December 18, 2012 § 5 Comments
It would seem like after I wrote that last blog post I exhausted myself and my capacity to spew words and collapsed in a crumpled heap near the bottom of my closet while looking for something decent to wear but no, that is not what happened. At least I don’t think so? I have been reading a lot of books lately and wondering why I have a stupid blog, i.e. business as usual. Or maybe more so than usual, especially since you can find any number of comments online about how people want other people to bring back the copy editors because so many articles these days read like crummy, messy, awkward, shit-as-hell, hell-as-shit blog posts.
A blog is a much-maligned thing.
Hug your blog today.
Pet it, stroke it, maybe even write in it.
Can we talk about the fetishisation of edited writing? What are the magical powers of editing that will make a piece of writing automatically better (suited to consumption)?
I neglect to put up my Pop Matters reviews as they go up, so this is delayed self-promotion in one post. (And that’s a funny thing about self-promotion. It’s never eschewed, only postponed.)
1) Jamal J. Elias, Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam
This was dense, long, and really fascinating. Probably because it’s such a vast topic –there is so much history to sift through and situate—the book is very disciplined, never straying far from the outline of each chapter. I kept wondering about the women, who were mentioned so rarely. How did they see religion?
How did Maymuna know God? Women were illiterate, we see from this example, but they weren’t silent. How do we know which words were their own, which were put into their mouth? And if their words weren’t recorded or archived then how would we know how they saw God? This book takes its title after Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, who makes a cushion (here Elias tells us that in another account, it was curtains) that troubles the Prophet because of its images. Aisha’s artistry in keeping house and making household objects for her husband is a domestic problem, a spiritual problem, a metaphysical problem. In both examples of Aisha and Maymuna, women pose a problem or they neutralise a problem. Men reign, men look, men decide, men theorise, men historicise, men write and this is not so much Elias’ fault as it is a huge gaping hole, a glaring silence, a substantial lack. Aisha’s Cushion is all men, all the time.
2) Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home
I’m pretty sure I said enough about this book in my review. I couldn’t shut up and keep it brief, but I will add that I enjoyed reading about Hausa popular literature just as much as I enjoyed reading the novel. Although “enjoyed” is a term not without its problems—there was too much to relate to, on the level of the operations of patriarchy through familial and social institutions—that it was a bitter pill to swallow, or more like cough syrup: deceptively sweet but ultimately unpleasant. I’m still wondering what Saudatu thinks of her marriage. I also want to know how the women see, how they look at their men. Yakubu is pretty clever in how she manages to depict instances of masculinity that come off as, in the words of Aaron Bady in this tweet, beyond satire. (And this is also due, no doubt, to Aliyu Kamal’s translation.) The world of Sin is a Puppy is a world that’s too-familiar because most straight men actually want others to believe that their intentions, thoughts, and actions are produced and defined by their hard-ons. They spy a beautiful face, a comely figure, and they are ready to disavow previous wives, existing kids, current jobs and social and political positions. AND THEN THEY’RE LIKE, SHIT! WHY ARE THINGS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT? This is basically the position of Rabi’s husband, who really doesn’t need a name because he’s All The (Straight) Men We’ve Known Before. I was pretty happy to read Aisha’s review because she was similarly troubled by the book’s complexities: I am not alone in my discomfort! I admit I am pretty chuffed, because Aisha is smart and wonderful, and it’s good to be of like mind.
3) Kate Zambreno, Heroines
This is another long-ass review where I couldn’t shut up. Heroines is troubled and troubling; I’m frankly quite puzzled by reviews that seem to consider it a superficial or simplistic look at constructions of femininity. It’s also a ridiculously quotable book, and if I were allowed to write like 10,000 words I’m sure I would have quoted multiple passages. Zambreno seems to be circling around mothers in her work—on her blog she has talked quite frankly about her relationship with her own (now deceased) mother: her relationship to her mother, her relationship to her death. There’s a great line in Heroines about “panopticon mothers”, one that echoes a line from her first book, O Fallen Angel: “Maggie was born in a repressive regime (her mother has policed her since birth).” We don’t talk enough about the mother’s all-seeing gaze. (Do we? Is it all-seeing?) What happens to the daughters of panopticon mothers? I also feel like the proper review of Heroines would have entered into the spirit of the book like Helen McClory’s review, because it feels like she really engaged with the form and spirit of the book, although the style of it is still distinctly Helen’s own. But I’m sure this book will continue to ooze out of me in the months to come, in blog posts and other kinds of writing. I would like it to ooze; I’m sick of the capitalist mode of literary production, after all, quite sick, so it’s only expected that books will ooze and fester.
