Book review: Eleanor Marx by Rachel Holmes

It is a curious thing when an illustrious offspring of someone so famous would remain eclipsed in the shadows of their parents. Perhaps this is warranted and justified in a meritocratic society we all aspire to where, with the exception of political dynasties and monarchies, famous parents do not always produce equally famous children. Begotten DNA is no promise for fame but maybe some fortune.

Eleanor Marx. Source: Wikipedia

Such is the case for the extraordinary life of Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx and perhaps the most illustrious of the Marx children considering the breadth of her political and literary contributions. Eleanor, or Tussy (which rhymes with ‘pussy’), would be remembered as her father’s first biographer who fought hard to protect his intellectual legacy in late nineteenth century Britain and across the channel. And yet, many know and will continue to know so little of her.

In ‘Eleanor Marx’ (2014, Bloomsbury), biographer Rachel Holmes has brought to life a woman who lived a full and exemplary public life. However, as Holmes notes, much is to be desired in Eleanor’s private life that led to her tragic demise. There are many telling scenes in this book that reveal plenty of the contrast between the gendered ‘practice’ and ‘theory’ of socialism as imagined by Eleanor and Friedrich Engels, Marx’s closest collaborator and patron.

First, there is the impoverished bourgeois-bohemian existence of the Marx family (consisting of paterfamilias Marx, Jenny Marx née von Westphalen, Helen Demuth the housekeeper, the three Marx daughters, plenty of pets and Engels). Poverty led them to live a peripatetic life across London punctuated by many trips to spa towns and the seaside for the very Victorian phenomenon of touristic convalescing.

Second, there is the Marx family arrangement that spoke volumes about the realities of the sexual division of labour within a radical family:

For every hundred meals they cooked, Marx and Engels expressed an idea; for every basket of petticoats, bibs and curtains they sewed together, Marx and Engels wrote an article. For every pregnancy, childbirth and labour-intensive period of raising an infant, Marx and Engels wrote a book.

Recognising the limitations of women within her own household and yonder in the mills, Eleanor decided to rebel and lived like a woman so unlike others of her time; unwed and childfree yet living as a ‘wife’ with her ‘husband’, the repellant Edward Aveling, whose parasitic nature is reminded with every mention of his name.

For whatever the inconsistencies within their radicalism, Marx wrote ‘the theory’, Eleanor was ‘the practice’ personified. Eleanor’s childhood and adulthood would be intricately linked with Marx’s magnum opus, Capital. The birth pangs of writing and publishing the 3-volume work took a toll on the Marx’s family finances and livelihood. Still unfinished after Marx’s death, Eleanor and Engels took charge of writing and editing the rest.

And third, although she lived unlike an archetypical Victorian woman, Eleanor was gifted with a morality and unconditional love that were comparable to melodramatic heroines of lesser fiction. Her discovery of her father’s secret love child with their housekeeper may have toppled him from his place on the pedestal, but her deep friendship with her half-brother late in her life would prove to be a source of strength during the darkest hours of her union with Edward.

The reader seethes at the things she sees but Eleanor chooses not to see: Edward’s frittering of their shared earnings and his ultimate betrayal of marrying in secret a young actress that rapidly led to Eleanor’s downfall – an alleged suicide by prussic acid poisoning. An inquest to establish if she had killed herself or murdered followed suit. She was, in the rather unflattering words of her ‘husband’ Edward, “as healthy as a horse” before her untimely death at age 43.

But Eleanor’s life story is no simple melodrama. A tireless agitator for the eight-hour work day, education for the disenfranchised working-class, and the ‘woman question’ in the capitalist mode of production, Eleanor would be at every major trade union conference, speaking to an admiring and inspired crowd. She remained influential as a friend, political collaborator, and later as a mentor to younger generations of working class unionists less privileged than herself, a daughter of Marx who grew up with little formal education but was exposed to a world of art, literature and culture from a young age. The rate of her industry was prodigious: she would go on to write in multiple languages for international presses and produce the first translation of Madame Bovary into English, among many other things.

