Salleh Ben Joned and Feminism

by: Alima Joned**

In my younger days, I did a fair amount of academic research and writing on the legal status of Malay women, also referred to in this article as “Muslim women.”[1]

My late brother, Salleh Ben Joned, was a big supporter of my work in this area.  In fact, he was very interested in my research and insisted on getting copies of my findings and references for his own use. 

But my brother had more than a passing interest in women’s issues. Although a poet and writer first and foremost, Salleh was also a feminist. In prose and poetry, he expressed his feminism in many ways, from challenging an oppressive interpretation of the position of women in Islam to celebrating fellow female writers and other strong women closer to home.

  1. Women, Perfume and Prayer: Salleh’s Take on Feminism

My brother’s position on the status of women is rooted in his fervent belief that Islam is a life-affirming religion.

The contention that Islam is a life-affirming religion is not new. However, Salleh found this argument convincingly made in Islam in the World (Oxford University Press 1984), a book by fellow literary-mind Malise Ruthven, a Cambridge-educated journalist who had studied classical Arabic and specialized in Middle East affairs, first at BBC and later as a freelancer. Salleh reviewed that book in a 1985 article titled Life-Affirming Religion (4th January 1985).

Salleh echoed Ruthven’s argument that the noble ideals of Islam, such as emancipation of women, had been obscured by rigid interpretation of the Quran as well as the practices of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). One example Salleh gave was Islam’s attitude toward women’s sexual and social identity, in particular when compared to Christianity.  According to Salleh:

The Quran’s patriarchal language in certain passages notwithstanding, the Islam of the Prophet has a basically positive conception of women’s sexual and social identity.  This is no better suggested than in the Quran’s version of the story of Adam and Eve.  In the Quran, the blame for what Christianity calls the “fall of man” is put squarely on Adam.  It was Adam, not Eve, who was tempted by Satan.  There is, thus, no slur attached to Eve that we get in Genesis where the voice of the terrible God actually curses her. (“Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”).

            …..

In Islam, the social position of women at the same time of the Prophet was quite advanced compared to Europe of the same period.  But the systematisation of the Shari’a (holy law) and the Fiqh (jurisprudence), while giving Islamic civilization its unity and coherence, unfortunately brought with it a slow but steady erosion of the social position of women.  Ruthven sums up it pithily: “The very success of the Shari’a … was accompanied by a failure in the area of human rights in general, and an aspect of them which lay close to the heart of the Prophet, the emancipation of women. In the Maliki (school of Fiqh) rule on marriage contracts, for example, or in the rule on the veiling of women, one can see the tendency to interpret Quranic injunction in a restrictive way to women’s disadvantage.

Following on this theme, in a 1992 column titled Women, Perfume and Prayer (16th September 1992), Salleh drew attention to the suggestion that privileged status was accorded by Islam not to men, but to women. 

Salleh wrote that column in celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.  Reflecting on the true significance of the Prophet to modern man and the concept of the “Perfect Man,” Salleh recalled his beloved hadith (tradition).

That hadith, most poetic of all the hadith in Salleh’s opinion, concerns the Prophet’s love for women, perfume and prayer. Thus, the Prophet was recorded as having said: “Women and perfume have been made dear to me, and coolness hath been brought to my eyes in the prayer.” (translation by Martin Lings, the author of the best modern biography of the Prophet.)

According to Salleh, the great 12th Century Spanish-Arab mystic Ibn’ Arabi interpreted this hadith as suggesting that a man “may most perfectly contemplate God in woman.”  Salleh wrote:

This should explain what Ibn’ Arabi’ means when he says that a man “may most perfectly contemplate God in woman.” (some feminists would probably dismiss all this as patriarchal crap; others might like the privileged status of women it implies.) 

Indeed, I personally found the Ibn’ Arabi interpretation of this ‘perfume’ hadith is fascinating.  However, Salleh championed women equality, not their superiority.  Salleh’s case was that emancipation of women, including their equal rights, was the ideal of the Islam. In a book review titled Straight Rib, Crooked Rib, No Rib. See? (28th November 1992), Salleh called for rational and informed interpretation of the Quran that could remove the obstacles to women’s emancipation, allowing them to finally obtain all the moral, social, economic and political rights that “Muslim men have enjoyed for centuries at the expense of their long-suffering sisters in Islam.”

