Sexist men and the people who love them

First published on Loyar Burok on 12th August 2013

This article is about the men who walk amongst us whom we admire, whom we call our friends, lovers, husbands, fathers, brothers. If you prefer, this article may also be about the ‘other’ men out there, the rapists, child abusers, sexual harassers, and other shadowy characters in the news and conversations whom we hope to never meet and know in real life. But above all, this article is about liberal hypocrisy.


Did it come to any shock or surprise that many respectable white men in Britain have been exposed as paedophiles, rapists, and low-lifes in fine suits? How did they get away with despicable behaviour for so long while their accusers languish for decades waiting for justice? Sometimes in their belated battle for justice, their accusers continue to languish post-trial because justice has an expiry date.

In Britain, men who worked for the police sleep with female activists in order to infiltrate activist groups. Some of these men have even fathered children with these women. As police ‘spies’, all of these men have assumed false identities as fellow activists that they have managed to maintain through lie after lie for years. When these men were exposed, the women reported to have felt as if they were raped by these men. Who wouldn’t feel like that?

Case after case of sexual crimes in the past year have revealed men, all men, who have lied and destroyed people’s lives. These men have chosen to prey on girls and women, and thought nothing of the repercussions. For a long time, these predatory men have walked among innocent people, many of them children and protected by their status, the law, and the auspices of the state. It is only when these men are finally caught, placed in the dock, and subjected under the mercilessly glaring light of the media that they are framed as criminals.

Before they were classed as criminals, they were just like any other man you might know. Nice, pleasant, loving, well-respected, normal. How much does it take for us mere mortals outside the machinations of the law and media to recognise that the men among us are guilty of heinous crimes like rape and harassment? A lot, plus some denial on the side.

In Malaysia, we have so little faith in the justice system and its apparatuses that we resort to our own kind of justice and sense of order. This is why private security and fear of crime are so high in Malaysia. Some people go to extremes and take the law into their own hands by committing vigilante justice. Others take futile precautionary steps and not go outside alone late at night and build iron grills around their own personal prisons.

When there is so much fear of the ‘other’ men we don’t know, we usually become blinkered from those who commit everyday forms of sexism and misogyny under our own eyes especially when they don’t look like your garden variety rapist. In films and the popular imagination, rapists are visibly psychotic and don’t hold down respectable jobs.

Is this the reason why many women refuse to report if they had been raped and/or harassed? Because they will be disbelieved? And perhaps because it is far easier for us to condemn those we read about in the news, but not those we know and consider our friends? Except for the privileged few, we’ll never meet the men who have committed crimes of a sexual nature and so we’re sheltered by own self-righteousness and cowardice when we hurl abuse at these men from behind the screen.

Gender-based harassment and assault within high-profile liberal middle-class circles are relatively common and some go unreported. When they are reported they are forced under the carpet in the name of … what exactly? Somehow the proximity of familiarity renders the crimes of the respected and respectable insignificant and easily dismissed. How long do we wait until they are properly exposed as criminals?

The possible reasons why criminals within one’s respected ranks are protected may be economic (no one wants to lose their jobs), social (being a whistleblower has shown to be stigmatising and damaging to one’s livelihood), and political (you don’t want to lose the prestige, power, and popularity by exposing the guilty because apparently no one is a saint).

But it is also possible that the protection of the respected and respectable within the liberal middle circles is class-based. Since time immemorial, the crimes of the powerful and privileged have often been overlooked or mitigated while the poor and disenfranchised are punished disproportionately harsher.

This article is not a call for a witch-hunt of would-be male rapists and harassers amongst us but rather a reminder for us to reassess what justice means. There is credible evidence that those who purport to fight oppression are perpetuating oppression themselves and by implication undermining the good work of others. We are quick to point out the hypocrisies of others, namely politicians and religious authorities but struggle to come to terms with those closest to us and our own.

In one of the more transparent countries in the world with a functioning legal system, Britain, justice as has an expiry date. Even if the crime had happened a long time ago, it does not make it less of a crime but its sentence will be mitigated by the time length between the act of crime and indictment. Hence do not wait to tell others of the injustice that you know and that has happened to you. It is therefore fitting to conclude with an adage attributed to the courageous Shirin Ebadi who said that we may not be able to end oppression for good, but the least we can do is tell as many people about it.


