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Monday, May 5, 2008

Khalwat, Anyone?

By Farish A.Noor

So far, so good: Two months on after the general elections of March it would appear as if some semblance of normality has returned and Malaysian life is meandering along at its normal KL-traffic jam pace. Despite the scare tactics that were employed during the election campaign, none of the worst-case scenarios have been played out and our mothers have not been rushing to the local sundry shops to stock up on Ayam brand sardines.

There have, however, been some odd rumblings in the distance that we ought to take notice of: It was reported that members of the Islamic party PAS have called on the PAS state assemblymen in Selangor to work on improving the image of the party in the state, beginning with some rather cosmetic attempts at Islamisation that include the proposal to build more prayer houses and prayer rooms for Muslims in markets and other public places. Other suggestions have included calling on PAS representatives in Selangor to call for standards of decency to be set for Muslim women (and why only Muslim women?), as well as ensuring that Selangor’s beloved state religious authorities are empowered to direct Muslims who frequent the public spaces of Selangor to pray during the appointed prayer times for Muslims.

Noises of this sort are, of course, to be expected from some of the more conservative elements of the Islamic party that we have come to know and love. But before the good ‘ol Mat Skodeng squads are let loose on the unsuspecting public, and another bunch of Malaysian kids are locked up in cages to be verbally abused and video-ed for the amusement of the moral guardians of society, let us remind ourselves of a few simple facts:

The rejection of the former BN-dominated state government was never meant to be read as an endorsement of an Islamic state or an Islamisation programme. Indeed, it was precisely the antics and shenanigans of JAIS in the recent past that turned off many moderate liberal urban-based Malaysian Muslims who saw that under the UMNO-led government the country was heading down the path that would lead us to Kabul and the happy farms of the Taliban. Nope, this was a vote for change, remember?

Furthermore some of the more maverick elements of PAS ought to realise that the rest of us are trying to build a new Malaysia, which entails a different sort of Malaysian politics for a different sort of Malaysian society: one that is plural, inclusive, respectful of cultural and religious diversity and one where we can snuggle up in the spirit of multi-culti pan-Malaysian love without some former street hoodlum with a video-cam in his clammy palm recording our feats of transcultural love-making for the sake of the religious courts, thank you.

Which brings us to the sticky subject of khalwat, which happens to be the thing that so many of these moral guardians are so obsessed about. It is our earnest hope and wish that with the emergence of a new Malaysia the morality police raids and the entire culture of moral policing will be a thing of the past, associated with the dark middle ages when Malaysia was ruled under the BN.

For decades, the narrowing of the scope of discussion on ethics and public morality was due to an increasingly slender and shallow understanding of what constituted ethics and moral behaviour in the first place. Not surprisingly, the policing of bodies – Malaysian bodies, and what Malaysians do with their bodies – came to be seen as the benchmark of proper social conduct. It began with the policing with the dress and demeanour of women; then with the policing of the physical contact between men and women. As the policing of bodies became the norm so did the notion that the body itself is at fault and thus morally liable: Attractive women were deemed ‘guilty’ of being too attractive and thus vulnerable to rape; men and women were deemed guilty due to the ways they sat, walked and even touched each other.

Of course, none of the moral guardians who stalk the corridors of power seemed to take into account the fact that when bodies touch, so do hearts. Somehow along the way the simple idea that sex may be accompanied by love was lost as well; leading us to the ludicrous situation where young couples caught holding hands were charged for immoral conduct, presumably on the assumption that they were walking all the way to Sodom and Gomorrah.

That love has been divorced from sex is not entirely uncommon in the rather dry and sterile land of the self-appointed guardians of our faith. Yet again we are reminded of the moral behind the story Hikayat Faridah Hanum by the pioneering Ulama Syed Sheikh al-Hady that was written almost a century ago. Regarded until today as one of the earliest works of realist fiction in Malaysian literature, the Hikayat Faridah Hanum was also one of the pioneering feminist texts of its time. Its theme was the struggle for love by Faridah Hanum, a young woman whose ‘crime’ was to want to decide for herself who should be the man she loves. Faridah’s wilful act of defiance and assertion of her rational agency was seen as an affront to traditional values. Then in one episode of the story she is in secluded company with another single man – and thereby committing the dreaded crime of khalwat.

For this reason alone, Syed Sheikh al-Hady was condemned by his conservative peers as a pornographer and his novel was even burned in public. One wonders how the morality police of today would react to a contemporary reading and re-enactment of Faridah Hanum’s tale of a young heart struggling against bigotry and obscurantism in the search for love? Or would she, too, be handcuffed and taken to a faith rehabilitation centre, one wonders?

That ‘khalwat’ is a term also used by Sufi mystics to denote the state of private and secluded meditation in the presence of the Divine would also point to its intimate connections with the ideas of Love, contact and the bond between human beings and God. That ‘khalwat’ today is taken as the flimsiest pretext to let the morality police smash through the door of your house to arrest you speaks volumes about how degenerate our understanding of morality has become.

For too long we Malaysians have been policed, guarded, scolded and herded into living in our narrow ethno-religious corrals; and for too long the very idea of reaching out and loving the other has been seen as taboo. With a new Malaysia about to rise above the horizon, one of the bad habits of the past that we should discard should be this practice of criminalising love, even of the hot, sticky and sweet variety. And if there is any policing of bodies that needs to be done, perhaps the authorities would be spending their time (and taxpayers money) better by policing those who go around blowing up bodies with C4 instead.

This man never fails to amaze me. He's right. Malaysian religious authorities' obsession is really irritating. Like Dane Cook.

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