Mahasiswa – a universal identity or a Malay masculine one?

Mahasiswa, the people's spokesman [via The Nutgraph/Fahmi Reza]

Mahasiswa, the people’s spokesman [via The Nutgraph/Fahmi Reza]

The figure of the mahasiswa or male university student is in the news again, demanding the liberation of Malaysian academia from draconian government intervention. There is also a ‘rising star’ of student activism: 23 year old Fahmi Zainol, a young Malay man of utopian political and intellectual ambition.

As the president of University of Malaya’s student union, Fahmi is the official representative of the university’s student body. But how representative he and his vision are is more questionable.

From the top down, Malaysian public universities are Malay male cultural domains. Student unions are over-represented by Malays and are by sheer default led by Malay (or bumiputera) men despite the fact that Malay female students often outnumber the men on campus.

Citing his solidarity with ‘our brothers in Hong Kong’ (even though women and girls participate in the democracy protests), Fahmi speaks unconsciously in a language informed by patriarchal cultures and spaces within Malaysia that are compelled by visions of a ‘brotherhood’ of peace or justice, whether Malay, Muslim or both.

The problem lies with the predominant usage of ‘mahasiswa’ itself in student activist campaigns (Like Kuasa Mahasiswa or Student Power), usually without the need to include mahasiswi with the implicit understanding that mahasiswa refers to both male and female university students. Like ‘mankind’ and even ‘human’, such an implicit assumption of purported inclusion makes the exclusion of women convenient.

The general historical trend of student politics and societies in Malaysian universities has been characterised by segregation along gender, ethnic, state, and religious lines. However, there have been occasions in which students overcame segregation for a common political cause. The female and non-Malay faces of the UKM4 is one such example but they are relatively rare by comparison.

The Sri Kandi societies in Malaysian public universities are bastions of Malay female students and their political, if mostly auxiliary, organising on campus. And yet, ‘mahasiswi’ is either classed as secondary to the primary identity of mahasiswa or sidelined altogether in the present discourse on student activism.

The marginalisation of female university students or mahasiswi could really mean a few things; that the default figure of student leadership is male and Malay and that female presence within the walls of academia is undervalued (an understatement many would contend). The over-representation of mahasiswi by their sheer numbers on Malaysian campus does little to dismantle the male stranglehold of academic culture and its future.

Reasons behind the failure of mahasiswi to be at the forefront of student activism right now may lie in the way protest and civil disobedience are regarded as politically and morally transgressive in Malaysia. But what is more likely is that protests are masculine spheres of action. They are ritualised as brute physical mobilisation, agitation, and direct collision with the state. At times, protests co-opt militaristic and imperialistic nomenclature, such as ‘occupy’ to make transgressions and law-breaking more respectable.

Mass protests are sites of sexual violence in order to render women and girls especially vulnerable to a kind of humiliation and fear that men are supposedly immune to. Risks of sexual violence, trauma, and shame alone can alienate female protestors from taking a leading and confrontational role in mass protests.

There are multiple disciplinary regimes – legal, religious, and culture ones – that hem in young Malaysian women from attaining their full potential. These disciplinary regimes are also at work within the physical compounds and imaginary of the Malaysian campus. Student activism in Malaysia is disinterested in gender and sexual politics unlike the feminism on US and British universities that tackle sexual violence.

The normative structure of student politics in Malaysia that mimics the status quo of Malaysian politics is left untouched despite the present uprisings. So many things need to be disrupted, resisted, and dismantled within the supposedly precious space of academia to get to the root of the problem – hegemonic Malay Muslim male authority.

Social mobility versus social climbing

I’ve recently written and submitted a research proposal on social mobility amongst the Indian female underclass (mostly plantation workers and their descendants) in pre and post-independence Malaya. Despite the predominating narrative that the life potential of the Indian underclass is impeded by caste inequality, ethnicity, and by being female, I was nonetheless interested in channels that facilitate degrees of social mobility; marriage to a higher caste/class individual/family, the (inverse) number of children a woman bore, level of education, opportunities to other kinds of paid employment and migration to other towns and cities. Social mobility, understood here as an upward movement (though there is such thing as a downward trend) towards a higher station in life, is a positive venture towards greater equality in society.

