Between sex and abstinence there is education and choice

This is my only column on the Malay Mail Online for the month of May this year. I haven’t been productive on Malay Mail Online as I would like to be and that’s likely to be because I’m doing so much writing elsewhere.

The development of a child’s sexuality is a taboo issue. Although there is no denial that as children, many will develop crushes and have ridiculous fantasies about them. From a young age, children will explore their bodies and learn to masturbate. But the idea of a child masturbating is an unspeakable horror for so many liberal-minded people that silence is the best cure for such hand-ups.

For legal and historical reasons we owe to Victorian laws, 16 is the age of consent. But before then, children are clouded with distorted ideas about sexuality and lack of useful information. Muslim children are more in danger of this knowledge vacuum because of the social disease of child marriage that plagues Malay Muslim families. Although taboo, it is not as if sexuality is not taught in school. Masturbation is likely to come up in Islamic Studies (Pendidikan Islam) in school but couched in restrictive and often lurid terms. No other classroom session will young children be inducted into the categories of human bodily fluids.

Read the rest here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference:

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

Competing ideological struggles and LGBTQ identities in multicultural Malaysia

I have an article published in a special issue on LGBT identities and cultures in Southeast Asia in Südostasien, a journal published by Stiftung Asienhaus, on LGBTQ identities in Malaysia today. It has been translated into German from English. Below is the article in English:

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Malaysia stands slightly part from its neighbours in the Southeast Asian region because of its distinct ingredients of Islam, multiculturalism and modernity. It is perhaps because of the uneasy balancing act of these ingredients that it has maintained a fragile social fabric of toleration between different ethnic and religious groups. Rapid, albeit uneven, industrialisation and pro-Malay-Muslim policies since the 1980s have produced one of the economic success stories of Southeast Asia. Yet, the comforts of modernity have somehow allowed the nation to stay calm and carry on despite alarming rates of human rights abuse, deepening Islamisation and corruption in recent years.

Islam, multiculturalism and modernity have shaped the discourse of gender and sexuality in Malaysia. Being a predominantly Muslim country with colonial laws that prohibit same-sex relations and Islamic laws that criminalise “cross-dressing”, Malaysia is a hybrid modernity with socio-political restrictions and opportunities. The use of Islam as a tool to appease the alienation of the Malay community has been a foregrounding theme since the earliest days of the nation. Though it seems that nearly everything in the public and private spheres of Malaysia is tainted by this alienation and its attendant, the racialisation of politics.

Globalisation of gender and sexuality

The story of LGBTQ identities in Malaysia parallels that of many others across the region. It has embraced the internationalisation of sexual identities and the “global gay”(i) and shares a discursive trajectory that began with HIV awareness campaigns in the 1990s although these have tapered off in the last decade. Its small community of activists employ the language of rights and Western labels of self-identification. However, specific events in Malaysian modern history would give the story of LGBTQ identities its distinctive flavour.

A nebulous kind of homophobia and transphobia would emerge concurrently with the increasing awareness of global LGBT discourse in Malaysia. Since the 1990s, non-normative sexual identities become more visible in public discourse and associated with Westernisation. Sadly, this visibility had come with a price; indigenous non-normative practices and identities which thrived and were tolerated for decades (ii) were being viewed as deviant and sinful in Islam. Effeminate male traditional wedding organisers and bridal make-up artists, and court dancers who reside in ‘specialised homosexual villages’ (iii) have gradually disappeared since the 1980s. The lack of political will to protect vulnerable groups from violence and discrimination in Malaysia has caused many to go underground and silent.

Male homosexuality was thrust into the public consciousness in the late 1990s with the political dressing-down and imprisonment of the former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, for the crime of sodomy and corruption. Lurid descriptions of same-sex relations made front page news nearly every day during Anwar Ibrahim’s trial. It was a public tar and feathering that appeared to guarantee the end of his political career. The former deputy prime minister continues to battle for his freedom today.

By the 2000s, homosexuality and gay male identities were firmly established in the Malaysian public consciousness but the latter continued to be toxic. In 2010, Azwan Ismail, a Malay-Muslim man, received death threats after posting a Youtube video titled ‘I’m gay and I’m okay’. The repercussions following Azwan’s attempt to connect to a global queer mediascape demonstrated the limits of national boundaries. There has not been a high profile online campaign to promote acceptance of gay identities in Malaysia since.

The transgender communities in Malaysia have made important inroads by challenging the state sharia court’s ruling against ‘cross-dressing’ as unconstitutional in 2014. However, in 2015, their victory was short-lived as the federal court overturned the decision in favour of the sharia court in a larger campaign of the sharia court’s growing supremacy over the constitution that guarantees protection from gender-based discrimination.

