What is Islamic about Islamic cinema?

I’ve written a short essay for the Indonesian film journal, Cinema Poetica, ahead of my forthcoming book, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (2017), published by Palgrave Macmillan:

Wali Songo (Djun Saptohadi, 1985)

There is perhaps a queasiness on the part of filmmakers, critics, and audiences alike about the label ‘Islamic cinema’. Such feelings are understandable because the creation of a fence around ‘Islamic cinema’ means constructing a very artificial unity out of a corpus of diverse films which are as diverse as the expressions of Islam and what it means to be Muslim. Although it has been used without much qualification, the genre and category of ‘Islamic cinema’ requires some unpacking.

This short essay makes a case that ‘Islamic cinema’ produced in the Indonesian film industry can justifiably be called ‘Islamic’ while at the same proposing that the ‘Islamic’ in filmmaking and other cultural practices in general be expanded and inclusive. In my forthcoming monograph, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan), I endeavour to create a systematic definition of ‘Islamic cinema’ through a gendered lens. I found, through textual analysis, archival data, and interviews with filmmakers, that the ‘Islamic’ in film can often be elusive and ambiguous rather than fixed and conveys its religious message through an intersection of gender, class, and the nation.

Cynical film critics in Indonesia argue that a film becomes Islamic when the Islamic veil is a significant feature of its main characters, setting the tone, mood and expectations for the unfolding narrative. Although the Islamic veil has become the synecdoche of Islam in the public sphere, it is too superficial a sign to signify the ‘Islamic’ film. Other critics take a more effects-oriented approach namely that Islamic cinema has the power to transform its audiences. For the Muslim audience, films with a wholesome Islamic message are thought to have a didactic effect and turn viewers into better Muslims.

On the other hand, non-Muslim audiences, especially in the post 9/11 world, are supposed to learn that Muslims are a peaceful and democratic people. While serviceable, these arguments about what Islamic cinema are inadequate when one begins to consider the range of subjects and opposing ideological and political views featured in Indonesian films with Islamic themes. Furthermore, ‘Islamic cinema’ as pure didactism and propaganda assumes the passivity of its intended audiences. ‘Islamic cinema’ may indeed have a transformative effect on its audience but not always those intended by its producers.

Scenes from ‘Islamic cinema’ Indonesia comprises of non-judgmental representations of apostasy from the Islamic faith to an unabashed celebration of prosperity Islam (and the critique thereof). In some films Muslim women valiantly challenge the patriarchal biases of Muslim men while other films portray polygamy in a romantic light. How do we make sense of a religious preoccupation in films while maintaining that these films are in some way ‘Islamic’?

To attend to this question, I take a roundabout way and find possible answers in What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, in which the late Shahab Ahmed argues for a reclamation of the Islamic within the non-legal and cultural aspect of Muslim life. For too long, the legalistic dimension of Islam remained the pinnacle of what is properly considered ‘Islamic’ in the lives of Muslims. His approach is idiosyncratic as he advances his arguments with latent texts about the Islamic virtues of wine-drinking and visualization of animals and humans. There are many contradictions within Islamic practice across history and cultures that span the globe. We must embrace those inconsistencies in a “constitutional coherent manner, because this is the only way that we can map the human and historical reality of the internal contradictions of Islam”.

Like Jewish films, ‘Islamic’ cinema stands apart from other films with religious messages like The Passion of the Christ or Ben Hur, both incidentally not called ‘Christian films’ or part of a ‘Christian filmmaking’ tradition. All films in Indonesia are subject to production regulations to protect citizens from consuming material deemed blasphemous under Islamic law. Because of the restriction in Islam against the visual depictions of God, the prophet Muhammad, his family members, and other prophets, Indonesian films with Islamic elements are rarely ever about divine beings, prophets or even stories from the Quranic texts. For these reasons, film critic Eric Sasono argues that Indonesian films about the lives of Muslim individuals and communities are not commensurable with the typologies of Indian Hindu and Hollywood Christian films which bring into focus gods, prophets and tales from sacred texts.

3 Doa 3 Cinta (Nurman Hakim 2008)

The use of film as a medium for propagating religious messages goes back to the earliest days of cinema. Indeed, the apparent ‘Catholicism’ of early cinema is captured in Andre Bazin’s famous quote: ‘cinema was always interested in God’. Seventy films with biblical themes were made in the US and Europe before the First World War.

For the film scholar Conrad Ostwald, traditional cinema itself was a kind of secular religion: “The movie theater has acted like a secular religion, complete with the sacred space and rituals that mediate an experience of otherness”. This is because the film theater had been treated as a place of worship during the screening of biblical films. In 1908, the showing of The Life and Passion of the Christ was condemned by New York priest for taking place in a place of entertainment rather than in a church. Critics of the ‘secular’ screening suggested soothing organ music and incense burning to heighten spirituality of the film.

Biblical epics of early cinema became the wellspring for films made with other faiths in mind. The ‘Father of Indian cinema’, Dadasaheb Phalke was inspired by the life of Christ flickering across the silver screen:

While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the gods Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya… Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?

