Scholarship on the scrap heap of an ailing higher education

First published in The Malay Mail on 29th January 2014.

As someone in the business of reading, writing, and reviewing academic articles, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Writing academic articles is not easy and it rarely gets any easier after years, even decades (so I’m told) in academia.

So when someone or a team of authors produces a poor paper, it is quite forgivable but not forgivable enough to be granted a publication in a decent journal or book.

Recently, a dear friend emailed me a copy of a journal article on whether LGBT identities were natural or an “ideology.” The article was written by two authors affiliated with a public university in Malaysia and published in a journal of biological science even though the methods for investigating the object of study have nothing to do with biology or the sciences.

Besides being riddled with many grammatical errors, the article is a weird composite of government propaganda, superficial theology, journalism, and a few scholarly citations. It cites the prime minister’s branding of LGBT communities as a “scourge” and state-sanctioned measures to “correct” these communities so that they become more hetero and normative.

Passages that allude to homoerotic activity from the Quran, the Bible, and the Torah are thrown in for good measure as if an authoritative definition of contemporary non-normative sexuality can be gleaned from them.

To find an answer to their research question, an interview with a “former LGBT practitioner” was conducted in which the informant was asked a variety of questions framed in a pathologising manner (Is your identity a disease? Do you have a “real” type of body? When did you start noticing these symptoms?).

Like a cipher, the informant responds in an obedient fashion, parroting anti-LGBT truisms long debunked by experts, activists, and LGBT communities.

The boogeymen of LGBT discourse—liberalism and human rights—are invoked and mutually reinforce each other in both the literature review and findings, making the study itself redundant.

What is there to investigate when the authors already know their answer before carrying out their qualitative research? What is the point of an objective “scientific” study when they have pre-judged categories like “menace” and “disease” for LGBT identities?

Every argument in this article will laughed out of town by the academic community committed to the field of Queer Theory and Gender Studies.

According to the authors of the article, “LGBT” is at once a “sexual orientation”, a “habit”, “abnormal instinct”, an “attitude”, and a product of the “ideology of free sex.” These contradictory claims seem to be plucked out from nowhere no thanks to a cavalier grasp of concepts.

This academic article is an alarming indicator of how awful Malaysian higher education can be on different levels; from the teaching of students, their research training, the supervision by members of the academic staff, the quality of written work that is passed off as “research”, to the ethos of the researching and teaching members of faculty.

How did such an article manage to be published in an academic journal, a vital currency in an academic career, at all? It would be too easy to assume that the authors are ignorant or lackeys of the government and religious authorities. We can start with the structural problems in Malaysian higher education. The abandonment of the humanities and social sciences in Malaysian universities is a major factor in the production of appalling research.

Poor funding, no thanks to the undervaluing of the humanities and social sciences, has driven away many talented researchers and teachers. Poor funding also means poorer resources for research. Subjects in the humanities and social sciences do not need laboratories and heavy equipment that are worth hundreds of thousands of ringgit.

But scholars of these fields do require generous funding for field research, conferences abroad, plenty of new books, and access to a variety of international journals subscribed by university libraries.

Without access to supervision and mentoring by scholars who have published in decent journals and access to many good books and journals, those with an intention to produce good research will be lost at sea with a broken compass. Structural limitations lead to low research output and ultimately, low academic standards.

However, not all in the humanities and social sciences in Malaysia are doomed. A few universities, some born as fraternity twins with another foreign university, have attracted research-active academics keen on reviving the humanities and social sciences, not least the study of gender and sexuality.

To cite Michel Foucault, there is power and desire in knowledge production. This makes academic knowledge production anywhere, not just in Malaysia, a less innocent enterprise than what many believe. Cloaked in scholarly language, pernicious ideas can gain an air of authority or worse, “truth.” This is why government propaganda masking as research is dangerous.

This does not mean that Queer Theory and Gender Studies are neutral in their approach to gender and sexuality either. They are products of a particular time, place, and people that later developed in a particular, if more globalised, direction. Most are Western in origin and derive from psychoanalysis, Western philosophy, and activist literature that require a reframing from a decolonising lens.

If Malaysian scholars wish to be recognised for their intellectual output in the study of gender and sexuality, they must participate in the existing dialogues, rather than abusing the modes of intellectual production in the service of repressive politics and state religion.

Higher education in Malaysia is treated like a commodity that can be bought and sacrificed at the altar of party politics. And like commodities that have no long-term intrinsic value, it is disposable and destined for the scrap heap once it has served a poorly conceived purpose.

Mapping gender in public toilets of the non-Western world

First published on The State Magazine on 10 July 2013

Toilets: we need them as we all pee and shit. It seems as if our most basic homeostatic functions exist outside of time and space, abiding by their own internal laws. This article, however, is about the laws that are external to the corporeal vessel: the social and cultural realities we live in that reinforce how we answer the call of nature. More specifically, it is about gender and the public toilet.

Toilets in our homes are almost always shared between women and men, girls and boys. Public toilets, on the other hand, are strictly segregated by gender. Call it the domestic politics of economic convenience; it would cost too much to have separate toilets in ordinary homes. In the public sphere—where we share toilet seats with other buttocks of unknown provenance—suddenly all sense of sharing (a toilet) with the opposite sex is lost.

Public toilets have not existed in their gendered form since time immemorial. They emerged alongside urbanisation, improved sanitation, and enforced privatisation of bodily functions in 19th century Europe. Since their inception, public toilets for women (introduced decades after the male-only facility) was subjected to fierce objection. Ideas of women relieving themselves in small ʻrest roomsʼ outside the confines of their homes (where they should be) was shocking and morally transgressive.1

Today, the architecture of public toilets imposes strict notions of gendered hygiene. Toilet bowls are usually white to make the smallest of impurities visible. The gap beneath cubicle doors allow for surveillance, both benign (is anybody in?) and gender policing (cis-womenʼs feet point outwards, and individuals with penises usually inwards). Within, women can chat with others present and spend time looking into mirrors, while men avoid eye contact with other men as much as possible. 2

Transgress the laws of the cis-sexist gender divisions signposted in binary atavistic symbols, and you could face violent repercussions. Trans* people and butch women have all faced the aggressive force of gender policing in public toilets. Homophobic attacks against gay men or men suspected as gay in public toilets are also rife. What is considered a ʻpublic convenienceʼ for all can turn out to be an oppressive menace to those who do not conform to mainstream gender and sexual identities. Public toilets are therefore sites of gender and sexual privilege.

The gendering of public toilets appears to be a largely Western obsession which is sometimes imposed on ideas about gender in non-Western contexts. In an early study on transgender identities in Indonesia, Tom Boellstorff begins with an anecdote about public toilets in Java that male-to-female transsexuals (waria) share with cis-men.3 Rather than being classed as a ʻthird genderʼ or a separate gender group, waria in Indonesia view themselves as men with womenʼs souls, or simply as women. Boellstorffʼs interest in public toilets and gender identity—that would be unsurprising to an Indonesian—underlines this Western obsession.

The flushing public toilet produces civilised binary-gendered subjectivities in non-Western cities. In the age of globalisation and transnationalisation of gender and sexual identities, fixed concepts of indigenous femininity or masculinity are called into question. We live in a media-saturated society where images of how we should be as women and men are trafficked across time and space, often without our consent. These are the visible representations of gender that we can turn away from and reject. But certain fundamental ideas about gender and bodily excretions—urine, faecal matter, menstrual blood, semen—in public toilets cannot be avoided and consigned to the realm of taboo.