A companion piece to this article is by Clarissa Lee who has written about the insidious dynamics within liberal and “intellectual” circles that lets men within such a circle off the hook.

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.


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

On blogging or how my life presents itself online

The frightful genius of Charlie Brooker’s first episode of Black Mirror has got several things right about social media and new telecommunication technologies: how we choose to present ourselves to the world is highly selective and based on narcissistic drives. Those of us who are more decorous in our internet use would loath to reveal our angriest, most vulgar, kinkiest, saddest, and disappointed side. But without these dimensions of ourselves on display, how can we ever say that personal blogs and social media truly represents ‘us’?

Our social media pages and blogs perform as our very own gallery or museum, exhibiting parts about our lives that we believe form of a coherent narrative. And like every gallery and museum, there is the storeroom filled with things that the public do not get to see – this space represents our actual lives: messy, uncatalogued, hidden mostly from view. In other words, what you see online about me, the few pictures of me you’ve found on Google, what I’ve written and tweeted are not reflective of who I am as a person.

The advent of Tumblr further compounds any notion of an online user’s ‘true self’. Our thoughts and words are often outsourced to memes and animated gifs that act as stand-ins for our emotions. In place of what used to represent ‘us’ – our retouched photos and edited blog posts – have been replaced by photographs of cats copy-pasted, reblogged, and cannibalised until its source (who made it, what it was originally about) becomes irrelevant. Baudrillard would be proud.

What I publish in this blog are aspects of myself: my achievements, future dreams and fears. I stress on the word ‘aspects’ because I do not give away much about my own life: who my family members are, my lovers past and present, friends and frenemies, and my personal and professional failures.

Since the inception of this blog, I have changed the reasons for its existence. It was initially a place for me to practice my writing. When I became better at that, it became a place where I archived my writing published around the internet. Once I became more specialised in a particular topic, the blog became a place where I share my research. Then, later, I wanted to re-inject some notion of humanity I felt that was lost when I ventured out to master my craft by posting photos of my cooking.

The focus of what I wrote about had also changed throughout the years. When I began as a blogger, I was plugged into Muslim feminist blogging scene which was emerging in the US thanks to Muslimah Media Watch. I found myself writing over and over again about hijabs, ‘burkas’, and banging on about why Muslim women themselves are hardly given airtime to talk about lived experiences.

But there was also a problem when they were given some airtime. Within mainstream media, Muslim women find themselves already within a discourse constructed with a priori views about what Islam is about: the veil, terrorism, refusal to integrate into British and European society, ‘clash of civilisation’ ad nauseam. Very rarely are Muslim women given the opportunity to talk about other issues outside the myopia of how oppressive Islam and Muslim men are. This is why Salma Yaqoob is the boss.

Writing between the multiple gaps, between ‘mainstream feminism’ vs Muslim feminism/diaspora feminism, Muslim feminist from Southeast Asia vs Muslim feminist from North America, UK, and Europe – was hard work. I was writing from a minority view within a minority movement.

Frustrated by the discursive stasis, I began to switch tack. I wanted to write about feminism for the Malaysian readership. When my blog Cycads was first launched, it was the first blog ever to dedicate itself to writings about feminism in Malaysia. Never mind the fact that I knew very few Malaysian feminists when I started, I wrote what I knew about feminism as a political concept anyway. As the years marched forward, I had the privilege to meet and became friends with the Malaysian feminist activist circle(s) which further informed what and how I wrote about feminism, gender and sexuality in Malaysia.

Then, through the internet, I got in touch with other Malaysian individuals living in and outside the country who identified as feminist. These were simply names and online identities as far as I was concerned. After recruiting these individuals, we formed a webzine called Kakak Killjoy where I would serve as its founding editor.

The webzine was a relative success which attracted the attention of the socially liberal English-reading Malaysian public. By this point, I enjoyed taking a backseat to writing by managing the webzine and fostering my own academic development which progressively challenged my approach to writing about feminism.

A falling out with the writers of Kakak Killjoy that culminated in the stealth removal of my writings from the webzine and my position as its editor made me question the integrity of online/’real world’ relationships and how feminism is done online. The Kakak Killjoy falling-out was also a parody of the ‘cattiness’ of female-dominated spaces that saw themselves crash and burn after my removal.

