Asia has a long but mostly forgotten history of fierce and bold women. ‘The Principal Girl: Feminist Tales from Asia’ reminds us this through 18 inspiring stories.

By Mohani Niza

Flip the papers nowadays and one is confronted with various disheartening news about girls and women. In Malaysia, where I am from, there has been much uproar about underage girls being married off to men much older than them. There is also a push by religious conservatives to legalize the marriage of children below the age of 18. Meanwhile, sexual harassment and violence against women in general are becoming increasingly common.

Despite this, over the past few years, Malaysia has seen a series of protest marches during International Women’s Day. On Twitter alone, there is an increasing number of feminist voices in Asia who strategize against the misogyny taking place at home, on the streets, in schools and in the workplace.

Whether in Asia or worldwide, the term ‘feminism’ is back in fashion thanks to movements such as #metoo and #timesup.

It is therefore not surprising to know that feminism in Asia is not new, even though many may think that it is a western import.

Dr Sharifah Aishah Osman of the University of Malaya and author Tutu Dutta aim to rectify this misconception with their newly-released anthology called ‘The Principal Girl: Feminist Tales from Asia’ (GerakBudaya, 2019).

The book is made up of 18 stories where women and girls take centre stage. 10 stories are set in the modern-day, while the remaining eight are retellings of Asian folklore stories such as Cik Siti Wan Kemboja, Puteri Gunung Ledang, Mahsuri and Hang Li Po.

Dutta points to societies such as the Minangkabau in Sumatra (which is matrilineal) and Burmese society which used to be both matrilineal and matriarchal, as examples of the high status of Asian women.

She also reminds us of the role that women in Asia played against colonialism.

“It was the struggle of women like the Rani of Jhansi against the British and Raden Adjeng Kartini from Java, against the Dutch, who sparked both nationalism and women’s rights in this part of the world,” Dutta tells The Culture Review Mag. “The struggle to free ourselves from colonialism in Asia led to greater awareness of concepts such as freedom and equality, and it’s not surprising that women, who were also part of the larger struggle would also want to have freedom and equality.”

Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, was the queen of the state of Jhansi in North India and a leading figure of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Meanwhile, Raden Adjeng Kartini was a Javanese noblewoman who not only fought against Dutch occupation but also worked for the rights of girls and women to have an education.

Reclaiming the ‘F word’

I asked both editors about their decision to use the word ‘feminist’ in the title.

“While the term ‘feminist’ has been misconceived by some as ‘controversial’ or ‘taboo’, I have to disagree,” Dr Sharifah tells The Culture Review Mag. “In fact, the term needs to be destigmatized in order to prevent the aims of the feminist struggle from being overlooked or dismissed completely.”

“We felt strongly that the title should have the word ‘feminist’ in it because all the stories have an underlying feminist message or agenda, in that they not only feature a female protagonist and privilege her point of view and experiences, but also draw attention to the numerous ways in which women and girls have struggled with, but also managed to overcome, issues of marginalization, injustice, and oppression in society. These are stories about bright, bold, and spirited heroines, who are unapologetic about their strength and courage, or in the face of life challenges, progressively come into their own. They are warriors, problem solvers, survivors, and masters of their own fate—it would have been a great disservice to these characters not to acknowledge such virtues, and indeed this is what much of the feminist struggle is about,” she adds .

When Dutta and Dr Sharifah put out the call for submissions, they informed potential authors that they wanted their stories to provide an alternative perspective of gender roles in Asian – and in particular Malaysian – culture and society, and how these tales should focus on the theme of female empowerment.

“We looked for stories that not only featured strong character development, but that also prioritized authentically female experiences, as seen for example in stories that depict the bond between mothers and daughters, sisters, or female friends,” Dr Sharifah says.

Dutta says: “Both Sharifah and I read every single submission and decided jointly on whether a story should be accepted or rejected. We were looking for an interesting story and plot and a unique point of view. Of course, the protagonist had to be female and Asian and the story had to tell from the feminist point of view.”

Readers will be delighted to find unmistakably feminist stories such as ‘The Girl on the Mountain’ (a retelling of the Malay folklore ‘Puteri Gunung Ledang’), ‘The Queen’s Last Stand’, ‘The Veiled Knight’, ‘House of Malacca’, ‘Surya and the Supernatural Sleuths’ and ‘An Epic Misunderstanding’. Meanwhile, other stories have a more subtle message, such as ‘Red and White’, ‘Gamble’, ‘Under the Bridge’, ‘Operation: Rescue Pris’, ‘Priya’s Faraway Tree’ and ‘Grey’. 

“When we feel the feminist message is not strong enough, we did suggest revisions to certain parts of the story. What we avoided were stories about girls and women being rescued by boys and women and also stories about women with internalized misogyny,” Dutta says.

Dr Sharifah says there has been an impressive surge of feminist literature for children and young adults in the American and British markets within the past two decades. Just browse bookstores and you will find titles such as ‘Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls’, ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls’ and ‘Rejected Princesses’.

