By Lily Jamaludin
(1,650 words, 7-minute read)
Trigger warning: Descriptions of sexual assault.
This review contains spoilers for The Professor.
I began Faisal Tehrani’s new novel, The Professor, with the hope that he might provide some new images for Malaysian literature. We desperately need human and nuanced female characters, as well as real representations of female intimacy, so I was intrigued by his decision to place a queer female character at the centre of his novel. What possibilities, what new ways of seeing relationships, gender, and sexuality could this book offer?
As skeptical as I was about a Malay man writing about queer women, I believed that he could prove me wrong. After all, the book has been lauded as “urgent and relevant” since its original publication in Malay in 2017, earned a 3.95 rating on Goodreads, and secured its award-winning author a place at the 2017 George Town Literary Festival, as well as, most recently, the 2019 Cooler Lumpur Festival.
In The Professor, readers backtrack the story of Suliza and her lovers, Wan Ros, Hashimah, and Dalila. We are brought back and forth in time to explore her relationships, her intellectual awakening, and the unraveling of her life.
In this way, perhaps The Professor is subversive for some audiences. For readers who aren’t used to seeing Malay and Muslim characters experience same-sex relationships and gender-based violence, this book could be an eye-opener. And to do this in Bahasa Malaysia, a language that has often been held captive by a religious nationalist agenda, The Professor does something new for Malay literature.
But beyond this, The Professor falls short of its potential. Instead of offering new possibilities for women and queerness, however, Faisal falls back on reductive stereotypes and subjects the female body to violence and power over, and over, and over again: in emotional relationships, in sexual relationships, in intimacy, religion, at home, and in public. The Professor not only fails to challenge patriarchal power dynamics—it continues to perpetuate the same violence to women’s bodies that it allegedly critiques. If I had wanted to read about women and violence, I only need to read the newspaper; I do not need to see it in the careless and cheap ways that it is used in The Professor. Call me naive, but I had expected at least some subversion from a work by a writer used to being subversive.
Within the first paragraph of the novel, we quickly enter a world where patriarchal violence is rife. Readers learn that Suliza has been viciously murdered by her neighbours for her sexuality. Then, barely 10 pages in, readers are witness to rape scene of an underage girl by a school ustaz (religious teacher).
Faisal then goes on to describe the violence committed against a “transvestite who was beaten up at night in Kuantan” and introduces a memory of a United Nations official who states that “plunging into an eastern woman’s vagina is like a youth elixir”, before reminding us that “Wan Ros stuck her tongue at [Suzila]. Then [Wan Ros] was RAPED.”
(Because if the trauma isn’t CLEAR, then one must CAPITALISE it so readers will UNDERSTAND.)
All of that happens in chapter one. Throughout the book, women’s bodies are subjected to various scenes of violence, particularly sexual violence. Even in sex scenes that are not rape scenes, there are detailed descriptions of a loss of a woman’s agency, a body literally rendered into an object. In a sex scene between Dalila and her partner Jebat, for example, Dalila’s body is described as “the fruits offered to him… Dalila’s white pages… Jebat held the body of the pen… and let the ink spread on the page that had been left blank for so long… the machine was working, and shaking under the effort… Dalila felt like a fertile land planted with seeds, while Jebat was busy digging the soil”.
Surely it is even more dangerous that in two cases, women in sex scenes are likened to children. Faisal writes: “It was a full moon that night. Dalila removed her clothes and stood completely naked in front of Jebat. “What do you want? Why did you choose me?” Dalila’s voice was soft, like the voice of a child asking for protection. Asking for love and care.”
Both heterosexual and same-sex relationships in The Professor are built on the architecture of patriarchy: they are boxed into a binary of dominance and subservience, and occur in space charged with power and questionable consent. Take, for example, Suliza’s relationship with her housemaid, Hashimah. Faisal openly acknowledges the subservience and dominance dynamic directly, writing, “Suliza nodded. She felt that Dalila was challenging her, and it reminded her of Wan Ros. She was not like Hashimah, who was more passive. With Wan Ros and Dalila, she felt more like a woman. With Hashimah, she mostly took on the role of a man.”
Hashimah’s relationship with Suliza is portrayed as liberating and pleasuring, in direct contrast to her relationship with her husband, ustaz Idrus, who regularly physically and sexually abuses her. But Suliza and Hashimah’s relationship can’t be said to be fully consensual either. In a scene where Suliza makes her first move, Faisal writes:
“‘Hashi, imagine that you are there’
‘At the hammam. You are naked.’