June 10, 2012 § Leave a Comment
This blog is not dead! It is merely in a state of extreme rest. In a state of hyperrest. (Hyperrest is characterised by placidity or inactivity on the surface, bordering on comatose, as the wheels of the mind’s engine churn and churn in a journey towards who-the-fuck-knows-where.)
My review of Katrien Jacobs’s People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet is up at PopMatters. I enjoyed reading it; Jacobs is an enthusiastic and engaged/engaging writer, but I was troubled a bit by the premise, which seemed to imply that DIY pornography and digital culture are necessarily subversive and/or emancipatory:
Although much of the material Jacobs explores follows the familiar trajectory of pornography that finds men as its main consumers and women as its primary labourers, Jacobs includes plenty of first-person accounts that provides a glimpse into how women negotiate the spaces of propriety and proper “female behaviour”. One blogger who goes by the name Hairong Tian Tian collected and posted pictures of men’s limp penises because she wanted to explore “the root of Chinese masculinity” by showing the “cock in its most mundane state”. Another blogger named Lost Sparrow attempted to compile an encyclopedia of lovemaking sounds “based on the premise that they would sound different in different parts of China”.
These are attempts to remake pornography, but whether or not they succeed in presenting pornography as something more worthwhile than a convenient commodity is hard to tell. For example, the DIY sex videos that Jacobs describes as popular among younger Chinese citizens certainly reify sexual pleasure and emotions and it leaves one to wonder about the emancipatory possibilities of the endless click-and-choose of online porn viewing. As Jacobs research shows, pornography has entered new spaces and is presented and enjoyed within new(er) forms of technology, but the patriarchal structures of society remain unyielding and resistant in the face of all this sexual and technological creativity.
But I also wondered if my own knee-jerk cynicism got in the way of a full appreciation of what was and is taking place. I do recommend Jacobs’s book, even if I had trouble reading it in public because my inner convent-school-educated prudishness kicked in. EXPLICIT PICTURES! CLOSE-UPS OF NIPPLES! IN PUBLIC! OH DEAR! So it was a read-at-home book, but no less interesting because of it.
(I was also reading the Feminism and Pornography anthology while reading Jacobs’s book and Wendy Brown’s “The Mirror of Pornography” was one of the most clear-minded, kick-ass essays in it; it’s essentially a response to Catherine MacKinnon, and I posted a quote from it on my Tumblr. Anyone who’s read even just a tiny bit of MacKinnon might sense the difficulty of countering the force of her totalising arguments against porn. Brown does a sublime job of it while demonstrating how MacKinnon’s style borrows a lot from porn, and reading Brown after reading MacKinnon is like being thrown a lifeline while attempting to swim in choppy moral waters. Sorry, melodramatic analogy, and also vaguely deceptive, because I can’t swim and will technically drown in all waters, but still. Also, this technically doesn’t have much to do with Jacobs’s book but throwing it in here because ♥ WENDY BROWN ♥.)
February 3, 2012 § 12 Comments
When I read about the “Marie Calloway” thing, I wrote a series of tweets and didn’t post them. I saved them, though, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the whole thing. Also, because blogs are where tweets go to die:
- Depressingly predictable? (And wondering about ‘Adrien Brody’, writer “affiliated with The New Inquiry”.) http://www.observer.com/2011/12/meet-marie-calloway/?show=print
- http://muumuuhouse.com/mc.fiction1.html Read Calloway’s piece and liked it: “I was also curious to see how someone who seemed +
- + so dignified and cerebral would respond to a young girl sending sexy photos of herself to him over the internet.”
- “I was hoping he would say something to the effect of how my looks made it so he was already impressed by me,
- which would ease the immense pressure I felt to be interesting and witty, (which is what I always hope for from men) but he didn’t.”
- Regimented artifices underlies heterosexuality. Obligatory games, tricks, shenanigans. At last, it all makes sense. Actually no, it does not.
- It’s interesting to me how Calloway’s piece is constantly referring to her social manipulations (what we all do) & her reactions to it.
- What’s depressing to me, of course, is the way the Observer piece frames it. Also, maybe, how female Youth & Beauty is always
- pitted against male Braininess & Power, and one part of me really, really wishes for another kind of story.
- Smart, talented, ugly young girl and beautiful older man, for example. But who wants to listen to this story?
- “Dignified, cerebral” straight men respond to youthful female beauty in the vein of Sir Rushdie: “You look so gorgeous & hottt.”
- “I am intrigued by your proposal that we sleep with each other, as I have a girlfriend, by which I mean, yes, yes, yes, okay.” – Cerebral Man
- I’ve heard/read/seen this version of the story so often that I cannot help but feel a mixture of sadness and exhaustion.
