery.

Slavery or the abuse of female prisoners of war, the brutal removal of their freedoms and agency, and through silencing them and dehumanizing them goes against the very essence embedded in the respect for human lives, be it un-free or non-Muslim.

It is becoming clear that the Islamic discourse on slavery sheds very little light on the experiences of those at the nastier end of practice and this needs to change. The masculinist approach to holy texts that privileges the views of men needs to change. Also, what needs to change is the recognition that our modern sensibilities are shaped by history and socio-economic circumstances; what feels right, moral, and ethical rests on multiple factors.

We learn from history and experiences just as much from the holy texts. Much has changed since the days when slavery was taken for granted: if there’s anything more unacceptable it is the reduction of a whole person into something that can be bought and sold against their will.

Why are we a nation who adores murderers, rapists, and violent men?

Nurul Dahyatul Fazlinda Mat Haizan, her mother, siblings, and cousins reunite with Nurul Dahyatul's father in prison. Source: The Star Online

Yesterday, I read with despair and bewilderment about 9-year old Nurul Dahyatul Fazlinda Mat Haizan who was first subjected to an acid attack by her father and would later meet him in prison with “tears of joy”. The reason why Nurul Dahyatul would weep for joy upon meeting her violent father as if reuniting with a long-lost loved one is bewildering and raises a lot of question marks.

Attacked while asleep by her father who “flew into a rage” during an argument with her mother, the disfigured girl has presumably forgiven her father’s violent deed and accepted his action as pure “accident”. Nurul Dahyatul is not the only one who sustained injuries; her mother and two other siblings also suffered from burns.

Yet despite the traumatic event, Nurul Dahyatul and her mother appear adamant that the man who kept chemical weapons in the family home, who would go as far as to disfigure his family and subject them to psychological distress, has reformed and is by nature gentle and worthy of their love and devotion. Nurul Dahyatul’s mother, Ku Huzaimah, also believes that because Nurul Dahyatul was his “favourite” child he had never meant to hurt her.

Nurul Dahyatul and her mother represent a part of similar cases in Malaysia that invite suggestions of delusional behaviour. In June, a Malay woman insisted on posting bail for her husband after he had raped their daughter three times. The woman explains to the incredulous court room that “As a wife, I know my husband is problematic”. In another case some time back whose details I cannot recall, a Malay woman defended her husband even after he had murdered their daughter. Her reason for standing by her man? Because they were still bound together by wedlock.

Why do some people defend their violent partners, fathers, and relatives?

It is common in abusive relationships to have the abused defending and returning to their abuser because of a number of reasons; mainly fear, emotional blackmail, and diminished self-esteem. Here we have three women and one girl who would tell the world that they resume with life post murder, rape, and disfigurement with the perpetrator almost as if nothing had happened. I can only hazard a guess that the fear of challenging a man at his weakest point – due to imprisonment, humiliation by the press – and domestic retribution can force a woman or girl into the role of defender of the man’s scarred ego.

Despite being a ubiquitous fact of life, divorce is still deeply stigmatising and even taboo in Malaysia. Perhaps it is not far-fetched to suggest that for some divorce is far worse than living with an abusive, murderous, and misogynistic man. Another familiar theme underlying the cases is the gentle man beneath the exterior of the beast who can do no wrong, the myth of the protective husband and father who had momentarily lost his head, the fantasy of the household that will perish without the presence of paterfamilias, and the myth of accommodating wives and daughters. Perhaps Nurul Dahyatul’s tears of joy are not so bewildering after all.

Some notes on sluttiness in Jalang

The best part about being a researcher in film and media is the joy of discovering half-forgotten ‘gems’, like the Malaysian film called Jalang (2009). Jalang (Malay for slut, whore, wayward butterfly, you get the idea) is the ground-breaking cinematic masterpiece by Nazir Jamaluddin about a high-flying young woman Maria who apparently sleeps her way to getting business deals and eventually gets her fatal comeuppance for her indiscreet love for sex.

Just so audiences don’t get their moral wires mixed up, the film begins with a handy prologue about the loathsomeness of the jalang and that good Muslims should steer clear away from them. But it’s likely that most people won’t come across the jalang, because they’re usually killed off, on screen and sadly sometimes off screen as well. Since our film of interest aims to be didactic in character, let’s see one can be learned from Maria’s slutty ways:

