‘Pondan under the Pondok’ is a photography series based on my anthropological field research trying to understand queerness in the Muslim society of Thailand’s Deep South, where LGBT issues are a very sensitive topic to discuss and gay people often cannot reveal their sexual identity. This series is mainly about the self and representation of being queer amidst Islamic fundamentalism. The photographs were taken during Samak’s field research in 2017.
As he grew up and studied in an Islamic school (pondok), Samak was often bullied as a ‘pondan’ (in Melayu) or ‘kratoey’ (in Thai), which are more or less derogatory terms for gay or transsexual people. Samak had a close friend called Walad who suffered the same everyday abuse but was much braver in expressing his gay identity, sometimes cross-dressing when we went to bars. Yet his parents were very devout Muslims, and as long as Walad obeyed them in certain things he was free to be who he wanted. He prayed five times a day, he wore Arabic dress to the mosque, and then he changed into his going-out clothes with high-heeled boots and a leopard-print miniskirt.
People at school were forever telling them that because of their aberrations God would never accept their prayers. But they also came to their rooms for sex at night. This gave him the idea for a Muslim Prayer Book that took gay Muslims as the model for learning how to pray for other people to respect us as equals and leave the judging to God.
This also formed the basis for his field research in the Deep South Thailand in early 2017 to develop my Ph.D. proposal on homosexuality in Islam. To do that, he taught myself photography, making a first series that tried to understand young gay students, gradually winning their trust so they would allow me to capture their real selves.
Samak’s photography also focuses on the practice of many male Muslim students of “len pheuan”, a term signifying same-sex sexual activities among their peers that they do not perceive as gay. In this way they create a sense of “brotherhood” without ostensibly violating religious precepts. Young Muslim men in his view interpret religious practices on bodily principles to make them feel less guilty about their sexual desire. The photos reflect this ambiguous definition of male same-sex relationships in the paradigm of Islamic schooling.
This constructed “bromance” highlights the fluidity of sexuality and its diverse dynamics. This photograph employ a reflexive ethnographic approach, drawing on his own experience from when he was twelve years old to approach sensitive questions of Muslim homosexuality through the experiences of rebellion, atonement, hidden desire and losing the self in religious discourse and textual interpretation focused on concepts of the body and sexuality in the Qur’an and Islamic morality. The photos, therefore, aim to understand socio-cultural and sexual relations by opening a space for gay Muslim voices that have long been hidden and blanked out by Islamic fundamentalism in Thailand.
FOREWARD: Marginally-alienated other
The notion of “Nation, Religion, and Monarchy” as Siam’s national ideology was imported and localized by elites under absolute monarchy rule in the aftermath of successful internal-colonizing. Such colonization dismantled the statehood of Patani, and left it as another province in the southern part of Siam. Not only does the word “Nation” equals to “Bangkok” more than the whole country in the mind of Siamese elites, “Religion” also ties with only Buddhism as well. This same interpretation of state and religion carried over the revolution of 1932, and practiced by the post-revolution governments as well.
Hence, being a Malay-Muslim in the deep south of the country where power and resources are centralized in Bangkok may have left them with senses of marginality in geography, culture, religion, or access to public services. Being a homosexual Malay-Muslim, however, is even more marginal, given that homosexuality is sinful in Islam. They were then excluded or marginalized within their marginal society. Could there be a place where Malay-Muslim homosexual stands proudly without suppression of their own identities, without being excluded from the society, without being viewed as “sinful”, and with full recognition in the society? Or would that place be “Neverland” ?
Religions created norms and utopias from the mindset of people of thousands of years ago. Those idealistic societies are specific in area, audience, and time. Practitioners found themselves struggling to meet norms or avoid restrictions of their own religions, as those are created to restrain humanity from their natural needs and habits based on patriarchal heterosexism. As thousands of years have passed, time has proved that there is no possible way to create a pure religious utopia, even with the use of force.
Teachings of religions often make homosexuality sinful, in which it connects the act of homosexuality to the fall of religion or the civilization, such as Sodom and Gomorrah in both The Quran and Bible. Practitioners of religions in modern days, on the other hand, are interpreting those teachings differently as ways to gain acceptance and toleration of their genders and sexualities in their communities.
