In supermodernity, is the subaltern a cyborg?

First published in The State on 20th January 2014.

When I lived in South Jakarta, my initial access to the internet was in the nearby warnet, a portmanteau word composed of ‘warung’ (cafe or stall) and internet. The warnet was tiny and had no chairs. Planks of wood were used as benches for a dozen or so computer monitors and their respective processing units. In my daily visits, the warnet would be at its busiest before dusk, when all of its users were working-class boys playing online video games like self-entertaining monads. The oldest of the boys, no older than 18, runs the warnet by collecting hourly fees and stops customers from wearing their shoes inside the establishment.

I often wonder about the lifeworlds of those at the margins of society who are hyperconnected, plugged into Warcraft, Facebook, Twitter, and a seemingly limitless plethora of information online. They, like us who pontificate about the effects of ‘always-on’ culture and the merits of tech detoxing, are similarly bombarded by a world of media excess. We live in an era fast advancing beyond symbolic excess, which was the postmodern. This era, according to Marc Augé, is the supermodern.

In the supermodern, non-places trespass urban spaces with alarming rapidity. Non-places are spaces that have no history, a transitional geographical medium. They are the motorways, the concrete arteries through which swaths of urban humanity spend an inordinate amount of time. Supermarkets and airports are also non-places that house “realities of transit,” where people move in and out at interchanges (where nobody crosses each other’s path) rather than crossroads (where people meet). In non-places, people are passengers rather than travellers, customers rather than consumers.

Augé also recognises that spaces which subalterns occupy—refugee camps and urban slum dwellings—are also non-places. Refugee camps and urban slums are spaces that are denied the markings of history, and belonging to traditional notions of place. Individuals who occupy refugee camps are in transit; they want to be elsewhere. Some slum dwellers choose to stay, but they are forced into transit by developers and the city council. They are often subject to perpetual threats of evictions, condemned to be on the move.

In the current geoeconomic logic of supermodernity, a section of the subalterns—the urban poor and migrant workers eking out a living on a transitional basis—are cyborgs too. The cyborg is a product of the current era: hybrids, a cybernetic organism, a relationship between human and machine. Cyborgs are not a Robocop-like amalgam of human and machine, but rather the lived expression of how machines have become indispensable to the way many humans now live. Humans rely on technology to do things that were once humanly impossible; to move faster, to communicate at lightning speed at greater distances and to more people than ever before.

Media communication technologies have become the protheses that humans both need and want. Such a reliance on media technologies has huge implications on the way media users perceive reality; an example of the imbrication of the ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is found in the constructed perception of time. In a media-saturated society, individuals get bored more quickly. With more things to consume in so little time, our attention span is shortened and we become more impatient. Our sense of time and history appear to be sped up. Time itself appears to be constructed by our relation to the acceleration of consumption and excess of media stimulation.

Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory suggests that Foucault’s biopolitics are no longer extant. Power is no longer only exercised directly on bodies, on ‘naked’ life. In lieu of biopolitics, power in the present age is techno-scientific and exercised via technology, making bodies the subject of technopolitics. For Haraway, the cyborg has the potentiality to be an emancipatory subject. But the avenues for the cyborg’s emancipation lie in the subversive manipulation of technology’s original function and the breathing of new political meaning into it.

With or without emancipation, subaltern cyborgs benefit from the fast turnover of media technology. This means cheaper phones, second-hand and brand new older models. But few choose to be cyborg, emancipated or not. The development and manufacturing of everyday technology is linked with weapons and exploitative labour practices respectively. Media communication technologies do not develop out of a vacuum free from the macro structures of global commerce. Often, power relations of fleshspace creep into the online ether, replicating there.

With access to possible emancipatory channels of social media, can the very poor still be subaltern? There have been speculations about whether or not the subaltern can tweet, raising questions about “online self-determination” whereby technical and financial ability can be harnessed to “represent and edit oneself and one’s culture(s) online, and to decide how they will achieve online relevance/visibility/ranking without being overshadowed by more dominant national languages and/or economies.”

In the supermodern city of Jakarta, self-entertaining monads are plugged into videogames that mimic military strategies and fighting. As posthumans, they rely on media technology to fill an attenuated sense of time. Indonesians make up a significant number of the world’s Twitter users. But they are more than just consumer cyborgs. Many Indonesians are also workers in electronic manufacturing factories where they produce protheses central to cyborg subjectivity.

What is the fate of the consuming-manufacturing subaltern cyborg in the supermodern? Will post-human narratives forget her? The case of the warnet boys offers a glimpse of posthumanism in the developing world where technology surpasses the material conditions of the present.

Why freedom of the press matters

First published on The Malay Mail on 16th January 2014.

The Red Pencil protest on January 4 is more than a political struggle against repressive state legislature led by journalists and activists. It is about the basic right to information to be enjoyed by all and therefore it would be imperative to appreciate where the public is situated in this political struggle. The rest who are not dressed in red should care.

There are three main dynamic entities in the politics of journalism: the state, the professional journalist class, and the reading public. As the ongoing protest against state repression on press freedom in Malaysia continues, readers of the news might not fully appreciate why they should also demand greater press freedom than what is offered in the status quo and why.

We now live in the age of media saturation and excess of information. Lack of media freedom might not seem obvious to the average member of the public who can access the seemingly limitless content on the Internet. What we do not like in the mouthpieces of the government we can turn elsewhere for a different perspective. But this is not enough.

The extent of ministerial expenditure of tax-payer’s money and denial of the public’s right to know is currently a cause for contention. But there are other concerns that deserve the public’s scrutiny: the business deals struck between profiteering politicians and corporations, how much the royalty spends and on what, fraudulent food production practices, and the epic scale of environmental damage and exploitation of natural resources by local and transnational companies and the powers that be who benefit from them. These are but a few out of many pressing issues that the public must know with impartiality and balance.

One should consider beyond the parochial limits of Malaysian party politics and national borders concerning the politics of access to information. Post-Cold War spying and the NSA scandal have also demonstrated that data generated by ordinary users in the border-less ether of the Internet can be mined and exploited. As users, we are also complicit in giving away too much personal information online. The bottom-line is this: we live in a surveillance society where we as the public know little about how much governments and data-mining corporations know about us.