Public toilets in India reveal the workings of gender and caste. In the stunning and thought-provoking documentary by Paromita Vohra, Q2P, the fast forward pace of urban development in India clashes with the stunted growth of basic human needs. Such a clash is also gendered: there are more spaces for men to pee and defecate than there are for women. In a much reviled law-defying custom, men pee in public because they can. It is unheard of for women to relieve themselves openly in public. The shortages of toilets for women in urban India is one of the many indicators of how unwelcoming the public sphere is for women.

The reason for such a numerical imbalance seems almost common sense: women need more space and time in public toilets. Women are believed to be cleaner than men, and to prefer a perpetually clean toilet. More pragmatically, because women sit down or squat as they pee, they simply take up much more room than men. Women are also temporally circumscribed: they are not to go out late at night or too early in the morning for safety and moral reasons. During the witching hour, men take over their space. The upkeep for toilets with such added luxuries while keeping them female-only can prove to be challenging for municipalities with limited means.

When there are public conveniences for women, the queue for available cubicles are longer and slower almost everywhere, not only in urban India. The flushing toilet is thus a privilege: large swaths of the Indian population do not have access to one. The opening of Starbucks in Indian cities was not only welcomed as a site of modern aspirational lifestyle, but also because it comes with a clean and functioning flushing toilet.4 Deep caste and class disparities intertwine with the public toilet in other more insalubrious ways. The lowest castes are historically assigned the role of manual toilet cleaners and scavengers of shit left behind by those of higher castes.

Perhaps minority views and tradition can offer equality in urinating practices and potentially unlock gendered spaces for bodily functions. In traditional Islamic texts, men who pee standing up are frowned upon. Instead, they should ease themselves in the same manner as their Muslim sisters. Feminist products such as ʻShe-peesʼ, a funnel-shaped device which facilitates discrete vertical urination liberate women and trans* folk from the humiliation of open-air squatting. Can peeing standing up or sitting down for both genders spell equality?

The humble flushing toilet has been touted by The British Medical Journal as the most important advancement in medicine since 1840. Besides saving millions of lives and putatively more, the toilet brings ʻdignity, privacy, safety [and] better living conditions.ʼ5 You will only miss the easily taken-for-granted toilet when itʼs not there. But how hung up are you about sharing (or not sharing) the public toilet with strangers of the opposite sex?

Public toilets add to the discourse that gender is a socio-cultural presentation for public consumption and policing. Some women will not leave home without applying make-up, while men generally do not. But at home, we tend to do as we please. What we can do at home is (mostly) private and (usually) outside the reach of public gender policing. Perhaps the unisex public toilet is the ultimate indicator of equality wherein gender is at once transgressed, undermined, and rendered obsolete. A future of unisex public toilets as a symbol of civilisation and sophistication has yet to arrive. In the meantime, the public toilet is a locus of transnationalism and globalisation, (re)producing gender and sexual identities as befits the ever-changing architecture of urban spaces and notions of civilised society.

Reference

1 Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (editors) (2009) Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, Temple University Press.
2 Sheila Cavanagh, (2011) Queering Bathrooms, University of Toronto Press.
3 Tom Boellstorff, (2004) ʻPlaying back the nation: waria, Indonesian transvestitesʼ, Cultural Anthropology, Vol 19, Issue 2.
4 Why Indiaʼs yuppies want Starbucks (itʼs not about the coffee), The Guardian, 30 October 2012
5 ToiletDay.org

My interview with film director Nia Dinata

Nia Dinata is one of Indonesia’s most important film-makers. Known for tackling subject matters such as abortion, polygamy, and sexualities in a profoundly refreshing way, the films of teh Nia have received worldwide acclaim outside the geographically parochial national film industry of Indonesia. I had the valuable opportunity to ask teh Nia about her views on gender in Indonesian cinema and the current trend of religiously themed films. This interview is one of my many interviews with members of Indonesia’s film community, its producers, directors, critics, and scholars.

The formidable film director and producer Nia Dinata. Source: The New York Times.

Length of interview: 24 minutes
Location: Kalyana Shira Films, South Jakarta, February 2012.

Alicia Izharuddin: Do you think there’s been a change in representations of women in Indonesian film?

Nia Dinata: Little change. Not as significant as people expected just because there are more women behind the scene does not mean it translates immediately to just portrayals of women on the screen. I don’t think it happens directly. But I see little changes here and there. It’s not as significant as the number of women who are now behind the cameras and behind film-making. I think we still need to work on that.

AI: What are we looking for? What kind of images of women that are not being shown enough in film right now?

ND: I feel that it’s still very rare for women to be heroes, as the major protagonist in a film. Not Or other minority characters, not just women – gay men, lesbian women. Mostly the heroes are still men. The kind of portrayal of women if they are female heroes like the films I watched last year, they are mostly women who are religious. If they are heroes, they should be religious. Have you done that research?

AI: Yes, I am doing that research.

ND: Most of the heroines have to be healthy, very religious, very conservative in their choice of lifestyles. So there’s still not enough room for women who are not religious. Or religious but they do not want to show it, they think religion is a private matter.

AI: So they don’t wear the jilbab.

ND: Yes. Women who are less ‘white’. Maybe a bit ‘grey’. Because we have a lot of films where we have the hero or heroine who have ‘grey’ characters – not black or white.

AI: Grey, as in ambiguous?

ND: Yes, ambiguous. I think it’s very rare to have that kind of characters. Ambiguous characters. I think Indonesian people are afraid of ambiguity. They are still afraid to admit that actually human beings can be a saint and evil. We are complex.

AI: But is that one of the problems with film-maker is that they’re too scared that audiences cannot accept complex characters.

ND: I don’t think it’s a matter of fear. It’s more a matter of ignorance. They didn’t even realise that ambiguity exists, that there are different gender portrayals or characteristics. Because there are not many women film makers who are also aware of gender issues.

AI: You’ve been known to make films about women that have been discussed before, like abortion, polygamy. What do you think is your approach to portraying men and masculinities?

ND: Oh I don’t know what my approach is. I’m not an expert in masculinity! If you like this world is already very masculine. The earth, I believe, is very feminine in the beginning. But in time, it became more masculine. Maybe there’s no relation to film at all. But in general, femininity is still considered a threat, a weakness. I have no approach to portraying masculinity.

AI: Because one of the films you produced, Quickie Express, was used in my class to study masculinities. The reason why I found it interesting is because …

ND: They’re not masculine at all.

AI: Even though they’re not masculine, they try to be. But in their efforts to be masculine, it becomes comedic. What is also interesting in the film is that you find many examples where you find the male sexuality is humiliated, being undone. Did you have to anything to say there about men in that film?

ND: Actually, the film was a parody. I love doing satire. And the film was a satire of society. And the reason why it’s so successful in terms of box office [sales] is because the public was mistaken. The film was mistaken for a very masculine film. People who have power and decide what films to watch are generally men – the masculine force. Of course it’s fun for me to see that actually they’re being put into this strategy and they eat it all up. And most of them still find it fun to watch. A small group [of male audiences] find it the opposite. Even the Om Rudi character who is very masculine and turn out to be gay. It’s an expression of while we can make films, we might as well use it to express our beliefs.

AI: Unfortunately the film was never really rigorously analysed. But when I watched it, I thought, so many things that could be unpacked. In your opinion, do you think it is possible for male film-makers to make representations of women that are very meaningful?

