On having to face multiple hegemonies

A group of women with a placard at a rally, 1946 in sunglasses, kebaya, and baju kurung. The acronyms on their sign were also the words for Fire, Beware, Angry. One of them was only 22. Shamsiah Fakeh eventually became the anti-colonialist leader of Angkatan Wanita Sedar. Credit: shark wasangka’s Twitter

Last week, I read a journal article by Southeast Asian historian Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied on a radical women movement in my country called AWAS and this sentence is still etched in my mind four days after reading it:

It is now a truism to argue that colonialism was, in essence, a masculinist enterprise supported by an androcentric vision of the colonised society.

Before I explain why the line is so noteworthy, it is important to go through the background of the movement through understanding the background of Malay women in post-colonial Malaya and the socio-political transformations that followed.

AWAS, which stands for Angkatan Wanita Sedar (Conscious Women’s Front) was the first nationalist women’s movement in Malaysia (Malaya at the time). It was created in 1945 as the women’s wing for the PKMM, which stands for Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (Malay Nationalist Party).

The end of the Japanese rule in the 1940s saw a new era for Malay women in colonial Malaya, which could be seen from four prominent aspects: education, employment, migration, and activism. As women went back to school and graduated, they were able to secure better jobs which enabled them to migrate from rural to urban areas. With education, Malay women were also more exposed to the modern ideas of egalitarianism and female emancipation, which lead to the awareness of the injustices of colonialism and the fact that it made them so marginally positioned in the society compared to other groups. This awareness leads to the formation of a number of anticolonial movements, including AWAS.

The bit that got more interesting, but at the same time, frustrating (because not much ever changes) was that AWAS — as one of the largest radical women’s movement at that time — not only face external threats from the colonial state, but also internally.

First from the societal pressure:

The twin forces of local customary conventions and class differences did much to assign Malay women to a secondary and private sphere, while asserting the notion that women active in public life could only fulfill roles that were complementary, but never alternative, to men’s. According to the Malay customs (adat) that prevailed in the postwar period, women were expected to be unassuming and yielding at home and in public. Although women were allowed to take part in political activities and to express their views freely, they were also made to realise that members of their community would inexorably view them with suspicion and hostility.

… which evidently lead to class divisions among the women themselves:

Only women hailing from the elite class in the Malay community were allowed by their families and communities to be involved in activist work. This had implications on the ways in which radical female activists (such as those who belonged to AWAS) were viewed by the Malays of their time. Aside from being confronted with a lack of support and participation from the majority of elite Malay women in colonial Malaya, their peasant and working-class backgrounds as well as the customs which governed them meant that AWAS members were vulnerable to derision for being upstarts, as well as being accused of transgressing the established boundaries of Malay femininity by the men and women of their community.

The women activists also faced influences from their male ranks:

Because female Malay political movements in colonial Malaya usually grew out of their parent organisations, and because patriarchal tendencies still had a strong hold even among the most progressive male anti-colonialists, female activists were susceptible to censure and criticism whenever they were perceived as overstepping the limits of their designated functions as auxiliaries for male nationalists.

This means that the female activists at the time (and maybe, these days too, because not much ever changes!) had to face double colonisation:

…in order to improve the condition of Malay women, they had to dispel the myth of the diffident natives which, when grafted onto the already established masculinist practices in Malay society, meant that Malay women were viewed by the colonial rulers as the most marginal of the marginals. Furthermore, by contravening both colonial and traditional axioms, women’s movements such as AWAS were constantly threatened with proscription should they pose a threat to the colonial state, while they also risked the hostility of the male-dominated leftist movement that they belonged to.

At this point of time I am not sure how to end this, except, if I had more time, I would probably be able to write an extensive comparative review between AWAS and today’s Women’s March. But it’s 1 am where I am now and I am buried knee-deep in so many other papers, so maybe that could wait.

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