Wednesday 28 January 2009
Invasion of the campus softies
SEXUAL IDENTITY: Effeminacy Among University Students by Noraini Mohd Noor, Jamal Farooqui, Ahmad Abd Al-Rahim Nasr, Hazizan Md Noon and Shukran Abdul Rahman. (International Islamic University Malaysia, 2005, 231 pages).
This is one of the fruitiest books I have ever read. The fact that it evangalises against fruity behaviour does not invalidate this verdict, since the world is rife with paradox. (To use an analogy: Pro-democracy activists are not always democratic, no?)
In 2003, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Siti Zaharah Sulaiman claimed there were too many lelaki lembut (‘male softies’) among university students. “Where have all the cowboys gone?” she almost asked. This book came out a mere two years later. The five writers also want more cowboys, and they don’t mean of the Brokeback Mountain variety! This is the International Islamic University, and cows must produce only halal meat.
Having five writers might account for some contradicting passages. We are told of mak nyah (transvestites): ““society frowns on them, but they are tolerated to an extent.” A mere paragraph later, these people “are viewed as a significant social problem.” So what are they?
But are all lelaki lembut potential mak nyah, anyway? The book sometimes thinks so, and other times has no clue. But it does want softies to have typical male characteristics, to be “forceful, dominant, competitive and sure of themselves.” (But don’t these sterling qualities also describe many women, such as the book’s muse Siti Zaharah herself? Or am I thinking more of the woman who took back the Wanita Umno leadership from her? But I digress).
The researchers questioned various IIU students on this phenomenon. Astonishingly, only 5 lelaki lembut were actually interviewed. The other 20 are all normal students (and this book, free of irony and relativism, never puts ‘normal’ in quotation marks) who give their usually negative opinions, e.g. “Most respondents felt that softies spent their time gossiping with each other.”
The males, females and softies had to fill out a questionnaire to determine how masculine, feminine or androgynous they were. Stuff like knowing how to read a map or fix “something mechanical.” They are also asked whether they prefer to sit on the left, the right, or just anywhere in a movie theatre. (My own answer would be ‘the centre’ but this option is not included. I always knew I was special.)
Based on these questions and some self-evaluating ones (e.g. on a scale of 1 to 5, how satisfied are you with your sexual organ?), some conclusions are drawn. The book gleefully points out that softies tend to exhibit lower self-esteem than normal men and women. But, astonishingly, softies also tend to exhibit lower stress levels. What gives? “They may not be telling the truth.” Oh, OK then.
Another possibility for the lack of stress could be that “this group of softies is closely knit and very supportive of one another.” Therefore, “such interaction needs to be stopped.” Make no mistake: the authors want to “make the campus environment unappealing and unconducive to effeminate males.” No wonder only 5 softies agreed to be interviewed! And judging from the interview transcripts, they didn’t seem too comfortable with the questions, either. When asked how much he spends on ‘cosmetics’ every month, one answered uncertainly: “Does facial cleanser count as cosmetics?”
The interview process was not free from slapstick. There were “logistic difficulties…partly due to the University’s regulations that require students to observe certain rules with regard to the male-female relationships on campus.” This meant that unmarried men and women couldn’t be in private, and so these interviews were conducted in public places and were frequently disrupted by “noise and external activities (such as passers-by staring at both interviewer and interviewee, causing both parties to feel uncomfortable)”.
This little anecdote alone is an excellent illustration of how conservative gender taboos impede work. If the university authorities weren’t so hung up about sex, perhaps their people can come up with better research. That is, after all, what a university should be doing, instead of getting their students to suggest “military training” or “public punishment” for men who prefer volleyball to rugby.
Then there is the suggestion for each softy to be assigned a masculine male as “a role model for traditional ways of male interaction, carrying oneself, handshaking, and even urinating.” It was at this point, after picking myself up from the floor, that I suspected the whole book to be an ingenious hoax, but then I perished the thought.
I learned more about gender and sexuality from that bit in I Shot Andy Warhol when one of the maestro’s Superstars was asked: “What are you? Are you a woman trapped in a man’s body? A transvestite? A transsexual?” –- and then came the answer: “But darling, what difference does it make, as long as you look fabulous?” Amen to that.
(Malay Mail, 28 January)