Blurring the lines between social critique and pornography

I’ve come to terms with the idea that women have negotiated with age-old kinky fantasies, repackage them into female desire-driven works and named them ‘feminist porn’. And by ‘feminist porn’ I mean erotica made by women for women while at the same time trying everything in the postfeminist handbook to dispel the bad conscience of being complicit in the objectification of women so inextricably linked with pornography.

Apollo: Greek mythological figures make regular appearances in science fiction

The reclamation of female sexuality is to my mind one of the last frontiers of feminism. Since the advent of The Pill, women have recognised their desires as a God-given right and have expressed it in a myriad of ways – from the mass consumption of the euphemistic ‘romance novel’ to the glorification of rabbit-inspired vibrators. But in the literary domain where sex is not usually for sex’s sake; a smorgasbord of sexual perversions in Dinar Rahayu’s novel, ‘Ode untuk Leopold von Sacher-Masoch‘ (2002) became part of a social movement.

Among the figures portrayed in ‘Leopold’ are the main characters Jonggi, a masochist, and Dinar, a transsexual. Jonggi sees himself as an incarnation of Apollo and Dinar a valkyrie. The author draws attention to Apollo being sent to earth to serve several people, women in particular, as a slave and to Dinar who serves Odin. Dinar sacrifices her virginity to Apollo so that she is able to leave the world of Gods. Later in the novel, the line between the mythological and the real characters is drawn. Dinar is described as a man, who changes his sex because due to his experiences in the era of Norse mythology he believes to be a woman. The novel also depicts, on various occasions, Jonggi abused by his mother, brother, a group of women, and finally his teacher Kartika.

Confusing? Yes. One of a kind? Not really. Like the alternate visions of reality in Nabokov’s ‘Ada‘, Dinar Rahayu directly refers to Greek and Norse mythology to describe her characters and their sexual complexities. And like ‘Ada’, the employment of complicated science fiction/fantasy elements in the narrative distract the reader from the real disturbing issues at hand; namely incest, sexual abuse and humiliation –  and so essentially, the abnormal is acceptable because the reader engages with characters who constitute the non-existent, the alien, the Other.

By bringing female desire to the fore in ‘Leopold’, Dinar Rahayu has engaged with feminist issues in the way other women science fiction writers have in the past few decades. Abnormal sexuality has also been a convention of science fiction to examine the (mainly male) reader’s sexual biases and challenge society’s assumptions of what is normal and what isn’t. However, the complicated storyline, clumsy style of writing, and overcompensation of sexual content do not resonate with me. And unsurprisingly in the case of many Indonesians, they see it as a source of cheap thrills and an opportunity to express collective disgust in online book forums.

Predictably, Dinar Rahayu’s book was dismissed as subversive and obscene in Indonesia, and resulted in a greater interest in the author’s private life instead of the book’s implicit critique on the legacy of Suharto’s New Order. It is perhaps remarkable, however, that no fatwa was issued to remove the novel from the public sphere; largely due to the assumption that Indonesians do not read.

Compared to the deluge of media-grabbing autobiographies, memoirs, and other self-important books by Muslim women in recent times, there are too few writers of the science fiction genre who address Muslim women’s issues on a more universal scale that do not critique religion and culture based on very specific personal experiences. But where and who are they, these latter-day Muslim female science fiction writers?

Further reading:

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