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!”.

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.

Of sartorial choices and oppression

First published over at the F-Word blog.

The ban on the full-face veil in Belgium seems like the easiest thing to mete out as far as unconstitutional legislations are concerned. Out of about 215 women who wear either the niqab or burqa in the country, many belong to immigrant communities, many are hard done by multiple forms of discrimination already in addition to being economically disadvantaged and politically under-represented. Penalising them is like flicking away ants or beating someone when they’re already down.

It appears that a woman’s sartorial choices have confirmed the highest place in the pyramid of oppression in the eyes of the Belgian and French powers that be; high above xenophobia, Islamophobia, classism, and sexism. Removing the offending piece of cloth worn by over 200 women is tantamount to restoring not only female dignity but the fragile values of an entire nation.

The discomfort about the burqa in particular can be felt on both sides of the ban. Those who are quick to say that, “I do not support the ban but…” have the made the same over-emphasis on a piece of cloth but little attention to the continuum of oppression that the majority of Muslim women face in Europe. If anything, the superficial concerns levelled against the way Muslim women wear have almost always been made by those who are neither Muslim nor wear the hijab, much less the burqa.

The unanimous decision to ban the full-face veil in Belgium speaks volumes of the symbolic unity against visible Islam in a country where Muslims make up only 3 percent of the population. It is also a patronising push towards a kind of women’s liberation that is measured against what European women wear. But before we even consider that the burqa is self-effacing in its most literal form, should we think about how punitive such a ban will be on a woman who might wear it under duress or otherwise? Before we make judgements and decisions about the sartorial choices that certain groups of women make, have we spared the time to ask these women themselves if they are complicit in their own oppression?

The heavy-handed penalty against the niqab and burqa is just another way to punish women without having to address the systemic racism and Islamophobia plaguing right-leaning countries like Belgium and France. This ban is not an emancipatory cause to celebrate or one that is steeped in so-called European values. It is not about emancipation if the law can decide that you are free. It is not about European values if Muslims make a sizeable number of Europeans in the continent. One should remember that many do not claim that the wearing of the hijab to such extremes is a religious obligation but rather an anachronistic cultural practice or simply a protective cloak from the male gaze. However, the hubris of the Belgian and French brand of secularism is such that in the case of Muslim women, those distinctions do not matter.

How colonialism created 'religion'

This is an essay I’ve written for a course on postcolonialism and the study of religions. Writing this opened my eyes about the taken-for-granted terms and values we place on what could be perceived as religion in non-Western contexts. This is not an exhaustive discussion of the way European conquest helped construct ‘religion’ in different parts on the colonial map, but it nonetheless raises our awareness about the insidious effects of Western scholarship on the way we see the world.

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Introduction: Imagining and appropriating categories

The foundations of the academic study of religions rested on a colonial pursuit characterised by the need to control resources, both human and economic. Out of this pursuit emerged the manipulations of the category ‘religion’ from beyond the colonial centre and onto its periphery, the ‘frontier’. The use of the category ‘religion’ facilitated the European struggle with cultural pluralism that went with the increased exposure to so-called uncivilised and exotic societies which dotted the colonial map (Chidester 1996:2-3). Supporting the evidence of ‘religions’ on the frontier were presuppositions informed by Western conceptual frameworks which sought to create, to various degrees of success, a universal and transcendentalist concept of human ritualistic behaviour and faith systems. Presuppositions in themselves help shape the construction of any discipline, but with regard to the concept of ‘religion’, presuppositions have determined to a dramatic extent the very nature of its object of study and often at the brutal expense of social reality (Flood 1999:65).

The constellation of categories and ideas that emerged throughout the history of the study of religions tells us more about the fabric of Western culture and values during its time than about its intended object of study. For instance, the concept ‘religion’ is the product of historically and culturally-specific discursive processes of Western Christianity, and as Balagangadhara has noted, Christianity has generally served for Western scholars as the prototypical example of a religion, by effect standing as a fundamental yardstick for the study of ‘other religions’ (Balagangadhara 1993:307). Bearing in mind the dependence of the study of religions on such categories, one should therefore acknowledge that the discipline is founded on a analytical framework that is unmistakably Christian in its orientation.