  1. Celebrating Women Writers and Advocates

Salleh’s support for women is also evident in his newspaper columns and poems, the forum where he celebrated strong women writers and artists as well as women advocates.

For example, in An Open Letter to Taslima Nasrin (3rd August 1994), Salleh applauded the works of Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi-Swedish doctor turned poet-novelist because of her courage to defy the religious establishment in her native country Bangladesh and to speak against the oppression of women under Islam.  Similarly, in Portrait of the Poet as a ‘Nenek’ (17th June 1992), he wrote about his meeting with Kazuko Shiraishi, the “doyen” of Japanese feminist poetry in the mid-sixties and seventies. Salleh found Ms. Sharaishi remarkable for many reasons, most of all for her strengths to be true to her poetic voice.

Close to home, there was Dr. Che Husna Azhari, the author of Kelantan Tales.  In Mek Melor Launches Her Tales (12th February 1992), Salleh celebrated Dr. Che Husna, a holder of a PhD in chemical engineering who raised six children, and wrote “in the stolen hours between the cries from the crib and the demands of the lab and lecture hall.” Like Salleh, Dr. Che Husna was a fellow “cultural apostate,” condemned, according to him by a certain quarter in Malaysia, for writing in English.

In Straight Rib, Crooked Rib, No Rib. See? (28th November 1992), Salleh declared his solidarity with a Muslim reformer and women’s rights advocate, Asghar Ali Engineer, once Director of the Bombay Institute of Islamic Studies and the author of The Rights of Women in Islam (New York St. Martin’s Press 1992).

In his review of Mr. Engineer’s book, Salleh welcomed the book as part of the growing body of literature that re-evaluated some difficult and complex issues in Islam – top on the list being women’s rights.

Mr. Engineer, according to Salleh, was a passionate fighter for Muslim women’s rights. Salleh wrote:

In my modest way, I’d like to declare the support of [a] teeny (and, unfortunately, somewhat alienated) voice to this minority jihad of Prof Engineer and his kind; ‘minority’ because the number of Muslim men willing to be counted in its cause is still small.  Macho hang-ups and patriarchal pokery still imprison too many Muslim men.

  1. Women Figures in Salleh’s Life and Works

Salleh certainly had no “macho hang-ups.” I remember vividly how amused my late mother was to see him cooking and doing house chores when he first returned from Australia.  In general, Malay men those days – in the 1970’s –  did not like to be seen doing “womanly” chores. They hardly lifted a finger to help. They were so pampered by their women. For example, my sister who had a full-time job had to make afternoon tea for her husband no matter how tired she was.

When Salleh left his full-time job, he proudly declared that he was a house-husband, implying his wife was the ‘man’ working with a regular job.

There are probably many feminists in my brother’s life.  His first wife, Ariel Salleh is a noted Australian sociologist and feminist scholar.  He greatly respected her work.

Two women who lived their lives fighting social constructs that defined them prominently figured in my brother’s works were Halimaton, his wife for nearly four decades, and our eldest sister Konya.

Konya: The Standard Bearer

Growing up, my brother had an over-indulging and doting father as well as elder brothers. It was then up to our mother to be the disciplinarian and the no-nonsense parent, especially important for a boy with Salleh’s temperament and exuberance.  But what Salleh would like to remember, and often teased our mother about, was her aristocratic demeanour and uncompromising expectations.  Salleh’s memory of her working in the rice fields where our parents first met is poignantly captured In Dari Mana Datangnya Cinta? (Whence Does Love Come?), one of his bilingual poems.

However, it was our oldest sister, Konya, who was Salleh’s constant muse.

Konya was very special to Salleh as a symbol of what’s admirable about Malay women: independent, resourceful, and hard-working.  Like other mothers and wives, Konya represented selfless love who put the family above all.  Also, like many other Malay women, she triumphed despite adverse conditions, poverty and living in a patriarchal   culture.

