Monday, May 16, 2011

Malay culture in discourses of sexuality.

The Malay language does not have specific words for the sexual organs in its indigenous vocabulary – zakar (penis) and faraj (vagina) are both borrowed from Arabic. The term usually used to refer to male or female genitals is “kemaluan” which comes from the root word “malu”, literally meaning “something that one is shy of” (Shamsul and Fauzi, 2006). 

This concept of shyness reflects the attitude of the Malay community as a whole towards premarital sex – we do not want to talk about it – at least, until it becomes visible through unwanted pregnancy. The cultural shyness towards premarital sex is not only reflected in public attitudes, but also in social policy. To address the problem of unwanted pregnancies among teenage Malays, a few years ago, a Malay self-help organisation promoted a campaign focused on abstinence and not safe sex.

Premarital sex was framed as a ‘sin’ according to the Qur’an; the organisation assumed that a moral or religious reason would be powerful enough to encourage abstinence. The low rate of success indicated that these teenagers did not consider themselves to be practising Muslims anyway, and ‘sins’ were not important to them. Thus the use of a religious discourse to address teenage pregnancies is not effective.

In heterosexual marriage however, sexuality is spoken of in the framework of Islam. For example, a husband and wife are allowed to dress or behave in any way they wish in private. There are also several ahadith (traditions of the Prophet Mohammad) that narrate the importance of sexual pleasure for both men and women.

However, there are also some other hadith that favour men’s sexual agency. For example, one oft-cited hadith with regards to consensual sexual activity narrates that if a wife continually refuses her husband’s sexual demands, ‘angels will damn her until sunrise’. Here a certain Islamic discourse is used when outlining the proper behaviour (including sexual behaviour) of men and women in society.

Polygamy is permitted according to all interpretations of Islamic law, and this is sometimes used by older Malay Muslim men to justify taking younger second, third or fourth wives. Some men give reasons of a ‘natural’ high sex drive in men that tends them towards polygamy, citing male infidelity as a ‘natural’ consequence. They also claim the superiority of Islamic law in this aspect as it recognises the supposed high sex drive of men.

What is often not emphasised when citing this law are the subsequent verses in the Qur’an on which this law is based - that if a man should not take another wife if he fears being unjust. Here a certain Islamic discourse that favours men’s sexual agency is invoked around the issue of polygamy.

Shamsul, A.B. and M. Fauzi (2006) ‘Making sense of Malay sexuality: An Exploration’, Sari, 24: 59-72.

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