What it means to be a ‘free hair’ in a predominantly Muslim society

This is an edited version of a conference and seminar paper presented at the National University of Singapore in March 2016 and Australian National University in April 2016:

Women who decide to remain un-veiled or ‘free hair’ (colloquial, noun) are a significant minority within predominantly Muslim societies. Their sartorial decisions are often couched in a type of ethics that contrasts with the hegemonic interpretation of Islam particular to their society and community. We need to listen to women’s stories so that we can better understand the impact of Islamisation on women and their sense of self. Early findings of my UM-funded research project, “Silence and Consent: The Modern Social History of Non-veiling in Malaysia” constitute a praxis in listening to these women’s stories.

In countries other than Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and provinces like Aceh where veiling and strict dress codes in public spaces are state imposed on women, Muslim women navigate a complex and frequently treacherous religious and social terrain in which the veil carries a multitude of potent meanings. Their negotiation with veiling suggests the dynamic push and pull factors of coercion and ‘free’ choice that reside within the limits of Muslim women’s agency. For Muslim women who do not wear the hijab in the context of Islamisation, their non-veiled status is held together by daily social tension and pressure as they very visibly deviate from the normative identification of Muslim femininity.

Women who do not veil in Malaysia, especially those outside the public limelight, are invisible in the literature and in the discursive landscape concerning women and Islam. All Muslim-Malay women and girls in Malaysia face varying levels of social and religious-based pressure to wear the tudung (hijab). Many have been subjected to public abuse for not wearing the hijab. Nonetheless, there are Muslim women who remain unveiled and those who have removed their hijab in recent years. Unlike the abundance of research on motivations behind veiling, the lived experiences and reasons why Muslim women do not veil and those who un-veil remain scarce. Reasons for the scarcity of research on Muslim women reflect the attention given to studies on the rise of Islamic symbols in the public sphere. Muslim women who veil have become the embodiment of such socio-political and cultural changes that disturb the gendered boundaries that separate the private from the public. The veil has become a sign that religion has not gone away from the public sphere and that secularism has not defeated public religious expression.

By contrast, Muslim women who remain unveiled are marked as ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ Muslims, antithetical to Islamic revivalism. In societies where Muslims are a minority population, Muslim women who do not veil are regarded as having been assimilated and integrated into secular society. Fadil (2011) remarks that rather than passive and indifferent to the significance of Islamic symbols, women who do not veil perform ethical and affective labour. Affective and ethical labour is called upon in the feeling of insecurity, and when rationalising a new spiritual ethics that occurs “in the supplanting of certain fully ingrained truth-claims (headscarf as essential for Muslim piety) by another set of truth-claims (not-veiling as essential to one’s liberal ethical agency)” (Fadil 2011: 23). To put it more simply, not wearing the hijab is not an easy decision for women.

Muslim women’s capacity to challenge the authority of masculinsed interpretations of Islam is relatively new in Malaysian history. The Muslim feminist organisation, Sisters in Islam, was established in the early 1990s during a period of Islamisation and had pioneered the feminist challenge to the authority of ulamas through their non-patriarchal readings of the Quran and hadith. The state project of Islamisation in Malaysia was characterised as an aggressive promotion of ‘moderate Islam’, an Islamic mode of institutionalised practices that serve a capitalist ethno-religious agenda. The introduction of moderate Islam by the state had, intentionally and less so, created “public conditions of possibility for women’s status to be problematised” (Ong 2006: 33). These conditions befit Anderson and Eickelmann’s definition of the Muslim public sphere in which religious authority is decentralised and members of the ‘rational’ public engage towards shared end goals.

