Malaysia: Women’s Work & Resistance

Carol McAllister

WHEN INTRODUCING STUDENTS, at the University of Pittsburgh, to the situation of women in Malaysia, I often show them a slide that depicts a woman standing in a rice field. She is holding a handmade hoe, which she is using to repair the dikesbefore planting the rice crop that will supply much of her family’s staple food for the coming year The woman in the photograph, whom I will call Asmah, was one of my neighbors and Mends during the year and a half I lived in a rural village in the area of Malaysia known as Negeri Sembilan.

I urge my students to look closely in the upper right-hand corner of the slide where they can see the power lines that supply Asmah’s village with electricity as well as draw her and other subsistence farmers more fully into the cash economy. Standing beside Asmah is her young son, wearing only a T-shirt since he is being gently introduced to toilet-training. A close-up shot reveals that his shirt features a picture of Donnie and Marie Osmond, popular cultural figures in the Malay community during the late 1970s.

The social and cultural complexity of Malaysian women’s lives—for example, the co-existence of aspects of both a subsistence and a cash economy and the juxtaposition of indigenous and Western cultural images—is only hinted in this photograph. Further complexities are revealed by some background information. For instance, as a Negeri Sembilan woman, Asmah effectively controls both the field in which she is standing and the crop her labor produces, while the formal ownership of such resources is collectively shared with other women in her kin group. This follows from the traditional matrilineal practices of this area of Malaysia.

This particular year, however, Asmah was able to work her fields only because her oldest daughter, Noriah, was temporarily unemployed after a series of low-wage jobs, including washing hair at a beauty shop and pumping gas at a service station in the nearby town of Kuala PilaK While Noriah took care of her younger brothers and sisters so her mother could plant and harvest the family’s rice crop, she immersed herself in romance magazines, a popular item in the local markets, and worried about her own impending marriage.

Noriah also talked with other young women in the village about a possible move to the capital city of Kuala Lumpur where they hoped they might find “better jabs, perhaps in an American-owned factory or, as they would prefer, in a government office.

There are many dangers in attempting to discuss “the situation” of women in Malaysia, especially in a short article. This is because there is much diversity in women’s situations—and also in their viewpoints and perspectives—depending on the particular sociocultural group to which they belon First of all, there is the multi-ethnic character of the soc1ety, Besides displaying profound cultural differences, Malays, Chinese, and Indians have also played historically distinct roles in the local economy under both British colonialism and post-colonial capitalist development. This has created divergences in the experiences of women from each group.

In addition, even among the indigenous Malay population, traditional cultural patterns and the type of pre-colonial economy varied in different regions of the country. For example, the matrilineal system that still shapes much of rural life in Negeri Sembilan is not characteristic of other areas of Malaysia. Today we are also seeing growing class differences in the lives of women in each of the major ethnic groups.

Rather than attempting a superficial overview, this discussion will focus on some of the experiences of working class and peasant women in the Malay ethnic group during the recent period of extensive capitalist development It will draw on my own ethnographic research in the area of Negen Sembilan in 1978-79, while also updating this work and extending it to an analysis of the changing situation of Malay women as a whole.

Two general observations help to set the framework for our understanding of the experiences of Malay women and their own responses to recent changes in Malaysian society. First, we need to recognize that capitalist development is causing a fundamental transformation in the lives of Malay women as both they and their communities are drawn more fully into the international wage-and-market economy. At the same time, there is an on-going involvement of women in traditional economic and social practices and accompanying value systems and world views.

Second, we must appreciate that such traditional forms and values are kept alive, in fact often revitalized and elaborated, by Malay women themselves as a means for coping with, protestinf against, and sometimes even resisting the more exploitative aspects of dependent development. At the same time, such indigenous traditions can also become undermined and distorted by their encounter with capitalist relations and can be manipulated by the capitalist class for their own ends. These complex and contradictory dynamics both shape and reflect the choices of Malay women in the current period of rapid socioeconomic change and are central to any analysis of their changing situation.(1)

Capitalist Development and Malay Women

The Malaysian state is following a model of capitalist development based on export-processing industrialization, with an aspiration of becoming one of the Newly Industrialized Countries as represented presently by the Four Tigers of Asia (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan). After a serious economic crisis in the mid-1980s, resulting in the retrenchment of tens of thousands of workers, the economy has shown a steady and rapid growth, including an increasing conversion from the production of primary resources (especially natural rubber, palm oil, and tropical timber) to the manufacture of industrial components and products (Tsuruoka 1992).