There you have it. A series of emo-tweets, perhaps a little mean-spirited (that dig at Rushdie comes from the Observer piece). I couldn’t put this thing out of my mind because as I was reading numerous reactions to her piece, I felt unsettled. There was both a subtle and overt need to decide if what Calloway did was feminist or not. Which seemed to me beside the point – surely the point is to be able to look at a woman’s writing and consider it, engage with it, critique it, without first having to decide if her writing is an act of Feminism™ or not-Feminism™?
So I went back to Calloway’s story:
“It then seemed really strange and unfair to me that the possibility of sex relies on just the one thing, the man’s ability to get an erection.”
“I feel so vulnerable,” he said, his voice shaking.
I felt annoyed he was only focused on his own feelings, after he had just shot a load on my face.”
We talked more about Gramsci, and then our feelings.
My face felt tight as his cum started to dry on my face. I wondered how he could respect me, have this intelligent conversation with me, when I was laying there with his cum all over my face.
“I talked about how mean I felt I had been treated throughout my life for my looks. And how I felt like people judged me less now that I was attractive. How even though it’s not true, I can’t get the idea out of my head that I feel safer when I look pretty. How I felt like the defining theme of my life has always, always been the way I look.
“It’s interesting because people always talk about how women manipulate men with their beauty and have all this power because of their physical attractiveness and ability to have sex or withold sex from men, but I’ve always felt like my own physical attractiveness is just like a defense from men. I feel like men have all of the power, and they attack you if you aren’t attractive. And even men who are attracted to me, I feel like they have all the power because they get less emotionally invested in me than I am in them. But maybe I would have more of that power people talk about if I were more conventionally attractive,” I said.”
I think these passages, consciously or not, explore sex and power play and heterosexual gender performance – and for that reason I find it hard to dismiss the story with an offhand comment like “we all like sex”. Do we all really like sex? Especially when we’re looking at heterosexual relations between strangers; or almost-strangers (Calloway and “Adrien Brody” were aware of each other’s digital existence, and perhaps obsessively so, in that way in which online crushes develop). Especially between partners with a significant age difference. Especially in the ways in which narrating a story about sex in such detail, with the interiority of the female protagonist as the thrust of the narrative, is so unsexy.
As such, these passages, consciously or not, attempt to articulate the power matrices that produce murky, messy heterosexual relations – all at once establishing the idea that beauty is a form of privilege, especially for a woman, especially for a young woman. But at the same time it destabilises and undermines that idea of beauty as privilege by demonstrating that the currency of female beauty circulates within the manufactured straight male gaze. If you have the privilege of beauty you are, of course, not “free” from this gaze, and if you do not have the privilege of beauty you are, of course, not “free” from this gaze.
I’m thinking of many women as I write this, and one of them is Janis Joplin, and this particularly line from Autumn’s piece screams out at me because I read it as true:
Janis Joplin, never having been considered pretty, also never had the security of banal prettiness.
The outrage over Marie Calloway’s story, the moralistic posturing of how she’s a bad girl or how fail-y her “values” are (because she still slept with the guy after finding out he had a girlfriend – “Think of the children and the future of all humankind, you harlot!”, etc.) are countered by some thoughtful responses, but it still seems important to emphasise that our capital-driven, heteronormative society prizes female beauty beyond all other female attributes or accomplishments. What? You mean like, after we decided that women are still human and whatever and feminism CHANGED THE WORLD, after all that… STILL? Yeah. In fact, I tentatively put forward this notion: shit is still fucked up and patriarchal.
Being young and comely is a privilege, and it’s an awareness that Marie Calloway herself seems to demonstrate – though, certainly she also embodies the insecurities that riddle a significant number of women: that she’s not pretty enough. “’But maybe I would have more of that power people talk about if I were more conventionally attractive,’ I said”, she writes. I don’t want to make the mistake of reading this piece of writing as a memoir, or a confessional, but certainly the fact that it blurs boundaries is what makes it messy, irregular, and compelling.
Kate Zambreno writes:
We’re bombarded with images of the pretty young girl, and if she’s only an image, and never given a voice, even a flawed, imperfect, bad-faithed perspective, this is a huge fucking problem.