Around the same period, I flinched whenever the phrase ‘check your privilege’ was used by feminists to bash each other. Cleavages were deepening between more ‘well-known’/professional/academic feminists and the ‘less well known’ feminist bloggers/tweeters because the former half was not checking their privilege.

Despite my own misgivings of the occasional abuse of the phrase ‘check your privilege’, I warmed to it once again when it made to the mainstream media where I thought it truly belonged. I was filled with glee that it was (deliberately) misunderstood by prominent commentators; it shone the light on how patriarchy/power-knowledge works in society.

‘Important’ knowledge was unquestioned. No one complains when complex financial and political terms are bandied about in public debates. You just have to learn the lingo and keep up. Intersectionality and privilege checking are considered pseudo-intellectual terms because they are not part of a discourse dominated by privileged men who feel it’s their duty to decide what is ‘important’. I feel that feminist discourse has made another headway in the public imagination and that it only has to forge forwards with questioning privilege and hegemony by demonstrating on how we talk about them rather than just identifying them.

I also turned away from feminist blogging when blogs that overshare graphic details of suffering under the multiple layers of oppression became a more ‘authentic’ expression of feminism online. I didn’t want to begin articles with full disclosures of where I belonged in the intersectionality of privilege (I am a cis/left-handed/middle-class/university educated/vegetarian/brown/bisexual), use CAPS, or join the debate about Rihanna/Beyonce/Lady Gaga in order to be part of the mainstream British feminist discourse.

Indeed, feminism made it possible for women to write and voice out in a society that silences us and it should not be the work of feminists to silence women. My discomfort with ‘spectacle’-blogging and the over-emphasis on the embodiment of feminism issues emerged in tandem with my postgraduate education. I knew I was producing situated knowledge but I do not want to share my private life with you online to my make views more authentic.

As it turns out, it’s not good enough that I say, ‘I know more about racism and sexism simply because my very body is the site of such violence’. I used to say this in my early career as a feminist blogger. But as my feminism continues to mature, I felt my feminist view of the world needs to be more than this. I am more than my body.

Right now, I’ve reached a pitstop where I can take stock of my journey into feminist blogging. It’s been quite a journey that I am quite happy to continue, but this time more accepting of my minority status within the discourse. As assessed on the recent special on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, feminism is the most inclusive political movement right now that appeals to women and men of all ages and backgrounds. I now accept that the broad church of feminism / fragmented feminism (if you look at it half empty) is inevitable and a good thing. You have to thank seeing the world intersectionally for that.

Why did the independent Islamic film community fail in Indonesia?

Last year when I lived in Jakarta, I chased down people of the Indonesian film community – producers, directors, critics, scholars, festival organisers – to talk about the boom years of ‘Islamic cinema’ following the success of Ayat-ayat Cinta (2008, dir. Hanung Bramantyo). In the following interview, I spoke with the film scholar Katinka van Heeren on why the independent Islamic film community consisting of film producers devoted to Islamic visual ethics and oppositional cinema failed to make a mark commercially since their inception in the mid 1990s.

Some context behind the interview, particularly when Katinka mentions the Muhammadiyah organisation who were behind the fledgling community:

Concerted attempts to create Islamic film-making communities were first established in 1996 by the mass Islamic organisation, the Muhammadiyah. Compelled by the newly gifted freedom to found media broadcasting companies on the basis of faith, the organisation along with others facilitated the training, screening of, and discussion on films for budding Muslim filmmakers. Previously, there had been no official guideline for making films that would later be marketed as ‘Islamic’.

In 2003, film companies and Islamic boarding schools worked in collaboration to produce the (now defunct) Morality Audio Visual Network (MAV-Net), whose main objective is to challenge the dominance of foreign films and strengthen the role of Islamic ‘visual ethics’ in film-making. MAV-Net’s view of ‘Islamic’ films departs from the Ramadan offerings on television. Their initial view of ‘Islamic visual ethics’ were found in the fringes of the mainstream media industry in the form of pirated VCDs of dubious documentaries about warfare and the military training from abroad. However, amid fears of associations with terrorism, this initial view has been retracted.

Islamic film organisations or ‘communities’ flourished during the climate of Reformasi because of the increasing numbers of Islamic institutions that began to approve of the training of young Muslims in film and media production and saw the benefit of media as a medium for preaching (van Heeren, 2012: 84). However, despite the rise of Islamic film communities during this period, only one film was made by these Islamic film communities and with little financial success.