While many families in Malaysia experience economic hardship and insecurity, there is not the kind of desperate poverty that increasingly characterizes most Third World countries. Unlike its Latin American and African counterparts, Malaysia is also relatively unburdened by an excessive foreign debt and the kinds of IMF austerity measures imposed elsewhere.

At the same time, the Malaysian development strategy is characterized by dependence on one or two key industries, most notably electronics.(2) There is also continued domination of the local economy by foreign investors, a pattern reinforced by the 1987 overhauling of the country’s investment rules to favor foreigners. A recent report in Far Eastern Economic Review claims: “The cutting edge for this shift in priorities, which has made Malaysia one of the fastest growing economies in the world, has been a surge in foreign manufacturing investments which hit M$16 billion (US $6.2 billion) in 1991” (Tsuruoka 1992).

In spite of the growth of investments by Asian capitalists (primarily from Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan), U.S. investments in Malaysia have also recently surged, with a tripling of the dollar amount since 1990 (Vatikiotis, April 9, 1992). While there is some indication that Malaysians are taking higher skilled and better paid jobs, leaving more of the unskilled jobs to immigrant workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, the model of industrialization being pursued by this aspiring “Newly Industrializing Country” (MC) is based on super-exploitation and control of the workforce as well as the ignoring of serious environmental, health, and safety issues (Vatikiotis, June 4 & August 6 1992). All of this sets the stage for the changing experiences of Malay women.

During 1978-79, when I carried out field research in the Kuala Pilah area of Negeri Sembilan, young women for the first time in their community’s history were being drawn in significant numbers into wage Labor: Along with their female counterparts from other regions of Malaysia, many of these women formed the backbone of the work force in the Japanese and American-owned electronics plants that had mushroomed since the early 1970s as part of the new strategy of export-processing or off-shore sourcing by international capital. Other young women, also working in Free Trade Zones, were employed by the longer-standing but expanding textile industry.

Recent reports indicate that this pattern continues: “80% of the 85,000 jobs that have been created in electronics alone are held by women. And 70% of these women workers are Malay” (Scott 1989: 32). Some new jobs are located in the rural areas; others require Malay women to relocate, at least on a temporary basis, from their rural villages to urban settings or industrial zones.

Previous accounts (see for example Ong 1987 and McAllister 1987) focus on the young, unmarried female factory worker the typical pattern in the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s. There are indications, however, that women are now staying longer in these jobs through the experience of marriage and childbearing. This is a significant new development that will affect female roles, family patterns, and the structure of both rural and urban Malay society. As Scott (1989: 34) indicates: “For older workers with children, living away from their extended families means devising new arrangements for raising their children since neither the government nor the factories offer child care.”

The main attraction for multinational companies to locate their plants in Malaysia is the availability of a cheap, though fairly well-educated, labor force. A 1989 report, for example, indicated that female production workers in electronics factories were paid around US$4.20 a day (Scott 1989:32). In 1992, wages in the two most industrialized states of Selangor and Penang averaged only US$2.40400 a day (Vatikiotis, April 16, 1992). Yet many of the young women who work in electronics or other kinds of factories are high school graduates.

There are also the advantages to multinationals of a political climate that prevents labor militancy, including stringent control over union organizing and activity,2 and special benefits for mvestin in a Free-Trade Zone, such as tax holidays and exemptions from import-export duties The laxity of health and safety regulations provides another attraction for investors, which, however, has very deleterious results for factory workers and local communities. As described in a recent article in International Viewpoint, this includes a number of deaths among women working in electronics plants that are thought to be linked to the exposure to toxic chemicals throughout the industry. These chemicals then go on to become toxic wastes, poisoning whole communities, after their use in industrial production (Stockton 1991).

Capitalist development and the growth of export-processing industries has also meant the expansion and transformation of other aspects of the economy. Malay women now regularly travel from rural villages to nearby towns or to the capital, Kuala Lumpur, seeking work in the clerical, sales and service sectors. They work as office clerks, typists, telephone operators, salespersons in Chinese-owned stores, beauticians, or in the tourist industry—occupations that are heavily feminized in both developed and developing societies.

Recent moves toward privatization of much of the public sector, including postal, telecommunications and transportation services, will affect several of these jobs (Tsuruoka 1992). If trends in other countries are any indication, women clerical and service workers are likely to experience falling wages and greater job insecurity.

In Negeri Sembilan, as well as in some other areas of Malaysia, other women, while remaining in their rural environment, are drawn further into the petty-commodity production of rubber The tapping of rubber by Malay smallholders began in the colonial era but has undergone an expansion during the post-colonial period, resulting in the entry of more women into this economic acfivity. Although they remain outside the formal wage-work system, the participation of these women in small-scale rubber production ties their income more closely to international fluctuations in the demand for natural rubber and increases their vulnerability to downturns in the global capitalist economy.

