26 Jan – One of the privileges in life that is often taken for granted is mobility. The simple pleasure in life, which is the ability to walk out of your front door and go wherever you want, either by foot, car, bus, train or motorcycle.
In some countries, certain individuals have their mobility restricted just because of their gender. In Saudi Arabia, women are banned from driving. In Iran, while women can drive cars, they are however, not allowed to ride motorcycles. One experience in the rush hour traffic of Tehran will convince you that riding a motorcycle is the best and fastest way to beat the traffic.
Fortunately in Malaysia, women’s mobility are not legally restricted by the state. The sight of women driving a car or riding a motorcycle in Malaysia is ubiquitous. It is not uncommon to see a kakak or mak cik riding a motorcycle on her way to work clad in a baju kurung. When the daily rush hour congestion in Klang Valley drove me to get a motorcycle license, I was very happy to see that there was an equal distribution of male and female students eagerly waiting to get on a motorcycle to practice before taking their JPJ test.
The moderate Muslim nation, Malaysia where post-SPM boys and girls wait to get their motorcycle license, where the calves of a woman peeping through her kain baju kurung, as she waits for the traffic light to turn from red to green does not raise an eyebrow nor tempt anybody into committing vice.
This is the Malaysia which I cling on to dearly, as I fear and worry that Malaysian Muslim women will soon no longer have this level of freedom and mobility. The arrest of 26 unmarried couples for riding together on a motorcycle by the Terengganu religious authority (JHEAT) is a testament to this.
The JHEAT arrests is just one of the displays of the growing trend of moral policing in Malaysia. What is more worrying is that even regular Malaysians have displayed a sense of moral superiority, usually hiding behind a social media account pressuring Malay female artists to wear the hijab, sometimes coated under a very condescending tone, “kan lagi manis kalau berhijab”.
So, why should moral policing be a concern for women? It is because often times, the first and easiest target of moral policing are women’s bodies. The over sexualisation of women’s bodies will render women’s presence in the public sphere distracting to men.
In Malaysia, we are already at that worrying stage, where women’s dressing is being regulated and women riding pillion on a motorcycle is considered improper and might lead to social ills. When women’s bodies are being blamed for being the source of vice, then the solution often taken by state and religious authorities is the gradual erasure of women from the public sphere. Then they try to console women by saying that these approaches are taken only with the intention to protect us. To this we have to question – protect women or protect patriarchal traditions?
We cannot stand by and let women’s freedom and independence suffer because of other people’s inability to practice self-constraint. We must also call for the religious authorities to reevaluate their priorities. Why is the sight of unmarried couples on a motorcycle more important than providing help to victims of flooding in Terengganu?
The religious authority ought to realise that good Islamic governance does not mean more moral policing raids such as the latest one, ridiculously named, “ops-bonceng”. Good Islamic governance means preserving nature to prevent annual flooding, ensuring equal distribution of wealth, providing necessary healthcare and equal opportunities to education, all of which contribute to the betterment of a society.
The next time you are on the road, start noticing the women driving cars and motorcycles and ask: do I want this to change? I can confidently say that I want the Malaysia where I can ride a motorcycle in my baju kurung, perhaps with a platonic male friend sitting at the back, to remain the same.