Shame and stupidity: a brief history of Malaysian womanhood

Malaysian women of different cultures and ethinicities welcome visitors from abroad in their colourful traditional costumes. They all smile benignly, and they all look beautiful. This is the ‘Malaysia, truly Asia’ tourism campaign. But wait – the lady in the sari (second from left) does not look Indian at all; she’s very light-skinned unlike the many Malaysians of South-Indian descent and does not have recognisably Subcontinental features. Why is she being represented as an ethnic Indian when it is only her dress that is doing the representing? Perhaps what’s underlying this campaign is not about celebrating racial diversity after all. Perhaps this is an image that celebrates a kind of bland homogeneity that is expected of the Perfect Malaysian womanhood.

In a Perfect Malaysia, women’s bodies are defined by a deeply entrenched patriarchal-political and religious discourse. Such definitions of womanhood emanates from a continuous control over the female body either legally or culturally, predating the conception of Malaysia. In colonial Malaya, the Women and Girls’ Protection Ordinance (WGPO) was first formulated to protect immigrant prostitutes from venereal disease and abuse that came with the trade. Today the WGPO, now called the Women and Girls’ Protection Act (WGPA), has evolved to ‘protect’ all women and girls of Malaysia by providing rehabilitation of those caught being involved in ‘immoral’ activities. In practice, the act has been actively enforced on women who frequent karaoke lounges and bars, while their male companions are left untouched.

In a Not So Perfect Malaysia, conflicting forces – religio-politics vs modernising capitalism – conspire in their construction of Malaysian womanhood and sexuality. Such constructions inspire male writers, film-makers and the general male imagination to create the ideal Malay woman that somehow resist these conflicting influences. Similar to the way Malaysian patriarchal religio-politics use the female body to achieve their ideological goals, the ideal Malay woman: dressed in traditional Malay dress, demure, soft-spoken, and annoyingly polite, becomes the site for the preservation of Malay culture. What makes the sexualisation of the Malay woman culturally unique is that she is conceptualised around the earthy essentialism of the kampung (village), hence the fetishisation of kampung women dressed in only a sarong, or ‘berkemban‘.

This image also evokes a kind of Malay femininity before the advent of modernisation and its Western concepts of sex and beauty, and even before the arrival of Islamic revivalism in the 1970’s that dominated the lives of Malaysians. Women writers and auteurs on the other hand, tend to address the issue of female emancipation with less focus on sexuality. Unlike the explicit sexuality and themes of female desire in Indonesia’s ‘sastra wangi‘, the thinking Malay woman engages with other elements that define modern female emancipation: career choices, emotional relationships with friends and family, and the freedom to choose a potential romantic partner-cum-future spouse.

Because sex is something so difficult to discuss about in Malaysia due to enduring taboos and irrational fears of moral disorder, it is banished to the confines of fetishes, silence, and shame. Worse still when women are made to fear and feel ‘stupid’ about their sexuality. The following is the latest in the long list of patronising dirt Malaysian media throws at us:

If women want to be sexually indulgent with their lovers, they must also beware that the acts captured on videos and cameras may one day end up on the Internet. MCA Public Services and Complaints Department head Datuk Michael Chong said there had been six reports of such cases in the past 10 months. He said none of the women who complained to him was drugged or forced into sexual acts; they were all willing partners.

“Women should not be so stupid. There were also cases where the men had used these pictures and videos to blackmail the women.”

Read the rest here.

It has become an accepted fact that women are the worst hit if they find themselves online, for the entire world to see, in pictures either naked or fucking someone – perhaps posted by a spurned ex-lover, hellbent on revenge. Shame is a powerful tool to put women in their place. And women, next to children, are the ones most susceptible to shame.

And so back to the official beginnings of gender-biased control in Malaysia; despite its evolution from legislating the medical condition and welfare of foreign prostitutes in British Malaya to curbing ‘wayward’ behaviour of young Malaysian women, the Women and Girls’ Protection Ordinance’s enduring ideology meant that women and girls are often left to pay the price of the offences committed against them. Such legislation, compounded further by social taboos, do nothing to lift the stigma and shame that burdens young women in Malaysia.

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4 thoughts on “Shame and stupidity: a brief history of Malaysian womanhood

  1. Pingback: Friday Links — October 31, 2008 « Muslimah Media Watch

  2. Hi, where did you get that photo of women in traditional outfits? I’m interested to use it but would want to find out who owns it.

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