Truth be told, many women and girls do not like words like “sundal” and “slut” despite the Slutwalks that are take place across the globe. And that is mainly because no one wants to identify as or with sex workers or to use the stigmatising term, prostitute. But we little do we realise that the history of female sexuality in Malaysia is intimately linked with the dehumanising laws regulating the colonial sex industry in Malaya.
British colonialism in the late 19th century Malaya was mired in racism against migrant labourers brought in from mainland China who were deemed as lacking morals and homophobia against homosexual activities that occurred between them. To curtail homosexual practices, the colonial authorities introduced female sex workers, trafficked or otherwise, to the labourers and colonial officers alike. By 1900, there were around ten thousand female sex workers in the Straits settlements. Numbers in the Malay states were less easy to estimate due to lack of surveillance and regulation.
Viewed as vectors of venereal disease, female sex workers in British Malaya were subjected to the Women and Girls Protection Act (WGPA) that stipulated compulsory medical examination and detainment followed by forced treatment if women were found with disease. Today, along with various other colonial legal relics, the WGPA 1973 is used to detain young women under 21 for up to three years for “immoral” activity. According to the WCC, the act has mainly been used to round up young women in karaoke bars and leaving their male company unscathed. The assumption behind such arrests is that young women’s sexual morality need to be “protected” from the deathly threat of moral corruption.
The intertwining histories of the colonial sex industry and the sexuality in present day Malaysia urge us to close the gap between the virgin-whore dichotomy that gives words like “jalang” and “slut” their potency. We can start with respecting sex workers as workers and as women who are more than just what they do in a sexual/business transaction. We can end the stigma behind words like “pelacur” and disarm the slurs inflicted on people who are not sex workers.