Hyenas in Petticoats

In 1998, Times Books International published the groundbreaking collection of Singaporean women’s writing More Than Half the Sky, edited by Leong Liew Geok. 16 years later, in the mid-teens of a new century, comes a new anthology of women’s writing from Singapore, Body Boundaries, edited by Tania De Rozario, Zarina Muhammad and Krishna Udayasankar. The earlier volume collects the writings of 30 women and features the genres of poetry, fiction and drama. The new anthology gathers together the work of 27 women writing in the genres of poetry, fiction and essay. Only one writer appears in both volumes, Ovidia Yu, a well-known playwright, who was represented by a play in More Than Half the Sky, but is now represented by a short story in Body Boundaries.

It is interesting to note too that, whereas the earlier anthology had one editor, the new collection has three. The latter phenomenon reflects the origins of the anthologizing work. Body Boundaries is put out by EtiquetteSG, “a multidisciplinary platform dedicated to developing and showcasing art, writing, film and music created by women in Singapore,” according to the publisher blurb. The book is projected to be the first in a series of books. It is tempting to see in the change of editorship a passing from the Heroic Age of Singaporean women’s literature to the Collectivist Age, but such generalizations are best examined in some larger discursive space. It suffices now to hear from the voices recorded in this new venture. The first, of five, to be reprinted in Singapore Poetry strikes a key note for the anthology. An essay by one of the editors, it turns the hyena’s laugh into a challenge.

Long extract from “Hyenas in Petticoats: Notes on Disobedience”
by Zarina Muhammad

hy e na /hī-ē’nə/
noun a doglike carnivore of the family Hyaenidae, of Africa

pet ti coat /pět’ē-kōt’/
noun a woman’s slip or underskirt that is often full and trimmed with ruffles or lace. Originally a padded coat worn by men under armour.

“To laugh like a hyena” quite simply refers to raising a fine ruckus. Whether out of sheer mirth and merriment or perhaps just good diaphragmatic muscles, laughing like a hyena does not rank high in the court of public esteem and manners. The relationship between laughter and the assignment of attitudes to its various sonic gradations does arguably establish certain social mores and conventions of etiquette. While etiquette itself can largely be seen as being culturally contingent and historically specific, categorising laughter reflect the connection between the amplification and/or performance of sound with certain codes of behaviour.

What do the following words semiotically conjure? Can we situate markers of identity or culturally-bound personifications against each of the words below?

Giggle, chuckle, chortle, cackle, snicker, snigger, snort, titter, guffaw, bray, shriek, howl

How many of these words are bound by gendered implications and associations? Can laughter, like gendered identity be seen as performative? Imagined or assumed to be characteristic of femininity or masculinity or having a connotative relation to age or perhaps even class or sexuality, laughter, particularly the unrestrained variety, addresses the issue of social implications of behaviour and the boundaries it creates like concentric circles around courtesy. Polite normative behaviour isn’t just about dressing for the occasion and packaging the presentation, it is also framed by how we speak, what we speak, when we speak and of course by the spontaneity or regulation in which we do so. The question as to whether there are certain qualities that belong exclusively to mainly women or mainly men have long been battled, revealing with each instance of its questioning, the constructed gendered attitudes and preconceived notions that permeate the mindset, imagination and language of any society or community. With this in view, the theatrical underpinnings associated with obeying the (hetero)normative laws of gender consequently operates as the hegemonic construct that conditions and validates daily experience. Griselda Pollock in examining feminist interventions in art’s histories observes that female representation in modernist paintings has predominantly preoccupied itself with “female bodily presence and vocal absence”. This view is not that dissimilar to John Berger’s oft-quoted “men act and women appear”. Art relies heavily on the epistemological as well as performative function of naming. Like language, whether written, spoken or visual, art can never be wholly neutral or disengaged from the site it emerges from. The contention in art historical discourses to eradicate the term ‘woman artist’ is indicative of the way naming plays such a significant role in the conditioning and the dramatisation of the world as we know and experience it. The compulsive desire to simultaneously denounce and defend the label (and voice) of ‘woman artist’ has been a recurring preoccupation in contemporary debates and one which appears to be in constant need of validation and reification. While the need to claim women’s place, role and responsibility in the contemporary art world remains a pertinent issue, the careless assumption that an artist who is female creates work that is feminised, diminutive, muted and reflective of other stereotypical assumptions of her sex must be continually challenged. As Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook remarks, “Like most Asian women I have been raised according to culture, beliefs and paths of the path, until one day I found the truth as we know it changes, and the choice arrives.”

