Feminist Reading Group 2 – Malaysian femininity and housework

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

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

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.

Reference:

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

What does a city for women look like?

How does a woman walk in a city in the daytime and at night? Does she walk head held up high? Does she think her hair is showing through her headscarf, her knee-length skirt too short? Will that be commented on by someone on the street?

Does she walk under what Shilpa Phadke calls the ‘tyranny of purpose’? Walking from point A to B because she has to look like she is doing something important, like getting into work or getting the food shopping done for the family? Female flaneurs, after all, are less tolerated than men, more suspicious, and often punished for utilising public spaces in the ‘wrong’ way.

If the city, as urban sociologist Robert Park suggests, is “man’s most consistent and the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire,” it therefore an fair argument to say that cities are not made for women. If anything, the city, from its many rebirths and reinventions, is an expression of power and domination that is familiarly masculine in its quotidian manifestation.

This short essay is about several dimensions of women’s right to the city, not least women’s right to mobility in the city. The right to mobility in the city is a major prerequisite to the right to the city, the right to belong anywhere in the city. Women’s mobility in urban spaces is often more complex than that of men. Often saddled with more domestic responsibilities, women are on the move to supermarkets and school runs while negotiating the use of the family automobile.

Looking at women more intersectionally, age, ethnicity, gender presentation, migrant status, socioeconomic class, and (dis)ability makes urban mobility a more complex if urgent issue. We all want to get to our destination eventually. If possible, in the fastest and most convenient way. But different kinds of women and (trans)men are more likely to prioritise safety and accessibility than the average privileged (cis)man.

If women are the more economically disadvantaged in society, they are more likely to do more walking and take public transport. When they shoulder more domestic responsibilities, they make more complex transport-related decisions and may actually spend more time (purposefully) on the go.

Inclusive cities are not merely safe for women. In fact, many cities are not inclusive because of both the deliberate and unintended emphasis on an often paternalistic and draconian notion of ‘safety.’ Safety measures have resulted in increased policing, surveillance, and even total exclusion of certain groups of people from participating in public life. Protective safety measures are also behind gender-segregation in public spaces and transportation. While welcomed by some, such measures address short-term safety, marginalise women, and grant perceived and would-be perpetrators freedom.

Aspects of inclusive cities for women have already been materialised in clean and better lighting in train stations, bus shelters, and underpasses. Well-maintained public toilets for women is another implicit indicator. Women’s safety audits are conducted have been conducted in India, Bangladesh, and Colombia. Privately owned car-free days that are complimented with affordable and physically accessible public transport have been implemented with varying success in Colombia and Indonesia. With all things considered, all will benefit, especially women, in shorter commuting times and distances between home and work, home and recreational pursuits.

Inclusive cities are more than about both radical and ‘common-sensical’ infrastructural adjustments. They transcend notions of gendered ‘safety’ and instead emphasise an engagement with and even the embrace of risk. Not to say that women of the city should put themselves willingly at risk, but rather a discourse on urban inclusivity should consider risk as something that can be managed on individual terms.

The right to undertake risk is part of a woman’s right to the city, an experience that involves encounters with strangers including those that make others feel uncomfortable. In inclusive cities, not only can women walk freely alone without fear but they are allowed to roam the city, be serendipitous and be lost without fear or repercussion.

In the city for women, a woman can sit alone in parks, linger, run, jog, without much diminished fear at any time of the day. Women too can be flaneurs and have the right to loiter. Rather than just prioritise safety and freedom from harassment, women can prioritise speed and convenience of mobility. Women’s mobility is not just about getting from point A to B, but also about social mobility. Greater physical mobility for women is conducive for social mobility and self-actualisation.

There is more to cities than to create them after one’s heart’s desire. For Robert Park, “if the city is the world which man [sic] created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without clear sense of the nature of his task,in making the city man has remade himself.” To this view, Marxist academic David Harvey argues that the city may be the concrete expression of its makers’ values, hopes, and fears. This creates opportunities for the reinvention of cities to better reflect its inhabitants and the reclaim the right to public spaces for the pursuit of happiness.

