The peeping tom and adulterer: some themes Malays like

Dia melekapkan mata kanannya ke lubang paku tiga inci itu dengan hati berdebar-debar. Nafasnya terhenti sejenak bila melihat tubuh putih gebu yang sedang basah berkemban sahaja. Dadanya terdedah. Sharifah membuka ikat kain kembannya. Kain kuyup itu dikirai-kirai. Rambutnya yang lebat hitam terhurai lepas hingga ke paras pinggang berbuai-buai lemah. Badan putih melepak begitu lembut. Begitu memberahikan.

(An excerpt from ‘Tembelang’ by Yahya Samah, 1966)

I’m writing a brief and casual analysis of the similar themes employed by Yahya Samah’s novel ‘Tembelang’ and U-Wei Shaari in his 1993 film “Perempuan, Isteri, dan …”. The two themes in both bodies of work: voyeurism and the cheating wife, seem effective enough to show how preoccupied Malaysians are about certain aspects of sex and sexuality. I must point out by saying that both voyeurism and adultery are not social deviations exclusive to Malays, but what strikes me as uniquely Malay is the “berkemban” scene in ‘Tembelang’ and in “Perempuan…”.

In ‘Tembelang’, Semiah is married to Mat Lajis but is unhappy because he is a gambler who refuses to have sex with her. The only person who seems to show interest in her is their landlord, Haji Sapuan, who, also lusts after their daughter. It is after watching Semiah bathe that Haji Sapuan decides to descend on his desired target.

Zaleha, the woman, wife (and whore) in “Perempuan, Isteri, dan …” faces a similar marital predicament: forced into marriage to Amir who does not love and desire her, she offers sexual favours to the men of Amir’s village in exchange for money. In the notorious ‘voyeur scene’, Zaleha showers knowingly in the eyes of a male neighbour. In feminist-theorist language, she turns the tables on the ‘male gaze/passive female sex object’ model as she is in control over those who lust after her.

In both works, issues dealing with female sexuality are addressed. Both women love sex but their husbands do not. Their situations are exarcebated further after they prostitute themselves because they are now ‘fallen women’ who are not fit to sleep on the marital bed (as demonstrated in a scene in “Perempuan…”) – reserved only for good and pure wives. They are the whores in the Madonna/Whore complex. It’s funny how women who enjoy sex are rarely portrayed without the prostitute stigma looming above them.

The voyeurism in both examples constitutes a metaphor for the hypocrisy of the outwardly respectable Malay man. The Malay man tends to be highly-regarded; Haji Sapuan’s title suggests religious superiority over others who have not performed the haj, but away from the view of others, he invades Semiah’s privacy for pure titillation. Shahnon Ahmad has a similar critique in his novel ‘Tok Guru’ in which an elderly religious leader who uses Islam as an excuse to take numerous wives.

One thought on “The peeping tom and adulterer: some themes Malays like

  1. …which is true.

    The stereotype I’ve often heard is that, since Malay men do not drink and gamble, all they have is sex, which they pursue to an incredibly tasteless degree.

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