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  • Victorious Wives: The Disguised Heroine in 19th-Century Malay Syair
  • Lies Suryadi
Victorious Wives: The Disguised Heroine in 19th-Century Malay Syair. By Mulaika Hijjas, Singapore: NUS Press; Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of Royal Asiatic Society, 2011, xi + 324 pp., appendices, notes, index. ISBN 978-9971-69-526-2 and 978-967-9948-49-3 (MBRAS Monograph 44).

Victorious Wives is a scrupulous book that investigates a genre of 19th-century Malay poetry which is referred to by its author as 'romantic syair'. Mulaika Hijjas, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow from SOAS at the University of London, has identified dozens of texts belonging to this type of traditional Malay literary [End Page 117] genre that usually features 'a female protagonist who puts on masculine disguise in order to rescue a male relative, most commonly her husband' (p. 2). Influenced by the theoretical perspectives of literary criticism and gender studies, which have rarely been applied to the Malay classical literary texts, Hijjas 'aims to explicate these syair as complex literary texts, affording a glimpse into the fictive world of the culture that produced them' to provide 'the opportunity to explore the "imaginary" of the women's world of the 19th century Malay courts' (p. 11). The historical and social contexts of these literary texts originate with Buginese-Malay aristocratic families of Penyengat Island of Riau Archipelago in the 19th century. The island has long been associated with Raja Ali Haji, a prominent classical Malay literati. His works and those of his relatives have been studied by regional and international scholars since the 19th century.

As with classical Malay literary texts in general, the texts of Malay romantic syair belong to the manuscript tradition written in Jawi script. The narratives and literary characters of the manuscripts are strongly influenced by Islamic elements. Hijjas' bibliographical investigation has succeeded in identifying seven aristocratic female authors and copyists from Penyengat Island alone, as well as others from the rest of the Malay world (Appendix I, pp. 81-2). All of the female authors from Penyengat were related to Raja Ali Haji: Raja Salihah bt Raja Haji Ahmad, the author of Syair Sultan Abdul Muluk; Daeng Wuh, the author of Syair Sultan Yahya; Raja Kalsum bt Raja Ali Haji, the author of Syair Kumbang Mengindera; Engku Bilik bt Raja Abdullah, the author of Syair Siti Zubaidah, Syair Yatim Nestapa and Syair Muhibbat al-Zaman; Encik Seni, the author of Syair Mahdi; and Encik Wuk bt Tuan Bilal Abu, the author of Syair Sultan Mansur. These texts were written or copied some time between the 1850s and 1870s.

The book, apart from the introduction and conclusion, is divided into five chapters. The six core texts are Syair Sultan Yahya (also known as Syair Saudagar Budiman), Syair Siti Zahrah (also known as Syair Sultan Syarif or Syair Ardhan), Syair Sultan Abdul Muluk, Syair Siti Zubaidah (also known as Syair Kembayat), Syair Saudagar Bodoh and Syair Siti Dhawiyyah (also known as Syair Haris Fadhilah).

In the Introduction, Hijjas describes the historical contexts of romantic syair in traditional Malay literature and scholarly concerns that have been noted about them. She recounts the socio-political contexts of Penyengat Island and the life of its women nobility in the 19th century. The author also describes her own theoretical viewpoints and mentions that feminist literary analysis is an integral part to her investigation of the romantic syair. She states that 'the aim of this book is not to read outwards from the texts to historical or social contexts, but inwards from the contexts into the syair themselves' (p. 12).

Chapter 1 focuses on the extrinsic elements of the Malay romantic syair. Hijjas provides documentary evidence of Malay women's involvement in literature in the 19th century. Chapter 2 is a prelude to the thematic reading that forms the second part of the book, i.e. chapters 3-5. It discusses the association between romance literature and its appeal to women by suspending rationality. The Malay romantic syair of the 19th century, a form of popular romance genre that shares certain features, 'are associated with aristocratic women, who are said to consume the texts compulsively, deriving from them a pleasure always close...


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