While women’s concerns in Malaysia were subsumed under nationalist concerns during British colonialism, the 1980s signalled a turning point. Women could discuss topics in relation to their everyday experiences such as domestic violence. That same period also saw Islamisation gather momentum.
Integral to Islamisation was an emphasis on the role of women as wives and mothers so as to maintain the integrity of the patriarchal family. The domestic household and marital issues naturally became key concerns in Islamisation discourse. Muslimah NGOs emerged during this period, responding both to state and everyday discourses on Islam in Malaysian society. One principal response of the NGOs was to go back to Islamic and alternative sources of knowledge. These responses were also informed by particular orientations towards Islam such as neo-traditionalism and neo-modernism.
Utilising Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge approach, What It Means to Be a Muslimah examines gender activist discourse in Malaysia by focusing on the religious orientations of the activists interviewed. It argues that Muslimah activists in Malaysia generally adopt a neo-modernist mode of thinking when discussing various sources of knowledge and the specific marital issues of polygamy and child marriage, but demonstrate a diversity in modes of thinking where they interchangeably pick and choose positions that correspond to either neo-traditionalism or neo-modernism when explaining a woman’s role in Islam.
About the Author
Syed Imad Alatas is currently pursuing his PhD in sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His research interests include the sociology of religion and gender, topics he enjoys writing on in academic and non-academic settings. His Master’s thesis at the National University of Singapore focused on female Muslim NGOs in Malaysia and their discourses on marital issues and gender relations. Prior to that, he worked at the Middle East Institute at NUS, where he oversaw publications and was in charge of the internship programme. He has written for journals such as Kajian Malaysia, Asia Pacific Social Science Review, and the Southeast Asian Social Science Review. Outside academia, he writes for publications such as Free Malaysia Today, Malay Mail, The Star, and Karyawan in Singapore.