Patriarchy and fundamentalism

A comment about patriarchy is important here, too. The oppression towards LGBTQ identities in Malaysia is a reflection of the deeply patriarchal society that is increasingly repressive towards Muslim women. The mark of patriarchy is felt even in the progressive spaces of LGBTQ activism; compared to the gay men and transwomen, transmen, the experiences and voices of queer and lesbian cis-gendered women (or women born female) against repression are rarely heard. This transwomen and gay male-dominated LGBTQ discourse in Malaysia may be attributed to the legacy of HIV awareness activism of the 1990s that was couched in more acceptable terms of public health management. By contrast, queer and lesbian cis-gendered women have had fewer opportunities at raising public consciousness for different interest groups.

As the country falls into a period of deeper discontent with its leadership, it sees the government employing strategies to demonise sexual and gender minorities to consolidate support from a conservative electorate. Bizarrely, the present Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, has condemned LGBTQ people as dangerous as the terrorist organisation Daesh. This has dangerous ramifications for a nation that has great difficulty in managing the diversity of cultures, beliefs, gender and sexuality.

When a visitor arrives in Malaysia, she may be mesmerised by the dizzying cornucopia of consumerist pleasures and hyper-modernity. An image of multicultural harmony invoked in our delight in food hides both the ideological imagination and reality of deteriorating standards of livelihood and wellbeing. As the country enters the new year with scandals ravaging the economy, politics, and the environment, the hope for women and other minorities in Malaysia remains particularly dim. The crackdown on Malaysian civil society and the pervading fear threaten to cripple and choke any effort to bring issues on LGBTQ into the public sphere.

Footnotes:

i Dennis Altman, Dennis. 1996. Rupture of continuity? The internationalization of gay identities. Social Text 1: 77-94.
ii Michael Peletz. 2009. Gender Pluralism: Southeast Asia Since Early Modern Times. New York and London: Routledge.
iii Peletz. 2009. Gender Pluralism, pg. 186-187.

Guest blog: Why can’t women wear short skirts?

Source: detail from photo by Rosea Lake

Source: detail from photo by Rosea Lake

Today we have a guest blog by Kaberi Dutta. Kaberi who is a nineteen year old Malaysian studying Social Anthropology and Law at SOAS, and hoping to alert people to the importance of feminism, one argument at a time.

*****

Having grown up as a Malaysian Indian girl, who studied at an International school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I have been exposed to many different cultures and perspectives, which I am grateful for. However, as a result of various exposures, I have come to find certain faults in Malaysian society that, although I do my best to understand and respect, urge me to question these ‘rules’. Before I explain, I’m not biased against my own culture- Western culture too has many faults, some of which are more extreme (in different ways) than our own, but as a Malaysian, I feel more passionate and justified discussing my own culture.

There’s no avoiding the recent surge in the policing of women’s attires, from the woman who was required to cover her legs with a towel to visit a relative in hospital to the two women who were made to wear sarongs to cover the skirt that was barely above their knees. As a teenage-cum-woman, I was already disgraced at the attitudes of these institutions that forced these women to cover up their bodies, thus humiliating them, but it wasn’t until my own experience with body policing that I felt the need to speak up. Earlier this morning, I went to the Damansara Public Library to study for my exams- dressed in a long shirt and a short skirt (admittedly, well above my knees). After sitting down at a table for a brief ten minutes, I was handed a notice highlighting the dress code for the library and although I wasn’t instructed to leave, my embarrassment caused me to quietly pack my things and return home. I have multiple issues with this including the double standard that is in place when enforcing such rules as well as the reasoning itself behind dress codes for women. Before I elaborate, I’d like to highlight my reason for wearing the short skirt that was at the brunt of this issue.

As many are aware, growing up as a teenage girl is widely known to be filled with pressures from peers and society itself. Society places pressures on girls to conform to a certain image: in Western cultures, it’s always shifting but the current pressure is to look quite similar to Kim Kardashian- curvy with a full bum and breasts. In Malaysian society, it’s more of the opposite- girls are expected to dress modestly and not show off excess skin by wearing revealing clothing. What with all the external influences we are exposed to, being comfortable in one’s own skin has become increasing hard to do. The statistics alone for eating disorders represents this- since the 1960’s, the number of emergence of eating disorders has doubled. Shockingly, the age at which one becomes vulnerable to these pressures is continuously getting lower- reports have shown that an increasing number of children have fallen in to eating disorders at ages as young as six. This article, however, is not to do with the pressures of image as a girl, however (not to say that men and boys don’t suffer from eating disorders) I am just explaining that given all these pressures, I am proud of the fact that, to the most extent, I am comfortable with my body, and this reflects in the way I choose to present myself, and dress. I wear short skirts because I feel comfortable in them, the exact same reason that on other days, I wear jeans. My choice of clothing is a reflection of what I feel comfortable in, nothing more. I don’t wear short skirts to grab the attention of men and neither do a lot of girls. Why is that not okay?

