Some notes on sluttiness in Jalang

The best part about being a researcher in film and media is the joy of discovering half-forgotten ‘gems’, like the Malaysian film called Jalang (2009). Jalang (Malay for slut, whore, wayward butterfly, you get the idea) is the ground-breaking cinematic masterpiece by Nazir Jamaluddin about a high-flying young woman Maria who apparently sleeps her way to getting business deals and eventually gets her fatal comeuppance for her indiscreet love for sex.

Just so audiences don’t get their moral wires mixed up, the film begins with a handy prologue about the loathsomeness of the jalang and that good Muslims should steer clear away from them. But it’s likely that most people won’t come across the jalang, because they’re usually killed off, on screen and sadly sometimes off screen as well. Since our film of interest aims to be didactic in character, let’s see one can be learned from Maria’s slutty ways:

INTERIOR SHOT: Protagonist of the movie, driving a sportscar. Background is blurred due to motion of car. Protagonist is a dressed in white blouse with black cravat, wearing makeup, sunglasses and expensive jewelry.

Flashy cars, stylish clothes; the material perks of a jalang are pretty good.

  • Sluts are successful businesswomen who drive expensive cars with their top down on a bright sunny day in Malaysia.
  • Sluts have Mariah Carey-inspired butterfly tattoos

That's the business meeting etiquette out the window

  • Sluts are touchy feely and affectionate to a point of excess with every male sleaze-bag in the boardroom during a business meeting.
  • Sluts care a lot about other women, especially if other women are their struggling younger sisters.
  • Sluts are made into sex objects to be passed around between ugly, middle-aged men.
  • Sluts are fine as non-committal sex partners, but are an unthinkable no-no’s as daughter-in-laws, especially if they’ve slept with you.
  • Sluts are despised by other women who want to tie them up and blow their slutty bodies into a million slutty pieces.

As if being mad isn't enough, there is also the unflattering tank top to contend with

  • Sluts turn men into psychotic and violent stalkers.
  • Sluts also make men bad at lying about their extra-marital affairs.
  • Sluts somehow deserve to be sexually harassed at work because of their exceedingly relaxed office etiquette with their male employers.
  • Sluts can be desirable to nice men but they must repent, cover up and start praying again.
  • Sluts are actually not entitled to a fresh start in life. When they’re honest about their sexual past they will be shamed for it. Worse, they will be beaten for their honesty.

An obligatory visit to the village as part of one's soul-searching expedition

  • Sluts remove their butterfly tattoos, wear the baju kurung, and experience life in the village in an attempt to ‘cleanse’ their body and spirit.
  • Sluts are made to be subjected to violent assault by men
  • Sluts die a horrible death in front of a mosque, Mastika-style.

Lesson: It doesn’t matter what you wear, what your sexual history is, how pure and golden your heart is, or your sincerity to “change your ways”, if you’ve had plenty of enjoyable pre-marital sex you will be punished for it. Above all, you are a slut or jalang in spite of all the above.

You will be punished even more when you have a desire to get married to a man. Sexual morality dictates that many men will hate to marry women who have had an illustrious history of relationships, because men will insist on being the first and the only one who’s been to a woman’s sweet spot. Being the second or the fifty-third man isn’t going to cut it.

As a woman in a male-dominated environment, one is expected to kow-tow to the sexist assumption that a woman is successful because she uses her sexual capital – her body, not her talent or intelligence. The success a woman enjoys in a high-powered job is linked to her moral inadequacies; when Maria falls for the man who accepts her for who she is Maria gives up her job to be “a woman in love” i.e. a woman who would rather be dependent on a man.

Most damning of all, there is no way for a woman to be free from shame and insult no matter what she says and does. Meanwhile, men can get away unscathed from whatever sexual improprieties while women suffer, are silenced, and chastised. Worse, men often get away with committing sexual assault scot-free.

Why is a discussion on this film even necessary when we can all predict the brutal end that awaits Maria? First, a Malay film-maker must be audacious enough to make a film about a so-called jalang to want to send some kind of message on how story about a jalang should be told. That message as we all now learn is unfair and irredeemably simplistic.

Second, being a jalang is supposedly the lowest of the low for Malay women. Without an examination what jalang means, the clouded nature of the insult can have power over all Malay women. When we rethink and re-examine our assumptions about what makes a jalang, particularly when we see how a jalang is represented for us, we will discover many loopholes that mitigate and even subvert what jalang means.