The fruit of Phalke’s inspiration was the first Indian feature film, Raja Harischandra (1913), based on the Hindu Mahabharata.

Like the biblical epics of early cinema, dakwah or Islamic preaching is widely regarded to be central to the function of Islamic cinema and media. Derived from the Arabic term da’wa to mean call or invitation, dakwah in the Indonesian context is a general term to denote efforts to propagate Islam in society. Although dakwah is used to convert non-Muslims to Islam, the term is more commonly invoked for the strengthening of the Islamic faith and guiding Muslims to live by Islamic principles.

The use of cinema for dakwah, however, is vaguer in its execution. Nevertheless, it was embraced by Indonesia’s pioneering filmmakers such as Asrul Sani, Djamaluddin Malik, and Misbach Yusa Biran who made films for the purpose of dakwah. Clerics and religious commentators have often tended to define the dakwah film in terms of what it is not, in that it does not have the ‘immoral’ elements of Hollywood cinema and the preoccupation of Indonesian cinema with horror, the supernatural, and eroticized display of women.

In his 1965 essay entitled ‘Film sebagai dakwah’ (Film as dakwah), distinguished filmmaker Usmar Ismail urgued other filmmakers to ‘make films a media of (national) struggle and a media for Islamic proselytizing’. Dakwah films, he asserts, need not to be religious or commercial akin to the 1956 Hollywood blockbuster The Ten Commandments but should affirm Muslims as subjects of God.

A fellow contemporary of Usmar Ismail, Asrul Sani, however, held a more critical view. Sani argued that all dakwah films made during the New Order and the period after were misguided in their approach. For Sani, Indonesian dakwah films are preoccupied with ritualistic and dogmatic Islam with the intention of substituting the role of the Kyai or religious leader. He even rejects the term ‘Islamic film’, arguing instead that “all films that go beyond the surface of life are [actually] religious films”.

The cinematic visualization of religious stories made with the very intent of moral didactism goes to the heart of the belief that films can be educational, spiritual, and above all, a source of moral good to be absorbed by ‘the masses’. Films with religious messages routinely begin with excerpts from sacred texts, sermon, an image of a holy structure, all of which allude to that something highly moral is to be learned from watching the film. Defying all classical theories of secularization and the retreat of religion to the private sphere, religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, now repackaged in a more popular format than ever (some say commodified) has found its way into public consciousness in brighter, glossier, and more mobile iterations.

To what extent will cinema remain a ritual in the 21st century? Cinema-going numbers have been dwindling since the rise of home-viewing video cassette tapes, television, and the internet. The cinema is no longer the only place where one can gaze upon images of the spectacular and receive tales of moral heroism. Like stragglers of a long party, faith, and cinema alike stick around promising an experience quite profound and mysterious. In its yoking of everyday jihad with global mission of terrorism, chaste love with the seductive yet soul-destructive power of money, ‘Islamic cinema’ may provide its viewers answers for spiritual conundrums both quotidian and world-transforming. Like other genres, there is a suspension of time and space, and an immediate connection is made between the viewer and the glowing purveyor of moral truths.

How I teach

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve returned to Malaysia after gaining a PhD. By this week, I would have finished 178 hours of teaching tallied from the lectures and tutorials of seven different courses* (excluding time spent preparing and marking). My proudest accomplishment thus far is less the mind-boggling number of hours within a short span of time than the sheer confidence to stand in front of my class and the commitment to the dramaturgy of teaching. And by teach, I mean an engagement with my audience involving eye contact, the to-and-fro-ing of questions and answers, and an intellectual discussion that sadly does not happen even in my own day-to-day interactions with my academic peers. The dramaturgy alludes to the highly performative aspect of my work as an academic; I seek to inform, delight, and to some small measure, entertain, my audience.

This is not say that I enjoy hanging around students when I am done with teaching for the day. Being an introvert, I loathe small talk and become very awkward when not duty-bound to deliver un-authoritative and un-academic things to say with students. I get nervous and quickly hide in my office when a lecture or tutorial is over. Despite being fiercely introverted and gripped by anxiety fifteen minutes before a lecture, I do enjoy being in front of a crowd so long as the exposure under the glare of the highly anticipating gaze of my students is purposeful and focused solely on me. I must be a closet diva. Seeing people hang to my every word thrills me. Watching students yawn and eyes gaze down into their smart phones makes me panic. I change the pace of my speech; I slow down to emphasise a point or slightly elevate my tone of voice to regain their undivided attention.

For every lecture, I am given two hours to speak. On Sundays where I teach at a private university, I am given three hours. I don’t always use the entire allocated time and usually take a five minute break in between (though ten minutes for the three hour class). During these precious breaks, I would run back into my office and watch a Youtube video or walk down the corridor, not thinking about anything. When I return there is no faffing about, I continue right away in a business-like manner. In class, I stand up because I believe it projects my voice better. I actually like the sound of my voice when I teach, more so when I am reading aloud a passage. That way I can focus on the modulations of my voice like a good voiceover or a reader of an audiobook.