All these women—whatever their form of employment—likewise find themselves increasingly dependent on mass-produced commodities, supplied through a competitive market framework, to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and housing as well as to provide new necessities such as televisions, running water, school uniforms, and motorbikes.

There are disagreements among both researchers and activists concerning the effect of these developments on women’s status and on gender relations. Some argue that women’s increasing participation in wage-work and greater access to a cash income increases their personal autonomy and their decision-making power within households and families. Others focus on the relegation of young women, compared to their male counterparts, to low-paid and insecure jobs in the wage labor sector, and the increasing responsibility of more mature women for subsistence production and household work, while the men in their families become the primary providers of cash.

There is also the question of ideology and values Thus some argue that participation in the capitalist sector introduces young women to liberal democratic values, while others point to the role of factory regimes in strengthening patriarchal tendencies while undermining more positive aspects of traditional cultures.

The situation in Negeri Sembilan—where the traditional matrilineal system ensured women’s access to productive resources, promoted active participation in economic and community life, and encouraged a high valuation of women’s roles—shows clearly the undermining of women’s status by capitalist development While both younger and older Negeri Sembilan women continue their active participation in the changing economy, women’s traditional roles are being devalued and there is emerging a situation of unequal male and female access to important new resources.

In this case, the most positive aspect of Malay women’s growing participation in the capitalist sector is their increasing interaction with women from other ethnic groups and regions. This may help to break down longstanding prejudices and create a stronger basis for worker and female solidarity.

Women’s Everyday Forms of Resistance

The ways in which Malay women cope with and attempt to resist some of the harsher aspects of this new economic order are not, however, primarily through forms of labor or feminist activism familiar to those of us in the West. Instead, their strategies of survival and resistance depend to a large extent on maintaining many of the traditional cooperative practices that were part of their indigenous cultures and extending these traditions to their new circumstances. This is particularly clear in Negeri Sembilan, where the matrilineal system promoted both communal and female-centered forms of economic and social organization.(3)

The persistence of traditional forms of work and property is a good example. Thus Negeri Sembilan women, in spite of their growing involvement in the wage economy, still practice subsistence rice-farming and cash-cropping in the form of rubber-tapping.

Rice production on inherited land, with sisters working adjacent plots of padi, produces a crop that is shared among kin but never sold on the market. Rubber-tapping requires the initial purchase of land from the national government and then eventually the sale of the semi-processed latex to a rubber dealer in town.

In spite of these differences in subsistence and petty-commodity production, Negeri Sembilan Malays own both their rice fields and their rubber trees in a pattern more typical of matrilineal than of capitalist principles of land tenure. In other words, they refuse to treat such property as a commodity to be bought-andsold but rather regard it as a resource in which lineage-mates collectively share interest.

Negeri Sembilan people, and to a certain extent Malays in other areas of the country, maintain these traditional forms of property and work to supplement their generally meager wages and to have something to fall back on during frequent periods of forced or voluntary withdrawal from employment in the wage-labor sector. This is particularly important for women whose position in the wage economy remains at the lower levels and is more precarious than that of men given the retrenchment practices of export-processing industries.

There are indications, for example, that at least some multinational industries prefer to lay off women after only afew years of employment or when they reach their mid-twenties. Such practices prevent the accumulation of seniority and cut across the development of worker militancy and solidarity.

In addition, several women told me that by combining “village work” with employment in the factories, offices, and shops in nearby towns, they could maintain greater control over their own work lives and more easily perform other valued roles, such as caring for children or organizing rituals.

As a form of everyday resistance, such practices forestall complete absorption into the system of wage labor and decrease people’s dependence on the wage and-market economy; they also limit the degree to which employers can impose despotic regimes on female workers who can always quit and return home to the work of subsistence and petty-commodity production.

A most interesting elaboration of the above practices is the application of matrilineal principles of ownership to the “new resource” of education. In Negeri Sembilan, there is particular emphasis on the education of daughters, which tends to be a collective effort, involving various forms of support from a number of people in the young woman’s kin group. The student in turn, is expected to reciprocate by sharing the skills and opportunities she gains throuh her education with her extended family of matri-kin. There are also explicit references by young Negeri Sembilan women to education as “my harta pesaka (ancestral property or inheritance).”

