A bumpy road, just like Malaysian sexual politics: A review of Body 2 Body – A Malaysian Queer Anthology

Body 2 body (2009) is the product of Malaysia’s young, hip and well-connected who’ve banded together to compile a collection of short stories and essays on living la vida non-normative. Edited by local art scene stalwarts Jerome Kugan and Pang Khee Teik, Body 2 Body is a landmark of sorts, mainly as the first anthology of local LGBT writing and as tangible evidence of Malaysia emerging out of the dark ages. Unfortunately, eclipsing this Book-of-Records significance is the violently uneven standard of writing. At times reasonably good (Brian Gomez and Shahnon Shah’s) but jaw-droppingly appalling in others (Abirami Durai and Jerome Kugan’s).

To begin with, Brian Gomez’s ‘What do gay people eat?’ is a cracking tale of parental ignorance transformed into heart-warming acceptance. Gomez brings to life his central characters, a pair of middle-aged Indian parents who are about to welcome their son and his boyfriend to home-cooked food for the first time. Agonising about what gay people eat (hint: not traditional Indian food as initially presumed), the dad soon learns that yes, gay people are just like everybody else and are not transported en masse from “the West”. At many turns funny and true to life, Gomez sets a fine example of a well-executed short story, something sadly not followed by others in Body 2 Body.

Don’t let a short story fool you into thinking it’s literary child’s play. The first rule in writing one, however, is simple: a good short story should not betray it’s primary descriptor: “short” (a memo Joyce did not read when he wrote The Dead). And because it is constrained by brevity, a good short story should also effectively evoke a moment in time and not a saga stretched out in six pages.

Overall, all the entries in this anthology do not have a problem with being short and sweet. The quality of story-telling in a few contributions, however, leaves plenty to be desired. Jerome Kugan’s ‘Alvin’ about an on-and-off relationship between two hard-partying men is more like a poorly edited film with arty pretensions than an engagingly-written story. The couple, Alvin and Jay, share some relationship highs like tender conversations after sex, and lows like lack of commitment, and soon drift apart without proper goodbyes as moody anti-romantics do. To end his postmodern romance, Kugan’s epilogue for Alvin and Jay reads like a kinky French-Spanish film played on fast-forward:

A year later, Alvin and Jay are a couple, sharing an apartment in Mont Kiara. After a few months of lousy sex, they decide to have an open relationship. Jay meets Gochi, 26yo hottie originally from Singapore but working in KL to be closer to his mature Japanese expat boyfriend. Jay has sex with Gochi and offers threesome [sic] with Alvin. Alvin protests at first but after threesome [sic], confesses that he has fallen in love with Gochi. Jay is devastated, think it’s his fault, goes to Frangipani to get drunk. While drunk, he meets 40yo Hansen and 28yo Maria, a bisexual couple from London. Jay has sex with Maria while Hansen watches and masturbates. Later, Hansen fucks Jay while Maria sucks his cock. Jay is moaning as he is fucked, thinking of Alvin.

Charming.

Abirami Durai’s ‘Have you seen my son?’ shows great promise of being about trans-acceptance but is impeded by a flimsy sequence of improbable events and cliches: Alex is returning home from studying abroad and as friends and family do, they welcome the return of the prodigal son with bated breath at the airport. But it’s Anna who returns, not Alex. The shock and surprise of a transgender homecoming is severely offset by Anna’s entire family and friends not recognising her at all save for our narrator, Anna’s best friend. The two return to Anna’s home separately after her familyandfriends shuffle quietly back into the cardboard cut-out where they come from. There, we see Anna packing her old stuff to leave the family home for good because being literally invisible to her parents is much too unpleasant. As old friends do, the narrator and Anna reminisce about old flames until the dad suddenly walks in and asks Anna about Alex’s whereabouts. This leads to Durai’s ambiguous message on pseudo trans-accceptance; Anna’s dad is still clueless (or in denial or just visually impaired?) that she’s really his son, but compliments on how pretty she looks instead. At least he thinks she’s pretty! That’s gotta be good, right? Right?

Perhaps quirkiness verging on the surreal is a new and uniquely Malaysian writing style that I’ve yet to come to grips with. And maybe the schlock of the new will eventually herald substance and maturity. A bumpy road of a read made up of an uneven mix of good and substandard writing may one day smoothen out by work that are published not because they were the only ones lying around the editors’ desk. Body 2 body is nonetheless a praiseworthy effort in putting non-normative genders and sexualities on the local literary map, but the schoolteacher critic in me cannot refrain from saying, “Can do better!”.