Ong argues that this particular moment in Malaysian history had not been an accident but part of a wider process of the defeudalising of Islam in Malaysia (Ong 2006: 48) in that the Malaysian state sought to standardise the interpretation and implementation of Islamic law across several private and public-funded entities such as Islamic banks, Islamic universities, and several Islamic centres under the prime minister’s purview to better align Malaysians with knowledges and skills suited to the Malaysian Islamic modernity. The formation of the ‘Muslim public’ in Malaysia is, however, an incomplete one. Although there is some physical and discursive space to question orthodox Islamic practices, the mantle of ‘moderate Islam’ in Malaysia today is likely to be under threat under the new wave of Islamisation and state acquiescence to Islamist militant ideas.

This study was conducted after receiving a significant amount of public attention for my Malay Mail Online article on the social pressures to veil in Malaysia. A few women called in and written to thank me for speaking up about what had long been an under-discussed issue, repressed by the fear of being accused of questioning Islam itself. Later, formal interviews were conducted in person and via email. Face to face interviews were transcribed and followed-up with email conversations. More than half of the 40 interviews were with respondents who have answered my online invitation to participate in my research project. Some of their responses, first names and age are reproduced below with their consent and minimal grammatical edits.

Non-veiled women as resistant bodies

Through their dis-articulation with biopolitical production of Islam in Malaysia, ‘free hair’ women become by definition resistant bodies. As resistant bodies, they are open-ended processes articulations of performativity of Malay femininity constituted by the vicissitudes of new Islamisation and continuing struggles for women’s autonomy and religio-political legitimacy. They perform the affective labour of daily negotiations and rationalising their subjectivities against a religious-ethnic norm. So long as they live under the discursive regimes of Islamisation, their relationship with the hijab and reconciliation with not veiling remain open-ended. Zanariah, aged 35, embodies the open-ended quality of Butlerian performativity faced by Malay women who do not wear the hijab:

At first, I felt great wearing it but eventually didn’t like it because I felt like I was losing myself, not being true to myself and constantly needed to behave in certain ways expected by others […] Hijab can also be very uncomfortable in humid weather, leaving me questioning the practicability of it. I felt trapped and wasn’t happy.

I went through a breakdown when the family lost a lot of money & materials in business. Being more religious was my way to cope with the difficult situation. I went through a spiritual journey – attended religious classes & read many religious books as well as history of religions […] Studying the Quran gradually shifted my view towards Islam significantly to wider context, breaking away from shackles of society. Islam is far beyond the hijab.

Slowly hijab is seen as [a] cultural practice and one of many tools used by men to oppress women. Feeling liberated […] I found my courage to make conscious decision to remove my hijab in 2014. […] I feel closer to Allah, the Creator

I started taking care of my hair again. [The] judgmental behaviour I had when I was in hijab faded away. I become more open especially towards other races and religions. I feel at ease to mingle across religions without hijab. I found a new confidence to speak out & feel happier.

The context of Islamisation necessitates the Malay female subjectivity to cultivate a continuum of (non)-veiling; as decisions for veiling practices are always open-ended and subject to rupture i.e. re-veiling. But it is a futurity full of negotiations. Non-veiling allowed Zanariah to be an active participant in the construction of an ethics and authenticity. Arriving at her current ethical standpoint required heavy affective labour to negotiate and replace a one set of truth claims (the veil as obligatory in Islam) with another set of truth claims (the veil is not required in Islam, happiness is paramount).

‘Free hair’ as critical subjectivity

Narratives of ‘free hair’ Muslim women fully illuminate the definition of the subject and what Foucault calls the ‘modes of subjectivation’ defined as the “limits of a historically specific set of formative practices and moral injunctions that are delimited in advance” (Mahmood 2005: 28). In the context of a predominantly Muslim society, such modes of subjectivation include the daily discipline of modest dress and the spatially and temporally-defined cultural mores that women must contend with every day. A critical subjectivity is formed from the intensified tension created between the subject and the modes of subjectivation causing deep introspection, questioning and opposition. Anonymous, aged 23, represents this particular type of critical subjectivity:

I would say the moment when I decided to not wear hijab anymore is when I lost hope in it. It makes no difference whether you wear it or not. Hijab, instead of becoming an identity, it has become an excuse, a tool, and have been politicized by people. Of course, this is a dangerous statement, as wearing hijab is a requirement in being a Muslim. But for now, my faith in whatever message conveyed by wearing or not wearing hijab is still wavering.

