Volume 123, Issue 2 p. 278-291
Open Access

Risky Appearances, Skillful Performances: Female Islamic Preachers and Professional Style in Malaysia

David Kloos

Corresponding Author

David Kloos

Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), Leiden, The Netherlands

David Kloos Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), Leiden, The Netherlands; [email protected]

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First published: 23 April 2021
Citations: 2



Mass involvement of women in Islamic associations and public religious expressions has led to an unprecedented demand for women Islamic authorities. Yet, paradoxically, the global Islamic revival has also strengthened conservative norms with regard to the exposure of women's bodies and voices. In Malaysia, women Islamic popular preachers navigate, and to some extent obviate, this tension between publicity and modesty by cultivating a professional style. In the context of mass education, mass mediatization, and a public sphere saturated with techno-political language, these women combine religious guidance with knowledges and performances more commonly associated with nonreligious professions. They perceive their work and careers as an accumulation of professional skills. They work from offices as well as traditional religious institutions. And they provide specialized, often paid services ranging from conventional religious teaching and preaching to professionalized Islamic healing and media performances. The increasing salience of a professional persona in women's preaching requires an analysis that moves beyond pious exemplarity—a central concern of many anthropological studies of women's religious authority—and that recognizes the central role of professional style and associated performances in the shaping of new Muslim femininities. [religious authority, professional style, women preachers, Islam, Malaysia]



La participación masiva de mujeres en asociaciones islámicas y expresiones religiosas públicas ha llevado a una demanda sin precedentes de autoridades islámicas de mujeres. Sin embargo, paradójicamente, el revivalismo islámico global ha fortalecido también normas conservadoras con respecto a la exposición de los cuerpos y las voces de mujeres. En Malasia, mujeres predicadoras populares islámicas navegan, y hasta cierto punto obvian, esta tensión entre publicidad y modestia al cultivar un estilo profesional. En el contexto de la educación masiva, la mediatización masiva, y una esfera pública saturada con lenguaje tecnopolítico, estas mujeres combinan la orientación religiosa con conocimientos y presentaciones más comúnmente asociadas con profesiones no religiosas. Ellas perciben su trabajo y carreras como una acumulación de destrezas profesionales. Trabajan desde oficinas, así como instituciones religiosas tradicionales. Y proveen servicios especializados, a menudo pagados variando desde la enseñanza religiosa convencional y la predicación hasta la sanación islámica profesionalizada y las presentaciones en medios de comunicación. La creciente prominencia de una imagen pública profesional en la predicación de mujeres requiere un análisis que se mueve más allá de la ejemplaridad piadosa –una preocupación central de muchos estudios antropológicos de la autoridad religiosa de las mujeres– y que reconoce el rol central del estilo profesional y las presentaciones asociadas en la formación de las nuevas feminidades musulmanas. [autoridad religiosa, estilo profesional, mujeres predicadoras, islam, Malasia]

On May 25, 2017, the Malaysian Islamic scholar and preacher Nik Salida Suhaila Nik Saleh was featured, together with two male scholars and a moderator, in an episode of Forum Perdana Hal Ehwal Islam (Prime Forum for Islamic Affairs). Forum Perdana is Malaysia's oldest Islamic television program. Airing weekly since the 1980s, and holding the middle of a talk show and a panel discussion, it has become somewhat of an institution in the country's media landscape. This episode was a special one. Anticipating the start of the holy month of Ramadan, the program was recorded live, for the first time in its history. The venue was the residence of then prime minister Najib Tun Razak, who was also in the audience. Nik Salida started her contribution by reflecting, in an anecdote, on the episode's theme: faith. “I once saw macaroons being sold in London. They were kept in a glass box… . I wondered why this pastry, which did not look very special to me, could not be touched and only looked at through the glass.” It was not until later that she learned that macaroons are a delicate treat. Sweet and fragile, “like faith.” She continued in a lecturing tone: “The term taqwa [faith], in Arabic, is derived from the word waqayaqi, biqaya—which means to protect. To protect the macaroons, they are kept in a beautiful glass case. So it is with our faith, to such an extent that [the eleventh-century scholar and mystic] Imam al-Ghazali, Allah have mercy upon him, said that people who guard their faith are like women in maternity confinement.” She turned to the moderator. “You will never feel what it is like to be in such a state” (Video 1).1

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Forum Perdana Hal Ehwal Islam, with Nik Salida Suhaila Nik Saleh. (Courtesy of RTM/JAKIM; subtitles by David Kloos) [This figure appears in color in the online issue]

Nik Salida has stature. Trained in Malaysia and the United Kingdom, she is currently an associate professor of Islamic law, international law, and human rights at the Islamic Science University of Malaysia (Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia, USIM). She is also a commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Manusia Malaysia, SUHAKAM), which, given its task of keeping a check on Malaysia's flawed democracy, is both a prestigious and a difficult position to fulfill.2 In addition to these academic roles, she is known as a writer, a columnist, and a television preacher (Figures 1 and 2). After the recording of Forum Perdana, which I attended, I chatted with a group of women university students in the audience. I asked them what they thought of Nik Salida's performance. They were impressed. She was “clearly very learned,” they said, and “clearly very nice.” When I asked them what they meant by “nice,” they pointed at her appearance (penampilan) and demeanor (kelakuan). “I mean the way she carried herself,” one said, “the way she responded to the moderator and the other panelists. She behaves like a woman should behave, with proper expressions and body movements, you know, controlled [terkawal], not arrogant.” This is important for a preacher, they stressed. Nik Salida's performance made clear that, in Islam, “women are treated as a pearl” (wanita adalah mutiara).

Details are in the caption following the image
Nik Salida Suhaila at work in her university office. (David Kloos) [This figure appears in color in the online issue]
Details are in the caption following the image
Nik Salida Suhaila on screen as a preacher in her television show Al-Maraaya (Arabic, “The Mirror”). (Screenshot, David Kloos) [This figure appears in color in the online issue]

The regular featuring of women in Forum Perdana and other Islamic television programs shows that female preachers and scholars are a common and accepted part of Malaysian mainstream Islam. It also shows that certain ideas are in place about the ways these women should look and act, ideas that are—quite literally, considering the emphasis placed by the students on body movements—constraining. Women preachers are expected, by their audiences, to behave and contain themselves in ways that do not apply to men. They need to be measured in their verbal and bodily expressions. Encapsulated in this example is a central conundrum for preachers like Nik Salida. How to navigate a public sphere that, for reasons I turn to below, has become increasingly in demand of female Islamic authorities yet also increasingly conflicted about women's appearances, voices, and bodily exposure, concerns that are often glossed as the need for a Muslim woman to be “modest”? I argue that women preachers deal with, and to some extent subvert, this tension by cultivating what is best termed a “professional style.” By this, I mean that they approach their preaching, including the challenge of managing the boundaries set to their public performances, as a set of professional skills; that they enrich their performances with outward appearances, comportments, and senses of vocation more commonly associated with nonreligious professional occupations; and, finally, that they perceive the senses of formality associated with professional expertise as congruent with, and legitimizing, their appearance as public figures and pious exemplars.