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Claudine, a transgender tragedy for girls: A critical review

From the start, a scene with a young child who steps into a psychiatrist’s salon because of a gender identity “problem” already seals the reader’s fate to a gloomy foregone conclusion. The young child is Claudine, the eponymous character of Ryoko Ikeda’s 1987 4-part manga and the central subject of much intrigue and heartbreak. The reason for the aforementioned psychiatric help: Claudine de Montesse is 10 years old and believes she’s a boy.

Seeing that Claudine is far from a maladjusted pre-adolescent, the psychiatrist suggests maintaining casual contact with the child, keeping an eye from afar as it were on Claudine’s social development. The story unfolds years following their first meeting where we now find Claudine the apple of his father’s eye, and being every bit the elite French gentleman who loves his horse-riding and hunting.

Handsome with bottle-gold bird’s nest hair, Claudine is a hit with the ladies and pursued by one young woman after another. But none take his fancy until Maura, the maid, arrives at the family doorstep covered in snow that we see them sharing “a moment”; eyes meeting and tongues tied. There is awkward but endearing chemistry between the two as Claudine towers over tiny Maura, and in the way his moodiness is offset by her manic pixie dream girl-like charm. They share their first kiss when Claudine’s mother catches them. Aghast and scandalised by their homoerotic and class transgressions, Claudine’s mother sends Maura away for good, leaving him heartbroken and wandering the streets of Paris in search of love and acceptance.

Two more passionate affairs follow and end disastrously. Cecilia, the mature librarian who shares his love of books and intellectual banter cheats on him with Claudine’s father of all people. Sirene, the sultry ballerina who lives with him as a ‘housemate’ runs away with Claudine’s older brother. To add insult to injury, Claudine is reminded by his ex lovers of the ‘truth’ that he is after all “a woman” and hence has no future of successful romantic entanglement with another women. Broken and devastated, Claudine seeks a lifeline, his psychiatrist, who could reassure him that he really is a man. But alas, the psychiatrist disappoints: Claudine is told he is an “imperfect” man who is “not quite right”. The humiliation and despair drives our hero to take his own life one snowy night.

As a fan of shojo manga that deals with “difficult” gender issues, I had found in Claudine …! a goldmine of themes: young love, betrayal, homosexuality, melodrama of operatic proportions, and the all predictable tragedy. The twee French backdrop – a standard quirk of many Japanese manga – serves as a fantastical safe space for young female readers to sympathise with our transfemale protagonist’s trial and tribulations. The tragic denouement is typical of non-normative romantic pursuits in fiction in which our protagonist’s death sends a grim message that romance belongs to cis-gendered heteronormativity. To reside outside its exacting boundaries is to invite trouble and doom.

Claudine is eulogised by his psychiatrist as someone quite extraordinary in life, but ignores his own hand and those of others in Claudine’s suicide. There is something self-serving about waxing lyrical about the dearly departed like Claudine as a person of exceptional beauty and intelligence, someone who was all man but in body. Had someone like him been alive, the reality of embracing him into the fold of society would be more cumbersome for some people. Revering him in death is more convenient. There is no doubt that a fictional fantasy on transgender identities is every bit a reflection of our collective heteronormative attitudes in which every tragic death symbolises a victory for hegemonic, dominant values.

You can read Claudine …! online here.

Is there such a thing as men's issues in Malaysia?

If we consider the major strides women have made and continue to make in education and employment in Malaysia, we think, ‘we’ve never had it so good’. Pro-women policies from the ground up; from the changing attitudes at home right up to the corridors of power, have placed women at the focus of many ‘development’ and nation-building projects. Men, on the other hand, are believed to have always enjoyed the advantage of being considered socially superior to women. But forget for a moment the myth that men have the supposed birthright to be leaders and women are meant ‘serve’ and ‘assist’ them; not all men are doing so well and not all men are the boss. While women are becoming more empowered, the already empowered men are assumed to be happy with that. Under the banner of ‘Women’s Issues’, women’s progress in society is always reported and analysed, much like an intensive health check-up to see if we’re doing okay.

Meanwhile, men’s status in society is considered to be unchanging and frozen in time. Yes, there are still more men in powerful places and still more women who are redressing that gender imbalance. Though I’d like to think that women’s increasing social independence must mean something to the male of the species. If being a woman today means not ever going back to being a woman of the past, then this must impact on what being a man today means. The attack on feminism suggests a resentment that more women will run the show, have more control, have more say in things, and all this may leave men thinking that they now have less control, less power, emasculated even. So it is not surprising in the least that feminism is referred to as man-hating by men themselves, as if feminism conspires to overpower the male race and take over the world. The anxieties of potential female domination are also felt by self-professed liberal men, particularly when expressed in the cautious rhetoric about what gender equality should mean, or what I call the ‘mansplaining of feminism’.