For instance, Jalang could be read as a story about a kind-hearted and caring woman who has sexual agency, but then is played out by evil men who abuse her good nature, talent, and relaxed attitudes to sex. Reading the film this way does not mitigate against how her character is punished in the end, but proposes that being a jalang is not a ticket to earthly damnation and that the problem are the men in the film.

I strongly believe that a continuous reassessment on what a jalang means, how much a woman is entitled to her sexuality, and the expression of jalang-ness that is free from violence, abuse, and shame can subvert and neutralise the toxic power of gendered insults and the laws of sexual morality. Perhaps this is one of the many ways we can reclaim the liberated, considerate, business savvy, and talented jalang.

Two steps forward, one step back: On Dalam Botol, Malaysia’s first ‘gay’ film

Written for the LSE equality and diversity blog

For a country keen on displaying its hyper-modernity, Malaysian law and social attitudes on sexual morality in general have always had a conservative bent. While there are pockets of change, much of the public discourse on sex and morality are dominated by sexist and homophobic language. A blanket government control on discussion and representations of sexuality in the media regularly results in sensationalism, misinformation, and the deepening of greater confusion about sexual and gender diversity. This confusion is reflected in the new film by Raja Azmi Raja Sulaiman, Dalam Botol (In a bottle). While the film signals a small but momentous phase in the country’s censorship laws on the depiction of homosexual characters in the media, the film itself stands as an intriguing cinematic object of fascination and curiosity as it secured 1 million ringgit ($330,000) at Malaysian cinemas.

Dalam Botol tells the story of a man who undergoes a sex reassignment surgery to please his male lover, stores his severed penis in the eponymous bottle, only to be rejected by his lover. Dejected, the transsexual man/woman returns to his village and falls for a woman. Although based on the experiences of the producer’s friend who regretted having a sex-reassignment procedure, the film has been pointed out as misleading by Malaysian LGBT activists as it conflates gay with transgender identities.

While Raja Azmi claims to tell a love story with a cautionary twist, its narrative is not easily separated from how alternative sexualities and genders are perceived in Malaysia where gay men are sometimes confused for trans women who need to undergo sex reassignment surgery to become female, while both transgender women and gay men are sometimes subsumed under the category ‘effeminate’ men. Furthermore, Raja Azmi’s insistence that the film’s moral subtext should function as a deterrent against sex reassignment surgery serves only to reinforce the assumption that transgender and homosexual identities are not only temporary but a deplorable state of affairs to be rejected.

To be fair to Malaysia’s cultural genealogy of genders and sexualities, the conception of gay identities did not come into public currency until the 1980s. Even then, the term closest to the Western understanding of the word ‘gay’ is pondan, a derogatory word used for effeminate men or transwomen. The term ‘homosexual’ has different connotations in different cultural and economic contexts. But with the expansion of the ‘global gay’ emanating from the ‘Anglophone’ world reaching the industrialised capitals of the developing world, Malaysia included, we find localised conceptions of the ‘global gay’ in hybridised gay identities. Malaysian gay identities are savvy consumers of Western LGBT media and have close ties with human rights organisations, but they are also concentrated in the urban centres of the country. How the LGBT community in Malaysia perceive Raja Azmi’s film is very much a product of this global cultural exchange and local politics.

The conflict in conceptions of transgender and homosexual identities exist between Malaysian LGBT groups and the cinematic vision of producer and scriptwriter Raja Azmi may arise from linguistic and class differences. Many middle-class Malaysian gay and lesbians adopt the epistemological separation of gender and biological sex developed by Western sociologists and sexologists and understand their work in English, while most working class Malaysians do not have access to knowing much gender theory.

The fact that media attention on alternative genders and sexualities in recent Malaysian films have only come to the fore in recent years with films like Dalam Botol, 2 Alam (Two Worlds), Bukak Api (Open Fire), Pecah Lobang (Broken Hole), and numerous Malay television dramas with transgender characters demonstrates a new but limited awareness about non-normative gender and sexuality. Lesbian characters in films such as Rozana Cinta ’87 (Rozana Love) did not court great controversy in 1987. It was only during the public humiliation of the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 when the country’s dominant discourse on homosexuality was re-established with a politically homophobic turn and pushed gay identities in the spotlight. Last December, Awzan Ismail, an openly gay Malay Muslim man received death threats after posting a Youtube video for a gay youth acceptance campaign ‘It Gets Better’.

The level of negative attention targeted at Awzan Ismail was significantly disproportionate compared to the videos posted by his fellow gay and lesbian Chinese Malaysians. The hostility and misinformation on sexual and gender minorities in Malaysia appear to boil down to much of the attitudes and social and religio-political hegemony of the majority Malay Muslims.