Even with the historical origins of ‘religion’ laid bare, the category still retains its uncontested and “pre-theoretical” privilege that is often taken as “common sense” with the assumption that all cultures have some concept of a religion (Balagangadhara 1993:284-5). The category ‘world religions’ that is still in use today implies a clear-cut and universal concept of religion that is not only easily distinguishable but also assumed as a perennial feature of any culture in any time of history. To be categorised as a ‘world religion’, what are presumed and understood as religious ideas and practices need to clearly identified as having fulfilled a certain checklist of characteristics, often oriented around principle features of Christianity such as sacred texts and proselytisation (Hirst and Zavos 2005:5). A limiting feature of the category ‘world religion’ is that it must be extracted from its regional and cultural enmeshments in order to be displayed in the supermarket of religions, almost as a consumer product. This inevitably means the narratives of tradition must be abstracted and distorted in the transference from a predominantly diachronic dimension (the notion of tradition) to a synchronic one (the notion of a religion spread out across the globe, almost outside of time) (Flood 1999:235).

In light of this academic and social reality, this essay will trace the historical development of the forms of knowledge that contributed to the category formation of religion, set against the backdrop of European colonial expansion in India. Then I shall discuss at length the implications of colonial interventions in the study of religions on modern ‘Hinduism’, and some thoughts concerning the future of the discipline. Some of the questions that I seek to engage in this essay include: how much (or little) should the study of religions retain its categories and epistemic frameworks from its original point of reference, Western Christianity? To what extent does the use of religion as an analytical category help to sustain specific relations of power? What can scholars working within the discipline do to problematise their Eurocentric assumptions about religious and cultural systems in non-Western contexts? And finally, if the study of religions is a valid enterprise for the understanding of ‘religion’.

Power, knowledge and Orientalism

The work of Michel Foucault and Edward Said form a pair of critical lenses on the instrumentalisation of power and knowledge in the construction of the study of religion from within the context of colonialisation. Foucault’s work draws our attention to the power relations implicated in knowledge which renders all truth claims suspect. As a critic of the modern project of the European civilisation, Foucault calls into question taken-for-granted authoritative systems of power that govern and shape individual identities, or ‘docile bodies’ of knowledge (Ludden 1993:250). If disciplines are regimes of power, then the study of religions as a discipline is a “technique for assuring the ordering of multiplicities … [used] as procedures of partitioning and verticality … [Disciplines also] define hierarchical networks … bring into play the power relations, not above but inside the very ntexture of the multiplicity” (Foucault 1977:218-20).

While Foucault suggested that the human sciences, as an organic machine of power, produced objectified bodies of knowledge, Edward Said on the other hand analysed the complex and subtle ways in which European subjectivity was sustained and reinforced at the expense of conquering, dominating, and objectifying a world of colonised “Others”. In Said’s critique of the colonial body of knowledge which he had termed Orientalism, he states that the fundamental hierarchical divide between the East and West that is pervasive in much of European interpretation of the ‘Orient’ mutually reinforced the motivations and justifications of colonial conquest (Said 2004:60-2) Orientalism also produced, according to Said, a venerated set of factualised statements about the Orient that became so widely accepted as true that it “determined the content of assumptions on which theory and inferences can be built” (Ludden 1993:251).

Upon conquering new territorial space, European settlers had also entered a new epistemological space that had to be under their command. Thus, local languages had to be learned to master new European territories. “Classical” languages such as Persian and Sanskrit as well as those in “vernacular” forms were understood to be the prerequisite form of knowledge, and as a result the first learning institutions on the colonial periphery were established to teach officials the local languages (Cohn 1996:4). Through mastery of local languages, colonial administrators were able to classify and categorise their subjects, issue commands, collect taxes, maintain law and order, and eventually new forms of knowledge that could further establish their position on the frontier (Cohn 1996:5). And through knowing the ‘religion’ of the Other, European settlers could not only understand the ‘Oriental’ with whom they came into contact, but provided a means of control.