By contrast, social climbing, though also understood as the deliberate advancement up the rungs of society’s ladder, is perceived as a negative thing. Social climbing implies the manipulation of people/resources and self-aggrandising in order to arrive at a desired rank of social prestige. The problem with this rank of social prestige is that it is precarious, especially for those insecure in their personal disposition. Precariousness notwithstanding, the social climber jockeys for position, whilst discarding people who have helped them on their way. There are critics, however, who question the negative connotations of social climbing and wish to recuperate it into something positive, even necessary, for social groups that are historically disadvantaged.

On a more personal note, my own experiences of befriending social climbers have tended to come to a sticky end and occur in spaces where hierarchy, status, and distinction (Bourdieu, 1979) define the tenor of community dynamics; privileged and highly-qualified middle class Malaysian society, and more often than not, female-dominated spaces. Perhaps other factors that intersect with gender may play a more significant role for reasons why I find myself being the stepping stone of a female social climber. But at the moment, I don’t know what those factors are.

So social mobility is about economic uplift while status accrued from social climbing is not necessarily for monetary ends. If I can conclude without being annoyingly tautological: social climbing is distinguished simply by its social dimension and operates through the social climber’s self-differentiation from those who are, in the climber’s eyes, ‘inferior’ in status.

Reference:

Bourdieu, Pierre (1979) La Distinction, Routledge.

Is being called a prostitute misogynistic?

Upon arriving home from secondary school many years ago, I was slightly taken aback to find that someone had stuck ‘Slut’ on a post-it note on my backpack. I knew what the word meant and I was sure I was not that, thought my socially-awkward, pimply 15 year old self.

Years later in university, and still called a slut for making a Malay couple change seats in a computer lab (long story), I became determined to uncover the other meanings of this word and its similes.

This brings me to the outcry at the recent sexist attacks towards the female members of DAP: Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud, Young Syefura Othman and Jamila Rahim (Melati). In a meeting with the press, the three women objected to the attacks for attempting to ‘dishonour’ their womanhood (menjatuhkan martabat wanita).

When Dyana, Rara, and Melati were labelled ‘pelacur’ it was aimed to silence and shame them for their political beliefs. And this is not the first or last time. It is a strategy with multiple historical precedents that reminds women they do not belong in Malaysian politics. The reasons why women are under-represented as leaders in politics are laid bare yet again.

There is no male equivalent for ‘pelacur’ in both meaning and use. It is used against women and as a way to emasculate men. However, I take issue when ‘prostitute’ is cast as the ultimate symbol of feminine moral laxity and dishonour. Is being called ‘pelacur’, ‘sundal’ or ‘jalang’ really so bad? Does this mean being a prostitute, or to use the political term, sex worker, is the worst a woman can be?

If the very term ‘prostitute’ is inherently misogynistic, then it reinforces the mutually exclusive dichotomy of ‘good’ women/female sexuality versus ‘bad’ women/female sexuality. ‘Good’ female sexuality is pure and virginal while its corresponding ‘bad’ is slutty and free with her body. ‘Good’ women deserve protection and respect for their restraint while ‘bad’ women do not.

Who gets to say which woman is ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Nobody.

The thing about sexual stigmatising terms is that they can be both abusive and a source of resistance. It is abusive when the perpetrator uses it with the aim of shaming a person into submission. Sexual epithets of abuse is used when perpetrators lack the vocabulary and intellectual capacity to disagree or show displeasure, not because the words in and of themselves are abusive or taboo.

By contrast, women who want to reclaim female terms of abuse – prostitute, slut, slag, cunt , sundal, jalang – do so to neutralise their toxicity. Slutwalks that have now taken place around the globe aim to do just this; to show that sexual terms of abuse would have no effect on women when the patriarchal dichotomy of female sexuality is exposed for what it is.

Sex workers who are the ‘real’ prostitutes become the target of violence when they are emblematic of ‘bad’ female sexuality. Women who distance themselves from their sisters in the sex industry do no favours either, because all women are victims of misogyny and all can and will become targets of sexist abuse when they incite even the slightest displeasure.

