Over afternoon tea a few months ago, my husband and I learned about an organization called the "Obedient Wives Club." It was founded in Malaysia in 2011 and the Penang branch counts several female doctors and other educated women amongst its members.
The goal of the club is as off-putting as its name: to teach wives how to submit to their husbands, in life and in bed.
The club has come under scrutiny for both its published works and vocal advocates, some of whom suggest that the only way a woman can keep her husband loyal is by acting like a "whore in bed." According to one woman who has friends in the club, lessons also focus on treating your husband like the "emperor" he is and introducing new sexual positions into the bedroom.
Which brings me to the situation of women in Malaysia, and perhaps to a larger extent, how women are viewed and hence view themselves within the lens of Islam. Malaysia, a predominantly Islamic country whose Muslim population is governed by Sharia law, is in many ways a patriarchal society where women are subordinate objects to men. In no other place have I seen so many women covered from head to feet in the traditional tudong (at least their faces are exposed), while their husbands walk next to them in shorts and graphic t-shirts. And in no other place in Southeast Asia have I had women look at me in disgust as I pass by them wearing my own shorts and graphic t-shirts. I've even seen girls as young as five wear head coverings and full length outfits despite it being 90+ degrees outside and there being no law in place requiring such dress.
Malay women aren't even supposed to leave their homes in the evening without being accompanied by their husbands -- not for safety, but for modesty. So if you were a typical Malay man, which meeting would you rather drive your wife to?
The one in which she talks about improving the government/education system/environment or the one in which she talks about improving... your sex life?
In every country I've been so far, I've tried to learn about and understand the local way of life. I've spoken to people about why they choose to bathe in the river when they have hot showers in their unoccupied guesthouses, why they don't send their children to school, and why they become prostitutes. I may not have agreed with the reasoning for their actions, but I tried to understand.
Malaysia has presented a unique problem. I simply can't understand why Malay women put up with a society that objectifies them to an extent that I can't imagine in my own life. I don't know why they let their husbands keep them at home and tell them what to wear, even as they drive around town in BMWs wearing shorts and t-shirts. And I wonder how they can consider themselves lucky to be married to men who through their behavior act no better than pigs... or pimps.
The answer, of course, is religion, or rather a strict and perhaps too convenient interpretation of Islamic texts. Malaysia makes it illegal for Malays to not be Muslim, but in the past it has tried to embrace secularity and modernity when it comes to its global policies. Recently, however, many politicians, journalists, and scholars have grown increasingly nervous that Malaysia is veering away from secularity to become a strict Islamic state. There are noticeable hints on the ground that this change is indeed occurring. More women wear headscarves (or hijabs) than ever before, even though it's not required by law. Sharia law is in full effect, with signs in 7 Eleven reminding Muslims that it's illegal for them to drink alcohol and signs in fancy spas reminding Muslim men (but not women, seemingly since they'd never go to a Western spa alone) that it is forbidden for them to get massages by female masseurs. We've even learned of some public schools that don't have food service available for non-Muslim students during Ramadan, essentially forcing them to follow a tradition that's not their own. (After the student council at this school complained, the dean agreed to open one food cart with limited lunch hours for non-Muslim students. A student that bought food at the food cart was subsequently scolded by her Muslim teacher.) And a Muslim woman who happens to be a dog trainer was recently investigated and jailed for her "unholy" actions, which consisted of walking three dogs past a mosque and then washing their feet. (There is some confusion as to whether or not Muslims are allowed to touch dogs. Most Malaysian Muslims seem to believe it's illegal, while Muslims from other countries say there are no laws against it.)
And it is in this societal context that women find themselves. By law, a Malay man is allowed to have four wives and countless numbers of divorces. Most men can't afford to have more than one wife at a time, since having multiple families (technically) means you support multiple women and children. But there's always that risk for the woman, the risk that her husband will ask her permission to take on another wife, or worse, just text her:
One time means we're having problems.
Two times means things are getting worse.
Talaq talaq talaq.
That means it's over. For good. On legal grounds. And the woman who was never allowed to work outside the home is left alone, with however many kids all that crazy sex got her. There's no way to demand child support, alimony, or anything else our Western minds want to demand from a man who just "feels" like leaving his wife.
So what's a Malay woman to do? Certainly not refuse to wear loose clothing and a headscarf, at least not if she wants to be married. After all, most of the women here are still raised to think that marriage and children are the ultimate goal.
The suggestion of the Obedient Wives Club is to never let it get that far, to never let your husband even think about sending that text or consider glancing at that other woman. Because he wouldn't ever leave you for a whore if you act like one in bed. Right?
Note: the members of the Obedient Wives Club are a small fraction of the Malay female population as a whole. However, the teachings of this club permeate throughout society and extend far beyond its headquarters, effecting both men and women. For example, when walking alone on a busy street in Malaysia in the middle of the afternoon, I received two marriage proposals within twenty minutes, both from Muslim men who I'm fairly certain had no time to consult their current wives.
This story originally appeared on Medium.com.