ND: I do. But we’re lacking is consciousness, mindfullness. Especially when we’re making films. Most of the male film-makers I believe they’re capable of making films about women in a very inspiring light, not necessarily positive. However, when they do it, they do it unconsciously. And when they don’t do it, they [also] do it unconsciously. We’re not brought up to do critical thinking of trying to analyse, criticise the society, and the imbalanced portrayals of men and women in the media. Unless it’s people like you or me who’ve taken classes on gender, women’s psychology or stuff like that in college. Most people are not trained especially in Asia to see with critical eyes about those things. I believe that male film-makers are not also not trained in those things. And when I point out, ‘oh I like that portrayal of women in this film or several others’. But I believe a man did that portrayals unconsciously, but not without real intention but because the story flow very well, it looks very artistic, the characters, not the women look stronger but not with mindfullness that it is important [to portray women in a meaningful way].

Film poster for Berbagi Suami (Love for Share, 2006) directed by Nia Dinata

AI: When I ask that question, I keep thinking about Perempuan berkalung sorban as an example of a male film-maker who is trying to say so many things about a woman’s experiences in a difficult and conservative environment. I just wondered why more women were not involved in a project like that?

ND: I cannot stand watching Perempuan berkalung sorban because there’s a lot of pretentiousness in it so I don’t know.

AI: Did you think it was too preachy?

ND: Yes, too preachy and that’s why I thought it was pretentious.

AI: Another thing I was wondering, back to women behind the camera. Why do you think there are not as many women behind the scenes? There is definitely a rise in the number of women producers. But the one who is calling the shots, the director, women in that role are still so few. Is there are reason why?

ND: It’s generally like all over the world right?

AI: Yes, of course. But is there a specific reason here in Indonesia? Because I’m comparing Malaysia. In Malaysia, we don’t have many women film-makers. We don’t have a very big population, but that’s not a good enough reason. But I wondered if there’s about the culture in film industry that is probably macho, not just male-dominated. Does it make more difficult for women in any way?

ND: I don’t think so. The environment is making it difficult but it has to come from the woman herself. Because I think this kind of progress that we’ve been through, the environment is very friendly at least the one that I’ve been through to both women and men. I think it has to come from the women herself to have the need and longing to call the shots. Because if they don’t try it they don’t know how exciting and invigorating for anybody to be able to visualise their thoughts.

AI: Do you think it’s something to do with power and leadership, and maybe women are not as willing to take up that role?

ND: Yes, I think it has something to do leadership, and something to do with the belief that women are better at organising and managing so they become very good producers. Which is true. So most people, they end up falling into that belief and decide for themselves, ‘I want to be a producer, instead of I want to be a director.’

AI: My last question; pertaining to films that feature a lot of Islamic elements in them. In the last few years, there have been a number of films about Islam and Muslim people. It was like a trend, however, they were not many women were who responsible for these films. Is there a reason maybe that Islam as a topic that may be too sensitive for women film-makers to take up?

ND: But for me, it’s all about trends. It’s all about big waves in Indonesia that have been for the past 4,5 years. It’s very trendy to even wear the jilbab, to be a born-again Muslim, to belong to a certain group of pengajian, another form of arisan. All my friends, say ‘Let’s join this pengjian. The ustaz is very nice. Let’s meet once or twice a week’. For them, it makes them happy because it is very trendy. It is trendy to launch your fashion, and after fashion it is movie and music. Which is why men love to do something based on their brain, not their heart. Their brain says Islam will make a lot of profit. But if you look deeper, the men are not even Muslims. So it’s just making a commodity out of Islam.

AI: But there are also a number of film-makers who get questioned about their qualifications to make films like that. Hanung Bramantyo gets questioned a lot about the kind representations of Islam and Muslims in his films, because they are more you could say ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’. He is questioned about how good a Muslim he is, his actors are for example. To me, I find it interesting because the personal side of the film-maker is also being put in the spot.

ND: Well, it depends. When Hanung made Tanda Tanya, he has every right to make it because he has questions about Islam [in Indonesia] himself. Somebody whose name I don’t want to mention, who are Catholics who make religious films I don’t think it is fair. Because for me, it is fair for business. But content-wise, it is not. Everybody can make any film for the sake of business but I won’t watch that film because I get to choose what I want to watch. But it depends, if somebody makes a film that has questions about religion criticising religion, that’s fine, anybody can make. Anybody in their stage in life will have questions like that. It would be nice to have those questions up on the big screen. But if you’re making films that are very, very conservative, very black and white, without any critical thinking at all in your film where you are not even a Muslim. It’s kind of strange to me. It’s like putting business as your religion. I think people who are criticising film-makers who make films about religion are very shallow people because anybody can question about their religion, or question the existence of God.

AI: In Malaysia, we’re very conservative and we can’t just make films that question Islam. But in Indonesia, I also notice that those who are conservative share that same view.

ND: But that’s the risk of being a film-maker. If you want to tackle those issues you have to be prepared. But the difference between Malaysia and Indonesia is that you can actually do anything in Indonesia, it’s just a matter of whether you’re ready to be criticiesd or not. But in Malaysia, even when you have the intention it doesn’t mean you can materialise that intention.

AI: [Laughs] Yes, it’s tragic like that.

ND: Move to Indonesia to make films. [Laughs]

AI: [Laughs] OK, I think that’s all we have for today. Thank you, Teh Nia.

On skodeng visual culture

Marshall McLuhan perhaps never foresaw how the global village would one day become like a Malay village where a person’s code of morality was carefully circumscribed and their private life is everybody’s business. One aspect of the online Malay village is the exchange of saliva-inducing moral tut-tutting and cruel assassination of character between internet users via the ‘skodeng’ video. These are videos of people in intimate situations uploaded online by voyeuristic moral vigilantes. The details of many of the videos are in Malay and are searing with judgmental commentary. Many are tagged with the now notorious word ‘skodeng’ or spying. The videos, made in the idiom of amateur/gonzo salaciousness, are captured using mobile phones or digital cameras.

‘Skodeng’ is the byword for the contemporary state of Malay sexual morality. It is not simply a Malay person’s expression of prurience, sexual frustration, and the need to punish others, but a product of state-sponsored moral policing that entices the volunteering public into positions of ancillary power. Members of the public have always been a part of the controlling of bodies, erotics, and movement within its imagined communities. The more commonly applied methods of moral policing come in the form of raids by religious officers who act on tip-offs from members of the public. And moral vigilantes officialised under the auspices of federal and state religious authorities – like Badan Amal Makruf Nahimunkar (disbanded in 2005), the Putrajaya Islamic Council Volunteer Squad, and RELA – have been never low in supply.

On Valentine’s Day in 2011, the Malaysian state of Selangor’s religious department rounded up 80 Muslim individuals for committing khalwat in an operation called ‘Ops Valentine’. The nine-hour operation, which began at 8pm, was a two phase event involving visits to the recreational and public parks around Selangor and raids in budget hotels. Sexual relations outside of wedlock is considered a sharia offence for Muslims under the Section 23(3) of the Sharia Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act 1997. Along with the case of Ops Valentine, state governments and religious authorities have been known to assign the role of moral enforcers to less official citizen volunteers termed ‘mat skodeng’ (male spies/peeping toms).

Moral policing has been described as a political tool to shore up the moral vote, but it has become a social tool with far-reaching consequences. By enlisting vigilantes to assist in the moral policing, religious authorities may have inadvertently unleashed a phenomenon in which members of the Muslim public take it upon themselves to expose furtive activities of other people to humiliate and possibly, blackmail. Instead of reporting to religious authorities, however, skodeng voyeurs resort to another kind of vigilante ‘justice': video evidence and the threat of shame.

The moral high ground also comes with a privileged view of the moralising gaze. According to the feminist activist and web media expert, Jac SM Kee, one’s legitimacy or moral ‘right’ to see (and judge) coincides with their their privileged social and religious position in society. Malay people are institutionally privileged and a version of their faith Islam is often used by the state as a stick to beat people with. When religion is used as a state tool to intimidate, those with a righteous streak have a convenient source of legitimacy that the aura of Malay privilege and state Islam provide.

