Young, Malay and Female


Mandarin-speaking Noorhasyilah Rosli relates her experience growing up in a multicultural society, exploring her identity at the same time.

In the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, all Malays are born Muslim. However, Merdeka Centre polling has shown that they tend to identify themselves by religion first rather than by ethnicity or nationality. This tendency has in fact been growing – those who see themselves as Malay first have fallen from 11% to 6%.1

What does this all mean to be a Malay woman, and how does a Malay woman reconcile one with the other?

To choose which to identify with first is purely up to the individual – there is no right or wrong about it. But what does this all mean to be a Malay woman, and how does a Malay woman reconcile one with the other? These questions were brought up during “Tanjung Talks: Sisters under the Skin”, held during George Town Festival in August – and provided much food for thought.

All About Perception

Growing up in a diverse society and having attended Chinese vernacular schools, I personally did not experience racial nor religious issues. The learning process was normal, and competing with the other races in school shaped me into a better person. I was not exposed to Malay society until I entered university.

When it comes to tertiary education, there is the tendency among other Malaysians to think that Malays are automatically entitled to a spot in universities. This is contrary to my experience: it took me several attempts before I was accepted into an all-Malay and Bumiputera university. Entering university is not a given, despite the perception.

And there, I found that laziness is a choice, not a genetic disposition. Having grown up believing the myth of the lazy Malay, or “Melayu pemalas”, I have since met a lot of hardworking Malays. For me, that stereotype was quickly thrown out the window.

And I found that within the Malay sphere, cultures, dialects, lifestyle and food differ. What surprised me the most was that there are Malay-Kadazan and other Malay-Bumiputera mixed races that are not Muslim. Race does not necessarily define your religion, nor does it act as an exclusive stepping stone.

Neither does what you wear measure your faith. Take the hijab, or tudung, as it is locally known. Islam calls for modesty in the way we dress, and the tudung is worn by Muslim women as an enforcement of Islamic values based on Quranic teachings. It is largely associated with masculine views that intend to safeguard women and their honour, propagating the tudung as part of the Malay-Muslim identity in the process.2

Malay women in Malaysia only began adopting Islamic wear in the 1980s; prior to that, it was normal for them to not cover their head. This can be contributed to the growth of a better understanding and acceptance of Islam.

But even then, wearing the tudung is compulsory in Islam; it remains a choice among Malay women. Women’s reasons to wear the tudung can be vastly different – religious obeisance aside, it can for example be worn as an effort to gain acceptance – but at the same time, wearing a tudung does not automatically make one a good person.

Besides the hijab, the issue of Malay-Muslim women’s rights often involves politics of culture, religion, identity and nationalism. Being a nation of many faiths, Malaysia has had to consider the relationship between religion and race, which has become ever more entwined. Islamic revival in Malaysia has been defined by what is known as the dakwah movement which, for the Malay woman, can be defined as a “re-education or re-socialisation process, whereby women can be rescued from the throes of Westernisation which has permeated Malay culture”.3

The conservative bent in dakwah, which has been teaching that women are a source of support to men – that they do not have the same political rights as men; they may only lead female organisations; their careers are limited to them being clerks, teachers and nurses; it is their role to educate the new generation; they must cover their hair and wear long, loose clothes; and that they should not use beauty products such as cosmetics – is no longer very relevant.

Race does not necessarily define your religion, nor does it act as an exclusive stepping stone.

As a Malay-Muslim woman, I have witnessed a lot of women – regardless of race or religion – actively changing and leading the country. We can be found in all fields, be it in education, medicine, engineering, aviation – and politics.

As long as women have access to education and have a platform, nothing can hold us back from contributing to our country and society.

1 More Malays say they are Muslim first: Malaysian poll, Teo Cheng Wee, first-malaysian-poll
2 Hijab and the Malay-Muslim Woman in Media, Nurzihan Hassim, Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 155 ( 2014 ) 428 – 433
3 Islam and Women’s Rights: Discourses in Malaysia, Aurangzaib Alamgir, Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 114 ( 2014 ) 872 – 876

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