 

Reference:

Robert Park (1967) On Social Control and Collective Behaviour.

Shilpa Phadke (2010) Gendered usage of public spaces: a case study of Mumbai, Delhi: Background Report for ‘Addressing Gender-based Violence in Public Spaces’ Project, Centre for Equality and Inclusion, India.

Carolyn Whitzman (2012) Women’s safety and everyday mobility in Building Inclusive Cities:

A Malaysian scholar remembers Stuart Hall

First published in my Malay Mail column on 27th February 2014:

A great intellectual died on February 10, 2014. His name was Stuart Hall, dubbed the “godfather of multiculturalism.”

As the tributes by academics made up of peers and admirers alike came flooding in, I thought about the impact of Hall’s work concerning identity and culture on Malaysians.

I believe that some of us, as postcolonial subjects like he was, too can claim to be moved by his ideas and share his vision. But it is his contribution to Cultural Studies as a discipline that has most influenced me as a scholar.

Earlier this year, I bought a ticket to attend a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham in June with the hope to meet him.

I did not know that it would become a memorial for Stuart Hall. Hall, who was an erstwhile director of the Centre, championed the much celebrated (and mocked) “Cultural Studies.”

The political influence and notoriety of the CCCS meant that those of us who wanted to study film, television, magazines, and “trashier” aspects of popular culture often sought sanctuary behind the Centre’s authority. A similar kind of debate about intellectual legitimacy is reignited in academia today in its defence of the Humanities.

What makes Stuart Hall so special and unique? It would not be an understatement to suggest that a great intellectual is chiefly a product of circumstances. A Rhodes scholar at Merton College in Oxford University when the empire was crumbling, Hall knew, as a Jamaican, he did not fit comfortably in the staid and exclusionary protocols of Oxford. His work on identities and culture were as much a searing ideological critique of racism as an attempt at making sense of his status as an outsider trying to fit in.

The 1960s was an exciting time for critical theory and its influence on popular culture. Picking up from where the Frankfurt School had left off, the study of mass media was gaining respectability through its associations with semiotic-based structuralism and psychoanalysis.

At the same time, it was a period of total disillusionment with Soviet communism. The British New Left, to which Hall belonged as a key figure, needed a new focus and vision.

The counter-cultural 1960s was a wellspring of possibilities, both political and cultural, and it was obvious that Hall and his cohorts wasted no time. Rather than remain in critical theory, which was (and is) pessimistic in outlook on why revolutions have failed, Cultural Studies in its departure was committed to social change, offering a more positive programme and tools for successful rebellion.

As a scholar whose research keeps Hall’s memory alive, I find his prose electric. Electric in that its forthright style is a stunning example of both intellectual non-conformism and resistance.

And it is defiance of the established intellectual order that would be his greatest gift of inspiration to generations of scholars dedicated to Cultural Studies.

Resistance to hegemonic ideologies about the myth of the nation and national culture was something Hall wanted people to wake up to and participate in. However, it was the very resistance and postmodernism, particularly the latter’s characteristic demolition of hierarchies between high and low culture that Cultural Studies relied on, that contributed to the depoliticisation of Cultural Studies, much to Hall’s dismay.

Today, anyone can select willy-nilly a particular media text, examine it long enough to unlock their own hidden meanings of resistance and say they are doing Cultural Studies. The meaning of resistance can be decoded into anything and in danger of meaning nothing at all.

While this might have upset Hall to some degree, this is the legacy of openness and unpredictability of Cultural Studies as a discipline that we should welcome during these troubled times in academia.

In supermodernity, is the subaltern a cyborg?

First published in The State on 20th January 2014.

When I lived in South Jakarta, my initial access to the internet was in the nearby warnet, a portmanteau word composed of ‘warung’ (cafe or stall) and internet. The warnet was tiny and had no chairs. Planks of wood were used as benches for a dozen or so computer monitors and their respective processing units. In my daily visits, the warnet would be at its busiest before dusk, when all of its users were working-class boys playing online video games like self-entertaining monads. The oldest of the boys, no older than 18, runs the warnet by collecting hourly fees and stops customers from wearing their shoes inside the establishment.