The ability to look with dehumanising intent is a position of power; the male gaze determines the mainstream ways of eroticised looking, the touristic gaze looks on from a position of seclusion from the reaches of the exotic Other, the white gaze reduces the non-white into insignificance. Once legitimised by being the on the ‘right’ side of morality, one feels emboldened and justified to look and judge. But the moralising gaze gains much of its power from seeing without being seen. Once the tables are turned against them in which they are exposed and subjected to scrutiny, they lose their power and pleasure.

There’s no mistaking that the skodeng video exists as part and parcel of our sex-tape, nip-slip, invasive papparazzi-style image-saturated society in which forbiddenness, desiribility, and erotic legitimacy are mediated through audio-visual material. Skodeng videos are part of a visual culture where the boundaries between the public and private are tantalisingly thin. One major cost of media voyeurism is the devaluation of privacy and the privileging of spectatorship over interaction that renders the viewer passive but hungry for more.

It may not be a stretch to suggest that mediated voyeurism, with regards to the production and viewing of skodeng videos, is not an isolated expression of social deviance and state intervention, but rather exists in a constellation of the more banal world of reality television and its close cousins: curated television programmes of home or amateur videos of embarrassing or extraordinary circumstances such as police car chases or animals performing improbable acts caught on tape, all of which are sadly available on Malaysian television.

We cannot discount how high profile moral policing has created a culture of surveillance in Malaysia in which an unseen eye ensures that we are at our best behaviour. To briefly invoke Foucault: those who are observed (or think they are observed) and controlled by an unseen eye will end up observing themselves and disciplining their every move. The fear of the law, fines, CCTV, nosy neighbours, and now personal video devices are part of this culture of surveillance.

Somehow acts of observation and control have shifted from the self to being exerted over others in this culture of surveillance. One also wonders whether concerns about the lack of integrity that the police and other guardians of social order have in Malaysian society means that we resort to privatised methods of securing personal safety and order. And in the case of securing moral order, the lack of trust in authorities distorted by a warped sense of righteousness means that ordinary individuals can reinstate a veneer of morality in their own twisted way.

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Acknowledgements:
The author wants to thank Jac SM Kee for her contribution to the writing of this post and journal article. This post is a condensed, truncated, and deliberately florid version of a journal article in progress. Please refrain from citing this piece without my permission.

On the viability of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ as categories in Malaysia

The first thing that would be useful when thinking about genders and sexualities in Malaysia is that the categories of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are far from native and natural in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. What is meant by ‘native’ and ‘natural’ refers to the fact that gender and sexuality are relatively recent loanwords. And as loanwords, they have a history and serve particular functions. Does the fact that ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are loanwords from the English language and emerge from a Western medical, sociological and philosophical tradition mean that their meaning in the Malaysian context is foreign and out of place?

When ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ and their different linguistic incarnations reflective of the country’s multilingual fabric appear at all, they are sporadic, infrequent, and usually enmeshed in the discourse of academia, feminism, and human rights. ‘Gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are words and currency of those privileged by education and class background. Having rigorous knowledge and interest in gender and queer theory is often the preserve of liberal, queer, activist and/or intellectuals. So there is a spectrum rather than a discrete know/don’t know in the level of knowledge and use of the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia.

The entry of new terms into a language and the development of those terms are governed by multiple factors beyond the will of one individual. Although the viability of terms in a language will require the consensus of collective acceptance and use, the fate of the terms’s cultural connotations are harder to predict. We can have the words ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in public usage, but how would people react to these terms? What are the assumptions, misconceptions, prejudices, and the kind of curiosities these words invite? But above all, why does an interrogation into the genealogies of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia matter at all? The answer to these questions has huge political implications with regard to the state of queer and feminist activism in Malaysia. Because language matters.

The banning of the LGBT rights festival, Seksualiti Merdeka, in 2011 precipitated the circulation of false descriptions and connotations of the festival in the Malaysian media as a ‘free sex’ event. With ‘merdeka’ to mean ‘independence’ or ‘liberation’ but with ‘seksualiti’ not gaining much linguistic traction in Malay, the very name of the festival became subject to misunderstanding. However, machinations leading to such a misunderstanding was far from innocent.

News reports and opinion editorials about transgender, gay, and lesbian individuals in Malaysia in the local mainstream media activate and reproduce transphobic and homophobic sentiments in a moralising tenor. Outside the manipulation of emotive issues and moral panics that serve partisan politics lies a broken linguistic and cultural landscape that seems, at first sight, inhospitable to the development of a local gender and sexuality discourse.

First and foremost, let us consider the westernness of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’. In the present situation, the words ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are already in usage and in circulation in Malaysia. There’s not much we can do about that. Of course words do become obsolete and ‘die out’, but I’m not convinced that the terms used in one of the most influential discourses in recent times will become obsolete anytime soon. In opposition to Francis Fukuyama’s eurocentric assertions of the ‘end of history’, our history of gender and sexuality in Malaysia is only beginning to be told.

In their current usage, we have to pick up and analyse the perceived and ‘real’ cultural connotations of the terms, i.e. as concepts, they are ‘western’. Of course this accusation is true, as concepts ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ emerge out of western philosophy (which was once upon a time, an amalgamation of medicine, politics, mathematics, among other pre-specialised disciplines).

Even the discourse of biological sex did not begin with the oppositional or complimentary notion of sexual dichotomy. In Greek philosophy (and throughout much of western thought), women were considered lesser men or simply ‘incomplete’ as people. For instance, morphologically, the naming of women’s sexual anatomy (vagina, or the invagination of the women’s ‘penis’) was once part and parcel of the discourse that justified women’s inferiority. It would take hundreds of years for feminist theory to pick up on misogynist philosophical texts of a bygone era to develop what we can recognise today as gender theory. There are certainly differences in female and male anatomy, but the way they are talked about have changed during the course of history.

But what of the idea of ‘concepts’ themselves? The methods in the development of an idea are perhaps western in origin, too. Concepts are frameworks for systematic thinking and analysis. They are the vessels in which discourse reside, but they are permeable to other elements – the cultural and historical. Take for instance the differences we see in women and men; how people talk about women and men, and why they dress the way they do. In systematic thinking and analysis, what groups women and men together in how we describe them is gender. How we systematically think and analyse the erotics and legal history of desire is conveniently described through the concept of ‘sexuality’.

Remember, the term ‘gender’ or ‘sexuality’ had not come into popular existence until the last century. This means that gender is a cultural and historical construction as much as it a social construct. Gender is also an analytical construction in that we now have a framework to understand how femininity and masculinity exist as ‘effects’ of political and religious culture. More recently, people have begun to talk about how even sexuality is constructed. The idea and discourses pertaining to homosexuality had only come into existence in the late nineteenth century. Before, what is considered same-sex practices did not have a name. Now, not only does the term ‘homosexuality’ exist, but so does the identity and personhood of the ‘homosexual’.

Accused as more western than ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are perhaps ‘homosexuality’, gay, and lesbian identities. Again, the westernness of gay and lesbian identities cannot be disputed as the origins of the discourse of homosexuality did emerge from the medical annals of European doctors and the reclamation of the discourse by gay communities did take place in the west. More belatedly, heterosexuality is now understood as a construct.

To ignore for a moment those who are still obsessed with the Kipling-esque binaries of east and west, globalisation is now the order of the day and changed how we think about world geopolitics. Globalisation of media and the internet assisted in the travel of ideas and concepts. Among them are the concept and connotations of gay and lesbian identities that were adopted by communities in their quest for belonging, identification, and legitimacy. Those with access to knowledge about gay and lesbian culture are those with class and educational privilege. The greater the privilege, the more savvy one becomes with the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’.

In a way, Malaysian public discourse picks up the terms gender and sexuality halfway in the narrative history of gender and queer theory, when the discourses regarding the two have developed in highly sophisticated ways in the west. By comparison, our own versions of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ remain remotely peripheral to the ways gender and sexuality are discussed in the west and neighboring Southeast Asian countries. As discourses, our ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are non-existent. Only until we develop our own discursive ‘centre’ of gender and sexuality can we begin to talk about decentering western ones.

Currently, we rely on the anthropological data of mainly western academics to piece together a puzzle that is the history of gender and sexuality in Malaysia. But will using the frameworks of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ to look into the past when such ideas may have been non-existent risks being anachronistic? A reflexive historian never forgets that we can only look through the prism of the present and construct a historical narrative using the modern conveniences of theories that help us ‘see’ gender and sexuality of the past.

Thanks to the accommodating nature of the Malay language in its absorption of foreign words, we have the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in the national Malay language dictionary. But surely this is not enough. Behind the definitions of terms lies a lack of depth. We are beset by a number of factors exacerbating the isolation and negative connotations of the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia. First, they are not used enough in the mass media and everyday parlance. Second, there is not enough interest in the studying of gender and sexuality. Third, our academic culture is stifled by rigid institutional barriers against ‘controversial’ and ‘liberal’ topics like gender and sexuality.

As concepts or theories, ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ needn’t be western if we can develop our own concepts and theories for even the notion of concepts and theories can be de-westernised. And with the critical mass of talk, writing, and visualising to develop a local discourse, the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ can be reclaimed from the clutches of negative connotations to become viable, positive, and culturally robust. In the mass of inconsequential commentary, there are gems to be had. During the age of globalisation where nation and local cultures are safeguarded from the ‘outside’, locality and indigenous concepts have greater legitimacy to withstand critique from within.

Sang Penari: the female body as a sexualised site of masculine struggle

At the time of writing, I was experiencing the warmth of critical acclaim bestowed on an Indonesian film that had just finished its all-too-brief exhibition at cinemas in Jakarta. The film, Sang Penari (The Dancer), is described by film critics as the apogee of Indonesian cinema 20111. Arguably the “best film” of last year, and further evidenced by its winning the award for Best Film at the Jakarta Film Festival. Based on the novel ‘Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk’ by Ahmad Tohari once banned under Suharto’s authoritarian regime2, it tells the story of the struggle between tradition, modernity, political struggle, and how it takes place on the female body, both literally and metaphorically.

Set in an isolated agrarian village in 1963, only a few years before the militarist coup led by Suharto against communism in Indonesia in 1965, the film begins with a scene of lustful village men enthralled by the ronggeng dancer and a young girl, Srintil, who is destined to take the dancer’s place. When Srintil’s father is accused of poisoning members of the villege, including the ronggeng dancer – all of whom have eaten his tempe bongrek – both Srintil’s mother and himself take their own lives by eating their poisoned product to prove their innocence.

To recover the honour of her family’s name, Srintil decides to take on the role of the ronggeng dancer herself much to the dismay of her childhood sweetheart, Rasus. Unbeknowst to Srintil however is the ronggeng’s other social role of providing sexual services to the men of the village. Realising that Srintil’s sexuality now belongs to every men and not his alone, Rasus leaves the village to become a member of the army where he is trained to participate in the crackdown of communist activity in villages, of which Dukuh Paruk will eventually play host to with fatal consequences. Although the villagers of Dukuh Paruk are mobilised to take their own collective destiny into their hands by defying a feudalistic system that contributed to their impoverished state, expressed through the melding of agrarian-centric communist ideals and the ronggeng dancer’s mystical power to bless their revolutionary efforts, their agency is proven futile and eventually diminished in a massacre.

The superstitious beliefs that the villagers invest in the power of the ronggeng, though much to the physical expense of Srintil, underscore their ‘backward’ worldview and imminent failure in the face of encroaching modernity, as symbolised by organised military and media technology such as the radio, a tool to usher in the red revolution. More heartfelt and frustrating, however, is the use of the central figure – the dancer, her body and sexuality – as the battleground of ideals and struggle pursued and fought out to various degrees of force by the men in the film. Rasus is the figure torn between nation-building and the grip of tradition symbolised by his love for Srintil. The communist activist and mobiliser Bakar is the agent of change and conflict. The dalang of the roenggeng, who legitimises Srintil’s sacred/profane role is also complicit, alongside Bakar, in the downfall of Dukuh Paruk. Throughout the masculinised machinations that determine the village’s fate, Srintil is given little agency and is thrust into one violent tribulation to another while clinging to the desire to dance the ronggeng.

Similar to other films depicting prominent female characters situated in the throes of nation-scale upheavals such as Nia Dinata’s Cau Bau Kan (The Courtesan, 2002), the fictional women are often at the mercy of the men who oppress them through the use of sexual violence. Indirectly, they are at the mercy of the state. But somehow at the same time, they are held up as (suffering) symbols of the nation. In nationalistic discourse, the nation is usually portrayed as femininie, the state masculine. The iconography of the motherland has often been constructed as either a nurturing mother or sensuous female servant3 In Indonesian nationalist discourse meanwhile, the nation, at times regarded as ibu pertiwi (the motherland) is framed as an anguished and suffering female beauty4. But I would further argue that the feminised iconograpby of the motherland requires the guardianship from invading (male) forces. The nation as feminine is passive and helpless. ‘She’ is subject to the threat of masculinised violation. The idea of the nation violated by colonial/imperialist presence is translated in literature and indeed on screen into a central female figure, whose subjugation to unwelcome (male) violation is always a sexual one.

With Sang Penari, we witness a return of the suffering feminine body as site of cultural/national struggle. And now garlanded with accolades and acclaim, we witness something of a nostalgia for cultural/national struggle that takes place on a woman’s body. The film suffers from little protest and criticism of the misogyny central to the narrative because it privileges other aspects; the film’s artistry and the recovery of a repressed literary voice, while marginalising the major strides female film-makers and feminist critics are making in redressing the male-dominance of Indonesian film-making and discourse. The unproblematic sensibility that Sang Penari receives from audiences and critics alike is perhaps reflective of its time; a time when some semblance of feminism has made a mark in Indonesian public discourse, and with it a sensibility that gender equality has at least been established since.

___________________________________

Notes:

1I n personal conversation with film critic and scholar Tito Imanda.

2 The novel ‘tie-in’, Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, enjoyed a prominent place in the best-seller’s corner in bookshops in Jakarta towards the end of 2011, re-emerging in print after decades of censorship.

3 ‘Virgin territories and motherlands: colonial and nationalist representations of Africa and Ireland’ by C.L. Innes (1994), Feminist Review No. 47, pp. 3-4.

4′ When the earth is female, and the nation is mother; Gender, the armed forces, and nationalism in Indonesia’, by Saraswati Sunindyo (1998), Feminist Review No. 58, pp.1-21.

Dormitory lovers: a very short story

Mel has never seen herself like this before; her hair carefully, no, chastely, tucked away underneath her tudung from the ever-intrusive eyes of those considered non-mahram, revealing only her heart-shaped face and that twinkle in her eye that Amir loves so much.

“How do I look, Mir?”
“Delicious. Good enough to eat.”
“You do realise I’m naked, don’t you? It’s a bit wrong!” That twinkle flashing brighter than any distant star.
“Not really. You’re wearing the tudung. That makes everything okay.”

