Three prime minister's daughters

Feminism and the women’s movement in Malaysia are products of specific historical and political contexts. Following this logic, the language used in feminist activism can also be seen as a product of similar contexts. The focus of this article is the current state of the feminist movement in Malaysia and its linguistic framework as the effects of changes in language policy. This article argues that the predominance of English poses challenges to the inclusion of working-class class feminist agendas but offers opportunities in strengthening transnational feminist linkages. Language thus becomes an underlying issue which may explain the successful inroads and setbacks faced by feminist organisations in Malaysia.

The language of feminism is relatively alien to the public discourse in Malaysia where terms such as ‘gender’, ‘sexuality’, and even ‘feminism’ exist as loanwords. When ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ and their different linguistic incarnations reflective of the country’s multilingual fabric appear at all, they are sporadic and usually enmeshed in the discourse of academia, activism, and human rights in the English language. Although there is a recognition of feminist activism in Malaysia, it is subsumed under the banner of women’s struggles against discrimination and injustice. In other words, women’s struggles are not always recognised as being feminist ones.

There is considerable literature on the development of the women’s and feminist movement in Malaysia. However, language use in Malaysian feminist discourse has been given little attention by scholars. This lacunae requires attention due to the highly political nature of language policy in Malaysia where language use is linked with ethnicity, class, and at times religion.

English was hardly the language used in the organised calls for feminist emancipation which emerged during the turn of the twentieth century. Inspired by Muslim reformers during their studies in Cairo, Syed Syeikh Al-Hadi and Zainal Abidin Ahmad, better known as Za’ba, were Malay male intellectuals whose writings on women’s liberation began the stirrings of emancipation of Malay people not only on gendered terms, but against colonialism. Their writings appeared in Malay journals such as al-Ikhwan (1926-1931) and Saudara (1928-1941), publications that were heavily influenced by Egyptian modernist magazines.

Women played an important role in agitating Malaysia’s political independence from the British in 1957 but their participation had been oriented towards nationalist sovereignty rather than personal autonomy. Basic rights conferred to all citizens such as voting and equality before civil law were easily won as they were enshrined in the country’s Constitution at the time of independence. There were active women’s anti-colonial organisations but nearly all were divided along ethnic, ideological, and indeed linguistic lines.

It was through the emergence of autonomous and semi-autonomous women’s NGOs in the 1980s that feminist and consciously non-communalist organising amongst women formally took root. The first women’s NGOs devoted themselves to functioning as a shelter for women from domestic abuse and as a site for counselling, legal assistance, and advocacy. Gender-based violence became an issue that found universal support across ethnic and religious lines seeing as all women were potential victims of violence, but it was a campaign dominated by non-Malay and middle-class urban-based women in which English played a cohesive role. During this phase of the movement, the notion of ‘feminism’ took up a more radical and highly politicised form as it meant aligning with a human rights discourse and pressuring for legal reform as a separate political lobby rather than part of a larger male-dominated organisational structure. Contemporary Malaysian feminist activism in English can be seen as originating from this point in history.

Since the 1990s, there has been a gradual ‘intellectualisation’ of women’s movements in Malaysia, particularly in Muslim women’s groups. Female academics, lawyers, writers, artists, and journalists became members of feminist NGOs during this period, particularly in Muslim feminist groups. However, the over-representation of urban middle-class women and men in feminist activism in Malaysia marginalises the concerns and voices of working class women whose issues are seldom expressed in fluent English.

Malaysian feminist activism can be seen as participating in a public and intellectual discourse that was impacted by globalisation and state initiatives to boost Malaysia’s knowledge-based economy in the 1990s. English as the language of academia had been promoted by the Malaysian government in 1994 and 1995 to improve the intellectual and institutional standards of universities. The decolonising fervour which saw the gradual institutionalisation of the Malay language in education and in the public discourse began to wane.

A mention on the external forces that influence the increasing take-up of English is pertinent here. Globalisation of English, characterised by, inter alia, the dominance of English in global media networks and international communities, entails challenges and opportunities for contemporary Malaysia. But far from ideologically neutral, globalised English comes pre-packaged with forms of political and cultural baggage. Moreover, the globalisation of the English language is more a reflection of hegemonising economic drives than the geographic spread of speakers across the globe.

Despite the huge efforts by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in introducing new technological words in the 1980s, translation of books into Malay from other languages had since been, and continues to be, a slow process. The national language policy switched to a wider use of English particularly in science and technology by the early 2000s, destabilising the usage of Malay for technologically and economic purposes. Popular and academic books translated into local languages in Malaysia are close to non-existent at this point of writing. As a consequence, deep knowledge about history and rights women and the concomitant ability to articulate them in languages other than English are greatly curtailed for the working class, those less fluent in English, and outside the urban centres.

To say that Malaysian feminist activism as an effect history can give the impression that the work of activists lacks agency and plays completely to the tune of history’s vicissitudes. But as a product of history, changing language policy, and unaddressed class divisions, the predominant use of English and urban middle-class-oriented concerns of the contemporary Malaysian feminist activism has been taken as the ahistorical ‘standard’ of feminism in Malaysia today. Fortunately for younger Malaysians, the tide of history has not quite ebbed now that new media technologies have increased access to, but not necessarily democratise, ways of communicating ideas about the intersecting nature of gender, class, religion, and ethnicity in Malaysia. The heavy use of English in feminist activism will never die in Malaysia anytime soon but the least we can do is talk about why that is and acknowledge its often alienating class and regional connotations.

Alicia Izharuddin is a doctoral candidate at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies, University of London.