So is being called a prostitute misogynistic? It depends on your intended meaning and effect. By right, prostitute and pelacur, along with sundal and jalang, should not be so toxic as they are now. They need to be reclaimed by all women who care about the integrity of their bodies and sexuality and those of others. Reclaiming stigmatising words is like intercepting ammunition and throwing them back, defused.

Feminism without women

The title of this blog post is a reference to Tania Modleski’s 1991 book [1] which has a pointed retort to the postmodernist turn in feminism and its impact on solidarity and political mobilising. The retort had a more specific aim; in 1988, Denise Riley had published Am I That Name? [2], a sort of feminist embrace of postmodernism as a way of exposing the fiction that is ‘women’ as a stable category of analysis.

Riley uses Sojourner Truth’s speech ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ to propose a new refrain, ‘Ain’t I a fluctuating identity?’ as to remind us that:

We can’t bracket off either Woman, whose capital letter has long alerted us to her dangers, or the more modest lower case ‘woman’, while leaving unexamined the ordinary, innocent sounding ‘women’. [...] ‘women’ is historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other categories which themselves change; ‘women’ is a volatile collectivity in which female persons can be very differently positioned, so that the apparent continuity of the subject of ‘women’ isn’t to be relied on.

Modleski finds this type of ‘feminism without women’ quite simply alarming because doing away with label of ‘woman’ for oneself is a strategy available only to privileged feminists whose lives are relatively unconstrained by their womanhood. More troubling is the very use of Sojourner Truth’s personhood and question and respond to it in the negative, for the sake of anti-essentialist feminism.

Sojourner Truth’s refrain ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ has, in her time, two answers. Yes; because as a woman under slavery, her woman-identified female body is exploited for the purpose of breeding. No; because as a black woman under slavery, hers is a womanhood negated in an ideology in which ‘woman’ archetypically means a respectable white woman. Rather than have the privilege to ‘fluctuate’ between identities, the sexist racism of slavery overdetermines Sojourner Truth and women like her. So what makes a white feminist’s anti-essentialist feminism different from a slaver’s construction of black women? Modleski does not mince her words:

Given the doubleness of response required by the question as it is posed by a black woman and an ex-slave, it seems to me politically irresponsible for (white) feminism to refuse to grant to Sojourner Truth the status of a woman, for it would then be in complicity with the racist patriarchal system Sojourner Truth was protesting and that has denied, and in important ways continues to deny, this status to the black female (in this respect, excluding women from a contested category on the grounds that there is no category may well be the latest ruse of white middle-class feminism).

We can see versions of Riley’s ‘feminism without women’ in the current calls for the abolition of gender currently percolating British feminist spaces. In other instances of this crisis of ‘women’, (cis)-gender is the target; it hurts, constrains, and does not reflect ‘me’. Honestly, I don’t know how not recognising or eliminating gender can make the world better for women.

Gender is not just something you can identify in and of yourself, but is a taxonomic and biopolitical strategy to organise society. For the poststructurally-inclined, gender is not something ‘out there’ but is an unfinished process of becoming. To abolish gender, you’re going to need to overturn personal naming convention, but also normative sartorial codes, and other things we not only take for granted but may also be innocuous in themselves or are a source of reaffirmation for those marginalised from the trappings of privilege.

More recently, we see another manifestation of feminism without women. In contrast to postmodern pontificating, it now seems that feminism can proceed without actual women altogether. Worthy of a place in The Onion, the Icelandic minister for Foreign Affairs has announced to the United Nations that he has a rather good idea of hosting a major conference on feminism, gender equality, and sexual violence, but for men only. The ‘barbershop’ conference is meant to bring men and boys ‘to the table on gender equality in a positive way’, says the enlightened minister, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson.

Emma Watson’s HeForShe and the problematic implications of such a campaign (one of which is the White Knight approach to men’s ‘feminism’) can be attributed to the mainstreaming of men’s Very Important role in combating sexism and misogyny. So Very Important are they that not only are men expected at the frontline with women, but they may dispose of women altogether if they wished and get kudos for it.

We currently live in strange times, a time when people are prone to ponder whether a female celeb is a feminist or whether or not make-up or a cupcake is feminist. Many men would love to call themselves feminist and enlist themselves as feminist warriors (‘At last, real equality!’). But if being a feminist accrues the prestige of being modern, progressive, liberal, and generally decent, who would not want to be one?