Eleanor’s fiery spirit and voice emit from the page through correspondences to her sister, revealing a woman driven by an unshakeable belief in economic justice but also doubt as her feminine person is sometimes dismissed within the socialist fold. I am often left unsettled by Holmes’s portrayal of the destructive relationship between Eleanor and Edward Aveling. For all her projections of contemporary feeling onto Eleanor as a feminist, she appears unwilling to suggest that Eleanor was perhaps emotionally abused by Edward. The pattern of abuse is there yet feebly ameliorated by Eleanor’s declaration of love and forgiveness for his moral weakness.

After her death in March 1898, followed by Edward’s a mere four months later, Eleanor’s afterlife is a dramatic coda. Cremated and placed in an urn, her remains were placed in a glass cabinet of the British Communist Party’s office for many years until a police raid signalled a more traditional interment with her family in Highgate cemetery in 1956.

For whatever remains of her extant work, her co-authored essay ‘The Woman Question’ (1886) continues to appear in socialist-feminist reading lists. Capital and the safeguarding of his correspondences are as much Eleanor’s legacy to readers today as her father’s. Eleanor is a woman of our political times – a woman who lives passionately and breathes her politics. And yet, her life is also a feminist puzzle; how to square a life of radical theory and practice with the life-destroying facets of sexism and misogyny within radical theory and practice?

Thinking intersectionally about Malay women and the tudung

I have been thinking a lot about intersectionality and women who do not wear the tudung lately and it is not so much because the concept is de rigueur right now as I have been accused of not being intersectional enough in my viral article, Asal-usul obsesi Melayu dengan tudung (The origins of the Malay obsession with the tudung) published in my column in the Malay Mail Online on 15 October 2015.

Within days of the article’s publication, comments on Twitter and emails began to trickle in, then tweets condemning my piece and expressing some distaste towards me flooded my timeline. When feminist countering views to my article began to emerge, they sang a similar tune: that my critique of a culture pressuring Malay women to wear the tudung elided two important elements in the debate; choice and agency.

Fair enough, choice and agency are abstract notions nearly every woman are thought to have, in addition to our ability to reason, rationalise and make decisions. But it is important to note their significance and currency in this debate. Choice and agency in themselves have a talismanic quality; that their very utterance would be enough to end a feminist conversation – her choice, her empowerment, end of story. Women’s choice and agency are a defiant win in the face of a deeply patriarchal culture.

It would be a little bit patronising to suggest that I don’t know the means through which choice, agency, and the patriarchy operate. But having been schooled by said countering views nonetheless, I was still left with an unanswered issue; what about women who do not wear the tudung? Why are they subjected to so much abuse? And more crucially, what makes their abuse different from other women? Will the pressure and public abuse of women who do not wear the tudung illuminate some uncomfortable truths about modern Muslim Malaysia?

To say that all women – whether they wear the tudung or not – suffer patriarchal abuse is to sweep under the carpet the specificities of being a woman who does not wear the tudung and her specific challenges in Malaysia. Because there are differences between Malay women, whether if it is because of their regional and class background, linguistic abilities, academic credentials, and yes if they wear the headscarf or not, we will be impacted very differentially by patriarchy.

A middle class Malay woman in the city who wears the tudung is going to experience sexism very differently from a working class Malay who doesn’t wear the tudung in small towns outside the Klang Valley. Although women’s attire in general is policed in Malaysia, we are policed differently because of our respective social differences. If you wear the headscarf, every strand of hair needs to be tucked away and other arbitrary notions of sartorial modesty may be acquiesced accordingly. Women who do not wear the tudung present a different kind of challenge. Tudung-less non-Malay women move more freely in shorter skirts and short shorts. Tudung-less bodies interpellated as ‘Malay’ will be disciplined differently or diminished altogether.

In Kimberlé Crenshaw’s seminal article, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Women of Color’, the political specificities of Black women’s activism were either ignored or erased because they were too similar to white women in their subjection to patriarchal sexism, and yet too different because their black identity and experiences of racism. Due to their intersecting position between racism and sexism, their experiences were dismissed or erased entirely in both anti-sexist and anti-racist political action:

The need to split one’s political energies between two sometimes opposing groups is a dimension of intersectional disempowerment [my emphasis] that men of color and white women seldom confront. Indeed, their specific raced and gendered experiences, although intersectional, often define as well as confine the interests of the entire group. For example, racism as experienced by people of color who are of a particular gender – male – tends to determine the parameters of antiracist struggles, just as sexism as experienced by women of a particular race – white – tends to ground the women’s movement (Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins’ 1991: 1252)

In almost similar ways, Malay women who do not wear the tudung and their specific experiences are being erased by the deleteriously non-intersecting view that ALL women are subjected by sexism and misogyny. Malay women who do not wear the tudung are similar to women who wear the tudung because of sexist gender policing they experience. But women who do not wear the tudung are significantly different because of their visibility as women who deviate from normative interpretations of Islam and contemporary Malay culture.