I often wonder about the lifeworlds of those at the margins of society who are hyperconnected, plugged into Warcraft, Facebook, Twitter, and a seemingly limitless plethora of information online. They, like us who pontificate about the effects of ‘always-on’ culture and the merits of tech detoxing, are similarly bombarded by a world of media excess. We live in an era fast advancing beyond symbolic excess, which was the postmodern. This era, according to Marc Augé, is the supermodern.

In the supermodern, non-places trespass urban spaces with alarming rapidity. Non-places are spaces that have no history, a transitional geographical medium. They are the motorways, the concrete arteries through which swaths of urban humanity spend an inordinate amount of time. Supermarkets and airports are also non-places that house “realities of transit,” where people move in and out at interchanges (where nobody crosses each other’s path) rather than crossroads (where people meet). In non-places, people are passengers rather than travellers, customers rather than consumers.

Augé also recognises that spaces which subalterns occupy—refugee camps and urban slum dwellings—are also non-places. Refugee camps and urban slums are spaces that are denied the markings of history, and belonging to traditional notions of place. Individuals who occupy refugee camps are in transit; they want to be elsewhere. Some slum dwellers choose to stay, but they are forced into transit by developers and the city council. They are often subject to perpetual threats of evictions, condemned to be on the move.

In the current geoeconomic logic of supermodernity, a section of the subalterns—the urban poor and migrant workers eking out a living on a transitional basis—are cyborgs too. The cyborg is a product of the current era: hybrids, a cybernetic organism, a relationship between human and machine. Cyborgs are not a Robocop-like amalgam of human and machine, but rather the lived expression of how machines have become indispensable to the way many humans now live. Humans rely on technology to do things that were once humanly impossible; to move faster, to communicate at lightning speed at greater distances and to more people than ever before.

Media communication technologies have become the protheses that humans both need and want. Such a reliance on media technologies has huge implications on the way media users perceive reality; an example of the imbrication of the ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is found in the constructed perception of time. In a media-saturated society, individuals get bored more quickly. With more things to consume in so little time, our attention span is shortened and we become more impatient. Our sense of time and history appear to be sped up. Time itself appears to be constructed by our relation to the acceleration of consumption and excess of media stimulation.

Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory suggests that Foucault’s biopolitics are no longer extant. Power is no longer only exercised directly on bodies, on ‘naked’ life. In lieu of biopolitics, power in the present age is techno-scientific and exercised via technology, making bodies the subject of technopolitics. For Haraway, the cyborg has the potentiality to be an emancipatory subject. But the avenues for the cyborg’s emancipation lie in the subversive manipulation of technology’s original function and the breathing of new political meaning into it.

With or without emancipation, subaltern cyborgs benefit from the fast turnover of media technology. This means cheaper phones, second-hand and brand new older models. But few choose to be cyborg, emancipated or not. The development and manufacturing of everyday technology is linked with weapons and exploitative labour practices respectively. Media communication technologies do not develop out of a vacuum free from the macro structures of global commerce. Often, power relations of fleshspace creep into the online ether, replicating there.

With access to possible emancipatory channels of social media, can the very poor still be subaltern? There have been speculations about whether or not the subaltern can tweet, raising questions about “online self-determination” whereby technical and financial ability can be harnessed to “represent and edit oneself and one’s culture(s) online, and to decide how they will achieve online relevance/visibility/ranking without being overshadowed by more dominant national languages and/or economies.”

In the supermodern city of Jakarta, self-entertaining monads are plugged into videogames that mimic military strategies and fighting. As posthumans, they rely on media technology to fill an attenuated sense of time. Indonesians make up a significant number of the world’s Twitter users. But they are more than just consumer cyborgs. Many Indonesians are also workers in electronic manufacturing factories where they produce protheses central to cyborg subjectivity.

What is the fate of the consuming-manufacturing subaltern cyborg in the supermodern? Will post-human narratives forget her? The case of the warnet boys offers a glimpse of posthumanism in the developing world where technology surpasses the material conditions of the present.

