The rise of the modern female subject in modern Malay literature in the 1960s

The following is an excerpt from an early version of my book chapter on modernity and the ‘new woman’ in 60s Malay literature. It’ll be discussed at my public talk this Saturday in Silverfish Books, Kuala Lumpur:

Extant literature in both Malay and English makes it rather clear that there appears to be a divide in the literary preoccupation of male and female fiction writers with regards to the depiction of women. Under the penmanship of Malay male writers, female characters are depicted as the playthings and subordinates of men. Women writers of modern Malay fiction writing, on the other hand, were confined to the vague notion of “women’s issues” (Maimunah, 1986). For Rosnah (2003: 35), there has been a gradual shift in the focus of women’s novels between the 1930s to 1970s from the instrumental importance of education for women to the life experiences and the soul (kejiwaan) of women. This is a rather extensive span of time that elides the many transformative historical moments for women, such as women’s participation in nationalist struggle, rise in women’s employment and increased recognition of women’s contributions in the public sphere. In her rather reductive assessment of the portrayal of women by Malay fiction writers, Ungku Maimunah states that female characters can be neatly divided into “positive” and “negative” representations. While the “positive” or “negative” portrayals of women are not explicitly defined, one is led to assume that they comprise of binary oppositions of faithful and self-abnegating women on one hand and on the other hand, openly sexual and morally ambiguous women in the context of a modernising new nation.

Sequestered within the “positive” and “negative”, I would argue, are elements of the modern female subject; highly-educated, urban and urbane, modern, aspirational, outspoken and worldly. The new woman in modern Malay literature is not passive and docile as the archetypal tragic woman in fiction by female novelists in the 1940s and 1950s (Rosnah. 2003: 37). She has experienced Western culture and lifestyles directly or remotely and is confident about the moral compatibility of Western and indigenous values. The modern female subject appropriates the possibilities of modernity for her own ends in a world that is shrinking and increasingly interconnected. Innovative narrative techniques found in the fiction of Malay women writers of the period, such as the literary autobiography and stream of consciousness foreground the female literary voice onto the page and public sphere.

The meaning of the ‘modern’ woman is problematised here to bring to bear the Eurocentric baggage of the word ‘modernity.’ Modernity has been associated with the linear narrative of progress that mirrors the development of ideas and industrialisation in Western Europe. It follows a culturally specific historical and intellectual trajectory with origins in the Enlightenment. At the same time, modernity is embodied (Appadurai, 1996) and a sensorial experience (Berman 1983), albeit an uneven one. In studies on British and American culture between 1890s and 1910s, the “new woman” demonstrates a number of bare similarities with the new woman identified in modern Malay fiction of the 1960s:

Defined by her commitment to various types of independence, the stereotypical American New Woman was college educated and believed in women’s right to work in professions traditionally reserved for men; she often sought a public role in occupations that would putatively improve society (Rich 2009: 1)

That the new woman would only emerge in the 1960’s Malaya is not an indication of a delayed modernity in which the Eurocentric historicism of “first in the West, and then elsewhere” is reproduced (Chakrabarty 2009: 6). Instead, the new woman of Malaya is a social phenomenon and literary construct of non-Western modernities. The notion of ‘multiple modernities’ is adopted here to examine the ways in which modernising societies undergo “structural differentiation” in which arenas such as family life, modern education, and mass communication for example are defined and organised differently (Eisenstadt 2000: 1-2). The new Malay woman’s embodiment of modernity is a critique of Eurocentric historicism which constructs passive ex-colonial subjects whose modernity is a pale fabrication of the West.

In the fiction by Malay women writers, there is an embrace of certain institutions of modernity – mass education, urbanisation and female participation in the public sphere for instance. However, there is also a moral suspicion about the dangers of ‘Westernisation’ that underpin many aspects of modernity. The revival of Malay nationalism in the 1960s found expression in the literary arena, primarily through institutional efforts to elevate the status of the Malay language and culture. Several novels of this period would become the ‘canon’ of modern Malay literature and develop a discursive space for the reflection of the meaning of progress for a new nation. However, women writers were excluded, formally and otherwise, from the ‘canon’ by their male peers, literary scholars and historians despite their significant contributions. Women members of Angkatan Sasterawan or ASAS 50 (Generation of Writers, a national association for Malayan writers), Kamariah Saadon and Jahlelawati, have been forgotten by scholars of modern Malay literature. The contributions of another group, Angkatan Sastrawanis, are also buried as a footnote in the history of Malay literature (Campbell 2004: 82). Thus, to argue that that women in Malaya were de facto emancipated during this period would be an overstatement..