According to van Heeren (2012 :121), MAV-Net’s manifesto of an Islamic cinema mirrors the tenets of oppositional Third Cinema in its aims of countering and rejecting the hegemony of Hollywood cinema and its undesirable copy-cat elements in Indonesian films. By the late 1990s, conspiracy theories of the influence of Zionist domination of imported media representations became another incentive to produce images that inspired Islamic and anti-Zionist fervour in Indonesia.

MAV-Net’s manifesto stressed their responsibility towards the global Muslim community in battling Zionist-dominated media emanating in the west believed to produce misrepresentations of Muslims and weaken the Islamic faith of Muslims who consume western media. MAV-Net eventually disbanded when regulations for what was allowable on screen became too complicated, in particular regulating what female and male actors can and cannot do in a film such as holding hands and the portrayal of romance or married couples by actors who were not married to each other.

Furthermore, MAV-Net was more interested in producing independent films but when with the success of commercial big-budgeted films such as Ayat-ayat Cinta dominated the public sphere, film-makers under the auspices of MAV-Net felt they could no longer compete with the impending juggernaut of the commercial ‘Islamic’ cinema.

van Heeren, Katinka (2012) Contemporary Indonesian Film: Spirits of Reform and Ghosts from the Past, KITVL, Leiden.

All singing and dancing – Islamic pop music in Indonesia

First published on The State

Pop singers like Vidi Aldiano are nothing like the nasyid* groups, the more conventional all-male singers of Islamic ditties. Young, fresh-faced and nary a skullcap in sight, he dresses like any other young man in urban Indonesia in ubiquitous t-shirt and slim-fitting jeans. The music is like any other unoriginal minor hit song cryogenically preserved since the 1990s, the only dissonance being his lyrics. He sings about Keagungan Tuhan (The Greatness of God), urging his fellow young Muslims to pray and praise God while a group of young women and men stop a game of basketball to start dancing cheerfully to an unmistakeably teeny-bopper choreography.

The song was released during Ramadan of 2009; following the tradition in the Muslim world, people and consumables become more ‘Islamic’ during this period. Among other things, female media personalities would don the headscarf, television stations broadcast religious dramas and documentaries, and the latest Islamic film would be released to coincide with a period of penance and reflection. There has been some commentary on the rise of Islamic pop singers who combine aspects of hip hop, gospel, and generic pop to produce updated versions of nasyid. Yet recently a secularised image of Islamic pop culture has been gaining a foothold in mainstream Indonesian culture, one that is stripped of its obvious Islamic symbolisms—headscarves, skull caps, Quranic inscriptions in Arabic, and even the colour green.

Alongside their more conventional Islamic musical contemporaries, there are rock bands who, on the surface and musically, are like any other ‘secular’ rock band but sing about strengthening the Islamic faith. Similar to Christian rock bands, an Islamic rock band replaces the song’s object of love and desire from ‘you’ to ‘God’. For example Gigi, an influential mainstream Indonesian rock band, looks like any other pop and rock ensemble. Broody, long-haired, and sometimes menacing, the singer belts out a tune about the gates of Heaven and how one enters it come the Day of Reckoning. In another particularly upbeat song, set incongruously against a dark chamber lit only by floating lightbulbs, the lead singer calls upon the listener to worship. Gigi’s electric guitars and pulsating drums recall inoffensive and edgeless mainstream North American rock bands such as Nickleback and 3 Doors Down. And the song itself? It is catchy.

Some may wonder whether bands like Gigi follow a similar aesthetic and politics as Islamic punk and heavy metal groups like The Kominas and al-Thawra. There are immediate commonalities: both are unconventional musical expressions that foreground the Islamic image of its performers and appeal to a youthful audience disenchanted with values incompatible with Islam encased in Western music. But following the crackdown on punk subculture in Indonesia, other anarchic and culturally subversive groups may be not looked upon too kindly.

The mainstreaming of Islamic popular culture is further evidenced by shifts in its temporality. Previously, Islamic television programming, music, and films were only released during Ramadan. Islamic popular culture prior to the 1990s was considered a commercially risky venture and unprofitable in Indonesia. If people needed ‘religion,’ they turned to religious leaders, prayer and Quranic recitation groups, and their local mosques. Today, however, they are found throughout the year. There are now questions of whether Indonesia is becoming more Islamic, or whether Islam has become more secularised.