I would like to argue that the experiential specificity of Malay women who do not wear the tudung be addressed along two strands; their gendered subjectivity and Muslim identity. I would argue that unless and until these two strands are addressed as separate spheres of cultural pressures, Malay women who do not wear the tudung will continue to be erased from feminist debates on their bodies, sexuality, and very being.

Malay women who do not wear the tudung may face the same patriarchal policing of their gendered subjectivity as women who wear the tudung in a multitude of contexts; as inferior to men’s inherent ability to lead and dominate the public sphere and discourse. But as Muslims, Malay women who do not wear the tudung face a different kind of policing and subordination. Their very visibility as women who do not cover themselves sufficiently mark them out as Other to the normative articulation of Malay femininity.

Much of the criticism that cashes on the currency of agency and choice adopt the politicised stance of covered Muslim women in countries hostile to the hijab and Islam generally. The position of these women becomes a feminist act because their decision to wear the hijab is expressed as a symbolic resistance to a culture that demand their ‘exposure’ to the secular gaze. Muslim women who wear the hijab in Europe are confronted by the patronising white saviour complex of the militant activist group Femen keen on participating in the enduring crusade of ‘saving brown women from brown men’.

But in Malaysia, the pressure on women is quite the opposite. The cultural and institutional pressure on women to cover may well be a subliminal rejection of the secular gaze and its imperialistic definitions of democracy and human rights. And here I might make a provocative suggestion: the politicised articulation of women who cover for ‘feminist’ reasons, citing agency and informed choice, may collude with the Islamic sphere of action that subordinate Malay women who do not wear the tudung.

So long as the majority group of women – women who wear the tudung (and their being the majority have greater leverage to navigate spaces because of their success in fulfilling normative expectations of Malay femininity) – ignore the differential impact of the patriarchal mode of gendered and religious policing, they will continue to be complicit in the specific subordination of Malay women who do not wear the tudung.

To conclude, I would quote Crenshaw on the political implications of ignoring the intersectional oppression of women at the margins:

Because women of color experience racism in ways not always the same as those experienced by men of color experience racism and sexism in ways not always parallel to experiences of white women, antiracism and feminism are limited, even on their own terms. (Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins’ 1991: 1252)

To think within the parameters of political intersectionality is to argue that gender and religious-based struggles in Malaysia will be limited so long as it does not address the specificities of women who reside within the margins of normative femininity in Malaysia. I would not deny that normative femininity itself is diverse and within it consists of contradictions. However, the same normative femininity – because of its normativitiy and majority status – allows it to be more privileged, more representable, and vocal enough to drown out the differences between women.


Kimberle Crenshaw. 1991. ‘Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and women of color’ Stanford Law Review Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 1241-1299.

New column on the Malay Mail Online – Asal usul obsesi Melayu dengan tudung

For good reasons and bad, my article on the tudung was one of the most talked about pieces on gender, Islam, and feminism lately (social media metrics: 13,000 Facebook ‘Likes’, more than 6000 Facebook ‘shares’ and over 300 Twitter ‘tweets’). Piece is written in Bahasa Malaysia:

Nampaknya perempuan yang tidak memakai tudung di Malaysia sudah menjadi spesies yang terancam. Soalnya diancam oleh apa dan siapa. Bukan pemburu haram tetapi satu budaya yang mempunyai sejarah yang pendek.

Budaya ini mula menyerap ke dalam sanubari rakyat Melayu-Islam sejak akhir 1970-an. Ini merupakan zaman pembangkitan Islam yang mendapat ilham daripada revolusi Islamik di Iran yang berjaya menjatuhkan kerajaan Reza Shah Pahlavi yang sekular dan didukung oleh Amerika Syarikat.

