The economics of virginity in patriarchal Malaysia

FEBRUARY 2 — Let’s forget that the hymen is central to the idea of (female) virginity.

Focus instead on virginity as a cultural and social form of control. When we do this, we will discover that virginity is only a construct rather than a "real" thing. Once we recognise that virginity is a man-made idea and serves the interests of straight male sexuality, we can expose its sinister purpose.

Take, for instance, the #SaveYourDara and #KeepItHalal hashtags currently peddled by Dara, a magazine directed at a young Muslim female readership. #SaveYourDara is a recent and "trendy" incarnation of an ancient and near universal form of control. However, it is presented as a cool lifestyle choice to be embraced by educated young Muslim women. 

So what is going on here? In Malaysia, women are being pulled down by an undercurrent of regression. It seems as if women who "have it all" are too happy to give it all away. In recent years, a few accomplished middle-class Muslim Malay women have found it necessary to publicly declare themselves obedient wives and prostitutes for their husband’s sole pleasure. Others champion the idea of being comfort women for Islamic State extremists. 

And now, Dara magazine airbrushes the coercive connotations of control by repackaging a patriarchal message with a candy coloured vision of Muslim femininity. Peel away the attempts at hipster aesthetic and you’ll find something ugly. Women and girls have been forced into marriage or murdered, in the name of “honour” and shame, because they did not save their dara and keep “it” halal.

The discourse of virginity thinly veils a preoccupation with property and economic vicissitudes.

Female reproductive capacity has been regarded in economic terms since time immemorial. Female purity becomes a bargaining chip in a male-dominated society where a "real" woman's worth lies in her reproductive functions and looks. Her chastity can be bought and sold. By contrast, a man’s chastity is not worth as much.

But in modern-day Malaysia where a struggling economy has meant delayed marriage, slow career progression, and dwindling chances of property ownership, women’s bodies are regarded as the remaining resource that is still up for grabs. A resource, one should add, that women only give and men will take. A culture of male entitlement arises from this economics of virginity. 

Economic decline has symbolic repercussions on traditional straight masculinity. When a man struggles to play the time-honoured role of breadwinning provider, his economic disempowerment is restored by owning a woman’s body and virginity. This ownership is then formalised in a religious contract between a man and another man. 

Roots of this modern "return of the repressed" can be traced to the preceding decades of nation-building. Malaysia was on a race to modernity and affluence since the 1980s, creating a class of "Melayu Baru", an economically empowered middle-class Malays to counter the colonial image of the "lazy native."

Malay women throughout this period were encouraged to adopt an often oppositional duality of domestic mothers and full-time working women. This was not a feminist project of feminine uplift as Malay women were simply absorbed into an ethnic-capitalist regime of development. 

We must disabuse ourselves of the assumption that Malaysian women’s gains in the last decades have had no impact on men. While the focus of development has been mostly on women -- their employment prospects, careers, and education, men are assumed to be in stasis, the unchanged sex. 

Men’s displeasure at feminism and its demands is a symptom of male frustration that their automatic entitlement to the public sphere is disrupted by the presence of accomplished women. To avoid upsetting the patriarchal status quo, the discourse of female virginity is re-introduced, re-packaged, and sold as a desirable idea. 

Virginity may be a lifestyle "choice" worth respecting, but choices are not made in a cultural vacuum. It is funny that in Malaysia, female sexuality is described in relation to objects to be desired or rejected. We are sex objects or “damaged goods."

Abstinence might sound like a radical disavowal of a society that objectifies women. But it is a passive form of resistance and reinforces the control and punishment of other women who do not choose to keep “it” halal. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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