In 2014, I spent ten months teaching English to secondary school students in peninsular Malaysia. Since returning, I’ve received a number of questions on what it was like to exist as a woman in this culture, specifically in my small town of Pahang. While valid, such questions often feel (to me) undergirded by a certain bias–the suggestion that it might be difficult for me to survive as a western woman in said culture, which points, more alarmingly, towards the belief that the women in my community, the majority of whom were Muslim, perhaps require some sort of enlightenment or liberation from the culture in which they (happily) live.
In response, I’d like to call attention to this brilliant article, which rightly points out that such questions not only feed into the pernicious white savior complex, but ignore the lengthy and vibrant history of Muslim feminism, create a “straw muslimah” that serves western hegemony, and ignore the actual wants and needs of Muslim women.
To hammer home these points, I’ve compiled a list of lessons I myself learned from Malaysian women. Each lesson is a vital component of the type of feminism I subscribe to, which is one that is accessible to women (and men) of all faiths and nationalities. Note that the list is by no means exhaustive; in fact, it’s meant to be a jumping-off point. I hope these lessons serve as a reminder that feminism writ large does not mean exclusively western feminism, and that we as women can all stand to learn from, rather than judge, one another.
Eight lessons in feminism I learned from my Malaysian community:
1. Modest does not mean boring (or unsexy):
An avid wearer of crop tops and short shorts, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve bought into the western media narrative that those who cover up more are somehow repressed, dull, or lacking in the romantic department. The Malaysian girls I know smash this narrative to threads– they are as intelligent, intriguing, and coy in baju kurungs (traditional Malaysian garments with long sleeves, high necklines, and long skirts) as any one of my American friends in a minidress (note also that there are Malaysian girls who rock minidresses and short shorts with the best of them). And even if they aren’t always inclined to entertain them, the Malaysian girls who dress modestly have no shortage of interested suitors.
2. Silence does not equate to stupidity, or voicelessness:
There’s a tendency in America to push girls to talk loudly and often, even if they’re naturally more reserved. Though I firmly believe all women deserve academic and professional environments where they’re comfortable speaking up, my female students reminded me that there’s nothing inherently wrong with choosing to be quiet in these circumstances either. My more sedate girls were by no means less intelligent, passionate, or ambitious than their more vocal peers–one of my quietest students said next to nothing for a good six months, and proved to be a brilliant designer whose keen observation skills served her well when she built sets for our drama club production.
3. Refraining from sex doesn’t make you asexual:
Western media likes to perpetuate the idea that if you haven’t had sex by age 20 (or found anyone you care to date), you’re somehow dramatically behind the developmental curve. In Malaysia, I knew many ladies in their late teens and 20s who hadn’t ever had boyfriends. It wasn’t that they weren’t interested in one day having a partner–typically, they were more focused on their studies, or simply hadn’t found anyone they felt was worthy of their time. These girls were just as socially astute as any of my western peers (many times more so), reminding me that there’s no need to ever be “saved” or “liberated’ from a lack of romantic experience.
4. Family and community can be a healthy and joyful part of a relationship:
In my experience, introducing a partner to my parents is something that’s not done till fairly late in the relationship game. Woe betide the lady who asks a suitor to meet the folks too early–even as I type this, my mind begins to get anxious that whoever the dude in question is will cut and run for the hills. In contrast, it was essential to many of my Malaysian female students that the adults in their lives approve of their romantic relationships from the get-go. They voiced this opinion to me after our performance of Romeo and Juliet, explaining that they valued and respected their parents’ opinions, and would have been more keen than Shakespeare’s young couple to heed parental objection. This served as a reminder to me that while it’s fully acceptable to keep certain aspects of your life private, there’s nothing wrong or shameful about wanting to integrate your personal and family life, and partners who make you feel otherwise probably aren’t worth your time.
5. Other women are not the enemy:
Many of the deepest relationships I witnessed in my community were female friendships. The amount of pure support I saw women of all ages share in Malaysia made me consider how readily our western media pits women against one another (ie: female celebs: who wore it best?), and how readily we as consumers absorb this.
6. It’s okay to ask for help from men:
Early on in the year, the burner in my kitchen stopped working. A female teacher at my school came over right away, phoned her husband, and made it clear that he should come over shortly and help me re-fill my gas tank, which he promptly and happily did. It dawned on me at that moment that I’d be unlikely to create the same expectation for an American boyfriend. I’d somehow absorbed the belief that being an independent woman means never asking or depending on a man for anything. At all. Period. Yet as my teacher demonstrated, asking a man to assist you with something, or having expectations of him because he is an important figure in your life, is not the same as losing your independence and becoming a vapid Stepford wife. What’s more, it’s not needy or out of place to want a partner to help you through life’s more inane, awkward, or difficult moments (or just someone around to talk with).
7. Setting firm boundaries is a sign of strength, not insecurity:
When I took my drama club students on an overnight field trip, the ladies had no problem telling me what would be needed for them to be safe and comfortable (gender-specific rooms, space to pray, costumes that weren’t too revealing, etc.). In my experience, women often sell short their own senses of comfort and security in an effort to be accommodating, but my girls reminded me that this is never okay.
8. We’ve all got beauty hang-ups:
Midway through the year, I ran out of face wash, and took a walk to the local grocery store to buy some. As I strolled the aisles, it became evident that there wasn’t a single brand that didn’t purport to lighten my skin. This desire for lighter skin was reiterated time and again by my female students, who made me aware on an almost daily basis of how deeply envious they were of my fair skin tone. They struggled to process the culture I described in response, wherein many American girls take to tanning beds in an effort to look more bronzed. Instances like these remind me that when it comes to beauty, every culture has a unique set of standards. We could all stand to throw these out the window, and choose instead to celebrate the beauty inherent in each of us.