And this is true, we’re bombarded with images of the pretty young girl who’s a blank slate, but this necessarily acknowledges the reverse: we’re not bombarded with images of a not-pretty young girl, ever. That is, a not-pretty smart girl who is not a freak, the boring sidekick, or the ugly duckling who must be transformed into some form of princess. The Hollywood-Disney industrial complex cannot bear an ugly young girl. Think of an ugly young girl wearing her ugliness with pride, like say, a female Sartre, pug-faced and fucking whomever she wants to fuck because she’s attracted to them, and enjoying it, and people swarming around her because she’s brilliant in ways that don’t involve her face and body; ways that don’t involve her glowing, iridescent skin and invisible pores and sun-kissed hair and smooth underarms and shaved pussy and stomach so flat you can eat sushi off it and naturally-bouncy-sticking-straight-out-and-up boobs. Think of this girl portrayed as just another somebody, no big deal, just another human living her life-
YOUR BRAIN JUST EXPLODED AMIRITE LIKE, OMG DO GIRLS LIKE THAT EVEN EXIST JESUS FUCK WHAT
And so young, intelligent, pretty girls like Marie Calloway will sleep with an older, awkward, introverted, slightly odd-looking Cerebral Adrien Brody, but will the older, awkward, introverted, slightly odd-looking Cerebral Adrien Brody be attracted to an intelligent, confident, not-at-all pretty woman? And let us then stretch this further and imagine the older, awkward, introverted, slightly odd-looking (white) Cerebral Adrien Brody desiring an intelligent, confident, not-at-all pretty (not-at-all-white) girl? Is there room to imagine this story without sort of LOSING OUR SHIT?
A hostage is freed, and on the radio she says, “I have finally been able to have a wax, and wear perfume. I am getting my femininity back.” Or in any case that was the part they chose to broadcast. She doesn’t want to go into town, see her friends, read the papers. She wants to get a wax? Fine, that’s her business. Just don’t tell me I should think it’s normal. Monique Wittig says, “Here we are, back in the same trap, the familiar cul-de-sac of ‘it’s-wonderful-to-be-a-woman.’” Frequently uttered by men. And relayed by their personal assistants, always eager to defend the master’s interests. Men of a certain age love to tell us this. Neglecting to mention the specificity of their “it’s-wonderful-to-be-a-woman”: young, thin, and pleasing to men. Otherwise, there’s nothing wonderful about it. You’re just doubly alienated.
- Virginie Despentes in King Kong Theory (emphasis mine)
The “power” that men love to bestow upon women – these must be of a certain sort, must rigidly adhere to certain codes. Young, thin, and pleasing to men. Again, I quote Marie Calloway, and this time with feeling: “It’s interesting because people always talk about how women manipulate men with their beauty and have all this power because of their physical attractiveness and ability to have sex or withold sex from men, but I’ve always felt like my own physical attractiveness is just like a defense from men. I feel like men have all of the power, and they attack you if you aren’t attractive.”
Young or old, ugly or pretty, women who want to belong to the social order and earn its “rewards” must assent to what Despentes calls the “system of forced masquerade”. Can we read stories like “Adrien Brody” as attempts by women, who in the words of Joan Riviere in 1927, “wish for masculinity” and “put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men”? And not because masculinity is “better”, but because opportunities to transcend identity appear to be possible within the realm of masculinity?
Jacqueline Rose has this to say in the chapter “George Eliot and the Spectacle of Woman” in Sexuality in the Field of Vision:
We seem to sanitise the very concept of fantasy when allow to the woman who writes only two positions – subordination to the stereotype or release into the freedom of writing from its weight. Yet could it not also be – and at the risk of troubling the concept of an écriture feminine – that, suspending her relation to the very fact of sexual identity, the woman equally uses writing to masquerade?
This seems to be what is occurring in all the responses to the Marie Calloway story; there is a need to determine whether it’s a feminist piece or not, to allow the woman who writes only two positions. But the piece is compelling to many, I think, because it exists in the indeterminate space in-between. Even people who want to mock her writing or her style have to admit that they actually sat down and read the whole thing. Again, I turn to Rose, and her reminder that “the question of our own implication as readers in a structure and images which we challenge even as they bear down upon, and at moments seduce, us all.” We’re seduced by the Marie Calloway story, most especially, I think, when we’re denouncing it and everyone involved.
But it’s equally important that challenging (what seems to be largely spurious, a performance of outrage in defence of some idea of Moral Values) outrage/condemnation of Calloway’s story is not the equivalent of necessarily succumbing to the universal, trite adage that says, “It’s tough to be a woman”, and to leave it at that. It is tough to be a woman in a patriarchal society. It’s tougher – “doubly alienating” – to not be a certain kind of woman. Not-young, not-thin, not-pretty, not-straight, not-cis, not-white, not-pleasing to men? Well.
“Does woman exist if she isn’t desired?” might be the question to ask.
I return to Despentes: “I like myself as I am, more desiring than desirable.” Though it’s not so simple, as Nina Power reminds us in One Dimensional Woman: “What if there’s no longer a gap between an internal realm of desires, wants and fantasies and the external presentation of oneself as a sexual being? If the image is the reality?”
