Book Review: 'Contested Public Spheres: Female Activism and Identity Politics in Malaysia'

คุณวุฒิ บุญฤกษ์ 4 ก.ค. 2560 | อ่านแล้ว 1558 ครั้ง

The main subject of this study Contested Public Spheres:Female Activism and Identity Politics in Malaysia by Spiegel is women’s organizations in Malaysia and their negotiations of global concepts such as women’s rights, gender equality, violence against women, empowerment, and development. The researcher was interesting in exploring how the negotiation take place within the tension between a growing cultural fragmentation of the Western and the Islamic world and a  growing interwovenness of connectivity of women’s organizations and other discursive formations worldwide. This fieldwork took six months of empirical research in Malaysia in 2004. The main goal here was to challenge and research about “global everyday” (Appadurai 2000) of civil society actors in Malaysia and focuses on how social activists belonging to different branches of the women’s movement selectively appropriate, transform and even create global meanings and materialize them in local practices. The force in an empirically grounded way of globalization is still very limited. Therefore, this was an attempt to study a grounded globalization or perspective on globalization from below.

What the researcher brought into attention is the discourses at the level of everyday life and the formal political practices on the level of collective action. The researcher gave many example cases of Malaysian women in the movement or work in women’s organizations. This is to understand the global-local nexus of Malaysian women’s organizations. The researcher tries to understand the changing gender relations in a translocalising world and to show how societal transformation is shaped by the translocal agency of social movements. Within this research, they have seen the attempt to break the stereotypes and generalisations which dominate the public discourses on women and Islam and to contrast these uni-dimensional accounts with empirically grounded multi-dimensional perspectives.

Identity are among the topic which Spiegel interested in. Among the world, the dominant Western culture are being challenged by Islam identities, there are counter-identities action as well. This work shows how Malaysian women’s movements relate to identity politics at the national and global levels and where are the location of Malaysian women activists in the global map and what identity they are constructing.

Moreover, the local and the global dimension is also an important aspect of this study. Spiegel used of the concept of social space for researching the translocality of the negotiation of gender relations. Moreover, how these women activists carry out their everyday life political practice and they contribute to the transnational discursive arenas are interesting. The women’s rights concepts that these Malaysian women’s group are fighting were also examined.

Interconnectedness has a role in local and national struggles of women’s organizations in Malaysia. The influence of tranlocal and global agency of women connectivity and the researcher also tried to look at how it transform the agency of women’s organization in Malaysia.

Entering the World of NGOs: The Researcher’s Trajectory

The researcher started her study in Kuala Lumpur in 2004 about women’s organization and the constitution of translocal social spaces and public spheres. However, during the study, she found a fragmented urban environment offering solely “pockets of contact” with the field (Balasescu 2006) and with the hard work of creating such encounters between myself, the researcher and research field. It was when she had the feeling that participant observation could only offer limited tool for her in social spaces. Globalization was something that the researcher felt like must be understood as a process experienced and mediated in concrete local settings that acquires concrete relevance for the everyday life of people through a process of interpretation and appropriation of cultural phenomena as well. So, the local becomes the prominent site for research on globalization and situated everyday experiences because local is always changing within globalization. Local realities become central in the analysis of the local global nexus (Davids, van Driel 2006).

One more area that is a major part of this study is civil society of Malaysia. The Malaysian government is so restrictive of the Malaysian civil society that some of the most vocal national NGOs or some branches of internationally established NGOs cannot be registered as ‘societies’ in the country of Malaysia. For example, Amnesty International, for example has been trying to register as a ‘society’ under the Society Act for ten years now and has been rejected four times already. So they cannot be recognized and get legal basis when cannot be registered as societies. Instead, they do not have much choice but to register as companies.

The refusal of the status of ‘society’ has to be interpreted as the refusal to acknowledge critical civil society actors as equal partners in a public debate about important societal issues (Weiss, Hassan 2003a).