We should not kid ourselves into thinking that greater media freedom in Malaysia will mean that we will have neutral and objective coverage of the news. This will never happen. The professional journalist class and those who work within and for the media have the power to construct news for the public. They are the mediators between events and the public. With the privilege of selecting events for news coverage, they are the gatekeepers of what the public can know. Lack of neutrality in the news, however, does not necessarily diminish relative freedom of information.

The original conception of “the press” existed before newspapers and the professional journalistic trade. It began as pamphleteering and mass printing of ideas to the public, long before newspapers were controlled by the rich and powerful. The basic idea of the press analogous to pamphleteering exists today, in the form of blogging and tweeting. This is the reason why citizen journalism must also be protected from repression and not just professional journalism.

But is a truly free news media really ideal for the public? A truly free news media may indeed open up the news market to independent and alternative media outlets to flourish. In a liberal economy free from state restraint, owners and stakeholders of media outlets are free to define the tenor of their newspapers.

Who will regulate the impartiality and balance of the news media and their commitment to inform the public so that the reading public will be promised consistency and accountability? Is there really an “invisible hand” of the free news media market that will determine ideological equilibrium in news reporting for the public’s benefit?

We must not forget that professional journalism is also a commercial enterprise. Free media also means the freedom to further commercialise media. Media oligarchs are born in the free media market. How can we ensure that a free press regulates itself from the concentration of press ownership? These questions may be getting far ahead of what could actually happen in Malaysia but are nonetheless searching questions to bring to light. In a media culture so bogged down by repression we might not appreciate the value of regulation.

There is another debate that all who demand freedom of the press must engage in: the definition, purpose and extent of state secrets or classified information and the meaning of national security. Rather than during war and emergency when it is (sometimes) justifiably invoked, national security is an all too common reason for the protection of “state secrets” during peacetime and the most easily abused.

The reason why the Printing Presses and Publishing Act (PPPA) continues to exist in Malaysia underscores how central the media is to the consolidation of state power, ultimately undermining the citizenry’s freedom to be informed, to think, engage and criticise. It might appear that we live in an age of seemingly unlimited access to information and democracy of content production. But we continue to know less than political and corporate powers that become powerful by keeping what they know from us.

My 5 cultural highlights of 2013

First published in The State on 2nd January 2014

1. Exhibition of the year. Traces: Ana Mendieta Retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, 24th September – 15 December 2013.

When Cuban artist Ana Mendieta fell to her death from her New York City apartment in 1985, it might seem as if it had eclipsed her career. Her artist husband was rumoured to have pushed her out their apartment window during a violent argument. Comparisons between Mendieta’s dramatic death and her oftentimes morbid art were perhaps inevitable. But there was more to Mendieta than a tragic female artist as Traces, a comprehensive introduction to her career, showed. Mendieta was a self-identifying feminist artist who brought the movement’s perennial issues —violence against women and identity—to the centre of her work. At this retrospective of Mendieta’s brief but prolific career, one gets a sense of a woman who was on a primordial quest of finding herself in earth, stone, fire, and blood.

Germaine Greer once commented, disparagingly, about how female artists tended to nearly always use their (often naked) bodies in their artwork. Mendieta was not so different in that respect. Known as ‘earth-body’ art, Mendieta’s nude body merges with the natural world; in mud, into a tree, on grass. In a series of photographs, the outline of her body is eerily imprinted on the ground like an empty ancient burial site, set ablaze with the heart alight last. In another morbid photograph, a white sheet indiscreetly covers a blood-soaked body resembling a post-sacrificial scene. Mendieta has the posthumous power to spur women to take control of their own lives, but more significantly, how their lives will be remembered long after death if they can help it.

2. Film of the year 1: Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)

Most couples would be able to identify with the post-honeymoon romance of Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight; the last of Linklater’s romantic trilogy starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Before Midnight has a more melancholic perspective on long-term relationships in contrast to the more hopeful and hopelessly romantic Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. It is almost a cautionary tale of two beautiful much-in-love people who seem to be in a blissful ever after. The film is a triumph of sorts. Like its predecessors Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the film consists of conversations only. Little happens, and yet it tells us nearly everything about the mythical eternal fire of love threatened by an affair, diminishing youth, career let-downs, and parental guilt. Before Midnight and films like it (all talk, where nothing really happens) is a rare achievement in filmmaking for a medium so conducive to the spectacular.

3. Film of the year 2: Hannah Arendt (2012, Margarethe von Trotta)

Prior to Hannah Arendt, there have been few films about the life and work of a female philosopher, let alone a film featuring a woman thinking deeply about an epoch-defining moral problem. Von Trotta’s film reveals only but a glimpse of Arendt’s complex persona and work on morality, when she is faced with the task of writing an essay on Adolf Eichmann’s kidnapping and trial in Jerusalem. Published in the New Yorker in 1953, Eichmann in Jerusalem is a thought piece into the imperceptible abyss of a Nazi officer’s feelings and actions that led millions of Jews to their deaths. With Eichmann obscured far into the background, Arendt and key protagonists—who would influence and reject her writing—play out a more interesting narrative in the foreground. We get to see Arendt, the thinker, encircled by the filmmaker’s over-use of cigarette smoke, the erstwhile youthful lover of Heidegger, and the intellectual provocateur. For a film about the Holocaust and the afterlife of the Second World War, it is highly unlikely to appeal to macho military history aficionados and all the better for it.

4. Read of the year: articles on gender and hyper-employment

There has been much talk about what our over-reliance on media technologies is doing to our everyday existence. For Ian Bogost in his article on The Atlantic, many of us are hyper-worked; being employed in one job while doing a number of other job-related things, (no) thanks to mobile technologies that allow us to do work anywhere, anytime without necessarily getting paid. A number of articles, more notably by Karen Gregory, Robin James, and Gordon Hull, have highlighted the feminised nature of hyperwork. They point to Marxist feminist analysis of preexisting under-valued feminised hyperwork in the hearth: the never-ending work of cleaning, cooking, caring, and secretarial duties in service of higher status and better paid men. Women, they argue, have been the hyperemployed before the the advent of advanced mobile technologies.

