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I am interested about the code of dressing for women in Malaysia. First question to be asked is, does it exist? Well, it seems like there is, because there’s always a reminder or advise given to a female tourist before their trip to visit Malaysia is, not to dress ‘too sexy’, or dress modestly, but really, what does it mean ‘dress modestly’ or ‘not too sexy’? Didn’t the Malaysian realized that these terms didn’t have much meaning for others, because ‘sexy’ can be describe in different ways and on top of that it can also be understood in various ways. Sexy in English dictionary give a description of sexy as ‘sexually attractive or exciting’. Now how does this explain about dressing? Does it mean that they should not wear anything that have that indication, meaning that anything that will be sexually attractive or exciting for people? Because for most western culture, a mini skirt would not bring or indicate that. Having said that, unlike western culture, a mini skirt can be seen as ‘too sexy’ or showing disrespectful on the code of dressing in Malaysia.
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Now, having said that, one more point to support that there is code of dressing for Malaysian women, is the way you will be look at if you walk around in the public space with a single or sleeveless top with a short or a knee high skirt. You will get the feeling not at ease walking with that kind of dressing. Of course, if you look as a tourist then you can hide behind a statement such as ‘ Culturally insensitive tourist’. However, if you are local, and furthermore if you happen to be a Malay women, then that is when the hot air start to fill in the space. You will be able to feel that every move is now being monitor, whispering between the people, guessing which race you from and what religion you believe in. And if you get lucky you might have a person or two who is meddling around asking about your background.
When is this code of dressing began to take place. This is interesting because I thought that this topic of discussion is new, and it only becoming popular since we describe ourselves as a modern nation. I was wrong, because as much as I thought it was, this issues is not new at all. Yes, nothing is new under the sun. As the matter of fact, it was as much as hot topic twenty years before our country’s independent, as much as it is a hot topic now among the young Malaysian women generation. I am confident to say this discourse has been there because of the articles that written about it taken in the nineteen thirties and forties. There are groups of scholars, academics, school teacher, religious teacher and many more who debate about the Malaysian women code of dressing. Different angle has been given in this debate, from religious perspective, modernist, feminist and socialist. Abdul Rahman Haji Abdullah in ‘Pemikiran Islam di Malaysia’ provide length of discussion about Malay women code of dressing in modern Malaysia. It is a debate between the western and the Muslim way of dressing, and which one should be taken as the image of Malaysian women.
One of the significant group that was against the western style dressing was driven by the leader of Women Teachers Association in Johor, Zainun Mushi Sulaiman1 or mostly known as Ibu Zain (1903-1989). Along with her fight against western culture she conducted and driven in publishing ‘Bulan Melayu’ (1930-1941), the first women teacher’s magazine in Malaya, that actively encourage Malay women to follow Arabic ways of dressing, with furdah, head-scarf and lose clothes. Her views are supported by many and one of them is a Malayan famous Malay literature Abdul Rahim Kajai (1894-1943) who thinks Malay women should not follow the way western women dressing, as he considered the way western dress is immodest. His critics on the Girl Guide uniform as inappropriate for Muslim women (see Editorial, “Pakaian Girl Guide Melayu: Manakah caranya Pakaian Perempuan Islam” dalam Majlis, Juni, 1934, hlm, 5).
Critics and debates toward Ibu Zain, Abdul Rahim Kajai and many more on their ideas of Muslim women dressing are followed with many intelectual womens in nineteen fifthties toward liberalisation women/muslim women code of dressing. Their thinking of modernism socialis is not only influence by sekular education, infact it is also supported by many religious groups. One of them is Haji Nik Muhammad Salleh bun Haji Wan Musa (1920-1971). In his religious book, he encouranged Malay/Muslim women to ignore Arab tradition and culture, and suggested to follow the way western women dress code to blend with the others around the world. He believed that by doing so, Malay women will be able to move toward modernity, and emancipation as how the Turkish, Egyptian and other race who has adopted Islam as their way of life earlier before the Malays. I cannot help to put in his quote to encourage Malay women to get their sense of freedom. I think there is a need for his text to be re-establish again. Disagree with the hadith “Orang yang menyerupai sesuatu kaum, maka dia menjadi kaum itu”, he considered the hadith is incapacitate as he believe that in Al-Qur’an it is not specify what code of dressing a Muslim women should wear as a women dress code2. Instead he urged Malay women to follow the way western or Turkish, Iran, Iraq or any modern style dressing, as long as the thoughts toward Allah (Azza wa Jalla) alway been there.
This fight for women have the right and freedom to dress and appear as they want, has been long fighting for. Thanks to the movement for women right in Malaysia, and not only supported by women but also there are many men involve in this debate since the nineteen thirdties, the image of women in the nineteen sixties are appeared to be free to choose their code of dressing. Therefore we can see through many images, photographs, advertisements, telivision series etc, that mini skirts, boycut shorts, bebek dress style seems to be a normal kind of dressing for Malaysian women at that period of times.
Now, after more then fifteen years of independent, if I walk in a shoping mall wearing a boycut short or a bebek dress, the situation will be the opposite. At some point I think that we moving backword. The notion of modernity seems to be taken away by the notion of Islaminization. It is not only a dilemma situation for a Malay women but also to women with other races and religion. In this imagined to be a modern nation, Malaysian women hold on certain kind code of dressing, and true, without doubt that this code of dressing might existed sixty years, but what is obvious and make a different is that, this code of dressing is now becoming a cultural rule that not only the Malay are obligue to follow but also the others. One might ask or blame the resurgent of Islam and Islamization of Malaysia as one of the goverment agenda towards the nation building? I would say, perhaps, not to ignore this matter completely because, yes, the Islamization of Malaysia, does stimulate this culture flux, but there are other factors that we cannot omit to bring in this thinking process. What most interesting is the behaviour or the reaction of Malaysian women toward it, agree and obidently follow the code. The label such as ‘Perempuan Melayu Terakhir’ seem to indicate that the women with tradition has long gone, therefore it is almost impossible to fine a true traditional women. What is the essence in that context? What is the essence in the state of being a ‘Perempuan Melayu Terakhir’? Is it Muslim women with modern thinking, liberal, intelectual, independent, or a traditional religious Muslim women that follow all the tradition (adat resam) and cultural practices?