Read the rest here

A response to my piece and my corresponding response.

Guest blog: Why can’t women wear short skirts?

Source: detail from photo by Rosea Lake

Source: detail from photo by Rosea Lake

Today we have a guest blog by Kaberi Dutta. Kaberi who is a nineteen year old Malaysian studying Social Anthropology and Law at SOAS, and hoping to alert people to the importance of feminism, one argument at a time.


Having grown up as a Malaysian Indian girl, who studied at an International school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I have been exposed to many different cultures and perspectives, which I am grateful for. However, as a result of various exposures, I have come to find certain faults in Malaysian society that, although I do my best to understand and respect, urge me to question these ‘rules’. Before I explain, I’m not biased against my own culture- Western culture too has many faults, some of which are more extreme (in different ways) than our own, but as a Malaysian, I feel more passionate and justified discussing my own culture.

There’s no avoiding the recent surge in the policing of women’s attires, from the woman who was required to cover her legs with a towel to visit a relative in hospital to the two women who were made to wear sarongs to cover the skirt that was barely above their knees. As a teenage-cum-woman, I was already disgraced at the attitudes of these institutions that forced these women to cover up their bodies, thus humiliating them, but it wasn’t until my own experience with body policing that I felt the need to speak up. Earlier this morning, I went to the Damansara Public Library to study for my exams- dressed in a long shirt and a short skirt (admittedly, well above my knees). After sitting down at a table for a brief ten minutes, I was handed a notice highlighting the dress code for the library and although I wasn’t instructed to leave, my embarrassment caused me to quietly pack my things and return home. I have multiple issues with this including the double standard that is in place when enforcing such rules as well as the reasoning itself behind dress codes for women. Before I elaborate, I’d like to highlight my reason for wearing the short skirt that was at the brunt of this issue.

As many are aware, growing up as a teenage girl is widely known to be filled with pressures from peers and society itself. Society places pressures on girls to conform to a certain image: in Western cultures, it’s always shifting but the current pressure is to look quite similar to Kim Kardashian- curvy with a full bum and breasts. In Malaysian society, it’s more of the opposite- girls are expected to dress modestly and not show off excess skin by wearing revealing clothing. What with all the external influences we are exposed to, being comfortable in one’s own skin has become increasing hard to do. The statistics alone for eating disorders represents this- since the 1960’s, the number of emergence of eating disorders has doubled. Shockingly, the age at which one becomes vulnerable to these pressures is continuously getting lower- reports have shown that an increasing number of children have fallen in to eating disorders at ages as young as six. This article, however, is not to do with the pressures of image as a girl, however (not to say that men and boys don’t suffer from eating disorders) I am just explaining that given all these pressures, I am proud of the fact that, to the most extent, I am comfortable with my body, and this reflects in the way I choose to present myself, and dress. I wear short skirts because I feel comfortable in them, the exact same reason that on other days, I wear jeans. My choice of clothing is a reflection of what I feel comfortable in, nothing more. I don’t wear short skirts to grab the attention of men and neither do a lot of girls. Why is that not okay?

Relating this to the incident that occurred this morning, women aren’t allowed to wear short skirts because they are deemed provocative. My biggest question is why are they deemed provocative? The word ‘provocative’ is defined as being ‘intended or intending to arouse sexual desire or interest’ and as I have stated, that was not my intention. And if provocativeness arises from intent, then doesn’t it deem that I am the only person who can define my clothing as being provocative, since I am the only person who could accurately know my intentions? For anyone else to define clothing as being provocative, would merely be making an assumption. However, taking the definition of the word loosely and agreeing that I didn’t intend for my clothing to lead to ‘sexual desire or interest’, let’s assume that people were effected in a sexual sense by my clothing. Is that my fault for wearing what I feel comfortable in, or the fault of the men who objectify women and see them merely as sexual beings? In a culture where victim blaming has risen, what with women being told not to dress a certain way to avoid being raped (in extreme cases), I think we’re tackling this problem all wrong. Instead of demanding that women dress a certain way so as not to make men sexually aroused or uncomfortable, shouldn’t we actually teach men to respect women irregardless of what they are wearing?