Many a midnight oil was spent preparing the lectures, tutorial questions, exam questions, and quizzes and marking assignments. In my first year of teaching, I am frequently in my office until 1 am preparing my lecture notes for an early class the next morning. Belonging to the unpopular and uncool camp, I am a big proponent of Microsoft Office’s Powerpoint. I would be steered down a rambling path without it. Indeed, Powerpoint has a talismanic quality for me; I just need to glance at the slides and suddenly feel emboldened to speak to my class rather than reading aloud every word from the screen. The latter would be deathly dull even for me.

The slides for every lecture are prepared in the same way in every instance: one week before the lecture begins, by which time I would have done much of the necessary reading. When I re-teach the same courses in subsequent terms, I spend a couple of hours the day before of the lecture re-reading my lecture notes. For a new lecture, I would open thirty empty slides and begin to fill each slide with easy-to-digest two statements in clear and medium sized font. Every lecture consists about fifty to fifty-five Powerpoint sildes.The statements on each slide are prompts that guide my delivery. I don’t use many images although I know I should but don’t because I know I get easily distracted and derailed by a singular image on a slide. Text keeps me focused.

I try to keep the momentum going towards the end of the lecture, like a climax of an exciting film. The pace of my speech may speed up and I check again for eye contact and alertness amongst my students. Most times, I see facial expressions of engagement – nods, a smile, direct gaze or a shake of the head and a slack jaw. By the time I am done with a class, I feel victorious and utterly euphoric. Then as the students walk out the eye of my mind does not see faces anymore, I look forward to packing up and walk quietly away to spend time by myself.

* Of the seven courses, five I prepare and teach alone and two others are co-taught with another instructor.

Young, Muslim, and feminist – a focus group discussion

The state intervention and public humiliation of a woman in Nice over the burkini has sparked an outrage Source: express.co.uk

Are you between ages 18 to 29 and identify as a woman, Muslim, and feminist? Do you have thoughts about the burkini ban and the treatment of Muslim women who wear the hijab in France and Europe more generally?

I am coordinating a focus group of 10 participants to discuss what it means to be a Muslim feminist today and how as Malaysians, we engage with global discourses on feminism, religion, secularism, ethnicity, and gender. The focus group will be conducted as an open space conversation, audio-recorded and participants can request anonymity.

If you are interested in participating in the focus group, do contact me at alicia@um.edu.my or drop me a Whatsapp message at 012-63121-54. You can also drop me a message in the comments section of this post.

The date (in September), time (after 8 pm), and place (most likely in the PJ area) for the focus group will be finalised and announced once at least five participants have confirmed to attend.

Women, feminism, time and temporal emancipations

The ultimate aim of feminism is to end sexism and establish gender equality by dismantling patriarchy. While this has not yet happened for the majority of the world, this will be a ‘feminist future’. Thus, feminism is a project that is temporal in quality; it is about the now (not ideal) and tomorrow (ideal).

Feminist theorists also argue that femininity and masculinity are gender constructs – they are not fixed, but can change and, over time, transform. Thus, gender identities are always a process and dynamic. Gender is about becoming (towards the future) rather than being (fixed in the present). This means that from a feminist perspective, gender as a dynamic construct means that as women/men, all gender identities are the active sex and never inert.

Women have a close relationship with time. Women’s reproductive capacities are time-based (ovulation, menstruation). But with reproductive technology, women have the power to control time (regulate ovulation and menstruation. Restore, delay, and reactivate fertility).

Because women do more domestic and housework, we have significantly less leisure time than men. Domestic technology is designed to reduce the amount of time on domestic responsibility.

Women’s relationship with their own femininity is also time-based. And as a relationship with time, it is for many women a vexed one. Beauty is commonly associated with youth, a prized quality that is defined by a short period of time for women. But with cosmetic technology, women may be able to ‘stretch’ the time on their faces.

Even when assisted by financial resources to limit the creeping of time on our mortal flesh, to reduce household chores to a single button, and to reset and boost our reproductive capabilities, time will always be in diminishing supply. It could be argued that unless women make peace with time, we will always be in a futile race with it.