I’d like to call for a sensitive analytical focus on men and masculinities in Malaysia. Call it men’s issues if you like, and the focus should be on all types of men, not men as a monolithic group. What I mean by men’s issues is nothing like the male version of women’s issues. It’s not about working towards giving more rights to men above what women already or do not have. It’s about casting a careful look on how women’s changing roles in society impact on modern masculinity and about making gender equality a project that concerns not women alone but a dialogue between genders. I’m hoping that men’s issues make it a point to raise male privilege as a subject worthy of investigation to be studied and discussed by men and women alike. Only by making these issues visible can we demystify men’s fears and anxieties about what genuine gender equality means.

I’d like to  finish with a quote from Rafidah Abdullah’s interview with The Nutgraph:

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.

I want a Malaysia run by a political party with a “lelaki” wing, and this is the wing that handles food, drinks and menial labour for all the party events. And I want a Kementerian Pembangunan Lelaki, Keluarga dan Masyarakat, which will run workshops targeted at preventing boys from turning into rempit, rapists and incestuous fathers.

Honestly, it’s a losing battle working on women’s issues when people won’t even acknowledge men’s issues

Now that Sophie Dahl is out of our kitchen, who will be the next female TV chef?

First published at The F-Word Blog

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For the few people who care, Sophie Dahl will not be returning to our television sets to teach us how to make an eggs Benedict that’s saucy in more ways than one. Dahl had a shaky start, with mixed reviews from episode one and had more media buzz about the kitchen she performed in than her food. Soon, there were snide remarks about the way she holds a cutting knife and her many whimsical but sometimes gut-churning food-related sexual innuendos.

Premature comparisons with Nigella Lawson’s looks and finger-licking abilities long before her programme started were inevitable, and sadly that might’ve assisted its early demise. I sometimes wonder whether the golden age of mixing food and sensuality had long ended with Nigella, and that we’re now heralding the squeezing out of women from the ranks of famous cooks?

Cooking shows are dominated by men. Nearly all head chefs, not to mention those blinged with Michelin stars who make media appearances, are men. The overwhelming number of those who compete in gruelling cooking competitions like Masterchef and The Great British Menu and win, are men. Hairy bikers, men. It’s not that women do not cook of course, they are just seldom credited for it. Women’s cooking is often considered a domestic art, like cleaning and childcare.

At home, women do most of the cooking because they usually have to. Men usually cook when it’s a special occasion, an occasion to show off. But when men have to prepare food, or put under pressure or on the boil in the kitchen – to use cooking expressions, it’s likely to be a paid job and are rewarded handsomely for it. So it’s not surprising that professional kitchens are often considered to be the bastion of macho and male chauvinistic behaviour.

Pointing out the macho-ness of ‘serious’ cooking matters, because it has taken domesticity out of cooking, out of the domain of the traditionally feminine. The late Keith Floyd prepared dishes on the open decks of sailing boats while Gordon Ramsay risked life and limb to harvest shellfish off coastal cliffs amid crashing waves. Food now have hints of danger, competitiveness, and mind-blowing intricacy; ‘serious’ food is a masculine art.

Female celebrity cooks before Dahl such as the likes of Delia Smith, Nigella, Rachel Allen, on the other hand, played up the domestic goddess image; with honest to goodness home cooking that kids will love and cinched for success at dinner parties – all demonstrated without subtlety in a stagey 1950’s bliss by the tail end of the programme. The Delicious Miss Dahl walked with ease in the footsteps of her culinary foremothers and sisters because it perpetuated the myth of domestic paradise, and perhaps that was the show’s downfall, aside from the fact that her food was far from adventurous.

As someone who watches nearly every cooking programme rather religiously on British TV, including Taste in the small hours, I find the gender divide in presentation, recipes, and sometimes ingredients startling. Nigella Lawson and Sophie Dahl made it a point to discuss their tricky relationship with rich food, as if knowing all too well of the viewers who are quick to judge women who love their food a little too much. In one episode coded Romance, Dahl served up a sumptuous meaty shepherd’s pie only to not eat it in the end. Instead, she tucked cautiously into her lentil option. What a pity I thought. Perhaps it was an act of sacrifice, like the way vegetarians selflessly prepare non-veg food for others, except this was supposed to be something romantic in this day and age.

There are many things wrong with a cooking programme that depends plenty on the presenter’s sex appeal but little else. And as demonstrated by Ms Dahl’s early exit, sensuality and mediocre cooking knowhow make a losing combination. But with female TV chefs so few and confined to domesticity, what will be the winning recipe for the next female food star?