Because of our family’s poor financial situation, Konya was not sent to school.  She was married off as soon as our father passed away. In the 1950s, that was the typical fate of a young woman, whose widowed mother had been left with many mouths to feed.

In an act that demonstrated great courage and independence, Konya fled home while pregnant because she could not tolerate her husband’s gambling and other misdeeds.  Unlike men who could unilaterally divorce their wives, women had to have a specific ground and go through a cumbersome and lengthy process to divorce their husbands.  Additionally, for a woman, there was a stigma of being a janda (a divorcee).   But nothing could deter Konya as she pursued the divorce process.  She subsequently left for Singapore to work for a relative who owned a food stall in a coffee shop, the business she ultimately took over.  The small income she earned was sent home and was the primary support for us.

We remember visiting Konya on school holidays.  If we were top of our classes in school, she rewarded us with the most expensive presents she could afford.

The only man she ever loved was a married man.  Never wanting to betray her own gender, she never dreamt of being a second wife and destroy an existing family in the process.  She held her head high, proud of being the sister of Salleh, who was the toast of the kampong for winning the prestigious Colombo Plan scholarship to study abroad.

Konya was Salleh’s pride.  He showed her off to all his foreign friends as a symbol of a strong Malay woman, who in her younger days had all the earthy wits her brother was particularly noted for.  Konya’s wits and strengths inspired the following lines of a poem titled Perempuan VII: Cerita seorang janda Melaka.

Nak kuah banyak buat ape!

Nanti kembang bau tau! Habis cegite!-

Pelacur kurus senyum tak kisah,

Selamba menerima leter biasa,

Murah hatikau yang tak sengaja

Terasa berat di tangan

Yang menatang nasi bungkus.

Sepuluh perempuan sundal

Tak sehandal kau seorang:

Aku janda Melaka tau!

….

Terkurung dalam baju lusuh merah tua                                                                                               

Kau memacakkan diri di tengah kebuasan Singapura

Mak cik ni macam lipas kudung, tak sibuk tak boleh.

sibuk dengan kesibukan,

memulas kesedaran, menolak

dengan punggung tangan kaki lidah

seorang perempuan

Saperti kota sundal yang wujud

dalam kebisingannya,

kau tak boleh disenyapkan oleh apa pun.

Saperti rumah pangsa yang menjulang –

memaksa nafas batin-betinamu,

kau tak boleh ditumbang, digentar

oleh apa pun. 

[POEMS SACRED AND PROFANE/SAJAK-SAJAK SALEH (2002) at 17-19.]

In our kampong where Konya later lived, she was entrepreneurial.  Her fiercely independent spirit and hard work enabled her to sustain her (small) food business. The (relatively) material comfort she had, however, could not really make up for the tragedy of being an illiterate.  She continued to prize formal education.  Every time we came home, what she was most anxious to report was how her grandchildren fared in schools as she rushed to prepare our favourite dishes.

Halimaton: A Wife with Veto Power

Halimaton (Aton) was not only my sister-in-law, she was also my close friend.  Our friendship began when we were students at Universiti Malaya in the 1970s. 

Aton was beautiful. Campus boys went crazy for her.  She could have married a rich or powerful man.  Neither money nor power tempted her. Instead, she went for an unconventional University lecturer Salleh Ben Joned.  In so doing, she took a great risk of her future, the courage only a woman of strong determination would have. 

Many people doubted if Salleh and Aton’s marriage would last because they were seemingly such different people.  In his poem, Wife of Wives I, Salleh described their courtship and enduring marriage. 

When he got married to her, she was slim

As well as very beautiful.  His friends

All said that he made her his wife only

Because of her physical attraction,

And therefore the marriage wouldn’t last long.

Well, their eldest child, a daughter, is now

Twenty-two years old; and there are no signs

This apparently unlikely couple

Will ever part, whatever may happen

Unlikely couple?  Well, though a lecturer

At a university when he proposed

To her, he was very unconventional.

Quite hippie-like in some ways, with long hair

And wearing jeans and sandal all the time.