Ambivalent Malay-Muslim Women: Why They Reject the Hijab

I’ve been asked to write a blog post for The G-Blog on women who do not wear the hijab as a ‘counter’ opinion to other pieces on women who wear it. During the editorial process of the blog post, I was reminded again how sensitive the topic of the hijab is and that ‘strong’ views against the dominant current of opinions such as mine will face opposition. At the same time, I am reminded how the priorities of my views on Muslim women and veiling have shifted of the years; from defending women’s decision to wear all iterations of the hijab to being critical of social pressures on women to wear it. At face value, this isn’t much of a shift. In fact, they are usually part of the same argument. However, I have made it a point to emphasise in my own work the real pressures women face to wear the hijab, the lifeworlds of women who do not want to wear it but have to, and women who face abuse because they do not wear it. I feel that the foregoing side of the ‘same’ argument is given less air time in the contemporary discourse on the hijab. Perhaps because of this neglect, my criticism of social pressures is often seen as a critique of the hijab tout court. With all that taken into consideration, the following article I’ve written for The G-Blog is my modest attempt to reconfigure the terms of the contemporary discourse on the hijab:

I have always been interested in how the social influences the individual. My research project on the hijab helps me understand the relationship between society and the self. Of course, articles about Muslim women’s choice to wear the hijab have been written and dissected ad nauseam – and here I am writing about it again – so, what makes this piece different from the many others? Perhaps by proposing that both wearing the hijab and the rejection of the hijab cannot be reduced to choice.

In fact, I am forgoing the notion of ‘choice’ by illuminating the narrowing dimensions of Malay-Muslim women’s lives under the aggressive processes of Islamisation and how such limitations inform their decisions to wear or reject the hijab. These narrowing dimensions are experienced in the moral micro-management of Malay-Muslim women’s social landscape. My research assistant Zena and myself have been very privileged to listen and record the oral histories of women who have an ambivalent relationship with the hijab and capture elements of their social landscape.

Read the rest here.

Between sex and abstinence there is education and choice

This is my only column on the Malay Mail Online for the month of May this year. I haven’t been productive on Malay Mail Online as I would like to be and that’s likely to be because I’m doing so much writing elsewhere.

The development of a child’s sexuality is a taboo issue. Although there is no denial that as children, many will develop crushes and have ridiculous fantasies about them. From a young age, children will explore their bodies and learn to masturbate. But the idea of a child masturbating is an unspeakable horror for so many liberal-minded people that silence is the best cure for such hand-ups.

For legal and historical reasons we owe to Victorian laws, 16 is the age of consent. But before then, children are clouded with distorted ideas about sexuality and lack of useful information. Muslim children are more in danger of this knowledge vacuum because of the social disease of child marriage that plagues Malay Muslim families. Although taboo, it is not as if sexuality is not taught in school. Masturbation is likely to come up in Islamic Studies (Pendidikan Islam) in school but couched in restrictive and often lurid terms. No other classroom session will young children be inducted into the categories of human bodily fluids.

Read the rest here.

The emotional labour of dealing with sexual harassment

Since 1st June, I had been implicated as a complainant in a sexual harassment allegation in the local progressive activist scene, details of which I will provide soon here. But in the subsequent days after making allegations on social media about a serial harasser of women, my corroborator of the allegations who had gone semi-public with a statement on Facebook has experienced intimidation, bullying and blackmail from the harasser. For women who’ve become aware of these allegations and likely to have experienced sexual harassment themselves, some will still feel afraid to come forward and continue to shoulder what I call the emotional labour of keeping silent due to fear and shame.

This post was published in The G-blog on 16th May 2016 prior to the allegations on 1st June, but I feel it was prescient and relevant enough for all times:

There is a man who has a history of harassing women but always got away with it. His friends and colleagues know about it but remain steadfast in their loyalty towards him. Close friends vouch for his good behaviour. Yet, stories about his behaviour travel far, into the living rooms of people who have never met him, into the coffee sessions shared between friends. Some do not know his name yet tales of his behaviour have achieved the status of legend. In the meantime, the voices of the women he had harassed are quashed. They stand by close to the scene of the crime – the circle of friends who protect the perpetrator and his reputation. They watch and wait in vain for laws and attitudes to change beyond their own lifetimes.

New journal article publication – the female gaze in Malaysian horror film

I have a new journal article published in the latest issue of Asian Cinema, Vol. 26 Issue 2.

Abstract:

Female ghosts and other supernatural entities, including the pontianak, in Malaysian horror cinema are excessive psychosocial articulations of traditional Malay femininity gone awry. In Malay ghost stories, the pontianak is a vengeful spirit. She is the ghostly reincarnation of a pregnant woman who dies before or during the birth of her child and who then seeks vengeance on the living for causing the gruesome death that kills her and her unborn child. Since biological reproduction is the primary determinant of a woman’s social value in traditional Malay societies, the double death is devastatingly cruel. The pontianak thus embodies the horror of abject femininity associated with thwarted womanhood. Another recurring theme in Malaysian horror cinema relates to women possessed by evil spirits. Typically portrayed as lacking in emotional restraint, and therefore given to hysterical behaviour, such women are thought to be particularly vulnerable. Malaysian horror cinema has been adept at depicting psychosocial horrors of feminine excesses as such that transgress otherwise restrictive social and customary expectations for Malay femininity. This article examines the horror of abject femininity in two contemporary Malaysian films by female film-makers: Shuhaimi Baba’s Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam/Pontianak of the Tuber Rose (2004) and Zarina Abdullah’s Chermin/Mirror (2007). Both films collectively provide a spine-chilling commentary on female–female relations and motherhood that puts to play the female gaze and the monstrous feminine. This article argues that the themes of failed motherhood, death and the abject are salvaged by strong mother–daughter relations and the female gaze, making the two films a women-oriented rejoinder to spirit possession and the misogynistic tale of the pontianak.