That issue aside, I was also angered regarding the huge double standard in place when it came to enforcing the dress code of the library. Having studied there for nearly a week, I had witnessed men in flip flops and shorts, to no comment by the librarian, but the moment a women breaks the rules- she has to change? I understand why in certain areas one must dress a certain way- I would never wear a short skirt to a temple or church out of respect for the religion- but if you believe that an area needs to have a dress code, then it should be enforced without gender bias. I’m not going to be defiant and try to return to the library in a short skirt, but at least make sure that the men are following the rules too. I see no reason why they should be exempt.

New column: Greetings from corporate academia

My new column in the Malay Mail online, published on 4th June 2015:

Private higher education in Malaysia has evolved into a new kind of species. Like a forest-dwelling creature adapting to its new habitat in denuded wastelands, private higher education has learned to transform its identity, priorities, and raison d’être in the surreal world of commercial academia. It might look like a mutant produced via the unholy union of commerce and education, but for many in Malaysia, it looks quite attractive. After all, a demand is met through supply (however overstretched, under-qualified, and overworked the latter is).

Read the rest here.

Academic style

Google ‘academic style’ and chances are you’ll get academic writing style and not academic sartorial style. How is a woman to know how to dress like an academic?

Deciding what to wear for work as an academic is supposed to be exciting. The academic identity exudes authority and expertise, and so it should seem obvious that sartorially, we should choose clothing that reflect, and whenever necessary, amplify those qualities.

But being a female academic is more complicated. Because as women, we are judged by how we look so much despite being in a job that trades on our intellectual faculties. It is so easy to make a misstep: we can be too dressy, too matronly, too frivolous, too decorative. Yes, we as women can be our own worst critic. I am also guilty for thinking that my female colleague looks like a Carmelite monk.

Pantsuits are quite unusual in academia. There is a deliberate emphasis on looking casual but smart. Chunky, exotic jewellery may be necessary for female anthropologists. Whatever female academics choose to wear at work, the balance between authority and approachability can be challenging to achieve. It’s mainly because the feminine image of authority is quite rare and lacking in diversity.

I turn to the British historian Lucy Worsley for inspiration. Her chic hairstyle and ever so smart dresses enhances my perception of her enthusiasm and expertise. She is the embodiment of the ‘nice work’ that academia is thought to represent. But hers is a style I can only aspire. After all, she wears bright and flattering coats and dresses because they’re good for television (well, she says so herself) and she is a self-professed lover of fashion. I can only dream to wear cute dresses and sexy shoes to work everyday.

The historian Lucy Worsley. I would like to think that academics can dress like this on a normal day at work.

The place where I work values modesty as an organising principle. There are signs to remind that the campus space is a morally conservative space. Bodies that pass through this space must conform to a regime that goes beyond sartorial control. If anything, the dress code is part of a bigger disciplinary programme to manufacture a certain type of citizen. The characteristics of the citizen in question is well rehearsed in the long-running lamentations about the multiple failures of the Malaysian educational system.

It is worth remembering that the university is not a hermetically-sealed bubble however much you may argue it is. Considering the campus’s relation to the wider cultural context and general attitude to style in Kuala Lumpur, we are not known to be particularly stylish people or a nation celebrated for its sophistication and style. My campus is not in London or Paris and it shows.

All this pondering and writing about ‘academic attire’ belies my rather diffident attitude about style. And here’s a confession: I have yet to update my wardrobe which currently consists of graduate student clothes and tatty blouses from my teenage years. I am hugely reluctant to shop and prefer spending my money on food and drink. My reluctance stems from a stubborn frugality and the flawed conviction that the mind is enough to create an impression.

Dear Reader, I will eventually make that leap into the mysterious world of clothes that befits the new academic once I have figured out the right kind of blouse, skirt, shirt, and trousers I am allowed to wear at work.

