Policing women’s bodies in Malaysia — Fifa Rahman & Azrul Mohd Khalib

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Source: The Malay Mail Online

BY FIFA RAHMAN & AZRUL MOHD KHALIB

SEPTEMBER 5 — Of late, it seems like everyone has been giving their opinion as to whether or not a woman should cover up and to what degree. Some have even gone to the extent of legislating a ban on a specific type of clothing, believing that to wear the latter would be representative of support for terrorism and violent extremism.

We have seen burly armed members of the French police surround a woman on a Nice beach forcing her to take off her burkini, an outfit apparently not “respecting good morals and secularism”. The resulting controversy and outcry against such discriminatory behaviour by a state institution continues to reverberate throughout Europe.

Not since the invention of the bikini has a female garment caused such consternation, distress and public debate.

On this side of the world, those from the religious quarter or those who consider themselves better Muslims and self-anointed “defenders of the faith”, are busy slut-shaming those who decide to not cover up and are also determining for women what is acceptable clothing to wear in public. Therein is marked hypocrisy.

Most of the debates in Malaysia seem to centre around the hijab, skirt length and what constitutes acceptable female attire. Moral policing of women, in particular, seems to be a favourite pastime.

However, least we think that this is limited to countries such as ours, consider that not too long ago in early 20th century America, there emerged a new type of police officer: the swimsuit police. Their mandate? To measure women’s bathing suits to ensure compliance with government requirements and regulations (swimsuit hems could not be further than six inches from the knee).

Interestingly, most of the arguments for the above actions seem to involve protecting men from the awesome distracting power of women, their bodies and sexuality.

It’s a topsy-turvy world. And when the battlefield for control is over a woman’s body, we are not short of champions deciding what is right and what is not, decent or indecent, acceptable and not acceptable.

East or West. Muslims or non-Muslims. It doesn’t matter. Hypocrisy and double standards abound.

Women and girls are taught from a very early age to be fearful and ashamed of not only their gender, but also their bodies and sexuality. The ongoing hijab debate is just another example of that harmful construct.

Local news especially the Malay online media, has recently been filled with disgusting criticism, condemnation and vulgar commentary on actress Uqasha Senrose’s decision to stop wearing the hijab.

Actress and model Izara Aishah was forced to apologise for wearing an evening gown deemed indecent, inappropriate and supposedly scandalous to a public event.

For some reason, members of the Malaysian public seem to think that these individuals owe them an explanation. That somehow their personal acts have any kind of impact on the image of Islam and the community in general. Well, they don’t and neither individuals owe anyone an explanation or an apology.

The freedom to wear the hijab also comes with the choice to take it off. There should be no compulsion. Forcing a person to do something solely based on religious arguments underlines the lack of individual free will and of sincerity. What’s the point if you are forcing obedience?

Even Malaysian government offices and facilities, whose existence is made possible by taxpayers, are not spared the impositions of moral policing. Visitors are told to adhere to a dress code which is often subject to interpretation (often by the security guard on duty) and biased against women. This has resulted in ridiculous incidences where sarongs are provided to those who are deemed as not meeting the standard. Others have been refused entry outright.

This refusal of entry is often preceded by close scrutiny of women’s bodies by the security guard or receptionist on duty, which is tantamount to a form of perversion. Where most normal people look at a woman and say hello, shake her hand, and continue about their business, it seems that these persons look at a woman and immediately think about what’s underneath. This form of moral policing is iatrogenic — instead of preventing perversion, it is encouraging it.

Men and boys are often given a different kind of education and social messaging. One which is based on male sexual entitlement and privilege.

A culture which celebrates people like Zul Ariffin, Nabil Ahmad and Nazim Othman, who are not shamed, embarrassed or vilified for showing off their muscular bodies in public and in the media. Which doesn’t describe their actions as “immoral”, “sinful”, “wanton” but instead uses terms such as “sado”, “macho” and “stud” intended to portray admiration, male virility and masculinity.

We have heard enough of female beauty pageant participants being arrested by the religious authorities but never of male body builders being given the same humiliating treatment. We have yet to hear of a case where a man wearing shorts has been denied entrance to a public facility or given a sarong to cover up.

It might sound like a great deal for the males but the reality is that such portrayal and expectations are harmful for men and boys.

Boys are taught, even by well-meaning parents, from a very young age to view women and girls as objects. As bodies and not people. It reinforces gender stereotypes which require men to behave a certain way and to meet tough social expectations.

These could involve being stoic and emotionally detached in times of hardship, to refrain from seeking information, assistance and support from others, and to solve problems and issues through aggression, force and violence.

Perhaps if we emphasised a bit more on positive and equal messaging and educating of our young men and boys earlier in life, there would be fewer instances of gender based violence, sexual and emotional abuse, and a possible end to the endless war over women’s bodies.

It is also necessary for us to deconstruct harmful stereotypes of gender superiority, roles and responsibilities which are promoted through religious teachings. After all, the demonstration of one’s religious piety, faith, or sense of ethics should not be dependent or even referenced by hemlines, headscarves and how much skin is covered.

An extra piece of clothing does not presuppose that one is not racist, that one gives to the poor, or that one treats those most marginalised with kindness and inclusivity.

We must lose our fear of dialogue and discussion on anything that is related to religion, particularly if they affect our children and how they see each other.

For too long, many of us have taken the lazy way and conveniently hidden behind statements such as “not qualified to discuss issues”. Critical questions which affect the upbringing of our daughters and sons should not be outsourced to religious bodies (e.g. scholars, ulamas, muftis and other religious persons). They need to be discussed, especially if they are harmful. We need to know enough to help provide information and guidance to our children.

If we are unable to do that or change our social and religious conditioning, perhaps men and boys who are unable to control their gaze and their lust should then be forced to wear blindfolds when they are around women to avoid being “distracted” or “forced into sin”.

If this sounds ridiculous to you, then so is requiring women and girls to wear clothing and fabric intended to hide the genetically- and biologically-determined shape of their bodies, make them sexually amorphous and burden them with the responsibility to control male desire and lust.

By the way, the word “sado” is a combination of two words, namely “besar” and “bodoh”.

So maybe it isn’t such a great deal after all.

* Fifa Rahman is policy manager at the Malaysian AIDS Council specialising on Hepatitis C virus (HCV) treatment access and affordability.

** Azrul Mohd Khalib is a Malaysian social activist working on reproductive health and gender issues.