Visiting the Reading Lasses bookshop

First published in my now defunct academic blog, ‘Alicia Izharuddin’, on 14th September 2014.

reading-lasses

In the last leg of my rather prodigious series of travelling this year, I went to Scotland for the first time during a thrilling period of the nation’s history. My visit there was made more exciting, however, by the prospect of going to the country’s first and only women’s bookshop, Reading Lasses in Wigtown, on the coast of the Scottish South-west peninsular. To top my excitement further, I was booked to stay above the shop itself for two nights. Lodgings in a women’s bookshop! As you can imagine, my delight was not easily contained…

wigtown-booktown

Like its more well-known Welsh counterpart, Hay-on-Wye, Wigtown is Scotland’s official town of books and comes to life during its annual literary festival – and I, the book-lover, did not know this important bit of information! Smaller than Hay, Wigtown is effectively a one-main street market town, with three or four pubs. It was declared a book town in 1997 and boasted around 20 second hand bookshops. Sadly, like Hay and everywhere else in the UK, bookshops are rapidly closing down. 6 now remain in Wigtown. Those who are still going, like Reading Lasses’s owner, Gerrie, are passionate romantics and bucking the prevailing trend.

What is the bookshop like? Or rather, how would the average academic feminist bibliophile find it? Upon entering the shop, the ‘gender’ of the bookshop did not manifest itself instantly. The books are arranged according to rather conventional genres (thrillers, children’s, history, fiction, film and television) and upon closer inspection, most of the books are not targeted at female readers or concern women at all. There is, however, a rather good ‘biography’ section, featuring biographies of women both well-known and not. Between the Katie Price and Martine McCutcheon autobiographies, are some real gems, the biographies of Margaret Sanger, Dorothy Wordsworth, and women of science and letters of the 18th and 19th century.

Sad to say, the difficulty of selling the books contributed to Reading Lasses’s rather diminished title of ‘women’s bookshop’. In fact, all the good stuff are relegated to the shed behind the shop. In the shed lay some real treasures of women’s studies sold at £1 a piece (£2 for hardbacks). There were back copies of Feminist Review and other feminist academic journals from the 1980s and 1990s and many, many books on sex and sexuality, gender studies, and key texts of feminist theory sold at, I repeat for emphatic effect, £1 a copy.

The sheer amount of women’s and gender studies books printed between the 1970s to 1990s (concurrent with the institutionalisation of feminism into academia) was symbolic of the zeitgeist and demonstrates how not so far (mainstream) feminist discourse has come. As I browsed, I started to imagine how many of the books that were collecting dust in the shed could have been written today; the Caitlin Morans, the Hadley Freemans, the Laura Bates, who write rather pedestrian books that are unlikely to last the test of time.

Because we stayed at the bookshop, we were entitled to a 10% discount on book purchases and food (Gerrie is a real foodie, so the breakfast and lunchtime meals are very good). There is only one double bedroom (plus one single bed) for guests – tastefully decorated, a kitchen area with mini fridge, and a beautiful nautically-themed bathroom awash in blue, all priced at £65 a night. Like any wonderful bookshop owner will tell you these days (the venerable London Review bookshop included), they don’t do it for the money. If you dream of being locked in a women’s bookshop for the night (or two), Reading Lasses is the only place in the UK where you can.

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.

All-male panels – an indirect way of shutting women up

All-male panels are an indirect way of shutting women up. This is not a hyperbolic statement but a call-out on both symptom and cause of a patriarchal society.

When men are invited to speak in a forum, they are invited based on reputation and/or because the invited already belongs to a network of friends. Actual expertise is, surprisingly or rather not so surprisingly, secondary. Most times, men will invite other men because in the prevailing hegemonic boy’s club kind of thinking, men’s views are held in higher regard.

Although in many places women and men have equal access to education, with women outnumbering men in higher education, men’s intelligence is a natural amalgam of cool rationality, clear-thinking and objectivity that legitimises his smooth transition into the comfortable position of being heard and taken seriously. Women’s intelligence is remarkable and threatening. She must work harder to be as good as a moderately intelligent man, because her judgment is thought to be easily clouded by emotion. Her journey to being heard and taken seriously is more uncertain and often perilous.

And what kind of views? A) Views about the state of the nation and its treasury, religion and faith, ideologies of our times – views that somehow require the legitimacy and authoritative aura of the male voice. B) Views that do not raise attention to the specificities of gender and sexuality. Specificities are not universal and sometimes accused as divisive. Universality is the ideal, privileged and invisible norm just as being men and masculinity are the privileged and invisible norm.

The predisposition to invite an all-male panel is about the hierarchy of speech. It is not that women are forbidden to speak in public forums. They can be in the audience, speaking from amongst the crowd and challenge the all-male panel without much consequence as they are uncredited even when they speak truth to power. An all-female audience with an all-male panel will do nothing to challenge men’s dominance of the public sphere. Women in the audience are treated as passive listeners, a collective mass lacking individuality – one woman’s views and complaint are the same as any other.