On Anis Sabirin the Malay feminist writer (and translation of my new column)

pwb coverI cannot remember what I was doing in the British Library one fine afternoon in 2014, but I had found a who’s who of Malay literature published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. In it was a short biography of Anis Sabirin, a name I was faintly familiar with for being the singular critical voice against the sexism of Malay male writers in the 1960s. Soon after, I requested an inter-library loan from Leiden via the SOAS Library to read her collection of essays, Peranan Wanita Baru (The Role of the New Woman, 1969). This book is largely forgotten now, but her critique is still fresh. There is no other book like it since; a collection of essays on Malaysian women in development, economics, Malay culture, and contemporary Malay literature. An intention to write a full length essay stewed in the backburner for many months until an opportunity came to write a column for the Malay Mail commemorating International Women’s Day of 2015. The column is intentionally in Malay as a kind of homage to a  Malaysian feminist writer:

The Malay writer Anis Sabirin. Source: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

The Malay writer Anis Sabirin. Source: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

Anis Sabirin. Satu nama yang jarang sekali menjelma dalam wacana feminis di Malaysia. Suatu ketika di penghujung dekad 1960-an, beliau terkenal sebagai suara yang lantang mengkritis penggambaran wanita yang seksis dalam sastera Melayu moden. Beliau bagaikan perintis feminis moden yang berpencapaian tinggi, lain daripada tokoh-tokoh feminis-nasionalis terkemuka seperti Shamsiah Fakeh dan Sybil Kathigasu yang datang sebelumnya.

Malaysia pada zaman 1960-an sebuah negara yang baru mengenali pembangunan moden dan hidupan kosmopolitan yang banyak memanfaatkan golongan wanita di bandar. Dapat dilihat di zaman ini ramai wanita yang bekerja dan berkerjaya berikutan bilangan mahasiswi di universiti yang meningkat.

Lahir pada tahun 1936 di Johor Bharu, Anis Sabirin adalah antara wanita generasi moden 1960-an yang menyambut peluang melanjutkan pelajaran hingga ke tahap PhD dalam bidang ekonomi di Amerika Syarikat. Beliau pernah menetap di San Francisco dan Los Angeles selama 20 tahun dan giat menulis fiksyen dan puisi dalam bahasa Melayu dan Inggeris. Esei-eseinya tentang isu wanita dalam Peranan Wanita Baru dan majalah Dewan Sastera menempatkan Anis Sabirin antara penulis wanita bersifat feminis yang terawal di Malaysia.

Pada tahun 1963, beliau pernah menyampaikan kritikan yang menyengat di Majlis PENA yang berlangsung di Universiti Malaya. Dalam ucapannya, penulis lelaki popular seperti Yahya Samah, Alias Ali, Keris Mas, dan Kala Dewata sering mengisi novel mereka dengan watak pelacur dan mangsa rogol sebagai ‘perencah’ cerita. Menurut Anis Sabirin, watak wanita yang menggiurkan menjadi ‘barang dagangan’ bagi menyara kehidupan seorang sasterawan lelaki.

Dari sudut pandang sekarang, Malaysia pada dekad 1960-an adalah seperti negara yang asing. Mungkin sukar untuk kita bayangkan bahawa pasaran novel picisan di zaman dahulu penuh dengan seks dari muka depan hingga ke belakang. Seperti majalah lucah, kulit buku Temasya Cinta oleh A. Samad Ismail dan Patah Dayong oleh Yahya Samah dihiasi imej wanita yang telanjang. Mengikut Anis Sabirin, perempuan dalam novel-novel seperti ini ‘sudah menjadi barang yang rosak dan merosakkan.’

Sangat mengejutkan jika kita membaca esei-esei yang dihimpun dalam Peranan Wanita Baru terbitan Utusan Melayu pada tahun 1969. Tajuknya – Peranan Wanita Baru – mengacu kepada wanita 1960-an yang sedang melangkah ke zaman paska-kolonial yang penuh perubahan sosial dan budaya. Seiringan dengan itu, gerakan feminisme gelombang kedua di Amerika Syarikat baru sahaja berputik di pertengahan 1960-an.

Anis Sabirin begitu peka kepada kehendak wanita moden yang dibelenggu pemahaman adat dan agama yang kuno. Menurutnya, sudah ramai wanita 1960-an yang berpendidikan tinggi dan mempunyai daya saing di tempat kerja tetapi ditekan oleh beban rumahtangga. Beliau menggaris dengan terang-terang bahawa kemajuan wanita terletak di luar rumah:

Nanti bila pergaulan bangsa kita menjadi bertambah bebas, kenyataan ini boleh-lah di-buktikan, bahawa wanita yang bekerja itu hidup-nya menarek daripada sa-orang wanita yang dudok di-rumah, dan sebab itu dia tidak payah berlumba-lumba memikat orang lelaki untok memboktikan daya penarek-nya.

