Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Not Just Fryers of Bananas and Sweet Potatoes: Literate and Literary Women in the Nineteenth-Century Malay World

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Not Just Fryers of Bananas and Sweet Potatoes: Literate and Literary Women in the Nineteenth-Century Malay World

Article excerpt

One of the few nineteenth-century Malay descriptions of the reading majlis--a gathering of people to listen to someone read aloud from a manuscript, and perhaps take a turn themselves at reciting--appears in Safirin bin Usman Fadli's Hikayat anak pengajian. (1) A Batavian religious teacher, Safirin warned of the dangers of literary works, since 'most of the stories contained in hikayat [prose narratives] are untrue and false and, therefore, they are unacceptable to the intellect and most harmful to the ignorant'. The sound of the recitation itself he held to be particularly perilous, since it had the power to induce among the weak of intellect 'longing and love', with the result that 'people become mad'. (2) As Safirin notes, among those lacking in the rationality necessary to withstand the seductive powers of recitation are women: 'To say nothing of women not having their hearts inflamed, when most men find that their hearts beat in time with the reader's voice as they listen to the hikayat's story.' (3) Going on to criticise a foolish reciter who allows himself to be carried away by the sound of his own voice, Safirin provides a clue as to what he considers the proper place of women in the gathering of readers. While reading aloud, Safirin claims, the ignorant reciter

   listens intently to voices and movements behind the partition,
   inside the house in which the recitation of hikayat has been
   arranged. And the ignorant reciter thinks in his heart: 'This must
   be women peeping from behind the partition in admiration of my
   voice. So crazy about it are they that they have stopped making
   coffee and frying bananas and sweet potato.' This is what is on the
   mind of the shameless fool! (4)

The brunt of Safirin's criticism is borne by this ignorant reciter, shown to be both vain and greedy. Safirin does not specifically treat the subject of women as readers or reciters, but in his depiction of the literary majlis, a woman's place is segregated and subordinate. She neither reads herself nor even sits in the room in which the recitation is taking place, but remains behind a screen or in the kitchen preparing food and drink for the men. Her relationship to literature is thus an illicit one, charged with prohibited erotic feelings for the male reciter's seductive voice, with all the perils that may bring--not least, a disruption in the supplies of refreshments.

Modern-day scholars of Malay literature also tend to assume that Malay women of the nineteenth-century were illiterate and uneducated, and that Malay literary culture was the preserve of men. In an article in Dewan Sastera, for instance, the Malaysian academic Jelani Harun asserts that, in the seventeenth century, 'literacy, generally speaking, was only possessed by men'. (5) The Malaysian expert in Riau syair, Abu Hassan Sham, claims that the existence of syair (narrative poems) by women 'shows that women in Penyengat in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were able to escape the image of mere secluded maidens or housewives and to stride towards giving birth to works, whether creative or didactic'. (6) The introduction to an edition of Syair Siti Zubaidah, by another Malaysian scholar, Abdul Mutalib Abdul Ghani, identifies one of the text's major themes to be female emancipation, 'by which is meant that the tribe of Eve should not necessarily only play a role in the kitchen'. (7) In this view, women authors of syair are exceptional and progressive figures, breaking free from the shackles of tradition. Thus while Safirin bin Usman Fadli is at odds with his modern counterparts Abu Hassan Sham, Abdul Mutalib Abdul Ghani and Jelani Harun as to whether women ought to be confined to the kitchen, there is a consensus that so confined they were.

Other scholars of traditional Malay literature, however, have noted the presence of women readers. Drawing on the introductory verses to a manuscript from a mid-nineteenth-century Palembang lending library, Ulrich Kratz describes how the library's 'male and female customers' are 'sitting close to the oil-lamp, bending over the manuscript, talking about the story while rolling it up and opening it again, holding it tight to the breast submerged deeply into text and conversation and plainly forgetting such trivialities as the fears expressed by the owner'. …

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