Media saturated societies have been blessed (or cursed) with the much feminised skill (or burden) of multi-tasking. Mobile technologies make it easier for us to check emails, listen to music, glance spreadsheets, and play games on the go. Sometimes all at the same time for the restless 21st century media user. The convenience that we gifted by perpetually improving media technologies may one day mean that the line between work and leisure is blurred most of the time. Steven Poole’s essay on the pitfalls of productivity coheres well with the discourse of hyperemployment. Technology-assisted hyperemployment is likely to change how we view paid/unpaid work and gender relations in profound ways in the very near future.

5. Documentary film of the year: The Act of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer)

Much ink and talk have been spent on The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s disturbing documentary on Indonesian anti-Communist death squads who recall their blood-soaked heydays in 1965. It may be hotly tipped for a variety of awards and recipient of many accolades, but The Act of Killing is a towering achievement in the art of documentary film-making—a source of much debate on ethics and morality in its own right. Oppenheimer encountered his film subjects, a ragtag team of boastful mass murderers, quite by chance. Their openness to discuss their bloody exploits, or heroics in their view, on film take them on a journey of confronting their amorality and twisted heroic delusions. Often mixed with bizarre and fantastical proportions filled with personalised cinematic references. These references where the retired villains adopt with zeal, is where Oppenheimer’s documentary takes a remarkable turn of events. Will the re-enaction of their crimes under Oppenheimer’s occasionally manipulative gaze jolt the men into humanity and repentance? But why should they? Regardless of these difficult moral speculations, Oppenheimer’s ethnographic ethics of engaging with his subjects, in fluent Indonesian, and collaborating with them in the making of the film is enough to get the research geek (like yours truly) salivate in delight.

Towards a Viridian feminist future

This piece is part of the 5 year Viridian retrospective organised by Tim Maly, published in The State on 13 December 2013:

Viridian Design was an avant-garde bright green design movement engineered by Bruce Sterling and intended to address climate change. It ran from 1998-2008. Five years later, we reflect.

The vision of a Viridian home conjures up an image of the sophisticated man of the woods, living on bare essentials and in a state-of-the-art cabin that oozes Scandinavian elegance. He would rear chickens and goats, and grow hydroponic vegetables, if Bruce Sterling would go that far. He lives the life minimally, sustainably, and beautifully.In his last Viridian note, Sterling advocates ownership of the multi-tool in order to turn an ordinary individual into a more capable, observant, and empowered one. He probably advocates this to both women and men. Probably. If this is the case, Sterling’s exhortation is somewhat visionary: the woman who is adept with the multi-tool empowers herself. Contrary to expectations a feminised embrace of DIY does exist; it is a subculture and it is not pink. Here, the multi-tool becomes a proverbial fishing rod, a means to protean ends rather than a gratifying consumable.

Besides the multi-tool, however, is the Viridian lifestyle really proposed with women and/or feminists in mind?

Sterling reminds us that our unhealthy relationship with goods unnecessarily expends precious time, money, and energy:

The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.

Sterling’s critique of materialism has much to offer the current wave of Western (White) middle-class feminism which has come of age thanks to a happy embrace of consumption and neoliberalism. Think Full Frontal Feminism and The Book of Jezebel. Today’s ‘empowered’ woman is heir to the past few decades’ commercialisation of empowerment: a woman who has it all and can buy it all.

Products marketed towards women, however, often erase the link between their (often female) producers, the conditions under which those products were created, and the process by which those products reach said female consumer. At the same time, the product becomes oversaturated with seductive meaning, and one label in particular: ‘empowerment.’ Marx has called this the ‘religious fog’ that obscures the real use value and (environmental) cost of products. It is only by demystifying this commodity fetishist fog that feminists can have a meaningful connection with products that we ostensibly cannot live without.

As an example, alternative menstrual products such as reusable, non-toxic cloth pads and diva cups raise a number of important questions relating to disposability, sustainability, and the environmental impact of gendered consumer products. The use of radical menstrual products replaces the blue liquid narratives of ‘happy’ and ‘bouncy’ but invisible periods, with a taboo-defying open embrace of menstrual realities and new definitions of ‘hygiene.’ Radical menstrual products allow us to reconnect with our bodies and reconceptualise how we understand feminine excreta

This strain of feminism and Sterling’s critique share similar caveats: yes, you are entitled to have stuff, but not too much. Find out where it comes from, who makes it, and if possible, make it yourself. Instead, Sterling advocates the ownership of only a few, but beautiful personal possessions:

Beautiful things are important. If they’re truly beautiful, they should be so beautiful that you are showing them to people. They should be on display: you should be sharing their beauty with others. Your pride in these things should enhance your life, your sense of taste and perhaps your social standing.

Feminists have a complicated relationship with beauty, which is highly valued above all else. The materialism of contemporary (femme) femininity dictates that she must surround herself with beautiful things; beautiful shoes, dresses, kitchen, home. The notion of beauty the Viridian woman should then seek is of a different kind, not facsimiled from lifestyle magazines but a critical aesthetic performance of the self.

To understand the feminist aesthetics of the self, it is first instructive to follow Butler and Foucault’s understanding of gender as both performative and an aesthetic discipline of the self. If gender is an aesthetic performance rather than biological fact, it can be transgressed and altered. If we knew how gender is ‘made,’ ie via various disciplines of femininity, then it can be remade by defying the disciplinary modes of femininity that plague our lives. This is how the reworking of aesthetic values can be emancipatory.

Informed by Viridian aesthetics, sustainability becomes central to a Viridian-feminist politics of living. But there is a danger that gendered sustainability reframes women’s freedom from domestic responsibility in favour of a blissful return to the traditionally feminine arts like knitting, sewing, pickling, and canning food. These are certainly life-enriching and sustaining skills, but they are not gender neutral. Men can be forgiven (and applauded) for taking up ‘feminine’ skills like baking and quilting. But women are rarely encouraged to handle the entropy of objects, fixing and building things. This needs to change.