Historically, Malaysia’s social fabric has been shaped by racial politics under the paternalistic thumb of largely Malay Muslim politicians. While the country is on the surface a peaceful multi-ethnic nation, underneath the veneer lie racial tensions arising from the constitutionally-sanctioned superiority of the Malays and indigenous groups, termed the bumiputera, which make sensitive issues such as race, sexuality, and religion a minefield for those who challenge the conservative status quo.

Small social transformations are constantly afoot in Malaysia and the country’s increasingly politicised youth appear to set the wheels of change into motion. Independent films by Malaysian film makers engage more positively with LGBT issues than films that grab national headlines like Dalam Botol. It will, however, still take time when a critical mass for change is reached in the country’s seats of power to witness a greater level of social acceptance of trans and gay people in Malaysia.

Dahulukala – Sebuah manifesta berangkap

Dahulu kala
saya pernah percaya
tudung itu bukan sahaja
harus bagi wanita solehah
tapi juga bagi awek lelaki
soleh dan yang memejam sebelah mata.

Dahulu kala
saya pernah dituduh
kurang ajar dan lemah pedoman
jika mencabar kepimpinan lelaki
yang tidak berbeza rupa dan sifat
kepimpinan seorang perempuan.

Dahulu kala
saya pernah percaya
kewanitaan itu lumrah
yang disempurnakan jodoh
dan cahaya mata.
Cita-cita dan kerjaya hanyalah
lamunan anak mentah.

Dahulu kala
saya pernah dituduh
penyibuk dan lantang
jika bersuara tentang
penindasan harian kecil dan besar.
Jangan persoalkan kuasa,
salah maupun yang benar.

“Itulah ragam manusia”
“Jangan kerana mulut badan binasa”

Dahulu kala
Saya pernah percaya
manusia banyak kelemahan.
Yang perempuan berakal satu.
Lemah lelaki lemah lagi perempuan
yang dihambai
gergasi ghaib bernama patriarki.

Tetapi kini
saya bangkit dari lamunan dan kritikan.
Seribu satu keraguan ditepis.
Dari kelemahan timbul satu kekuatan
yang menumbang seribu satu ego.

Saya percaya
feminisme bukan nilaian KPI
dimana segalanya mesti dicapai:
Badan ramping, suami yang kacak.
Anak yang comel, cerdas, dan bijak.

Saya masih percaya
kepada harapan dan daya
kaum hawa dan adam
dalam perjuangan bersama.

Jiwa dan raga yang ingin menyala –
Itu dahulu kala.
Semangat yang berbuak-buak –
Sekaranglah waktunya!

Judge a book by its cover?: Women and sex on retro Malay book covers

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. But you might well be able to sell a book based on its cover. The world of Malay book jackets of the past (circa 1960’s to mid 1970’s) was a different place then, where nude women as decorative elements were apparently no big deal. Nowadays, more chaste illustrations of women in the tudung (headscarves) are de rigeur and few publishers would venture anywhere above the (arbitrary) knee-length axis of morality. Somehow I don’t think the reasons for the change were motivated by aesthetics or feminist consciousness.

The following books were discovered in my library and it is my (dis)pleasure to share with you some recurring themes, both illustrated and suggested in the titles. Because they’re potentially Not Safe For Work, I’ve posted them after the jump:

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Introducing Privilege-denying Malay guy. Patriarchy-apologists be damned!

UPDATE: PDMG has moved to a more inclusive space – Privilege-denying Malaysian guy

In the spirit of the hugely popular Privilege-denying Dude meme that’s been circulating the feminist blogosphere, my fellow feminist compadres Tariq and Munira, have started the long overdue Privilege-denying Malay guy. Of course there is no denying that Malay privilege is enshrined in Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution and has long since become the chest-beating mantra of many Malay Malaysians, but other privileges ensconced by being born male, middle-class, able-bodied and straight remain sorely overlooked and the source of much annoyance to many.

Sometimes a humorous and subversive reaction to annoyance is more productive than a frothy-mouthed post on the failures of Malaysian politics, Islam in Malaysian, and Malay men in general. A few pithy words can capture the multifarious nature of the privilege-driven ecstasy that is the Malay guy:

More on Privilege-denying Malay Guy

Feminisme: Antara mitos dan fakta

Ramai yang berpendapat bahawa golongan wanita dan lelaki feminis yang berpegang kepada prinsip “kesamaan” begitu khusyuk dengan isu-isu hak asasi manusia dan anasir-anasir berwajah kebaratan yang lain, seperti sekularisme dan liberalisme. Tidak kurang juga para bijak-pandai yang mendakwa gerakan feminisme sebagai satu-satunya punca keruntuhan akhlak dan rumahtangga. Ada pula yang khuatir feminisme menggalakkan persaingan antara wanita dan lelaki, di mana wanita sebenarnya mahu menguasi lelaki. Dari manakah dakwaan ini timbul? Apakah dakwaan ini bertunjang bukti yang kukuh, ataupun rekaan liar semata-mata?