Siti Hajar, 33

After a lot of soul searching, with a lot of world events as a catalyst, I stopped wearing my tudung. I stopped wearing it initially for one reason, continued not wearing it for other reasons as I kept learning/ rethinking my beliefs.

Aina, 21

Honestly I never felt so weird when I remove my hijab once I’m back home because that’s when I feel like I am being honest to myself. I never liked wearing the hijab. It feels like I’m bound to a set of rules and practice. It feels like I have to act in a certain ways like I can’t shake hands or give/receive hugs from anyone.

Copious amount of feminist research and commentary on the hijab focus on the role of women’s agency operating within decisions to wear the hijab. However, few have tended to focus on motivations behind women who choose to live without the hijab and removing it after a period of wearing it. As I have explained elsewhere, I am less interested in the construction of agency if it is understood as similar for all Muslim women living in a socially pressurised environment. What is more interesting to me is the orientation of the ‘free hair’ as a critical subject in relation to local mores, family relations, personal ambitions, and world geopolitics. It is a critical subjectivity with oppositional values and world-making practices while at the same under-articulated in the Muslim public sphere. The next phase of my research focuses on the critical subjectivity of non-veiling in smaller towns to examine other voicings, articulations, and world-making practices that rationalise non-veiling.

Conclusion

Non-veiling is a powerful, if invisible indicator of the effect of Islamisation on women. As the early findings above suggest, the decision to remove the veil is more than about changes in one’s religious belief but is part of a wider patchwork of life experiences and relations. Non-veiling complicates the boundaries that separate the religious from the secular, self and others, past, present and future.
Women are still approaching me to talk about their relationship with the hijab and how they have parted ways with it. But such conversations are sensitive because the topic of non-veiling and un-veiling is taboo. Based on my early observations, I’d like to argue that the silences and absences of experiences in the context of Islamisation tell us much more about the operations of agency and the “modes of subjectivation.”Although moderate Islam has created public conditions for feminist scrutiny of patriarchal bias within religious authority, new Islamisation is narrowing avenues for agency and ethical practices of being for women.

Reference:

Fadil, Nadia. 2011. Non-veiling as ethical practice. Feminist Review. 98: 83-109.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton University Press.

Ong, Aihwa. 2006. Neoliberalism As Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke University Press.

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.

Public talk: Women writers on gender and sexuality in 60’s Malay literature

I will be giving a public talk this coming Saturday, 30th April 2016 (5-7 pm), in Silverfish Books in Kuala Lumpur based on a forthcoming book chapter entitled ‘The New Malay Woman: The rise of modern female subject and transnational encounters in postcolonial Malay literature.’

Source: Silverfish Books

Synopsis of my talk:

The new Malay woman in modern Malay literature emerged during a period of unflattering and sexualised representations of female characters in the Malay literary canon and low brow fiction by male writers of the 1960s. By contrast, the emancipated new Malay woman, a creation of women writers, is a departure from her literary predecessors and contemporaries of passive, self-sacrificing domestic women. She is a product of early postcolonial modernisation and other institutional policies to elevate the Malay community in Malaya. The new Malay woman in Malay literature was created by women at a specific time in Malaysian history and was instrumental in promoting the advancement of Malay society in the 1960s.

More details on the talk here.

The object of feminist reading groups

I have organised three feminist reading group meetings at the women’s organisation and advocacy centre, AWAM, in Petaling Jaya (see here, here, and here for details) between December 2015 to March 2016. Considering the limited means of publicity at my disposal, the three meetings were nonetheless a success at getting people to engage rather deeply, and in sometimes fraught ways, with feminist issues and arguments.