Rather than receding from the public sphere, religion in an increasingly secularised world has been experiencing waves of revivalism. One unintended byproduct of secularisation of society is that religion became decentralised rather than being a power wielded solely by a central religious authority. Shifting increasingly towards the peripheries of power, religion has entered the marketplace en masse. These trends and the merging of images of modernity and Islam that were once considered contradictory have created what many describe as ‘Islamic modernities’ in a landscape of multiple modernities. The Islamic modernity seen in Indonesia is a political and cultural sensibility whereby a commitment to Islam is embraced alongside approximations of western notions of modernity.

Indonesia may not be globally known outside Southeast Asia for its pop culture or a key figure of the Islamic world, but it offers interesting clues to the way the biggest population of Muslims in the world engage with the geopolitics of post-9/11. The explosion of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia parallels the development of Christian popular culture in the US, simply because it has similar basic ingredients: the liberalisation and mass marketisation of religion. For decades since the mid-1960s, Indonesia was regarded as a beacon of Islamic moderation. With communism held firmly under the lid (with the help of the US government, no less), the Suharto regime also ensured that Islam remained unpoliticised and ‘non-extreme.’ Unpolitical Islam was (and still is) a good thing for secular politicos and commentators who were wary of revivalist Islam’s power to inspire Muslims to rise, in myriad and often unpredictable ways, against western hegemonic dominance. But following the resignation of Suharto, public and political manifestations of Islam gained momentum and reclaimed the mediascape.

The big question is, then, who listens to Islamic pop music? Are they anything like the followers of Christian rock music? Do they belong to a parallel universe sequestered from mainstream culture? The 1990s witnessed the bourgeoisification of the Muslim middle classes who equated the Veblenian display of public piety with social status. Since then, the steady march of mass consumerism finds itself face to face with an increasingly conscientious set of consumers keen on making spiritual meaning of their consumption. Conditions were then ripe for the proliferation of all things Islamic: fashion, comic books, make-up, and even toothpaste could become Shari’a compliant and reassuringly halal.

For some, it is frustratingly difficult to equate Islamic consumption with actual piety. Consumption of media has become widespread rather than specialised (and sacralised) to particular space and time, and too convenient. Spiritual respite is only a click or button away, rather than being a ritualised series of practices. Savvy marketers of Islamic pop culture sell their wares not only for Muslims but for everybody, as the products are imbued with good universal values rather than those exclusive to Muslims.

Although there have been plenty of debates decrying the commercialisation of Islam, one can never really draw a clear line distinguishing between what is sacred and profane, religious and secular, worship and entertainment. It is not seen as good enough to assume that consumers of Islamic popular culture are passive recipients of God’s message, pure and transparent. The answer may lie in the media theories of Katz and McQuail who propose that consumers of media are better understood through examining why they consume certain media products, and how they gratify certain desires and pleasures. Thus the need to appear pious may be too straightforward for the huge swaths of discerning and increasingly sophisticated Muslim consumer of media in Indonesia.

The growth of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia matters a great deal when we think about the global impact of hegemonic media representations of Muslims. Since the attacks on 9/11, the Bali bombings of 2002, and the release of Islamophobic films Submission in 2004 and Fitna in 2008 by Dutch filmmaker and far-right politician Theo van Gogh and Geert Wilders respectively, producers of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia have become emboldened by a new kind of urgency, one that is characterised by the need to produce new, progressive, and thoroughly modern images of Muslims and their cherished values. The rise of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia joins the ranks of successful nasyid groups in neighbouring Malaysia and to a lesser extent, the Arabic-singing rock bands of Thailand, who are embraced by a subset of the Muslim middle-class and working class.

The production of Islamic music and other forms of popular culture such as Muslim youth-oriented novels and cinema can be seen as a concerted effort of ‘writing back’ against dangerous Muslim stereotypes, and are probably directed to an imagined West itself. But Islamic media is as much an internal circuit of representations for producers and consumer who engage with issues related to cleavages within Islam, gender and sexuality, and capitalism as it is a dialogue with the West.

