Being Malay/Non-Malay

In Malaysia, members of the Malay ethnic group enjoy certain privileges, including a form of affirmative action which grants Malay students scholarships to universities in Malaysia. As a result, ethnicity plays a vital role in the development of identity among Malays and non-Malays (Chinese and Indians). This page focuses on how being Malay and being non-Malay affects the development of gender identity among schoolgirls at an all girls secondary school in Malaysia. In a series of articles derived from her fieldwork at the school, Cynthia Joseph discovered that “The ethnic composition within the school and its relationship with the national politics of ethnic identification impinge on students’ self-identifications [as well as] how they see each other” (Joseph, 2006). That is, both the Malay and non-Malay girls are aware of the Malay/non-Malay dichotomy and their ethnic differences; and, it is through this dichotomy and difference that the girls have come to understand their social and political status. This understanding enables them to negotiate their gender identities.

Politics and Education
Joseph argues that this “ethnic dichotomy” of Malay and non-Malay is used “in negotiating [the girls] understandings of ethnicity within [the] schooling context” (Joseph, 2006). Because schools are political, and the presentation of knowledge is often a reflection of the majority groups’ interest, Joseph argues that Islam “is used within the Malaysian education system to maintain dominance of the Malay ethnic group” (Joseph, 2006). Muslim students are required to take Islamic Studies and non-Muslim students must take a Moral Education course. Furthermore, subjects such as evolutionary theory are not taught as they contradict the beliefs of the Muslim faith. Therefore, an already tense and well-defined ethnic division is strengthened as ‘Malayness’ is favored and the Malay/non-Malay dichotomy is solidified.

A secondary player in the social and political relationships within this specific school is ‘Chineseness,’ as most of the teachers and top students are Chinese. As a result, and according to Malay and Indian students, Chinese girls receive favoritism. However, despite this claim, the Chinese girls credit their success to their kiasu attitude which is part of the foundation of their understandings of the Chinese girl. According to the students interviewed by Joseph, the ideal Chinese schoolgirl is the ‘kiasu’ Chinese schoolgirl described as “a top achiever, competitive, selfish [in terms of kiasu and] always wanting to win and afraid to lose” (Joseph, 2006). However as one girl explained, Chinese girls in Malaysia may tend to “think in a western way…We are kinda influenced…We speak English at home…eat Western and Chinese food…watch English movies……read books written by Westerners…” (Joseph, 2006).
The Chinese girls also expressed that they felt they had freedom and are able to balance their social and academic lives. However, they explained that they are expected to work hard and uphold the honor of their family through studying. This way, they can acquire better career opportunities or attend universities abroad since they may not receive these opportunities in Malaysia.

Gender and Femininity
However, Joseph noted similarities between the girls in their considerations of being a girl. Most commented on the idea of femininity and considered their future roles of wife and mother. Ideas such as being polite, gentle versus rough, being moody, and being a softie were prevalent among the girls’ essays. Joseph notes that the girls would contradict themselves, writing of the importance of femininity, and yet, expressing that they do not feel entirely feminine or they feel like a tomboy. Meanwhile, there are those who write about feeling in-between and then there are those who challenge ideas associated with femininity. One girl writes that because her family informed her that girls are not suited to be lawyers she will prove to them that a woman can be a successful lawyer. She writes “…we must sit and stand on the same level as a man does” (Joseph, 2000).

Another Malay girl proclaims that she does not wear the traditional Islamic dress because it is her body and she is able to do or not do things to it as she pleases. However, the girl reproaches herself stating, “I know it is very wrong and sinful” (Joseph, 2006). Indian girls, according to Joseph, gave what may appear to some as old-fashioned notions of womanhood. They highlighted obedience, honor, taking care of family, and even long hair as the characteristics of being a ‘traditional’ Indian woman. The girls revealed that a majority of their ideas come from their mothers and grandmothers. One Indian girl stated that she has chosen to wait for her mother to pick her husband who she hoped would give her “some freedom.” (Joseph, 2006)

Resistance within Conformity
Despite what some would identify as restrictions within their individual ethnic groups, various ranges of resistance are evident among the girls. For example, One Indian girl chose to wear her hair short and did not wear the pottu (the red dot worn on the foreheads of Indian girls) to school. She also explained that she argues and has discussions with her parents because “You cannot like just sit there and just accept what they say. . . . You cannot always agree with what they say as you have your opinions too . . . and my parents are used to me doing that” (Joseph, 2006). However, there are also girls who choose to resist by conforming. As one Malay girl explained, she views the covering of her body as a means for women to communicate with men without dealing with sexual attraction. While some might argue that she is being held responsible for male sexual behavior, one can also argue that she has a strong sense of self-worth and is not uncomfortable with covering up because she sees herself as more than just her body. Joseph notes that the existence of such resistance among the girls is grounds for disagreeing with hegemonic feminist discourse derived from a “Eurocentric gaze which privileges Western notions of liberation and progress…[portraying] third-world women primarily as victims of ignorance, restrictive culture and religions” (Joseph, 2000).

Identity is Fluid
Joseph suggests that feminism must shift from hegemonic conceptualizations that exist mostly within Eurocentric and male-centric academic discourses as these girls ideas of self receive interference from religion, Malaysian society, family in addition to male and western expectations of gender identity. As a result of her studies, Joseph asks in her 2009 article Postcoloniality and Ethnography: Negotiating Gender, Ethnicity and Power, “How do we understand women’s identity practices within a highly ethnicized, stratified and political context like contemporary postcolonial Malaysia?”
Joseph states that, “The works of black and postcolonial feminist theorists provide the conceptual tools to understand the interplay between lived experiences and the constraints of ethnic categories in ways of being young women” (Joseph, 2009). Yet, it is worthy to note that there is no correct gender identity or any set concept of gender identity because, according to Joseph, “…we construct our ways of being and knowing in relation to others and to context.” (63). Gender identity then, like any other identity, is fluid and changing.

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