The link between gender, race, and class-based inequality and environmental (in)justice has been an important, if slightly marginal, concern for feminists. Yet I feel that it is no longer fashionable to engage with these intersectional relationships. Ecofeminism today is essentialist and White-centric, while feminist vegetarianism has little to say about food miles and exploitation in healthful produce. Feminist environmental justice, meanwhile, must move away from defining femininity as intrinsically nurturing and towards ‘real’ socio-environmental conditions that affect the livelihood, health, and life opportunities of those whose lives exist at the intersections of multiple oppressions.

A sustainable feminist future that coheres with Viridian principles is fundamentally anti-consumerism and aware of the unequal local-global trade of goods. Sustainable feminism requires equality in the home and the sharing of quotidian chores. A Viridian woman rejects the manufactured innocence of retail therapy and clings to only a few, useful, (if possible) self-made things whose source and provenance are identifiable to a reasonable extent. The Viridian woman may wish to pursue useful life-skills such as plumbing, butchery, and car-tuning with geek-like enthusiasm if she wishes. It all sounds like a lot, but at the fundamental level, sustainable feminism is not about having and owning it all.

What is teh tarik enlightenment?

This is my first column on The Malay Mail, published 3rd December 2013

Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani was something of a charismatic maverick and crusader of anti-colonial ideas in late nineteenth century Egypt. His informal engagement with the public evokes a scene not dissimilar to a small forum led by Socrates. Surrounded by earnest disciples in cafes, Al-Afghani would hold court on ancient Islamic science and Western philosophy, appealing to the dispossessed lower and working class who would feel out of place in the hallowed halls of Al-Azhar University.

The ultimate goal of Al-Afghani’s thought was to avenge the degradation that European imperialism had brought to the Islamic world. But he did not reject all things Western or European in toto. By shrewdly adopting Western tools of modernity such as the printing press, Al-Afghani wrote articles and published pamphlets to disseminate his exhortations against the West. So influential was Al-Afghani that he was attributed as the architect of the politicisation of Egypt’s public sphere in the 1870s. Within a few years of his arrival in Egypt, nearly all of Egypt’s newspapers were run by his devotees. His most notable disciples would later become leaders of postcolonial Egypt and later, Iran, his homeland.

More than a 100 years later, something similar is afoot in urban peninsula Malaysia. Groups of Malay men meet at 24-hour restaurants rattling off names of white men both dead and living: Spinoza, Kant, Mill, Hayek, Habermas. To make applicable and complimentary to the local context, iconoclastic Muslim thinkers such as Ali Shariati are invoked. Is this some kind of intellectual renaissance unseen since, well, who knows? Perhaps. But what is certain is that it is what Clarissa Lee calls the birth of our salon culture.

This loose collective of individuals organise book discussions, lectures, and produce books translated into Malay, the language of its audience targeted for intellectual and Islamic reform. IKD has recently published Immanuel Kant’s foundational text What is the Enlightenment? in Malay, signalling an attempt to herald a Malay kind of Enlightenment. Now is as good a time as any to investigate the rise of this community.

These names and ideas bandied about during the Enlightenment have a talismanic quality. They appeal to idealists. The Kantian man stands apart from the rest of society thanks to his superior faculty to reason and freedom from the shackles of fear and dogma. He and his ilk form the public sphere, a potent site for contesting against the state. With the right conditions, Islamic reform and Islamic secularism may be imminent. These grandiose ideals may be the seeds of an intellectual framework for a new Malaysia.

There are, however, detractors who are cynical of this fledgling intellectual trend and quick to denounce earnest verbiage as “pseudo-intellectualism.” Such criticisms should be disabused from the short-sighted ignorance of the power that ideas have in the bigger picture of history. Ideas alone, often slow in its path towards eventual action, have resulted in social transformations and political revolutions. Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet on imperialism and capitalism inspired revolts against colonial subjugators in Asia and the Middle East.

There is a naivety like the rush of first love in this intellectual movement. Their often uncritical adoration of Western philosophy is attributed to a lack of awareness of the vast corpus that challenges its androcentric Eurocentrism. But like Al-Afghani, we should not throw Western theory out with the bath water. After all, Malaysia as a country was founded on Western ideas; the nation-state was a created as a European political project, the rule of law, Parliament, and our education system are all imported without us resisting against its foreignness. And yet, other concepts — female emancipation, freedom of speech, civil liberty, gay rights — are attacked as being alien to our “culture.”

What is more interesting to observe is how pockets of this intellectual community are inspired by Indonesian civil society made up of key contemporary feminist, literary and socio-political figures. Women make a significant presence in Indonesian intellectual circles. But the urban Malaysian salon culture, which is keen on attracting the working class Malay, remains stubbornly Malay male-dominated. This gendered intellectual exclusion can also be witnessed in Singapore where an emerging intellectual book culture is dominated by young Singaporean Malay men.

There are certainly parallels between our local burgeoning intellectual community with that it aspires to mirror. Women were excluded from participating in world-changing philosophical debates in 18th century France. Their views were thought to lack weight and while their very presence amongst male thinkers (wannabe or otherwise) were inhibiting the freedom of intellectual homosociality these men enjoyed. Women opt out from late night discussions in 24-hour restaurants because being female in public at night is risky in Malaysia. Who knows what other reasons that account for their absence?

What are the other dynamics of exclusion at work in this emerging intellectual culture? Why do the chattering classes unproblematically choose to meet at 24-hour restaurants? Should they question the political and economic conditions that allowed them to discuss “liberty” and “rights” on cheap teh tarik while migrant labourers do the 3D jobs (dangerous, dirty, and difficult) that Malaysians won’t do? Liberty and rights for whom exactly? In the society where 9-to-5 jobs are privileged as the ideal, who is there to challenge the ethics of 24-hour sit-down restaurants if not the enlightened ones?

Perhaps one shouldn’t expect too much from an emerging intellectual class that is still learning the lessons of what a truly democratic society means. What took Europe several hundred years, two world wars and numerous fatal lessons from feeling superior to the rest of the world, Malaysia is only beginning to jump off the coat tails of empire since only the last century. Globalisation and super fast media may speed up the intellectual awakening of the elites in developing societies while the rest of humanity waits patiently for their turn.