Civil society events are a good unit for analysis because it is a platform for negotiation of gender relation and societal transformation processes. It shows the emergence and dynamics of public discourses and the development of new hybrid forms of knowledge. Events are the stage on which the imagined other is produced within the urban political environment (Salzbrunn 2007, ).

Case Study

Aniza, 32, full-time staff of the International Women’s Rights Watch Asia Pacific based in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia. She is also a member of Sisters in Islam (SIS), an organization of Muslim women also based in KL. She described her position of being a Malay woman with western thinking. She was aware of the different treatment towards boy and girl from the young age. Her mother expected her to be a good housewife from observing how she support her choice of education. For example, she encouraged Aniza to take cooking class and the skill of good housewife. She started to start wearing hijab at the age of 15 when everything was changed around her. After, she decided to wear hijab, she was told to quit ballet class and her friends told her to change lifestyle. Even the nun in Christian school that she went to told her to stop playing sport. She felt overwhelmed by the amount of change in action of people towards her. Even though, she wanted to study Law at first, she decided to pursue a degree in Accounting. When she went back to Malaysia, she got a job being an accountant before she resigned. She decided to apply for a job at Women’s Aid Organization (WAO) since she did not want to work in a profitmaking company anymore. Even though, her family did not give the full support about this job, she still have this job until today.

Having job in social engagement brought a conflict in Aniza’s family. These experiences initiate a process of critical analysis and reflexive alienation towards her taken-for-granted life-world (Berger, Luckmann 1967), it is a process she works on as everyday life techniques of reflexivity such as “asking herself” or “thinking about things” and of formulating dissent. After a period of time, she now has a good experience that is heavy resistence from the surrounding. She feels ready to confront powerful barriers in the negotiation of gender relations which puts her in a situation of isolation.

Most social activists has also developed reflexivity that is like their stock of knowledge as everyday communication.  All in all, activist reflexivity shows that reflexivity is not restricted to the field of sciences just as Giddens’s work that it is deeply embedded into everyday life practices and interactions.

“We in Kelantan”: Negotiating female dignity from an everyday perspective

The women NGO in Kelantan invented a program called ‘helping the unfortunate women’ as it is the local concept for a localisation and re-interpretation of the global concepts of poverty and poverty reduction within an Islamic framework. They give legal assistance, economic advice, and also encourage independence. But it is not income-generating project. A good example of their attempt to broaden the concept is when they organize workshop for men as well because they in the end, men are the ones who make the problem at home.

Meanwhile, the more ‘feminist’ groups in the urban setting of KL can openly use a transformational approach on a societal level but women’s groups in Kelantan can only negotiate their understanding of transformation and of women’s rights through the concept of the family on an everyday life level.

Developing political agency on the basis of rights

It is not possible to discuss issue of women without mentioning their rights. ‘Rights’ is the concept that the state authorities and the legal system link to the notion of ‘fight’. Within the framework of promoting Malay economic and cultural dominance, government development policies differentiate between ethnic groups as well. Indian ethnic women do not have access to the same help program as Malay women. So, there are two parallel struggles here. The women in Malaysia are struggling to engender economic status and also to struggle within socio-economic hierarchies into a feminist analysis and into the concerns of a middle-class-defined women’s movement.


This study employs different approaches such as mobile and stationary research by focusing on both the spatial mobility of the actors but also on their imaginary and discursive connections to global landscapes of meaning and their concepts of the world. Ethnographic fieldwork are carried out extensively by the researcher which were also in accordance with the description of practice of translocal ethnography (Hannerz 1998).

Fieldwork were divided into two research phases: from Mar to Apr 2004 was an exploratory phase and from Jul to Oct 2004 was the in-depth research phase lasted four months. The research location was KL, Malaysia. I used the techniques such as follow the people, follow the biography and follow the metaphor as it is connected to the notion to de-territorialization of social space commonly spread in the new generation of ethnographies.

Later in the research process, the researcher felt the need to broaden spatial dimension, so she also visited Penang, Ipoh and Kota Bharu. The ultimate of this research was to construct perspective from below starting from empirical research. Moreover, the researcher employed comparative perspective as well as it was the main instrument of scientific insight. Last but not least, biographical or narrative approach were employed when the researcher wanted to understand the actors’ rationality and to contextualise their situation throughout the study.