Ya dan tidak jawabnya. Gerakan feminisme yang dikenali ramai muncul secara besar-besaran pada awal abad ke-20 di United Kingdom dan Amerika Syarikat – di sinilah titik permulaan stereotip atau mitos golongan feminis. Wanita yang menggelar diri feminis (atau suffragette pada waktu itu) tergolong dari kelompok atasan – “elit” – berkulit putih, berpendidikan tinggi, dan tidak berminat pula dalam hal-hal diskriminasi dan prejudis yang dialami oleh wanita lain – yang miskin, tidak berpendidikan tinggi, dan tidak berkulit putih. Beberapa “gelombang” perlu naik dan susut supaya suara wanita yang sudah lama terpinggir (yang miskin, tidak berpelajaran tinggi, dan tidak berkulit putih) didengar dan diambil serius. Tanpa wujudnya kesedaran akan perkauman dan perbezaan latar belakang sosio-ekonomi, gerakan feminisme bagaikan kereta lembu berroda satu (contoh eco-friendly): terbatas gerakan dan serba kekurangan.

Di akar umbi gerakan ini adalah kepercayaan bahawa wanita dan lelaki dicipta dengan kebolehan akal yang sama, dan tubuh badan dan warna kulit bukan penentu hidup – kepercayaan inilah yang menjadi bahan tentangan hebat ramai. Mana tidaknya? Para feminis banyak mempersoalkan budaya yang bersifat patriarki/kiriarki yang wujud hasil daripada corak kuasa dalam politik dan ekonomi, sebuah budaya yang mengagungkan kedudukan sekumpulan kecil yang berpengaruh dalam sesebuah masyarakat. Di Malaysia, kumpulan kecil ini terdiri daripada ahli politik lelaki, golongan lelaki yang kaya raya dan sesetengah para ulama. Warga tua, golongan kurang upaya, orang Asli, golongan Mak Nyah, dan saudara kita yang bukan beragama Islam secara lazimnya di kelaskan dalam kelompok “yang teraniaya” dan “dipinggir”. Pernahkah para bijak-pandai yang mengutuk gerakan feminisme bertanya sama ada sistem perkelasan ini adil?

Ingin dibangkitkan di sini bukannya untuk mempromosikan feminisme semata-mata. Ruang yang dibenarkan untuk mereka yang berlainan pendapat semakin sempit di kampung Malaysia. Tidak kiralah dia seorang feminis Islam ataupun seorang mufti, pendapat mereka yang memperjuangkan keadilan atas nama bagaimanapun tetap digugat. Bagi mereka yang rasa dirinya sahaja yang berhak bersuara mengenai keadilan, mereka harus bertanya kepada diri: apakah penganiayaan itu perhah dirasa dengan tubuh badan sendiri dan dilihat dengan mata kepala sendiri, dan apakah keadilan itu boleh dirasai oleh semua?

Let these songs speak for me for now

[inspired by T-boy’s Malay music madness]

I’ll be needing some time to adjust to my new life in London and SOAS at the moment. Some changes can be really overwhelming especially when one has to move into a completely empty house that is also falling to pieces. I hate the city despite being born and raised in one. Being in of the biggest and most expensive cities in the world doesn’t help either, so I’ll be taking a few days off from blogging (but will still respond to comments) to breathe deeply, and exhale.

You can tell that I’m quite the sentimental type :)

Mild toxic waste: Malaysian Women's TV Programmes

Cross-posted from Muslimah Media Watch

As I count the hours to the day I return to Malaysia, I’m compiling my notes and thoughts for a small research project on media images of women in the capital. But I’ve already started collecting preliminary data; my immense curiosity in the representation of Muslim Malay women in the current media took me as far as binging on toxic levels of Malaysian online television recently. So in a way, this post will serve as an introduction to an analysis of the popular trends affecting Muslim Malay women as depicted in the media in Malaysia today.

Far from the most progressive form of mainstream media, Malaysian television plays host to boring gender stereotypes in film, advertising and, most prominently, in women’s programs. Yet, it’s a place where women rule. The majority of programs, whether they’re dramas, sitcoms, or day-time talk shows, are aimed at women. Not only does this suggest that a bigger proportion of the TV audience is female, but also implies the fact that more women spend more time at home than men do.

Further, the growing visibility of women in hijab on television in recent years goes hand in hand with the glamorous and ’sellable’ image of the hijab and the increased religiosity of the mass media. Personally, I find the diversity of Muslim women on TV a positive change, but when I watch two extravagantly-dressed women talking on a half-hour segment about nothing but pillows and mattresses, I begin to feel a disconnect between the image and the message: it’s all looks but zero substance.

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Pink is for tween Muslimahs

Update: An extended version of this post can be found at Muslimah Media Watch

It had to happen sooner or later. With Barbie and now Hannah Montana merchandise dominating the tween to early teenage market in Malaysia, products for young Muslim women in hijab are starting to appear, particularly on the bookshelves. And they look very pink.

Sayalah Puteri Raja (I'm the princess here!)

There are also whiffs of collusion with the Disney conglomerate’s marketing strategies; princesses sell. Now, I’m not the only one who thinks that princesses make one of the worst kind of role models. They’re expected to be beautiful, rescued by Prince Charming, and either acquire or inherit wealth and royal status patrilineally. But then, stories of princesses and other beautiful heroines make an obvious progression towards the Malay novel and its main theme: romance. The contemporary romance novel is pretty much the only form of Malay fiction writing popular today. So pervasive is the Malay romance novel that it’s even taught in schools as ‘Malay literature’.

I’m assuming that this is part of the mainstreaming of ‘Islamic culture’ to reach out to younger Muslim-Malaysians. It’s saying that you can be hip and with the times and still be a good Muslim. But here, to be hip is to be a sad carbon-copy of Disney princesses with blue eyes and fair-skin and colluder of Western gender stereotypes.

Other examples of ‘pink and feminine’ novels for Muslim young women:

Diari Aneesa (Aneesa's Diary)

Kotak Rahsia Ismah (Ismah's Secret Box)

40 Lukisan Hati (40 Drawings of the Heart)

Thank you, Puteriku (Thank you, My Princess)

Dia Ataupun Dia? (Her or Her?)

Dia Ataupun Dia? (Her or Her?)

Balqis dan Pukauan Si Jelita (Balqis and the Spell of the Beautiful One)

Balqis dan Pukauan Si Jelita (Balqis and the Spell of the Beautiful One)

Guest post: Redefining Malay womanhood in Yasmin Ahmad's films

The following was written by guest contributor and fellow Malaysian feminist, Mohani Niza. Writing on the “New Malaysian Femininity’ in the films of Yasmin Ahmad, she presents a Malay womanhood that contrasts squarely with the misogyny and whore/virgin stereotypes typically found in Malaysian cinema.



In 2004, Yasmin Ahmad, famed for her Petronas advertisements depicting multi-racial Malaysia released the movie Sepet, to much controversy and praise. It won a string of foreign film awards, a legion of fans local and abroad but was also lambasted by certain quarters who felt that the movie threatened the moral fabric of Malay/Muslim life in Malaysia by showing its Malay female protagonist “betray” her bangsa (race) by falling in love with a “kafir” (infidel) [1].

Sepet centers on the relationship between Orked (Sharifah Amani), a teenage Malay girl who has just graduated from secondary school and Jason (Choo Seong Ng), a pirated VCD peddler.  This is followed up with Gubra in 2006, which tells the life of an older Orked, now married; and in 2007, Mukhsin, the prequel in the Orked trilogy which depicts Orked’s childhood in a sleepy Kuala Selangor kampung (village).

The character of Orked marks a departure from the typical heroines we see in Malay films. Unlike most Malay women we see on screen, Orked represents a refreshing take on what it means to be a young Malay woman in Malaysia, a rapidly modernizing country which has to delicately deal with globalization and also the paradox of a multi-racial society, still raw from the May 13th 1969 racial riots. As Khoo Gaik Cheng notes in her book Reclaiming Adat: Contemporary Malaysian Film and Literature, “Socio-economic forces, state-initiated, and the cultural development of the NEP years (National Economic Policy 1971-90) had produced a burgeoning discourse about subjectivity among the children of the NEP themselves: what is it like for urban Malay women and men to be both modern and Muslim?”. in his review of ‘Mukhsin’ Michael Sicinski writes that “… transnational feminist theorists would do well to examine Ahmad’s work, since like them, Mukhsin is about complexifying the world, deepening interconnections, delving into the messiness of the conundrums that women face, and moving outward, forging even more connections.”[2]

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