The Women’s March in Jakarta

I was in Jakarta for a quick three-day trip to attend the Women’s March last Saturday morning. The Women’s March was a moving carnival of hundreds of people; mostly young Indonesian women, a few genderqueer individuals, men, and some white people.

Is the Women’s March ‘Indonesian’ in spite of its name?

I’d say the Women’s March in Indonesia – an obvious embrace of the global movement that began as a US response to the election of Donald Trump – has a very Indonesian flavour. We marched from Sarinah to the president’s palace where protesters were dwarfed by the towering National Monument (Monas). The utilisation and subversion of local and nationalist symbols are evident throughout the rally. A young woman carried a poster that said, ‘Sri Kandi is LGBT’, a reference to the mythological female warrior Sri Kandi who is reimagined as a queer protest figure. The famed women’s rights activist Siti Musdah Mulia who spoke of a ‘reformist’ Islam and a country that is governed by no religion in particular recited, along with the crowd, the Pancasila. The Pancasila, or the state philosophy, was thus reclaimed by feminists and queers to hold the state to account.
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For years, I have had an affinity for feminism and the women’s movement in Indonesia, learning from them and understanding how they might compare with feminism in Malaysia and Singapore – something I have been observing for about five years now. In many ways, feminism in Indonesia departs significantly from its counterparts in Malaysia and Singapore in its distinct global-locality, an ability to remix local feminist discourses with transnational ones – Rosie the Riveter reimagined as the Acehnese anti-colonial warrior Tjoet Nya Dhien is a fine example. And so is the poster of Raden Ajeng Kartini if she was portrayed by Cath Kidston.

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By contrast, there are fewer local and nationalistic symbols appropriated and subverted by Malaysian and Singaporean feminists. A more sedate and circumscribed approach identified by Lynette Chua as ‘pragmatic resistance’ is used to engage with the state in Singapore and Malaysia. Pragmatic resistance presents a bureaucratic-legal challenge against the the state that occurs mostly behind the court doors, with non-women’s/gay rights lawyers as mediating agents. At other times, feminism is a side show for ‘gender neutral’ political dissent. However necessary pragmatic resistance is, it is always to me like figuring out new dance moves within the confines of a telephone booth.

And so a ‘Women’s March’ is to take place in KL this coming Saturday and no doubt many young Malaysian women who have encountered the brilliant photos taken in Jakarta are excited to participate in their own march. However, I wonder how organised the Malaysian ‘women’s march’ is, what its demands are, and how it can make the march meaningful to many young Malaysian women and men beyond the dogma of old-school socialism.

My first book: Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema

I feel pleased and humbled to announce the publication of my first book, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (2017 Palgrave Macmillan. Chapters can purchased separately here) based on my field research between 2011 and 2012 in Jakarta and Yogyakarta where I was privileged to interview film directors, film producers, festival organisers, film critics and enthusiasts in the Indonesian film industry. I have made many wonderful friends in the process who became colleagues in a rather niche and important field of Southeast Asian cinemas and cultural production. It was written up as my PhD thesis supervised by Dr. Ben Murtagh and examined by Dr. Felicia Hughes-Freeland and Dr. Yvonne Michalik.

Post-liberal jihad: Muslim feminism during a time of cruelty and despair

I’ve written a commissioned article for The G-Blog on the present challenges of Muslim feminism in Malaysia and globally, linking it to wider structures of war, (post)-neoliberal economics, and the rise of alt-right political narratives.

Excerpt:

Situating Muslim feminism in the bigger picture

Let’s face it, times are bad. Full-time and secure paid work are drying up, and real wages are not catching up with the rising prices of basic essentials. More adults in their 20s and 30s continue to live with their parents because it is too expensive to live on their own. Millennials have inherited a post-2008 global recession that never really recovered and an overpowering culture of debt. And now we welcome 2017 on a low note. We watch a car crash in slow motion as global superpowers and their leaders prove themselves to be devastatingly anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and anti-peace. It will take a long time to offset the damage of their politics.

