Mahasiswa – a universal identity or a Malay masculine one?

Mahasiswa, the people's spokesman [via The Nutgraph/Fahmi Reza]

Mahasiswa, the people’s spokesman [via The Nutgraph/Fahmi Reza]

The figure of the mahasiswa or male university student is in the news again, demanding the liberation of Malaysian academia from draconian government intervention. There is also a ‘rising star’ of student activism: 23 year old Fahmi Zainol, a young Malay man of utopian political and intellectual ambition.

As the president of University of Malaya’s student union, Fahmi is the official representative of the university’s student body. But how representative he and his vision are is more questionable.

From the top down, Malaysian public universities are Malay male cultural domains. Student unions are over-represented by Malays and are by sheer default led by Malay (or bumiputera) men despite the fact that Malay female students often outnumber the men on campus.

Citing his solidarity with ‘our brothers in Hong Kong’ (even though women and girls participate in the democracy protests), Fahmi speaks unconsciously in a language informed by patriarchal cultures and spaces within Malaysia that are compelled by visions of a ‘brotherhood’ of peace or justice, whether Malay, Muslim or both.

The problem lies with the predominant usage of ‘mahasiswa’ itself in student activist campaigns (Like Kuasa Mahasiswa or Student Power), usually without the need to include mahasiswi with the implicit understanding that mahasiswa refers to both male and female university students. Like ‘mankind’ and even ‘human’, such an implicit assumption of purported inclusion makes the exclusion of women convenient.

The general historical trend of student politics and societies in Malaysian universities has been characterised by segregation along gender, ethnic, state, and religious lines. However, there have been occasions in which students overcame segregation for a common political cause. The female and non-Malay faces of the UKM4 is one such example but they are relatively rare by comparison.

The Sri Kandi societies in Malaysian public universities are bastions of Malay female students and their political, if mostly auxiliary, organising on campus. And yet, ‘mahasiswi’ is either classed as secondary to the primary identity of mahasiswa or sidelined altogether in the present discourse on student activism.

The marginalisation of female university students or mahasiswi could really mean a few things; that the default figure of student leadership is male and Malay and that female presence within the walls of academia is undervalued (an understatement many would contend). The over-representation of mahasiswi by their sheer numbers on Malaysian campus does little to dismantle the male stranglehold of academic culture and its future.

Reasons behind the failure of mahasiswi to be at the forefront of student activism right now may lie in the way protest and civil disobedience are regarded as politically and morally transgressive in Malaysia. But what is more likely is that protests are masculine spheres of action. They are ritualised as brute physical mobilisation, agitation, and direct collision with the state. At times, protests co-opt militaristic and imperialistic nomenclature, such as ‘occupy’ to make transgressions and law-breaking more respectable.

Mass protests are sites of sexual violence in order to render women and girls especially vulnerable to a kind of humiliation and fear that men are supposedly immune to. Risks of sexual violence, trauma, and shame alone can alienate female protestors from taking a leading and confrontational role in mass protests.

There are multiple disciplinary regimes – legal, religious, and culture ones – that hem in young Malaysian women from attaining their full potential. These disciplinary regimes are also at work within the physical compounds and imaginary of the Malaysian campus. Student activism in Malaysia is disinterested in gender and sexual politics unlike the feminism on US and British universities that tackle sexual violence.

The normative structure of student politics in Malaysia that mimics the status quo of Malaysian politics is left untouched despite the present uprisings. So many things need to be disrupted, resisted, and dismantled within the supposedly precious space of academia to get to the root of the problem – hegemonic Malay Muslim male authority.

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