Intimacy Under Surveillance: Illicit Sexuality, Moral Policing, and the State in Contemporary Malaysia

In: Hawwa
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  • 1 Evans Fellow, University of Cambridge, Visiting Fellow, Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, UK

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Abstract

Malaysia’s Malay-Muslim majority adheres to heteronormative forms of sexuality that recognise marriage as the only means of securing access to lawful sexual intimacy. Islam, Malay customs (adat), and the Malaysian state impose strict sanctions on pre- and extramarital intimacy in its Syariah criminal laws. A Vice Prevention Unit responsible for moral policing is legally authorised to arrest couples who violate Islamic rules of behaviour, including sexual offences such as khalwat (illicit proximity)—a crime of passion punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment. This article compares two khalwat trials in Kota Bharu and Kuala Lumpur’s Syariah court to illustrate what Peletz (2002) calls the judges’ “cultural logic of judicial reasoning”. In these trials, Syariah judges extend beyond a narrowed focus on gender to also consider cultural understandings of age, profession, family circumstances, and marital status, thus reproducing Malay adat understandings of intimacy, marriage, and personhood. In an effort to steer young couples away from forbidden sexual temptations, the Malaysian state liberalises access to marriage by recognising cross-border marriages contracted in Southern Thailand, offering financial incentives to young couples intending to marry and defending existing legal provisions allowing the marriage of minors. The Malaysian state’s mix of punitive, preventative, and pro-marriage policies, I suggest, are various ways of surveilling sexuality by bringing uncontrolled desires under the purview of matrimony, where it may find its lawful expression.

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