Here we have a situation that is far from an avoidance of the wage-and-market economy and its cultural accoutrements such as modern, secular schooling. But we do see Negeri Sembilan women trying to participate in this new experience on their own terms. By promoting the education of daughters and doing it in a traditionally cooperative way, they resist to a certain extent both the male bias of state educational systems and the competitive values encouraged through the process of schooling itself.

While this approach to education is specific to Negeii Sembilan, Malay women throughout the peninsula attempt to maintain extended family networks in spite of the growing pressure for nuclear family autonomy followingthe demands of wage labor and the job market The family pattern in contemporary Negeri Sembilan is still based on the traditional matrilineal model—with descent passing through women and the core relationships centered around mothers, daughters, and sisters. In other regions of the country, families are structured more like our own—with kinship being traced “on both sides.”

While family members now tend to live farther apart and to be engaged in different forms of work, the extended family still provides an important source of emotional and social support as well as practical help for Malay women. In fact, the kinds of resources and forms of aid that are shared between female kin are now more diverse and also more critical for basic survival.

An extension and ritualization of such forms of collective support is provided through participation in traditional feasts, known askenduri Such feasts are held at all life-cycle transitions, with the largest and most elaborate (involving upwards of 500-1000 people) occurring at the occasion of marriage. Besides their religious meanin feasts provide an important mechanism for economic redistribution and political discussion, which are becoming more crucial in the current era of growing economic stratification and political repression.

Women throughout Malaysia have important responsibilities in the feasting complex. In Negeri Sembilan they play the central role in organizing kendurL Women thus do most of the organizing of the event, making decisions about it, and managing the collection of necessary resources. They also spend much more time than men working together to put on the feast, in the course of which they discuss local and sometimes even national or international issues that affect themselves and their communities. In spite of substantial pressure from national elites and Islamic fundamentalists to abandon such practices, Malays still actively participate in kenduri and depend on the exchanges they promote to meet various economic and social needs.(4)

But reality is rarely this simple. The combining of these traditional forms of economy, family, and ritual with the new economic and social relations imposed by capitalism does help Malay women meet some of their most basic needs and resist certain new forms of exploitation. Yet as a result of this encounter and the interpenetration ofprecapitalist and capitalist forms, such traditions can also become distorted and undermined.

For example, I noted in the course of my fieldwork in Negeri Sembilan that the kenduri, that exemplary celebration of communal equality, has begun under pressures created by the market economy to take on a dynamic of competitive display. Cecilia Ng notes that in some other areas of Malaysia, as rice production becomes increasingly mechanized and commercialized, it also becomes masculinized (Ng 1991).

An even more glaring contradiction is the way traditional practices, even as they serve as a source of resistance and an important survival mechanism for Malay women, can also be incorporated into the capitalist economy and used to further the exploitation of these women by multinational or local corporations.

For example, the tradition of communal childcare, one of the functions still carried out by the extended family, is very important for the well-being of Malay children. But it also “frees” their mothers to spend long hours at wage-earning jobs often located far from their village homes, and relieves the companies employing these women from responsibility for providing this service themselves. Likewise, the participation of young Negeri Sembilan women in schooling—though greatly valued by rural villagers and “paid for” by the collective effort and sacrifice of matri-kin—trains these women to be more effective and disciplined wage-workers.

The persistence of rice farminF and rubber-tapping and of traditional forms of collective property can also prove of benefit to international and local capitalists. For one thing, it relieves employers from paying even survival-level wages, since the assumption can be made that young female (and even male) workers will continue to be subsidized by their rural kin. All this indicates that the cost of reproducing both present and future labor power remains largely within the subsistence household economy, rather than being shouldered by the capitalist sector, even while capitalist development also undermines the subsistence sector and makes these tasks of social and biological reproduction more difficult The continued involvement of Malay women in traditional forms of economic and social support may also dampen certain kinds of political and working class militancy, again to the benefit of the capitalist class.

Spirit Possession and Islamic Revival

Two additional examples of the maintenance and reworking of longstanding traditions to confront new forms of exploitation in a wage-and-market economy reveal these contradictory dynamics: the occurrence of spirit possession among factory women and the involve ment of female students and workers in Islamic revival.

The phenomenon of spirit possession or ghost attack, known colloquially askena hantu, is agood example of the use of traditional ideology or consciousness by Malay women to directly confront new circumstances created by capitalist development. Kena hantu serves as an indigenous explanation for various kinds of illness, especially psychological distress and dysfunction. In the past, illnesses of middle-aged rural women were commonly attributed to spirit possession which tended to draw attention to the economic and social as well as psychological causes of their poor health. Healing took place through special rituals that gathered support around the distressed woman, reintegrated her into the communal milieu, and also encouraged actual changes in her economic and social circumstances.