Even in 2017, hundreds of suspected gay and bisexual men in Chechen, Russia were arrested and put in to concentration camp, where they were tortured in many different ways, some were dead, some survived and were released. The survivors cannot live in their societies, as they were despised by their neighbor, their Mullah loathed them for being gay and were restricted from entering their mosque.
Gay men in Aceh, Indonesia were subject to legal whip-beaten as Sharia, Islamic law, entered in to force. Under such law, homosexual couple may be sentenced with 100 lashes of whip, jailed for 100 months, and fined 1 kilogram of gold. Many couple were arrested within their own home, proofing that there are “Muslim police” surveillance all personal activities and report to the authority. These couples were put to public-shaming with lashes of whips, many resound cheers of gratification, some push for harder punishment. Such barbaric acts put upon homosexual are normalized in heteronormative society.
Now back to Muslim society in the southern part of Bangkok-centric Thailand.
The resistance of Bangkok-Buddhist domination in the area generate sense of strong identity of religion and ethnic, in which they are the weak and marginalized in politics. Muslim in the Deep South then create a more strict sets of norms and practices to purify and revolutionize Islam as local culture. Sense of localness of Islam, however, does not necessary means Malay culture, but the culture of Muslim that is pure, without tarnishment of Buddhist-capitalist-consumerist-globalized-western oriented Bangkok. This is similar to Occidentalism in Iranian Revolution 1979, where westernization equals to westoxication, condemning the Christian culture of Whitemen for degrading Islam and trying to divert Muslim from Islam.
Since the 1970s, Muslim in the Deep South has been practicing Islamism, the practice of using teachings from the Quran in their daily lives, more faith-oriented, and has become judgmental of what is right or wrong in doing normal activities, all in the name of Islam. The intensiveness of religious austerity then become an index dividing to goods and the bads Muslims. Religions are product of patriarchial heteroseism structure, hence women and queer are subject to men’s assertion of power. Likewise, to strengthen Islam identity, hardline practices were imposed upon women, as well as the abolishment of homosexuality from the community. Hijab is among many examples. It is a product of patriarchial religion and a symbol of women’s rights violation. However, to the extent of combating with non-Muslim, hijab become a symbol of protest in call for rights to practice their religion from the Buddhist-Bangkok centered Thai authority’s suppression and discrimination. This discrimination can be seen in sequence of action, for example in 1984, Muslimah, a Muslim women working in a university, was fired from her position for covering her head with Hijab. Another time in 1986, Thai authority made clear that hijab is not complying official regulations. In 1987, Yala Teacher’s College ordered students with hijab to leave college and that they will be given no education – this later led to the protest of such students in 1988.
The women or queer rights movements can easily be perceived as an act of atheists who abandoned their own religion, and often lead to witch-hunting of supporters or activists who favor the LGBT and women’s rights. Many Muslim-male academics in the deep south are often less supportive of these movements, even though they were academically influenced by progressive Muslim feminism in Egypt that compliments both Islam teaching and the development of women’s status. They often criticized and degrade these movements in the status of being academics, in which they falsely or unprofessionally use their profession to condemn the movements. For instance, science academics scientifically explain how LGBT are ruining the community. Non-violent and feminist Muslim academics, on the other hand, violently quite when exposed to violence the LGBT and women’s movements faced.
The term Pondan and Pengkid, or gay and lesbian, are referred to homosexuality, in which it links to westoxication. Westoxication is viewed as inevitably linked to Americanization, as the LGBT movements stemmed from there since Stonewall Riots in New York, 1969. LGBT’s movements history, popular culture, entertainments, looks, gay idols, television shows, rainbow flag, or anthem started and developed from the time since the riot, in which it was marked as the great revolution in LGBT history. LGBT movements then perceived by some Muslim as a form of American-imperialist soft power that interfering the good and purity of local values. In some Islamic states, abolishing LGBT is justifiable as it is an act to preserve the purity of religion, and also to show resistance of modernity, or the West in total.
In the deep south, not only do Pondan and Pengkid are those who brings bad luck and will eventually wrack the society or fitna , they are also the sexualities that are influenced from the Thai state. Undeniably, Pondan and Pengkid have long been existing in the society as one of the worlds in which members of the society “explores” and “responds” their sexual drives in homosociality. It is Pondan and Pengkid that give many heterosexual couples sexual experience, preparing boys and girls for their future hetero marriages.