Through the prism of Orientalist imaginings, religions in the ‘Orient’ were understood to be timeless and unchanging, standing outside the frame of historical, social, and cultural contexts in contrast to the Eurocentric conception of history, religion, and culture that is underpinned by the firm belief in the progressive evolution of Western society (King 1999:91). What became apparent for anti-Orientalist, post-colonial theorists today is the mismatch between descriptions of certain Asian and African ‘religions’ and the lived realities of those who populate the ‘Orient’. However, far from passive objects, those supposedly representing Oriental ‘religions’ constructed by colonial administrators, missionaries, and scholars, paradoxically, utilised and resisted Orientalist concepts in anti-imperialist projects. This is illustrative of the impact ‘Hinduism’ as an Orientalist construct on modern India and national identity.

The modern invention of ‘Hinduism’

Today, ‘Hinduism’ has been taken axiomatically to denote a religion embraced by a majority of the Indian people in South Asia. Although used by the indigenous Indians themselves before European conquest, the term ‘Hindu’ did not connote a specific religiosity only until the nineteenth century due to Orientalist influences (Chaterjee 1992:147). As a Western explanatory construct, ‘Hinduism’ first grew out of the British legal taxonomy to describe and govern the religious Other in India who was not a Muslim, Christian, Parsee or a Jew (King 1999:99). Dividing (and by effect, constructing) identities along religious lines echoed the ecclesiastical approach in contemporary Britain regarding matters concerning marriage and divorce, property, and religious worship (ibid.).

In the systemisation of Indian identities under colonial order, Richard King has pointed to two significant ways that contributed to the notion of ‘Hinduism’ as a singular, homogenous religious entity: first, through locating the essence of the Indian faith in certain Sanskrit texts and secondly, by the tendency to define and compare Indian religion using contemporary Western understandings of Judaeo-Christian traditions as an epistemological yardstick. These two processes, interwoven and constituting each other, became the main features of the “Westernisation of Indian religion” (King 1999:101). Western presuppositions about ‘religion’ inspired by Protestant theology that placed great emphasis on the role of sacred text at the heart of its believers led the to the scholarly focus on certain Indian literary traditions in the belief that they held the key to understanding ‘Hindu’ people as a unified entity. Many of the early translators of Indian texts were European Christian missionaries, who, in their translations and critical editions of Indian writing, played a significant role in producing a homogenised and reductionist written canon through the Indian materials (Frykenberg 1991:40). As a result, the Indian religious traditions of the oral and ‘popular’ variety were either neglected or dismissed as a degradation of contemporary Hindu religion into superstition practices that did not reflect ‘their’ own texts.

Though the construction of modern ‘Hinduism’ was not a project conducted unilaterally by European scholars, missionaries, and colonial administrators, but a project in collaboration with certain elitist communities belonging particularly to the brahmin castes, hence the contemporary British tendency to emphasise texts representative of the upper caste as central to the Hindu faith. Such a collaboration helped established ‘Hinduism’ to the status ‘world religion’, as first presented famously by Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament in Chicago in 1893 (Frykenberg 1991:42). The resulting effect of the text-centred ‘brahmanisation’ of Indian religious life as a whole is an anti-historical understanding of an Indian religion that points to the pretensions of an ‘essence’ of ‘Hindu’ people. Such a notional and synchronic approach to conceptualising ‘religion’ is characteristic of Saidian Orientalist discourse that effectively, whether inadvertently or consciously, dehumanise and manipulate the ‘Oriental’ (King 1999:104).