To summarise, there are the main analysis here about the use of media by the women activist group as well. The urban women’s organisations use the local and national mass media while the urban advocacy groups who create their own alternative media spaces. The strategy of creating alternatives media could be seen as a strategy of adaptation, “a strategy aimed at making movement messages fit dominant news standards” (Olesen 2005). When a certain do not have access to the popular mainstream media like newspaper or tv, they create their own internal newsletter or small journals. Because of the difficulties of publishing in mainstream media, for example, some groups set up their own publishing houses where they regularly publish monthly newsletters and small journals and have even published their own books (SIS, Alaigal, and CDC).

The link or interconnectedness of these women’s organization are very important and very crucial to their success. It get across the different knowledge spaces and knowledge carriers. The could very well link the ‘traditional’ and ‘local’  knowledge and also to the ‘modern’ knowledge.

Moreover, the urban women’s movement in Malaysia has been trying to connect and construct Muslim global sisterhood by increasing globalization of Islamist positions by the positive appropriation of a discourse on traditions and autochthonous culture. They try to eliminate the inconsistent towards the process of localisation and focus on the universal positive teaching. It is very clear that they try to rework the notion of women’s right and empowerment into the local version of female beauty and translocal Islamic notions of women’s dignity as an opposition to a Western discourse of women’s equality. For example, women’s organization in Kelantan try to build global connection to Western development discourse from the concepts of female vulnerability existed in Malaysia. “The central feature of global culture today is the politics of the mutual efforts of sameness and difference to cannibalise one another and thereby proclaim their successful hijacking of the twin Enlightenment ideas of the triumphantly universal and the resiliently particular” (Appadurai 1996)

What I see here is the struggle of daughter and sister who feel subjected to their own family hierarchies and felt that it is the time to negotiate with and transform those hierarchies. For example, in Aniza’s interview, she mentioned that  “When I was small it ticked me off that the treatment of girls and boys is so different.”

The narratives of these female activists in Malaysia reveal a process of increasing reflexivity began with moments of doubt and moments of insecurity, moments of distancing and ‘othering’ themselves from the “normal” environment they encounter in their everyday life-world, and moments of silent questioning and openly uttered protest. An analysis of family relation and school are among the most important unit of all as they are the foundation of the struggle and fight. The power from the feeling of being oppressed by the power of men to the will to enter women’s organizations and to exert power themselves are very clear. This understanding of power aims at transforming cultural and societal institutions.


Appadurai, Arjun 1996: Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press

Appadurai, Arjun 2000: Grassroots Globalisation and the Research Imagination. in Public Culture, Vol. 12, No. I, pp. 1-20

Balasescu, Alexandru 2006: On the Ethnographic Subject. Multisited Research, Urban Anthropology and Their Methods.

Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann 1967: The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.

Davids, Tine, and Francien van Driel (eds.) 2006: The Gender Question in Globalization. Changing Perspectives and Practices. Aldershot: Ashgate

Hannerz, Ulf 1998: Transnational Research. in: Russel Bernard (ed.): Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology. Walnut Creek, London, New Dehli: Altamira Press, pp. 235-256.

Olesen, Thomas 2005: Transnational Publics: New Spaces of Social Movement Activism and the Problem of Global Long-Sightedness. in: Current Sociology, Vol. 53, No. 3, pp. 419-440.

Salzbrunn, Monika 2007: Localising Transnationalism: Researching Political and Cultural Events in a Context of Migration. Paper presented at the conference on ‘Transnationalisation and Development(s): Towards a North-South Perspective’, Center for Interdisciplinary Research, Bielefeld, Germany, May 31 - June 01, 2007, COMCAD Working Papers No. 17, Bielefeld: Center on Migration, Citizenship and Development COMCA.


Cover photo credit: SIS FORUM (MALAYSIA)

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