Malaysian society and politics have been transformed by what is commonly termed the “Islamic revival”—a proliferation across the globe of new and relatively conservative socioreligious movements and public religious expressions (Liow 2009; Schielke 2018). Known in Malaysia as the “dakwah movement” (after the Arabic da`wa, literally “to call” or “to summon”), the Islamic revival first manifested itself on university campuses in the 1970s and 1980s and subsequently expanded as a feature of the growing urban middle class.3 Like the global religious resurgence more generally, it has been driven by women as much as by men (Hefner 2010). In Malaysia, audiences of Islamic events, such as sermons, religious study groups, or public discussions, tend to be majority women (Kloos 2019; on Indonesia, see Hoesterey 2015; Millie 2017). In this context of urbanization, upward mobility, and feminization, figures like Nik Salida approach their preaching, increasingly, as a part of their professional career. They combine religious guidance with knowledge, proficiencies, and embodied practices associated with academic, medical, and legal professions. They seek PhD degrees in combined fields such as “Islamic psychology” or “Islamic counseling.” They see themselves as professionals (Malay: profesional) who work from offices as well as mosques and provide specialized, and often paid services ranging from conventional sermonizing to Islamic healing and television. The notion of a professional “style” is analytically useful, I contend, because it reveals the links between outward performance, bearing on appearance, language, or the design and use of physical spaces, and the organization of work and career. Contemporary cultures of professionalism enable women preachers to engage audiences that are increasingly female yet heterogeneous in terms of class and education. A professional style allows them to speak to members of the lower classes as certified experts and to other professionals as peers. In both cases, they integrate Islamic norms with professional dispositions linked to everyday concerns associated with fast urban living, such as efficiency, mobility, or stress.

The act of cultivating a professional style in order to draw young, urban, and professional audiences is not the sole province of women preachers (for examples of male Islamic scholars and preachers, see Eisenlohr 2017, 876–78; Khabeer 2016, 157; van de Bovenkamp 2015). What distinguishes women, I suggest in this article, is the desire to take on a composed posture in front of mixed-gender audiences while retaining a certain accessibility to other women. The most intriguing aspect of the recording of Nik Salida, and the students’ response to it, is the implicit suggestion that composure and lack of animation is part and parcel of a woman preacher's professional persona and, as such, central to her authority. Nik Salida's quip to the moderator that he would “never experience a state of maternity confinement,” she confirmed later during an interview, was intended as an acknowledgment of her woman audience. Professional style, I suggest, allows preachers like Nik Salida to be simultaneously approachable and standoffish and thus to navigate the “revivalist” norms that set limits on women's performances more than those of men.

My analysis is based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out mostly in Kuala Lumpur and its suburbs between September 2016 and August 2017 as part of a broader project on female Islamic authority and public communication in Southeast Asia. I focus on the performances of women who are considered by their audiences as ustazah, a Malay term of Arab origin denoting female Islamic teachers or preachers (the male form is ustaz). If a woman is called an ustazah, it usually means that she has enjoyed a formal Islamic education. In contrast to most other ustazah, the women I followed across the city are public figures endowed with a certain level of celebrity status. Their audiences vary in terms of age or socioeconomic background but are often actively involved in the Muslim public sphere, by which I mean an expanding field of Islamic(-themed) spaces and events, including sermons, trainings, motivational programs, religious study groups and other pedagogical settings, and various forms of Islamic entertainment and “infotainment” (Barendregt and Hudson 2016). I draw on conversations, ranging from one-off meetings to series of up to seven extensive, in-depth life history interviews, participant observation, and the analysis of media materials. In citing interlocutors, I concentrate on a variety of Malay expressions used to communicate ideas about style, including “style” (gaya, or the English “style”), speech (gaya ucapan), “(method of) delivery” (penyampaian, cara menyampaikan), and appearance (penampilan).


My focus on professional style brings to the forefront an aspect of Islamic authority that has gotten somewhat lost in the study of popular preaching and Islamic popular culture more generally. In their seminal text on the emergence, in the late twentieth century, of a mass-mediated “Muslim public sphere,” Dale Eickelman and Jon Anderson argue that newly emergent religious authorities, including celebrity preachers, attract audiences by connecting religion to “commerce, entertainment, and the professions” in innovative ways (Eickelman and Anderson 2003, 14; emphasis added). Their thesis has been hugely influential, inspiring a proliferation of studies, concentrating especially on the blurred boundaries between religion and commercial entertainment (see, e.g., Hackett and Soares 2015; Meyer and Moors 2005, 15–19; Weintraub 2011). Different scholars have analyzed how popular preachers combine mass media—from radio to Instagram—with clever business models to proselytize, move, or entertain their audiences, and/or challenge authorities and institutions relying on more-traditional forms and technologies of Islamic pedagogy (see, e.g., Beekers 2015; Hoesterey 2015; Millie 2017; Moll 2010; Schulz 2006; Slama 2017b; for a comparative perspective, see Thomas and Lee 2012). Where, I ask, does the growing interest in the impact of “Muslim televangelists” leave the relationship between religion and nonreligious professional occupations? How does the entrance of ever-larger numbers of Muslim women into the professions (Hefner 2016; Kloos 2019; McLarney 2015), or spaces associated with the professions, affect their role in mass-mediated preaching? How and why has the practice of mass-mediated preaching itself become a gendered affair?

The public performances of popular preachers, whether men or women, are often inflected by debates about permissibility. In Egypt, for example, so-called new preachers (al-du`ah al-gudud) produce polished and “dazzling” television shows to counter the deliberately stripped-down media designs of Salafist rivals (Moll 2018). As Yasmin Moll explains, their conflict about the value versus sinfulness of styles associated with Western entertainment is driven by a fundamentally different interpretation of the theological concept of da`wa. In Indonesia, preachers stage theatrical and exuberant performances and thereby defy both Islamists and feminists, who disagree about most things but converge in the opinion that the listener is a passive subject who “laughs and cries” but does not think (Millie 2017, 101). The women preachers I followed also use entertaining media formats to engage with their audiences. What sets them apart from the male preachers studied by Moll and Millie is the fact that their space to entertain, to “dazzle” and be “exuberant,” is much more limited, especially in front of mixed-gender audiences. They develop, instead, a more sober approach to their preaching and a style that is considered accessible, “service-oriented,” and decidedly feminine.