His proposal didn’t excite her parents

Very much; but the daughter was insistent.

That insistence would turn out to be a hint

Of the sturdiness of spirit not obvious

To people who do not know really know her.

And the fact that she is still one of the two

Or three women on campus not wearing

At least the tudung is an affirmation

Of her unassertive non-conformity.

Her tolerance of her husband’s wildness

Of behaviour has helped to make the marriage

Last this long. She is truly a wife of wives

*Tudung – scarf worn by a Muslim woman

ADAM’S DREAM (Silverfish Books 2007) at 52-53.

Salleh’s appreciation of Aton’s strong mind is alluded to in practically all the poems he dedicated to her.  Below is a poem in the pantun form dedicated to Aton on her 50th birthday.

The traveler’s palm is not what it seems to be;

It belongs to a family tree of a different kind.

My wife isn’t what to some she seems to be;

She is a woman with a very strong mind.

Belonging to a family of a different kind.

This palm-which-isn’t a-palm is a rarity.

She is a woman with a very strong mind;

A mind that’s open to life’s sheer variety.

The palm-which-isn’t-a-palm is a rarity;

The sort that only special people would notice.

A mind that’s open to life’s sheer variety;

And a spirit that knows what not to miss.

The sort that only special people would notice,

It would give the knower the true sense of scent.

A spirit that that knows well what not to miss,

She turns fifty with a sense of life well spent.

ADAM’S DREAM, at 101.

It is perhaps no coincidence that a poet so well read refers his beloved wife to a palm, which has a sacred meaning in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

It is unclear how much of Salleh’s poetry Aton read.  Like most professional Malay women, she was too busy with her own career and raising their two children. (Aton had a Master’s degree in counselling and was Head of the Students’ Counseling Unit, Universiti Malaya when she retired in 2014.)  Moreover, like Nora Barnacles, the wife of James Joyce, Aton didn’t need to read Salleh because she ‘lived’ him.

Aton didn’t openly admire her husband’s poetry.  Salleh didn’t need that. What he needed was a strong and confident woman by his side to endure his extreme mood swings, in the dumps of the dumps and the highest point of the high.   Indeed, without Aton, the body of literary works that Salleh left behind would not have been possible.

Those who didn’t know her may wonder how Aton tolerated her husband’s (many) close women friends.  I would attribute this to the strength of their marriage, the strength stemmed from a confident wife who could assert her power if warranted by the occasion.

Aton did not give interviews about her husband’s poetry.  Nor did she allow herself to be quoted, except once when she allowed Sheila Rahman of New Straits Times to quote her regarding her veto power. In this article, Salleh said Aton was the only person who had a “censorship power.” [2]

Aton had an enduring relationship with Anna, Salleh’s daughter with Ariel. As the first born, Anna was exceptionally close to Salleh. Far from being jealous of this very special father-daughter relationship, Aton embraced Anna, as part of the family.  For this and for what Aton had done for her father, it was befitting that Anna dedicated a documentary about him to her memory.   To listen to this two-part podcast, click here. Salleh Ben Joned – A Most Unlikely Malay. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/the-history-listen/salleh-ben-joned-a-most-unlikely-malay-part-1/12639498

https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/the-history-listen/salleh-ben-joned-a-most-unlikely-malay-part-2/12639608

* * *

My brother may not have called himself a feminist, but his actions speak to his support of women’s fight for freedom and recognition. From learned and well-read critiques of oppressive interpretations of Islamic texts to the celebration of fellow writers, he helped advance the feminist cause.  Strong women in his life inspired and sustained his work and he honored them in return.  I can only salute him for these efforts.

** Alima Joned is a lawyer in private practice in Washington, DC.


[1] The Malaysian Constitution defines a “Malay” to mean one who (1) professes the Islamic faith; (2) habitually speaks Malay; and (3) follows Malay customs.  Hence, a Malay must necessarily mean one who is also a Muslim.

[2] See Salleh ben Joned talks to Sheila Rahman about the shots he fired at Malaysian life, July 1, 2007 New Sunday Times.)

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