There was something about Amir that always turned Mel on. Alone with her, he had a kind of shyness punctuated with a self-conscious flirtatiousness that jarred with years of his maahad schooling in Muar. Maybe he learned to talk with girls like that from the Jackie Collins novels that belonged to his English teacher mother. Regardless, she hopes she’s the only one he’s ever found tasty enough to eat even when she knows there will be others who will stir a similar appetite.

She hopes that she stands out as special out of all the girls he had fallen for before. She hopes she is his first. The first to ever pounce on him, like a cat and her new-found plaything, with her dilated Nescafe ice-coloured nipples thrust in his face, while his warm and hard penis crashed against her perineum.

***

The sound of a young woman holding back her giggles seguing into breathy moans as she leaps on her equally naked lover, is barely audible from the dorm room next door. Miraculously the thin and worn mattress on the hostel bed smothers the creaks and knocks of an under-skilled amorous couple, itself a witness to and punctured by the solitary sexual release of boys from generations past.

Tonight Amir is a receptacle to the corporeal manifestations of her yearning. His body, an ever-crimson stamen of a fragile blossom, a saucy metaphor she learned from reading Mills and Boon as a twelve year old. Tonight was indeed special.

It was almost like the recurring trope in American teen movies; everyone loses their virginity on prom night. But for Mel and Mir, it was the final semester of their final undergraduate year together and Mel hasn’t thought very much about what her and Amir’s future hold. But mutual friends have expressed some grown-up ideas about their next plan of action: open a photo-processing shop, get married, do a Masters degree.

But tonight, before forever, they are together. They held each other close like they did for the first time, in fact with a member of the opposite sex for the first time. But together, perhaps, for the last time.

End.

Pendidikan seks untuk memupuk nilai bertanggungjawab

First published on Merdeka Review, 23rd March 2012.

Zaman remaja merupakan masa yang paling jahil, menakutkan, dan mengujakan bagi mereka yang masih muda. Sewaktu di bangku sekolah menengah perempuan beribu tahun dahulu, saya, dengan perasaan penuh malu, bertanya kepada rakan sekelas yang lebih ‘berpengetehuan’ tentang perkara-perkara intim apakah maksudnya ‘klimaks’ atau orgasme. Jawab rakan saya dengan penuh yakin: ia adalah apabila pasangan yang asyik bersenggama berteriak-teriak seperti haiwan ternakan bergaduh. Atau mengawan. Usia saya sewaktu itu baru mencecah 13 tahun, seorang anak dara tetapi sudah didedahkan dengan unsur-unsur ‘dewasa’ melalui rakan sebaya. Saya pernah sekali seperti anak-anak remaja yang lain, yang mempunyai sifat ingin tahu.

Dengan kurangnya pendidikan seks, golongan remaja akan terjebak dalam kancah kejahilan tentang tubuh dan naluri mereka dan kurang berasa tanggungjawab atas perbuatan mereka. Pendidikan seks yang baik bukan sahaja mengajar anak-anak tentang bagaimana hubungan seks berlaku, tetapi menyampaikan nilai-nilai seperti rasa tanggungjawab, kehormataan dan keyakinan diri kepada kaum muda. Tanpa mengajar nilai-nilai seperti ini, anak-anak mungkin akan mencuba apa yang telah dipelajari dalam kelas pendidikan seks tanpa rasa tanggungjawab pada diri, keluarga, dan pada pasangan mereka. Namun, saya rasa yakin pendidikan seks yang komprehensif bukannya menggalakkan remaja untuk ‘mencuba’ tetapi akan menjadikan mereka lebih berhati-hati dan prihatin tentang implikasi hubungan seks di bawah dan sebelumnya berkahwin.

Tanpa disedari, sebenarnya pendidikan seks tidak formal sudahpun berlaku di rumah, diajar oleh ibubapa dari usia bermulanya anak mereka boleh bercakap dan memahami bahasa. Ibubapa telahpun mengajar bagaimana menamakan kemaluan anak-anak mereka, bagaimana untuk tidak menyalahgunakannya, bagaimana untuk memeliharanya daripada pandangan orang lain. Pendidikan seks tidak formal sudahpun bermula di sekolah tetapi dikalangan rakan-rakan sebaya. Ada yang dipelajari tentang seks oleh mereka, sama ada melalui orang-orang dewasa, filem-filem lucah, majalah Mastika, dan sebagainya bukan boleh kita, ibubapa, atau guru mengawal.

Pendidikan seks yang formal akan mendidik anak-anak remaja untuk menghormati pasangan mereka, membasmi deraan seksual, dan boleh mengurangkan kes-kes keganasan rogol dan sumbang mahram. Dengan melengkapkan anak-anak dan remaja dengan pengetahuan tentang tubuh badan mereka, tentang defininya cabul dan perkosaan (dengan cara dan bahasa yang sesuai), mereka akan lebih tegar memaklumkan ibubapa mereka jika sesuatu yang tidak diingini berlaku kepada mereka. Antara faktor yang memberanikan perogol dan pencabul anak-anak adalah mangsa-mangsa yang mendiamkan diri, dimalukan, dan tidak boleh bersuara. Pendidikan seks yang formal boleh memberikan ‘suara’ kepada anak-anak untuk melindungi diri mereka dan membawa pesalah seksual ke kebenaran.

Masalahnya di sini adalah ibubapa, guru-guru, pakar isu-isu keagamaan – kesemuanya dewasa – yang kurang selesa, segan, dan malu untuk berkongsi pengetahuan tentang lumrah manusia, kehormatan, dan masa depan anak-anak dan remaja. Yang ganjilnya, kanak-kanak secara lazimnya kurang segan bertanya tentang perkara yang sensitif berbanding anak-anak remaja dan mereka yang sudah mencecah dewasa. Kita tidak boleh mengharapkan pendidikan agama di sekolah atau menunggu di ambang perkahwinan untuk maklumat dan tanggapan tentang seks dan seksualiti yang sihat. Setahu saya, ustazah dan ustaz saya sepanjang persekolahan saya tidak pernah membincangkan tentang kontrasepsi (cara-cara menghindar daripada kehamilan), HIV, keganasan dan gangguan seksual.

Tetapi nampaknya kerajaan kita enggan berganjak ke arah masyarakat yang matang dan mandiri. Berita lama tentang pengharaman buku ‘Where Did I Come From?’ (Dari Mana Saya Datang?) oleh Peter Mayle yang pertama kali diterbit pada tahun 1984 membuktikan sekali lagi keengganan kerajaan kita untuk membaca dan menilai sebuah buku untuk kanak-kanak dengan matang dan saksama. Buku karya Mayle yang berkisarkan sepasang suami isteri yang saling menyayangi, berhubungan intim lantas dikurniakan anak telah dicapkan ‘keterlaluan’ di sebuah negara yang tidak segan bermain politik lucah dan menghalalkan pengedarkan majalah Mastika, Pesona, dan seangkatan dengannya di perkarangan kaki lima.

Buku yang ditujukan untuk bacaan kanak-kanak dan ibubapa dianggap melanggar Seksyen 292 kerana penggambaran lukisan kartoon sepasang suami isteri yang telanjang, bersetubuh, dan memaparkan maklumat tentang penamaan anatomi reproduksi yang betul untuk kanak-kanak. Pengharaman buku Mayle dan tindakan-tindakan drakonian anti-pendidikan oleh kerajaan yang lain tidak jauh bezanya daripada kongkongan seorang ibu atau bapa yang pantang melihat anak mereka berfikir dan membuat pertimbangan sendiri dengan cara yang matang.