The public performances of women preachers reveal the agentive and embodied practices through which Muslim women, more generally, style themselves. Saba Mahmood (2005), in her work on Egypt, has excavated the agency exercised by pious women as they cultivate conservative Islamic feminine values, such as modesty, patience, or chastity. It is through disciplining their bodies, she argues, that these women give shape to their inner religious lives. Other scholars have explored more-expanded, public meanings of outward piety as they intersect outside the mosque with gender, class, and space. The discussion about veiling is a case in point. For some women, the veil is not, or not just, a religious obligation but (also) a means to move around more freely or safely or to enter and use public spaces that used to be restricted to men (see, e.g., Secor 2002; Lindquist 2004). In other cases, veiling allows pious women to distinguish themselves from other groups, sometimes subverting long-standing hierarchies of age or class (see, e.g., Meneley 2007). In both perspectives, women's choices of dress and associated comportment “shift ideas about what is ‘naked’ and what kind of exposure is possible and to whom,” contributing to “changing debates and struggles over what constitutes ‘apt performance’” (Meneley 2007, 225, 231).

A contentious topic, especially among urban middle classes, is the balancing of modesty with outward signs of social mobility. In Istanbul, pious women distinguish themselves from lower-class rural–urban migrants by adopting a style of veiling that is “modest and showy at the same time” (Secor 2002, 10). In the suburbs of the Moroccan city of Fes, women feel that they are walking a “fine line” as they balance the need to look fashionable with the risk of inciting “negative judgment” (Newcomb 2006, 299). Considering the salience of such struggles, it is surprising to see how little attention scholars of Islam and gender have paid to the examples set by female religious authorities. Analyses of the roles and practices of women preachers and Islamic teachers tend to focus on their place in traditional religious institutions and (semi-)private study groups (see, e.g., Bano and Kalmbach 2012; Frisk 2009; Kloos and Künkler 2016; Mahmood 2005). This emphasis is understandable insofar as women preachers, for reasons I will discuss, often seem more comfortable behind the curtains than in the spotlights. It is evident, nonetheless, that women preachers constitute an increasingly visible and prominent part of the Muslim public sphere, in Malaysia and elsewhere, and that any explanation of this conspicuous and to some extent paradoxical trend requires new approaches to, and conceptualizations of, the study of female Islamic authority, specifically, and the salience of gendered performances, more generally. Apart from teaching basic and advanced religious knowledge and skills to women audiences, women preachers have taken the lead in negotiating values and desires that members of their audiences find difficult to balance or reconcile. Their public appearances and accompanying styles give shape to femininities that are pious and transformative (see Ahmad 2017; Ahmed 1992; Deeb 2006) while responding in creative ways to the fact that in the Muslim public sphere, women subjects bear “heavier semiotic burdens than male subjects” (Jones 2010, 624).

What, then, is “professional style,” and how does it augment the authority of these preachers? Like register, dialect, or stance, style is an important concept in the study of sociolinguistic variation (Eckert and Rickford 2001; Jaffe 2009, 14–17). As Judith Irvine (2001, 21) argues, however, “style in language should not be assumed a priori to be an utterly different matter from style in other realms of life.” Any conception of style “concerns, crucially, distinctiveness,” and “whereas dialect and register, at least as sociolinguists ordinarily identify them, point to linguistic phenomena only, style involves principles of distinctiveness that may extend beyond the linguistic system to other aspects of comportment that are semiotically organized” (21, 31). To understand the purchase, reach, and attraction of the performances of Malaysian preacher-professionals, I contend, it is crucial to analyze the ways these performances are attuned to processes of social distinction through both verbal and nonverbal communication. This line of thought is indebted to Pierre Bourdieu's ([1984] 2010, xxviii) conceptualization of the close relationship between the pursuit of distinction—expressed, particularly among middle classes, by the “stylization of life, that is, the primacy of forms over function, of manner over matter”—and social reproduction. There is a resonance between the experiences of the preachers I came to know, as well as of their middle-class peers, and the subject positions of the socially mobile French managers and professionals grouped together by Bourdieu as the “dominated fraction” of the dominant class (229). Compared to both upper and lower classes, members of the Malay Muslim middle class tend to claim higher stakes, socially and economically, in the cultivation and expression of newly acquired styles and tastes pertaining to public religion.

Styles are never simply “received” or “adopted” but always fostered and nurtured, requiring time and effort. As displays of social capital, styles enable individuals and groups to navigate social and political contexts marked by risk, uncertainty, and constraint (Ferguson 1999, 96–101). Such cultivation touches on both outward and inward sensibilities. Style links the aesthetics of outward expression to shared attitudes and connected emotions. “Employing an ensemble of recurring key terms and conventions, style makes people feel at home in, as well as confident with, a particular discourse” (Meyer 2004, 95). For women popular preachers in Malaysia, professional style constitutes both an expressive mode, combining dress, speech, and comportment in ways that resonate with their audiences, and a conscious, reflexive, and affective engagement with, and confidence about, their roles as skillful performers.

Their performances shed light on the relationships between gender, religion, and self-styling in urban, globalizing, and high-capitalist contexts well beyond Malaysia. As Brad Weiss (2009, 22) argues, neoliberalism and the globalization of desire fortify gender identity as a site of social reproduction and, thus, as a site of creative performance and tension. This is evident around the globe and in the context of a widely spread sense of a “crisis of masculinity” in the shaping of new perceptions and performances of manhood. In the informal economy of urban Tanzania, Weiss shows, young men's “stylistic virtuosity” lies at the basis of an “exaggerated masculinity.” Women, in the meantime, are finding “more opportunity in both the informal sector and the formal service sector that attempts to find a more flexible workforce, yet they also find themselves subject to greater scrutiny” (2, 22). In the Ivoirian capital of Abidjan, meanwhile, young men put up elaborate and ritualistic shows of wealth and masculinity—“displays of potential” based on a “mastery of style”—to generate the social and cultural capital required in a context of great precariousness (Newell 2012). In the United States, ideas about Blackness and masculinity centered on hip-hop culture have become a “blueprint for the Muslim self” (Khabeer 2016, 115). According to Khabeer, male Muslim professionals connect a hip-hop-infused aesthetic of “Muslim Cool” to an older tradition of Black dandyism in their pursuit of social recognition and respectability. Both contributing to and in contrast with this literature, my analysis in this article draws attention to the reconfigurations of femininity at play in the search for respectability, social mobility, professional recognition, and religious self-making in contemporary urban societies.