Men can be involved in feminism, but as auxiliaries rather than its arbiters, legitimising feminism because it ‘needs’ men. Victoria Smith aka Glosswitch who is also suspicious of this ‘feminism without women’ part deux that HeForShe risks becoming perfectly captures my squeamishness about men’s uncritical enthusiasm to be feminists too:

I don’t want my sons to be feminists when they grow up. I want them to be men who have the courage and humanity to challenge masculinity, right here, right now. If women need a movement to say “I’m human”, they don’t need men jumping on board to say “yay, I’m human, too”. We know that already and men know it, too.

Reference

[1] Modleski, Tania (1991) Feminism Without Women, London: Routledge, pp.20-22

[2] Riley, Denise (1988) Am I That Name? London: MacMillan: pp. 1-2

What does a city for women look like?

How does a woman walk in a city in the daytime and at night? Does she walk head held up high? Does she think her hair is showing through her headscarf, her knee-length skirt too short? Will that be commented on by someone on the street?

Does she walk under what Shilpa Phadke calls the ‘tyranny of purpose’? Walking from point A to B because she has to look like she is doing something important, like getting into work or getting the food shopping done for the family? Female flaneurs, after all, are less tolerated than men, more suspicious, and often punished for utilising public spaces in the ‘wrong’ way.

If the city, as urban sociologist Robert Park suggests, is “man’s most consistent and the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire,” it therefore an fair argument to say that cities are not made for women. If anything, the city, from its many rebirths and reinventions, is an expression of power and domination that is familiarly masculine in its quotidian manifestation.

This short essay is about several dimensions of women’s right to the city, not least women’s right to mobility in the city. The right to mobility in the city is a major prerequisite to the right to the city, the right to belong anywhere in the city. Women’s mobility in urban spaces is often more complex than that of men. Often saddled with more domestic responsibilities, women are on the move to supermarkets and school runs while negotiating the use of the family automobile.

Looking at women more intersectionally, age, ethnicity, gender presentation, migrant status, socioeconomic class, and (dis)ability makes urban mobility a more complex if urgent issue. We all want to get to our destination eventually. If possible, in the fastest and most convenient way. But different kinds of women and (trans)men are more likely to prioritise safety and accessibility than the average privileged (cis)man.

If women are the more economically disadvantaged in society, they are more likely to do more walking and take public transport. When they shoulder more domestic responsibilities, they make more complex transport-related decisions and may actually spend more time (purposefully) on the go.

Inclusive cities are not merely safe for women. In fact, many cities are not inclusive because of both the deliberate and unintended emphasis on an often paternalistic and draconian notion of ‘safety.’ Safety measures have resulted in increased policing, surveillance, and even total exclusion of certain groups of people from participating in public life. Protective safety measures are also behind gender-segregation in public spaces and transportation. While welcomed by some, such measures address short-term safety, marginalise women, and grant perceived and would-be perpetrators freedom.

Aspects of inclusive cities for women have already been materialised in clean and better lighting in train stations, bus shelters, and underpasses. Well-maintained public toilets for women is another implicit indicator. Women’s safety audits are conducted have been conducted in India, Bangladesh, and Colombia. Privately owned car-free days that are complimented with affordable and physically accessible public transport have been implemented with varying success in Colombia and Indonesia. With all things considered, all will benefit, especially women, in shorter commuting times and distances between home and work, home and recreational pursuits.

Inclusive cities are more than about both radical and ‘common-sensical’ infrastructural adjustments. They transcend notions of gendered ‘safety’ and instead emphasise an engagement with and even the embrace of risk. Not to say that women of the city should put themselves willingly at risk, but rather a discourse on urban inclusivity should consider risk as something that can be managed on individual terms.

The right to undertake risk is part of a woman’s right to the city, an experience that involves encounters with strangers including those that make others feel uncomfortable. In inclusive cities, not only can women walk freely alone without fear but they are allowed to roam the city, be serendipitous and be lost without fear or repercussion.

