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An Introduction to Nak Dara

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

| Documentation by Nurul Fadiah Johari |

Image Credit: Gracebaey

Nak Dara is a process. It is an experience. It is an immersion into the personhood of the Malay woman. It is an exploration of the central question: Who owns our bodies? Does it truly, if at all, belong to anyone? Or is it a quest for coming into our own, in various aspects of our personhood?

Our bodies grow with us through the passing of time, and perhaps, we, too, grow into our bodies in time.

For those of us who have been raised female in the Malay community, our relationships with our bodies have never been a straightforward one. Before we learn to properly put a name to its individual parts, we are taught many other things surrounding it. More than anything, we are taught how we should think about this body, how to see it and how it should be seen. We are our bodies first, and more so, we are our bodies in relation to how others should see and act towards it. Before we are our individual selves - minds, souls or spirits - we are first our bodies. And specifically, our genitals, our reproductive organs, our breasts, our hips, our hair and our skin. The female body, regardless of its stage of maturity, is firstly a sexual body. To be a woman is to come into this sexual body. It is a sexual body that is to be kept, only to be given away in a legitimised setting. To go beyond this sexual body may also mean denying our womanhood. The body and spirit become a binary, oftentimes at odds with each other.

We are taught to associate certain specific feelings to this body - shame, guilt, protectiveness, honour and modesty. The woman is taught that her body is her most precious possession. It has to be protected at all costs. If not, she is not only incurring shame upon herself but upon those around her. These feelings are taught and learnt. They never emerge in a vacuum. And they always take place in relation to how the woman is presented around others. The body is thus made private and public at the same time.

While the body is so visible, it is at the same time rendered invisible. Its visibility demands that it is made invisible - for the sake of the woman and those around her. So the act of making the invisible, visible, is an act of disruption.

And that is what Nak Dara seeks to do.

It breaks the boundaries between action, performance, play and ritual. It is none of these things, and yet all of it at the same time.

It is an invitation - to witness, to participate and to be present. It is an act of community, through the symbolic acts of tying the knot of the batik in the kemban. It is a way of forming ikatan or the ties that bind women to each other through acts of imitasi - of following and fellowship. It is a way of coming together without fitting women into moulds of how they should and be. Every woman presents herself as an individual, while simultaneously thriving in a communal setting. The energy that pulsates is fluid and dynamic. It is both raw and tender; bold and intimate; chaotic and calm.

What is most striking to me, is the presentation of women as people. Whole and complete. Take a moment to let that sink in for a while.

They are body and spirit. And it is a body and spirit that is not reserved for the pleasure of the male gaze. There is no competition, no end goal of finally attaining the prized reward of male validation.

It is women soothing and healing themselves and each other. It is women enjoying themselves and the bodies that they have been taught to hide. The acts of soothing and healing, beyond the act of service for another, is normalised.

And it should be.

Nak Dara is truly an invitation. It is an invitation to be a part of a community and an invitation to explore the self intimately. The self is fragmented and is never a cohesive whole. We are made up of many fractured narratives, each often contradicting the other. And that is just how it is when we begin this journey of Nak Dara. It is the coming together of many fragmented selves which can safely co-exist in a shared space.

And to you, we extend this invitation to be a part of this ikatan.

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