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Intimate Inquiries: Marriage, Polygyny & the State in Contemporary Malaysia

last modified Mar 21, 2019 11:18 AM

Dr Nurul Huda Mohd Razif
Postdoctoral Affiliate, Department of Social Anthropology
Research Fellow, International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden, NL

Nurul first came to the Department of Social Anthropology as a doctoral candidate in 2013, and defended her PhD, entitled “Halal Intimacy: Love, Marriage, and Polygamy in Contemporary Malaysia”, in autumn 2017. Based on 15 months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork across Malaysia and Southern Thailand, Nurul’s thesis explores how Malay-Muslim notions of love and state surveillance of “illicit” (i.e. pre/extra-marital) intimacy create pressures to marry that, for various legal and logistical reasons, bend traditional forms and norms of marriage.

Intimate Inquiries (credit: Nurul Huda Mohd Razif)This research addresses a political and demographic shift in Malaysia today, in which state-led bureaucratization of Islam and changing marriage patterns are reconfiguring intimacies and families by creating favorable conditions for cross-border marriages – contracted discreetly, through secret elopements to Thailand – and polygyny, which has historically been minimally practiced among Malays, with not a small degree of social ambivalence.

From this doctoral project emerged two specialized strands of inquiry Nurul is pursuing at the post-doctoral level in Leiden, the Netherlands, at present: the first, which began during her brief stint as a Visiting Fellow at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in the summer of 2018, explores the bureaucratization of Islam, and the Islamization of intimacy. This project investigates the state’s tighter surveillance of Muslims’ various intimate pursuits, especially those that contravene the Islamic Family Law and the Syariah Criminal Offences Act. Nurul’s upcoming article, “Intimacy Under Surveillance: Illicit Sexuality, Moral Policing, and the State in Contemporary Malaysia”, illustrates the ways in which the Malaysian state responds to illicit engagement in pre- or extra-marital and non-heteronormative intimacy through both punishment, and promoting pro-marriage policies to help couples “halalize” (render permissible) desires that would otherwise be forbidden.

Second, at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden where she is currently a Research Fellow, Nurul continues to develop her research focus on the everyday experience of marriage, specifically looking at the lives of wives in Malay polygyny. On this subject, Nurul enquires into why, despite a historical aversion to this practice, polygyny continues to find its relevance – even discreetly soaring in popularity – among Malay women today. Her next article, “Marrying Married Men: Polygyny & Changing Conjugal Aspirations of Modern Malay Women”, proposes that polygyny is one strategy for securing certain conjugal privileges only accessible through marriage such as access to lawful companionship, sexual intimacy, and motherhood. More importantly, it suggests that while women’s increasing education and participation in the labor force may be responsible for delaying their entry into matrimony, they do, on the other hand, equip them with sufficient symbolic and economic capital to undertake an emotionally and financially precarious union such as polygyny. A book manuscript based on these two research themes, and substantially drawing on her doctoral thesis, is currently in preparation.

Nurul will spend the summer of 2019 as a Visiting Fellow at Collège d’Études Mondiales – Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (CEM-FMSH) in Paris, where she will work on a short research project that will explore the ways in which discord and discontent between co-wives in Malay polygyny manifest through (suspicions of) black magic (sihir) and sorcery. Though Nurul’s research trajectory so far has covered varied areas from intimacy to polygyny, to the state and the supernatural, she remains committed to questions of how Muslim women in particular gain and lose certain rights at the cost of others amidst state bureaucratic intervention in marriage, intimacy, and polygyny in contemporary Malaysia.