Peranan Wanita Baru merupakan satu-satunya buku yang menyasarkan bara terhadap patriarki yang tertanam degil di akar umbi budaya Melayu. Boleh dikatakan bahawa belum pernah adanya buku yang sepertinya malah ia lenyap dari wacana feminis Malaysia. Soalnya mengapa?

Suara lantang Anis Sabirin dalam Peranan Wanita Baru mungkin tidak mendapat sambutan yang meluas di kalangan wanita dan lelaki Malaysia. Penulis wanita yang berani mencabar lelaki akan disisih secara terang dan halus. Meskipun sumbangan wanita dalam dunia sastera Malaysia dianugerahkan bermacam pingat dan piala, mereka tidak diagungkan seperti lelaki sejawatnya. Tidak ada sasterawati Melayu yang dikenali umum seperti Shahnon Ahmad dan A. Samad Said.

Setelah 46 tahun sejak terbitan Peranan Wanita Baru, bagaimana pula pembaca novel popular sekarang yang dihidangkan dengan keasyikan kahwin kontrak dan ombak rindu? Di mana pergi peredaran zaman yang memberi peluang kepada wanita seluas-luasnya pada tahun 1960-an itu?

Pendirian tegas Anis Sabirin tentang isu wanita jauh berbeza daripada wanita Malaysia yang menulis dalam bahasa kebangsaan di waktu kini. Namun penulisannya masih segar dan relevan. Sebagai seorang wanita yang giat menulis tentang isu wanita, saya mengambil iktibar darinya dan mengkagumi esei-eseinya yang bersifat feminis dan ‘global’ yang muncul sebelum kemudahan internet dan arus globalisasi.

Hujah feminis yang dikemukakan dalam Peranan Wanita Baru adalah bukti bahawa masa depan wanita di Malaysia tidak menentu. Kekangan dahulu sama seperti kekangan sekarang. Suasana zaman atau zeitgeist yang kini diungkapkan oleh wacana ‘demokrasi’ dan ‘hak asasi’ tidak menjamin kemajuan dan pencerahan. Namun, perjuangan feminis di Malaysia yang kini semakin memuncak akan meninggalkan kesan yang lebih bermakna dan sejarah yang lebih diperingati oleh generasi yang akan datang.

My translation:

Anis Sabirin. A name we rarely hear in Malaysian feminist discourse today. She was known in the 1960s as a strident critic of the sexist portrayal of women in modern Malay literature. As a highly accomplished woman in modern Malaya, she was different from the kind of nationalist women of the likes of Shamsiah Fakeh and Sybil Kathigasu who are reimagined today as feminist heroines.

Malaysia in the 1960s was new to modernity and the cosmopolitan lifestyle that benefited women living and working in urban centres. Women of the period were pursuing careers outside the home and quickly filling the university where they were receiving gaining higher education.

Born in 1936 in Johor Bharu, Anis Sabirin belonged to a new generation of Malaysian women who embraced the opportunities in education that led to her pursuing a PhD in economics in the US. She went on to continue to living in San Francisco and Los Angeles for more than 20 years where she was active in writing fiction and poetry in both Malay and English. Her essays on women’s issues in Peranan Wanita Baru and in the literary magazine Dewan Sastera places her as among the earliest feminist voices in Malaysia.

In 1963, she delivered a stinging, if very memorable, critique at the assembly of Association for National Writers of Malaysia, PENA, in University of Malaya. In her speech, popular writers like Yahya Samah, Alias Ali, Keris Mas, and Kala Dewata regularly write into their stories prostitutes whose only function is to spice things up. According to her, sexualised imagery of women were ‘commoditised’ to line the pockets of male fiction writers.

From today’s perspective, Malaysia in the 1960’s might seem like a foreign country. It might strike as a surprise that many novels and penny dreadfuls of the time were filled with sexually explicitly and tawdry content. Like pornographic magazines,  naked women grace the book covers of Temasya Cinta by A. Samad Ismail and Patah Dayong by Yahya Samad (see blog post for example). The women in these novels are depicted as ‘damaged and damaging objects’.