*Nasyid is derived from the Arabic nashid (plural: anashid) for ‘song’ or ‘hymn.’

Women’s exodus from the work force: Not a simply matter of brain drain

An article I wrote with Clarissa Lee, Dahlia Martin and Fiona Lee, published on The Malaysian Insider, The B-Side, and Loyar Burok.

A recent BFM podcast episode, “The New Brain Drain,” discussed the relatively low rate of women’s participation in the Malaysian workforce, focusing specifically on the challenges faced by mothers working outside the home. The government is showing an interest in women’s contribution to the national economy: Prime Minister Najib Razak recently commented that women’s participation in the workforce should be improved to aid growth.

However, the discussion in the episode is underscored by several problematic assumptions and generalisations about gender roles in parenting, as well as other work equity issues, that need to be corrected. Foundational inequities must be addressed with the aim of empowering women and challenging societal views of gender norms; otherwise, discussions on revamping the workforce and on measuring productivity and contributions by women would only lead to cosmetic changes.

The podcast began by highlighting the low level of women in the workforce – 46 per cent compared to 70 per cent in Thailand and 60 per cent in Singapore– before noting that one challenge for several women in the workforce was that they also had to juggle roles as mothers or carers. It also noted the decreasing number of women in higher job positions, and discussed some methods to increase the number of women in the professional workforce. Co-sponsored by the Economic Transformation Program, the podcast highlighted flexible working arrangements as a solution, as advocated by TalentCorp Malaysia under its Talent Wanita programme.

Johan Merican, TalentCorp’s CEO, provocatively described the exodus of women from the white-collar workforce to stay at home to care for the family in terms of a “brain drain.” Conventionally, “brain drain” is used to describe the phenomenon of highly trained workers leaving their home countries (often in so-called developing economies) to seek employment opportunities elsewhere (“developed” countries) that provide not just higher earnings, but greater potential for professional growth. The growing numbers of Malaysians leaving the country or remaining abroad to work upon finishing their studies is widely viewed as an obstacle to the nation’s goal of achieving a “high-status income” economy, an issue TalentCorp was founded precisely to address. As such, Merican’s framing of the low retention rates of women in the white-collar workforce suggests that TalentCorp is taking the issue of women’s participation in the professional workforce seriously.

At first glance, it appears that TalentCorp, as indicated by its efforts to increase women retention rates in the workforce, has a progressive stance on gender equality. However, a closer look at its initiatives, primarily on creating flexible work arrangements targeted at women, suggests otherwise. While such arrangements may benefit TalentCorp and other companies that implement them, they do not necessarily benefit women in the same way because the double burden of working and caring for the family remains on women. In other words, while it seem as if the reason for creating flexibility is to ensure that women might have time for work and family, the underlying implication is that women are still expected to fulfil double responsibilities, now both possibly from the home, while no mention is made of the role of men in the household.  Similarly, while the government’s introduction of a 90-day maternity leave policy is welcome, it nonetheless excludes fathers’ or partners’ parenting role. Why not paternity/partner leave, too?

Entrenched ideas about parenting and gender roles have direct and real implications on who, in a heterosexual partnered family unit, will take long periods of time-out from full-time work; the responsibility, unfairly, almost always falls on women. The podcast unquestioningly adopts this view, focusing on mothering rather than parenting, omitting the often overlooked role of fathers.  Interviews with women mentioned the difficulty of time management in balancing work and home responsibilities, as well as the lack of good childcare support options, as reasons for “opting out.” However, there was little discussion on how societal views of gender norms and work equity issues affected their decisions to stay at home. Did the women have a higher salary than their husbands, or is it the reverse? What does the “support” of the husband consist of: working harder and / or just giving his blessing? Does he help out with the household chores?

Moreover, the idea that women leaving the workforce to raise families is equivalent to a “brain drain” and not good for national “economic growth” is problematic because it assumes that the unpaid work of domestic management and childcare  has no economic value; it also does not mean that mothers are not properly utilizing their skills. In 2005, UNICEF estimated about 75 per cent of women, as opposed to 24 per cent of men, are involved in “care” work that are unpaid; if we were to measure that monetarily, that would be equivalent to a loss of RM76 billion, or 12 per cent of Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP). This persistence of views that allow for unpaid work to not have economic value borrow on an understanding of motherhood as being exclusive with womanhood and families. This in turn perpetuates long-held beliefs about gender roles, and also contributes to attempts to depict ideal womanhood. There must be more emphasis on shared parenting duties to help improve workforce participation rates and career opportunities for women.