My 5 cultural highlights of 2013

First published in The State on 2nd January 2014

1. Exhibition of the year. Traces: Ana Mendieta Retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, 24th September – 15 December 2013.

When Cuban artist Ana Mendieta fell to her death from her New York City apartment in 1985, it might seem as if it had eclipsed her career. Her artist husband was rumoured to have pushed her out their apartment window during a violent argument. Comparisons between Mendieta’s dramatic death and her oftentimes morbid art were perhaps inevitable. But there was more to Mendieta than a tragic female artist as Traces, a comprehensive introduction to her career, showed. Mendieta was a self-identifying feminist artist who brought the movement’s perennial issues —violence against women and identity—to the centre of her work. At this retrospective of Mendieta’s brief but prolific career, one gets a sense of a woman who was on a primordial quest of finding herself in earth, stone, fire, and blood.

Germaine Greer once commented, disparagingly, about how female artists tended to nearly always use their (often naked) bodies in their artwork. Mendieta was not so different in that respect. Known as ‘earth-body’ art, Mendieta’s nude body merges with the natural world; in mud, into a tree, on grass. In a series of photographs, the outline of her body is eerily imprinted on the ground like an empty ancient burial site, set ablaze with the heart alight last. In another morbid photograph, a white sheet indiscreetly covers a blood-soaked body resembling a post-sacrificial scene. Mendieta has the posthumous power to spur women to take control of their own lives, but more significantly, how their lives will be remembered long after death if they can help it.

2. Film of the year 1: Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)

Most couples would be able to identify with the post-honeymoon romance of Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight; the last of Linklater’s romantic trilogy starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Before Midnight has a more melancholic perspective on long-term relationships in contrast to the more hopeful and hopelessly romantic Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. It is almost a cautionary tale of two beautiful much-in-love people who seem to be in a blissful ever after. The film is a triumph of sorts. Like its predecessors Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the film consists of conversations only. Little happens, and yet it tells us nearly everything about the mythical eternal fire of love threatened by an affair, diminishing youth, career let-downs, and parental guilt. Before Midnight and films like it (all talk, where nothing really happens) is a rare achievement in filmmaking for a medium so conducive to the spectacular.

3. Film of the year 2: Hannah Arendt (2012, Margarethe von Trotta)

Prior to Hannah Arendt, there have been few films about the life and work of a female philosopher, let alone a film featuring a woman thinking deeply about an epoch-defining moral problem. Von Trotta’s film reveals only but a glimpse of Arendt’s complex persona and work on morality, when she is faced with the task of writing an essay on Adolf Eichmann’s kidnapping and trial in Jerusalem. Published in the New Yorker in 1953, Eichmann in Jerusalem is a thought piece into the imperceptible abyss of a Nazi officer’s feelings and actions that led millions of Jews to their deaths. With Eichmann obscured far into the background, Arendt and key protagonists—who would influence and reject her writing—play out a more interesting narrative in the foreground. We get to see Arendt, the thinker, encircled by the filmmaker’s over-use of cigarette smoke, the erstwhile youthful lover of Heidegger, and the intellectual provocateur. For a film about the Holocaust and the afterlife of the Second World War, it is highly unlikely to appeal to macho military history aficionados and all the better for it.

4. Read of the year: articles on gender and hyper-employment

There has been much talk about what our over-reliance on media technologies is doing to our everyday existence. For Ian Bogost in his article on The Atlantic, many of us are hyper-worked; being employed in one job while doing a number of other job-related things, (no) thanks to mobile technologies that allow us to do work anywhere, anytime without necessarily getting paid. A number of articles, more notably by Karen Gregory, Robin James, and Gordon Hull, have highlighted the feminised nature of hyperwork. They point to Marxist feminist analysis of preexisting under-valued feminised hyperwork in the hearth: the never-ending work of cleaning, cooking, caring, and secretarial duties in service of higher status and better paid men. Women, they argue, have been the hyperemployed before the the advent of advanced mobile technologies.

