Malaysia is a Muslim-majority nation with an Islamized state that has little tolerance for its Muslim subjects indulging in sexual intimacy outside of marriage. Such transgressions classified as “khalwat” – being in close physical proximity to a non-kin member of the opposite sex in an intimate or sexual way that “arouses suspicion” – are recognized as a criminal offense under Malaysia’s Shariah laws; any couple caught in an act of khalwat is liable to being arrested by a state-led moral police unit, summoned to a hearing in court, and subjected to a hefty fine for their indiscretions. This paper examines the role of the Vice Prevention Unit (Unit Pencegah Maksiat) operating under the payroll of the state in clamping down pre- and extra-marital sexual intimacy, both in public spaces and behind closed doors. Under the guise of “enjoining good and forbidding evil”, the Unit, in collaboration with a prying public, engages in indiscreet acts of shaming such as propagandized arrests and trials to form a kind of public morality that is intolerant of illicit intimacy. This intrusive interest in its Muslim citizens’ intimate pursuits reveals the conspiring machinations in the way the Malaysian state colludes with Islam and Malay culture and traditions (adat) to protect access to intimacy as a conjugal privilege. I thus examine moral policing here – both state-led and community-driven – as attempts to maintain the ethical order through repressing unlawful desires that threaten the very moral foundations of the society and the ummah (global Muslim community).
Malaysia, Islam, Intimacy
Religious Community and Socialization
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session
Nurul Huda Mohd. Razif
Postdoctoral Affiliate, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
I am a social anthropologist currently working on intimacy, cross-border marriage, and polygamy in contemporary Malaysia. I completed my PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and have experience in conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Malaysia and Southern Thailand. This involved court observations and archival research in the Shariah Courts of Kelantan (north of Malaysia bordering Thailand) and Kuala Lumpur, and interviews with Malay polygamous couples. I am currently based in the Royal Netherlands Institute for Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), Leiden, where I am working on producing publications based on my doctoral research.