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Counter-Narratives of the Nation: Writing the Modern Brunei Malay Woman

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Part of the Asia in Transition book series (AT,volume 6)

Abstract

This chapter examines how young Malay women in Brunei Darussalam negotiate culturally different notions of gender identity and agency in changing, modernising social spaces through creative writing in English. Despite the ideological imperatives and regulating apparatuses of the nation-state, Brunei’s boundaries have nonetheless been rendered porous by the global cultural flows of media , people, capital, technology and ideology (Appadurai 1990) . These flows have pervaded both social and cultural imaginaries, influencing a young generation of women in the way they perceive and represent modern Brunei Malay femininity; such representations can be found in female students’ contemporary creative writings at the local university. Linking modernity with the use of English, these students’ writings not only counter traditional norms and patriarchal views of Malay femininity encoded at state level, but also reflect how the process of creative writing constitutes a symbolic space of negotiation and exploration, a space in which Otherness or difference is embraced as essential to the idea of the modern Brunei Malay femininity.

Keywords

  • Brunei
  • Creative writing in English
  • Malay women
  • Modernity

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Some consider English their first language, and their competency is akin to the level of native speakers.

  2. 2.

    The inaugural class began in 2011/2012 with a cohort of 12 students–four from English Literature and the rest from mixed disciplines. Subsequent classes attracted more students, and, due to demand, I relaxed my initial cap of 15 students: I had 20 students for the academic year 2012/2013 and 17 students for 2014/2015. The year 2012/2013 saw an influx of Drama Studies students, nine of whom joined seven English Literature students and four others from different disciplines. The class in 2014/2015 saw different numbers again, with four from English Literature, six from Drama Studies and seven from other disciplines, including Science and Economics.

  3. 3.

    See Deterding and Salbrina (2013) on the influence of American media on the language use among young Bruneians.

  4. 4.

    Permissions for the use of these scripts have been obtained from the writers.

  5. 5.

    See Alicia Izharuddin’s Chap. 4 in this book for an analysis of the new Malay woman in twentieth century Malaya.

  6. 6.

    See the Editors’ Introduction for a description of Brunei’s phallocentric culture, and how it is observable through the workings of local academia that had, up till 2010, excluded the study of gender from its curriculum.

  7. 7.

    Brunei’s authoritarian handling of freedom of expression was seen when the government ordered the shutdown of a local English-language daily The Brunei Times in November 2016. Initially removed, the daily’s online archives have recently been reinstated: https://btarchive.org/. On the shutdown of the daily, read Walker (2016). For an overview of human rights in Brunei, see Human Rights Resource Centre and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (2016).

  8. 8.

    Brunei supports a diverse population that consists of Malays (who are the majority at 66.6%), Chinese (15%), indigenous groups (6%) and others, mainly foreign labour (12%). See Kathrina’s Chap. 3, Sect. 3.2, for more background information about Brunei.

  9. 9.

    Read Hussainmiya (2010) who observes that while the Dusun and Murut have been categorised as “Malay”, most of them have not converted to Islam (69–70).

  10. 10.

    Read Fanselow (2014, 98–99) and de Vienne (2015, 262–267) for an interesting account of how the state implemented policies and institutions that rallied around the construction and production of MIB as a historically and culturally legitimate ideology through the historicisation of Brunei as a Malay Islamic Sultanate.

  11. 11.

    See United Nations’ online report (2014) by CEDAW on Brunei, mainly its “Concluding observations” (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/BNIndex.aspx) on how “women are disproportionately affected by punishment for ‘crimes’” involving sex and rape, as well as the criminalisation of lesbians and bisexual women (http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/BRN/INT_CEDAW_NGO_BRN_18370_E.pdf). See also Musawah’s (2014) analysis of Brunei’s Syariah Penal Code Order 2013 for CEDAW, and how it discriminates Muslim women in areas that include male guardianship, polygamy, divorce, children’s nationality, inheritance, and domestic and sexual violence. The report is also based on findings from fieldwork and interviews conducted in 2014.