If the image is the reality then what happens to people who don’t fit the socially-constructed ideal image?
Towards the end of King Kong Theory, Virginie Despentes asks, “How long do we have to wait, for male emancipation?” Cis, straight men like the “Adrien Brodys”[i] of the world, who no doubt consider themselves feminist or feminist allies, still can’t say no to the pleasures afforded and made possible by cis, straight (white) male privilege: when these men are awkward and dorky and not-so-attractive but in possession of internet “microfame” or some form of socially-acceptable talent/intelligence/whathaveyou, they can and they will have access to pretty girls to fuck even while having a girlfriend. And when everyone finds out about it (like, say, the pretty girl writes a story for Thought Catalog), the outrage will still largely be directed toward the pretty girl. And back to the pretty girl/woman – people seem happy to think about her reasons for sleeping with an older, more intellectually-authoritative figure because she wants the attention or has nursed a crush. But in wanting what “Adrien Brody” has, and in an attempt to master it and maintain the virtues of womanliness or feminine fuckability, Marie Calloway seems to demonstrate (to me, at least, in my reading) exactly what Riviere suggested: a wish for masculinity.
Meanwhile, what’s the male masquerade? There needn’t be any, amirite, not when you possess the phallus that is the yardstick for, well, everything. But what if sleeping with young, pretty girls when you’re an older man with a girlfriend is a form of masculine masquerade; what if, for the cis, straight man, heterosexual fucking is masquerade in an attempt to fulfill the codes of masculinity that so many cis, straight men seem reluctant to question, critique, demolish?
(JUST SAY NO TO MANLINESS)
It’s rarely ever “just sex”, when you’re an internet thinker/celebrity who writes about the self and social media and microfame, and one of you is an internet writer/celebrity who writes about the self and sex and microfame, and one of you is in a supposedly committed relationship, and one of you is prettier than the other, and one of you is an older man, and one of you is a young woman.
It’s rarely ever “just sex” when the conversation is largely about the young woman in question, and rarely about the man in question and how heterosexual sex is produced, used, performed.
Women are masquerading so hard all the time that they fall into fits of hysteria and take off their clothes and fuck anything that moves – yes, we’ve heard this story before.
I’d just rather spend some thinking about manliness as masquerade.
(*Art by Jason Stillman)
[i] Keeping in mind that “Adrien Brody” is as much fictional construct, if we read it this piece as fiction, as he is “real”, (if we read this as memoir/essay). How much of what is said and thought in this piece, how much of what is attributed to “Adrien Brody” and “Marie Calloway” real/authentic or imagined? Precisely the point, and also beside the point.
[ii] I’m hoping that inserting random comments into a blog post works on the subconscious of the Twitter generation the same way that Satanic chants inserted into all forms of rock music worked on the subconscious on the 80s generation.
November 21, 2011 § Leave a Comment
(This was first published in Kakak Killjoy on November 11, 2011.)
Just say no to bans
Seksualiti Merdeka’s name directly translates to mean Sexuality Independence/Freedom, and loosely translates to mean Free/Independent Sexuality. The core message on its website shows that it brands itself as a sexuality movement that attempts to provide a space and public platform for people who identify as non-heteronormative. It allows for people to explore, learn from, and educate one another on all the in-betweens of sexuality and gender that often fall through the cracks or are frequently rendered silent and absent. In particular, it’s a movement designed to amplify the voices of the marginalised. Quite naturally, then, the Inspector General of Police declared an official ban on Seksualiti Merdeka and all events associated with it, and the propaganda machine of the local mainstream media almost lost their shit in falsely and breathlessly declaring it a “free sex” festival (otherwise known as SEKS BEBAS!).