In the city for women, a woman can sit alone in parks, linger, run, jog, without much diminished fear at any time of the day. Women too can be flaneurs and have the right to loiter. Rather than just prioritise safety and freedom from harassment, women can prioritise speed and convenience of mobility. Women’s mobility is not just about getting from point A to B, but also about social mobility. Greater physical mobility for women is conducive for social mobility and self-actualisation.

There is more to cities than to create them after one’s heart’s desire. For Robert Park, “if the city is the world which man [sic] created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without clear sense of the nature of his task,in making the city man has remade himself.” To this view, Marxist academic David Harvey argues that the city may be the concrete expression of its makers’ values, hopes, and fears. This creates opportunities for the reinvention of cities to better reflect its inhabitants and the reclaim the right to public spaces for the pursuit of happiness.

 

Reference:

Robert Park (1967) On Social Control and Collective Behaviour.

Shilpa Phadke (2010) Gendered usage of public spaces: a case study of Mumbai, Delhi: Background Report for ‘Addressing Gender-based Violence in Public Spaces’ Project, Centre for Equality and Inclusion, India.

Carolyn Whitzman (2012) Women’s safety and everyday mobility in Building Inclusive Cities:

The finishing line

Of course I’ve always known that I’ll get to the finishing line sooner or later. But the actual experience of being so near it, half-running/crawling towards it, and overwhelmed by feelings of euphoria and total disbelief, exceeds the capacity of words and description. I submit my PhD thesis on the 27th of June 2014.

I have micro-managed my way towards the finishing line. Like a marathon runner who has organised the provision of snacks and drinks in strategic places, I wanted to ensure that the submission process is as stress-free as possible. I stayed productive all throughout the PhD, (almost) meeting deadlines for my supervisors’ perusal and kept writing and rewriting, punctuated by me rewarding myself with solitary meals and booze.

I accepted the pain that I chose to inflict upon myself but I made sure that stress brought about by de-motivation and procrastination were kept to a minimum. Looking back, I am impressed, incredulous, and grateful that I have made it this far.

The finishing line is nigh and I am wordlessly overjoyed.

A Malaysian scholar remembers Stuart Hall

First published in my Malay Mail column on 27th February 2014:

A great intellectual died on February 10, 2014. His name was Stuart Hall, dubbed the “godfather of multiculturalism.”

As the tributes by academics made up of peers and admirers alike came flooding in, I thought about the impact of Hall’s work concerning identity and culture on Malaysians.

I believe that some of us, as postcolonial subjects like he was, too can claim to be moved by his ideas and share his vision. But it is his contribution to Cultural Studies as a discipline that has most influenced me as a scholar.

Earlier this year, I bought a ticket to attend a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham in June with the hope to meet him.

I did not know that it would become a memorial for Stuart Hall. Hall, who was an erstwhile director of the Centre, championed the much celebrated (and mocked) “Cultural Studies.”

The political influence and notoriety of the CCCS meant that those of us who wanted to study film, television, magazines, and “trashier” aspects of popular culture often sought sanctuary behind the Centre’s authority. A similar kind of debate about intellectual legitimacy is reignited in academia today in its defence of the Humanities.

What makes Stuart Hall so special and unique? It would not be an understatement to suggest that a great intellectual is chiefly a product of circumstances. A Rhodes scholar at Merton College in Oxford University when the empire was crumbling, Hall knew, as a Jamaican, he did not fit comfortably in the staid and exclusionary protocols of Oxford. His work on identities and culture were as much a searing ideological critique of racism as an attempt at making sense of his status as an outsider trying to fit in.

The 1960s was an exciting time for critical theory and its influence on popular culture. Picking up from where the Frankfurt School had left off, the study of mass media was gaining respectability through its associations with semiotic-based structuralism and psychoanalysis.

At the same time, it was a period of total disillusionment with Soviet communism. The British New Left, to which Hall belonged as a key figure, needed a new focus and vision.

The counter-cultural 1960s was a wellspring of possibilities, both political and cultural, and it was obvious that Hall and his cohorts wasted no time. Rather than remain in critical theory, which was (and is) pessimistic in outlook on why revolutions have failed, Cultural Studies in its departure was committed to social change, offering a more positive programme and tools for successful rebellion.