The preachers I came to know assert themselves as neither imitators nor competitors of male counterparts. Their motivation is, rather, to explore and give shape to a femininity attuned both to the conservative values of the Islamic revival and the demands of a publicly visible professional disposition. A such, their performances share features with the figure of the Indonesian “Career Woman” (wanita karir) studied by Carla Jones (2014) and the “Thai Airways Flight Attendant” studied by Jane Ferguson (2014), both embodying desires and mobilities of educated professional women rubbing against religious and nationalist projections of proper femininity. Of course, new stylistic performances of femininity make sense only in relationship with or in contrast to other, more-established femininities. Standing alone, a style has little meaning. “Whatever ‘styles’ are, in language or elsewhere, they are part of a system of distinction, in which a style contrasts with other possible styles, and the social meaning signified by the style contrasts with other social meanings” (Irvine 2001, 22). Through developing a professional style, Malaysian women preachers distinguish themselves, simultaneously, from a rural model of Malay femininity, one that is widely regarded as agentive but also as antithetical to Islamic revivalist ideals of modesty and sobriety, and from a more urban style that is commonly understood as “pious” (soleh) yet (possibly) conflicting with women's educations, ambitions, and professional achievements (see Sloane-White 2017, 123–27). The ethnographic analysis that follows focuses on these processes of distinction.


The first woman preacher to achieve celebrity status in Malaysia was Mashitah Ibrahim. After obtaining a PhD in Islamic law from the University of Cairo, she was appointed as a lecturer at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. A search by the national broadcaster RTM led, in the mid-1990s, to a role as the presenter of Motivasi Pagi (Morning Motivation), a daily radio show. Good ratings led to a follow-up invitation to present a television program, Adikku Sayang (Dear Younger Brother/Sister), and invitations to various Islamic talk shows, including Forum Perdana and Al Kuhliah (The Lecture). “Dr. Mashitah” became a household name among the more devout segment of the Malay Muslim community.

The popularity of celebrity preachers like Mashitah must be viewed in a context of Malay Muslim political identity entwining with, and transformed by, the possibilities and anxieties of an urban middle-class lifestyle. Malaysia is a multiethnic and multireligious country, but Malay Muslims, who form a modest majority of some 60 percent of the population, have been politically dominant since national independence in 1957. During the final decades of the twentieth century, government programs based on affirmative action catapulted the Malays, long equated with the rural underclass, into the educated, urban, and affluent middle class. Women, in particular, benefited from this educational thrust (Andaya and Andaya 2017, 317). In the most recent elections of 2013 and 2018, all of the political parties that appealed to a Malay Muslim electorate claimed to represent the voice of the “urban Muslim professional” (Kloos 2020; Noor 2014). Meanwhile, the combination of wealth, ethnic politics, and outward piety turned Islamic consumption, ranging widely from fashion to banking, into a significant growth market (Fischer 2008). Islamic consumption facilitated, and was facilitated by, consecutive waves in Islamic media production. Religious lifestyle magazines appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by the emergence of Islamic radio and television, including channels fully devoted to Islamic content.4 More recently, social media have become a primary space for religious expression and consumption. All of these forms depend on mediagenic figures of religious authority and the resonance between their performances and middle-class self-making. Popular preachers are exemplars not only because they are pious performers but also because they are seen as accomplished professionals and entrepreneurs.

Mashitah was one of the preachers who, in the mid-1990s, adapted her performances to the rules of entertainment and new media. Key to her success was the combination of academic religious knowledge with what many of my interlocutors called a “modern” or “refreshing” style suited to younger viewers and listeners. When she started, two other women preachers appeared on television regularly. Compared to Ustazah Salbiah Omar, a preacher from Singapore, and Ustazah Rusmiati Harun, Mashitah was young and relatively glamorous. Her sartorial style, colorful and trendy, contrasted with the long and loose-fitting attire and dark colors of her peers (a hallmark of the Islamic revival as a campus phenomenon in the 1980s; see Ong 1990, 296). Her approach, as she explained to me in an interview, was “light” (ringan), engaging, and entertaining. She emphasized that this approach was not a feature of her gender. She was among the frontrunners of a new generation of preachers that included both men and women:

What made me different from most others, except for being a woman, was the fact that I always included a focus on current issues [isu semasa]… . I was not so rigid to make people feel tired [jemu]. Today this is normal but back then I was one of the first… . I also added some humor so we wouldn't have to feel heavy [berat]. Religion is heavy. I had to simplify it for [my audience] so they could receive [the message] with ease.

Her style caught on. The audience of her first show, Morning Motivation, included many people stuck in traffic jams. This was a good time to listen to the radio, but it also imbued her message with extra relevance. One of the qualifications she used to describe her preaching to me was the need to be “pragmatic” in style as well as in content. She tried to connect religious lessons to everyday concerns associated with fast urban living, including small, practical issues, such as the way commuters might perform their morning prayer while driving.

While gender was not a factor in Mashitah's first invitation—RTM had neither asked for, nor objected against, a woman—producers were quick to recognize the attraction of a popular woman scholar. “Typical women's issues,” such as marriage, family, and children, as well as Islamic jurisprudence focused specifically on women and women's bodies (fiqh wanita), proved to be increasingly popular themes (for a comparable case, see McLarney 2015). Ideologically, Mashitah treaded a moderate path. Although she stressed patience and obedience as Islamic feminine values—a core trope in global Islamic revivalist discourse (Frisk 2009; Mahmood 2005; McLarney 2015)—she was “pragmatic” about marriages that “don't work” and explicit about “the many possible reasons” for divorce. Like other preachers, she was frequently asked for personal advice, by men as well as women, who used her opinion to legitimize claims against their spouses. Mashitah's “pragmatic” approach is not, in itself, cause for surprise. Less moderate positions would have made her unsuitable for Malaysia's commercially run but state-controlled media corporations, which did not tolerate religious expressions that might be explained as supporting the (Islamist) opposition or even “political” in a broad sense. Another reason for ideological inclusiveness was to avoid alienating parts of her heterogeneous audience (see also Millie 2017). At the same time, however, her emphasis on pragmatism and on offering “applicable” knowledge set her, and the women who came after her, apart from male popular preachers. Whether in response to personal dilemmas about daily rituals or grave personal problems, the need to be pragmatic resonated with a feeling shared by many women of continuously juggling the responsibilities of work, household, and religion. Women, Mashitah dryly noted, “have lots of issues.”