Relating this to the incident that occurred this morning, women aren’t allowed to wear short skirts because they are deemed provocative. My biggest question is why are they deemed provocative? The word ‘provocative’ is defined as being ‘intended or intending to arouse sexual desire or interest’ and as I have stated, that was not my intention. And if provocativeness arises from intent, then doesn’t it deem that I am the only person who can define my clothing as being provocative, since I am the only person who could accurately know my intentions? For anyone else to define clothing as being provocative, would merely be making an assumption. However, taking the definition of the word loosely and agreeing that I didn’t intend for my clothing to lead to ‘sexual desire or interest’, let’s assume that people were effected in a sexual sense by my clothing. Is that my fault for wearing what I feel comfortable in, or the fault of the men who objectify women and see them merely as sexual beings? In a culture where victim blaming has risen, what with women being told not to dress a certain way to avoid being raped (in extreme cases), I think we’re tackling this problem all wrong. Instead of demanding that women dress a certain way so as not to make men sexually aroused or uncomfortable, shouldn’t we actually teach men to respect women irregardless of what they are wearing?

That issue aside, I was also angered regarding the huge double standard in place when it came to enforcing the dress code of the library. Having studied there for nearly a week, I had witnessed men in flip flops and shorts, to no comment by the librarian, but the moment a women breaks the rules- she has to change? I understand why in certain areas one must dress a certain way- I would never wear a short skirt to a temple or church out of respect for the religion- but if you believe that an area needs to have a dress code, then it should be enforced without gender bias. I’m not going to be defiant and try to return to the library in a short skirt, but at least make sure that the men are following the rules too. I see no reason why they should be exempt.

New column on the Malay Mail: The economics of virginity in patriarchal Malaysia

My column on the Malay Mail, The economics of virginity in patriarchal Malaysia, published 2nd February 2015:

Let’s forget that the hymen is central to the idea of (female) virginity.

Focus instead on virginity as a cultural and social form of control. When we do this, we will discover that virginity is only a construct rather than a “real” thing. Once we recognise that virginity is a man-made idea and serves the interests of straight male sexuality, we can expose its sinister purpose.

Read the rest here.

Is being called a prostitute misogynistic?

Upon arriving home from secondary school many years ago, I was slightly taken aback to find that someone had stuck ‘Slut’ on a post-it note on my backpack. I knew what the word meant and I was sure I was not that, thought my socially-awkward, pimply 15 year old self.

Years later in university, and still called a slut for making a Malay couple change seats in a computer lab (long story), I became determined to uncover the other meanings of this word and its similes.

This brings me to the outcry at the recent sexist attacks towards the female members of DAP: Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud, Young Syefura Othman and Jamila Rahim (Melati). In a meeting with the press, the three women objected to the attacks for attempting to ‘dishonour’ their womanhood (menjatuhkan martabat wanita).

When Dyana, Rara, and Melati were labelled ‘pelacur’ it was aimed to silence and shame them for their political beliefs. And this is not the first or last time. It is a strategy with multiple historical precedents that reminds women they do not belong in Malaysian politics. The reasons why women are under-represented as leaders in politics are laid bare yet again.

There is no male equivalent for ‘pelacur’ in both meaning and use. It is used against women and as a way to emasculate men. However, I take issue when ‘prostitute’ is cast as the ultimate symbol of feminine moral laxity and dishonour. Is being called ‘pelacur’, ‘sundal’ or ‘jalang’ really so bad? Does this mean being a prostitute, or to use the political term, sex worker, is the worst a woman can be?

If the very term ‘prostitute’ is inherently misogynistic, then it reinforces the mutually exclusive dichotomy of ‘good’ women/female sexuality versus ‘bad’ women/female sexuality. ‘Good’ female sexuality is pure and virginal while its corresponding ‘bad’ is slutty and free with her body. ‘Good’ women deserve protection and respect for their restraint while ‘bad’ women do not.

Who gets to say which woman is ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Nobody.

The thing about sexual stigmatising terms is that they can be both abusive and a source of resistance. It is abusive when the perpetrator uses it with the aim of shaming a person into submission. Sexual epithets of abuse is used when perpetrators lack the vocabulary and intellectual capacity to disagree or show displeasure, not because the words in and of themselves are abusive or taboo.

By contrast, women who want to reclaim female terms of abuse – prostitute, slut, slag, cunt , sundal, jalang – do so to neutralise their toxicity. Slutwalks that have now taken place around the globe aim to do just this; to show that sexual terms of abuse would have no effect on women when the patriarchal dichotomy of female sexuality is exposed for what it is.

Sex workers who are the ‘real’ prostitutes become the target of violence when they are emblematic of ‘bad’ female sexuality. Women who distance themselves from their sisters in the sex industry do no favours either, because all women are victims of misogyny and all can and will become targets of sexist abuse when they incite even the slightest displeasure.

So is being called a prostitute misogynistic? It depends on your intended meaning and effect. By right, prostitute and pelacur, along with sundal and jalang, should not be so toxic as they are now. They need to be reclaimed by all women who care about the integrity of their bodies and sexuality and those of others. Reclaiming stigmatising words is like intercepting ammunition and throwing them back, defused.

Scholarship on the scrap heap of an ailing higher education

First published in The Malay Mail on 29th January 2014.

As someone in the business of reading, writing, and reviewing academic articles, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Writing academic articles is not easy and it rarely gets any easier after years, even decades (so I’m told) in academia.