This issue has become a sudden hot-button topic even though Seksualiti Merdeka was launched in 2008, because it’s a convenient platform from which rabid politicians and their acolytes can engage in dubious political manoeuvering. The issue of queer rights allows the far right conservative voices in Malaysia to use the “this is against Malaysian/Muslim-majority values” agenda for political leverage, as they have done in recent times against Christians and communists. In some cases, these voices call for Datuk Ambiga Sreenavasan’s “banishment” for merely being Seksualiti Merdeka’s officiator. In Perkasa’s case, it reignites a long-simmering resentment over her involvement in Bersih through yet another manufactured scare-tactic. This simmering brew of warring factions is a complex mess. Many “oppose homosexuality” on the basis of what they perceive religious and moral beliefs, while political factions and groups put forth their objections under the guise of various populist sentiments like “Malay unity threatened” or “Islamic rights threatened”. This is in order to maintain racial and religious supremacy at the expense of minority groups.[i]
The confluence of law and religious prohibitions is often framed as the “natural” way of things, but Malaysia’s anti-sodomy laws are a legacy of the British colonial laws. Religious prohibitions are something to be navigated by each individual on his or her own terms. But the law, as noted by The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) in a wonderful statement released on November 5 against the Seksualiti Merdeka ban, is something that every individual has a right to disagree with. In the interest of political gain, power, and leverage, the law is often presented as the result of moral and religious pre-conditions, but more often than not it’s just a way of obscuring its historical context and the people and institutions these laws serve to protect. The important question to ask is why colonial laws are still maintained and propagated in more insidious ways in a country that won its independence fifty-four years ago. This is precisely what Farish Noor points out in his essay “From Pigafetta to Panji” in his book What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You:
Talk of preserving Asian values and Asian identity as a pretext for maintaining and reproducing heterosexist gender distinctions and their accompanying gender stereotypes is something that begs the historian’s response.
For is it not the case that the complex, rich and fertile history of Southeast Asia is a wellspring from which we may draw a counter-factual example of multiple and alternative sexualities at work?
He then proceeds to outline a little bit of this complex, rich, and fertile history for his readers in this essay – providing us with a glimpse of our past that far exceeds the modern imagination of gender politics that exhorts us to merely tick off the boxes of L, G, B, or T, or adhere to a strict, rigid heteronormative existence.
The virulent hate directed toward Seksualiti Merdeka organisers and supporters, as well as to the gay, trans, and queer communities at large, is a particular strain of hate that has found a voice and a public platform through state-sanctioned laws that criminalise varied expressions of human sexuality because it is deemed “abnormal”. I’m not sure how to deal with the hate, to be honest. Some people are hell-bent on despising others because of real or perceived differences. Among some of the tweets about this issue that I found alternately heartbreaking and rage-inducing were the reminders that “LGBT people are human, too.” That we need to remind each other of our humanness is in itself a potent enough reminder that hate and oppression have long been valuable weapons used to keep societies and communities divided and at odds with each other.
But to only view the backlash against Seksualiti Merdeka as the result of “religious extremism” reduces a complex conversation about national identity into an “us v. them” scenario, which is exactly what these politicians want. I’m alarmed by some of the more so-called progressive supporters of Seksualiti Merdeka who have been quick to deride its opposition as Muslim extremists, even though a quick scan through Twitter or Facebook will reveal many Malaysians from diverse religious backgrounds who object to Seksualiti Merdeka. It seems necessary at this point to think about how to separate Islam, as a religion and practice, from forms of political Islam used by groups like Perkasa and parties like PAS and UMNO to gain leverage. The language of “moderate Islam v. extremist Islam” is one that has grown out of a largely hysterical, Islamophobic discourse post 9/11 in the United States and Europe, and it is a language that should be resisted in the Malaysian context. [ii]
As Charles Santiago points out in his article, “LGBTIQ community has rights, too”:
The government, instead of fanning hatred and inciting anger, could move to oppose all forms of stereotyping against the LGBTIQ community.
It should condemn the bullying and name calling the community has had to endure and ensure they have equal access to education and employment opportunities, including enjoyment of basic rights of equality and freedom of expression and association.
The members of the community are targets of verbal abuse, physical and sexual violence, harassed at the work-place, ostracised by their families and face hate crime-related sexual assault.
They occupy the lowest positions in the job market, face discrimination in schools and are unable to access public housing because of their sexual orientation. In fact, they experience the worst forms of discrimination. They need compassion and state support. Not further discrimination.
But, driven by the need to stay in power, the government has fashioned the controversy surrounding the festival for its own political mileage. Clearly the ban demonstrates the ongoing persecution against Ambiga who spearheaded the call for electoral reforms.
The government is playing a dangerous game as it has carelessly pitted different communities against each other, while prime minister Najib Tun Razak trumpets his 1Malaysia policy, which aims at national integration.
But we are not our government, and we should (and can) think and act about this in ways that foster understanding and empathy. In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society still dealing with a potent colonial hangover, it is important that people strive to denounce both hate (whether in the guise of morality or religion) and censorship (in the guise of law, morality, and religion). This is not the same thing as demanding that queer communities should work within systems of oppression and refrain from rocking the boat. The boat should be rocked, and no one should be pressured into “keeping quiet” in order to appease religious or moral chauvinism.