But in the last two decades, ghost attacks have been occurring most frequently not among older women In village settings but rather among young women on the production floors of multinational factories. When the attacks occur in a factory setting, they usually take on a mass characteras the initial sighting of a hantu travels up and down the assembly line until several young omen fall prey to the malevolent spirit. The possessed women (or, more precisely, the ghosts speakinq through the women’s voices) scream out specific complaints about their working conditions, especially railing against abuses of factory managers of foremen. Such outbursts may reveal that the spirit’s anger results from the very location of the multinational factory on sacred ground.

Management usually tries to contain the attacks, sometimes firing the women who are perceived as leaders,especially if they are “repeat offenders.” Often, though, if the attack is extensive enough, the factory has to be closed for several days or even weeks as traditional healers are brought in to perform cleansing ceremonies. Sometimes, repeated episodes of kena hantu prompt management to make changes in the schedules, pace and general working conditions of their plant In these cases, spirit possession serves, to a limited degree, to force a restructuring of the process of industrial production.

One might ask whether the belief in kena hantu provides an adequate vehicle of resistance for these young women. Some argue that ghost attacks divert legitimate protest into safe and non-threatening channels and away from effective forms of organization and real efforts at change. Does this traditional world view this benefit the capitalist class as much as the Malay factory workers who truly believe in ghosts?

On the other hand, in the current climate of political repression and the prevention or harassment of most forms of union organizing, kena hantu at least serves as a collective response–a most dramatic but still “everyday” form of resistance-to worker exploitation. It is also a response widely understood throughout Malaysia, by mothers and grand-mothers in the villages as well as by their young daughters and granddaughters who find themselves working on the global assembly line.(5)

Another recent phenomenon that contrasts in some important ways with spirit possession is women’s involvement in Islamic revival. Since the mid-1970s, this revival, known in Malaysia as dakwah, has been growing in strength and fervor, capturing the attention and commitment of many in the Malay community. Dakwah is very complex with a variety of currents; it represents an effort at fundamentalist religious reform and an expression of social protest against current policies of the Malaysian state.

The revival presents an ambivalent and contradictory perspective on questions concerning women’s rights and roles—for example, some currents encourage higher education for women but then criticize their participation in forms of employment that often follow. It has, however, the potential to introduce serious restrictions on women’s lives, from curtailing their traditional access to property to campaigns enforcing more rigid sexual codes. While exhibiting its own local particularities, the Malaysian revival is linked conceptually, and to an extent organizationally, to the recent wave of Islamic fundamentalism and militancy gripping many other Muslim societies.

Islam was introduced to the peoples of the Malay peninsula in the 15th century by Arab and Indian traders. Its influence spread rapidly, resulting in the conversion of the local population. From the beginning, though, Islam interacted with and was affected by the preexisting local cultures. For example, the Islamic conversion did not result in the adoption of the practices of seclusion or veiling; nor did it entail the development of the patriarchal family patterns, restrictions on women’s public activities, and overriding concern with the social separation of males and females prevalent in the Muslim heartland.

In Negeri Sembilan, the matrilineal system of land tenure remained in force rather than a shift to the pattern of private property ownership and differential inheritance by males favored by the Quran. Women throughout the peninsula continued to be active in economic production and exchange and in public life in general. The current revival, however, is pressing for a reformulation and “purification” of this local Islamic belief and practice, and is viewed by some as part of an important re-education or resocialization process for Malay-Muslim women.

In Negeri Sembilan during the period of my fieldwork, a large percentage of dakwah participants were young women. They could be easily identified by their long dresses and veils, which are not traditional or indigenous attire for Malay women, that mark their newly found commitment. The adherents of the movement throughout Malaysia are predominantly young people, both women and men, who are more highly educated than the norm. Many are university students being groomed for membership in the new professional and technical layers, though they may find work only in relatively low-paid white-collar or public service jobs.

By the mid-1980s there was, however, growing interest in the revival among industrial workers, especially women employed in the free-trade zones. Ong (1987: 185) notes: “Although few, if any, of the Malay factory women (as compared to office workers) donned Arabic robes in voluntary purdah, the dakwah movement has struck a responsive chord in many young women who wished to be recognized as morally upright Muslims engaged in honest hard work (kerfa halal).” Scott (1989: 34), in a more recent report, indicates the actual participation of factory women in dakwah, stating that “easily 30% of workers in most factories” now wear the veil.

