B1A4 perform on July 24, 2014. Photo: Getty
K-Pop stars B1A4, have unwittingly landed some Malaysian fans in very hot water. Last week, video footage surfaced of the boy band hugging and kissing (on the crown of the head) three young, star-struck female fans, under the inflammatory headline, "Malay girls molested on stage by K-Pop artists," causing widespread outrage -- at the girls.
Under Malaysia's Criminal Offences Act, even these simple, platonic gestures fall under strict public indecency laws. And so, politicians and keyboard warriors alike are calling for the girls' prosecution for "offending the sensitivities" of Muslims.
The girls, as of writing, have not been identified, and authorities have called for them to come forward, warning criminal charges will be pursued if the girls don't give themselves up. Meanwhile, the management of the beleaguered boy band have released an official statement, declaring:
Screengrab from YouTube user RAJALAWAK.COM.
"The event took place after consent from those who participated...We understand that it could be perceived in such a way from certain perspectives and from now on we will take cultural differences into careful consideration in order to provide a more global fan-meet that all fans from different cultures can enjoy."
Obviously, the band's new-found cultural sensitivity doesn't do much to help the girls who could now face up to six months in prison, and must be terrified out of their wits. Watching the video, it's hard to fathom how something that looks so innocent could have such serious consequences. I understand that we are foreign observers, and that every country has the right to determine their own laws and standards, but this particular case isn't merely about cultural standards.
That fully grown adults are baying for the blood of three teenage girls, who have done nothing other than be teenage girls, is pretty chilling. As someone from a Muslim background, this sort of puritanical behaviour that many Muslims are prone to makes me cringe. There is an impossible amount of pressure put on young Muslims, particularly young girls, to behave in traditionally acceptable ways, even as the carrot of liberalism is dangled right before their eyes.
Screengrab from YouTube user RAJALAWAK.COM
In this case, even as foreign pop stars are encouraged to tour (K-Pop is hugely popular), and local stars in the music and television business appear to be exempt from rules pertaining to moral propriety, ordinary Malaysian girls are somehow expected to represent a pure version of Islam to the world. Hence, the director of Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (JAWI), is accusing the girls of "bringing shame onto Islam." I imagine that this has something to do with the fact that all three are wearing headscarves and so are visibly Muslim, but what an unbearable burden for adolescent girls to bear.
There are two things that bother me about this case.
Firstly, talk about a frivolous use of the term "offensiveness." When innocent teenagers gushing over their idols is denounced as "offensive," it makes something of a mockery of the term. Offensiveness should not merely be about feelings that are hurt or moral worldviews that are upset, but about behaviour that contributes to oppression and discrimination. Drawing a black person in the likeness of a monkey, for instance, is offensive, because this comparison is exactly one of the ways in which their dehumanisation has been justified. Likewise, using objectified images of women to sell products is offensive because of the long history of women being regarded as things to be owned and used by others.
In other words, the barometer for what is "offensive" should be whether it has real world consequences that can negatively impact people's lives. While teenage girls giggling around pop stars may irritate Muslim conservatives who think genders should be strictly segregated, it does nothing to contribute to discrimination against Muslims anywhere in the world.
If anything, the precise opposite is true. This antiquated attitude makes it so very difficult for those of us who wish to both challenge Islamophobic sentiment and to defend the rights of Muslims to free expression within their own communities, which leads me to my second issue; is this really about Islam or something else?
It's true that ultimately every country gets to determine their own laws but the question is, why are authorities so keen to pursue this particular case? The spokesperson of Sisters Of Islam, a progressive NGO, in agreement with some concerned netizens, has accused the JAWI of double standards, pointing out that Muslims hold hands in public and actresses play roles that "require physical contact" with male actors.
With that in mind, a quick look at some of the comments of outraged citizens claiming to be offended on behalf of Islam shows that this could well be less about religion and more about simple male jealousy.
"Korean men get to kiss for free... Malay men have to fork out RM15,000-RM20,000 to propose [to Malay girls]," complained one Facebook user. Meanwhile, a cartoon uploaded to social media contrasted a burqa-clad Muslim woman bearing an AK-47, with a Malay woman in a headscarf being hugged by a fair-skinned man, with captions declaring, "In Syria, women protect their honour and take up arms to defend Islam..while in Malaysia... they allow their honour to be dragged through the mud on stage."
Huh. It's almost like these men think they have the right to control women's bodies. It certainly seems that at least some of the outrage is about foreign men getting too close to local women. A local politician, for instance, tweeted his hopes that local women would return to "tall, dark, and handsome" Malaysian men, rather than the "pale" and "pretty" K-Pop singers.
On that note, Malaysian columnist Bu Su-Lyn writes:
"If the genders were reversed and it was female K-pop stars hugging Malay men, people wouldn't bat an eyelid. The attacks against the female K-pop fans show a disconcerting rejection of women's rights to self-determination over their own bodies...the...controversy illustrates the social (and perhaps, legal) cost of Malay women taking control of their own bodies. It also shows the entitlement that men have towards women in Malaysian society, where females are expected to gift one man – their husband — with their bodies….Enough with the slut-shaming."
Before this story is filed as yet another example of Islam's intolerance and intolerability, consider an alternative explanation: Some Malaysian men are irritated at Korean pop idols muscling in on their turf. To justify their offended Muslim sensibilities hurt feelings, they are invoking religion to shame and oppress women.
Who is really being offended here?