Media saturated societies have been blessed (or cursed) with the much feminised skill (or burden) of multi-tasking. Mobile technologies make it easier for us to check emails, listen to music, glance spreadsheets, and play games on the go. Sometimes all at the same time for the restless 21st century media user. The convenience that we gifted by perpetually improving media technologies may one day mean that the line between work and leisure is blurred most of the time. Steven Poole’s essay on the pitfalls of productivity coheres well with the discourse of hyperemployment. Technology-assisted hyperemployment is likely to change how we view paid/unpaid work and gender relations in profound ways in the very near future.

5. Documentary film of the year: The Act of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer)

Much ink and talk have been spent on The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s disturbing documentary on Indonesian anti-Communist death squads who recall their blood-soaked heydays in 1965. It may be hotly tipped for a variety of awards and recipient of many accolades, but The Act of Killing is a towering achievement in the art of documentary film-making—a source of much debate on ethics and morality in its own right. Oppenheimer encountered his film subjects, a ragtag team of boastful mass murderers, quite by chance. Their openness to discuss their bloody exploits, or heroics in their view, on film take them on a journey of confronting their amorality and twisted heroic delusions. Often mixed with bizarre and fantastical proportions filled with personalised cinematic references. These references where the retired villains adopt with zeal, is where Oppenheimer’s documentary takes a remarkable turn of events. Will the re-enaction of their crimes under Oppenheimer’s occasionally manipulative gaze jolt the men into humanity and repentance? But why should they? Regardless of these difficult moral speculations, Oppenheimer’s ethnographic ethics of engaging with his subjects, in fluent Indonesian, and collaborating with them in the making of the film is enough to get the research geek (like yours truly) salivate in delight.

Towards a Viridian feminist future

This piece is part of the 5 year Viridian retrospective organised by Tim Maly, published in The State on 13 December 2013:

Viridian Design was an avant-garde bright green design movement engineered by Bruce Sterling and intended to address climate change. It ran from 1998-2008. Five years later, we reflect.

The vision of a Viridian home conjures up an image of the sophisticated man of the woods, living on bare essentials and in a state-of-the-art cabin that oozes Scandinavian elegance. He would rear chickens and goats, and grow hydroponic vegetables, if Bruce Sterling would go that far. He lives the life minimally, sustainably, and beautifully.In his last Viridian note, Sterling advocates ownership of the multi-tool in order to turn an ordinary individual into a more capable, observant, and empowered one. He probably advocates this to both women and men. Probably. If this is the case, Sterling’s exhortation is somewhat visionary: the woman who is adept with the multi-tool empowers herself. Contrary to expectations a feminised embrace of DIY does exist; it is a subculture and it is not pink. Here, the multi-tool becomes a proverbial fishing rod, a means to protean ends rather than a gratifying consumable.

Besides the multi-tool, however, is the Viridian lifestyle really proposed with women and/or feminists in mind?

Sterling reminds us that our unhealthy relationship with goods unnecessarily expends precious time, money, and energy:

The hours you waste stumbling over your piled debris, picking, washing, storing, re-storing, those are hours and spaces that you will never get back in a mortal lifetime. Basically, you have to curate these goods: heat them, cool them, protect them from humidity and vermin. Every moment you devote to them is lost to your children, your friends, your society, yourself.

Sterling’s critique of materialism has much to offer the current wave of Western (White) middle-class feminism which has come of age thanks to a happy embrace of consumption and neoliberalism. Think Full Frontal Feminism and The Book of Jezebel. Today’s ‘empowered’ woman is heir to the past few decades’ commercialisation of empowerment: a woman who has it all and can buy it all.

Products marketed towards women, however, often erase the link between their (often female) producers, the conditions under which those products were created, and the process by which those products reach said female consumer. At the same time, the product becomes oversaturated with seductive meaning, and one label in particular: ‘empowerment.’ Marx has called this the ‘religious fog’ that obscures the real use value and (environmental) cost of products. It is only by demystifying this commodity fetishist fog that feminists can have a meaningful connection with products that we ostensibly cannot live without.