Implications of the Orientalist conceptions of ‘Hinduism’

European colonial influences left an impact on Indian religions and culture that can still be felt to this day. According to Richard King, one of the most enduring images of Eastern ‘religions’ characterised by the contemporary Western imagination is on the one hand possesses the mysticism and spirituality unlike one perceived in modern Western culture, and on the other, the backward fundamentalist. These notional dichotomies constructed and propagated through European influence soon were taken up as ideological arsenal against colonial power: the claim that ‘Hinduism’ can be meaningfully referred to the religion of ‘Hindu’ people became to be supported by founding parents of modern India, Mohandas Gandhi and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (King 1999:98).

The invention of ‘Hinduism’ as a rubric under which Hindus were defined experienced a curious turn of events in the hands of the Indian people. First, the notion of the text-based ‘Hinduism’ as the idealised and pure model of the Indian religion became adopted by different strands of Hindu revivalists, fundamentalists, and nationalists that sought to recover their place as the originals people of India with an antagonism imbued against Indian Muslims (Gold 1991:534). Convinced by the impression purported by European scholars of the “corruption” of the Hindu religion by superstition and therefore in need of reformation, various ‘Hindu reform movements’ began to emerge in the nineteenth century. Equipped with dubious writings on Indian religious history by British historians, the movements’ commitment to restoring ‘Hinduism’ to its former glory was soon to become entangled with the rise of a nationalist self-awareness that was based on romantic notions of a precolonial India unified by that one faith, ‘Hinduism’ (King 1999:101).

Christian theologically-influenced presuppositions about the place of ‘founders’ of religions were adopted by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (the Pan-Hindu Movement) that placed a great deal of importance on the historicity of figures such as Rama and Krishna as proof of Hinduism’s genuineness (King 1999:40). While for Indians abroad, the unified ‘Hinduism’ was important as it could be explained by outsiders of the faith as a respectable religion, something that could be passed down to their children in religious education, and above all, form the basis for a sense of collective action (Van der Veer 1993:42-3). The Western influence on Indian religions is so prevalent that today what most Religion Education courses mean by ‘Hinduism’ is actually an Orientalistic and neo-Vedanticisation of Indian religion. Even after the end of official colonial rule in South Asia, religion became a key driving force in state-level conflict and acts of violent resistance. Deployed by political leaders to gain support, religion emerged as an obvious analytical category for which to interpret the politics of the Subcontinent, used by social scientists to examine election data and elucidate the crystallisation of the nations’ political patterns (Hirst and Zavos 2005:4).

Reconceptualising a ‘religion’: ‘Hinduism’ today

Regardless of the suspect definitions that fill the category ‘Hinduism’, religious systems do have a presence in that they provide frameworks for certain rationalisations and actions in the daily lives for individuals, communities, and as a nation but keeping in mind that certain popular ideas, beliefs, and practices between religious systems do not have clear-cut boundaries as they sometimes traverse across ‘religious’ categorical lines. As Harjot Oberoi had once pointed out:

[Scholars often] think, speak and write about Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism, but they rarely pause to consider if such clear-cut categories actually found expression in the consciousness, actions and cultural performances of the human actors they describe (Oberoi 1994:1).

Thus, the categories used by scholars of religious studies often do not fit ethnographic data and risk marginalisation, even erasure: the meaning of certain acts and practices may be lost because they cannot be conceptualised to closely reflect ‘authentic’ voices and developments of certain faiths. Furthermore, the category ‘religion’ often underestimate the fluid and shifting boundaries across other identities. Identities based on caste (class), gender, ethnicity, geographical regions, and kinship constitute each other as does religion in informing communal and individual identities, beliefs, and practices (Hirst and Zavos 2005:6).

The study of religions in India in particular has moved on from being more than focusing on metaphysical / transcendental dimension towards the historical and empirical side of religion in which the study of religions of contemporary Indian society is more about how people construct their religious worlds (ibid.). The problematic term ‘Hinduism’, however, is useful so far as a cursory understanding of diverse Indian traditions at an introductory, superficial level. Further, the active engagement with the the term by anti-imperialist movements has meant that ‘Hinduism’ had itself materialised in spite of Orientalism (King 1999:110).

Scholars today have wrestled with a more inclusive and non-essentialist understanding, far less a definitive one, of ‘Hinduism’ that captures the “ruptures and discontinuities, the criss-crossing patterns and ‘family resemblances’ that are usually subsumed by unreflective and essentialist usage” (ibid.). Some have suggested that ‘Hinduism’ be described as a ‘polythetic-prototypical’ concept, tremendously heterogeneous by character (polythetic) yet referred to as a kind of idealised construct (prototypical) by Westerners and Indians alike (Ferro-Luzzi 1991:192). While there is little consensus on the most appropriate use of ‘Hinduism’ as a signifier, there is little disagreement on the abandonment of essentialism and the acknowledgement of the heterogeneity of Indian religious phenomena as outlined by postcolonial critics of the study of religion. Bringing to light these issues can assist in overcoming the cultural and political elitism that perpetuate an idealised ‘Hinduism’ and potentially recover subaltern voices from the effacing and blanketing concept of ‘Hinduism’.

Towards the decolonisation of the study of religions?

Unless we turn our gaze upon ourselves we cannot realise the reconstruction of the societies in which we live (Phillips 1973:xii)

The question now is, ‘Whence do we go from here?’. It would be counterproductive to seek for a nostalgic return to pre-colonial cultural understanding of religion that aims to be representative of an authentic portrait of faith systems in the colonial periphery. As pointed out by Gayatri Spivak, there can be no return to a pure nativism following “the planned epistemic violence of the imperialist project” (Spivak 1985:250). By locating an approach to religions that predates European colonial expansion would then lead to further constructions of itself in inverse relation to Orientalist construction of mythic proportions. The study of religions today still has a purpose to pursue so long as the ‘object’ of its study remains, in reality ‘out there’, a vital force in the world and thriving independently of the meanings constructed via colonial texts that once claimed to represent it.

With regards to the colonial forms of knowledge imbricated within the discipline, categories such as ‘religion’ can still retain some value and validity insofar as its historicity and scholarly situatedness are acknowledged and negotiated in relation to its ‘object’ of study. Rather than a timeless, inert object, religions evolve with the times around the people who create its meaning and signs, adherents and non-adherent alike. As there is no pure, objective knowledge, the inquiry into religion cannot be neutral and value-free. All systems of knowledge are specific to certain epistemic traditions and embodied within particular cultural narratives, and therefore ethical neutrality should be recognised as impossible and undesirable (Flood 1999:220). Rather than the scholar assuming a detached position in relation to her object of study, meaning, knowledge, and ‘truth’ are generated in the interaction between the two. In other words, the observer is situated within the narrative of analysis as much as what is studied and related to as ‘religion’. Moreover, such self-awareness of the observer’s situatedness demands reflexivity and self-acknowledgement of ones’ purpose of research (Flood 1999:167).

‘Religion’ has been demonstrated in the accounts above to be a contested category, even “alien” and “invalid” (Smith 1964:62). ‘Religion’ as a term that is both historically situated and deployed, and thus a single, indisputable definition of religion cannot simply be established by academic decree. A minimalist definition of religion based on supernatural agents might exclude Buddhism, whilst a maximalist approach as one developed by Ninian Smart, would able to include secular worldviews such as humanism, Marxism, and nationalism. However, both approaches fail to take into account intercultural contact and conflict that comes into with the territory of religious studies (Chidester 1996:254). Because as terms that denote visceral human experiences and social identity, ‘religion’ as an analytical term does not belong solely to the academy, but is utilised and mobilised in political conflicts of “possession and dispossession, inclusion and exclusion, domination and resistance” (ibid.).

The question of whether or not the study of religions is by default invalidated because of its unfortunate links with certain forms of colonial knowledge lies in the issue of representation. Accepting that a representation of a religion is always likely to distort what is being represented can relieve scholars with a sense that representations are constantly open to critique and is continuously transformed to ‘perfection’. As innovations in the study of religions, David Chidester has suggested upon the “open, multiple, or polythetic definition of religion” (ibid.). By a polythetic definition of religion, Chidester proposes its usefulness in the inquiry into the so-called “family resemblances” through which the identifiable aspects of religion form part of an open set of “discursive, practical, and social strategies of symbolic and material negotiation” (ibid.).

Does this spell end of comparativist method to the study of religion? The answer lies in whether comparisons between religions must insist on demonstrating similarities and continuity, rather than extending the method to compare differences. The similarities and differences are not inherent between religions but rather are produced through the practices of comparison and generalisation. That being said, the journey forwards in a post-colonial study of religions requires a similar journey backwards (Chidester 1996:256), beginning perhaps with working towards untangling certain Western Christian comparativist presuppositions rooted deep within the process of category formation discussed thus far.

This essay does not ring the death knell for the study of religions but a call for a shift in its epistemic paradigms. The study of religions cannot be adequate as an adjunct of such disciplines as anthropology or Oriental Studies for example, because “religion has two ingredients: text and ritual that are often integrated” and thus the marriage of anthropology and philology is crucial (Flood 1999:223). By combining the analytical interests and methods of the two latter disciplines in the study of religions, anthropology can illuminate texts as textual studies can enrich anthropology (Freeman 1998:38-65). As discussed thus far, the inquiry into religions is an epistemic process that opens itself to a self-awareness of its assumptions and limitations that can, if need be, invite other theoretical frameworks developed in critical and feminist theory, reader-response criticism, and postcolonial criticism, some of which have consciously emancipatory agendas. Theories developed within these disciplines aim to challenge the legitimising forces in religion that are perceived as causing human suffering and suppressing social freedoms.

Finally, I take this opportunity to raise the issue of epistemological responsibility of historians and anthropologists of religions that appear to have all but emerged as a primary concern in the study of religions today. Self-interest, epistemic privilege, and institutional power differentials on a globalised level that reinforce problematic perceptions about ‘religion’ have gone largely uncontested in universities, school, and in political discourse. If anything, the lack of vocal and omnipresent reminders of the past helps the reification Western notions of ‘religion’. Helping students and societies at large become aware of history and sensitised to the variety of representations of spiritual traditions can break down monolithic views about the discrete, essentialist nature of human cultures that have been created in the laboratories of colonial political engineers. There is so much on the discursive level that scholars of religious studies can do, but this I believe should be the responsibility of inheritance that requires an inter-discursive dialogue across multiple levels to bring out a collective rethinking about ‘religion’ and its place in social reality.

Conclusion

The history of the study of religion is the dramatic story of the complex relationship between ‘Western’ concepts about the nature of religion and the often violent reality experienced by people and cultures all over the world under imperialist rule (Long 1986:3-4). Colonial influences that stubbornly remain in the way we understand ‘religion’ continue to shape the we study and talk about human cultures and societies. The project of righting wrongs would be the running background theme in the study of non-Christian religions in particular, with “the anthropological gaze [directed] towards the otherness of Western culture in order to dislodge the privileged position of dominant Western cultures” (Turner 1991:104). The need to rethink the category ‘religion’ corresponds with the idea that analysing religious experience and practices cannot be mediated via pre-made templates, but involve categories and frameworks that are expandable and fluid that can, to the best of the observer’s skills and analytical delicacy, closely reflect meanings as conveyed by adherents, the living embodiment of religion. In other words, meanings in religious practices and beliefs cannot be in themselves have conclusive value. The study of religion still has relevance so long as ‘religions’ – certain kinds of culturally-constructed practices, values, and ideologies – all persist to have enduring presence in the late modern world, especially when aligned with nationalism and ethnicity, and will likely continue to do in the distant future.

Bibliography

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