Robyn Penrose is a newly minted lecturer in women’s studies and English literature who specialises in the ‘industrial novel’, fiction written in the mid-1800’s that reflected the values and anxieties of the British industrial revolution. She is a feminist academic with an unflagging belief in uprooting social injustice inside and outside the classroom. She joins anti-nuclear marches and strikes against cuts to university funding. Ever the empowered woman of the 1980s, she is also assertive and confident and is clear about what she wants. Somehow the ‘imposter syndrome’ endemic in higher education does not exist in her dictionary.
She is a fictional character after all and springs from David Lodge’s classic 1988 campus novel, Nice Work, in which our academic heroine is pressured by her dean into shadowing a factory manager at work in a higher education-meets-industry programme. Although a character from the Thatcherite 1980s, she is a figure of our times. As an early career researcher who came to a full-time teaching position from a fixed-term research fellowship in a prestigious research university, Robyn does not know if she can keep her job when the next national budget looms. Universities across the UK since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership have faced inexorable cuts to research, teaching, and upkeep. New appointments are frozen and people lose their jobs.
The precarious nature of academic employment, then as now, involving applying to diminishing jobs and accepting them anywhere in the country and beyond has hampered any attempts at a typical romantic or marital relationship. Robyn’s boyfriend whom she’s been with since they were undergraduates at Sussex has accepted a job a great distance away. They see each other every other weekend and the arrangement feels more like a long-distance relationship. But it works for her as she doesn’t believe in marriage and the bourgeois idea of romantic love. Her boyfriend agrees with her as he is slow to develop his own opinion. She does develop meaningful relationships with others, namely with a female colleague and fellow feminist. Though her greatest triumph is her intellectual and sexual conquest of one Vic Wilcox, the middle-aged factory manager whom she is assigned to shadow.
There are many instances in the novel which suggest that Robyn Penrose is a caricature of a feminist academic, all righteous and dominating. Her ability to transform Vic Wilcox from a boring and predictable family man life who sneers at women’s studies into an effortless enunciator of Tennyson and Saussurean semiotics is the stuff of fairy tales for academics. But she is nonetheless an admirable woman of intellectual ambition whose work is admired by established figures in the field. Who wouldn’t want to be offered a tenure-track job in an elite US university based on the strength of an unpublished book manuscript? She speaks and acts in the manner of her thinking and beliefs; unpretentiously provocative, bold, and forthright. She can talk about her sex life in the same breath as structuralism and metonymy. A sapiosexual’s idea of a really sexy pillow talk.
As a caricature, albeit lifted from the lived experience of the author who was an academic himself, Robyn Penrose ticks many of the identifiable and aspirational boxes. As a feminist academic, the boundary that separates professional and personal life is never really clear. She defines the morality that gives shape to her vocation and sexuality rather than having it imposed by others, not least prudes, anti-intellectual people, and sexist men. It makes me wonder how many women out there harbor a fantasy to be like Robyn Penrose whose mind challenges and ignites desire in the most unlikeliest of people. Because I do.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com 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.
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.
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.