Aquila: A new kind of Muslim woman?

First published in Muslimah Media Watch

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For those familiar with women’s “lifestyle” magazines, the call to be “sexy” in some way or another is not new. We women need to have “sexy” everything: attitude, legs, skin, armpits, you name it. So pervasive is this message that I’m surprised that no one has spontaneously combusted from sexual arousal at the sight of a women’s magazine devotee.

And then we have the new Aquila magazine, whose key buzzwords are modesty and fabulousness.

As the “world’s first English fashion and lifestyle magazine for cosmopolitan Muslim women in Asia” that is based in Singapore, Aquila serves up the standard menu of any glossy: tips on make-up, shopping, book and film reviews, and some lightweight advice on career-building.

Aimed at readers from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, modesty and fabulousness are far from alien concepts: Muslim women of all ages, hijabis in particular, in Southeast Asia are intensely responsive to new faith-based sartorial trends, perhaps more so than women who do not cover their hair.

That said, Islamic consumerism, as cynical as it sounds, is a fairly new phenomenon in which women in the region form an active role. Aquila is an obvious byproduct of the purchasing power of Muslim women in Southeast Asia, but whether or not it aims to be representative of its target audience is quite another matter. So let us explore this issue by breaking it down to three parts, based on how well it’s doing for its intended readers thus far:

The good: The one thing I can generously say about Aquila is that there seems to be an intention that it offers something for everybody: from articles on face creams to an as yet developed page on “science,” which I hope will be a more informative take on scientific breakthroughs, instead of the science of eye creams and hair serum.

The bad: The beating heart of any self-respecting popular publication is the opinion piece. Often brief and pseudo-philosophical, the op-ed is, for me, what makes fashion magazines human and less banal. But that was what I thought before I came across the first opinion piece on Aquila. Entitled “Leap of Faith,” it reveals the thoughts of a Muslim man whose moral dilemma about his daughter dating a non-Muslim seems to completely eclipse his social drinking habits, at his favorite drinking hole no less! The piece ended on a cryptic note that suggested a sense hypocrisy that plagues the urban, middle-class and the selectively liberal Muslim communities in Southeast Asia, but lacked any insight or depth in what is a serious issue that very much concerns the intended reader.

The could-be-better: Though brand-spanking-new with the impressive accolade of being a kind of landmark magazine for Southeast Asian Muslim women, Aquila looks more like a half-built project with little pizzazz.  The graphics leave plenty to be desired, but then that wouldn’t be such an issue if it had more substantial content. I get the feeling that Aquila isn’t really targeted at parents, as it lists “kids” as a “lifestyle” issue that sits at the bottom of the drop down list. But I shouldn’t really be asking for the moon here, as most fashion and beauty magazines rarely figure parenthood as a particularly “trendy” subject.

In sum, Aquila is far from divinely inspired. It is a bland derivative of many beaten dead horses called women’s fashion magazines, except with less exposed flesh. It reminds me why I’ve stopped reading such things for good. I’m also not entirely convinced that it is trying hard to be representative of the young, upwardly mobile Muslim women who are taking Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia by storm. If the magazine’s not so modest vision of being “the world’s most trusted authority on the intelligence of affluent Muslims” is anything to go by, I would suggest Asian Muslim women to read elsewhere for fabulous inspiration.



Show me authoritarian feminism, and I'll show you some poorly researched tosh: A letter to Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams

Dear En. Hafiz Noor Shams,

Your article, Of it is not hard to choose between liberalism and authoritarian feminism, has pretensions of being an enlightening read on social liberty, but demonstrates the unforgivable laziness and neglect on your part to investigate the larger aims of feminism. To decide that feminism now has an authoritarian edge simply because one person has called the burqa as “an affront” to feminist ideals reveals a person who is easily swayed by his unchecked prejudices.

You have read a few things that confirm your reservations about feminism, and they have led to conclusions about a political enterprise that many, like myself, believe champions personal choice above patronisation and coercion. A political enterprise, En. Hafiz, that is also diverse and more complex than you’re probably aware of at this point. Do not be surprised that in the context of hotly debated issues like the hijab, you will find different feminisms emerging in its defense and others who use the name of feminism to argue against it. The crux of my argument is this: there are different sides to a debate and it is far too simplistic and premature to come to a conclusion about what feminism stands for based on attention-grabbing one-liners that individuals like Elizabeth Farrelly make.

Search a little further on the great world wide web and you will find an abundance of feminist writings, Muslim and other strands alike, in favour of social liberties including the right to wear the burqa. Elizabeth Farrelly and Elizabeth Badinter are not the spokespersons of feminism, nor is the BBC the arbiter of gender equality. So no, they do not represent the so-called “standard” feminist views. If anything, the BBC is a repository of misogyny.