‘Why? You have to be naked in order to have a bath.’ Suliza continued, ignoring Hashimah’s protest.
‘Now you are talking in front of me. We are both naked.’”
In any other workplace, this would constitute sexual harassment. In this fictional relationship, however, class and power dynamics never put the consent of the relationship in question – they are instead portrayed as an ideal compared to Hashimah’s relationship with Idrus.
I find myself frustrated and angry reading The Professor. Why this fascination with violence? Might Faisal have intended for it to be shocking? But shock value is not literature. Why doesn’t the author explore new ways of framing relationships, and imagine the possibilities of queer relationships? If patriarchy offers violence, what new possibilities can queer relationships offer, beyond physical pleasure?
Apart from violence, the descriptions made of women are almost such classic textbook examples of how not to write about women that they might deserve a place in Men Write Women.
For example, Faisal writes “Hashimah Shim had thick, medium-length hair. Her neck was not too short, and her legs were long. She was tall and slim like her father, but she had a well-shaped bottom.”
Then, later, he describes Dalila as being an “empty dusty jug”, writing: “When Jebat filled her up with knowledge, she felt as if she was becoming suddenly intelligent.”
When women are not either empty vessels to be filled, they are angry and salacious caricatures with ridiculous levels of libido. At one point, for example, Faisal Tehrani describes Jebat’s exploits with women in this way:
“Most of the women [Jebat] slept with were feminists who seized the opportunity. Women who were skeptical of marriage, wanted to lead, but at the same time believed that sex was a healthy sport that should be practiced regularly… he was known as the young-activist-satisfying scholar. He had many many crazy feminists. Anti-men on the outside, or if they did not say that, wary about men and confident about their own body. Yet, in bed, these feminists could be frightening beings.”
Interspersed between problematic soft-porn scenes are short and fiery lectures given by the fictional academics. This is maybe the only redeeming factor of The Professor. In these lectures and speeches, Faisal Tehrani addresses the confrontation between Islam and human rights, conservatism and liberalism, and the internal contradictions of conservative laws. They provide a relief from an author projecting into a community he does not know, into passages where he seriously grapples with religion’s potential to protect human rights and include sexual minorities. It is here that Faisal Tehrani offers the potential of social re-imagining, and should have placed his efforts.
In one chapter, Ali Taqi, an Islamic Studies scholar, describes how he stopped himself from being radicalised in conservative Islam. He says:
“the Wahhabi discourse [looks] at the world’s population as either believers or infidels… I managed to break out of the vicious cycle… The basis of religion is love…[noble behaviour] exists not just because of humanity and the feeling of relations between people but it also comes from a greater inner awareness, which is the feeling of relations between creatures because we are aware that everything in the universe is Allah’s creation. I encountered the same thing in the concept of modern human rights.”
If Faisal had spent less time detailing violence and crafting provocative sex scenes, and instead interrogated and explored the origins of violence and change, I imagine a very different book would have been written. As it stands, this book was written to provoke, to push a political boundary, and not to expand the space for the identities he occupied. He used female bodies, again and again, for his own agenda of provocation, subjecting them to violence and objectification.
“I want to contest this othering, to tell readers that othering is NOT normal,” Faisal says in an interview with ArtsEquator in 2017 about The Professor.
But you must do the work, before you can de-other a community. Writing about a community you do not belong to can be an incredibly dangerous thing. Without self-interrogation of our relationships to that community, and participation in the power dynamics that oppress that community, writers run the risk of being voyeuristic at best, and participating in violence at worst. Writers can re-traumatise these communities, and perpetuate damaging stereotypes. In other words, how do we write about patriarchy, without perpetuating patriarchy?
Still – I am starting to think that The Professor is a reflection of our society. It could only have been written now. I mean to say, the ones who feel safe enough to write about marginalised communities are often privileged communities. Until sexual minorities and women have the safety and protection to write and claim their own stories in the public sphere, there are few people who can honour their stories in the way they deserve.
The Professor by Faisal Tehrani, translated by Brigitte Bresson, is available on Gerakbudaya.
Lily Jamaludin is a writer, among other things. Her work can be found in The Grinnell Review, Straits Eclectic (Gerakbudaya), The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 3: Halal If You Hear Me (Haymarket Books), and South China Morning Post.