INTERIOR SHOT: Protagonist of the movie, driving a sportscar. Background is blurred due to motion of car. Protagonist is a dressed in white blouse with black cravat, wearing makeup, sunglasses and expensive jewelry.
Flashy cars, stylish clothes; the material perks of a jalang are pretty good.
  • Sluts are successful businesswomen who drive expensive cars with their top down on a bright sunny day in Malaysia.
  • Sluts have Mariah Carey-inspired butterfly tattoos
That's the business meeting etiquette out the window
  • Sluts are touchy feely and affectionate to a point of excess with every male sleaze-bag in the boardroom during a business meeting.
  • Sluts care a lot about other women, especially if other women are their struggling younger sisters.
  • Sluts are made into sex objects to be passed around between ugly, middle-aged men.
  • Sluts are fine as non-committal sex partners, but are an unthinkable no-no’s as daughter-in-laws, especially if they’ve slept with you.
  • Sluts are despised by other women who want to tie them up and blow their slutty bodies into a million slutty pieces.
As if being mad isn't enough, there is also the unflattering tank top to contend with
  • Sluts turn men into psychotic and violent stalkers.
  • Sluts also make men bad at lying about their extra-marital affairs.
  • Sluts somehow deserve to be sexually harassed at work because of their exceedingly relaxed office etiquette with their male employers.
  • Sluts can be desirable to nice men but they must repent, cover up and start praying again.
  • Sluts are actually not entitled to a fresh start in life. When they’re honest about their sexual past they will be shamed for it. Worse, they will be beaten for their honesty.
An obligatory visit to the village as part of one's soul-searching expedition
  • Sluts remove their butterfly tattoos, wear the baju kurung, and experience life in the village in an attempt to ‘cleanse’ their body and spirit.
  • Sluts are made to be subjected to violent assault by men
  • Sluts die a horrible death in front of a mosque, Mastika-style.

Lesson: It doesn’t matter what you wear, what your sexual history is, how pure and golden your heart is, or your sincerity to “change your ways”, if you’ve had plenty of enjoyable pre-marital sex you will be punished for it. Above all, you are a slut or jalang in spite of all the above.

You will be punished even more when you have a desire to get married to a man. Sexual morality dictates that many men will hate to marry women who have had an illustrious history of relationships, because men will insist on being the first and the only one who’s been to a woman’s sweet spot. Being the second or the fifty-third man isn’t going to cut it.

As a woman in a male-dominated environment, one is expected to kow-tow to the sexist assumption that a woman is successful because she uses her sexual capital – her body, not her talent or intelligence. The success a woman enjoys in a high-powered job is linked to her moral inadequacies; when Maria falls for the man who accepts her for who she is Maria gives up her job to be “a woman in love” i.e. a woman who would rather be dependent on a man.

Most damning of all, there is no way for a woman to be free from shame and insult no matter what she says and does. Meanwhile, men can get away unscathed from whatever sexual improprieties while women suffer, are silenced, and chastised. Worse, men often get away with committing sexual assault scot-free.

Why is a discussion on this film even necessary when we can all predict the brutal end that awaits Maria? First, a Malay film-maker must be audacious enough to make a film about a so-called jalang to want to send some kind of message on how story about a jalang should be told. That message as we all now learn is unfair and irredeemably simplistic.

Second, being a jalang is supposedly the lowest of the low for Malay women. Without an examination what jalang means, the clouded nature of the insult can have power over all Malay women. When we rethink and re-examine our assumptions about what makes a jalang, particularly when we see how a jalang is represented for us, we will discover many loopholes that mitigate and even subvert what jalang means.

For instance, Jalang could be read as a story about a kind-hearted and caring woman who has sexual agency, but then is played out by evil men who abuse her good nature, talent, and relaxed attitudes to sex. Reading the film this way does not mitigate against how her character is punished in the end, but proposes that being a jalang is not a ticket to earthly damnation and that the problem are the men in the film.

I strongly believe that a continuous reassessment on what a jalang means, how much a woman is entitled to her sexuality, and the expression of jalang-ness that is free from violence, abuse, and shame can subvert and neutralise the toxic power of gendered insults and the laws of sexual morality. Perhaps this is one of the many ways we can reclaim the liberated, considerate, business savvy, and talented jalang.

The complicated politics of being First Lady

Sensitivity and compassion are apparently not Rosmah Mansor’s, the Malaysian “First Lady”, best suits. In a recent press appearance, Rosmah intended to buck the trend of the silent and exceedingly proper politician’s wife, by making self-righteous remarks about the recent Japanese tragedy as a well-deserved lesson for all.

In the spirit of freedom of expression, there is a time and place for insensitive thoughts, i.e. in your private chambers away from the press and public. For motivations identified as “attention-seeking,” even the mouthiest of politicians (and indeed their spouses) may still reserve some taste and the little decorum they have and not chastise victims of natural disasters.

To illustrate Rosmah’s eye-wateringly asinine “pearls of wisdom”:

Ini pada diri saya adalah satu pengajaran pada negara-negara lain untuk apa-apapun mereka nak buat ataupun sebarang pembangunan yang mereka ingin seharusnya dikaji dahulu keadaan sekililing dan mengaitkan dengan climate change (perubahan iklim) dan green technology (teknologi mesra alam) termasuk juga negara kita.

