Editor’s Letter: Body Image

This editor’s letter is guest-written by Nurul Huda Rashid


Pertumbuhan tubuhku / Seeds & the Soil  

I was in primary school when I was made aware of the darkness of my skin. Its hairiness was identified as ‘gorilla’ and  I was told that I could never be as beautiful as a ‘Malay’ girl. The ‘Indian’ in my “race” had contributed to my bodily grotesque; something I repeatedly tried to shave off but to no avail. I quickly learnt that traits on my body, mapped against my “race” positioned me not just as a ‘minority’, but a ‘double minority’ and that this would lead into a lifetime of justifications for those who insist on seeing through difference.

It continued into secondary school when they asked why the corners of my lips were pigmented and not pink, when I was told to pull up my socks to hide the hair on my legs, and that boys would never fancy me because I was fat. I grew up very much aware of what it meant to not fulfil prerequisites of being ‘beautiful’, and that it had everything to do with how I looked. This was something other girls planted onto me, tagging my body, my skin, with words shoved into their own minds, for they too were being measured through such language of “beauty”. We all were. Semua. 

When I reached puberty, I was told to cover up, to don the hijab because I was now a woman, although, nobody bothered to explain to me what being a woman meant, except that now, all my sins would be counted. Every wrong deed I did would be punishable and eventually lead me to neraka jahanam (hell): because somehow, women’s bodies would be held accountable for the actions of men. I was now made a visible Muslimah, a walking form made to embody my religion, unaware of what I was to contain. In that one night, in those drips of blood trailing down my thighs, I was made to believe that it would miraculously sprout awake my womanhood. But it did not, and it felt like a betrayal. 

I remember looking to my mom, my aunties, realizing that they too did not have the answers. We were all reformed into ‘woman’ through the narrative of ‘religion’, uttered through tongues of society. They dictated us into roles of anak dara (virgin), wife, mother, but did not bother to delve further into what this meant in Islam: both out of convenience, but also ignorance of those times.

I remember growing up in the 90s and following my mom to her kelas agama (religious classes) where men repeated the roles and duties of the wife to her husband. But what about the roles and duties of the husband to the wife? I would often question this, but was always met with silence. Looking back now, I realize how we were and still are measured through our bodily transformations, which would determine the display of culture and religiosity, the potential to bear child, and the assumed nature of motherhood. This is not something unique to my community. The body female is overly-determined by biology to the point that if she/they are not able nor willing to perform those allocated roles, shame, exile, and sin is sown into her/their name and being.

Mandul or infertility was another word I learnt very early on in my days as was anak dara, and it frightened me. For it was another possibility of my body’s betrayal. That it would not take me through the rites of passage into womanhood; that in not being able to embody and perform these roles, I would be incomplete.

My body moves in this world through your classifications 

Dan aku benci  


Sewangi-wangi Bunga / The Body Symbolic 

Anak dara: virginal, ripe, ready. But actually meaning: hymen, blood, menstruating, vagina, sex. And alongside these: honour and shame. These labels swirl around me every day, awaiting some encounter that would send them tightening upon my skin, scraping away any evidence of me, for I was merely reduced to a symbol.

I recall an instance during my weekend madrasah classes when the ustazahs would gather us to prepare for zuhr prayers. I was having my period that day, and that meant not having to perform prayers. There were a number of us who couldn’t pray and this meant that we could stay in class as everyone gathered in the prayer hall. That day, there were too many of us in the classroom; the ustazah grew suspicious. We were made to line up, to head to the toilet, to be checked. We were told to go into the cubicles, swab ourselves using tissue paper to show proof of our menstrual blood: to prove that we were not lying, that we were not just using our periods as an excuse to not pray.

I was traumatized. I had always been told to hide and throw away all evidence of my menstrual blood, but here was a woman who demanded proof of it, so that she could determine whether or not I was sinning. I stood in the cubicle, questioning what right this authoritative figure, a religious woman, who was not my mother, had to seeing a part of me. That day, my blood became a sin, a vestige of shame presented on the tissue paper I handed over. That day, I learnt that my body, my menstruation was not mine. And it would take years of growing and self-love to reclaim her. 

The phrase anak dara is also one that older Malay men like to use when addressing younger women. There have been too many a times when my taxi ride is soured because the driver, an older Malay man would address me as anak dara. 

Nak pergi mana anak dara ni?
O you sweet young thing, where are you going? 

It is hard to really translate anak dara into a single term for it embodies all the above-mentioned qualities of womanhood. When a woman uses it, it sparks judgment and insinuations about marriage and when I would bear children. But when salivated through the tongues of strange men, it becomes a vile, lecherous phrase that instils both anger and danger, two words cast alongside each other, as instances of vulnerability are also when we are most triggered and driven into rage. There have been times when I would immediately exit the taxi when greeted as such, but in my younger days, it meant having to sit through the danger brought upon me by that man’s articulation of my body, and although, there was no physical harm done, it was an infestation that was emotionally scarring. 

In these days of being in my 30s, women no longer speak to me as anak dara, but would instead whisper, anak dara tua (old maid) to mark resignation of any endeavour in getting me married, for my body has passed its prime. I am also purposefully vicious against older Malay men in their utterance of that phrase to me because it reveals more about their lack of shame than it does mine. And it is time that both men and women learn how they speak about our bodies: how they use the supposed ‘language of religion’ as means of honouring or shaming us, and how value is not rooted in bodily forms and traits that adopt homogenous ideals and displays of ‘beauty’ or productivity. Enough of:
She is beautiful, you are not. But she is not as smart as you.
She doesn’t wear a hijab, I do. I am the more religious one. 

