Competing ideological struggles and LGBTQ identities in multicultural Malaysia

I have an article published in a special issue on LGBT identities and cultures in Southeast Asia in Südostasien, a journal published by Stiftung Asienhaus, on LGBTQ identities in Malaysia today. It has been translated into German from English. Below is the article in English:

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Malaysia stands slightly part from its neighbours in the Southeast Asian region because of its distinct ingredients of Islam, multiculturalism and modernity. It is perhaps because of the uneasy balancing act of these ingredients that it has maintained a fragile social fabric of toleration between different ethnic and religious groups. Rapid, albeit uneven, industrialisation and pro-Malay-Muslim policies since the 1980s have produced one of the economic success stories of Southeast Asia. Yet, the comforts of modernity have somehow allowed the nation to stay calm and carry on despite alarming rates of human rights abuse, deepening Islamisation and corruption in recent years.

Islam, multiculturalism and modernity have shaped the discourse of gender and sexuality in Malaysia. Being a predominantly Muslim country with colonial laws that prohibit same-sex relations and Islamic laws that criminalise “cross-dressing”, Malaysia is a hybrid modernity with socio-political restrictions and opportunities. The use of Islam as a tool to appease the alienation of the Malay community has been a foregrounding theme since the earliest days of the nation. Though it seems that nearly everything in the public and private spheres of Malaysia is tainted by this alienation and its attendant, the racialisation of politics.

Globalisation of gender and sexuality

The story of LGBTQ identities in Malaysia parallels that of many others across the region. It has embraced the internationalisation of sexual identities and the “global gay”(i) and shares a discursive trajectory that began with HIV awareness campaigns in the 1990s although these have tapered off in the last decade. Its small community of activists employ the language of rights and Western labels of self-identification. However, specific events in Malaysian modern history would give the story of LGBTQ identities its distinctive flavour.

A nebulous kind of homophobia and transphobia would emerge concurrently with the increasing awareness of global LGBT discourse in Malaysia. Since the 1990s, non-normative sexual identities become more visible in public discourse and associated with Westernisation. Sadly, this visibility had come with a price; indigenous non-normative practices and identities which thrived and were tolerated for decades (ii) were being viewed as deviant and sinful in Islam. Effeminate male traditional wedding organisers and bridal make-up artists, and court dancers who reside in ‘specialised homosexual villages’ (iii) have gradually disappeared since the 1980s. The lack of political will to protect vulnerable groups from violence and discrimination in Malaysia has caused many to go underground and silent.

Male homosexuality was thrust into the public consciousness in the late 1990s with the political dressing-down and imprisonment of the former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, for the crime of sodomy and corruption. Lurid descriptions of same-sex relations made front page news nearly every day during Anwar Ibrahim’s trial. It was a public tar and feathering that appeared to guarantee the end of his political career. The former deputy prime minister continues to battle for his freedom today.

By the 2000s, homosexuality and gay male identities were firmly established in the Malaysian public consciousness but the latter continued to be toxic. In 2010, Azwan Ismail, a Malay-Muslim man, received death threats after posting a Youtube video titled ‘I’m gay and I’m okay’. The repercussions following Azwan’s attempt to connect to a global queer mediascape demonstrated the limits of national boundaries. There has not been a high profile online campaign to promote acceptance of gay identities in Malaysia since.

The transgender communities in Malaysia have made important inroads by challenging the state sharia court’s ruling against ‘cross-dressing’ as unconstitutional in 2014. However, in 2015, their victory was short-lived as the federal court overturned the decision in favour of the sharia court in a larger campaign of the sharia court’s growing supremacy over the constitution that guarantees protection from gender-based discrimination.

Patriarchy and fundamentalism

A comment about patriarchy is important here, too. The oppression towards LGBTQ identities in Malaysia is a reflection of the deeply patriarchal society that is increasingly repressive towards Muslim women. The mark of patriarchy is felt even in the progressive spaces of LGBTQ activism; compared to the gay men and transwomen, transmen, the experiences and voices of queer and lesbian cis-gendered women (or women born female) against repression are rarely heard. This transwomen and gay male-dominated LGBTQ discourse in Malaysia may be attributed to the legacy of HIV awareness activism of the 1990s that was couched in more acceptable terms of public health management. By contrast, queer and lesbian cis-gendered women have had fewer opportunities at raising public consciousness for different interest groups.

As the country falls into a period of deeper discontent with its leadership, it sees the government employing strategies to demonise sexual and gender minorities to consolidate support from a conservative electorate. Bizarrely, the present Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, has condemned LGBTQ people as dangerous as the terrorist organisation Daesh. This has dangerous ramifications for a nation that has great difficulty in managing the diversity of cultures, beliefs, gender and sexuality.