For Pondan to acquire social toleration and able to live in the society, and to show their austerity in Islam, their sexuality has become aurat – an intimate part to be covered – that their acts and desires must be suppressed.
While hijab covering muslimahs’ body symbolizing the resistance of Thai state, it is simultaneously yielding to patriarchal Islam. For Pondan in the Deep South, the strict austerity to Islam is a way to cover their sexuality, and the avoidance of fellow Muslims’ suppression in their communities.
From a friend of Ismai
AFTERWARD: A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound
Samak Kosem’s photographic work about queer Muslim life in Thailand’s south is not what one typically expects from a visual anthropologist. Visual anthropologists and anthropologist-photographers tend to work in a documentary mode, aiming to capture visually what they try to represent through their writing: the rich texture and varied experiences of their subjects’ daily lives, embedded in a wider social milieu of family, community, or society. One glance at A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound makes it clear that Samak has no intention of giving that "anthropologist’s-eye-view" to his audience. What he does give us, however, is something far more radical: an intimate experiment in queer world-building, and one that only he - collaboratively, with his subjects - could create.
Samak eschews an anthropological, documentary mode, and opts instead for a collaborative and experimental genre-bending style, where he and his photographic subjects work hand-in-hand to create the images he eventually shows his viewers. We note, Samak’s images stand contrary to the visual tropes that define anthropological and documentary photography: Samak's subjects are typically photographed alone, cut off by the frame from a wider society. He usually shoots his subjects up close, in settings that are often vague, with background details sparse, and in some cases his backgrounds are consciously set up or designed. Most importantly, his shots are never purely candid - his subjects are always aware of and, very importantly, interacting with the camera and the viewer, whether through a deliberate pose and play, or through subtler actions, such as shy smiles or averted eyes.
Through these stylistic choices Samak's photography both reflects the double-marginal position that he and his subjects share as both Muslim and queer in Thai society, and, at the same time, offers an alternative to a life of marginality. This is not to say that Samak’s photographs are depicting tableaux of pure fantasy. Rather, he rejects the documentary mode (and with it the power imbalance of the analytical gaze), in favor of a collaborative, playful, and intimate mode of photographic creation, where he and his photographic subjects work together to create images not of their daily lives, but of their lives as they want them to be seen, or their lives as they dream they might become. These images, set Samak and his subjects, however briefly, apart from the Muslim communities and wider Thai society to which they belong. He grants a collaborative agency to his subjects, and in so doing, creates a space of possibility, where he and his subjects can show themselves as they want to be seen, through costume (or nudity), through selective self-presentation, and mostly through a sense of intimacy and ease. We as viewers, be we Muslim, Buddhist, or other, be we queer or straight, be we Thai or foreign, are given this intimate view of possibility. To put it simply, Samak’s photography does not show us what queer Muslim lives in Thailand’s southern provinces are, rather he shows us a vision of what they could be.
Jason Tonio Woerner
The understanding of Queerness in the provinces of Thailand’s deep south has not been consolidated into a complete picture due to the uncertainty and tentativeness about expressing and revealing any queer identity. The development of queer individuality is taking various trajectories — because the courage to reveal oneself comes with an unknown price depending on a certain space and time. Therefore, ‘time and space’ plays a vital impact in this situation. In this exhibition, the queer model contacted the artist after the pictures had already been shown in public — revealing a ‘fear’ that what had been presented and intended as symbolic role-playing became a scrutinzed individual subject. Consequently 3 sets of the works in this exhibition have been self-censored including Prayer, Pondan and Jinn in order to respect his identity as well as protect from the consequences that might occur from being a part of this show. We learn that sexuality here has not yet been able to escape the strict institutionalised structures. As an artist, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the model who participated in the works and whose collaboration made this exhibition possible, (despite my need to obscure the original images.) I would also like to thank the artist Anuwat Apimukmongkon, who has been extremely kind to assist and participate in large aspects of my show including the painted backdrops (of Pondan) showing his vision of the complex situation in the three muslim provinces of Thailand’s deep south.