  12. 12.

    Given the lack of scholarship and that anecdotal accounts are unreliable, I turn to the media coverage of talks and interviews as they provide insight into the kinds of pressure placed onto women’s bodies by society and the state. In her 2010 talk for instance, the former deputy minister of culture, youth and sports of Brunei, Hajah Adina Othman, recognised that the family institution has been affected by the rise of women in the workplace. She advised career women to “learn new skills such as time management as well as new caregiving skills for family members” and men to assume more family-oriented duties. In 2015, the Dean of the Syariah Law Faculty at a local Islamic university stated that Muslim women can work as long as they “maintain their family welfare” (Khai 2015). Additionally, she urged women to “practise menutup aurat (safeguarding their modesty) at the workplace to avoid persecution, obtain the consent of their husband [to work], [have] the ability to juggle between work and family and if the children are not doing well in their education, wives are encouraged to quit from their work” (Khai 2015). In an interview, Timothy Ong of Asia Inc Forum notes that Bruneian “society still expects women to take on a much greater burden than men. The society has ways of being negative about women who are perceived as being neglectful of the family. So, when a woman is in the office working til late at night, earning money for the family, she is generally not given as much credit as the man” (2014, 15).

  13. 13.

    Based on the naturalised authority of husbands, this gendered ideology can also be seen in neighbouring Indonesia through the propagation of Keluarga Sakinah (peaceful, happy family). See Chap. 5 in this volume.

  14. 14.

    State and social emphasis on women who have to balance both career and family is not a new phenomenon in developing Southeast Asia, since women are traditionally viewed as the guardians of family and culture.

  15. 15.

    Brunei currently boasts the highest penetration of social media in the region at 69% (Quratul-Ain 2016b). See Nurdiyana and McLellan (2016) and Wood (2016) about the online language used by Bruneians on Facebook, Twitter and so on. Read also Kathrina et al. (2016, 247–8) about Brunei’s blogging culture and online writing communities and how they herald new directions for the production of Bruneian literatures in Malay and English.

  16. 16.

    As an example, one student writes: “This play, inspired in part by the idea of Western true stor[ies] such as the Craigslist Killer (a medical student who murdered women), A Beautiful Mind (a mathematician named John Nosh who suffered from Schizophrenia), the Crime Scene Investigation series (one episode [where] a young daughter killed her parents and older brother) and Cinderella in a Bruneian context”. Her script, Sofea, is about a schizophrenic young woman, the titular Sofea, who has been confined to the house as the family’s shameful secret. Treated like a servant by her grandmother and cousin, Sofea one night kills them both. The play ends with her being taken away to the mental institution.

  17. 17.

    See Chin and Kathrina (2015) for their analysis of the unfilial child and the gendered consequences in Jasmine.

  18. 18.

    Your younger sister is getting married first?

  19. 19.

    Do you have a boyfriend? You’re not married yet? How old are you?

  20. 20.

    Old virgin.

  21. 21.

    You should get married soon, since your younger sister is already married.

  22. 22.

    You just have to be patient, sis!

  23. 23.

    Even so, the writer satirises Brunei Malay society for its expectation for women to be pregnant within their first year of marriage. In a parallel ‘Tahlil’ scene, the same elderly woman, Fatimah, tells married Maria, “Kesian your husband kalau alum ada anak” (Pity your husband if you don’t have a child yet). It is not enough for a young woman to be married, for to be a “real” woman, one must also conceive or else it would reflect badly on the husband’s virility. The onus thus lies on the wife to quickly conceive lest her femininity or worse, her husband’s masculinity, is questioned.

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Chin, G.V.S. (2018). Counter-Narratives of the Nation: Writing the Modern Brunei Malay Woman. In: Chin, G., Mohd Daud, K. (eds) The Southeast Asian Woman Writes Back. Asia in Transition, vol 6. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-7065-5_8

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