The geography of urban intellectual culture in the Malay archipelago

First published on THE STATE magazine, 10th October 2013

Everyday for six months last year, I took the mikrolet from a major bus stop in South Jakarta to my home. A kind of share taxi, the blue mikrolet—number 36—would take around fifteen passengers at a time, following a looping route that covered one small area of South Jakarta. On the route, there was one stop that would prove to be always intriguing, intimidating, and irresistible: Salihara.

Like an oasis in the dusty and chaotic urban sprawl of the megalopolis, Salihara is a complex of smaller parts: one part cafe, other parts amphitheatre, book and DVD shop, and an inviting lecture room with lush carpeting and flattering lighting. The main building itself is a symbol of democratic renewal, echoing the architecture of modernisation in decolonising countries during the 1960s. Eminent poets, writers of edgy feminist novels, Islamic activists, and film makers are regularly seen here, either as invited speakers or self-invited customers of the cafe.

Just outside of Salihara is Pasar Minggu, literally the Sunday market by name but in actuality a marketplace all week. But Pasar Minggu is light years from the bucolic idyll of the farmer’s market. Traders and street food merchants sell their wares on the ground, just inches from the exhausts of slow moving traffic.

The sights and smells of Pasar Minggu miraculously disappear in the understated but elegant surroundings of Salihara. Built in 2008 primarily as an arts venue, Salihara is the brainchild of members of Indonesia’s most eminent and creative civil society. On most days of the week, poetry readings, dance and theatrical performances, lectures, and panel discussions on Islam, cinema, and feminism take place. They are attended by an engaged public, who have come to this place to challenge the status quo. In one panel discussion consisting of Islamic clerics, a member of the audience asks, “What is God?” to which one of the clerics answers, with radiant confidence, “God is but a mantra that one chants to the heart.” One will never witness such an exchange in Malaysia.

In Malaysia, a small but growing group of Malay men are inspired by the intellectual energy of Salihara and determined to create a small public sphere modelled after it. It is a game of catch-up, as they see their Indonesian cousins moving far ahead, while Malaysia is left in the dust in the intelligentsia stakes. The Malaysian chattering classes gravitate towards the enclave of Bangsar, in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, as the spiritual hub of the burgeoning intellectual scene. Bangsar has all the trappings of such a place; full of high-end watering holes, cheap food offered in 24 hour sit-down restaurants, and located between the hubbub of the capital and the expansive and desirable suburbia of Petaling Jaya. Here, the local rich and sophisticates, the White migrant community, and all manner of aspirational wannabes dine, drink, and are seen. They tend to eat the same things here; Indian Muslim fare of rotis and sweet teas—food of the people.

Salihara and the hip Telawi area of Bangsar are roughly reminiscent of Jurgen Habermas’s imagining of the public sphere. A place where civil society—a motley group of writers, journalists, artists and activists—come together and form a super league of dissenting voices against both the state and the prevailing threat of Islamic extremism to democracy and civil liberties. They are keenly aware of Habermas’s ideas and take advantage of their potential, along with those of the Enlightenment that drive their discussions. In this liberal marketplace of ideas, one can be a magpie, picking up works of key philosophers at random to add intellectual panache to political concepts. In this liberal marketplace of ideas, the misogyny of Rousseau and Spinoza are airbrushed out, the disregard of non-White plight of countless others are wilfully ignored. Ideas become fetishised commodities, whose provenance and context are often obscured.

In Malaysia, they are also inspired by the text of the much-revered Malaysian academic Syed Hussein Alatas, Intellectuals in Developing Societies (1977), which outlines the characteristic and function of the public intellectual in Malaysia. One such delineated characteristic that rings true of the Malaysian smart set is their self-imposed distance from the rest of society and preference to mix with their own kind. This distance is further accentuated by the geography of their haunts. They may be eating the food of the people, at the prices of the ‘masses,’ but they socialise and plot for a better Malaysia only within the specific locations of the Telawi area.

Members of the intellectual elite in South Jakarta and Bangsar organise the development of ideas and performance around public book discussions, and the translation of ‘classics’ into Malay and Indonesian. Book publication of Anglo-European thinkers into Indonesian is a serious and long-established business in Indonesia. The country has long lived with a mono-language policy in the media and education throughout Suharto’s New Order (1966-1998). Malaysia, meanwhile, has had a more chequered history of national language policy since political independence in 1957. It has switched capriciously between English and Malay, while competing with Tamil, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Cantonese.

The rise of this particular kind of public sphere is set against a backdrop of a revived sense of democracy and political potential in the hands of the people. After the end of Suharto’s authoritarian regime in Indonesia and the Reformasi movement in Malaysia, a flurry of organisations filled the vacuum of a once forbidden public space. Members of these organisations and social movements are collaborative. They are often situated within a bus or Light Rail Transit stop from another, and they eat and drink together. But they do not socialise merely to assert their social capital. The ultimate goal of the fledgling intellectual culture in Malaysia is to challenge the status quo, displacing the power of the ruling government and heralding a Malay version of the Enlightenment. The recent publication of Immanuel Kant’s What is the Enlightenment in the Malay language offers clues to such a dream.

As a term much used in developmental and sociological studies, civil society requires further contestation within the context of Malaysia and Indonesia. It is the buffer between the state and society, but its members’ position is often closer to the higher rungs of the nation than ‘the rest.’ In Jakarta, there is an acute awareness of class privilege among the self-professed elites who are the inadvertent beneficiaries of decades of corruption under Suharto’s regime. There is a yawning wealth gap in Indonesia where the small middle class are squeezed between the über affluent and the abject poor. In Malaysia, where the broad middle class enjoy a history of relative economic and political stability, class awareness is less frequently acknowledged. And when they are, they are uttered between sips of expensive lattes.

The Malaysian intellectual community is male-dominated because its membership reflects the dynamics of its founders who are highly educated, heterosexual, Malay, and male. They meet after work and till late when it would be riskier for women to travel alone at night in a country where crime is on the rise. There is the banter and debating style in a company of men that only a few women, who are expected to be demure and accommodating rather than highly opinionated and bold, will feel at home with. Also, the ‘serious’ books the community reads are those mainly by other men. There are, after all, only a few female philosophers. In this constellation consisting of supernova male philosophers whose work are seen as an exciting challenge to an intellectually arid landscape. Philosophy, alongside the humanities and social sciences, learned outside the classroom are currently being recuperated in Malaysia after decades of abandonment in favour of ‘useful’ and ‘job-making’ spheres of knowledge like engineering, law, medicine, and the ‘hard’ sciences.

There is plenty of interest in combining Western philosophy and critical engagement with Islam, personal liberties, and rational reason in Indonesian higher education. Indonesia can attribute its ability to combine Islam and institutionalised intellectual endeavours to the founding of the Indonesian Associations of Muslim intellectuals (ICMI) in 1990. Their legacy can be felt in the country’s progressive civil society. But there are acutely few spaces for such things in Malaysian universities. The repressive University and University Colleges Act restricts socio-political engagement amongst students in ways deemed oppositional to the state. Its impact on student activism and critical expression has had a lasting legacy in Malaysian university life since its imposition in 1971. And thus, the Malaysian university is no place for the intellectual who nurtures some kind of political ambition.

The appeal of the European Enlightenment is a curious one in Malaysia. Although often critical of religion, the Enlightenment poses little threat to the idealism and aspirational radicalism of the Bangsar intellectuals. What matters it that the Malay incarnation of the Enlightenment will release them from the ball and chain of dogma and moral paranoia. They have little interest in postcolonial or feminist critiques of their idols. And this underlines the illusion of their special place in the geopolitics of ideas where gender, class, space, and time are of no consequence.

The above are snapshots from a personal observation that will be soon be part of a social history of a new intellectual and cultural phenomenon deeply rooted in political action in Malaysia, one that is inspired by social and cultural movements in Indonesia. Key members of the Malaysian intellectual culture flit in and out of the sphere of formal politics, and their influence within such realms remains to be seen. However, there is little to doubt that their influence is fast spreading amongst younger people who are newly politicised via the trending climate of democratic possibility that has resurfaced after many decades.

Rethinking the discourse of sexual harassment

Published on The F-Word UK blog on 14th August 2013

 

After following Everyday Sexism on Twitter and reading its website for nearly a year, there are times when reading their continuous flow of sexual harassment stories becomes too painful an experience. I have contemplated unfollowing Everyday Sexism’s Twitter account because there are entries that became too much to bear. On the one hand, I am reminded of the series of harassments I had suffered. But on the other hand, which will become the main thrust of this post, I was becoming tired of sexual harassment as a ‘victim’ narrative.

In the discourse of sexual harassment of popular feminism (found in mainstream media and new social media), women, and it is nearly always women, come forward to talk about their experiences. This in itself is a powerful thing: women have historically been denied a voice to express gender-based injustice in private and public spaces. Facilitated by new forms of media technologies, the new age of twenty-first feminism has granted every woman (with a phone and/or access to the internet) the opportunity to tell their stories. And what stories they are.

Online spaces like Everyday Sexism allows women to share and seek support from others who have shared similar experiences. Such spaces, without a shadow of a doubt, help recuperate the disempowered feeling when a harasser finds pleasure and amusement in debasing women. There are many initiatives across the UK such as the Hollaback! project that reaches out to women who have faced street harassment with information on how to respond to their attackers. But as Everyday Sexism has shown us, those who have dared to challenge their harassers are faced with some serious repercussions for their courage. For that reason, these spaces must continue to thrive and bolster support.

However, there is something missing in this discourse of sexual harassment. The glut of women reporting sexual harassment clearly underline the enormity and how commonplace it is, but we hear too little of a semblance of justice done to women who report incidents of sexual harassment. As a discourse of sexual harassment, a way in which we talk and define it, the perpetrator is a shadow-like figure and rarely embodied as a complete person.

The reason why the discourse of sexual harassment is victim-oriented lies in the nature and legal framework of sexual harassment as a crime. Victims of sexual harassment at work are encouraged to make an informal complaint and collect evidence. Formal complaints involving a police report meanwhile are discouraged as it will make the work environment for the victim ‘uncomfortable’.

I have been informed by lawyers that women can always leave their job and seek work elsewhere after experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. In this economic climate, that is far easier said than done. Harassers, meanwhile, enjoy the relative anonymity of not being subjected to much public scrutiny of their motivations and why they have been allowed to commit sexual harassment in the first place.

How do we transform the discourse of sexual harassment to make perpetrators more accountable for their actions and set the terms to stem future harassment? But more importantly, how do we redress the imbalance of the victim-heavy narrative of sexual harassment and in the process neutralise anger and trauma into hope?

Perhaps the welcoming of more men into feminism as allies and pro-feminist supporters can help rebalance the discourse of sexual harassment. But this welcome is not without prior knowledge of the abuse of influence and male privilege by men who call themselves ‘feminist’. The recent implosion of Hugo Schwyzer is a cautionary tale of men who are lauded for not just wanting to be part of popular feminism but also wanting to be a voice within it and a very loud one, too.

The sudden, rapid and ongoing demise of Schwyzer’s credibility as a ‘feminist’ was satisfying but may then make male participation into feminism an ideological mine field. Or will it? because I highly doubt it. There will be a queue of men who would love to take Schwyzer’s place. The adoration that men get for claiming to be feminist is hard to resist.

There is great resistance from men who think that feminists regard all men as potential harassers. In a similar way, commentaries calling on the examination of masculinity in light of child abuse cases have stoked anger in men because they think they, innocent men, are accused of being potential rapists and abusers of children. But the truth is, straight men are socialised into thinking that female bodies are for looking and possession. Also, entitlement to bodies creates an illusion that men can get away with it.