Mashitah never felt that she was taken less seriously than men, as a scholar or as a preacher. When it came to her performance and style, however, gender turned into a salient category. Members of the male religious establishment criticized her by arguing, in her words, that “an ustazah wore black” and “was not supposed to look beautiful [tak boleh nampak cantik].” Remuneration was another contentious issue. Like most other preachers I spoke to (men or women), Mashitah was vague and ambivalent about the money she made from preaching. She was proud of the fact that she had spearheaded a generation of professional preachers who, in her view, deserved to be “compensated” for costs and invested time. But she also maintained that preaching was a “religious duty” and criticized preachers who charged excessively. The issue with gender was that women are particularly hard-pressed not to ask for money. In Malay culture, she explained, “women are not supposed to speak out and make demands” (orang perempuan susah nak cakap). Requesting remuneration for religious services, Mashitah stated, “is a taboo for women more than it is for men.” (I will return to this and related conceptions of Malay femininity in subsequent sections.) A third factor was mobility. “It is not allowed for Muslim women to travel without a male guardian [muhrim; literally a closely related family member].” This makes it difficult for women preachers to accept many invitations or travel across the country. “Men are more free,” she said. Success, these experiences imply, exposes women to the risk of breaching the conservative norms associated with the Islamic revival. These norms affect preachers more strongly than other women because ordinary believers see them as moral exemplars, worthy of emulation.

The answer to these challenges, Mashitah argued, is a professional approach to preaching. Women preachers, she said, evoking a business language that has become pervasive in the Malaysian Muslim public sphere (including the realm of Islamist politics; see Müller 2014, 152–53), can protect themselves from the detrimental biases against them by “employing helpers” (menggunakan khidmat; literally “using service”), appointing a manager, and setting up an office. Like other performing artists, such as singers, they need a manager to “do the talking” and circumvent the taboo of women asking for money. In the 1990s, this was unusual. Today, all popular preachers have personal assistants and an entourage of sorts. In some cases, the husband travels along and takes care of business matters, thus solving the problem of the missing muhrim. “It is important that we adapt. Islam does not change, but the world does,” Mashitah said. Educated women audiences ask for educated women preachers. For Mashitah, this meant cultivating an urban, attractive, and contemporary personality, and a professional style to match it.

Mashitah's public role shifted when, in 2004, she accepted an invitation by the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to contest a parliamentary seat in her home district of Baling, Kedah. Between 2008–2013, she joined the government as a deputy minister in the prime minister's department. When I interviewed her in 2017, she was the chair of a government body that oversees Islamic schools. Many people I spoke to during my fieldwork remembered her as a learned scholar and a mesmerizing preacher and regretted the fact that she had entered politics. But as she left the scene, other women followed in her footsteps, making good use of the space that she had carved out. How do these women communicate with their audiences? What is their style, and what have they done to create it?


Women preachers pay great care to their appearance, as this is subject to intense scrutiny. The first woman preacher to succeed Mashitah Ibrahim in the Malaysian limelight was Ustazah Nor Bahyah Mahamood. During my fieldwork, I noticed that, among the people who frequented Islamic public spaces and events, a dominant narrative had developed around her rise as a celebrity preacher and TV hostess. A graduate of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, she was universally valued for her knowledge. Yet my interlocutors commented time and time again on the impact of fame on her outward appearance. One of the first people who shared her opinion with me, a young woman selling modest fashion in suburban Bangi, Selangor, said that Nor Bahyah “used to be” an unassuming figure. The advent of fame was coupled with a change of style. Nor Bahyah adopted a more striking appearance. Online and offline, people commented on her fashionable dress, the gradual but noticeable decrease of the area covered by her scarf, the seemingly expensive jewelry she wore, and her conspicuous habit of mixing English terms and phrases into her spoken Malay, the latter being seen as a sign of education but also, potentially, of a mondaine lifestyle.

Judgments varied, though. Fans and admirers called Nor Bahyah “modern” (moden), “elegant” (elegan), “classy” (berkelas), and “delightful” (seronok). Critical observers said that she was “coquettish” (gedik). A more serious allegation invoked the notion of tabaruj (illicit embellishment), an Islamic concept not far removed from sinfulness (McLarney 2015, 103). Another comment I heard frequently was that she “talked too much.” Nor Bahyah acquired national fame with a popular television talk show called Semanis Kurma (As Sweet as a Date, broadcast by TV9) (Figure 3). She presented this show together with her husband, but most people I spoke to about it agreed that it revolved primarily around her. I was often told, by men and women, that they appreciated the show, her speech (gaya ucapan), and the sense of “intimacy” (kemesraan) that she was able to evoke, yet they felt uncomfortable with, or disapproved of, the way she dominated her husband. This is ironic, given the general assumption that the main reason she cohosted the show with her (markedly less-talented) husband was to avoid making an Islamic television program carried solely by a woman.

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Ustazah Nor Bahyah Mahamood and her husband, Ustaz Wan Akashah Wan Abdul Hamid, presenting Semanis Kurma (“As Sweet as a Date”). (Screenshot, David Kloos) [This figure appears in color in the online issue]
All preachers I came to know told me how direct viewers or listeners can be in their judgments. “If I lift an arm,” one said, “revealing a tiny bit of skin beyond the wrist, I will read about it on Facebook on the same day.” Unsurprisingly, this alertness to the potency of mass-mediated images that move into spaces and contexts beyond their control (Spyer and Steedly 2013) puts pressure on women's willingness to appear in public. When I asked Fauzana Ainuddin, the producer of Tanyalah Ustazah (Ask Your Female Religious Teacher, TV9), why this program was aired weekly, in contrast to Tanyalah Ustaz, the “men's” version, which aired daily, she explained that this discrepancy was due neither to the ratings, which were high, nor to the number of available qualified women preachers, which was also high, but rather to the hesitance of these women to appear on television. She cited several reasons, including the bad fit between the flexibility required for TV work and domestic responsibilities and the opposition of husbands. But the main reason, she emphasized, was the reluctance on the part of women to expose themselves to such public scrutiny.

For men, it is easy. They enter the studio, sit down, and start talking. With women, it does not work like that. Before they enter the studio, they need to think: Where am I supposed to sit or stand? Is there a live audience? Where are the women? Where are the men? Where are the cameras? How should I sit? How should I move my body? Am I dressed correctly? How much make-up should I apply? How do I come across both modest and graceful? How do I look beautiful but not tabaruj? How do I use my voice? How do I make sure I sound pleasant but not sexy? These things are different in every studio, in every situation.

“The problem,” she summarized, “is that women are watched in a very different way [than men]. They are more limited (dia memang ada batas dia).”