The discussions could not have been entirely inclusive because of language; most of the participants felt more comfortable speaking in English or could only understand English. Attempts to switch bilingually is very difficult for me. A few had better knowledge and debates within contemporary feminist discourse than others which made managing a group with varying backgrounds of knowledge sometimes a challenge.

‘Still Life’ (1926) by Georges Braque  |    Source: Wikimedia Commons

Since there seems to be a revival of an interest in feminism in Malaysia, it was a good idea to (re)visit the feminist literature and talk about it with others. There were, however, other reasons to have a feminist reading group:

 

1. To honour the work of feminists from previous generations who have paved the way for our understanding, whose legacy we have directly and indirectly inherited and upon which we build our strength

What I’ve learned:

Many young women are calling themselves ‘intersectional feminists’ these days. While I feel this phenomenon has its upside in that intersectionality as a theoretical concept has crossed the boundary of academia into mainstream discourse, I also feel that this boundary-crossing has resulted in some loss of meaning. Those who call themselves ‘intersectional feminists’ often struggle to define what they are really all about and have not read Kimberle Crenshaw (1991) or Patricia Hill Collins’s work (see Hill Collins 2015).

Edward Said (1983) has talked about what happens when theory travels; it becomes diluted of its political power as it drifts further away from its origins. However in his revisit on the subject (1991), he argues that when theories travel and become rooted in a new place, usage can result in a re-invigoration of ideas in unexpected and powerful ways.

In every meeting of the feminist reading group, I remind my participants that we’re not here to reinvent the wheel. Most of what we’re arguing for and are angry about are likely to have been argued and fought over by generations of women and men before us. We need to take the longer view and see how much and little feminist struggles have succeeded and locate our position within local and transnational narratives.

2. To nurture a small collective of readers

I have been deeply influenced by my critical theory classes on reader response theory (thank you, Sian Hawthorne). Since learning about reader response theory and the work of Stanley Fish, I have tended to privilege the elusive and transitory quality of meaning of a text. When a text has the potential to invoke powerful emotions and personal resonances, I feel its meaning is more likely to be found within the reader and her engagement with the text.

Thus, as Fish would argue, meaning is less an entity than an event. For he is saying that the meaning of a text occurs during its encounter with the reader. Without a reader, the text is dead. Being an event, it is subject to the vicissitudes that define the contours of a particular occasion; such as when it is being read, by, for and with whom.

What I’ve learned:

A thing I have learned from organising the feminist reading group is that it is temporally and spatially-constructed for collective focus and developing a skill to bounce between the written page and life. This has resulted in agonising moments of dispute over the selection of readings and how they appear to be irrelevant to our lived experiences. Future texts for discussion may need to be selected by participants or voted over.

3. To collectively talk and share our understanding of feminism and how it may related to our own lives and that of others. Ultimately it is about developing a feminist consciousness, whether as a novice or someone who has thought and practised feminist ethics for a longer time (see Ahmed’s blog on feminist consciousness).

Feminist reading groups are one of the signature traditions of consciousness raising (CR) efforts by second wave feminists. Flawed and perhaps a little passé, the Marxist-inspired concept of consciousness adopted by radical and socialist feminists became the bedrock for women’s public expression, for stepping out of the shadows of the ‘private’ sphere and into the public.

What does it mean to develop a ‘feminist consciousness’? Bartky (1975) argues that it is about a way of apprehending the world. To have feminist consciousness is just the beginning of one’s feminist life story. It is a “transforming experience” which often results in change of behaviour, making a new set of friends, having a new way of responding to people and events, change of consumption habits, and a whole lifestyle transformation (Bartky 1975:425).

***

When organising events of an intellectual nature in Malaysia, it may be easy to fall into the trap of self-satisfaction and pretentiousness or “syok sendiri”. Perhaps this is because of a history of failed education policies and its legacy of division and repression. Thus anything intellectual comes across as an achievement and an end in itself. The human cost of such a legacy is huge as generations of Malaysians struggle to appreciate ideas, arts and culture for their sake alone, as education is seen as a process simply of attainment/ownership and using what is attained/owed. This brief comment on education is a side story of why a feminist reading group is necessary; the latter is about reading for reading’s sake, community, consciousness and being – processes and relations that require further appreciation and continuing engagement in as many spaces as possible, both offline and on.