As an example, alternative menstrual products such as reusable, non-toxic cloth pads and diva cups raise a number of important questions relating to disposability, sustainability, and the environmental impact of gendered consumer products. The use of radical menstrual products replaces the blue liquid narratives of ‘happy’ and ‘bouncy’ but invisible periods, with a taboo-defying open embrace of menstrual realities and new definitions of ‘hygiene.’ Radical menstrual products allow us to reconnect with our bodies and reconceptualise how we understand feminine excreta

This strain of feminism and Sterling’s critique share similar caveats: yes, you are entitled to have stuff, but not too much. Find out where it comes from, who makes it, and if possible, make it yourself. Instead, Sterling advocates the ownership of only a few, but beautiful personal possessions:

Beautiful things are important. If they’re truly beautiful, they should be so beautiful that you are showing them to people. They should be on display: you should be sharing their beauty with others. Your pride in these things should enhance your life, your sense of taste and perhaps your social standing.

Feminists have a complicated relationship with beauty, which is highly valued above all else. The materialism of contemporary (femme) femininity dictates that she must surround herself with beautiful things; beautiful shoes, dresses, kitchen, home. The notion of beauty the Viridian woman should then seek is of a different kind, not facsimiled from lifestyle magazines but a critical aesthetic performance of the self.

To understand the feminist aesthetics of the self, it is first instructive to follow Butler and Foucault’s understanding of gender as both performative and an aesthetic discipline of the self. If gender is an aesthetic performance rather than biological fact, it can be transgressed and altered. If we knew how gender is ‘made,’ ie via various disciplines of femininity, then it can be remade by defying the disciplinary modes of femininity that plague our lives. This is how the reworking of aesthetic values can be emancipatory.

Informed by Viridian aesthetics, sustainability becomes central to a Viridian-feminist politics of living. But there is a danger that gendered sustainability reframes women’s freedom from domestic responsibility in favour of a blissful return to the traditionally feminine arts like knitting, sewing, pickling, and canning food. These are certainly life-enriching and sustaining skills, but they are not gender neutral. Men can be forgiven (and applauded) for taking up ‘feminine’ skills like baking and quilting. But women are rarely encouraged to handle the entropy of objects, fixing and building things. This needs to change.

The link between gender, race, and class-based inequality and environmental (in)justice has been an important, if slightly marginal, concern for feminists. Yet I feel that it is no longer fashionable to engage with these intersectional relationships. Ecofeminism today is essentialist and White-centric, while feminist vegetarianism has little to say about food miles and exploitation in healthful produce. Feminist environmental justice, meanwhile, must move away from defining femininity as intrinsically nurturing and towards ‘real’ socio-environmental conditions that affect the livelihood, health, and life opportunities of those whose lives exist at the intersections of multiple oppressions.

A sustainable feminist future that coheres with Viridian principles is fundamentally anti-consumerism and aware of the unequal local-global trade of goods. Sustainable feminism requires equality in the home and the sharing of quotidian chores. A Viridian woman rejects the manufactured innocence of retail therapy and clings to only a few, useful, (if possible) self-made things whose source and provenance are identifiable to a reasonable extent. The Viridian woman may wish to pursue useful life-skills such as plumbing, butchery, and car-tuning with geek-like enthusiasm if she wishes. It all sounds like a lot, but at the fundamental level, sustainable feminism is not about having and owning it all.

Women’s exodus from the work force: Not a simply matter of brain drain

An article I wrote with Clarissa Lee, Dahlia Martin and Fiona Lee, published on The Malaysian Insider, The B-Side, and Loyar Burok.

A recent BFM podcast episode, “The New Brain Drain,” discussed the relatively low rate of women’s participation in the Malaysian workforce, focusing specifically on the challenges faced by mothers working outside the home. The government is showing an interest in women’s contribution to the national economy: Prime Minister Najib Razak recently commented that women’s participation in the workforce should be improved to aid growth.

However, the discussion in the episode is underscored by several problematic assumptions and generalisations about gender roles in parenting, as well as other work equity issues, that need to be corrected. Foundational inequities must be addressed with the aim of empowering women and challenging societal views of gender norms; otherwise, discussions on revamping the workforce and on measuring productivity and contributions by women would only lead to cosmetic changes.