This in my opinion is a lesson for other nations where whatever effort done in the name of development must be cautiously approached with reference to climate change and green technology, including our own country.

But the backlash against Rosmah is just as bad. In situations where heavy media criticism is targeted at female public personalities, the highly toxic level of sexism becomes too difficult to ignore. Several examples of Rosmah’s own misjudged public ambitions notwithstanding, her recent insensitive gaffe elicited a bumper crop of undue sexist comments bigger than all the male politicians in Malaysian history put together.

There is no equivalent of sexist diatribe against a male figure when he slips up in the public arena. He can’t be a dumb bitch, a cheap slut, or berated for overstepping his gendered status in the way Rosmah is reminded by Parti Keadilan Rakyat to play her “proper” role as politician’s wife and shut the hell up.

Politician’s wives are made to look like a unique breed of women from another age, a sophisticated Jahilliyah/medieval age. As politicians wives, they are captured in the media eye as women who lunch together while their husbands deliberate on the very fate of the world. They are women whose bland fashion sense (and toned arms) can whip up a media frenzy. They are women whose charity work reinforces What Women’s Issues Are, for they are women who, in the ever reliably “neutral” media, are nothing more than the adjunct/buttock accessory* of her man/leader/master.

So are politician’s wives meant to shut up and smile for the public, and make humiliating official addresses about standing by her husband through thick and adulterous thin? We need not be reminded that today women have become more than their relationship status and that women can be individuals outside their marital set-up who have thoughts worth listening to. Shouldn’t current attitudes about gender apply to politician’s wives as well? What makes politician’s wives become a special category of scrutiny? Why must there be a “role” for the wives of heads of state?

There are several issues at play here; sexism as the public criticism’s arsenal of choice, the retrograde “role” of the First lady, blasé attitudes to devastating catastrophes, and the media’s ambivalent relationship with politician’s wives. Rosmah might never admit to the wrong of her ways, but Malaysians can be better judges of character without the sexism.

*As the saying goes, behind every great man, there is…

On male public intellectuals of the Twitter age and gender

Woman: A man's "body" of knowledge?

We can trust the public intellectual – the voice of the zeitgeist, so to speak – to be clever, witty, sometimes rather sexy (because they’re clever and witty), and male.

Though it seems that lately being male is a crippling impediment to being the voice of the zeitgeist. Recently, Stephen Fry caused the chattering classes to gasp in shock when he mused rather publicly that women don’t enjoy sex very much. Trust an openly gay man to be the expert in female sexuality. But why the shock? Why did planet intelligentsia brake to a screeching halt on its axis?

Well, to begin with, Stephen Fry is royally endorsed as a kind of British national treasure. He is the repository of wit, middle-class bourgeois ideals, and unthreatening intellect. Therefore, everything that passes through his venerated lips is certified to be right and wonderful of the pristine order. But why did he think he could get away with talking about something he clearly has no personal engagement with?

Maybe it’s because he’s rather unofficially a public intellectual, and as a public intellectual he shares his sagely views on worldly issues based on his celebrated intellectual capacity, even when they’re stretched beyond his experiential limit. Public intellectualism is mansplaining par excellence. Liberal and enlightened male thoughts have the passport of privilege not to be examined first for sexism and misogyny. It’s only when they’ve made an ignorant gaffe that they’re called out and reprimanded with a velveted slap on the wrist.

This brings me to discuss Farish Noor’s recent talk on the changing concepts of modesty in Southeast Asia last October at the Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur and his status as Malaysia’s “sexiest” public intellectual. Although I was sad to have missed out on what is a typically thought-provoking Farish Noor lecture, my heart sank to new uncharted depths when I found out that the lecture included a fashion show with “babes in Peranakan corsets”. This is particularly sexist and disgraceful for a cerebral warrior like Farish Noor. To his credit, however, Farish Noor has successfully made public lectures accessible and trendy. His well-received critiques on religion and politics traverse effortlessly across the Facebook universe making him an intellectual star of the social network age.

But by sexing-up critical thought for the Malaysian public, women become objectified as bodies to gaped at as they parade around in tight-fitting costumes. Women’s bodies become the vehicle through which Farish furthers what I believe are his political claims against hegemonic notions of modesty. The lecture on modesty thus becomes an exercise in irony and intellectual farce, as it appeases the unchallenged male gaze that underpins the very notion of modesty.

Should the sexist failings of public intellectuals come to anyone’s surprise at all? Certainly not. Public intellectualism is a male preserve disguised as a form of cerebral enjoyment for all. The views of public thought-artists like Stephen Fry and Farish Noor should not be seen as entirely objective or supremely above the biases of their androcentric perspective. But problems contravening their “rationality” arise when they inadvertently claim expertise in women’s experiences and gender.