It will come across as a surprise to read the essays in Peranan Wanita Baru published in 1969 by Utusan Melayu. The title of the collection – The Role of New Women – is an address to Malaysian women who were experiencing new social and political realities of the postcolonial era. It was also a period that coincided with the rise of Second Wave feminism.

Anis Sabirin was sensitive to the constraints of custom and conservative interpretations of religion. She felt that women could compete for the best jobs in the work place but were held back by domestic responsibilities. It was clear to her that women’s progress lie outside the home:

When there are fewer restrictions on mixing between the sexes, we will find that working women’s lives are more interesting than the woman stays at home, and that is because the working woman is not as desperate to show her desirability to men

Peranan Wanita Baru is perhaps the only book in Malay by a woman that articulates directly at the deeply embedded patriarchal hegemony of Malay society. There has never been a book quite like it and it is somehow completely forgotten. Why?

The author’s strident voice may not have been well-received in Malaysia at the time and the decades that followed. Malay women writers who were bold and critical of men were marginalised in explicit and subtle ways. Although many women writers have been garlanded with awards for their literary achievements, they are not the nation’s Great Writers like Shahnon Ahmad and A. Samad Said.

Since its first publication 46 years ago, what do contemporary readers make of  ‘contract marriage’ romances and rape myths in Ombak Rindu so popular in Malaysian fiction today? Where have the heady days of modernity and cosmopolitanism enjoyed in the 1960s that Anis Sabirin wrote about gone?

Anis Sabirin’s clear and vociferous voice is but a faint echo in the discourse on women’s rights in the Malay language today. But her’s is still fresh and relevant as ever. As a woman who writes on ‘women’s issues’ in Malaysia, I turn to Anis Sabirin for inspiration as a ‘global’ trailblazing writer far ahead of her time before the age of the internet and globalisation.

If the feminist issues raised in Peranan Wanita Baru are an indicator for anything, they are an unhappy reminder that the future for women in Malaysia is deeply uncertain. Malaysian women faced the same kinds of obstacles then as they do now. The human rights discourse and democracy that imbibe the spirit of the age cannot guarantee progress and enlightenment. However, it will seem like the current feminist wave will be more than a historical footnote in the annals of Malaysian women’s history.

New piece on New Mandala: Rape and the pantomime of misogyny

I have a new piece up on New Mandala published on 19th February where I try to grips with the violent misogyny in Malaysian politics. It is a mere platitude to argue that these male politicians are misogynistic. What’s more pertinent to ask is, why are they are using their platforms to air these views, why do they need to display their hatred of women so openly.

For better or worse, formal politics has been conceptualised as dramaturgy where politicians are actors who perform an ideological script.1 In Malaysia, the farcical tragicomedy of politics bears exaggerated elements of performance and dramaturgy which is why it may be useful to understand Malaysian politics as pantomime. In a pantomime, emotions are whipped to a frenzy when a villain or hero walks onto the stage. It is a theatrical mode that relies on the hyperbolic qualities of the hero, villain, and fool. It is through re-thinking Malaysian politics as a pantomime that we can perhaps understand its tacit and explicit endorsement of sexual violence against women.

Formal politics as pantomime is a little different from populist politics in that extreme views are attributed to political actors who are otherwise revered in person and for their other public accomplishments. But politics as pantomime shares a continuity with populism in that there is an acknowledgement that politics is artifice because the promotion of populist views may be necessary in spite of the politician’s own personal conviction. As a theatrical form, pantomime is open to a participating audience who may sing, heckle, and laugh. Despite their distance from political actors, there is an emotive register of the Malaysian public who react to the theatricality of Malaysian politics in the arena of public discourse.

Read the rest here.

New column on the Malay Mail: Are we ready for post-nationalism?

I have a new column out on the Malay Mail, Are ready for postnationalism?, published on 13th February 2015.

It’s nice to see the dust settling after a week of nationalistic confabulation. In its wake, the political appropriation of the life and achievements of Tunku Abdul Rahman last week left a distinct kind of aftertaste. It is the sickly sweet obsession with national belonging and the notion of anak bangsa.

Anak bangsa has an ideological connotation different from warganegara or rakyat. All three terms mean “citizen” but anak bangsa implies a special kind of belonging, one that is familial and comes with filial responsibilities.

Read the rest here.