The podcast began by highlighting the low level of women in the workforce – 46 per cent compared to 70 per cent in Thailand and 60 per cent in Singapore– before noting that one challenge for several women in the workforce was that they also had to juggle roles as mothers or carers. It also noted the decreasing number of women in higher job positions, and discussed some methods to increase the number of women in the professional workforce. Co-sponsored by the Economic Transformation Program, the podcast highlighted flexible working arrangements as a solution, as advocated by TalentCorp Malaysia under its Talent Wanita programme.

Johan Merican, TalentCorp’s CEO, provocatively described the exodus of women from the white-collar workforce to stay at home to care for the family in terms of a “brain drain.” Conventionally, “brain drain” is used to describe the phenomenon of highly trained workers leaving their home countries (often in so-called developing economies) to seek employment opportunities elsewhere (“developed” countries) that provide not just higher earnings, but greater potential for professional growth. The growing numbers of Malaysians leaving the country or remaining abroad to work upon finishing their studies is widely viewed as an obstacle to the nation’s goal of achieving a “high-status income” economy, an issue TalentCorp was founded precisely to address. As such, Merican’s framing of the low retention rates of women in the white-collar workforce suggests that TalentCorp is taking the issue of women’s participation in the professional workforce seriously.

At first glance, it appears that TalentCorp, as indicated by its efforts to increase women retention rates in the workforce, has a progressive stance on gender equality. However, a closer look at its initiatives, primarily on creating flexible work arrangements targeted at women, suggests otherwise. While such arrangements may benefit TalentCorp and other companies that implement them, they do not necessarily benefit women in the same way because the double burden of working and caring for the family remains on women. In other words, while it seem as if the reason for creating flexibility is to ensure that women might have time for work and family, the underlying implication is that women are still expected to fulfil double responsibilities, now both possibly from the home, while no mention is made of the role of men in the household.  Similarly, while the government’s introduction of a 90-day maternity leave policy is welcome, it nonetheless excludes fathers’ or partners’ parenting role. Why not paternity/partner leave, too?

Entrenched ideas about parenting and gender roles have direct and real implications on who, in a heterosexual partnered family unit, will take long periods of time-out from full-time work; the responsibility, unfairly, almost always falls on women. The podcast unquestioningly adopts this view, focusing on mothering rather than parenting, omitting the often overlooked role of fathers.  Interviews with women mentioned the difficulty of time management in balancing work and home responsibilities, as well as the lack of good childcare support options, as reasons for “opting out.” However, there was little discussion on how societal views of gender norms and work equity issues affected their decisions to stay at home. Did the women have a higher salary than their husbands, or is it the reverse? What does the “support” of the husband consist of: working harder and / or just giving his blessing? Does he help out with the household chores?

Moreover, the idea that women leaving the workforce to raise families is equivalent to a “brain drain” and not good for national “economic growth” is problematic because it assumes that the unpaid work of domestic management and childcare  has no economic value; it also does not mean that mothers are not properly utilizing their skills. In 2005, UNICEF estimated about 75 per cent of women, as opposed to 24 per cent of men, are involved in “care” work that are unpaid; if we were to measure that monetarily, that would be equivalent to a loss of RM76 billion, or 12 per cent of Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP). This persistence of views that allow for unpaid work to not have economic value borrow on an understanding of motherhood as being exclusive with womanhood and families. This in turn perpetuates long-held beliefs about gender roles, and also contributes to attempts to depict ideal womanhood. There must be more emphasis on shared parenting duties to help improve workforce participation rates and career opportunities for women.

Indeed, while flexible work arrangements benefit the companies, the question remains: will they equally benefit working mothers? What are the effects of flexible work arrangements on women’s careers in the long term? For example, are flexible workers viewed in the same way as their full-time colleagues or would they be considered merely as part-timers? Is there job security in flexible work arrangements? Moreover, although presented as a convenience, flexible work arrangements also require setting up home offices. Who is responsible for these overhead expenses? And, since work and home spaces are no longer separate in such arrangements, how do flexible workers draw boundaries on how much time is spent at work? Telecommunication technologies such as email and mobile phones have had the notorious effect of prolonging the work day, seeing as the worker is expected to be on call or reachable at all times even when outside the office. Given that flexible work is highly reliant on such technologies, do such arrangements necessarily deliver the work-life balance they promise?