Reference:

Sandra Lee Bartky. 1975. Toward a phenomenology of feminist consciousness. Social Theory and Practice, 3(4), pp. 425-439

Patricia Hill Collins. 2015. Intersectionality’s definitional dilemmas. Annual Review of Sociology, 41, pp.1-20

Kimberle Crenshaw. 1991. Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford law review, pp.1241-1299.

Stanley Fish. 1980. Is there a text in this class? the authority of interpretive communities. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Edward Said. 1983. Traveling theory, in The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Edward Said. 2001. Travelling theory revisited. Reflections on Exile, pp.436-452.

The Lower Gladstone Link in the Bodleian Library

lower-gladstone-link

Many who enter the hallowed halls of libraries, universities, and colleges will find that rooms, parts of and entire buildings are named after people, very usually men. These people and their families have bequeathed large sums to make such an infrastructure possible for the benefit of knowledge. And for that, we all are very grateful.

I, for one, enjoy working in the (upper and lower) Gladstone Link of the Bodleian Library, a rather unglamorous subterranean space dotted with warning signs to readers that the ceiling is hazardously low. There are so many books on history, critical theory, film, and literature in the Gladstone Link that they must be squeezed vertically on mobile shelves (see image above). The Gladstone Link is named after the 19th-century British prime minister William Gladstone who, so it happens, was also credited for the invention of the ingenious space-saving mobile shelves.

While doing research on female indentured labour and their legacy in Malaya, I found that Sir John Gladstone, father of William, was a prominent slave owner in the Caribbean and an advocate of indentured labour. In fact, John Gladstone introduced indentured labour into the Caribbean after slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1833. He was a chair of the West Indian Association and an MP, making him both a politician and a planter who owned more than 2000 slaves in the Caribbean.

Now, the link between slavery and the Gladstones is downplayed in British history and biographical writings (see Quinault, 2009), mostly likely due to shame and embarrassment. More embarrassing it seems because slave-owning families continue to benefit from huge reparations after abolition. John Gladstone was paid the modern equivalent of £5 million after abolition, but continued to profit afterwards in the sugar industry on the backs of indentured labour in the Caribbean.

The juxtaposition between the tranquil and edifying space of the Gladstone Link today and the Gladstone Link With Slavery is horrifying and nauseating. In a distant past far from the polite society in middle and upper-class Britain, the ‘Gladstone coolies’, named after their master, were flogged with cat-o-nine tails for misconduct on the plantation and rubbed salty pork pickle into their wounds (Erickson, 1934). Although they were not slaves, indentured labourers were still less than human.

While William Gladstone had a rich political life, defecting from Conservative during his early years as MP to a Liberal prime minister, and administering over electoral reforms that gave working class men the vote, his position on slavery was less salubrious. His position on the matter as a young Tory MP was the same as his father the slave owner. Reasons behind their rejection of absolute emancipation were both pragmatic and righteous; to protect the family’s financial interests that had also helped propelled them into politics and that black people (and later the Indian) lacked a morality to govern themselves.

The Gladstone Link is indeed an ironic name for its link with slavery and the wealth that helped build not just institutions of learning but Britain itself. Other places named after people linked to slavery (Tate, Rhodes) are ‘rehabilitated’ today through the different kind of wealth they leave behind; in education, culture, and the arts for the general public and the world.

Should contemporary users of such spaces boycott them to resist colonial complicity? Massive Attack for instance have refused to perform at Colston Hall in Bristol where slaves were once sold to traders. In the case of libraries that weren’t used in the direct exploitation of people but nonetheless had benefited from it, the answer is less clear due to how inextricably linked wealth and access to knowledge are to the bondage of history.