So when someone or a team of authors produces a poor paper, it is quite forgivable but not forgivable enough to be granted a publication in a decent journal or book.

Recently, a dear friend emailed me a copy of a journal article on whether LGBT identities were natural or an “ideology.” The article was written by two authors affiliated with a public university in Malaysia and published in a journal of biological science even though the methods for investigating the object of study have nothing to do with biology or the sciences.

Besides being riddled with many grammatical errors, the article is a weird composite of government propaganda, superficial theology, journalism, and a few scholarly citations. It cites the prime minister’s branding of LGBT communities as a “scourge” and state-sanctioned measures to “correct” these communities so that they become more hetero and normative.

Passages that allude to homoerotic activity from the Quran, the Bible, and the Torah are thrown in for good measure as if an authoritative definition of contemporary non-normative sexuality can be gleaned from them.

To find an answer to their research question, an interview with a “former LGBT practitioner” was conducted in which the informant was asked a variety of questions framed in a pathologising manner (Is your identity a disease? Do you have a “real” type of body? When did you start noticing these symptoms?).

Like a cipher, the informant responds in an obedient fashion, parroting anti-LGBT truisms long debunked by experts, activists, and LGBT communities.

The boogeymen of LGBT discourse—liberalism and human rights—are invoked and mutually reinforce each other in both the literature review and findings, making the study itself redundant.

What is there to investigate when the authors already know their answer before carrying out their qualitative research? What is the point of an objective “scientific” study when they have pre-judged categories like “menace” and “disease” for LGBT identities?

Every argument in this article will laughed out of town by the academic community committed to the field of Queer Theory and Gender Studies.

According to the authors of the article, “LGBT” is at once a “sexual orientation”, a “habit”, “abnormal instinct”, an “attitude”, and a product of the “ideology of free sex.” These contradictory claims seem to be plucked out from nowhere no thanks to a cavalier grasp of concepts.

This academic article is an alarming indicator of how awful Malaysian higher education can be on different levels; from the teaching of students, their research training, the supervision by members of the academic staff, the quality of written work that is passed off as “research”, to the ethos of the researching and teaching members of faculty.

How did such an article manage to be published in an academic journal, a vital currency in an academic career, at all? It would be too easy to assume that the authors are ignorant or lackeys of the government and religious authorities. We can start with the structural problems in Malaysian higher education. The abandonment of the humanities and social sciences in Malaysian universities is a major factor in the production of appalling research.

Poor funding, no thanks to the undervaluing of the humanities and social sciences, has driven away many talented researchers and teachers. Poor funding also means poorer resources for research. Subjects in the humanities and social sciences do not need laboratories and heavy equipment that are worth hundreds of thousands of ringgit.

But scholars of these fields do require generous funding for field research, conferences abroad, plenty of new books, and access to a variety of international journals subscribed by university libraries.

Without access to supervision and mentoring by scholars who have published in decent journals and access to many good books and journals, those with an intention to produce good research will be lost at sea with a broken compass. Structural limitations lead to low research output and ultimately, low academic standards.

However, not all in the humanities and social sciences in Malaysia are doomed. A few universities, some born as fraternity twins with another foreign university, have attracted research-active academics keen on reviving the humanities and social sciences, not least the study of gender and sexuality.

To cite Michel Foucault, there is power and desire in knowledge production. This makes academic knowledge production anywhere, not just in Malaysia, a less innocent enterprise than what many believe. Cloaked in scholarly language, pernicious ideas can gain an air of authority or worse, “truth.” This is why government propaganda masking as research is dangerous.

This does not mean that Queer Theory and Gender Studies are neutral in their approach to gender and sexuality either. They are products of a particular time, place, and people that later developed in a particular, if more globalised, direction. Most are Western in origin and derive from psychoanalysis, Western philosophy, and activist literature that require a reframing from a decolonising lens.

If Malaysian scholars wish to be recognised for their intellectual output in the study of gender and sexuality, they must participate in the existing dialogues, rather than abusing the modes of intellectual production in the service of repressive politics and state religion.

Higher education in Malaysia is treated like a commodity that can be bought and sacrificed at the altar of party politics. And like commodities that have no long-term intrinsic value, it is disposable and destined for the scrap heap once it has served a poorly conceived purpose.

Mapping gender in public toilets of the non-Western world

First published on The State Magazine on 10 July 2013

Toilets: we need them as we all pee and shit. It seems as if our most basic homeostatic functions exist outside of time and space, abiding by their own internal laws. This article, however, is about the laws that are external to the corporeal vessel: the social and cultural realities we live in that reinforce how we answer the call of nature. More specifically, it is about gender and the public toilet.

Toilets in our homes are almost always shared between women and men, girls and boys. Public toilets, on the other hand, are strictly segregated by gender. Call it the domestic politics of economic convenience; it would cost too much to have separate toilets in ordinary homes. In the public sphere—where we share toilet seats with other buttocks of unknown provenance—suddenly all sense of sharing (a toilet) with the opposite sex is lost.