When a visitor arrives in Malaysia, she may be mesmerised by the dizzying cornucopia of consumerist pleasures and hyper-modernity. An image of multicultural harmony invoked in our delight in food hides both the ideological imagination and reality of deteriorating standards of livelihood and wellbeing. As the country enters the new year with scandals ravaging the economy, politics, and the environment, the hope for women and other minorities in Malaysia remains particularly dim. The crackdown on Malaysian civil society and the pervading fear threaten to cripple and choke any effort to bring issues on LGBTQ into the public sphere.

Footnotes:

i Dennis Altman, Dennis. 1996. Rupture of continuity? The internationalization of gay identities. Social Text 1: 77-94.
ii Michael Peletz. 2009. Gender Pluralism: Southeast Asia Since Early Modern Times. New York and London: Routledge.
iii Peletz. 2009. Gender Pluralism, pg. 186-187.

All-male panels – an indirect way of shutting women up

All-male panels are an indirect way of shutting women up. This is not a hyperbolic statement but a call-out on both symptom and cause of a patriarchal society.

When men are invited to speak in a forum, they are invited based on reputation and/or because the invited already belongs to a network of friends. Actual expertise is, surprisingly or rather not so surprisingly, secondary. Most times, men will invite other men because in the prevailing hegemonic boy’s club kind of thinking, men’s views are held in higher regard.

Although in many places women and men have equal access to education, with women outnumbering men in higher education, men’s intelligence is a natural amalgam of cool rationality, clear-thinking and objectivity that legitimises his smooth transition into the comfortable position of being heard and taken seriously. Women’s intelligence is remarkable and threatening. She must work harder to be as good as a moderately intelligent man, because her judgment is thought to be easily clouded by emotion. Her journey to being heard and taken seriously is more uncertain and often perilous.

And what kind of views? A) Views about the state of the nation and its treasury, religion and faith, ideologies of our times – views that somehow require the legitimacy and authoritative aura of the male voice. B) Views that do not raise attention to the specificities of gender and sexuality. Specificities are not universal and sometimes accused as divisive. Universality is the ideal, privileged and invisible norm just as being men and masculinity are the privileged and invisible norm.

The predisposition to invite an all-male panel is about the hierarchy of speech. It is not that women are forbidden to speak in public forums. They can be in the audience, speaking from amongst the crowd and challenge the all-male panel without much consequence as they are uncredited even when they speak truth to power. An all-female audience with an all-male panel will do nothing to challenge men’s dominance of the public sphere. Women in the audience are treated as passive listeners, a collective mass lacking individuality – one woman’s views and complaint are the same as any other.

There will always be women panelists who speak in forums. Their numbers are small and their names have a repetitive quality over the years. Usually, these women gain a certain cache as the go-to-woman to fix an embarrassing gender ratio problem. If only these problems were always embarrassing to event organisers. In more insidious cases, the regular female faces are there because they do not upset male privilege.

What women are not invited enough to do is to partake in the higher forms of speech; authoritative speech on matters that relate to power, wealth and wellbeing of people in general, male-dominated discourses disguised as universal issues and matters of cultural expertise. The higher forms of speech conducted by and between men are to be distinguished from lower forms of speech such as chatting, prattling and the one that women are constructed to do: idle gossip.

All-male panels represent one part of a constellation pushing women out of public life. Women are stalked, harassed, and virulently insulted on social media and the web when they commit to more stylised public speech in opinion pieces, blogging and vlogging. This is because women are stepping into the precious stomping ground of patriarchy where hitherto women appear for men and serve men’s interests, now women’s voices are saying things men and some women do not like to hear and the voices are getting louder.

When event organisers continue to host all-male panels, decline their invitation to speak as a panelist and do not attend their events. If boycotting these events come across as too extreme, the least one can do is to point out that yet another forum on ‘something important’ will feature an all-male panel and decry its backwardness.

Public seminar at National University of Singapore this month

Silence and consent

My dear followers and readers of this blog,

I will be presenting my early findings of my new research project on non-veiling in Malaysia in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS) on Wednesday 23rd March 2016. This is going quite exciting for me as it’s the debut of my first post-PhD project. Those residing in Singapore and in the neighbourhood, do drop by and say hi!

Feminist Reading Group 2 – Malaysian femininity and housework

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The last in the series of our meetings is on Saturday morning 11 am on 19th March 2016 at our usual location AWAM -85, Jalan 21/1, Sea Park, 46300 Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia. The quickest way to get to AWAM is by LRT Taman Paramount. It is a 2-minute walk away.

We will discussing Angela Davis’s classic essay from Women, Race, and Class, ‘The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective’ (1981) and talk about what it means to do housework during an economic downturn, rising social discontent and deepening misogyny in Malaysia.