Kita tidak boleh menghalang golongan remaja daripada mengenali dan memahami seksualiti mereka, walaubagaimana khuatir kita akan berasa tentang gejala seks di bawah umur dan pembuangan anak. Pendidikan yang baik tidak boleh dipertikaikan, ini termasuk juga pendidikan seks dan tenaga pengajar yang terlatih, sensitif, dan berfikiran terbuka. Pengenalan pendidikan seks ke sekolah-sekolah bukannya agenda liberal, tetapi boleh mempunyai unsur-unsur yang berlandaskan ajaran moral di mana nilai-nilai universal seperti sikap bertanggungjawab dan penyayang, kehormatan diri, melindungi yang lemah, dan pengurusan perasaan dan imej kendiri boleh diterapkan dalam syllabus.

Pentingkah paparan watak-watak LGBT di media?

Disiar di Merdeka Review, tanggal 17 April 2012.

Kelewatan ini melihat desas-desus pengharaman paparan watak LGBT di kaca televisyen telahpun mendatangkan lagi persoalan tentang wajarkah individu-individu LGBT mempunyai tempat di siaran media. Bagi saya, jawabnya ya, tetapi saya juga mempunyai rasa ragu dengan pendirian saya. Pertama sekali, watak lesbian, gay, dan transgender terutamanya di filem-filem dan rancangan televisyen tempatan hampir selalunya stereotaip-stereotaip yang negatif. Sebagai contoh, watak yang dianggap ‘gay’ selalu disamakan dengan lelaki yang ‘lembut’, cerewet, dan slapstik tahap kewanitaannya.

Watak-watak yang difahamkan sebagai ‘lesbian’ pula hanya mempunyai satu jelmaan; wanita yang mempunyai gaya pemakaian dan pertuturan seperti lelaki atau ‘butch’. Watak transgender atau Mak Nyah pula tidak lain dan tidak bukan seorang wanita yang menjual tubuhnya dipersisiran jalan atau penghibur di kelab malam yang terlalu marak make-up dan gaya kewanitaannya. Secara lazim, watak-watak LGBT akan insaf, dikecewakan, atau diseksa dalam drama televisyen dan filem tempatan, contohnya filem Anu Dalam Botol.

Kesemua stereotaip-stereotaip ini memain peranan dalam media; kesemuanya berfungsi sebagai watak satu-dimensi yang digunakan sebagai bahan jenaka atau kontroversi yang tidak bertempat. Menurut peneliti-peneliti media, apa yang dilihat di media merupakan paparan dan gambaran yang dibuat oleh masyarakat majoriti atau kebanyakan untuk tontonan kebanyakan, dan jarang sekali buat sukuan minoriti masyarakat. Pendekatan yang diambil untuk mengharam penggambaran watak-watak LGBT di media untuk mengelakkan masyarakat Malaysia (yang bukan LGBT) daripada menyokong gerakan hak-hak seksualiti dan menzahirkan gender adalah sangat simplistik.

Mengikut pakar-pakar media juga, penonton dan pengguna media adalah lebih celik daripada yang dianggap oleh lembaga penapisan Malaysia; setiap satu pengguna media mempunyai cara menafsir imej-imej dan maklumat media dengan cara tersendiri. Tetapi ini tidak bermaksud setiap individu bebas berfikir di bawah satu kerajaan yang kuat menyensor dan menyempit wacana. Akhirnya, kebebasan menonton, berfikir, dan menafsir media dari pelbagi sudut pandangan individu tertakluk kepada macam-macam faktor, terutamanya yang berupa politik, sosial, dan taraf pendidikan individu.

Habis, mengapakah penting watak-watak LGBT dipaparkan di media tempatan? Pertama, paparan yang ‘realistik’ mengemukakan isu-isu dan pengalaman komuniti LGBT dengan harapan ia boleh ‘memanusiakan’ LGBT. Jika penonton (yang bukan LGBT) dihidangkan dengan stereotaip-stereotaip sahaja, secara tidak langsung ini akan mencorak pendapat khalayak tentang apa yang mereka fahami tentang komuniti minoriti ini. Kedua, seperti mana-mana penonton filem atau drama televisyen, kita suka melihat dan boleh berkongsi perasaan dengan watak-watak yang pada zahirnya lebih kurang seperti kita. Inilah sebabnya drama yang diperankan pelakon utama wanita akan selalunya mempunyai lebih ramai penonton wanita daripada lelaki. Ketiga, personaliti media atau artis LGBT boleh memainkan peranan positif sebagai ‘role model’ seperti Dorce Gamalama kepada yang anak-anak muda dan remaja yang dijadikan sasaran samseng-samseng yang merasa diri mereka lebih alim.

Malaysia mempunyai sejarah menolak keras penyanyi luar negeri daripada mementaskan muzik mereka kerena hala seksualiti mereka yang gay. Pengucapan perkataan ‘gay’ juga pernah dilenyapkan daripada bibir pelakon Sean Penn yang memenangi anugerah Oscar pada tahun 2007 untuk peranannya sebagai ahli politik Amerika gay yang pertama, Harvey Milk. Lagu Lady Gaga, Born This Way (Lahir Sebegini) yang membawa mesej positif tentang toleransi dan penerimaan identiti LGBT pernah di tarik dari siaran radio kerana melanggar “budaya dan tafsiran akidah agama”. Pengharaman yang bersifat anti-LGBT ini tidak dilahirkan daripada sentimen homofobia atau transfobia semata-mata, tetapi menjelma dari wacana awam kita se-Malaysia tentang gender dan seksualiti yang semakin menyempit. Secara lazimnya, lembaga sensor filem Malaysia mempunyai pendirian yang ketat terhadap penyiaran aksi lucah, termasuklah pasangan perempuan-lelaki bercumbuan.

Kerana sempitnya fahaman khalayak dan ahli-ahli yang mewakili majlis sensor film tentang apa maksudnya gender dan seksualiti, dan apa bezanya aksi seks dan identiti yang berdasarkan seksualiti, akronim LGBT disamakan dengan perbuatan seks semata-mata. Malah, LGBT sering dikaitkan dengan cara hidup ‘songsang’, aksi liwat, dan seks bebas. Paparan watak-watak dan personaliti LGBT di saluran media dan di industri filem tanahair seringkali adalah negatif, ini adalah kerana pembikinnya hampir tidak sama sekali gay, lesbian, atau transgender dan kurang memahami pengalaman komuniti yang ingin digambarkan.

Jika pendekatan kita tentang gender dan seksualiti beranjak dari perbuatan seks ke perkara yang difahami dan dialami oleh khalayak seperti percintaan, pernikahan, dan rumahtangga, ia memberi peluang kepada komuniti LGBT untuk bersuara tentang perkara-perkara yang dikongsi bersama masyarakat Malaysia yang bukan LGBT. Ramai yang akan setuju bahawa hubungan seks adalah perkara peribadi, tetapi apakah ramai yang sedar bahawa seksualiti sedikit sebanyak mempunyai implikasi di pentas awam; seksualiti berkait rapat dengan percintaan, dengan siapa kita berpegang tangan di tepi tasik, dengan perkahwinan, dan juga soal-soal rumahtangga.

