Nafsu buas: the politics of imagined lust in Malaysia

This post was written by Cycads and originally appeared on her blog.

‘Animalistic lust’ (nafsu buas) is a common spice in Malay tales of adulterous wives, transgender paramours, and homosexual men and women. ‘Animalistic’ or ‘buas‘ here is a blanket term for all that is unbridled and transgressive. Though derived from the Arabic word to mean ’soul’, ‘nafsu‘ is often accompanied with pejorative connotations, and it is used a lot by the Malay media to demonise sexual minorities in Malaysia. Often scapegoated for everything that is immoral in society by the country’s moral vanguards, either elected into office or not, being a sexual minority is becoming more difficult and there are people who cheer for their living hell.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that the recent highly-publicised fatwa against tomboys exposes the powers-that-be’s obsession with the bodily control of Muslim women. While there are many, like myself, who only see the absurdity of the fatwa, proponents of this edict believe that curbing female homosexuality plays a crucial part in an ever-expanding list of ’solutions’ to relieve Malaysia of its fear of disintegrating family units due to rising divorce rates and single parent households, pre-marital sex, and general moral apocalypse.

Not long ago between the 1970s and ’80s, an unprecedented mass migration of young women from rural areas to the industrial towns of Malaysia lead to what can be described as a socio-cultural shock for many. Instead of being represented as role models of economic independence, many young Malay women, particularly factory girls or ‘Minah Karan‘ as they were popularly known, were accused of loose morals and sexual promiscuity and were systematically to blame for the social breakdown of an increasingly modernised Malaysia. Until the mid-1980s, factory women in headscarves (tudung) were rare and associated with a secular, urbanised lifestyle that sharply contrasted against the more modestly dressed, university-educated women who were inspired by the Islamic resurgence at the time.

The allegedly hyper-westernised, morally-dubious behaviour of factory women was defined in the Malaysian mass media during this period as a public issue requiring intervention on the part of religious and political authorities. And so like the fatwa against assumed female homosexuality, the denigration of the Minah Karan is based on fiction more than fact.

The National Fatwa Council of Malaysia, however, formulate fatwas by twisting nebulous assumptions and lack of evidence into solid preventive measures. In a tour de force interview with the director-general of the Malaysian Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), Datuk Wan Mohamad Sheikh Abd Aziz, we will (perhaps) understand their well-thought out and researched rationale behind this tomboy fatwa. Below is an excerpt:

Q: Is there any proof that if a woman dresses as a man, she will become a lesbian? What is the link between clothes and lesbianism?

A: Perhaps this is something that is different between the Islamic perspective and non-Islamic perspective.
Our approach is based on a rule of the maxim in Islamic jurisprudence – that we prevent the opportunity for some thing bad to happen. We believe this is a good approach in preventing something bad which is forseeable, based on research and other issues. This principle is used when determining a fatwa.

Back to the issue of clothes. We have said from the beginning that dressing is not the sole factor (in lesbianism). It is more about behaviour. Don’t forget, a pengkid might be very feminine, but she is a pengkid because of her behaviour and sexual desires.

Q: So, a pengkid has a sexual connotation?

A: Yes. This is what we are worried about. What is meant by pengkid is a person who is inclined to be attracted to someone of the same sex. It starts with the clothes and the behaviour. What we are most worried about is that this person might go to the extreme level. That is why we feel it is safer for each person to strive to follow or abide by his or her fitrah.

A woman would be more damai (at peace) if she had a man as a companion.

Q: The problem is, when it comes to the level of society, the understanding of this fatwa might be different. For instance, at the moment, a lot of men’s clothes have become unisex for women. So, for instance, on the days where I am going to a particularly rough place, I might wear a shirt and pants, and I might not wear earrings or bright lipstick. If someone sees me at that time, what would be the conclusion that person might have on my sexual preference?

A: That is a different issue. We are currently talking about normal conditions. If we talk about situations like you mentioned, then that’s the same as a male policeman going undercover as a woman.

Q: The niat (intention) of the fatwa is one thing, but its application is another. What is going to happen if someone who has heard of this fatwa starts harrassing a woman whom he feels is dressed or behaving like a man?

A: Let’s forget about the possibility of harassment by men.

: We can’t.

A: Alright. But what if the woman who behaves like a man attracts the attention of other women. Doesn’t that also present a threat of harassment?

Q: If that’s the rationale, then I’m better off dressed as a man. For, if I were to dress as a man, I would be harassed by fewer women than I would be by men, were I to be dressed as a woman.

A: (laughs) Actually, the danger to you would then be that you would be harassed by men, and there would be a new harasser (women). But a pengkid is not just about dressing. Dressing is just one of the factors. A woman might have a husband, wears a baju kurung and tudung. But if her behaviour and desire is towards other women, this is where the woman starts to neglect her husband or even leaves him for her woman companion.