Indeed, while flexible work arrangements benefit the companies, the question remains: will they equally benefit working mothers? What are the effects of flexible work arrangements on women’s careers in the long term? For example, are flexible workers viewed in the same way as their full-time colleagues or would they be considered merely as part-timers? Is there job security in flexible work arrangements? Moreover, although presented as a convenience, flexible work arrangements also require setting up home offices. Who is responsible for these overhead expenses? And, since work and home spaces are no longer separate in such arrangements, how do flexible workers draw boundaries on how much time is spent at work? Telecommunication technologies such as email and mobile phones have had the notorious effect of prolonging the work day, seeing as the worker is expected to be on call or reachable at all times even when outside the office. Given that flexible work is highly reliant on such technologies, do such arrangements necessarily deliver the work-life balance they promise?

The podcast also pointed out that women mainly occupy entry-level positions as opposed to middle-management and board positions. This issue cannot be seen as separate from women’s labour participation; for instance, although the podcast noted that Singapore has a higher female workforce participation rate, it didn’t mention that the rates of women in the boardroom there are similar to here. Discussing participation rates alone is problematic; there should also be a discussion of what jobs women have (this podcast did touch on that) to properly give it context. The underlying issue, then, is not that there are not enough capable women, but that the way companies are structured often prevent women from climbing up the career ladder. Within this context, quotas become an urgent form of action: they have been implemented in many companies and for many government boards too, and work well in that they acknowledge structural inequalities and help lay the ground for definitive mechanisms to tackle them.

Finally, the episode appeared to concentrate on a specific working class of women characterized as using their “brains” in very specific job functions (as high-earning “cognitariats”). The women interviewed, for instance, appear to be partnered. Women without partners or in lower-paid work have children too and probably cannot afford childcare. How do they do it?  If the professional working woman is forced to choose between staying at home or working, the working class woman, or even a single mother, usually does not get to choose. If the latter does not work, her children cannot eat. Also excluded from the picture are cases of foreign (mostly female) domestic workers having to leave children to work abroad–nobody calls that a “brain drain,” pointing to how bourgeois the term is–often to support other families and households.

Although we applaud the attention to a consistent and unabating problem, the conversation on addressing women’s challenges in the workplace should not only concern a professional class of women workers. The reasoning behind the policies implemented need to account for the gendered and class politics involved in the workforce. Furthermore, it is in the best interests of Malaysian women that policies, whether implemented by the government or private sector, take into consideration the demographics, labor, and cultural conditions of all women. The need for greater equity for all regardless of gender in Malaysia should not play second fiddle to an uncritical drive towards a “high-income” society without careful consideration of the consequences.

Direct address in Asrul Sani’s Para Perintis Kemerdekaan

In my doctoral research on the poetics of Islam and gender in Indonesian cinema, I found a few inventive cinematic devices and techniques used in the Islamic film genre to achieve various desired effects. In the case of the Indonesian Islamic film, the main desired effect is the use of film as a medium for religious teaching.

One of my favourite cinematic devices is the direct address, the moment when a character looks and/or speaks directly towards the camera, and by implication, the spectator, breaking the fourth wall. KCL’s Tom Brown has recently published a book on direct address in which he identifies seven meanings of the direct address: intimacy, agency, epistemic superior positioning within the world, honesty, instantiation, alienation, and stillness (see more on Brown’s direct address in a video interview with Film Studies for Free’s Catherine Grant here).

In the still taken from Asrul Sani’s Para Perintis Kemerdekaan (The Pioneers of Freedom, 1980), the progressive Islamic scholar Haji Wali (played by Asrul Sani himself) reminds his disciples of Islam’s openness towards religious diversity. It is one of several scenes in the film where Haji Wali dispenses progressive words of wisdom of which some are unmistakeably feminist.


The camera moves towards Haji Wali until we get a tight shot of him looking back at us, reciting a line from Al-Kafirun, ‘Your faith is yours/your answer and my faith is mine/Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion’. This is the only time when we get the direct address from Haji Wali which suggests the gravity of his statement.