Media reports, discussions with other visitors to Malaysia, and reports from Malaysian students studying in the U.S. indicate that the revival continues to be an important force in Malay society. A recent report indicates, however, that the militancy of the revival on college campuses and among university students may be significantly moderating (Zainah Anwar 1990). While this involves a moderating of fundamentalist religious views it may also represent an accommodation of the movement to the Malay ruling class, thus indicating a blunting of its political militancy as well.

On the basis of my discussions with movement adherents and published reports of the revival, I would suggest that dakwah is primarily a reaction against the socio-economic stress and the cultural corrosion brought by capitalist development. It also provides a nationalistic focus for the Malay community in opposition to the cultural and economic domination of the West. At the same time, the revival emphasizes distinctions between Malays, on the one hand, and Chinese and non-Muslim Indians, on the other, thus deepening ethnic divisions within Malaysia itself.

In Negeri Sembilan, the participation of young, well-educated women in the revival can best be understood as a response to their sense of exclusion from the traditional matrilineal system and their less than satisfying experiences in the expanding capitalist economy and its accompanying cultural milieu. We have already noted that throughout Malaysia young women usually find themselves in an even more precarious position than their male counterparts in the new wage-andmarket economy. And no matter what their particular form of employment, they also find few cultural models of female roles in this Westernized environment—which thrives on romance magazines, sexually driven advertising, and American soap operas and pop stars—to replace the more positive images of women in their traditional cultures. This sense of both economic and cultural dislocation can be extreme, leading them to seek a radical alternative. The dakwah with its links both to their own cultural roots and to a worldwide upsurge of Islamic militancy, provides such an alternative for a growing number of young Malay women.

The impact of the movement on what remains of traditional Malay culture as well as on emerging capitalist relations is, however, complex and contradictory. For example, the movement affirms and promotes Malay- Muslim identity and culture in opposition to foreign consumer culture. Some movement leaders also raise sharp criticisms concerning the role of foreign corporations in their country and the Malaysian government’s own economic policies; this includes objections to the treatment of women in multinational factories.

Yet in the context of local village life, the effect of the revival is often to promote the transformation from cooperative to capitalist forms and to mask certain newly developing exploitative relations. In Negeri Sembilan, the movement threatens to further undermine important aspects of the matrilineal culture, such as the communal ownership of property, which are essential for women’s equality and autonomy.

Participation in Islamic revival has a similar multiplicity of meanings and effects for the personal lives of women adherents. For the majority. I would suggest that their new-found faith provides a form of psychological and social support and a new cultural model by which to live and derive a degree of self-esteem. At the same time, immersion in the revival can serve to divert young women’s attention away from social to primarily religious matters and has the potential to blunt their critical awareness of economic and political realities.

For a minority of devotees, the dakwah movement, however, has a radically different effect. It actually helps them focus and articulate their growing criticism of their country’s course of capitalist development and its impact on their own lives. For these female adherents, conscious resistance and protest are part of their commitment to Islamic revival. Such resistance, however, is also characterized by a denial of aspects of their traditional cultures that ensured their rights and freedoms as women, and the acceptance of new forms of social and sexual oppression imposed by the movement itself.

Future Prospects

An early tendency in writings about the experiences of women in Third World countries such as Malaysia was to simply focus on their victimization-—by local cultures as well as by the process of industrialization and capitalist development. This tendency of viewing women as simply victims, and of locating a good part of their victimization in indigenous cultures, was exacerbated by a failure to note the ways in which local societies and cultures had already been transformed, usually in a particularly negative way for women, by the impact of European colonialism.

As a result of criticisms from Third World women themselves, more recent accounts also take note of and often celebrate the forms of resistance women mount against their own exploitation and against injustices visited on their communities as a whole. In Malaysia, many of these forms of resistance creatively draw from Malay women’s own indigenous cultures to provide some protection against or to protest new inequities brought by the capitalist transformation.

At the same time, we must be careful not to romanticize traditional practices as vehicles of resistance by overlooking the ways these practices can become undermined and distorted by their encounter with the world capitalist system, or fail to note the contradictions some of these forms of protest contain within themselves. One thing that may determine how well such “everyday forms of resistance” continue to address women’s needs and interests is the degree to which they can converge with and be incorporated into more consciously organized struggles for political and economic change that are led by working-class women themselves. Prospects for such a development in Malaysia are presently unclear.

While there are a number of individual feminist thinkers as well as national women’s organizations—primarily women’s sections of political parties, social organizations affiliated to these parties, and social welfare organizations—there is currently no activist feminist movement in Malaysia that regularly takes up women’s issues or that speaks in the interests of the majority of women.