The underlying issue is that for women speaking to mixed-gender audiences, only a thin line separates “persuasion” from “seduction.” The risk, I was told by several preachers, boils down to the danger of causing fitnah. This concept is notoriously difficult to pin down. The Arabic word is commonly translated as “temptation,” “trial,” or “slander,” but often understood, by extension, as disorder, conflict, or sedition (Gardet 2012). Although the term is not inherently gendered (linguistically or legally), nor limited to sexual or conjugal norms, a Muslim woman's exposed body and voice are often seen as a locus or catalyst of fitnah because of common associations with sexual attraction, male insatiability, and the possibility of adultery, deceitfulness, or betrayal (e.g., Bucar 2016, 72; Nisa 2012, 72; van Nieuwkerk 2013, 68). Importantly, the hesitance on the part of women preachers to tread into the public domain is caused not only by the sense that, more than men, they are watched through a magnifying glass but also by the fact that they might transgress the norms that they preach and impose on themselves. This is connected to a sense, common among Muslims, that the risk of sinning is greatest for those who allow themselves to be seen and treated as (moral) examples for others (Kloos 2018, 155–56).

When I asked Ustazah Norhafizah Musa, one of the most popular women preachers in Malaysia today, how she deals with this problem, she responded, in a way quite similar to Mashitah Ibrahim, by emphasizing the need to develop a “professional attitude” (sikap profesional) toward her work. Norhafizah, who holds degrees in Arabic literature and Islamic education from the University of Yarmouk, Jordan, and today is a lecturer at the Kuala Lumpur campus of the Malaysian Technological University, caters mostly to middle-aged women but is popular among men as well (Figure 4). This is notable as the majority of women preachers draw female audiences. Women preachers, Norhafizah argued, must develop certain skills in order to manage the risk of fitnah. These bear on intonation (lenggok suara), facial expression (mimik muka), and a way of preaching she described as sederhana (“modest” or “humble”). “We often preach for women only,” she said. In such cases it is easy, she explained: “We can sing and make jokes. We can chant [berzikir, i.e., in praise of God]. We can be animated. And we can talk about sensitive issues.” If there are men in the audience, however, which is by definition the case in mass-mediated performances, women “need to be more careful.” They need to be contained, more conscious in terms of the place they occupy on a stage, of the bodily positions they assume, of eye contact, of the way they play the audience. They must be “composed and gentle” in appearance and behavior (penampilan diri dan perilaku yang terjaga). But this, Norhafizah stressed, is not necessarily something to shy away from. Rather, such consciousness is part and parcel of one's professionalism. Managing male or mixed-gender audiences is tricky, she stressed. But it is not an insuperable problem. It is a skill. It can be learned.

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Ustazah Norhafizah Musa preparing for a recording of Tanyalah Ustazah (“Ask your Islamic Teacher,” TV9). (David Kloos) [This figure appears in color in the online issue]
The process through which Norhafizah acquired these skills took place in professional settings. This was revealed to me, for instance, during a visit to the studio of IKIM.fm, the radio station of the state-funded Malaysian Institute of Islamic Understanding (Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia, IKIM). IKIM.fm is the most popular Islamic radio station in Malaysia. One of its shows, Tarbiyah (“Education” or “Development”), is a collaboration between Norhafizah and one of the station's DJs, Nurhayati Paradi. I should note that Norhafizah, as I had learned from conversations with a range of interlocutors, from proclaimed fans to Uber drivers, was especially famous because of her unique voice. This voice was not simply congenital. It was the product of a prolonged collaboration. The first time she was on air, Nurhayati explained to me, Norhafizah was “very soft-spoken” (suara kecil halus). This was not good, “not for a woman.”

Women, in my understanding, have a natural tendency of being soft[-spoken]. But if we speak in front of a large audience, it is necessary to strike a balance between softness and firmness [kita kena ada kelembutan tapi dalam tegas]. For a voice to have character it needs to be firm.

Norhafizah's soft-spokenness was a quality. It made her attractive to listen to and gave her, in Nurhayati's words, a “persuasive power” (daya pemujukan). Mediated by radio waves, however, and in the context of the already intimate character of the show, in which Norhafizah shared personal experiences to advise her listeners on difficult everyday issues and dilemmas, it carried the risk of becoming “seductive” (dia nampak macam menggoda). It took them a long time to develop a more appropriate voice that was “soft but firm” (lembut tapi tegas). This was a matter of tone and pitch rather than volume. Norhafizah's speech had to become less enticing, less congruent with the aesthetic ideals of Malay femininity that revolve around a sense of delicacy (kehalusan). Norhafizah's radio voice, in other words, was crafted. It was a product of close collaboration between Norhafizah and IKIM.fm's media professionals, particularly Nurhayati, with whom she had shared the studio countless times. Norhafizah brought unique attributes to the studio, but before she could be fully effective and acceptable, she had to adapt and professionalize her speech and preaching style.

Women preachers are less eye-catching than male preachers because the normative emphasis on constraint and bodily composure leaves them with fewer opportunities to entertain. This, however, is not where the analysis should stop. The example of Norhafizah shows that a conscious engagement with exposure and permissibility, in consultation with other experts in mediation, requires them to develop a professional attitude and style. In this effort, moral constraint and professional detachment feed off and into each other, legitimizing their public appearances and voices and increasing their assertiveness in claiming a stake in the public sphere. It gives them, as Norhafizah indicated, a feeling of control over the situation. The professional comportment that undergirds this feeling of control is not directed against Islamic traditions, as supposedly or inherently precluding a woman's public engagement, but folded carefully into these traditions. The stress placed by women preachers on “softness” being part and parcel of their professional style, in particular, resonates with their audiences because of the obvious ways it dovetails with the enduring understandings of religiously infused moral comportment, typically glossed as adab, in Southeast Asian societies (Rozehnal 2019).

At the same time, the interactions between these preachers and their audiences are deeply permeated with notions of gendered performance. As James Hoesterey (2015, 35–37) and Martin Slama (2017a) have shown in their work on affective encounters in Indonesian Islam, television and social media enable their own specific spaces of intimacy in which male preachers provide women audiences with personal, or seemingly personal, and meaningful guidance. Further expanding the Muslim public sphere, the preachers central to this article create settings of women's camaraderie, both separate from and within broader mixed-gender broadcasts or media outfits. Thus, Nik Salida's show Al-Maraaya, while there for everyone to watch, is described as a show “by women, for women” (dari wanita untuk wanita) (Figure 2). Subtler still is the recording I opened the article with. Nik Salida's anecdote about the London bakery implies that the sweetness of faith—visible but contained, like macaroons in a glass case—is somehow more accessible to women than it is to men. Her jibe to the male moderator, buttressed by the reference to al-Ghazali, that he may comprehend the power of the Islamic concept of faith on a cognitive level but not the deeply embodied level on which women may experience it during maternity confinement, underscores this point. It is this combination of measured entertainment, bodily composure, and confidence—all features of what I have termed “professional style”—that allows women preachers to build rapport with their women listeners and to turn conservative norms about women's appearances and the need to practice restraint, at least in some contexts and situations, into a source of authority. The next section develops this idea further by linking it to the ways preachers import into their performances forms of comportment and status that have long been associated with nonreligious professions.