Public toilets have not existed in their gendered form since time immemorial. They emerged alongside urbanisation, improved sanitation, and enforced privatisation of bodily functions in 19th century Europe. Since their inception, public toilets for women (introduced decades after the male-only facility) was subjected to fierce objection. Ideas of women relieving themselves in small ʻrest roomsʼ outside the confines of their homes (where they should be) was shocking and morally transgressive.1

Today, the architecture of public toilets imposes strict notions of gendered hygiene. Toilet bowls are usually white to make the smallest of impurities visible. The gap beneath cubicle doors allow for surveillance, both benign (is anybody in?) and gender policing (cis-womenʼs feet point outwards, and individuals with penises usually inwards). Within, women can chat with others present and spend time looking into mirrors, while men avoid eye contact with other men as much as possible. 2

Transgress the laws of the cis-sexist gender divisions signposted in binary atavistic symbols, and you could face violent repercussions. Trans* people and butch women have all faced the aggressive force of gender policing in public toilets. Homophobic attacks against gay men or men suspected as gay in public toilets are also rife. What is considered a ʻpublic convenienceʼ for all can turn out to be an oppressive menace to those who do not conform to mainstream gender and sexual identities. Public toilets are therefore sites of gender and sexual privilege.

The gendering of public toilets appears to be a largely Western obsession which is sometimes imposed on ideas about gender in non-Western contexts. In an early study on transgender identities in Indonesia, Tom Boellstorff begins with an anecdote about public toilets in Java that male-to-female transsexuals (waria) share with cis-men.3 Rather than being classed as a ʻthird genderʼ or a separate gender group, waria in Indonesia view themselves as men with womenʼs souls, or simply as women. Boellstorffʼs interest in public toilets and gender identity—that would be unsurprising to an Indonesian—underlines this Western obsession.

The flushing public toilet produces civilised binary-gendered subjectivities in non-Western cities. In the age of globalisation and transnationalisation of gender and sexual identities, fixed concepts of indigenous femininity or masculinity are called into question. We live in a media-saturated society where images of how we should be as women and men are trafficked across time and space, often without our consent. These are the visible representations of gender that we can turn away from and reject. But certain fundamental ideas about gender and bodily excretions—urine, faecal matter, menstrual blood, semen—in public toilets cannot be avoided and consigned to the realm of taboo.

Public toilets in India reveal the workings of gender and caste. In the stunning and thought-provoking documentary by Paromita Vohra, Q2P, the fast forward pace of urban development in India clashes with the stunted growth of basic human needs. Such a clash is also gendered: there are more spaces for men to pee and defecate than there are for women. In a much reviled law-defying custom, men pee in public because they can. It is unheard of for women to relieve themselves openly in public. The shortages of toilets for women in urban India is one of the many indicators of how unwelcoming the public sphere is for women.

The reason for such a numerical imbalance seems almost common sense: women need more space and time in public toilets. Women are believed to be cleaner than men, and to prefer a perpetually clean toilet. More pragmatically, because women sit down or squat as they pee, they simply take up much more room than men. Women are also temporally circumscribed: they are not to go out late at night or too early in the morning for safety and moral reasons. During the witching hour, men take over their space. The upkeep for toilets with such added luxuries while keeping them female-only can prove to be challenging for municipalities with limited means.

When there are public conveniences for women, the queue for available cubicles are longer and slower almost everywhere, not only in urban India. The flushing toilet is thus a privilege: large swaths of the Indian population do not have access to one. The opening of Starbucks in Indian cities was not only welcomed as a site of modern aspirational lifestyle, but also because it comes with a clean and functioning flushing toilet.4 Deep caste and class disparities intertwine with the public toilet in other more insalubrious ways. The lowest castes are historically assigned the role of manual toilet cleaners and scavengers of shit left behind by those of higher castes.

Perhaps minority views and tradition can offer equality in urinating practices and potentially unlock gendered spaces for bodily functions. In traditional Islamic texts, men who pee standing up are frowned upon. Instead, they should ease themselves in the same manner as their Muslim sisters. Feminist products such as ʻShe-peesʼ, a funnel-shaped device which facilitates discrete vertical urination liberate women and trans* folk from the humiliation of open-air squatting. Can peeing standing up or sitting down for both genders spell equality?

The humble flushing toilet has been touted by The British Medical Journal as the most important advancement in medicine since 1840. Besides saving millions of lives and putatively more, the toilet brings ʻdignity, privacy, safety [and] better living conditions.ʼ5 You will only miss the easily taken-for-granted toilet when itʼs not there. But how hung up are you about sharing (or not sharing) the public toilet with strangers of the opposite sex?

Public toilets add to the discourse that gender is a socio-cultural presentation for public consumption and policing. Some women will not leave home without applying make-up, while men generally do not. But at home, we tend to do as we please. What we can do at home is (mostly) private and (usually) outside the reach of public gender policing. Perhaps the unisex public toilet is the ultimate indicator of equality wherein gender is at once transgressed, undermined, and rendered obsolete. A future of unisex public toilets as a symbol of civilisation and sophistication has yet to arrive. In the meantime, the public toilet is a locus of transnationalism and globalisation, (re)producing gender and sexual identities as befits the ever-changing architecture of urban spaces and notions of civilised society.