In a blog post that reads under a title that displays some unnecessary syntactical gymnastics, you have tried to strengthen your arguments by piecing together unrelated canards about feminism: like the assumption that radical feminists want more than “simple” gender equality, and the dangers of female tokenism if taken to extremes brought possibly about by affirmative action:

My greatest issue with feminism up until recently is affirmative action. I cannot bring myself to support affirmative action for women and ending up living in a tokenistic system. Worse, some want more than tokenism. Through experience, radical feminists want inequality of rights in their favor rather than simple equality between genders.

En. Hafiz, you have shared with readers some well-meaning but under-developed thoughts about gender-based discrimination that is plaguing our society yet you choose to be carried away by some highly imaginative ideas about feminism. First, women as a whole, and feminists much less, do not have the means to  wield the weapon of authoritarianism. Our influence still remains on the fringes of mainstream politics and as feminists, we certainly do not have the authority to “shove” any kind of identity down anyone’s throats as you have been persuaded to believe. Second, the “simple” gender equality you have alluded to is perhaps a “simple” demand for equal gender representation in the workplace and other public spaces, but the reality of pushing for change in a society with rather conservative attitudes about women’s positions in the higher ranks of power and leadership is far from uncomplicated. And what is this fear of the demands that women may make beyond tokenism that you speak of? A dystopian future of emasculated men?

Privilege: A Reader

Edited by Michael Kimmel and Abby L. Ferber
Westview Press

A historian once said that the more one can know about something, the more you can control it. Michel Foucault was specifically talking about the control of psychiatric patients, prison inmates, and people’s sex lives, but we can certainly extend his thoughts to a plethora of other examples. What Foucault did not say, however, was how exposing and learning about power and dominance can lead to their dismantling.

After more than two decades since his passing, the inheritors of Foucault’s ideas make an appearance in a handsome new book that explores the invisible power of privilege; namely the privilege of being White, heterosexual, and middle class in America. Privilege: A Reader is a collection of essays compiled and edited by Michael Kimmel and Abby L. Ferber, both scholarly experts in masculinities and ethnic studies respectively. The book takes on a welcoming and accessible feel with essays that come a personal place, many written from a first-person perspective by heavyweights like Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, and Tim Wise.

Some, like Allan Bérubé’s experience as a gay rights activist brings to light the complications of being White in anti-racist gay rights movement. Not being White, I found Bérubé’s angst about pointing out the Whiteness of influential gay groups in the U.S. an eyeopener. For White people, it seems, it was convenient to remain racially invisible and to depend on the unspoken rules about keeping that Whiteness unchecked. Awkward silences, defensiveness, and hostility form the repertoire of White discomfort when the racial gaze is turned to Whiteness.

In Michael A. Messner’s piece on “Becoming 100 Percent Straight,” he raises questions that heterosexual people rarely ask: how do we know for sure we’re straight? And what made us straight? Messner’s question is interwoven in a study of his own sexuality that touches on his memories as a young man who was infatuated with a male classmate and friend. In repressing this infatuation, he belittles and rejects his friend—a process Messner calls the heterosexualisation of his masculinity.

With every chapter I am reminded of the discomfort the topic of privilege raises and how important that it should remain unsettling. I learn that Black men and working class White people, as privileged groups, are highly contested categories in the face of institutional racism and poverty. And dishearteningly, I discover that the gateway to social mobility undermined by the unearned privilege of being accepted to Ivy League colleges by virtue of having parents who are alumni.

Kimmel and Ferber’s book takes us on a journey of self-reflection, of deconstructing the power of invisibility, and asks us some difficult questions about our many roles in maintaining oppression. But it does not try leave us beset with racial or class guilt. Rather, it invites us to pursue, both on a theoretical and practical level, ways of recognising the overlapping nature of social privileges and overcoming differences in the name of solidarity against oppressions.

Though Privilege: A Reader could be a more comprehensive, far-reaching catalogue of dominance, both insidious and overt, if it had taken on board the narrative of privilege from other non-White experiences and interrogated what being able-bodied and cisgendered mean. The absence of trans, disabled, Asian, and Native American voices speaks, ironically, of Kimmel’s and Ferber’s privilege of omitting these important experiences that are key to dismantling the edifice of privilege.

I praise Privilege: A Reader nonetheless, for its courage to speak from a place that prefers to remain silent, for raising attention to things that want to stay hidden, and its overall critique of life’s many taken for granted experiences and “common sense.” I’m sure Foucault would be proud of that.