What it means to be a ‘free hair’ in a predominantly Muslim society

This is an edited version of a conference and seminar paper presented at the National University of Singapore in March 2016 and Australian National University in April 2016:

Women who decide to remain un-veiled or ‘free hair’ (colloquial, noun) are a significant minority within predominantly Muslim societies. Their sartorial decisions are often couched in a type of ethics that contrasts with the hegemonic interpretation of Islam particular to their society and community. We need to listen to women’s stories so that we can better understand the impact of Islamisation on women and their sense of self. Early findings of my UM-funded research project, “Silence and Consent: The Modern Social History of Non-veiling in Malaysia” constitute a praxis in listening to these women’s stories.

In countries other than Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and provinces like Aceh where veiling and strict dress codes in public spaces are state imposed on women, Muslim women navigate a complex and frequently treacherous religious and social terrain in which the veil carries a multitude of potent meanings. Their negotiation with veiling suggests the dynamic push and pull factors of coercion and ‘free’ choice that reside within the limits of Muslim women’s agency. For Muslim women who do not wear the hijab in the context of Islamisation, their non-veiled status is held together by daily social tension and pressure as they very visibly deviate from the normative identification of Muslim femininity.

Women who do not veil in Malaysia, especially those outside the public limelight, are invisible in the literature and in the discursive landscape concerning women and Islam. All Muslim-Malay women and girls in Malaysia face varying levels of social and religious-based pressure to wear the tudung (hijab). Many have been subjected to public abuse for not wearing the hijab. Nonetheless, there are Muslim women who remain unveiled and those who have removed their hijab in recent years. Unlike the abundance of research on motivations behind veiling, the lived experiences and reasons why Muslim women do not veil and those who un-veil remain scarce. Reasons for the scarcity of research on Muslim women reflect the attention given to studies on the rise of Islamic symbols in the public sphere. Muslim women who veil have become the embodiment of such socio-political and cultural changes that disturb the gendered boundaries that separate the private from the public. The veil has become a sign that religion has not gone away from the public sphere and that secularism has not defeated public religious expression.

By contrast, Muslim women who remain unveiled are marked as ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ Muslims, antithetical to Islamic revivalism. In societies where Muslims are a minority population, Muslim women who do not veil are regarded as having been assimilated and integrated into secular society. Fadil (2011) remarks that rather than passive and indifferent to the significance of Islamic symbols, women who do not veil perform ethical and affective labour. Affective and ethical labour is called upon in the feeling of insecurity, and when rationalising a new spiritual ethics that occurs “in the supplanting of certain fully ingrained truth-claims (headscarf as essential for Muslim piety) by another set of truth-claims (not-veiling as essential to one’s liberal ethical agency)” (Fadil 2011: 23). To put it more simply, not wearing the hijab is not an easy decision for women.

Muslim women’s capacity to challenge the authority of masculinsed interpretations of Islam is relatively new in Malaysian history. The Muslim feminist organisation, Sisters in Islam, was established in the early 1990s during a period of Islamisation and had pioneered the feminist challenge to the authority of ulamas through their non-patriarchal readings of the Quran and hadith. The state project of Islamisation in Malaysia was characterised as an aggressive promotion of ‘moderate Islam’, an Islamic mode of institutionalised practices that serve a capitalist ethno-religious agenda. The introduction of moderate Islam by the state had, intentionally and less so, created “public conditions of possibility for women’s status to be problematised” (Ong 2006: 33). These conditions befit Anderson and Eickelmann’s definition of the Muslim public sphere in which religious authority is decentralised and members of the ‘rational’ public engage towards shared end goals.

Ong argues that this particular moment in Malaysian history had not been an accident but part of a wider process of the defeudalising of Islam in Malaysia (Ong 2006: 48) in that the Malaysian state sought to standardise the interpretation and implementation of Islamic law across several private and public-funded entities such as Islamic banks, Islamic universities, and several Islamic centres under the prime minister’s purview to better align Malaysians with knowledges and skills suited to the Malaysian Islamic modernity. The formation of the ‘Muslim public’ in Malaysia is, however, an incomplete one. Although there is some physical and discursive space to question orthodox Islamic practices, the mantle of ‘moderate Islam’ in Malaysia today is likely to be under threat under the new wave of Islamisation and state acquiescence to Islamist militant ideas.

This study was conducted after receiving a significant amount of public attention for my Malay Mail Online article on the social pressures to veil in Malaysia. A few women called in and written to thank me for speaking up about what had long been an under-discussed issue, repressed by the fear of being accused of questioning Islam itself. Later, formal interviews were conducted in person and via email. Face to face interviews were transcribed and followed-up with email conversations. More than half of the 40 interviews were with respondents who have answered my online invitation to participate in my research project. Some of their responses, first names and age are reproduced below with their consent and minimal grammatical edits.

