Academic journal article Asian Social Science

The Meaning of Female Passivity in Traditional Malay Literature

Academic journal article Asian Social Science

The Meaning of Female Passivity in Traditional Malay Literature

Article excerpt


In traditional Malay literature, women were often portrayed as individuals who were mentally, physically and spiritually weak. They were incapable of surviving on their own and could only hope to receive help and assistance from the main characters comprising men. In addition, the female characters in the genres of traditional Malay literature were 'silenced' by their authors when faced with certain situations without being given the opportunity to come forward to defend themselves let alone their rights. Their 'silence' was also related to their passivity in dealing with life. Thus, this paper will identify the female characters in several selected genres and analyse their level of passivity according to Bardwick's psychological perspective. The results of this study show that the 'silence' of traditional women marked their ingenuity in handling pressure from the Malay patriarchal society. The 'passivity' of this group was also meant to be a form of indirect aggression over their inability to establish their rights openly in society. This paper shows that the 'silence' of the women in traditional Malay literature does not mean they gave in willingly to every act committed against them, but it was also a 'subtle' resistance to the suppression by the patriarchal system as practised in the Malay community.

Keywords: manipulation, passive, patriarchal, gender, feminine

1. Introduction

Malay women were depicted in traditional Malay literary works as weak 'creatures' who were easily deterred, and were willing to sacrifice for the happiness and well-being of others (Krueger, 1984). This typical image of the traditional woman was formed by the gender system in the Malay community, which used certain codes to label the 'sexuality' of an individual. Women and men needed to follow certain patterns that had been put in place since the day they were born. This gender segregation code then led to certain classification of spaces in the Malay community that were often associated specifically with a particular gender. For example, 'public' spaces were controlled by Adam (men) while domestic spaces were ideal for Eve (women). This gave rise to terms such as 'kitchen maid', 'housemaid', 'housewife', and various other terms that refer only to women. This phenomenon was due to the power of the 'patriarchal system' that dominated the thinking, worldview and culture that greatly influenced every behaviour and action in the community. Thus, as long as there was a clear division between domestic and public spaces in a society, then women would continue to be subjected to patriarchal domination, where all power remained in the hands of the man as the head of the family (Rosaldo, 1974).

Due to the strong patriarchal dominance in traditional Malay society, women were often marginalized or their interests and contributions to society were ignored. Indirectly, most of the works in traditional Malay literature often placed women as 'second-class' people or as objects of ridicule in a story. They were not given the 'power' to protest against the actions and behaviour of men towards them. They were often 'passive', 'silent' or 'silenced' by the authors in order to meet the requirements of the patriarchal system. Characters such as Dang Bunga and Dang Bibah in Sejarah Melayu, for instance, were willing to be sent as gifts to Pasai together with other souvenirs. Similarly, Tun Kudu remained 'silent' as though she was prepared to be divorced on a whim so as to be remarried to an old nobleman for the sake of the prosperity of the city. Does this phenomenon prove that traditional Malay women had way whatsoever to defend themselves? Does that 'passivity' in women symbolize 'indirect aggression' because of they were unable to establish their rights, let alone speak openly? Therefore, this working paper aims to analyse the 'passivity' of women from a psychological angle and to further prove that not all forms of passivity were in conformance to the gender codes of the society, but extended far beyond every action and behaviour. …

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