The podcast also pointed out that women mainly occupy entry-level positions as opposed to middle-management and board positions. This issue cannot be seen as separate from women’s labour participation; for instance, although the podcast noted that Singapore has a higher female workforce participation rate, it didn’t mention that the rates of women in the boardroom there are similar to here. Discussing participation rates alone is problematic; there should also be a discussion of what jobs women have (this podcast did touch on that) to properly give it context. The underlying issue, then, is not that there are not enough capable women, but that the way companies are structured often prevent women from climbing up the career ladder. Within this context, quotas become an urgent form of action: they have been implemented in many companies and for many government boards too, and work well in that they acknowledge structural inequalities and help lay the ground for definitive mechanisms to tackle them.

Finally, the episode appeared to concentrate on a specific working class of women characterized as using their “brains” in very specific job functions (as high-earning “cognitariats”). The women interviewed, for instance, appear to be partnered. Women without partners or in lower-paid work have children too and probably cannot afford childcare. How do they do it?  If the professional working woman is forced to choose between staying at home or working, the working class woman, or even a single mother, usually does not get to choose. If the latter does not work, her children cannot eat. Also excluded from the picture are cases of foreign (mostly female) domestic workers having to leave children to work abroad–nobody calls that a “brain drain,” pointing to how bourgeois the term is–often to support other families and households.

Although we applaud the attention to a consistent and unabating problem, the conversation on addressing women’s challenges in the workplace should not only concern a professional class of women workers. The reasoning behind the policies implemented need to account for the gendered and class politics involved in the workforce. Furthermore, it is in the best interests of Malaysian women that policies, whether implemented by the government or private sector, take into consideration the demographics, labor, and cultural conditions of all women. The need for greater equity for all regardless of gender in Malaysia should not play second fiddle to an uncritical drive towards a “high-income” society without careful consideration of the consequences.

Field work food: Sundanese cuisine in Jakarta

During my field research in Jakarta last year, I became a fan of bakso urat (large meatballs made with bits of offal packed with collagen goodness), buntut sapi belado (oxtail cooked with chillies), road side nasi uduk (fragrant rice and uncooked herbs typically served with fried catfish or chicken), Sate Khas Senayan restaurant (best chicken meat and chicken skin satay in Jakarta), rasi rawon (black tendon and brisket broth served with steamed rice and bitter belinjau crisps) and drinking teh poci (Javanese style rock sugar-sweetened tea served in clay teapots). Yes, I eat very well and sometimes rather extravagantly in Jakarta.

I would eat and buy food from road side mobile stalls called gerobok (or kitchen cupboards) and eat in some of the swankier Javanese restaurants. When I felt like spending some cash, I sometimes go to Pondok Sunda at the Senayan City shopping complex in Senayan. A nice meal followed by dessert at Pondok Sunda can set you back over a million rupiah (~RM60/£10) which is expensive for one person. It’s probably one of the most expensive meals for one I’ve ever had in Jakarta or in Kuala Lumpur.

Sundanese food at Pondok Sunda, Senayan in Jakarta.

Now, if one is used to eating a Malay or Padang style meal, the above doesn’t look particularly remarkable. Javanese food available in up-market Jakarta restaurants tend to be served as single dishes, like nasi rawon for example. But if one has a hankering for a sumptuous Malay buffet-style choose-your-toppings to go with your plain steamed rice, Pondok Sunda can fulfill the urges of a very Malay stomach. For those who are happy with the less sumptuous, there is the humble warteg (warong tegar) or small eating shops scattered around the less glamorous corners of the city.

What is in the image above? These are my favourite ‘toppings’ or lauk to be eaten with my rice: from top, clockwise: some steamed long beans and raw herbs, sambal toraja (a kind of sambal or chilli paste), nasi timbel (rice steamed packed in a banana leaf scroll), caramelised grilled prawns, a piece of ox tongue (left) and a block of fried tempe (right). The rice may be too much, it is just blissful nonetheless.