Respecting and understanding the local Malaysian context in terms of religion and culture is not an excuse for those of us striving for a more egalitarian society to overtly or silently support the police ban on Seksualiti Merdeka. In order for people to engage with a movement, a movement must be allowed to exist, and it must be given the space and sanctity to put forth its views. Shutting down Seksualiti Merdeka also shuts down the ensuing debate and conversation. Sexual and gender rights are for everyone, and just because you identify as straight or heterosexual doesn’t mean that this ban doesn’t affect you. It does. It limits your rights as a human being to explore your identity beyond state-sanctioned norms of what is right and acceptable. The rights of one person are contingent upon another’s, and the moment we start thinking in terms of “my rights” or “my community’s rights” as more important or inherently more valuable than the rights of others, we start heading toward a very dark area of insular, hyper-conservative politics and its potentially fascist laws and policies.
The complexities of a Malaysian queer movement
On the flip side, there have been numerous criticisms levelled at the Seksualiti Merdeka movement itself for privileging gay rights over others, and for sidelining issues of misogyny, sexism, biphobia and transphobia that affect its lesbian, bisexual, intersex, and transgender members. This was elucidated at length by a fellow Kakak Killjoy, Yuki Choe, some months back in her piece titled, “So What Is Wrong with Malaysian LGBT Movement for Sexual Rights?”. I encourage you to read Yuki’s piece to learn about some of the ways people have felt marginalised and exploited by Seksualiti Merdeka’s agenda.
Seksualiti Merdeka’s mainstream discourse is established along the lines of LGBT identity politics, which may override or elide some of the more complex ways queer Malaysians express their identity. I’ve been thinking about this since reading Akshay Khanna’s superb piece on “Aid conditionality and the limits of a politics of sexuality”, which I also encourage you to read in its entirety. In particular, this passage struck a chord (emphasis mine):
This idea, that ‘who you have sex with defines what you are’ is just about a century old, and arises in a very particular political-economic context where medical professionals claimed a monopoly over defining the ‘truth’ of desire. This peculiar idea is far from universally experienced. In several parts of the global south, South Asia, for instance, people experience and express same-sex desire without needing to think of themselves as in any way different from the next person. In other words, same sex desire is expressed without reference to the idea of personhood. Activism in these parts of the world has recognised this diversity and addressed the politics of sexuality in a far broader way.
In India, for instance, the Queer movement, which has succeeded in overturning a colonial anti-sodomy law, has been critical of an ‘LGBT politics’.
This has been a movement that recognises the politics of sexuality as affecting everyone – not just those who fall into the politically constructed category of LGBT – and being central to the politics of caste, class, race, religious fundamentalism, nationalism and economic development.
As its supporters or would-be supporters, part of a genuine critique and consideration of Seksualiti Merdeka will be to think about how the movement imitates or replicates Western-centric discourse of sexual identity politics. Does one have to adhere to the politics of LGBT to be a part of the movement? In other words, must sexual desire always be thought of and expressed in terms of personhood, as Khanna explains above? The politics of visibility and “coming out” should be interrogated. Not everyone who sees his or herself as queer necessarily identifies as such in public, or feels the need to “come out” and lay claim to an identity, such as it were. For many people, sexuality is fluid and defies easy categorisation. For some, queer may be a state of mind or existence, a means of how one may choose to view and navigate sexual and gender politics at large. Perhaps sex and choice of sexual companions doesn’t even factor into it, especially for people who live and exist in more conservative spaces or with extended family.
Queer activists and thinkers like Judith Butler or Haneen Maikey, a Palestinian activist, urge us to remember that queer politics are not separate from other political and social movements. In envisioning a local queer rights movement that is egalitarian, it will be important to avoid a reductive perspective of “choice” activism that amplifies individual rights over social, cultural, and community systems and structures. This form of choice activism puts the focus on people who are able to articulate their needs and desires and claim a political identity.
Typically, choice activism maintains socio-economic privileges, particularly as it tends to speak to urban, relatively affluent KL-ites who can afford to live on their own or with their partner/others who share the same views, network within the same circles, and enjoy enough social and cultural cachet so as to be able to “rock the boat” and wear it as a badge of honour. The queer movement, just like feminism or anti-racism, is one that must consider all forms of oppression that keep patriarchal, racist, heterosexist, classist systems in place in Malaysian society. It’s a tall order, certainly, and I don’t mean to imply that a local queer rights movement like Seksualiti Merdeka should solve all of Malaysia’s problems in one fell swoop. I’m merely reminding those of us who care about these things to think about ways in which queer rights are not isolated from other rights but a part of it in the wider fight against oppressive power structures. In a recent radio interview, co-founder of Seksualiti Merdeka, Pang Khee Teik, addresses this in the context of jeopardised minority rights in Malaysia. That he situates queer rights among other minority rights is a move that should be encouraged and welcomed.