To return to the hyena. Enduring a nasty reputation for more than 100 centuries, the hyena has been castigated essentially for its raucous vocalisation, and also for the slouching unattractiveness of its appearance, its assumed repulsive villainous character as well as its sexual ambiguity. Ernest Hemingway described the animal as being “hermaphroditic self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off of your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp-follower, stinking, fowl, with jaws that crack the bones that the lion leaves, belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain, looking back, mongrel dog-smart in the face.” Audible even over five kilometres away, the undulating cries a hyena makes is probably its most distinctive feature. One of the earliest accounts of hyenas, written by Aristotle describes the hyena’s ‘laugh’ as “a noise that resembles the retching noise of a man vomiting.” Interestingly, a notable number of early accounts of this animal focused, with much scorn, on what was then believed to be the animal’s hermaphroditism which was seen to reflect a transgression of the natural order. Humans’ imposing of their own laws of normativity was handed down to these animals who were viewed as aberrant and troubling. Although it was later discovered that little sexual dimorphism exist between male and females, the perpetuation of the animal’s abject reputation persisted. Forming matriarchal communities, the hyena had also been imagined as a product of a sort of ‘masculination’ of female behaviour. The epithet “Hyena in Petticoats” uttered in scorn by a critic of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, was without a doubt, undisguised in its sentiments of loathing towards the ‘abject femininity’ she embodied. Outspoken, forward- thinking and unconventional in her disobedience of social norms at the time, Wollstonecraft argued that women’s restricted social, economic, political circumstances were due significantly to culture and not their nature. In order for women to transcend what she deemed to be a state of artificiality and inertia, they must be permitted access to education and a reevaluation of what was defined and perpetuated as appropriate ‘feminine manners’. Her call for a reevaluation of what counts as being gendered etiquette and the impositions it poses still resonates till today. In asking “What does a woman today need to know?”, I shall conclude with the thoughts of two women, Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, who in refusing to comply with the status quo in their own respective ways, have given the language we use to define gender and identity more texture and tonality.

“Doesn’t she need a knowledge of her own history, of her much-politicised female body, of the creative genius of women of the past – the skills and crafts and techniques and visions possessed by women in other times and cultures, and how they have been rendered anonymous, censored, interrupted, devalued?” – Adrienne Rich

“The transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger … In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear – fear of contempt of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation.” – Audre Lorde


Reprinted with the permission of the author, this essay appears in Body Boundaries: The EtiquetteSG Anthologies Volume 1, edited by Tania De Rozario, Zarina Muhammad and Krishna Udayasankar, published by The Literary Centre, Singapore (2014). On-line sale at Ethos Books.

body boundaries_cover

Zarina Muhammad is a curator, writer and educator whose work and research have been largely defined by innumerable ‘Hyenas in Petticoats’ in text and history. She is the co-founder and co-curator of EtiquetteSG, a biennial multidisciplinary showcase of art, writing and film. Her other curatorial/ creative projects include collaborations with human rights group MARUAH, Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES), Sayoni and SchoolAsia.org. Currently, Zarina is working on a multidisciplinary research project on Southeast Asian rituals, myth, folk religion and magic.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.


  1. datta2014

    Dear Jee Leong Koh,
    A very fine, analytically carved article,emphasizing the linguistic notations of word value and your interpretations of the title is stupendous, Looking forward to hear more from you.
    with regards


  2. I’m glad that you found the essay interesting. It is written by Zarina Muhammad.


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