Also, there is an assumption that female feminists have a liberal attitude towards sexuality and are easily ‘up for it’, if men ask nicely and impress female feminists with their knowledge of second wave feminism. Such an assumption is easily exploited by self-proclaimed ‘feminist’ men resulting in harassment and abuse. Reminders to ‘be aware’ and ‘stay away’ from these men are not enough to protect ourselves as they can easily take their abusive behaviour and create damage elsewhere.

An example of a successul take-down of a harasser is pertinent here. The recent dressing down of British ‘star’ philosopher Colin McGinn is one of the few but crucial victories for women in academia. Evidence of Colin McGinn’s sexually inappropriate messages to a graduate student bolstered a campaign to make him accountable for his misconduct. McGinn’s defence of his actions, consisting of intellectual prose, was rubbished by the majority of his colleagues.

McGinn’s fall from grace is an example of justice of a more stubborn order whereby a highly esteemed man of ideas is brought down to his knees by the power and pressure emanating from his ranks. However, his accuser’s identity may never be revealed because in the sensitive and precarious universe of academia, one’s name and its associations are everything.

As female feminists vulnerable to sexual harassment, we need to be savvy, strategic, and informed both on a factual and emotional level on how to tackle harassment while preserving our privacy and dignity. Learn how other women have won their case against harassment. Justice is a process that requires support from the highest level of authority possible, not just the law but other institutions that the harasser’s privilege relies on.

Sexist men and the people who love them

First published on Loyar Burok on 12th August 2013

This article is about the men who walk amongst us whom we admire, whom we call our friends, lovers, husbands, fathers, brothers. If you prefer, this article may also be about the ‘other’ men out there, the rapists, child abusers, sexual harassers, and other shadowy characters in the news and conversations whom we hope to never meet and know in real life. But above all, this article is about liberal hypocrisy.

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Did it come to any shock or surprise that many respectable white men in Britain have been exposed as paedophiles, rapists, and low-lifes in fine suits? How did they get away with despicable behaviour for so long while their accusers languish for decades waiting for justice? Sometimes in their belated battle for justice, their accusers continue to languish post-trial because justice has an expiry date.

In Britain, men who worked for the police sleep with female activists in order to infiltrate activist groups. Some of these men have even fathered children with these women. As police ‘spies’, all of these men have assumed false identities as fellow activists that they have managed to maintain through lie after lie for years. When these men were exposed, the women reported to have felt as if they were raped by these men. Who wouldn’t feel like that?

Case after case of sexual crimes in the past year have revealed men, all men, who have lied and destroyed people’s lives. These men have chosen to prey on girls and women, and thought nothing of the repercussions. For a long time, these predatory men have walked among innocent people, many of them children and protected by their status, the law, and the auspices of the state. It is only when these men are finally caught, placed in the dock, and subjected under the mercilessly glaring light of the media that they are framed as criminals.

Before they were classed as criminals, they were just like any other man you might know. Nice, pleasant, loving, well-respected, normal. How much does it take for us mere mortals outside the machinations of the law and media to recognise that the men among us are guilty of heinous crimes like rape and harassment? A lot, plus some denial on the side.

In Malaysia, we have so little faith in the justice system and its apparatuses that we resort to our own kind of justice and sense of order. This is why private security and fear of crime are so high in Malaysia. Some people go to extremes and take the law into their own hands by committing vigilante justice. Others take futile precautionary steps and not go outside alone late at night and build iron grills around their own personal prisons.

When there is so much fear of the ‘other’ men we don’t know, we usually become blinkered from those who commit everyday forms of sexism and misogyny under our own eyes especially when they don’t look like your garden variety rapist. In films and the popular imagination, rapists are visibly psychotic and don’t hold down respectable jobs.

Is this the reason why many women refuse to report if they had been raped and/or harassed? Because they will be disbelieved? And perhaps because it is far easier for us to condemn those we read about in the news, but not those we know and consider our friends? Except for the privileged few, we’ll never meet the men who have committed crimes of a sexual nature and so we’re sheltered by own self-righteousness and cowardice when we hurl abuse at these men from behind the screen.

Gender-based harassment and assault within high-profile liberal middle-class circles are relatively common and some go unreported. When they are reported they are forced under the carpet in the name of … what exactly? Somehow the proximity of familiarity renders the crimes of the respected and respectable insignificant and easily dismissed. How long do we wait until they are properly exposed as criminals?

The possible reasons why criminals within one’s respected ranks are protected may be economic (no one wants to lose their jobs), social (being a whistleblower has shown to be stigmatising and damaging to one’s livelihood), and political (you don’t want to lose the prestige, power, and popularity by exposing the guilty because apparently no one is a saint).

But it is also possible that the protection of the respected and respectable within the liberal middle circles is class-based. Since time immemorial, the crimes of the powerful and privileged have often been overlooked or mitigated while the poor and disenfranchised are punished disproportionately harsher.

This article is not a call for a witch-hunt of would-be male rapists and harassers amongst us but rather a reminder for us to reassess what justice means. There is credible evidence that those who purport to fight oppression are perpetuating oppression themselves and by implication undermining the good work of others. We are quick to point out the hypocrisies of others, namely politicians and religious authorities but struggle to come to terms with those closest to us and our own.

In one of the more transparent countries in the world with a functioning legal system, Britain, justice as has an expiry date. Even if the crime had happened a long time ago, it does not make it less of a crime but its sentence will be mitigated by the time length between the act of crime and indictment. Hence do not wait to tell others of the injustice that you know and that has happened to you. It is therefore fitting to conclude with an adage attributed to the courageous Shirin Ebadi who said that we may not be able to end oppression for good, but the least we can do is tell as many people about it.

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A companion piece to this article is by Clarissa Lee who has written about the insidious dynamics within liberal and “intellectual” circles that lets men within such a circle off the hook.

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

On blogging or how my life presents itself online

The frightful genius of Charlie Brooker’s first episode of Black Mirror has got several things right about social media and new telecommunication technologies: how we choose to present ourselves to the world is highly selective and based on narcissistic drives. Those of us who are more decorous in our internet use would loath to reveal our angriest, most vulgar, kinkiest, saddest, and disappointed side. But without these dimensions of ourselves on display, how can we ever say that personal blogs and social media truly represents ‘us’?