Tensions that oscillate between postcolonial optimism and anxiety vis-à-vis modernity were deeply felt in the booming literary scene in 1960s Malaya. Having gained political independence in 1957, Malaysia entered a rich cultural decade of the 1960s defined by the consumption of Western popular culture and the adoption of Western aesthetics in local literature, filmmaking, popular music, and fashion. However, the moral landscape of postcolonial cosmopolitanism is typically refracted through a sexualised representation of women’s bodies in modern Malay literature during this period. Anis Sabirin’s critique of modern Malay novels by male writers in Jenis Perwatakan Wanita links the anxiety of Western-style “individualism” and “materialism” with the degradation of women. The scene of sexualised modernity is set in Jenis Perwatakan Wanita in the night clubs, massage parlours and B.B. Park, a shopping arcade in Kuala Lumpur (1969: 130). Sabirin comments on the rise of the erotic novel in the Malay fiction scene, comprising of both high and lower brow books by male novelists such as Shahnon Ahmad, A. Samad Said, Alias Ali, and Malungun, to name a few.

Women in the writings of these men, Anis argues, both destroy and are destructive to themselves and others (Perempuan sudah menjadi barang yang rosak dan merosakkan (1969: 132)). Her focus on these “destructive” women falls witheringly on the popular character of the urban prostitute found in high and lowbrow literature. Anis is just as critical of the “good” village girl idealised in modern Malay literature. For Anis, the symbolic innocence of the village girl belies an ignorance “untested” by experience and worldliness (1969: 133-134). In her essay “Peranan Wanita Baru” (“The Role of the New Woman”), Anis argues that women are caught in contradictory roles in modern society. No longer expected to be stay-at-home wives and mothers, women are expected to be just as educated and career-oriented as men. The new woman, however, embraces the dilemmas of modern life. Intelligent and employable in male-dominated professions, she is also desirable on her own terms and has sexual agency. She will not be tolerated being treated as a second-class citizen and demands that she is given the same opportunities as men (1969: 7-8).

While prominent, mainly male, writers were producing didactic fiction in the service of national development and elevating the status of the Malay language in the 1960s, female writers seized the new opportunities opened up to women to explore the limits of femininity and complex psychological and social narratives. But it is misguided to suggest that the narrative direction taken by women writers of the period qua women is an inward and exclusively domestic one in contrast to the outward projection of narratives concerning the nation by male writers. The 1960 novel Hari Mana Bulan Mana (Which Day Which Month) is a groundbreaking example of the expansion of a woman’s personal world and its relationship with other women in the public sphere. Sal, the lead character of Hari Mana Bulan Mana, is a newspaper reporter in Singapore prior to its separation from Malaya and the epitome of the “new” woman (Campbell 2004: 109, 112) who uses her role as a working woman in journalism to bring public attention to the plight of female victims of abuse and their abject poverty. Although not explicitly feminist, Sal’s consciousness about the status of women in modern Malaya also opens her eyes to the oppression suffered by her feminist activist friend, Zamilah.

The texts discussed in this chapter are a reflection of a rapidly changing society. Class-based and communal conflict in 1964 and 1969 indicate the cracks of a new nation. Despair and dissatisfaction arising from the yawning economic gap between the majority of poor Malays in the village and the minority of wealthier Malays in the urban centres are visible in modern Malay fiction of the period. Moral distinctions are also made between the “Westernised” Malay and the hapless rural Malay. Affluent, Westernised Malays are portrayed as out of touch with the vast majority of the nation’s people (rakyat). Remote from modernity, rural Malays who work the land suffer from community conflict and the cruel hand of nature’s onslaughts (Hooker 2000).

Reference:

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minneasota Press.

Berman, Marshall. 1983. All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity. London: Verso.

Campbell, Christine. 2004. Contrary visions: Women and work in Malay novels written by women. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka: Kuala Lumpur.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. Provincialising Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Eisenstadt, Shmuel Noah. 2000. “Multiple modernities.” Daedalus 129(1): 1-29.

Hooker, Virginia Matheson. 2000. Writing a new society: social change through the novel in Malay. New South Wales: Allen and Unwin.

Katz. Tamar. 2000. Impressionist subjects: gender, interiority, and modernist fiction in England. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Rich, Charlotte J. 2009. Transcending the new woman: multiethnic narratives in the progressive Era. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Rosnah Baharuddin. 2003. Wacana wanita Melayu dan sastera. Bangi: Penerbit UKM.

Sabirin, Anis. 1969. Peranan Wanita Baru. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbitan Utusan Malaysia.

Ungku Maimunah Mohd. Tahir. 1986. Women fiction writers and images of women in modern Malay literature. Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. 1(2), 155-171.

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