“In contrast, Malaysian publishers have tended to stick to more traditional – and as such, more conventionally gendered – content and approaches when it comes to children’s and young adult literature. Not only did we find this gap surprising, but we also felt that the wealth of talent among our local writers for such a genre was just waiting to be tapped,” she adds.

Of bold princesses and the complex relationship between sisters

The acclaimed Malaysian writer Preeta Samarasan retells the popular Malay folktales ‘Puteri Gunung Ledang’ (‘Girl on the Mountain’) and ‘Bawang Putih, Bawang Merah’ (‘Red and White’).

(You may remember Preeta by her 2008 novel ‘Evening is the Whole Day’ which was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2009, and was on the longlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction).

‘Girl on the Mountain’ tells the story of a strong-willed celestial princess in present day Johor who set seven impossible conditions for the Sultan who wanted to marry her. Meanwhile, ‘Red and White’ is about two step-sisters – one good, one bad – and a cruel stepmother (not unlike Cinderella).

“I chose these two stories for two very different reasons. With ‘Puteri Gunung Ledang,’ it was the vivid and outrageous list of gifts the princess asks for that first struck me as a child and that had stayed with me for decades: the seven trays of mosquito hearts, seven trays of the hearts of germs, etc. I can’t say that I ever attributed any deep metaphorical or allegorical meaning to these gifts; in fact the opposite is probably true, that I resisted analysing them beyond the obvious (she asks for impossible things), choosing instead to delight in the images themselves, for their own sake,” Preeta, who now resides in France, tells The Culture Review Mag via email. “It was the spirit of that list of betrothal gifts — exacting, yet exuberant — that inspired me. I thought about the kind of young woman who would ask for those things: confident, not afraid to ask for what she wants, a young woman who might be called a “diva” in today’s language, but what if I looked beyond that label? What might one find under the surface of a diva?”

“With ‘Bawang Putih, Bawang Merah,’ it was the relationship between the sisters. Folklore all over the world is full of sisters: ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White and Rose Red’, ‘The Twelve Months’, ‘Diamonds and Toads’. Being the mother of two young sisters, I am fascinated by sisterhood, especially since I never had a sister myself. Every pair of sisters is different, of course, but I wanted to see if I could depict, within the confines of a short folk tale, the typical tension of the relationship: the pull of the family bond against the push of jealousy and competition; the protective instinct against the darker instinct to win at the other’s expense. Had I not become a mother, I think I would be noticing and thinking about these things a lot less, but I get to observe them first hand on a daily basis, albeit in a much milder form than I’ve depicted in the story — but that’s what folk tales are for, after all, for boiling things down to their essence. Concentration, even exaggeration,” Preeta says.

Preeta explains that she never grew up with the word ‘feminist’, though her upbringing was certainly one. She studied in a government secondary school for girls and was surrounded not only by female teachers but also outstanding female schoolmates.

“The way they [my parents and teachers] brought me up to believe I could learn whatever I wanted to learn and be whatever I wanted to be. But this was nothing unusual for middle-class girls growing up in Ipoh in the 1980s; in our social class, it was understood that we were intellectually equal to boys and that no ambition or career would be closed to us. Growing up, I never once heard the idea that boys were better at science or maths,” she says.

“I was always inspired by girls who didn’t confirm to society’s ideas of how girls should behave, and I did always like to think that I was a little bit like them: Sophie in ‘The BFG’, ‘Anne of Green Gables’, Scout in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Jo in ‘Little Women’. I think these books did help me see that there were many ways to be a girl in this world, and that sitting quietly and paying attention to the adults – qualities prized in Asian society – were perhaps not as important as a life of the mind and a creative, questioning spirit,” she adds.

‘The Principal Girl: Feminist Tales from Asia’ is available at major bookstores in Malaysia as well as online at GerakBudaya.

About the women behind the book

Dr Sharifah Aishah Osman is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of English, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature, and her recent research focuses on the intersection between feminism and literature for children and young adults in Malaysia.

Tutu Dutta is an international nomad who has lived in far-flung cities around the world. In the past decade, she has authored nine books, including Timeless Tales of Malaysia. Her first picture book, Phoenix Song (Lantana Publishing UK) was also translated into Malay as Lagu Cenderawasih (Oyez! Books). Her latest book, Nights of the Dark Moon (Marshall Cavendish Asia), is a collection of Gothic Folktales from Asia and Africa.

Preeta Samarasan was born in Malaysia and moved to the United States to finish high school at the United World College U.S.A, and attend Hamilton College.  She was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, and had begun work on a dissertation on Gypsy music festivals in France when she left to complete her novel.  She earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where an earlier version of ‘Evening is the Whole Day’ won the Avery and Jule Hopwood Novel Award. 

Her short fiction and nonfiction has been published or is forthcoming in the Asian Literary Review, Five Chapters, Hyphen, the Michigan Quarterly Review, EGO Magazine, A Public Space, and in the anthology Urban Odysseys: KL Stories.

About Mohani Niza

Mohani Niza is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Culture Review Mag.