Reference

1 Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (editors) (2009) Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, Temple University Press.
2 Sheila Cavanagh, (2011) Queering Bathrooms, University of Toronto Press.
3 Tom Boellstorff, (2004) ʻPlaying back the nation: waria, Indonesian transvestitesʼ, Cultural Anthropology, Vol 19, Issue 2.
4 Why Indiaʼs yuppies want Starbucks (itʼs not about the coffee), The Guardian, 30 October 2012
5 ToiletDay.org

My interview with film director Nia Dinata

Nia Dinata is one of Indonesia’s most important film-makers. Known for tackling subject matters such as abortion, polygamy, and sexualities in a profoundly refreshing way, the films of teh Nia have received worldwide acclaim outside the geographically parochial national film industry of Indonesia. I had the valuable opportunity to ask teh Nia about her views on gender in Indonesian cinema and the current trend of religiously themed films. This interview is one of my many interviews with members of Indonesia’s film community, its producers, directors, critics, and scholars.

The formidable film director and producer Nia Dinata. Source: The New York Times.

Length of interview: 24 minutes
Location: Kalyana Shira Films, South Jakarta, February 2012.

Alicia Izharuddin: Do you think there’s been a change in representations of women in Indonesian film?

Nia Dinata: Little change. Not as significant as people expected just because there are more women behind the scene does not mean it translates immediately to just portrayals of women on the screen. I don’t think it happens directly. But I see little changes here and there. It’s not as significant as the number of women who are now behind the cameras and behind film-making. I think we still need to work on that.

AI: What are we looking for? What kind of images of women that are not being shown enough in film right now?

ND: I feel that it’s still very rare for women to be heroes, as the major protagonist in a film. Not Or other minority characters, not just women – gay men, lesbian women. Mostly the heroes are still men. The kind of portrayal of women if they are female heroes like the films I watched last year, they are mostly women who are religious. If they are heroes, they should be religious. Have you done that research?

AI: Yes, I am doing that research.

ND: Most of the heroines have to be healthy, very religious, very conservative in their choice of lifestyles. So there’s still not enough room for women who are not religious. Or religious but they do not want to show it, they think religion is a private matter.

AI: So they don’t wear the jilbab.

ND: Yes. Women who are less ‘white’. Maybe a bit ‘grey’. Because we have a lot of films where we have the hero or heroine who have ‘grey’ characters – not black or white.

AI: Grey, as in ambiguous?

ND: Yes, ambiguous. I think it’s very rare to have that kind of characters. Ambiguous characters. I think Indonesian people are afraid of ambiguity. They are still afraid to admit that actually human beings can be a saint and evil. We are complex.

AI: But is that one of the problems with film-maker is that they’re too scared that audiences cannot accept complex characters.

ND: I don’t think it’s a matter of fear. It’s more a matter of ignorance. They didn’t even realise that ambiguity exists, that there are different gender portrayals or characteristics. Because there are not many women film makers who are also aware of gender issues.

AI: You’ve been known to make films about women that have been discussed before, like abortion, polygamy. What do you think is your approach to portraying men and masculinities?

ND: Oh I don’t know what my approach is. I’m not an expert in masculinity! If you like this world is already very masculine. The earth, I believe, is very feminine in the beginning. But in time, it became more masculine. Maybe there’s no relation to film at all. But in general, femininity is still considered a threat, a weakness. I have no approach to portraying masculinity.

AI: Because one of the films you produced, Quickie Express, was used in my class to study masculinities. The reason why I found it interesting is because …

ND: They’re not masculine at all.

AI: Even though they’re not masculine, they try to be. But in their efforts to be masculine, it becomes comedic. What is also interesting in the film is that you find many examples where you find the male sexuality is humiliated, being undone. Did you have to anything to say there about men in that film?

ND: Actually, the film was a parody. I love doing satire. And the film was a satire of society. And the reason why it’s so successful in terms of box office [sales] is because the public was mistaken. The film was mistaken for a very masculine film. People who have power and decide what films to watch are generally men – the masculine force. Of course it’s fun for me to see that actually they’re being put into this strategy and they eat it all up. And most of them still find it fun to watch. A small group [of male audiences] find it the opposite. Even the Om Rudi character who is very masculine and turn out to be gay. It’s an expression of while we can make films, we might as well use it to express our beliefs.

AI: Unfortunately the film was never really rigorously analysed. But when I watched it, I thought, so many things that could be unpacked. In your opinion, do you think it is possible for male film-makers to make representations of women that are very meaningful?