As a scholar whose research keeps Hall’s memory alive, I find his prose electric. Electric in that its forthright style is a stunning example of both intellectual non-conformism and resistance.

And it is defiance of the established intellectual order that would be his greatest gift of inspiration to generations of scholars dedicated to Cultural Studies.

Resistance to hegemonic ideologies about the myth of the nation and national culture was something Hall wanted people to wake up to and participate in. However, it was the very resistance and postmodernism, particularly the latter’s characteristic demolition of hierarchies between high and low culture that Cultural Studies relied on, that contributed to the depoliticisation of Cultural Studies, much to Hall’s dismay.

Today, anyone can select willy-nilly a particular media text, examine it long enough to unlock their own hidden meanings of resistance and say they are doing Cultural Studies. The meaning of resistance can be decoded into anything and in danger of meaning nothing at all.

While this might have upset Hall to some degree, this is the legacy of openness and unpredictability of Cultural Studies as a discipline that we should welcome during these troubled times in academia.

Men: the true voice of feminism

First published on The Malay Mail on 7th February 2014.

When you think about it, most rights have been won by women in Malaysia and all citizens are rendered equal before the Federal Constitution. Malaysian women didn’t even have to fight for the vote. Technically, men and women are almost equal. Needless to say, the margin between the sexes is very small as to be negligible.

It would therefore be a travesty to suggest that men are not allowed to play an important role in feminist activism. In fact, there is no reason to deny men the role of leaders of the feminist movement. Besides, denying men such a plum position would be a form of gender-based discrimination.

Women have dominated the Malaysian feminist movement for several decades and many lessons can be learned from their legacy. But why hasn’t true gender equality arrived yet? The most plausible reason why feminism has reached a stalemate is because of the lack of men’s involvement.

Because the main aim of feminism is to transform men’s views about women, it is obvious that men are entitled to an instrumental role in the movement. Men who hold feminist values can talk to other men with chauvinistic views and change them through the effective deployment of the authoritative male voice. When women’s credible complaints about sexism are ignored unless pointed out by a man, the men in the feminist movement can intervene and act as the spokesmen for women.

Feminism offers men the opportunity to highlight and champion long neglected concerns, such as sexual harassment that men say they also experience. Other issues can also be raised for worthy attention, such as the under-representation of men in domestic work and the nursing profession. An important victory would be the establishment of a ministry for men’s affairs.

There are still risks faced by bold and strong-willed women of being branded ball-breakers and viragos. Men in feminism, most of whom are born with testicles, can bypass these put-downs effortlessly and convey the good word of equality across the gender divide.

When women are afraid of appearing over-sensitive and hysterical about objectification and rape culture, men can step in with their objective, unemotional views. This makes men make the perfect brokers in a society led by unenlightened male dinosaurs who are less inclined to see women as equals. To put simply, men are indispensable to feminism.

The liberal men with feminist beliefs may scoff at the prime minister Najib Razak when he assumed the headship of the ministry of women’s affairs in 2012. But they do so in unequivocal agreement that they are more sensitive about gender issues than the prime minister. This is proven by the fact that the liberal men have female feminists as friends and partners.

As men, they can channel certain skills useful for the women’s organisations, such as rational thought and a strong background in second wave feminism, having read one book by Angela Davis. Men are known to be more assertive in the gruelling world of social activism. Blessed with greater levels of physical strength, men are better equipped to deal with the long strenuous hours of NGO work. These are all valuable attributes that can be put to good use in feminism rather than discarded as stereotypes.

Having more men working alongside female feminists in equal partnership is a win-win situation. Liberal men adore empowered female sexuality and want more women to attain it. Being enlightened and empowered is not about being prudish, because prudery is no more different than the moral conservatism of the Shariah police who wish to curb the civil liberty to sexual expression.

To put it pithily, liberal men with feminist values are very supportive of sexually liberated women.

It is entirely possible that the country can witness substantial progress by putting men in charge of the Malaysian feminist movement. By making feminism more inclusive to men, it will lose its fearsome anti-male reputation and instead make feminism very men-friendly. Women have led the movement for some time now, it is only fair that men be given their turn so that true equality can be achieved.