Homecooked food March/April – the highlights

Yes, I know, I haven’t been writing here enough. It’s been a very busy few months obsessing over my PhD thesis. If you’re asking, yes, the thesis is taking shape quite nicely and I am very proud of it. What makes me a little less proud is how neglected this blog has become. But here’s a catch-up on what’s been coming out of the kitchen throughout the period of heavy duty writing:

Gnocchi in blue cheese and spinach sauce topped with sauteed girolle mushrooms.

Black rice and shellfish medley (razor clams, squid, and scallops with roe attached) cooked with chillies, garlic, and white wine served with a side of samphire.

Homemade sago gula melaka with date syrup in lieu of gula melaka.

As you can see, I’ve been eating rather well.

Inter-religious Romance as Patina of Pluralist Harmony in Indonesian Cinema (an abstract)

I will be presenting a paper (titled above) taken from my doctoral research as part of the International Gender Studies Centre Trinity Term Seminar Series at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, on 16th May 2013. The theme of the seminar series is ‘Gender and Propaganda’ and I’ve somehow managed to design my paper in such a way to fit the theme.

The narrative of inter-religious romance and marriage in film, usually between a Muslim and a non-Muslim, is typically employed as a superficial statement of tolerance, pluralism, and acceptance of perceived irreconcillable differences. This is because love between two people from different social groups can sometimes be seen as a seal over group divisions and as a way to incorporate one member from a different social group to another. Depending on the historical and political context of the film and the motivations and background of the filmmaker, such representations of inter-faith romance may however tell a different story. Indonesia is a hugely diverse country but beset by bloody inter-faith conflict between Christians and Muslims since the 1990s. A few films with Islamic themes from 2008 onward transcode the discourse of inter-faith discord and subvert it into a feel-good narrative of heteronormative love and romance. However, such narratives play out a specific gendered arrangement of faith and religious conversion: female love interests are Christian while their male paramours are Muslim. Christian female characters convert to Islam for their love of the faith and the man they love but Muslim male characters do not convert to Christianity or other faiths. Such narratives may be informed by several Islamic interpretations and cultural specificities pertaining to religious conversion in Islam in Indonesia. But ultimately, what the films say about inter-faith relations through romance reveal faith-based hegemony and propaganda.

Field work food: Sundanese cuisine in Jakarta

During my field research in Jakarta last year, I became a fan of bakso urat (large meatballs made with bits of offal packed with collagen goodness), buntut sapi belado (oxtail cooked with chillies), road side nasi uduk (fragrant rice and uncooked herbs typically served with fried catfish or chicken), Sate Khas Senayan restaurant (best chicken meat and chicken skin satay in Jakarta), rasi rawon (black tendon and brisket broth served with steamed rice and bitter belinjau crisps) and drinking teh poci (Javanese style rock sugar-sweetened tea served in clay teapots). Yes, I eat very well and sometimes rather extravagantly in Jakarta.

I would eat and buy food from road side mobile stalls called gerobok (or kitchen cupboards) and eat in some of the swankier Javanese restaurants. When I felt like spending some cash, I sometimes go to Pondok Sunda at the Senayan City shopping complex in Senayan. A nice meal followed by dessert at Pondok Sunda can set you back over a million rupiah (~RM60/£10) which is expensive for one person. It’s probably one of the most expensive meals for one I’ve ever had in Jakarta or in Kuala Lumpur.

Sundanese food at Pondok Sunda, Senayan in Jakarta.

Now, if one is used to eating a Malay or Padang style meal, the above doesn’t look particularly remarkable. Javanese food available in up-market Jakarta restaurants tend to be served as single dishes, like nasi rawon for example. But if one has a hankering for a sumptuous Malay buffet-style choose-your-toppings to go with your plain steamed rice, Pondok Sunda can fulfill the urges of a very Malay stomach. For those who are happy with the less sumptuous, there is the humble warteg (warong tegar) or small eating shops scattered around the less glamorous corners of the city.

What is in the image above? These are my favourite ‘toppings’ or lauk to be eaten with my rice: from top, clockwise: some steamed long beans and raw herbs, sambal toraja (a kind of sambal or chilli paste), nasi timbel (rice steamed packed in a banana leaf scroll), caramelised grilled prawns, a piece of ox tongue (left) and a block of fried tempe (right). The rice may be too much, it is just blissful nonetheless.