Our social media pages and blogs perform as our very own gallery or museum, exhibiting parts about our lives that we believe form of a coherent narrative. And like every gallery and museum, there is the storeroom filled with things that the public do not get to see – this space represents our actual lives: messy, uncatalogued, hidden mostly from view. In other words, what you see online about me, the few pictures of me you’ve found on Google, what I’ve written and tweeted are not reflective of who I am as a person.

The advent of Tumblr further compounds any notion of an online user’s ‘true self’. Our thoughts and words are often outsourced to memes and animated gifs that act as stand-ins for our emotions. In place of what used to represent ‘us’ – our retouched photos and edited blog posts – have been replaced by photographs of cats copy-pasted, reblogged, and cannibalised until its source (who made it, what it was originally about) becomes irrelevant. Baudrillard would be proud.

What I publish in this blog are aspects of myself: my achievements, future dreams and fears. I stress on the word ‘aspects’ because I do not give away much about my own life: who my family members are, my lovers past and present, friends and frenemies, and my personal and professional failures.

Since the inception of this blog, I have changed the reasons for its existence. It was initially a place for me to practice my writing. When I became better at that, it became a place where I archived my writing published around the internet. Once I became more specialised in a particular topic, the blog became a place where I share my research. Then, later, I wanted to re-inject some notion of humanity I felt that was lost when I ventured out to master my craft by posting photos of my cooking.

The focus of what I wrote about had also changed throughout the years. When I began as a blogger, I was plugged into Muslim feminist blogging scene which was emerging in the US thanks to Muslimah Media Watch. I found myself writing over and over again about hijabs, ‘burkas’, and banging on about why Muslim women themselves are hardly given airtime to talk about lived experiences.

But there was also a problem when they were given some airtime. Within mainstream media, Muslim women find themselves already within a discourse constructed with a priori views about what Islam is about: the veil, terrorism, refusal to integrate into British and European society, ‘clash of civilisation’ ad nauseam. Very rarely are Muslim women given the opportunity to talk about other issues outside the myopia of how oppressive Islam and Muslim men are. This is why Salma Yaqoob is the boss.

Writing between the multiple gaps, between ‘mainstream feminism’ vs Muslim feminism/diaspora feminism, Muslim feminist from Southeast Asia vs Muslim feminist from North America, UK, and Europe – was hard work. I was writing from a minority view within a minority movement.

Frustrated by the discursive stasis, I began to switch tack. I wanted to write about feminism for the Malaysian readership. When my blog Cycads was first launched, it was the first blog ever to dedicate itself to writings about feminism in Malaysia. Never mind the fact that I knew very few Malaysian feminists when I started, I wrote what I knew about feminism as a political concept anyway. As the years marched forward, I had the privilege to meet and became friends with the Malaysian feminist activist circle(s) which further informed what and how I wrote about feminism, gender and sexuality in Malaysia.

Then, through the internet, I got in touch with other Malaysian individuals living in and outside the country who identified as feminist. These were simply names and online identities as far as I was concerned. After recruiting these individuals, we formed a webzine called Kakak Killjoy where I would serve as its founding editor.

The webzine was a relative success which attracted the attention of the socially liberal English-reading Malaysian public. By this point, I enjoyed taking a backseat to writing by managing the webzine and fostering my own academic development which progressively challenged my approach to writing about feminism.

A falling out with the writers of Kakak Killjoy that culminated in the stealth removal of my writings from the webzine and my position as its editor made me question the integrity of online/’real world’ relationships and how feminism is done online. The Kakak Killjoy falling-out was also a parody of the ‘cattiness’ of female-dominated spaces that saw themselves crash and burn after my removal.

Around the same period, I flinched whenever the phrase ‘check your privilege’ was used by feminists to bash each other. Cleavages were deepening between more ‘well-known’/professional/academic feminists and the ‘less well known’ feminist bloggers/tweeters because the former half was not checking their privilege.

Despite my own misgivings of the occasional abuse of the phrase ‘check your privilege’, I warmed to it once again when it made to the mainstream media where I thought it truly belonged. I was filled with glee that it was (deliberately) misunderstood by prominent commentators; it shone the light on how patriarchy/power-knowledge works in society.

‘Important’ knowledge was unquestioned. No one complains when complex financial and political terms are bandied about in public debates. You just have to learn the lingo and keep up. Intersectionality and privilege checking are considered pseudo-intellectual terms because they are not part of a discourse dominated by privileged men who feel it’s their duty to decide what is ‘important’. I feel that feminist discourse has made another headway in the public imagination and that it only has to forge forwards with questioning privilege and hegemony by demonstrating on how we talk about them rather than just identifying them.

I also turned away from feminist blogging when blogs that overshare graphic details of suffering under the multiple layers of oppression became a more ‘authentic’ expression of feminism online. I didn’t want to begin articles with full disclosures of where I belonged in the intersectionality of privilege (I am a cis/left-handed/middle-class/university educated/vegetarian/brown/bisexual), use CAPS, or join the debate about Rihanna/Beyonce/Lady Gaga in order to be part of the mainstream British feminist discourse.

Indeed, feminism made it possible for women to write and voice out in a society that silences us and it should not be the work of feminists to silence women. My discomfort with ‘spectacle’-blogging and the over-emphasis on the embodiment of feminism issues emerged in tandem with my postgraduate education. I knew I was producing situated knowledge but I do not want to share my private life with you online to my make views more authentic.

As it turns out, it’s not good enough that I say, ‘I know more about racism and sexism simply because my very body is the site of such violence’. I used to say this in my early career as a feminist blogger. But as my feminism continues to mature, I felt my feminist view of the world needs to be more than this. I am more than my body.

Right now, I’ve reached a pitstop where I can take stock of my journey into feminist blogging. It’s been quite a journey that I am quite happy to continue, but this time more accepting of my minority status within the discourse. As assessed on the recent special on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, feminism is the most inclusive political movement right now that appeals to women and men of all ages and backgrounds. I now accept that the broad church of feminism / fragmented feminism (if you look at it half empty) is inevitable and a good thing. You have to thank seeing the world intersectionally for that.