Instead most of these organizations—including the largest, Warnta UMNO, the women’s section of the ruling Malay party—have “the effect of reducing women to playing supporting roles in male-dominated organizations and institutions” (Karim 1983:729). Karim (1983: 726) further claims that such organizations “generally broach topics of women’s welfare, morals and family needs which do not contravene socially acceptable norms and values,” while “problems relating to sexual discrimination in wages and employment or political under-representation are seldom highlighted or seriously discussed.”

This represents a decline in women’s activism from the pre-Independence period when Malay women were militants in the nationalist struggle, at times organizing themselves independently of men into groups that put forward their own anti-colonial campaigns in defense of Malay culture and ethnicity as well as asserting women’s rights to an active social and political role.(6) The current situation is in part a result of government repression that discourages all forms of grassroots organizing, and that uses periodic crackdowns such as that of 1987-88 to target groups that take pmgressive positions on issues of concern to women (see Wentworth 1987).

The labor movement suffers from a similar form of repression. However, in addition to a history of labor militancy during the pre-Independence penod, there appears to be some recent attention to rebuilding a more militant labor movement including developing links with unionists in nearby countries (Dass 1991). Yet Malaysian women do not play a role in the unions comparable to their large and growing numbers in the wage labor force. This is probably due to several factors including the traditional male domination of union structures and leadership positions, the unions’ lack of attention to or ghettoization of women’s concerns and issues, and the failure of unions to make specific provisions-childcare, for example—that would facilitate women’s more active participation. There is also the gendered structure of employment that relegates women largely to the traditionally unorganized service, sales, and clerical sectors, or to the electronics industry, which until very recently has been prohibited from unionizing (Rohana Ariffin 1989).

In spite of women’s lack of participation in formal union bodies, there is some indication of their readiness to engage in labor organization and struggle. In the late 1970s, a study by the Malaysian Trades Union Congress Research Committee found that women in the Free Trade Zones were most interested in joining or forming trade unions. And during the massive retrenchments of the mid-1980s, women did organize themselves to picket and protest outside the planst fr4om which they had just been laid off (Rohana Ariffin 1989: 88-90).

This sugests that the recent change in formal policy to permit unions in the electronics industry, along with growing pressure from the international labor movement to allow workers to actually organize—and on the basis of national, not just in-house, unions—may be particularly significant (Vatikiotis, July 16, 1992). These developments could lead to openings where women workers might form their own organizations with their own agendas for change. It is also possible that oranized political movements, which speak to women’s interests, will emerge out of more traditional community contexts. Also of interest is the development of activist groups focused on consumer, environmental, or other social issues that often combine a feminist and working-class orientation, such as the Consumers Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Malaysian Friends of the Earth), as well as the Asia and Pacific Women’s Resource and Action Center, which involves a number of Malaysian women activists and researchers.

In lieu of more consciously organized efforts for change, Malay women’s strategies for resistance based on the maintenance and adaptation of aspects of their traditional cultures remain crucial. Continued involvement in subsistence farming, communal feasting, and spirit possession are creative responses to new forms of exploitation and help buffer women from some of the harsher results of dependent capitalist development

While these “everyday forms of resistance” cannot by themselves bring about the kinds of changes necessary to end women’s exploitation or that of the working class as a whole, they can contribute to the development of strong and vital political movements that are firmly rooted in local cultural traditions and perspectives. Only through such a convergence can movements be built that truly speak to the needs and experiences of women such as Asmah and Noriah, and actively engage them in struggles to preserve or change their society in ways they themselves choose.


  1. The theory of uneven and combined development articuIated by Trotsky (1959: 1-10) in hIs analyisis of the Russian Revobaticn and further developed by Marxist theorists such as Michael Löwy (19S1) provides a useful framework for discussing and analyzing this dynamic. I develop this point elsewhere (see McAllIster 1991) while also suggesting refinements in the basic theory based on feminist criticism and my ethnographic research in Negeri Sembilian.
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  3. Until recently, workers in the electronics industry were prevented from unionizing either through joining existing unions or forming their own organizations (Rohana Ariffin 1989). Partly as a U.S. threat to withdraw favored trading privileges. Malaysia has announced the acceptance of unions in the electronics industry, at least In principle. However only in-house unions are allowed and attempts to actually form unions offten result in serious harassment and threats to workers (Stockton I991). Recent international pressure, led by the International Metalworkers Federation acting through the ILO, is being brought to bear on the Malaysian government to change these policies (Vatikiotis 16 July 1992)
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  4. .

  5. Deriving its subsistence primarily from wet-rice farming, traditional Negeri Sembilan society was built around a communal system centered on the principle of matrilineal descent. Known as adat perpatih, this social system was characterized by membership in named descent groups traced through women, matrilocal resident and, thus, daily life in extended families based on cores of related women, and kin group ownership of rice lands and house plots, use-rights to which are passed primarily from mothers to daughters. These structural expressions of matiliny also encouraged the sharing of work, resources and responsibility for children among a wide network of female matri-kin, and the wide dispersal of poiiticaI authority among women and men of the matrilinege. My analysis of the persistence of aspects of the matrlineal system and its use as a buffer against new forms of capitalist exploitation is largely based on my own field research in 1978-79. Unfortunately this material canno be eaiily updated without a return visit to Negri Sembilan and a relmmersion in local village life. However, reports from a fellow scholar who has visited this area more recently Indicates that as of the early 1990s much of my analysis is still relevant (Peletz personal communication).
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  6. For further discussion on feasting and capitalist development see McAllister 1990.
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  7. Aihwa Ong (1987) provides the fullest account of spirit possession episodes among Malaysia factory women. A recent article in Far Eastern Economic Review indicates that episodes of spirit possession among factory workers have decreased over the last years; they remain common, however, among young female students at boarding schools (Scott 1989:33). This shift, if the report of it proves accurate, needs further study and analysis. It may be related to the Iongstanding and vlgorous campaign by factory managers to discredit the attacks and to suggest that women workers themselves are responsible for the physical and emotional stress that is thought to bring on the episodes.
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  8. One such organlzation was called Angkatan Wanita Sedar(AWAS—literal1y, the Conscious Women’s Movement) which was affiliated with a group of radical Malay intellectuals organized into the Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM—Malay National Party). According to Karim (I9833:722), “Together these two groups developed a strong anti-colonial and natonalist fervour amongst the Malays, recruiting support from the Malay rural gentry and peasantry.” The core leadership of AWAS was composed of politically radical women educated among nationalist Mualims in Indonesia while its rank-and-file membership consisted of Malay women who had been locally trained as schoolteachers or religious instructors. When AWAS was banned and then permanently dissolved in the late 1940s, its three top leaders went in quite different political directions—one into UMNO where she eventually became head of Wanita UMNO in the earIy 1970s, one into an oppos1tion Islamic party, and one into the Malayan Communist Party and its underground revolutionary struggle.
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Dass Arokia. 1991. Not Beyond Repair: Reflections of a Malaysian Trade Unionist. Hong Kong. Asia Monitor Resource enter.

Karim, Wazir-jahan. 1983. Malay Women’s Movements: Leadership and Processes of Change. International Social Science Journal Vol. 3, no. 4.

Lôwv, Michael. 1981. The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution. London: Verso.

McAllister, Carol 1987. Matriliny, Islam, and Capitalism: Combined and Uneven Development in the the Lives of Negeri Sembilan Women. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of P[ttsburgh.

_____ 1990. Women and Feasting: Ritual Exchange, Capitalism, and Islamic Revival in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia. In Research in Economic Anthropolo8y, Vol. 12. Barry Isaac, (ed.). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

_____ 1991. Uneven and Combined Development: Dynamics of Change and Women’s Everyday Forms of Resistance in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia. Review of Radical Political Economics, Vol. 23, nos. 1 & 2.

Ng, Cecilia. 1991. Malay Women and Rice Production in West Malaysia. In Women, Development and Survival in the Third World. Haleh Afshar (ed.). London & New York; Longman Group UK.

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Scott, Margaret 1989. Brave New World: The Lives of Malaysian, especially Malay, Women Transformed by Factory Work Far Eastern Economoc Review, December 21, 1989.

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Trotsky, Leon. 1959. The Russian Revolution. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

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Vatikiotis. 1992. Apples of Discord: Rift with US Worries Malaysian Officials. Far Eastern Economic Review, April 9,1992.

_____ 1992. Where Has All the Labour Gone. Far Eastern Economic Review, April 16, 1992.

_____ 1992. Malaysia’s War. Government Hits Back at its Critics. Far Eastern Economic Review, June 4, 1992.

_____ 1992. Credibility Gap: Union Issue Mars Image as Third World Leader. Far Eastern Economic Review, July 16, 1992.

_____ 1992. Worrisome Influx: Foreign Workers Raise Social, Security Fears. Far Eastern Economic Review, Aug. 6, 1992.

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Zainah Anwar. 1990. Pray Less, Play More: Malaysia’s University Students Lift the Veil as Islamic Activism Mellows. Far Eastern Economic Review, Jan. 25,1990.

November-December 1993, ATC 47

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