Reference

Erickson, Edgar (1934) ‘The introduction of East Indian coolies into the British West Indies’, The Journal of Modern History, 6, 2, pp. 127-146.

Quinault, Ronald (2009) ‘Gladstone and slavery’, The Historical Journal, 52, 2, pp. 363-383.

Sound, fury and écriture féminine in Violette (2013): a review

When I first heard about the film Violette (2013, dir. Martin Provost), I had little knowledge about the life and work of the French writer, Violette Leduc (1907-1972), on which the film was based. What drew me to the film was the fact that she was one time a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir. Imagine being a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir!

The film charts her journey into writing, from being an appendage of a gay writer who could never return her love and lust to being a groundbreaking literary success. What he does offer her instead is an instruction to write, anything and everything she knows. And so she does. After he leaves her to fend for herself, she embarks on a reinvention of herself, with her first manuscript in hand, to Paris.

Leduc’s journey into writing and the occasion that led to her discovery by de Beauvoir appear cosmically serendipitous. Her chance encounter with Le Deuxième Sexe in an acquaintance’s apartment (“A woman has written a big book?”, she thinks aloud) ignites a desire to meet the writer herself.

Leduc stalks de Beauvoir in a Parisian cafe. The scene is established through Leduc’s female gaze; with her back turned to the feminist philosopher, Leduc spies on de Beauvoir using the mirror of her compact case. De Beauvoir’s first depiction as an image in a lady’s compact case is both ironic and trivialising.

When Leduc throws herself (and her manuscript of L’Asphyxie) in de Beauvoir’s direction, it appears that her literary career and its trappings (shoulder-rubbing with artists and willing patrons) are sealed. De Beauvoir adores her manuscript and is keen to mentor Leduc, who was only a year younger. Leduc is the opposite of de Beauvoir; her words spill from a body electrocuted by feeling and desire. She is shameless and openly erotic bordering on desperate in contrast to de Beauvoir’s restraint and cerebralism.

Their homes are further extensions of their opposing personality and state of mind; Leduc lives hand to mouth in a shabby rented room. De Beauvoir lives in an elegant multi-roomed apartment. Shortly after winning the Prix Goncourt for The Mandarins, de Beauvoir would purchase an even more luxurious apartment, pushing the gulf between her and Leduc further.

Pushing past forty by the time her (still unsuccessful) novel L’affamée is published, Leduc is portayed as a woman regressing into adolescence. She is tormented by the thought of being a bastard child and her mother’s maternal transgressions (“My mother never held my hand”), themes that reoccur since her debut, L’Asphyxie (1948). And yet, her mother dotes on Leduc. In one poignant scene, an emotionally exhausted Leduc is bathed by her mother, like a placid baby at bathtime.

Abandonment issues strain Leduc’s relationship with everyone she sexually desires, both women and men, along with insecurities about her lack of beauty. She attributes the unrequited desire she has for Simone de Beauvoir and her general lack of luck as a sexual woman in libidinous French culture to her apparent ugliness.

Her sexuality is written on the pages of her books. They are autobiographies of a woman’s sexuality. Her writing may evoke the contemporary criticism that women, like Lena Dunham’s écriture du jour, write in a ‘confessional’ style that pepper with TMI. They can come across as self-absorbed and narcisstic. But Provost’s portrayal of Leduc depicts a woman who does not love and credit herself enough. Her insecurities undermine the high regard the male French intelligentsia (Sartre, Camus, Genet) have for her.

Soon, and rather predictably, the emotional labour inscribed in her writing takes a toll on Leduc and she is admitted into a sanitarium to ‘recover’ via a treatment of electric shocks. Rather than a moral tale of a woman who writes and desires that ends tragically, Leduc’s episode in hospital is followed by a great literary and erotic flourishing.