There will always be women panelists who speak in forums. Their numbers are small and their names have a repetitive quality over the years. Usually, these women gain a certain cache as the go-to-woman to fix an embarrassing gender ratio problem. If only these problems were always embarrassing to event organisers. In more insidious cases, the regular female faces are there because they do not upset male privilege.

What women are not invited enough to do is to partake in the higher forms of speech; authoritative speech on matters that relate to power, wealth and wellbeing of people in general, male-dominated discourses disguised as universal issues and matters of cultural expertise. The higher forms of speech conducted by and between men are to be distinguished from lower forms of speech such as chatting, prattling and the one that women are constructed to do: idle gossip.

All-male panels represent one part of a constellation pushing women out of public life. Women are stalked, harassed, and virulently insulted on social media and the web when they commit to more stylised public speech in opinion pieces, blogging and vlogging. This is because women are stepping into the precious stomping ground of patriarchy where hitherto women appear for men and serve men’s interests, now women’s voices are saying things men and some women do not like to hear and the voices are getting louder.

When event organisers continue to host all-male panels, decline their invitation to speak as a panelist and do not attend their events. If boycotting these events come across as too extreme, the least one can do is to point out that yet another forum on ‘something important’ will feature an all-male panel and decry its backwardness.

Public seminar at National University of Singapore this month

Silence and consent

My dear followers and readers of this blog,

I will be presenting my early findings of my new research project on non-veiling in Malaysia in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS) on Wednesday 23rd March 2016. This is going quite exciting for me as it’s the debut of my first post-PhD project. Those residing in Singapore and in the neighbourhood, do drop by and say hi!

Feminist Reading Group 2 – Malaysian femininity and housework

frg3 - cropped

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

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

Teori dalam Pengajian Gender – jadual kuliah

‘Teori dalam Pengajian Gender’ AZEA 1103 merupakan kursus elektif Ijazah Dasar dalam Fakulti Sastera dan Sains Sosial di Universiti Malaya. Kuliah adalah setiap hari Selasa di Fakulti Sastera dan Sains Sosial, Universiti Malaya. Sila berhubung dengan saya untuk maklumat lanjut.

Kursus ini adalah pengenalan kepada teori feminis dan melatih pelajar dalam menggunakan teori feminis dalam penulisan, perdebatan, hujah lisan dan penyelidikan. Ia menggabungkan dan mengkritik ilmu dan teori daripada negaara Barat, Asia dan Malaysia dalam pengajian gender dan seksualiti.

Minggu 1 (23 Februari 2016) – Pengenalan kursus – maksud teori
Minggu 2 (1 Mac 2016) – Tubuh, identiti, gender dan sekualiti
Minggu 3 (8 Mac 2016) – Definisi wanita dalam falsafah dan agama
Minggu 4 (15 Mac 2016) – Epistemologi feminis
Minggu 5 (22 Mac 2016) – Feminisme Liberal
Minggu 6 (29 Mac 2016) – Feminisme Marxist
Minggu 7 (5 April 2016) – Feminisme Radikal

Gender, Science and Technology – lecture schedule

‘Gender, Science and Technology’ AZEA 2306 is a second-year undergraduate elective course at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya. Malaysia has a long history of pro-science policy in development and education, however the question of gender in science and technology is often framed as unproblematic. There is an over-representation of women in higher education. The number of Malaysian women active in STEM research is also significant.

This course digs deeper underneath the statistics and beyond the maxim that science is progress and rational. It crosses the disciplinary boundaries of history, philosophy, social sciences and the humanities to critique the unquestionable authority of science. The course’s main objective is to foreground the role of gender and sexuality in the story of science.

Lectures are every Wednesdays 9-11 am at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Please contact me for more details.

Week 1  24 February 2016: What is technology?
Week 2  2 March 2016: Women, femininity and science: key concepts in gender, science and technology
Week 3  9 March 2016: The body, identity and technology
Week 4  16 March 2016: Sexuality and technology
Week 5  TBA: Computers, video games and gender
Week 6  30 March 2016: Cyber-feminisms
Week 7  6 April 2016: Species and gender: Animals, humans and women
Week 8  20 April 2016: Ecofeminism and environmental justice
Week 9  27 April 2016: Gender and science fiction
Week 10  4 May 2016: Guest lecture by Dr Por Heong Hong – Gender, medicine, and reproductive technology
Week 11  11 May 2016: Guest lecture by Dr Clarissa Lee – Gender and feminist philosophy of science
Week 12  18 May 2016: Conclusion: Science, technology and feminist futures

Feminist Reading Group 2: Social Capital and Hierarchy

frg2

Feminist Reading Group will meet on Saturday morning, 30th January 2016 at 11am, in AWAM (No. 85, Jalan 21/1, Taman SEA, Petaling Jaya). Our topic of discussion is on ‘Social Capital and Hierarchy’ within feminism and inequalities between women.

We will discuss Jo Freeman’s classic essay ‘Tyranny of structurelessness‘.