Non-veiled women as resistant bodies

Through their dis-articulation with biopolitical production of Islam in Malaysia, ‘free hair’ women become by definition resistant bodies. As resistant bodies, they are open-ended processes articulations of performativity of Malay femininity constituted by the vicissitudes of new Islamisation and continuing struggles for women’s autonomy and religio-political legitimacy. They perform the affective labour of daily negotiations and rationalising their subjectivities against a religious-ethnic norm. So long as they live under the discursive regimes of Islamisation, their relationship with the hijab and reconciliation with not veiling remain open-ended. Zanariah, aged 35, embodies the open-ended quality of Butlerian performativity faced by Malay women who do not wear the hijab:

At first, I felt great wearing it but eventually didn’t like it because I felt like I was losing myself, not being true to myself and constantly needed to behave in certain ways expected by others […] Hijab can also be very uncomfortable in humid weather, leaving me questioning the practicability of it. I felt trapped and wasn’t happy.

I went through a breakdown when the family lost a lot of money & materials in business. Being more religious was my way to cope with the difficult situation. I went through a spiritual journey – attended religious classes & read many religious books as well as history of religions […] Studying the Quran gradually shifted my view towards Islam significantly to wider context, breaking away from shackles of society. Islam is far beyond the hijab.

Slowly hijab is seen as [a] cultural practice and one of many tools used by men to oppress women. Feeling liberated […] I found my courage to make conscious decision to remove my hijab in 2014. […] I feel closer to Allah, the Creator

I started taking care of my hair again. [The] judgmental behaviour I had when I was in hijab faded away. I become more open especially towards other races and religions. I feel at ease to mingle across religions without hijab. I found a new confidence to speak out & feel happier.

The context of Islamisation necessitates the Malay female subjectivity to cultivate a continuum of (non)-veiling; as decisions for veiling practices are always open-ended and subject to rupture i.e. re-veiling. But it is a futurity full of negotiations. Non-veiling allowed Zanariah to be an active participant in the construction of an ethics and authenticity. Arriving at her current ethical standpoint required heavy affective labour to negotiate and replace a one set of truth claims (the veil as obligatory in Islam) with another set of truth claims (the veil is not required in Islam, happiness is paramount).

‘Free hair’ as critical subjectivity

Narratives of ‘free hair’ Muslim women fully illuminate the definition of the subject and what Foucault calls the ‘modes of subjectivation’ defined as the “limits of a historically specific set of formative practices and moral injunctions that are delimited in advance” (Mahmood 2005: 28). In the context of a predominantly Muslim society, such modes of subjectivation include the daily discipline of modest dress and the spatially and temporally-defined cultural mores that women must contend with every day. A critical subjectivity is formed from the intensified tension created between the subject and the modes of subjectivation causing deep introspection, questioning and opposition. Anonymous, aged 23, represents this particular type of critical subjectivity:

I would say the moment when I decided to not wear hijab anymore is when I lost hope in it. It makes no difference whether you wear it or not. Hijab, instead of becoming an identity, it has become an excuse, a tool, and have been politicized by people. Of course, this is a dangerous statement, as wearing hijab is a requirement in being a Muslim. But for now, my faith in whatever message conveyed by wearing or not wearing hijab is still wavering.

Siti Hajar, 33

After a lot of soul searching, with a lot of world events as a catalyst, I stopped wearing my tudung. I stopped wearing it initially for one reason, continued not wearing it for other reasons as I kept learning/ rethinking my beliefs.

Aina, 21

Honestly I never felt so weird when I remove my hijab once I’m back home because that’s when I feel like I am being honest to myself. I never liked wearing the hijab. It feels like I’m bound to a set of rules and practice. It feels like I have to act in a certain ways like I can’t shake hands or give/receive hugs from anyone.

Copious amount of feminist research and commentary on the hijab focus on the role of women’s agency operating within decisions to wear the hijab. However, few have tended to focus on motivations behind women who choose to live without the hijab and removing it after a period of wearing it. As I have explained elsewhere, I am less interested in the construction of agency if it is understood as similar for all Muslim women living in a socially pressurised environment. What is more interesting to me is the orientation of the ‘free hair’ as a critical subject in relation to local mores, family relations, personal ambitions, and world geopolitics. It is a critical subjectivity with oppositional values and world-making practices while at the same under-articulated in the Muslim public sphere. The next phase of my research focuses on the critical subjectivity of non-veiling in smaller towns to examine other voicings, articulations, and world-making practices that rationalise non-veiling.