*Sigh*. Read the rest here.

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  • Melinda

    It’s a problem when governmental and religious authorities try to make theories about people, and then legislate based on those theories, instead of actually examining the reality. The director-general himself even points out the problem with his fatwa when he says,

    “But a pengkid is not just about dressing. Dressing is just one of the factors. A woman might have a husband, wears a baju kurung and tudung. But if her behaviour and desire is towards other women, this is where the woman starts to neglect her husband or even leaves him for her woman companion.”

    If a woman can wear the right clothes, marry a man, and still have desire towards other women, what does he suggest as a solution? Obviously, banning “pengkid” clothes isn’t working. Neither is getting married, which he even says is a problem, because it might lead to “the destruction of the family institution, which would affect the children.” So what are gay or bi Malaysian women to do? Being feminine isn’t enough, marrying men isn’t enough, and having children is potentially even more unacceptable — do they need to just stop existing? Because you can’t legislate away people’s sexual desires, and he seems to recognize as much in the interview, which contradicts everything else he’s saying.

    Also, what is the Malaysian government’s postion on transgendered people? Because this fatwa does not sound like it would be kind to FTMs, even if they happen to be attracted to men.

  • cycads

    I have a strong feeling transgenders will face the same fate eventually. The muftis in the council are grounded in the rigid concept of inborn, biological sexual identities. For transgenders and perhaps tomboys, there is almost certain an option of moral and religious rehabilitation. I don’t know what it’s like to be morally rehabilitated, but I have a feeling it’s not pleasant.

    In the last few weeks of scanning the thoughts of Malaysians about the fatwa in the blogoshpere, I’ve been quite disappointed to find many Muslims who see the fatwa as a form of safeguarding Muslim women and marriage, instead of controlling them. Another thing that has got them riled up are the criticisms from Malaysians who are not Muslim. For the same reason, women’s groups (Muslim and not alike) have become pariahs because they’ve been accused of not having ‘the vast knowledge in Islam’ as those in authority, and therefore ‘acting like they know everything’.

    It all sounds illogical to me, but these are kinds of conversations I’m having with people of various degrees of negative opinions about women’s groups and meddling non-Muslims. It’s almost driving me crazy!

  • jade

    I hv been expatriate for less than 2 years. Perhaps, one might think my judgements are premature or presumptous. You are right about the fact that if i, being naturally a woman, dressed more like a man than a woman i certainly feel safer. And that’s not because I am a pengkid. Men in malaysia have got this unexplainable ill-intentioned mind that i can read in their eyes. Initially, I dressed very very feminine and ,mind you, that didnt mean alluring super-mini skirts and low-cut blouses. I am confident that I was decent in my fitting polo shirt and long jeans. This seemed to attract crazy wolf-whistling, ogling eyes, lustful smiles and sarcastic lustful comments like ”Hi sayang and hey baby”,anything that could raise hairs on my arms .It surprised me and disgusted me. Simply abhorrent. Not only do I blame the lorry and truck drivers for this uncivilized low order of intellect but I have personally faced it from trangressing men washing cars at petrol stations, men behind decent cars, not forgetting family cars too, you name it. I have to be subjected to such things most of my days, screaming in my head ”hello, what about some rectitude here?!!”. Thank God for the mp3, which i bought on purpose, to kill the sarcasm I would have to, otherwise, hear.
    Most women in Malaysia have been raised impressively. The man of the house says to cover-up and she does willingly or not. Some of them order the women not to adorn any decorative apparrels but black and they obediently listen. I am not attempting to mock and discourage but point out the strength of a woman and, yet, until today, predominantly in a muslim country, it is ”the women”. Why was the issue of a woman’s modesty very very important since the days of Christ and Muhammad? Why did they emphasize? Were those Their warnings? And from what? Why should a women’s modesty matter more than a man if we are both humans?. My answer may conflict with many, but yes, I believe God knew the corruption in the minds of men. The lasvicious thoughts that would linger or run wild. I wonder if ”hijab” is truly for a woman’s modesty or to suppress the sinful and lustful eyes, mind and heart of a man from wandering. In my opinion, I believe that a typical muslim woman strictly takes pride in her modesty as her first priority whereas that is second for men. You may ask, ”Then, what’s first?” I prefer to think of this injunction as a measure to subjugate their sinful temptations.
    Did the fatwa ever care to find out why there were alarming number of pengkid? What must have caused it? I remember I was a tomboy too until I grew out of it but I sense an impending sense of danger upon my modesty as a women of 21. This danger serves as my warning to maintain my masculine self as a female.In short, I don’t want to be a rape victim. If they can viciously rape and murder an 8 year old, Im in no better position. The large number of cars on Malaysian roads are not only because of convenient government loans and cheaper locally-produced cars but the measures taken by extremely worried parents and independent women for themselves from ”animals”. Lucky them, unfortunately, not everyone of us can afford cars but we make use of daylight and pepper sprays. Its like living in Translyvania. I know better than to walk alone in the darker part of the streets and if it is an emergency that I have to rush out of the house for, obviously, i would dress myself closer to a man than a woman so I would not attract unnecessary attention that may lead to my tragedy. The government cannot protect me from being another rape victim so I have to protect myself. I am not a pengkid but for my own security i have to be one occasionally.