Some questions for us to ponder:

1) What is social and cultural capital? Is it different from privilege?
2) What happens when women have plenty of social capital?
3) Is non-hierarchy always a good thing?

Discussion is in Bahasa Malaysia and English.

The Feminist Reading Group is open to everybody, registration is not required and you can friends and family. If you use Twitter, please share the event.

Please contact me (alicia [at] um [dot] edu [dot] my) for queries and further info.

See you there!

Non-veiling and down-veiling narratives in Malaysia

nonveiling

 

Project statement in English

It would be wise to establish that, in Malaysia, the dichotomy between the unveiled and veiled woman as oppositional and mutually exclusive is a reductive one, masking the shifting subjectivities of women who wish to unveil but cannot, women who remove the veil but choose to eventually re-veil, women who veil part-time, and women who down-veil (transition from niqab/tudung labuh to simple tudung). I would like to suggest that the sartorial practices of Muslim-identified women in Malaysia exist on a continuum of identities rather than a simple binary of non-veiled and veiled. The significance of establishing this continuum would be to illuminate the ethical agency of Muslim-identified women and their negotiation and struggles with faith, culture and politics of the everyday – all of which constitute the micro-politics of (non)veiling identities. Such a continuum of identities will also be able to reveal the contradictions, respectively, within the community of women who veil and women who do not. Recognising the imbalance of social capital between Muslim women, this study also aims to bring out the voices of women who do not wear the headscarf and challenge normative assumptions of non-veiling as passivity and non-compliance with regards to culture and faith-related matters.

Please contact me (alicia [at] um [dot] edu [dot] my) if you’re interested in participating in this project

Kenyataan projek dalam Bahasa Kebangsaan

Bagi saya, wanita yang bertudung dan tidak bertudung tidak semestinya wujud bertentangan antara satu sama lain atau hitam-putih. Sebaliknya, isu tudung-tidak bertudung menyelindungi kepelbagaian sosok wanita yang bertudung tetapi ingin membukanya, wanita yang menanggal tudung tetapi akan bertudung semula, wanita yang bertudung “separa waktu”, dan wanita yang bertukar daripada tudung labuh kepada hijab biasa. Saya ingin mencadangkan bahawa amalan permakaian wanita Muslim di Malaysia wujud secara berperingkat dan bukannya binari yang mudah. Dengan memaparkan permakaian tudung secara berperingkat, saya ingin menunjukkan bahawa golongan wanita yang bertudung dan tidak bertudung masing-masing tidak konsisten dan serupa. Projek ini juga prihatin kepada kelebihan wanita yang bertudung dari segi kapital sosial di kalangan masyarakat Melayu Malaysia. Oleh yang demikian, projek ini mendahulukan suara-suara wanita yang terpencil terutamanya mereka yang tidak memakai tudung dengan tujuan memecahkan persepsi terhadap wanita tidak bertudung sebagai pasif dan berlawanan dengan budaya dan kepercayaan agama.

  • Adakah anda seorang wanita yang tidak memakai tudung/hijab? Dan jika tidak, mengapa? Apakah cabaran dan tekanan yang anda hadapi sebagai seorang wanita yang tidak bertudung?
  • Dari mana datangnya pilihan anda untuk menanggalkan tudung?
  • Jika anda bertudung dan diberikan pilihan, adakah anda akan memilih untuk bertudung?
  • Jika anda bertudung labuh atau berniqab, adakah anda ingin atau sudah bertukar kepada hijab biasa? Jika ya, mengapa?

Sila berhubung dengan saya (alicia [at] um [dot] edu [dot] my) untuk menyertai dalam projek ini

The Feminist Reading Group

Feminist Reading Group
Poster by @fahmif10

The very exciting Feminist Reading Group will start this month on Saturday 19th December 2015 at 11 am – 1pm at AWAM. For the next three months, we will meet once a month to discuss classic and culturally relevant texts on feminism. It will be a fabulous opportunity to engage critically with feminist issues of our times.

Details:
Time: 11 am – 1 pm
Venue: AWAM No. 85, Jalan 21/1, Sea Park, 46300 Petaling Jaya
Further incentivising factors: Light refreshments and very nice people

Format of the reading group:
Each meeting will be a discussion of one text (attached). For the reading group to be successful, participants are required to read the assigned text before the meeting – it’s that simple!

Purpose of the reading group:
The reading group is a safe space for developing critical thinking and communication about feminist identities and ideas. It is about honouring the work of other feminists and being part of a bigger picture of championing feminism in Malaysia.

The themes of the three reading group meetings (see attachment for brief outline of the themes):

19 Dec: Neoliberalism and feminism
Text – The rise of neoliberal feminism (2013) by Catherine Rottenberg

30 January 2016: Hierarchy and social capital
Text – Tyranny of structurelessness (1971) by Jo Freeman

February 2016 (TBA): Domestic work and feminism
Text – ‘Obsolescence of housework‘ (1981) by Angela Davis