ND: I do. But we’re lacking is consciousness, mindfullness. Especially when we’re making films. Most of the male film-makers I believe they’re capable of making films about women in a very inspiring light, not necessarily positive. However, when they do it, they do it unconsciously. And when they don’t do it, they [also] do it unconsciously. We’re not brought up to do critical thinking of trying to analyse, criticise the society, and the imbalanced portrayals of men and women in the media. Unless it’s people like you or me who’ve taken classes on gender, women’s psychology or stuff like that in college. Most people are not trained especially in Asia to see with critical eyes about those things. I believe that male film-makers are not also not trained in those things. And when I point out, ‘oh I like that portrayal of women in this film or several others’. But I believe a man did that portrayals unconsciously, but not without real intention but because the story flow very well, it looks very artistic, the characters, not the women look stronger but not with mindfullness that it is important [to portray women in a meaningful way].

Film poster for Berbagi Suami (Love for Share, 2006) directed by Nia Dinata

AI: When I ask that question, I keep thinking about Perempuan berkalung sorban as an example of a male film-maker who is trying to say so many things about a woman’s experiences in a difficult and conservative environment. I just wondered why more women were not involved in a project like that?

ND: I cannot stand watching Perempuan berkalung sorban because there’s a lot of pretentiousness in it so I don’t know.

AI: Did you think it was too preachy?

ND: Yes, too preachy and that’s why I thought it was pretentious.

AI: Another thing I was wondering, back to women behind the camera. Why do you think there are not as many women behind the scenes? There is definitely a rise in the number of women producers. But the one who is calling the shots, the director, women in that role are still so few. Is there are reason why?

ND: It’s generally like all over the world right?

AI: Yes, of course. But is there a specific reason here in Indonesia? Because I’m comparing Malaysia. In Malaysia, we don’t have many women film-makers. We don’t have a very big population, but that’s not a good enough reason. But I wondered if there’s about the culture in film industry that is probably macho, not just male-dominated. Does it make more difficult for women in any way?

ND: I don’t think so. The environment is making it difficult but it has to come from the woman herself. Because I think this kind of progress that we’ve been through, the environment is very friendly at least the one that I’ve been through to both women and men. I think it has to come from the women herself to have the need and longing to call the shots. Because if they don’t try it they don’t know how exciting and invigorating for anybody to be able to visualise their thoughts.

AI: Do you think it’s something to do with power and leadership, and maybe women are not as willing to take up that role?

ND: Yes, I think it has something to do leadership, and something to do with the belief that women are better at organising and managing so they become very good producers. Which is true. So most people, they end up falling into that belief and decide for themselves, ‘I want to be a producer, instead of I want to be a director.’

AI: My last question; pertaining to films that feature a lot of Islamic elements in them. In the last few years, there have been a number of films about Islam and Muslim people. It was like a trend, however, they were not many women were who responsible for these films. Is there a reason maybe that Islam as a topic that may be too sensitive for women film-makers to take up?

ND: But for me, it’s all about trends. It’s all about big waves in Indonesia that have been for the past 4,5 years. It’s very trendy to even wear the jilbab, to be a born-again Muslim, to belong to a certain group of pengajian, another form of arisan. All my friends, say ‘Let’s join this pengjian. The ustaz is very nice. Let’s meet once or twice a week’. For them, it makes them happy because it is very trendy. It is trendy to launch your fashion, and after fashion it is movie and music. Which is why men love to do something based on their brain, not their heart. Their brain says Islam will make a lot of profit. But if you look deeper, the men are not even Muslims. So it’s just making a commodity out of Islam.

AI: But there are also a number of film-makers who get questioned about their qualifications to make films like that. Hanung Bramantyo gets questioned a lot about the kind representations of Islam and Muslims in his films, because they are more you could say ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’. He is questioned about how good a Muslim he is, his actors are for example. To me, I find it interesting because the personal side of the film-maker is also being put in the spot.

ND: Well, it depends. When Hanung made Tanda Tanya, he has every right to make it because he has questions about Islam [in Indonesia] himself. Somebody whose name I don’t want to mention, who are Catholics who make religious films I don’t think it is fair. Because for me, it is fair for business. But content-wise, it is not. Everybody can make any film for the sake of business but I won’t watch that film because I get to choose what I want to watch. But it depends, if somebody makes a film that has questions about religion criticising religion, that’s fine, anybody can make. Anybody in their stage in life will have questions like that. It would be nice to have those questions up on the big screen. But if you’re making films that are very, very conservative, very black and white, without any critical thinking at all in your film where you are not even a Muslim. It’s kind of strange to me. It’s like putting business as your religion. I think people who are criticising film-makers who make films about religion are very shallow people because anybody can question about their religion, or question the existence of God.

AI: In Malaysia, we’re very conservative and we can’t just make films that question Islam. But in Indonesia, I also notice that those who are conservative share that same view.

ND: But that’s the risk of being a film-maker. If you want to tackle those issues you have to be prepared. But the difference between Malaysia and Indonesia is that you can actually do anything in Indonesia, it’s just a matter of whether you’re ready to be criticiesd or not. But in Malaysia, even when you have the intention it doesn’t mean you can materialise that intention.

AI: [Laughs] Yes, it’s tragic like that.

ND: Move to Indonesia to make films. [Laughs]

AI: [Laughs] OK, I think that’s all we have for today. Thank you, Teh Nia.