So what is the role of Muslim feminism during this period of cruelty and despair? Feminist-identified Muslim women of all ages are faced with challenges that crisscross faith and the secular arenas of their lives. It is time to connect the dots between different types of gender-based oppressions with those of male-dominated interpretations of religion. But being female and Muslim is not isolated from the economic and political reality either. In fact, the poor economic situation and political corruption have an impact on feminist and faith-based belief. The spiritual meaning of patience (sabar as being a component of one’s iman) and moral right or haqq are not used and reclaimed in the public discourse to alleviate the daily humiliations of Muslim women and non-normative people. Instead, sabar is distorted to justify domestic and national suffering. What is morally right becomes manipulated to condone the discrimination of women and people of non-normative genders and sexualities from attaining their full potential in the public sphere.

What does it mean to be young, Muslim and feminist today? For many young women, it means a whole new life; a commitment that transforms their way of thinking about the world, a new set of friends, and re-orientation of priorities manifested in their ambitions and daily practices. This commitment is synonymous with what is understood as ‘feminist consciousness’, a process of seeing the world from a gendered perspective and about being re-born as a feminist. However, the backlash that awaits them for articulating their feminist commitment is often hostile and violent. Rather than an apparatus and ideological framework for social justice, the iconoclastic demands of feminism are frequently judged as un-Islamic and inimical to local culture. Muslim feminism is not the default feminism for people who identify as feminist women and Muslim. When I conducted a focus group last September on what it means to be a Muslim feminist today, the responses I got were eye-opening: Muslim feminists are not entirely enamoured by the limits of ‘Muslim feminism’. Perhaps there is an assumption that being a Muslim feminist means looking at every feminist issue from a religiously-informed lens when not everything that is important to being a person is religious or Islamic.

Read the rest here and the Malay version translated by Sarahaida Khairuddin.

Young, Muslim, and feminist – a focus group discussion

The state intervention and public humiliation of a woman in Nice over the burkini has sparked an outrage Source: express.co.uk

Are you between ages 18 to 29 and identify as a woman, Muslim, and feminist? Do you have thoughts about the burkini ban and the treatment of Muslim women who wear the hijab in France and Europe more generally?

I am coordinating a focus group of 10 participants to discuss what it means to be a Muslim feminist today and how as Malaysians, we engage with global discourses on feminism, religion, secularism, ethnicity, and gender. The focus group will be conducted as an open space conversation, audio-recorded and participants can request anonymity.

If you are interested in participating in the focus group, do contact me at alicia@um.edu.my or drop me a Whatsapp message at 012-63121-54. You can also drop me a message in the comments section of this post.

The date (in September), time (after 8 pm), and place (most likely in the PJ area) for the focus group will be finalised and announced once at least five participants have confirmed to attend.

Women, feminism, time and temporal emancipations

The ultimate aim of feminism is to end sexism and establish gender equality by dismantling patriarchy. While this has not yet happened for the majority of the world, this will be a ‘feminist future’. Thus, feminism is a project that is temporal in quality; it is about the now (not ideal) and tomorrow (ideal).

Feminist theorists also argue that femininity and masculinity are gender constructs – they are not fixed, but can change and, over time, transform. Thus, gender identities are always a process and dynamic. Gender is about becoming (towards the future) rather than being (fixed in the present). This means that from a feminist perspective, gender as a dynamic construct means that as women/men, all gender identities are the active sex and never inert.

Women have a close relationship with time. Women’s reproductive capacities are time-based (ovulation, menstruation). But with reproductive technology, women have the power to control time (regulate ovulation and menstruation. Restore, delay, and reactivate fertility).

Because women do more domestic and housework, we have significantly less leisure time than men. Domestic technology is designed to reduce the amount of time on domestic responsibility.

Women’s relationship with their own femininity is also time-based. And as a relationship with time, it is for many women a vexed one. Beauty is commonly associated with youth, a prized quality that is defined by a short period of time for women. But with cosmetic technology, women may be able to ‘stretch’ the time on their faces.

Even when assisted by financial resources to limit the creeping of time on our mortal flesh, to reduce household chores to a single button, and to reset and boost our reproductive capabilities, time will always be in diminishing supply. It could be argued that unless women make peace with time, we will always be in a futile race with it.