You don’t use the hijab, it means that you don’t pray.
They have a nice body, mine is too fat, bulges everywhere. I will never be beautiful.
When are you going to bear children? Don’t waste time!
Your lipstick is too bright, macam perempuan jahat (like a nasty woman). 

You are pretty, but sadly, you’re too dark.
It would have been easier to marry you off, had you not studied so much.
Anak dara belum kahwin? Macam mana ni? (Not married, how like that?)
She took off her hijab, what a hypocrite! Tak takut dosa! (Not afraid of sin!)

Enough. I am tired. We are tired.


Bernafas sekali lagi / Me, We: Powering through New Vernacular

My experiences as a child, a young woman, made viciously aware of her body through demarcations of “race”, beauty, womanhood, difference, is one that many of us, unfortunately, go through. I believe that it has shaped many of my preoccupations as an adult: that I will always feel enraged when persons are attacked because of perceived difference in their bodies, their identities; that my presence in a room filled with a majority group will always ready my defence/offense shields, initiated when needed; and that I will always find a way to shed light on how issues of intersectionalities resonate in almost every instance. I also recall my experiences growing up as a Muslim girl because it made me realize how severely lacking Islamic education was at that time. Sure, there were classes about Islamic history and law, but there has been a lack of Islamic education with regards to aspects of gender and sexuality in our society. I hope that this is changing, that young girls, women, as well as young boys and men, are being introduced to stories and rights of women in Islam. That in reference to hijab, the veil, it was also directed towards men: that they would also govern their bodies, their behaviour and gaze with respect to women. All these are central to how we can hopefully re-narrate an understanding of our bodies, our identities through the religion, that is not one just coded within power structures of organizations and family through the utterance of sins, but more so, through compassion for the self, and those around us. 

In this age of new vernacular, I was also introduced to myself as a ‘minority’ person, a ‘minority’ body, a ‘double minority’. That I am not just ‘Indian’, but also a ‘brown woman’, a term borrowed from feminist and subaltern movements across the world. Thus, when I think and write in reference to myself as a brown woman, as a ‘minority’, I tend to use a collective ‘we’, gathering from a community of womxn who is no longer imagined, but very much real. And our realness is not something we will allow to be spoken about through stereotypes or tropes, words attributed to our bodies, our being-ness. It is a collective that we are constantly working on to correct, not just for your education, but more importantly, for ourselves, so that we may gather from a larger and more inclusive breathing of bodies, of selves. 

We, as brown and minority womxn, have always been reminded of our otherness. It stems from that perspective of difference that filters and assigns us as residual bodies, existing to labour through your stereotypes, which not only reside within everyday society but also within the digital virtual space of the Internet. This is something we witnessed during the brown-face ad a few months back, which revealed a lot about the mind-set of those in our society have about our bodies, how they perceive their representation of us. And this representation is one that highly permeates into the digital world, where our bodies become visual-digital, created and configured alongside tags and narratives that build up a depository of editorials, reports, campaigns that end up discriminating or further polarizing us: that one display of bodily identity is better than the other. They speak of their representation of us like it is a good thing. But we know that it comes with its own baggage that we, as brown womxn, are made to shoulder. It pits us against each other, having to use it as means of questioning degrees of whose ‘Islam-ness’, whose ability to speak a ‘better language’, which versions of bodies better fit categories of ‘CMIO’, ‘Hijabi’, ‘Muslimah’, etc. etc. etc. tak habis habis. 

We are thus no longer content with words and approaches of ‘representation’ for the sake of your ‘diversity’. We are not your token minority other. Our bodies are not to be used a part of your line-up to display inclusivity, because that is all we are to you: bodies on display, digital data for your online campaigns and hashtags; yet another hijabi lady, whom you would have on your posters to celebrate National Day, but forbid as part of uniformed occupations. Are our bodies to be made representative of unity, or fragmentation of your ‘multiracial’ policies and cultural imagination? Make up your minds. 

I am, therefore, highly critical of platforms that seek to use us for their displays of ‘representation’, ‘diversity’, ‘plurality’, ‘togetherness’, ‘multiculturalism’, etc. especially if we are invited to fit their checklist of other. I also believe that we have to constantly do the work, for ourselves, in how we gather and who we include, based not on bodily difference, but through offerings of empathetic solidarity towards each other’s’ experiences. Because, in truth, one person will never be able to fully understand how one body experiences their world, for society (and even, we, as the community) uses different yardsticks of measure for each of us, offers different words to describe us, and have incomplete infrastructures to fully facilitate us all. There is thus much energy and labour needed to overcome these structures, to decolonize tongues and minds even from parochial ideas of ‘culture’. We need to grow our own we community, with new utterance that will displace ideologies of difference, for expressions of inclusive nurturing. For every body


Nurul Huda Rashid is a researcher, photographer, and is currently pursuing her PhD in Cultural Studies at NUS. Her research interests focus on images, narratives, visual and sentient bodies, feminisms, and the intersections between them. In her practice, she is keen on exploring methods and strategies of knowledge production through acts of archiving and annotation of both text and visuals. She has exhibited and mentored in programs with Objectifs and The Substation. Nurul loves smelling old books and building on her collection of books and plant babies.

Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu