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Jum'ah, 16 Dzul Hijjah 1441 (Thursday, August 6th, 2020)
July 26th, 2008 06:49
Coping with Silence: Feminist Dialogic and Malay Court Chronicles
Coping with Silence: Feminist Dialogic and Malay Court Chronicles

By: Ruzy Hashim[2]

In this paper, I will use feminist dialogics as a framework for approaching the study of women in Malay court narratives. I will define the theory, and demonstrate the ways in which the theory has particular relevance for understanding the silence of a woman who exists alongside men in the establishment of a dynastic lineage. The representation of women typically shows them to be subordinate to men, visible in the private domain as daughters and wives, but having very little say about court matters. Through feminist dialogic, I hope to vocalize this unnatural silence.

Feminist dialogic is a feminist reworking of Bakhtin‘s theory of dialogic. Dale Bauer, a proponent of feminist dialogic, argues that Bakhtin allows "the feminist voice (rather than the male gaze) [to] construct and dismantle the exclusive community [of dominant ideology] and patriarchal critical discourse", so that the woman‘s voice, Bauer further avers, which has been silenced or excluded by hegemonic narrative strategies can be read "back into the dialogue in order to reconstruct the process by which she was read out in the first place" (Bauer: 1988, 673). Denise Heikinen (1994) also points out that feminist dialogic is a tool for "marginalized feminine voices to be heard above the din of the monologic, authoritative, and hegemonic voice" (114). Suzanne Rosenthal Shumway (1994) further indicates that practitioners of feminist dialogic progress one step further from critiquing representation of women to analyzing "the very basis of narrative itself, paying close attention to the inconsistencies that are often obscured by a self-censoring phallocentric text" (152). Such a framework is therefore particularly useful for analyzing Malay women‘s muted voices, fracturing dominant discourse and revealing cracks in authorial control.

This emphasis on voice rather than gaze derives from Bakhtin‘s placing of dialogue at the centre of his theory of meaning. Dialogue is a two-way conversation, and Bakhtin argues that language is inherently dialogic. That is, every utterance actively responds to other utterances, and shapes itself in anticipation of an addressee‘s response:

Not a single instance of verbal utterance can be reckoned exclusively to its utterer‘s account. Every utterance is the product of the interaction between speakers and the product of the broader context of the whole complex social situation in which utterance emerges. Elsewhere we have attempted to show that any product of the activity of human discourse --- from the simplest utterance in everyday life to elaborate works of literary art --- derives shape and meaning in all its most essential aspects not from the subjective experiences of the speaker but from the social situation in which the utterance appears ...What is characteristic for a given utterance specifically --- its selection of particular words, its particular kind of sentence structure, its particular kind of intonation --- all this is the expression of the interrelationship between the speakers and of the whole complex set of social circumstances under which the exchange of words takes place.” (Bakhtin Reader, 41)

Bakhtin asserts that no discourse is stable, and that all discourse has multiple meanings. No matter how authors may try to assert definitive meanings, in part by eliminating competing voices so that only one level of vocabulary remains, in accordance with their own ideological positions, other meanings inevitably push through. This is because meaning is never contained solely within an author‘s text, since an utterance both reacts to the word before it and anticipates future responses. Language can never be monologic, because utterances are always spoken in response to another person‘s words.

Feminist dialogic appropriates the idea that an utterance is multi-layered, full of different discourses which reveal not only the authors‘ attempts to control the meaning of their texts but also the ways in which they attempt to position their readers in very specific ways. Authors, however, cannot be aware of all determinants that produce their discourse, thus, falling prey to their own idiosyncrasies which are governed by the ideology that has interpellated them. The fact that their discourse has to be presented according to the consensual values, or Bakhtinian‘s notion of centripetal forces, means that points of view that do not fit the consensus cannot be heard. To the feminist critic, the resulting discourse has gaps, absences, and unutterable positions, cracks-in-narratives which solicit filling. Feminist dialogic alerts one to such silences. Bauer argues that the female voice, "even as a ‘silenced‘ zone, competes and contests for authority" (676). This marginal voice, pregnant as it is with meaning, represents the centrifugal force which threatens to disrupt authority and liberate alternative voices in a heteroglossia which the author has either not catered for, or has deliberately tried to suppress.

Feminist dialogic is particularly useful for analyzing Malay court narratives. First, as Bauer says (676), the theory offers a means to disrupt patriarchal authority. These chronicles, produced by men, describe the lives and times of the rulers and members of the royal families who regard their genealogies highly because the more powerful their ancestors are represented as being, the more influential they themselves are seen to be. Descriptions of impressive legendary figures and enthralling escapades in the narratives are therefore politically important. As Barbara Watson Andaya (1993) asserts, "in innumerable occasions ... some contentious issue has been decided by reference to aristocratic or royal pedigrees, decisions in which documents laying out affinities of blood and marriage were regarded as reliable guides to past events" (38). Her findings thus show that the producers of these works have nourished, encouraged, legitimized, and transmitted male interests.

Second, because women are represented as mere shadowy figures in the chronicles, feminist dialogic is an ideal analytic approach. The chronicles focus on male dominated dynastic lineages, which means that women are disregarded as important contributors, and do not receive adequate representation. The scribes show how women are subordinate to men, for although women, like men, are expected to embrace the feudal ideals of unconditional loyalty and obedience to the ruler, they are not rewarded in the mood of generosity extended to men. This lack of recognition reveals women‘s subjugation if not their perceived irrelevance with regard to affairs of the state.

I will look at a lady-in-waiting, Encik Apung, who is also known as Encik Pung, whose story is told in two court chronicles, Hikayat Siak (The Siak Chronicle) and Tuhfat al-Nafis (The Precious Gift). By looking at these two versions of her representation, I will be carrying out a dialogue at two levels. On one level, the chronicles can be seen as having a conversation with each other, and on another level, I will be using feminist dialogic to expose the gaps, absences, and unutterable positions which indicate cracks in the scribes‘ discourse. These dialogues, I hope, will give voice to Encik Apung‘s forced silence.

Encik Apung, daughter of Johor‘s Laksamana (a Laksamana heads the band of warriors in the court), is an intriguing figure. The Siak Chronicle is unclear whether she is a palace attendant or a concubine, but the Precious Gift claims that she is a concubine. I will give the two versions of her story as told in the chronicles.

In the Siak Chronicle, Sultan Mahmud of Johore, leaves the Bendahara, or Chief Advisor, to govern the kingdom. The Sultan is childless because he loathes having sex with a normal female. His partner is a fairy who is invisible to other court dwellers. He hates the sight of any good-looking woman, especially when his fairy wife is around. One day, the Sultan, in a moment of madness which the scribe attributes to the appearance of a new moon, slits open the stomach of a pregnant woman because she has taken, without his prior permission, a slice of a jackfruit, given to him by one of his subjects. He wants to confirm whether the unborn baby is enjoying the fruit, and the ripped stomach reveals a baby sucking it. The woman‘s death angers her husband, Megat Seri Rama, who then conspires with the Bendahara to kill the Sultan. At the eve of the ruler‘s death, just as he is about to go to bed, the king orders Encik Apung to massage his feet. The fairy wife has left his chamber because she knows of his impending death. At about dawn, the Sultan is suddenly sexually aroused, and ejaculates, and he orders Encik Apung to swallow his semen: "Hey Apung, if you want to conceive my son, swallow my semen, and keep your pregnancy a secret so that the seed of Raja Iskandar Syah in this Malay land lives on, and I will have an heir" (Hikayat Siak, 112). She scoops it to her mouth, and instantly becomes pregnant, says the scribe, thanks to the will of Allah. The very next day, Megat Seri Rama, yelling out "I commit treason" stabs the Sultan as he is being carried on a retainer‘s shoulders, giving him the title "the Sultan who died being borne aloft." Just before he dies, the Sultan manages to get his religious officers to write a letter revealing Encik Apung‘s pregnancy. Through regicide, the Bendahara of non-royal descent makes himself king, but mindful of the possibility of the Sultan‘s sexual liaisons with the ladies-in-waiting, examines all of them with the aid of the midwife. Encik Apung gives her oath that she will disown her child so that he will not claim the throne, and after her son is born, asks her father to give him away. When the child, Raja Kecik, temporarily regains his father‘s throne many years later, he is deeply distressed to learn that his mother, Encik Apung, has just passed away without having seen his face:

“When he heard that his mother has passed away, he wept. He came forward to kiss her. Then he ordered a royal burial ceremony, as was expected for the royal family. And a Quran reader read at her resting place for forty days, and Raja Kecik gave alms to poor people. That was how it was.” (Hikayat Siak, 127)

The Precious Gift gives three versions of Encik Apung‘s conception of the Sultan‘s child:

“There are many discrepancies and mistakes among the genealogies and chronicles concerning Raja Kecik‘s origins. According to the Siak Chronicle, Raja Kecik was the son of the Ruler who dies being borne aloft, who was killed at Kota Tinggi by Megat Seri Rama. His mother was Encik Pung, the daughter of the Laksamana. Just before His Majesty died, it is said Encik Pung ate his semen. While His Majesty lusted after his fairy wife, his semen flowed out, and he ordered Encik Pung to eat it. Thus, so it is said, Encik Pung became pregnant.Some of the histories say that when His Majesty died, his penis stood erect and no one dared to bury him. All the dignitaries were consulted as to the reason for this strange occurrence. The palace residents said that His Majesty had desired Encik Pung as he died. The dignitaries all interpreted this as signifying that His Majesty was afraid he would not leave behind any descendants of his own line, so it is said that at that very moment they ordered Encik Pung to have sexual intercourse with His Majesty. Only when this was finished did His Majesty‘s penis relax. Encik Pung then became pregnant. Another history, that from Trengganu, mentions that Encik Pung was said to be already pregnant when his Majesty had her.” (Precious Gift, 22)

The child carried by Encik Apung is Raja Kecik, who sets up the genealogy of the kingdom of Siak, having failed to regain his father‘s throne from the old Bendahara. Encik Apung is crucial because she is the mother of the child, which neither scribe doubts. Who fathers the child, however, is suspect.

On one hand, the scribe of the Siak Chronicle is clearly certain that he is sired from the seed of the dead Sultan, and the fact that the child has special capabilities, for example, he can swallow grass without getting sick, or play near his father‘s tomb without coming to any harm, shows that he is truly royal. He even passes the ultimate test of his royal birth, being made to lean against a pillar made of stinging nettles while the crown is placed on his head, and instead of being stung, his face glows like the morning glory, so piercingly glaring that none can bear the light. Thus, he is truly the son of the king who dies while being borne aloft.

On the other hand, the scribe of the Precious Gift, writing on behalf of the rival house, doubts Raja Kecik‘s paternity. By giving three versions of how the child is conceived, he implies that the first two methods are highly unlikely to have produced a child, while the third version raises the possibility of Encik Apung‘s promiscuity. The scribe discredits the woman in order to tarnish Raja Kecik‘s claim to the Johore throne.

It is obvious that the Precious Gift is produced to negate the Siak Chronicle. Reading from Bakhtin‘s notion of the dialogic nature of an utterance, the Precious Gift obviously "derives shape and meaning ... from the social situation in which [the] utterance appears," (41) because the scribe comes from the Bugis clan which has teamed up with the Johor Bendahara in their effort to drive Raja Kecik away. The fact that he recounts three separate stories belittles Raja Kecik‘s grandeur in the Siak Chronicle. They raise questions about his genealogy. The Bugis scribe wants to keep the record straight, and anticipates future response by appearing to strictly adhere to bare facts. He accomplishes his mission by taking extra care with his dates, unlike the Siak scribe whose narrative does not rely on specifying historical detail. The scribe of the Precious Gift thus directs his audience to a set of meanings which coincide with the ideology of the dominant party. That is, it asserts that the Bugis clan has justifiably collaborated with the Bendahara to establish another legitimate royal patrilineage. The scribe, however, suppresses the fact that the dynasty is founded on regicide, a crime considered heinous to Malay subjects. Megat Seri Rama and the Bendahara are guilty of derhaka, or treason against their ruler, but the Bugis scribe only mentions this in passing when he alludes to the fate of Megat Seri Rama whom the Sultan kills, even as he is being stabbed by the angry husband. The Siak scribe is more specific about the traitor‘s fate: "His Majesty chased after Megat Seri Rama but could not overtake the man. So he hurled his kris, hitting Megat Seri Rama‘s toes, who became paralyzed with pain. And with the will of Allah, grass began to grow from the wound, and for four years, Megat Seri Rama neither lived nor died, made to suffer such excruciating pain for being derhaka" (Hikayat Siak, 112). The Bugis scribe, however, is mute about the retribution meted out to Megat Seri Rama, drawing attention instead to Encik Apung‘s sexuality. By doing this, he lulls his audience into endorsing Bugis‘s entrenchment in the politics of Peninsula Malay states. The Bugis people, being immigrants from the Celebes, have to justify their political dominance in the Malay courts which causes rifts between indigenous Malays. Thus, the scribe is politically conscious of his role in legitimizing his clan‘s political involvement.

