💪 She's No Longer Married

The power of the janda in Malaysia

I didn’t expect to feel pensive while drafting a chapter about “pornography” produced by Malay women on apps like TikTok and Bigo Live. Over the course of my reading and research, I’ve discovered a whole new world in a country that I’ve lived in all my life. 

My ongoing fascination is tinged with guilt. How could I have missed out on so much? Why did I blindly buy into the dominant thoughts and discourse around me? Why is it that I know so little about local culture? These questions are mixed in with other feelings and thoughts I have about my own (Chinese) culture, family history and identity. 

In the urban liberal bubble that I live in, admittedly rather Western-influenced (hi, Hollywood), I took for granted that religion was repressive, that women were oppressed, that pornography was transgressive. But as tiny as it is, Malaysia is a nation of pluralisms. Everything is nuanced. 

While yes, there are portions of Malaysian society that subscribe to all of the above, there are others that to me, seem to be both navigating and ignoring these supposed boundaries. Sometimes I wonder if they are even aware that these boundaries exist. 

#hidupjanda

While scouring TikTok for sex-related content, I came across the hashtag #hidupjanda. It’s made up of two Malay words hidup (live / life) and janda (previously married woman ie. widow / divorcee). The hashtag is often used by janda to talk about their sex lives or by men who are looking for janda

The women brag about how having affairs with “suami orang” (someone else’s husband) is the most fun. One video I came across featured a woman who stood by a window and shouted out “Suami orang! I love you!” 

Even pregnancy scares are taken lightly. One woman posted a video of herself eating a pineapple after sex. (Although there doesn’t seem to be conclusive scientific evidence for it, pineapples are believed to cause miscarriages.) 

Other women post videos about the positions they like (69), how many fingers they prefer (three) and their partners’ sizes (big). For those who understand it, the language is explicit. But even for those who might only have a rough idea of the colloquial terms (me), the implications are obvious. 

I was shook. So shook that even my dreams lately have featured Malay / Indonesian music about sex (this is a whole other article). 

Quiet Asian?

The general thought is that Asians are sexually conservative, Muslims even more so. Yet here was a host of women – many of them veiled – publicly posting about their active sex lives on a platform that even our politicians use. (More and more Malaysian politicians and political parties are using TikTok to attract younger audiences.)

Their sexual posts alternate with other content about their work lives and/or videos of their children. There didn’t even seem to be a sense of taboo. 

Although Malaysian laws with regard to sex and pornography are archaic and strict, society at large doesn’t seem to give a fuck (or maybe they’re literally giving fucks elsewhere). 

To give you a sense of how archaic the laws are: anal and oral sex are illegal and sale of pornography gets you up to two years in prison and a possible fine. Even tricking someone into marriage is illegal. 

However, things like politician sex scandals are viewed with amusement, even in the urban sphere. When alleged “gay sex videos” of a Malaysian minister started circulating via Whatsapp, I remember friends asking me if I had seen the videos, then offering to send them to me. 

Urban liberal Malaysian conversations often centre around censorship and lack of “proper” conversations about sex. But it seems like “improper” conversations don’t face the same kind of censorship, which is ironic. 

Not a subculture

The thing I find interesting about #hidupjanda is that it’s not a subculture. It’s not a kink. It seems like it might even be seen as banal. 

In Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline, anthropologist Aihwa Ong writes that the Malays “consider the janda a sexually experienced flirt seeks to lure unmarried men into liaisons or entangle happily married men in her schemes”. 

This book, which came out in 1987, is still considered a seminal (pun unintended) piece in global anthropology and feminist scholarship.

Ong acknowledged that female sexuality was seen as a threat but this made the janda all the more powerful. Unlike daughters, sisters and wives, she didn’t come under the “moral-legal” authority of any male relative. She is only answerable to the Kadi (Islamic judge). 

One of the reasons the “mature” woman might be seen as more powerful could be due to the historical influences of Malay tradition (adat). Ong writes that “Malay notions of male prerogatives and values of male responsibility toward women are most easily expressed in the control of young, unmarried women”. This control no longer extends to the janda

Southeast Asian women in history

Historian Anthony Reid wrote that “most Southeast Asian women had more freedom and economic agency” compared to women from Europe, China or India.

While men were in charge of areas where physical strength was required eg. handling large animals or metal work, women were the heads of the household. Women managed the family’s money, as well as “engaged in business”, even trading with merchants from other countries. Apparently, the men were considered “fools” when it came to money. 

Although modernisation in Malaysia has included Western influences, as well as Islamic revivalism – both patriarchal! –  the cultural power of Malay women enables their “high status” to persist even today. 

Learning about this made me think about my relationship with feminism. While I do think of myself as feminist, I sometimes find it hard to identify with how third-wave feminism has manifested in Malaysia. 

We live in a somewhat patriarchal society, yes, and there are some ways in which women are still disadvantaged, yes. But I don’t always understand the rage and “woe is me” discourse (mostly on Twitter). And then I wonder if that makes me a bad feminist. 

Conversations about sex

When I first started my podcast on sex (in 2016), there weren’t that many open conversations about sex happening in the urban English-speaking Malaysian sphere. But since then, there has been a growth of content – from sex positivity advocates, sex education activists, sexual health advisors. 

What I’ve noticed is that many of them seem to be talking about how sex “should” be or how to do it “properly”. Meanwhile, women in peripheral societies are talking about big penises and fun positions. 

As someone who grew up relatively “liberal”, I find myself amazed. The more I find, the deeper I want to dive. 

References:

Reid, A. (2014). Urban Respectability and the Maleness of (Southeast) Asian Modernity. The Asian Review of World Histories, 2(2), 147–167. https://doi.org/10.12773/arwh.2014.2.2.147


The Sex Beat was initially a podcast that I started in 2016 to experiment with the audio format. It’s what kick-started my fascination for this topic and inspired me to research this topic for my MRes.

This newsletter is an experiment, a way for me to document my study experience and share content that won’t make it into my thesis. I’m always open to suggestions on how I can make this newsletter better – just hit reply and let me know!

If someone forwarded this to you and you enjoyed reading, go ahead and subscribe.