On skodeng visual culture

Marshall McLuhan perhaps never foresaw how the global village would one day become like a Malay village where a person’s code of morality was carefully circumscribed and their private life is everybody’s business. One aspect of the online Malay village is the exchange of saliva-inducing moral tut-tutting and cruel assassination of character between internet users via the ‘skodeng’ video. These are videos of people in intimate situations uploaded online by voyeuristic moral vigilantes. The details of many of the videos are in Malay and are searing with judgmental commentary. Many are tagged with the now notorious word ‘skodeng’ or spying. The videos, made in the idiom of amateur/gonzo salaciousness, are captured using mobile phones or digital cameras.

‘Skodeng’ is the byword for the contemporary state of Malay sexual morality. It is not simply a Malay person’s expression of prurience, sexual frustration, and the need to punish others, but a product of state-sponsored moral policing that entices the volunteering public into positions of ancillary power. Members of the public have always been a part of the controlling of bodies, erotics, and movement within its imagined communities. The more commonly applied methods of moral policing come in the form of raids by religious officers who act on tip-offs from members of the public. And moral vigilantes officialised under the auspices of federal and state religious authorities – like Badan Amal Makruf Nahimunkar (disbanded in 2005), the Putrajaya Islamic Council Volunteer Squad, and RELA – have been never low in supply.

On Valentine’s Day in 2011, the Malaysian state of Selangor’s religious department rounded up 80 Muslim individuals for committing khalwat in an operation called ‘Ops Valentine’. The nine-hour operation, which began at 8pm, was a two phase event involving visits to the recreational and public parks around Selangor and raids in budget hotels. Sexual relations outside of wedlock is considered a sharia offence for Muslims under the Section 23(3) of the Sharia Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act 1997. Along with the case of Ops Valentine, state governments and religious authorities have been known to assign the role of moral enforcers to less official citizen volunteers termed ‘mat skodeng’ (male spies/peeping toms).

Moral policing has been described as a political tool to shore up the moral vote, but it has become a social tool with far-reaching consequences. By enlisting vigilantes to assist in the moral policing, religious authorities may have inadvertently unleashed a phenomenon in which members of the Muslim public take it upon themselves to expose furtive activities of other people to humiliate and possibly, blackmail. Instead of reporting to religious authorities, however, skodeng voyeurs resort to another kind of vigilante ‘justice’: video evidence and the threat of shame.

The moral high ground also comes with a privileged view of the moralising gaze. According to the feminist activist and web media expert, Jac SM Kee, one’s legitimacy or moral ‘right’ to see (and judge) coincides with their their privileged social and religious position in society. Malay people are institutionally privileged and a version of their faith Islam is often used by the state as a stick to beat people with. When religion is used as a state tool to intimidate, those with a righteous streak have a convenient source of legitimacy that the aura of Malay privilege and state Islam provide.

The ability to look with dehumanising intent is a position of power; the male gaze determines the mainstream ways of eroticised looking, the touristic gaze looks on from a position of seclusion from the reaches of the exotic Other, the white gaze reduces the non-white into insignificance. Once legitimised by being the on the ‘right’ side of morality, one feels emboldened and justified to look and judge. But the moralising gaze gains much of its power from seeing without being seen. Once the tables are turned against them in which they are exposed and subjected to scrutiny, they lose their power and pleasure.

There’s no mistaking that the skodeng video exists as part and parcel of our sex-tape, nip-slip, invasive papparazzi-style image-saturated society in which forbiddenness, desiribility, and erotic legitimacy are mediated through audio-visual material. Skodeng videos are part of a visual culture where the boundaries between the public and private are tantalisingly thin. One major cost of media voyeurism is the devaluation of privacy and the privileging of spectatorship over interaction that renders the viewer passive but hungry for more.

It may not be a stretch to suggest that mediated voyeurism, with regards to the production and viewing of skodeng videos, is not an isolated expression of social deviance and state intervention, but rather exists in a constellation of the more banal world of reality television and its close cousins: curated television programmes of home or amateur videos of embarrassing or extraordinary circumstances such as police car chases or animals performing improbable acts caught on tape, all of which are sadly available on Malaysian television.

We cannot discount how high profile moral policing has created a culture of surveillance in Malaysia in which an unseen eye ensures that we are at our best behaviour. To briefly invoke Foucault: those who are observed (or think they are observed) and controlled by an unseen eye will end up observing themselves and disciplining their every move. The fear of the law, fines, CCTV, nosy neighbours, and now personal video devices are part of this culture of surveillance.

Somehow acts of observation and control have shifted from the self to being exerted over others in this culture of surveillance. One also wonders whether concerns about the lack of integrity that the police and other guardians of social order have in Malaysian society means that we resort to privatised methods of securing personal safety and order. And in the case of securing moral order, the lack of trust in authorities distorted by a warped sense of righteousness means that ordinary individuals can reinstate a veneer of morality in their own twisted way.

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Acknowledgements:
The author wants to thank Jac SM Kee for her contribution to the writing of this post and journal article. This post is a condensed, truncated, and deliberately florid version of a journal article in progress. Please refrain from citing this piece without my permission.