The mystery about Encik Apung‘s role in begetting Raja Kecik presents itself as a fissure in an otherwise apparently factual narrative. By being shadowy, mysterious, and mute, she undercuts his attempt at creating a narrative with closure. Her silence conceals her sexuality, investing it with an arcane quality which is beyond the reach of the scribe‘s knowledge. More importantly, his political agenda of legitimating Bugis‘ history in their adopted land clouds his representation of Encik Apung. Because he does not understand her, or is unable to explain her sexuality and fecundity, he raises the question of her morality, portraying her as a lustful-promiscuous-necrophiliac woman.

The scribe of the Siak Chronicle paints the picture in which Raja Kecik is "more than a man." He is, like his forefathers before him, endowed with supernatural powers which explain his mysterious origin and incredible feats. He is conceived neither through sexual contact nor through Encik Apung‘s sexual organ, which renders her solely an incubator, not as an active procreator. The scribe, in his belief in his king‘s sovereignty and sacral power, does not construe Raja Kecik‘s conception as mythic, but as produced through God‘s will as a measure in support of his sovereignty and against the unnatural forces of regicide. Because of the aura of mystery around him, common enough in God‘s chosen rulers as discussed by Sharifah Maznah Syed Omar (1992), Raja Kecik commands his subject‘s unquestioned loyalty. The scribe‘s audience, undoubtedly familiar with other court narratives which glorify rulers‘ mythical births, desperately wants to cling to the feudal ideal of total subservience, which has been soiled by the regicide attempt. The Siak scribe does not entertain other heteroglossic forces which undermine his discourse because that would question Raja Kecik‘s legitimacy, crushing the very authority of Siak genealogy.

What about Encik Apung herself? What does her silence indicate? Although central to the debate, she remains mute, voiceless, but I will show how feminist dialogics can imbue that silence with meaning. I suggest that she is being silenced because she does not play by the rules of patriarchy. In the Siak Chronicle, as the mother of the founder of the Siak kingdom, she is an ambiguous figure, potentially powerful, but rendered irrelevant by her having to abandon her son: "remembering her oath to the Bendahara, she did not want to look at her son" (Hikayat Siak, 113). The fact that she dies at the same time her son manages to temporarily unseat the Bendahara suggests that she is relevant only in so far as she is a conduit for the power of men. More disturbing, she dies at a time when the question of Raja Kecik‘s parentage is politically crucial, and when her presence poses an uncomfortable ambiguity. With her death, the question remains unanswered forever, as nobody can contest his legitimacy. It is as though her presence is potentially threatening to his claim to power. Thus, the celebration of Raja Kecik‘s temporary success at the expense of Encik Apung‘s death displays the scribe‘s unwillingness to address the real truth of the matter, that is, the possibility that Raja Kecik is actually an imposter making a false claim.

In the Precious Gift, Encik Apung is silenced because her sexuality departs from the norms of heterosexual reproduction. She has rendered the Bendahara‘s plans ineffectual. Although the Bugis scribe claims to be factual, he does not free himself from malicious gossip to sway his audience into thinking that Raja Kecik is a sly conniving man, and to blame Encik Apung for her misplaced sexuality. He wants to dismiss her existence, but I have shown that by reading her back into the dialogue, the scribe‘s discourse exposes irreparable fissures. In claiming to make explicit and understandable what appears at first puzzling and bizarre, the story of Encik Apung illustrates the predisposition of the phallocentric voice to drive whatever it cannot account for or comprehend to the periphery of experience.


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[1] Article was downloaded from http://www.otago.ac.nz/DeepSouth/vol3no2/ruzy.html

[2] Ruzy Hashim is a lecturer at the Faculty of Language Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malay. She can be reached at ruzy.hashim@stonebow.otago.ac.nz

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