Following de Beauvoir’s advice, she goes on a solo walking trip through small provincial towns, writing and wanking as she absorbs the bucolic landscape around her. She is pursued by a younger man, a builder, and yields to his attentions. The film reaches it climax when Leduc publishes her first bestseller, La Bâtarde (1964), to great national acclaim that seals her reputation as a feminist writer.

What compels me most about Violette is that it is a film about écriture féminine. It is a style of writing that may not appeal to many readers for reasons they may not realise or able to articulate. Cixous may be on the money in Le Rire de la Meduse (The Laugh of the Medusa) when she argues that the history of writing is founded on the exclusion of women and their expression. When women did write, they write in a manner as to be recognised and understood by patriarchal culture. And then enter écriture féminine and its subversion of the very grammar of writing. When women produce écriture féminine, they create

A world of searching, the elaboration of a knowledge, on the basis of a systematic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity (Cixous, 1976: 876)

It takes courage and self-belief to write words that overflow their typographic vessel with affect and hot bubbling desire. The écriture féminine of Violette Leduc is, to echo de Beauvoir’s foreword to Leduc’s La Bâtarde, “a world full of sound and fury, where love often bears the name of hate, where a passion for life burst forth in cries of despair”.

The reason why women are ridiculed and devalued for their hyper-personal writing is because they are perceived to lack critical acumen. Their writing is measured against the literary success of men. Indeed, I sometimes find autobiographical feminist writing unchallenging and intellectually lazy.

And yet Violette Leduc and the film about her literary career fascinate me on an intellectual level. Though I have wondered what and how Leduc would write if she had an intellectual background like Simone de Beauvoir. Would she write very differently and more self-consciously? Would she abandon writing of the body in favour of the mind? Would her writing be less about herself and acknowledge other women like her who had come before and those who will emerge in decades to come, in a different place?

Reference:

Cixous, Helene (1976) ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen), Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 875-893

Alat-alat tukang kepunyaan penindas tidak akan meruntuhkan rumah penindas

Source: Pachamama.org

“Alat-alat tukang kepunyaan penindas tidak akan meruntuhkankan rumah penindas. Alat-alat itu boleh menewaskan penindas hanya buat seketika, namun ia tidak akan menjamin perubahan yang murni. Perkauman dan homofobia adalah perkara yang kian dialami oleh kita semua. Saya menyeru kepada semua untuk menyelam ke dalam minda masing-masing dan ‘menyentuh’ unsur-unsur yang menimbulkan ketakutan dan kejelekan yang wujud di sana. Lihat wajahnya. Waktu itulah isu-isu peribadi yang berbaur politik mulai memberi pencerahan kepada pilihan hidup kita”.

– Audre Lorde, The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, 1979

Alat-alat tukang penindas merujuk kepada bahasa, teori dan struktur wacana feminis Barat yang menepikan suara wanita lesbian, berkulit hitam dan yang berasal daripada masyarakat membangun (dunia ketiga). Di sini Audre Lorde menyampaikan satu amaran; di mana satu bahaya dalam bentuk keganasan epistemik (epistemic violence) akan ditimpa wanita yang bukan berkulit putih dan tertindas selagi kategori ‘wanita’ tidak memartabatkan perbezaan antara wanita dari segi bangsa, bahasa, agama, identiti seksualiti, dan latarbelakang kelas.

Keganasan epistemik adalah satu bentuk keganasan yang halus tetapi mempunyai kesan yang memudaratkan wanita biasa, khususnya yang bukan dari golongan elit. Keganasan ini disebarluas melalui penjanaan ilmu, maklumat yang digunakan untuk mengetahui dan membantu. Bahasa tidak bersifat neutral, malah ia bersangkut-paut dengan budaya dan politik untuk melindung kepentingan kumpulan-kumpulan tertentu.

Audre Lorde menyaran kepada wanita yang memperjuangkan feminisme untuk meneliti dan membongkar struktur bahasa dan rangka wacana feminis yang digunakan; dari manakah ia datang? siapakah yang dijadikan tokoh dan idola? Bahasa dan ilmu mampu digunakan untuk menggerakkan fahaman seksis terhadap wanita. Namun bahasa dan ilmu juga boleh menjadi benih dan substrat kepada kesedaran wanita dan perubahan. Audre Lorde mengungkapkan kuasa bahasa dan ilmu dengan kata-kata Simone de Beauvoir: “Daripada pengetahuan yang jujur mengenai keadaan kehidupan ini akan kita menimba kekuatan dan sebab-sebab untuk bertindak” (2003, Lorde: 28)

Rujukan:
Audre Lorde. 2003. ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, disunting oleh Reina Lewis dan Sara Mills. London dan New York: Routledge. pp. 25-28.

Visiting the Reading Lasses bookshop

First published in my now defunct academic blog, ‘Alicia Izharuddin’, on 14th September 2014.

reading-lasses

In the last leg of my rather prodigious series of travelling this year, I went to Scotland for the first time during a thrilling period of the nation’s history. My visit there was made more exciting, however, by the prospect of going to the country’s first and only women’s bookshop, Reading Lasses in Wigtown, on the coast of the Scottish South-west peninsular. To top my excitement further, I was booked to stay above the shop itself for two nights. Lodgings in a women’s bookshop! As you can imagine, my delight was not easily contained…

wigtown-booktown

Like its more well-known Welsh counterpart, Hay-on-Wye, Wigtown is Scotland’s official town of books and comes to life during its annual literary festival – and I, the book-lover, did not know this important bit of information! Smaller than Hay, Wigtown is effectively a one-main street market town, with three or four pubs. It was declared a book town in 1997 and boasted around 20 second hand bookshops. Sadly, like Hay and everywhere else in the UK, bookshops are rapidly closing down. 6 now remain in Wigtown. Those who are still going, like Reading Lasses’s owner, Gerrie, are passionate romantics and bucking the prevailing trend.

What is the bookshop like? Or rather, how would the average academic feminist bibliophile find it? Upon entering the shop, the ‘gender’ of the bookshop did not manifest itself instantly. The books are arranged according to rather conventional genres (thrillers, children’s, history, fiction, film and television) and upon closer inspection, most of the books are not targeted at female readers or concern women at all. There is, however, a rather good ‘biography’ section, featuring biographies of women both well-known and not. Between the Katie Price and Martine McCutcheon autobiographies, are some real gems, the biographies of Margaret Sanger, Dorothy Wordsworth, and women of science and letters of the 18th and 19th century.

Sad to say, the difficulty of selling the books contributed to Reading Lasses’s rather diminished title of ‘women bookshop’. In fact, all the good stuff are relegated to the shed behind the shop. In the shed lay some real treasures of women’s studies sold at £1 a piece (£2 for hardbacks). There were back copies of Feminist Review and other feminist academic journals from the 1980s and 1990s and many, many books on sex and sexuality, gender studies, and key texts of feminist theory sold at, I repeat for emphatic effect, £1 a copy.

The sheer amount of women’s and gender studies books printed between the 1970s to 1990s (concurrent with the institutionalisation of feminism into academia) was symbolic of the zeitgeist and demonstrates how not so far (mainstream) feminist discourse has come. As I browsed, I started to imagine how many of the books that were collecting dust in the shed could have been written today; the Caitlin Morans, the Hadley Freemans, the Laura Bates, who write rather pedestrian books that are unlikely to last the test of time.

Because we stayed at the bookshop, we were entitled to a 10% discount on book purchases and food (Gerrie is a real foodie, so the breakfast and lunchtime meals are very good). There is only one double bedroom (plus one single bed) for guests – tastefully decorated, a kitchen area with mini fridge, and a beautiful nautically-themed bathroom awash in blue, all priced at £65 a night. Like any wonderful bookshop owner will tell you these days (the venerable London Review bookshop included), they don’t do it for the money. If you dream of being locked in a women’s bookshop for the night (or two), Reading Lasses is the only place in the UK where you can.

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.