Seksualiti dizahirkan melalui tarikan kita kepada lelaki atau perempuan, ia membuatkan kita jatuh cinta, dan ia juga sebahagian daripada identiti kita, sama ada kita menggelar diri heteroseksual, biseksual, atau homoseksual. Oleh yang demikian, seksualiti bukan perkara yang tertutup tetapi di’pentas’kan secara terbuka. Di sini saya kaitkan kembali peranan media dalam memaparkan kepelbagaian gender dan orientasi seksualiti dengan menegaskan bahawa media adalah seperti cermin masyarakat. Kerana itu, komuniti LGBT yang membentuk sebahagian daripada rakyat Malaysia dan turut menyumbang kepada pembangunan negara sudah tentu berhak direpresentasikan and bersuara di wahana awam.

Kelompok anti-Hari Kekasih patut hentikan fikiran lucah mereka

Disiarkan di Merdeka Review, tanggal 14 Februari 2012.

Pertembungan pandangan berbeza tentang sambutan Hari Kekasih telah lama wujud dan akan terus kekal sampai bila-bila. Yang membuatkan penulis hairan adalah perkara yang paling ditentang keras oleh PAS, badan keagamaan seperti JAKIM dan yang sewaktu dengannya jarang diutarakan sama sekali. Bahkan perkara itulah yang dilihat menembus jambakan bunga mawar, kotak coklat, dan patung-patung teddy bear; iaitu pasangan yang berciuman dan bersenggama di luar nikah. Mungkin bagi khalayak yang menyambutnya tidak akan melihat dari sudut yang seksual, tetapi yang menentang sambutannya akan melihat yang itu dan hanya itu. Ini mendatangkan satu persoalan bagi kita semua, adakah fikiran mereka yang alim lagi berugama lebih peka dan terobses hanya dengan perkara yang seksual pada saatnya Hari Kekasih atau pada tiap-tiap masa?

Jika diselidik sahaja perkataan “maksiat” itu dan diteliti apa sebenarnya yang diselindungi di sebalik retorik ahli berugama yang berapi-api tentang gejala sosial, kita akan dapati hanya satu pertunjukan kuasa dan imaginasi lucah tentang hidupan belia masa kini. Ya, kita seharusnya khuatir dengan barisan pemimpin agama yang pantas memikirkan yang bukan-bukan dan tidak mempertimbangkan realiti bagaimana pasangan yang bercinta menyambut Hari Kekasih di Malaysia. Bagaimana PAS dan seangkatannya mendefinisikan “sambutan” Hari Kekasih sebelum menyarankan tangkapan pasangan beragama Islam yang menyambutnya? Definisinya sangat penting, kerana pasangan tidak boleh ditangkap tanpa garis panduan agama yang jelas. Adakah sambutan itu dilambangkan dengan pemberian bunga-bunga dan acara makan malam? Adakah PAS dan JAKIM akan melibatkan diri dalam aksi voyeurisme yang asyik-masyuk semasa mengintip pasangan yang berdua-duaan?

Mungkin saya terlalu kritikal melabelkan pemimpin agama, PAS, dan pihak berkuasa sebagai orang-orang yang miang kerana hanya berfikir yang bukan-bukan bila tibanya aura romantika Hari Kekasih. Minggu lepas, imej PAS yang keras anti-Valentine tetiba menunjukkan celah yang lebih lembut. Ketua dewan pemuda PAS, Nasruddin bin Hassan telahpun menetapkan satu garis panduan yang sangat teperinci bagi mereka yang ingin meraikan Hari Kekasih. Tetapi tahap keterperinciannya agak melucukan. Ya, Hari Kekasih itu bukan dalam Taqwim Islam, tetapi Hari Pekerja dan Hari Kebangsaan juga bukan dalam ajaran Islam tetapi kita tetap menyambutnya. Hari Kekasih adalah satu sambutan yang telah lama menjadi satu acara konsumeris yang melibatkan pembelian hadiah-hadiah dan perbelanjaan lumayan (dan bukannya hari peringatan seorang santos Nasrani).

Walaupun asal-usul Hari Kekasih ada hubung kaitnya dengan seorang santos Romawi bernama Valentine, ia mula dirayakan atas dasar percintaan pada zaman pertengahan Eropah di kalangan seniman dan penyajak Inggeris. Ini membuktikan bahawa sambutan Hari Kekasih dari titik permulaannya adalah sekular dan tidak mempunyai unsur-unsur agama Kristian langsung. Jika PAS dan seangkatannya benar-benar berpijak di alam nyata dan pernah merasai cinta (meskipun saya meyakininya 30%), mereka akan sedar bahawa sambutannya hanya satu ritual jiwangan konsumeris yang melampau dan jauh sekali daripada pesta seks bebas.

Saya cukup hairan dengan sesetengah kelompok yang mencurigai erti dan pengalaman percintaan orang lain. Kerajaan negeri Kelantan telah mengumumkan bahawa Hari Kekasih akan digantikan dengan Hari Suami Isteri, lantas menyempitkan erti cinta dan kasih sayang. Alasan utama adalah untuk membendung umat Islam daripada pergaulan bebas sempena Hari Kekasih yang, tanpa bukti kukuh dihubung-kaitkan dengan isu-isu ibu tunggal dan penderaan rumahtangga. Kerajaan negeri Kelantan begitu terobses dengan ikatan pernikahan, sampai menawarkan pembiayaian mas kahwin dan sebagainya sambil cuai daripada sedarnya kadar penceraian dan kejatuhan rumah tangga yang tinggi di Malaysia. Penyelesaiannnya bukan Hari Suami Isteri yang diraikan setahun sekali, tetapi keadaan kewangan, pekerjaan tetap, dan hubungan yang stabil sebelum berkongsi kehidupan bersama.

Tidak pernahkah mereka yang begitu asyik menbanteras Hari Kekasih itu fikirkan bahawa kelahiran anak luar nikah dan kes pembuangan bayi itu bukan hasil daripada pergaulan bebas, tetapi daripada kurangnya pendidikan seks, maklumat tentang pengguguran janin yang halal, dan budaya yang menjatuhkan stigma ke atas ibu yang belum bernikah? Bilangan ibu tunggal bukan gejala sosial tetapi membayangkan realiti bahawa ramai pasangan suami-isteri belum bersedia mendirikan rumah-tangga kerana kurang mengenali satu sama lain, masalah kewangan, dan lain-lain. Pihak yang mengusungkan pemansuhan Hari Kekasih itu tidak pula menyedari masalah yang lebih besar daripada gejala sosial yang kononnya menjerat masyarakat kita mungkin terbit daripada kurangnya rasa cinta dan kasih sayang dalam masyarakat, dan bukan hanya antara suami dan isteri.

Mungkin tindakan UMNO untuk berdiam diri sahaja tentang Hari Kekasih adalah yang paling wajar dan tepat di saat yang genting ini. Kerajaan Malaysia sudahpun dicemuh di mata dunia dengan keputusan menghantar wartawan Saudi Hamza Kashgari kembali ke tanahairnya. Kerajaan Malaysia dan Najib Razak sendiri dikritik tidak berperikemanusiaan dan tidak mempunyai rasa belas kasihan terhadap seorang pemuda yang mungkin akan dihukum mati di Saudi Arabia walaupun telahpun meminta ampun atas kesilapannya.

Boleh dikatakan pihak berkuasa di Malaysia, daripada yang teratas hingga ke kuncu-kuncu bawahannya, sudah lali pada nikmatnya rasa cinta dan kurang upaya untuk menunjukkan kasih sayang sesama tetangga dan keluarga rakyatnya. Soal cinta dan kasih sayang tidak perlu dipolitikkan untuk menunjuk kuasa dan kealiman pihak-pihak tertentu. Biarkan rakyat Malaysia terutamanya umat Islam meraikan percintaan dan kasih sayang dengan cara tersendiri, dan jangan jadikan fikiran lucah satu dalil hipokritikal untuk menyekat kebahagian orang lain.