Conclusion

Non-veiling is a powerful, if invisible indicator of the effect of Islamisation on women. As the early findings above suggest, the decision to remove the veil is more than about changes in one’s religious belief but is part of a wider patchwork of life experiences and relations. Non-veiling complicates the boundaries that separate the religious from the secular, self and others, past, present and future.
Women are still approaching me to talk about their relationship with the hijab and how they have parted ways with it. But such conversations are sensitive because the topic of non-veiling and un-veiling is taboo. Based on my early observations, I’d like to argue that the silences and absences of experiences in the context of Islamisation tell us much more about the operations of agency and the “modes of subjectivation.”Although moderate Islam has created public conditions for feminist scrutiny of patriarchal bias within religious authority, new Islamisation is narrowing avenues for agency and ethical practices of being for women.

Reference:

Fadil, Nadia. 2011. Non-veiling as ethical practice. Feminist Review. 98: 83-109.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton University Press.

Ong, Aihwa. 2006. Neoliberalism As Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke University Press.

The rise of the modern female subject in modern Malay literature in the 1960s

The following is an excerpt from an early version of my book chapter on modernity and the ‘new woman’ in 60s Malay literature. It’ll be discussed at my public talk this Saturday in Silverfish Books, Kuala Lumpur:

Extant literature in both Malay and English makes it rather clear that there appears to be a divide in the literary preoccupation of male and female fiction writers with regards to the depiction of women. Under the penmanship of Malay male writers, female characters are depicted as the playthings and subordinates of men. Women writers of modern Malay fiction writing, on the other hand, were confined to the vague notion of “women’s issues” (Maimunah, 1986). For Rosnah (2003: 35), there has been a gradual shift in the focus of women’s novels between the 1930s to 1970s from the instrumental importance of education for women to the life experiences and the soul (kejiwaan) of women. This is a rather extensive span of time that elides the many transformative historical moments for women, such as women’s participation in nationalist struggle, rise in women’s employment and increased recognition of women’s contributions in the public sphere. In her rather reductive assessment of the portrayal of women by Malay fiction writers, Ungku Maimunah states that female characters can be neatly divided into “positive” and “negative” representations. While the “positive” or “negative” portrayals of women are not explicitly defined, one is led to assume that they comprise of binary oppositions of faithful and self-abnegating women on one hand and on the other hand, openly sexual and morally ambiguous women in the context of a modernising new nation.

Sequestered within the “positive” and “negative”, I would argue, are elements of the modern female subject; highly-educated, urban and urbane, modern, aspirational, outspoken and worldly. The new woman in modern Malay literature is not passive and docile as the archetypal tragic woman in fiction by female novelists in the 1940s and 1950s (Rosnah. 2003: 37). She has experienced Western culture and lifestyles directly or remotely and is confident about the moral compatibility of Western and indigenous values. The modern female subject appropriates the possibilities of modernity for her own ends in a world that is shrinking and increasingly interconnected. Innovative narrative techniques found in the fiction of Malay women writers of the period, such as the literary autobiography and stream of consciousness foreground the female literary voice onto the page and public sphere.

The meaning of the ‘modern’ woman is problematised here to bring to bear the Eurocentric baggage of the word ‘modernity.’ Modernity has been associated with the linear narrative of progress that mirrors the development of ideas and industrialisation in Western Europe. It follows a culturally specific historical and intellectual trajectory with origins in the Enlightenment. At the same time, modernity is embodied (Appadurai, 1996) and a sensorial experience (Berman 1983), albeit an uneven one. In studies on British and American culture between 1890s and 1910s, the “new woman” demonstrates a number of bare similarities with the new woman identified in modern Malay fiction of the 1960s:

Defined by her commitment to various types of independence, the stereotypical American New Woman was college educated and believed in women’s right to work in professions traditionally reserved for men; she often sought a public role in occupations that would putatively improve society (Rich 2009: 1)

That the new woman would only emerge in the 1960’s Malaya is not an indication of a delayed modernity in which the Eurocentric historicism of “first in the West, and then elsewhere” is reproduced (Chakrabarty 2009: 6). Instead, the new woman of Malaya is a social phenomenon and literary construct of non-Western modernities. The notion of ‘multiple modernities’ is adopted here to examine the ways in which modernising societies undergo “structural differentiation” in which arenas such as family life, modern education, and mass communication for example are defined and organised differently (Eisenstadt 2000: 1-2). The new Malay woman’s embodiment of modernity is a critique of Eurocentric historicism which constructs passive ex-colonial subjects whose modernity is a pale fabrication of the West.

In the fiction by Malay women writers, there is an embrace of certain institutions of modernity – mass education, urbanisation and female participation in the public sphere for instance. However, there is also a moral suspicion about the dangers of ‘Westernisation’ that underpin many aspects of modernity. The revival of Malay nationalism in the 1960s found expression in the literary arena, primarily through institutional efforts to elevate the status of the Malay language and culture. Several novels of this period would become the ‘canon’ of modern Malay literature and develop a discursive space for the reflection of the meaning of progress for a new nation. However, women writers were excluded, formally and otherwise, from the ‘canon’ by their male peers, literary scholars and historians despite their significant contributions. Women members of Angkatan Sasterawan or ASAS 50 (Generation of Writers, a national association for Malayan writers), Kamariah Saadon and Jahlelawati, have been forgotten by scholars of modern Malay literature. The contributions of another group, Angkatan Sastrawanis, are also buried as a footnote in the history of Malay literature (Campbell 2004: 82). Thus, to argue that that women in Malaya were de facto emancipated during this period would be an overstatement..