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  • cycads


    I’m sorry that you’ve had the experience of dealing with annoying Malaysian men. Malay men particularly, can be a public nuisance sometimes. It is true that sexual harassment is rife, but not many women know how to tackle such situations, so there are very few who publicly address the issue and actions against it. Dressing down (with hijab, or not) is certainly one way get around ignored by lascivious eyes. Also, putting on a mean face while around Kuala Lumpur always works for me :)

    Majority of men don’t try anything more than calling out to you, whistle, or make that horrible ‘squeaking’ sound to get your attention. In that way, they are quite ‘harmless’. But in Malaysia, no woman can be really safe from the horrors of rape; we’ve had victims who were children, hijabis, and elderly women. Just as many are incestuous rapes. Many of the perpetrators are Malay men who come from the rural parts of country. It’s an economic and social problem, rather than a religious one. This is compounded further by the lack of sex education for village children, men and women.

    Getting hold of pornography is easy, easier still are the ‘moral’ magazines containing stories packed with detailed accounts of illicit sex, but always with a moral twist. Nearly every Malay knows about or reads these magazines. They’re like Aesop’s fables for the dirty-minded, and no one has really put a stop to them. No one, not even the muftis on their moral high horses. Perhaps it’s a kind of buffer for repressed sexuality and forbidden fantasies, the way very graphic manga plays a huge part in Japan’s social fabric – to stop people from acting out their darker side.

  • Fatemeh

    @ Cycads: I’m a bit uncomfortable with the polarizing class implications of a statement like, “rural Malay men are mostly perpetrating these horrific acts,” though I would agree that economy and social construction have a lot to do with rape. Do you have a statistics on perpetrators?

  • cycads


    There is a really good report on violence in Malaysia here (probably more than two years old though):

    Another report here, scroll down to ‘Children’:

    And another:

  • Fatemeh

    Thank you!

  • Na’ima B. Robert

    Asalaamu alaikum

    @ cycad
    I would be interested to know how you define the thin line between protection and control. It seems to me that the difference between the two is in the eye of the beholder: what one may view as protection, another may view as control. The same could be said of a whole host of Islamic guidelines/ aspects of Shari’ah law, in particular with regards to women, right?
    So how do you as a Muslim and a feminist reconcile these two concepts? Is it ever acceptable to ‘control’ aspects of individuals’ lives or the way society is run in order to ‘protect’ its citizens?
    Or should that protection only ever relate to one’s physical safety or health, for example, rather than moral or spiritual safety?

    Just throwing some thoughts out here, haven’t a firm opinion of my own, but would like to know how you sisters are processing this info.
    JazakAllahu khairah

  • Melinda


    I’m a little bothered by the remark, “Its like living in Translyvania.” What exactly did you mean by that?

  • Sobia

    @ Na’ima:

    It depends on who you are protecting and from whom. The US, and a few other Western countries, have put in place laws that control the behaviour of Muslims to protect non-Muslims.

    I think the line gets crossed when a portion of the population feels violated and denied their rights, and the control of whose behaviour does not protect anyone from anything. For instance, banning same-sex marriage is a form of controlling behaviour which infringes upon the rights of gays and lesbians AND which does not protect heterosexual people. Controlling the behaviour of Muslims (via ethnic profiling, Patriot Act etc) violates the rights of Muslims while not actually protecting non-Muslims from anything (except the acceptance of Muslims as fellow citizens).

    Placing a fatwa against tomboys violates the rights of women who choose to dress/behave in non-stereotypical feminine ways while not protecting anyone else from anything. How this actually protects society escapes me.

  • cycads


    Indeed, there is a very fine line between safeguarding and control. For those who are happy with the fatwa, it is viewed as a means of preventing something unpleasant. But we also need to ask ourselves: what are the unpleasant repercussions of female homosexuality? Are they a threat to other Muslim’s spirituality? And for those who disagree with the fatwa, it is nothing but a form of control. Looking a little androgynous in Malaysia, intentional or not, is simply risking harassment.

    The fatwa itself does not hold water: you cannot associate sexuality with dress. If there was a fatwa that relates to the safety and protection of women, then it’s a fatwa that declares any form of sexual harassment ‘haram’.