Women celebrity preachers (ustazah seleb) constitute a new “figure” of Malaysian modernity (Barker, Harms, and Lindquist 2014). The archetypal ustazah teaches religious knowledge and skills to children in primary or junior high school and advises women in her locality on religious matters. Her media are the informal Islamic study circle (usrah) and the (semi-public) lecture (kuliah). As a moral example, she is expected to communicate Islamic norms through language but also through outward style. These norms are historically contingent. As Patricia Sloane-White (2017, 113–21) has shown, the image of the rural Malay woman who subverts patriarchal norms through strategies like bantering and ridiculing men has given way in recent decades to a competing image of the pious urban woman who submits, willfully or otherwise, to the conservative norms associated with the Islamic revival. Women preachers are among the main exemplars of this pious persona. They propagate Islamic feminine values such as patience, care, and restraint (see also Frisk 2009) and instruct women to be “gentle” (halus) and reserved instead of “crude” (kasar) or exalted. Mass media and celebrity culture play a paradoxical role in this, however, escalating tropes of modesty, exposure, and fitnah while providing preachers with unprecedented options to assert themselves as part of the public sphere.

The desire to cultivate a professional persona is reinforced by the tendency, found especially among the urban middle class, to see the figure of the ustaz/ah as backward and out of touch with developments in science, technology, and the modern economy. Popular preachers need to respond to the “scientization of the social,” the growing impact of scientific knowledge on a variety of social and institutional contexts (Raphael 1996), including contexts pertaining to religion (see, e.g., Müller 2018). This is one of the main reasons why university programs like “Islamic psychology,” a field in which Norhafizah Musa obtained her PhD, are so popular. Like many other preachers, Norhafizah successfully embraces the language and imagery of a globalizing “Islamic pop psychology” (Hoesterey 2012), a form of professional knowledge that promises religious solutions for problems like stress, time management, and the search for spirituality and inner calm in an urban and media-saturated world. She performs in mosques and other traditional religious spaces, but more frequently in settings with a distinctly professional aura, such as offices, treatment rooms, lecture theatres, auditoriums, and television studios.

Mass media further strengthen the merging of religious authority with the prestige of quintessentially professional images, symbols, and spaces. An example will serve to illustrate this point. On a Saturday morning in March 2017, television producers Abdullah Abdul Hamid and Zarina Jan Fazlay Rahman set up their lights and cameras in a mosque in a peri-urban community in Selangor to record the pilot of a new show, titled Apabila Ustazah Merawat (When Your Islamic Teacher Treats You). The show visualized a set of practices familiar to many Malay Muslims, namely the religious lessons and personal guidance of religious teachers. Its innovation lay in the combination of a reality TV format, the inspiration taken from so-called Islamic treatment centers (pusat rawatan Islam), and the exclusive focus on women. Its concept revolved around a visit to a local community of Ustazah Norhafizah Musa and Ustazah Isfadiah Dasuki, enabling women from that community to meet and consult with celebrity preachers they knew only from television. The setting was part lecture series and part treatment center, modeled after the practice of Darussyifa’, a trendsetting Islamic healing clinic.5

Norhafizah started in a small auditorium, part of the mosque complex, recording a question-and-answer session with local participants (Figure 5). Isfadiah, meanwhile, was installed in a separate, custom-made consultation room, where she received the women, one by one, for a private consult (Figure 6). After an hour, the preachers swapped places for a second round of recordings. Aesthetically, the show turned the preachers into medical doctors. Women entered the consultation room, introduced themselves to the ustazah-doctor, and explained the problems they wished to discuss. These problems ranged widely, from parenting issues (toddlers with tantrums, teenagers with behavioral problems) to mental disturbance and possession (gangguan). The ustazah-doctor listened carefully, recorded the symptoms, asked some questions, and subsequently proposed a treatment. The latter consisted in most cases of sets of prayers (doa) selected with the specific problem in mind. Grave cases, like the women suffering from possession, led to an invitation to the preacher's office for a longer session or a reference to a specialist healer.

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A Q&A session with Ustazah Norhafizah Musa. (David Kloos) [This figure appears in color in the online issue]
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A consult with Ustazah Isfadiah Dasuki. (David Kloos) [This figure appears in color in the online issue]

The format of Apabila Ustazah Merawat was successful, at least in the sense that it seemed to resonate with the participants. Norhafizah and Isfadiah found it an interesting experiment as well. The challenge, Isfadiah said, was that there was very little time to select the appropriate prayers properly grounded in scriptural evidence (dalil). But this, she explained, was a matter of skill. As a young but already much requested “freelance preacher” (pendakwah bebas), she should know how to assess problems quickly and have practical solutions at hand. Skill was also the main subject of evaluation after the recording of the pilot. Zarina, the producer, told the preachers how impressed she was with their ability to “touch the hearts” (menyetuh hati) of the participants. Some women had burst into tears. Such visible emotional responses would be “very good for the ratings.” She also offered feedback, however, particularly to Isfadiah, the younger and less experienced of the two preachers. Her voice could be less shrill (nyaring). As a former TV presenter, Zarina knew some good voice coaches that Isfadiah might wish to consider.

Apabila Ustazah Merawat drew on the popularity, and productive blending, of religious guidance, Quranic healing, self-help discourse, and globalized psycho-social therapeutic techniques (see Hoesterey 2015; Jamil 2016; Müller 2018; Suhr 2019; Vinea 2018). At the same time, it reflected the affordances of a professional style. Although the ustazah was and is an exemplar of “piety” (kesolehan), more-expanded roles are ascribed to her through such media formats. The view that the distinction between religious and secular knowledge is a false one and that religious and nonreligious knowledge must be integrated, not developed in different disciplines, has been a core theme in Islamic reformist and revivalist thought since the early twentieth century. What has changed, in Malaysia and elsewhere, is the progressive entry of Muslim women into the professions and public mediatized spheres (see also Kloos 2019). Women preachers, from Mashitah Ibrahim to Isfadiah Dasuki, are professionals who appeal both to urban, educated women and to ordinary villagers without much education. Innovative formats combined with high production values, or what a producer of Islamic content in Egypt calls “media professionalism” (Moll 2018, 239), help legitimize their claim to the stage.