Tensions that oscillate between postcolonial optimism and anxiety vis-à-vis modernity were deeply felt in the booming literary scene in 1960s Malaya. Having gained political independence in 1957, Malaysia entered a rich cultural decade of the 1960s defined by the consumption of Western popular culture and the adoption of Western aesthetics in local literature, filmmaking, popular music, and fashion. However, the moral landscape of postcolonial cosmopolitanism is typically refracted through a sexualised representation of women’s bodies in modern Malay literature during this period. Anis Sabirin’s critique of modern Malay novels by male writers in Jenis Perwatakan Wanita links the anxiety of Western-style “individualism” and “materialism” with the degradation of women. The scene of sexualised modernity is set in Jenis Perwatakan Wanita in the night clubs, massage parlours and B.B. Park, a shopping arcade in Kuala Lumpur (1969: 130). Sabirin comments on the rise of the erotic novel in the Malay fiction scene, comprising of both high and lower brow books by male novelists such as Shahnon Ahmad, A. Samad Said, Alias Ali, and Malungun, to name a few.

Women in the writings of these men, Anis argues, both destroy and are destructive to themselves and others (Perempuan sudah menjadi barang yang rosak dan merosakkan (1969: 132)). Her focus on these “destructive” women falls witheringly on the popular character of the urban prostitute found in high and lowbrow literature. Anis is just as critical of the “good” village girl idealised in modern Malay literature. For Anis, the symbolic innocence of the village girl belies an ignorance “untested” by experience and worldliness (1969: 133-134). In her essay “Peranan Wanita Baru” (“The Role of the New Woman”), Anis argues that women are caught in contradictory roles in modern society. No longer expected to be stay-at-home wives and mothers, women are expected to be just as educated and career-oriented as men. The new woman, however, embraces the dilemmas of modern life. Intelligent and employable in male-dominated professions, she is also desirable on her own terms and has sexual agency. She will not be tolerated being treated as a second-class citizen and demands that she is given the same opportunities as men (1969: 7-8).

While prominent, mainly male, writers were producing didactic fiction in the service of national development and elevating the status of the Malay language in the 1960s, female writers seized the new opportunities opened up to women to explore the limits of femininity and complex psychological and social narratives. But it is misguided to suggest that the narrative direction taken by women writers of the period qua women is an inward and exclusively domestic one in contrast to the outward projection of narratives concerning the nation by male writers. The 1960 novel Hari Mana Bulan Mana (Which Day Which Month) is a groundbreaking example of the expansion of a woman’s personal world and its relationship with other women in the public sphere. Sal, the lead character of Hari Mana Bulan Mana, is a newspaper reporter in Singapore prior to its separation from Malaya and the epitome of the “new” woman (Campbell 2004: 109, 112) who uses her role as a working woman in journalism to bring public attention to the plight of female victims of abuse and their abject poverty. Although not explicitly feminist, Sal’s consciousness about the status of women in modern Malaya also opens her eyes to the oppression suffered by her feminist activist friend, Zamilah.

The texts discussed in this chapter are a reflection of a rapidly changing society. Class-based and communal conflict in 1964 and 1969 indicate the cracks of a new nation. Despair and dissatisfaction arising from the yawning economic gap between the majority of poor Malays in the village and the minority of wealthier Malays in the urban centres are visible in modern Malay fiction of the period. Moral distinctions are also made between the “Westernised” Malay and the hapless rural Malay. Affluent, Westernised Malays are portrayed as out of touch with the vast majority of the nation’s people (rakyat). Remote from modernity, rural Malays who work the land suffer from community conflict and the cruel hand of nature’s onslaughts (Hooker 2000).

Reference:

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minneasota Press.

Berman, Marshall. 1983. All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity. London: Verso.

Campbell, Christine. 2004. Contrary visions: Women and work in Malay novels written by women. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka: Kuala Lumpur.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. Provincialising Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Eisenstadt, Shmuel Noah. 2000. “Multiple modernities.” Daedalus 129(1): 1-29.

Hooker, Virginia Matheson. 2000. Writing a new society: social change through the novel in Malay. New South Wales: Allen and Unwin.

Katz. Tamar. 2000. Impressionist subjects: gender, interiority, and modernist fiction in England. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Rich, Charlotte J. 2009. Transcending the new woman: multiethnic narratives in the progressive Era. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Rosnah Baharuddin. 2003. Wacana wanita Melayu dan sastera. Bangi: Penerbit UKM.

Sabirin, Anis. 1969. Peranan Wanita Baru. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbitan Utusan Malaysia.

Ungku Maimunah Mohd. Tahir. 1986. Women fiction writers and images of women in modern Malay literature. Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. 1(2), 155-171.