Haneen Maikey co-authored an article on the International Day Against Homophobia with a fellow activist, Sami Shamali, and while it is written from a Palestinian perspective, the piece is chockfull of valuable, helpful points that is of relevance to Malaysian queer activists, as well. This one in particular is worth quoting at length:
During the past ten years of our work, we have noticed that the dominant discourse around homophobia—be it a gay response to a homophobic charge or a homophobic discourse trying to publicly fight homosexuality, falls within the same cycle; this cycle reinforces the same power relations and determines what is “gay” and what is “backward”. This divides society into two groups only, the same dual polarized categorization that we are fighting in our larger discourse on sexuality (man/women, feminine/masculine).
There is the homophobe, then, who is now the “backward” Palestinian society that persecutes homosexuality and that must feel shame, and on the other hand there are the gays and lesbians that must feel proud, supported by allies and friends with a progressive human rights discourse, which is, unfortunately, a liberal discourse most of the times. There is no space in this polarization for more complex and less public expressions and statements; more importantly, this discourse pushes back any attempt to analyze homophobia deeply enough for the sake of dismantling it.
And the worst thing is that this discourse prevents the gay and queer community from taking an effective role in the general social agenda, because of the claim that our oppression is different and particular. This is a part of the liberal discourse that ignores the analysis of power relations and prefers to look at every issue on its own. And thus it deals with the gay issue apart from all other social issues, turning a blind eye to the fact that the gender and sexual struggle, which includes the gay struggle, is an integral part of a wider resistance agenda that is not “particular” or “different”.
People who fall beyond heteronormative standards of sexuality are not “new” in our society, either. LGBT identity politics, however, is relatively recent development in Malaysia. The modern inception of the global LGBT movement itself stems from the various gay-rights movements that flowered between the late 1940s and 1960s in parts of Europe and the United States. Thinking about the existence of non-heteronormative people in Malaysian society does not necessarily mean that they’ve identified themselves as “person with X sexual preferences” and/or embraced the LGBT identity. Therefore, involvement in the kind of activism and public participation encouraged by Seksualiti Merdeka is not necessarily the only way to show support for or to align oneself with the Malaysian queer rights movement. Precisely for this reason it’s crucial to remember that critique of Seksualiti Merdeka as a movement is not the same as being anti-queer rights.
I want to quote at length another point made by Maikey in an article she co-authored with Lynn Darwich, because I think it really hammers home the point:
Within an LGBT framework, our struggles become issues of representation and privilege. We want those privileges too. We contribute to hierarchies that leave the transgenders, the non-identified, the bisexuals, the intersexed, the disabled, the migrants, the colored, the illiterate, and many more, at the bottom, and unworthy of rights.
Instead of looking at the ways privilege works to undermine any resistance in our societies, we focus instead on how it excludes us, and only us.
When one’s sexual orientation is a site of struggle, there is (little or) no examination of the privilege that still comes with “being a man” in conservative societies and within gendered legal frameworks, for example. Instead of identifying dominant norms that have historically produced exclusions based on any category of identification, we invest in centralizing our marginalized struggles as LGBT, and leave others to do the same for theirs. We forget that “those other struggles” may be ours too.
Instead of critiquing the normative, in all its forms, we apologetically try to prove that we, the gays, the lesbians, are natural/normal too. Accept us. Support us. We ask for LGBT tolerance and acceptance, when we could be working towards justice and freedom from heteronormative patriarchy.
It would be a significant mistake to assume that everyone who objects to Seksualiti Merdeka’s agenda is a homophobe or transphobe, or to view the vehement opposition through groups like PAS and Perkasa only through the prism of religious extremism without considering the various political factors at play in Malaysia. Equally vital is to keep in mind that there are many others who condemn the ban and the homophobic and transphobic hate while remaining critical of Seksualiti Merdeka’s agenda for reasons outlined in the second half of this essay. In this light, perhaps the ban on Seksualiti Merdeka should be viewed as an opening through which an expansive conversation about the local queer movement can take place. A ban can’t stop us from talking. We should not be afraid to keep the conversation going.
[i] Fellow Kakak Killjoy Alicia Izharuddin talks about this at length in her piece published in Merdeka Review, “Seksualiti Merdeka dan pengaruh homofobia Melayu”.
[ii] To reiterate, I don’t consider this a specific problem inherent in Malay-ness or Islam, but an issue that stems from majority politics. In Malaysia, the political majority is Malay-Muslim. If our majority was White-Christian, for example, we’d be the United States and still dealing with similar problems of marginalised minority rights, albeit within a different context of white supremacy and right-wing Christian politicking.
*Image from Raphael Perez’s collection.