The global Islamic revival has produced a tension between a growing demand for female Islamic authority and conservative ideas pertaining to women's exposure and voice. In Malaysia, a new generation of women preachers navigates this tension by cultivating a professional style. Like women in revivalist contexts elsewhere, they uphold relatively conservative interpretations of Islamic values and scriptural norms with regard to the roles and rights of women. By approaching their work as a set of professional skills and dispositions, they confront, creatively and productively, the mixed and emphatically gendered expectations of public performance and pious exemplarity. This is revealed through their views and opinions, the spaces in which they work, the language they use, and the ways they combine religious and nonreligious expertise and associated modes of exercising authority. The expansion of the Muslim public sphere produces opportunities for these preachers as much as it produces constraints, and there are ample reasons to expect similar processes elsewhere.

The professionalization of preaching and preaching styles takes place in contexts of mass mediatization. Innovations in media technology enable the transformation of established figures of authority. In Mali, local female preachers use radio to draw larger audiences. They are met with anxious responses on the part of male religious scholars who worry about sensuous women voices being dangerously disconnected from the bodies to which they belong (Schulz 2012). Such hostility bears similarity to the treatment of other women performers, including pop-singers-turned-preachers, in places where concerns about public morality have been pushed to the forefront of public and political discourse (see, e.g., van Nieuwkerk 2013). I have focused, likewise, on the contested transformation of the woman preacher, but have added to this, in line with Eickelman and Anderson (2003), the impact of mass education and the social prestige associated with (urban) professionalism. I was often told how difficult it is for Malay women to “move to the front” and “raise their voice.” This is a feature of the Islamic revival, in which especially upwardly mobile people have come to identify with conservative ideas about male authority in ways that previous generations did not (Ong 1990). Present-day Malay society, it is widely believed, discourages women to speak in public. As a result, women who become leaders, in politics or business, are often judged as conspicuously, if not suspiciously, “assertive, “confident,” or “brave.” The cultivation of professional style, I have shown, turns “confident” and “brave” into positive rather than negative qualities. These qualities are part and parcel of a new and increasingly salient understanding of Malay Muslim femininity.

Professional style allows women preachers to obviate risks related to exposure, morality, and permissibility in an increasingly feminized and mediatized public religious domain. Nik Salida's comparison between the faith of women and an inviting case of macaroons, beautiful and there for all to see but also vulnerable and restricted, is in this regard a powerful metaphor. This conclusion leads me to a final, more reflective point about the relevance of what is sometimes called the “third space” of work and professional culture, as “neither fully ‘public’ nor in any way ‘private’” (Sloane-White 2017, 17) for the anthropology of religion and media. Most performances of popular preachers take place in public. The concerns they address, such as the responsibilities of a woman toward her family and to God, are often private. I was struck, however, by the extent to which women audiences, in their assessment of these preachers, are driven by the tensions and dilemmas implicated in the combined expectations of moral and professional achievement (see also Hefner 2016). This is likely a crucial factor in other Muslim contexts as well, especially in Asia, where women are gradually becoming more highly educated than men. A focus on professional style bridges the divide between the proliferation of scholarly work on religion and entertainment, drawing from and contributing to the study of popular culture and media, and the emphasis on embodied practices and lived religion in the study of religious ethics.

The cultivation of professional style emphasizes modesty and restraint as a sign of distinction and therefore illuminates the productive and emphatically gendered tensions between moral and professional achievements that are reshaping Muslim public spheres around the world. As I have shown, professional style and comportment allow women preachers to assert themselves in the public sphere as they navigate, and in many cases advocate, conservative Islamic norms. At the same time, and reversely, modesty framed as religion has the ability to alleviate tensions experienced by women as they enter professional spaces that have long been dominated by men. As Mahmood (2005) argues, considerable agency is found in modesty as a bodily performance. A similar mechanism emerges from modesty in professionalism. In contemporary Islamic societies, educated and observant women assert their public presence and protect themselves against excessive moral scrutiny by carefully combining these various expressions of modesty and by measuring one against the other.


I am deeply grateful to my interlocutors in Malaysia for sharing their thoughts and experiences with me. Particular gratitude goes to Nik Salida Suhaila Nik Saleh, Dato’ Mashitah Ibrahim, Datuk Norhafizah Musa, and Isfadiah Mohd Dasuki for being so generous with their time. The research on which the article is based was supported by the Dutch Research Council through its Innovational Research Incentives Scheme. The Institute of Ethnic Studies of the National University of Malaysia generously provided an affiliated fellowship in 2016–2017. I thank the director, Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, and the deputy director, Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid, for hosting and advising me. My research assistants during this period, Noorafifah Salihah Mohd Noor and Khairul Ashdiq bin Basri, were invaluable. Nurulnabillah Ahmad Hijazu generously assisted in the process of securing permissions for the images. Earlier versions of the article were presented at the annual conference of the Leiden University Centre for the Study of Islam and Society (2017), the annual conference of the Association of Asian Studies (Washington, DC, 2018), the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (San Jose, 2018), the Forum for Asian Studies at Stockholm University (2018), and the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (2018). I thank the conveners of these events and the audiences for the inspiring discussions and comments. Dominik Müller, Alana Osbourne, Annemarie Samuels, American Anthropologist’s anonymous reviewers, and the journal's editor, Deborah Thomas, helped me improve the manuscript by providing many instructive and thoughtful comments. Finally, I thank Sean Mallin for his careful copyediting of the manuscript.

  1. 1 Translation by the author.
  2. 2 In May 2018, the opposition defeated the increasingly authoritarian ruling coalition, led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), for the first time since independence in 1957. While this meant a political rupture in many ways, the collapse of the new government in February 2020 and the subsequent return to power of UMNO served a huge blow to the promise of democratizing the country in terms of improving the electoral system and the strengthening of the freedom of the press and the judiciary.
  3. 3 By this I do not mean to say that Islamic revivalist discourses are uncontested. The globally renowned Malaysian Islamic feminist organization Sisters in Islam is deeply critical (Basarudin 2016). Outside the legal and political frame, women resist revivalist trends as they decide not to veil or, more provocatively, to unveil (Izharuddin 2018).
  4. 4 The most important of these were IKIM.fm in 2001, Astro Oasis in 2007, and TV Al-Hijrah in 2010.
  5. 5 See http://www.darussyifa.org. Darussyifa’ was established in 1988 by the late Haron Din. The original clinic and headquarters are located in Bangi, an affluent suburb just south of Kuala Lumpur. Today, the organization has branches in other parts of the country and even abroad. Focusing on Brunei, Dominik Müller (2018) provides the best analysis of Darussyifa’ practices.