Ambivalent Malay-Muslim Women: Why They Reject the Hijab

I’ve been asked to write a blog post for The G-Blog on women who do not wear the hijab as a ‘counter’ opinion to other pieces on women who wear it. During the editorial process of the blog post, I was reminded again how sensitive the topic of the hijab is and that ‘strong’ views against the dominant current of opinions such as mine will face opposition. At the same time, I am reminded how the priorities of my views on Muslim women and veiling have shifted of the years; from defending women’s decision to wear all iterations of the hijab to being critical of social pressures on women to wear it. At face value, this isn’t much of a shift. In fact, they are usually part of the same argument. However, I have made it a point to emphasise in my own work the real pressures women face to wear the hijab, the lifeworlds of women who do not want to wear it but have to, and women who face abuse because they do not wear it. I feel that the foregoing side of the ‘same’ argument is given less air time in the contemporary discourse on the hijab. Perhaps because of this neglect, my criticism of social pressures is often seen as a critique of the hijab tout court. With all that taken into consideration, the following article I’ve written for The G-Blog is my modest attempt to reconfigure the terms of the contemporary discourse on the hijab:

I have always been interested in how the social influences the individual. My research project on the hijab helps me understand the relationship between society and the self. Of course, articles about Muslim women’s choice to wear the hijab have been written and dissected ad nauseam – and here I am writing about it again – so, what makes this piece different from the many others? Perhaps by proposing that both wearing the hijab and the rejection of the hijab cannot be reduced to choice.

In fact, I am forgoing the notion of ‘choice’ by illuminating the narrowing dimensions of Malay-Muslim women’s lives under the aggressive processes of Islamisation and how such limitations inform their decisions to wear or reject the hijab. These narrowing dimensions are experienced in the moral micro-management of Malay-Muslim women’s social landscape. My research assistant Zena and myself have been very privileged to listen and record the oral histories of women who have an ambivalent relationship with the hijab and capture elements of their social landscape.

Read the rest here.

The emotional labour of dealing with sexual harassment

Since 1st June, I had been implicated as a complainant in a sexual harassment allegation in the local progressive activist scene, details of which I will provide soon here. But in the subsequent days after making allegations on social media about a serial harasser of women, my corroborator of the allegations who had gone semi-public with a statement on Facebook has experienced intimidation, bullying and blackmail from the harasser. For women who’ve become aware of these allegations and likely to have experienced sexual harassment themselves, some will still feel afraid to come forward and continue to shoulder what I call the emotional labour of keeping silent due to fear and shame.

This post was published in The G-blog on 16th May 2016 prior to the allegations on 1st June, but I feel it was prescient and relevant enough for all times:

There is a man who has a history of harassing women but always got away with it. His friends and colleagues know about it but remain steadfast in their loyalty towards him. Close friends vouch for his good behaviour. Yet, stories about his behaviour travel far, into the living rooms of people who have never met him, into the coffee sessions shared between friends. Some do not know his name yet tales of his behaviour have achieved the status of legend. In the meantime, the voices of the women he had harassed are quashed. They stand by close to the scene of the crime – the circle of friends who protect the perpetrator and his reputation. They watch and wait in vain for laws and attitudes to change beyond their own lifetimes.

New journal article publication – the female gaze in Malaysian horror film

I have a new journal article published in the latest issue of Asian Cinema, Vol. 26 Issue 2.

Abstract:

Female ghosts and other supernatural entities, including the pontianak, in Malaysian horror cinema are excessive psychosocial articulations of traditional Malay femininity gone awry. In Malay ghost stories, the pontianak is a vengeful spirit. She is the ghostly reincarnation of a pregnant woman who dies before or during the birth of her child and who then seeks vengeance on the living for causing the gruesome death that kills her and her unborn child. Since biological reproduction is the primary determinant of a woman’s social value in traditional Malay societies, the double death is devastatingly cruel. The pontianak thus embodies the horror of abject femininity associated with thwarted womanhood. Another recurring theme in Malaysian horror cinema relates to women possessed by evil spirits. Typically portrayed as lacking in emotional restraint, and therefore given to hysterical behaviour, such women are thought to be particularly vulnerable. Malaysian horror cinema has been adept at depicting psychosocial horrors of feminine excesses as such that transgress otherwise restrictive social and customary expectations for Malay femininity. This article examines the horror of abject femininity in two contemporary Malaysian films by female film-makers: Shuhaimi Baba’s Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam/Pontianak of the Tuber Rose (2004) and Zarina Abdullah’s Chermin/Mirror (2007). Both films collectively provide a spine-chilling commentary on female–female relations and motherhood that puts to play the female gaze and the monstrous feminine. This article argues that the themes of failed motherhood, death and the abject are salvaged by strong mother–daughter relations and the female gaze, making the two films a women-oriented rejoinder to spirit possession and the misogynistic tale of the pontianak.

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.

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.