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Explaining the Gwen Stefani Controversy

Gwen Stefani has found herself embroiled in a controversy over her decision to cover herself up in Malaysia:

Gwen Stefani was a good girl, just like she promised.

The 37-year-old pop star wowed fans in Muslim-majority Malaysia on Tuesday, performing in costumes that showed almost no skin after Islamic critics claimed that her revealing clothes could corrupt the country’s youth. She burst onto the stage wearing a black leotard under a white short-sleeved shirt and black-and-white striped hot pants suit, with black gloves up to her elbows.

“I am very inspired tonight,” Stefani told some 7,000 cheering fans at an indoor stadium.

She changed costumes for every song, remaining fully covered as she belted out tunes such as “The Sweet Escape,” “Rich Girl,” “Wind it Up” and “Hollaback Girl.” Stefani had promised to dress modestly after the 10,000-member National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students charged that her skimpy outfits and cheeky performances clashed with Islamic values. The opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party also accused her of promoting promiscuity and corrupting the country’s youth. In an interview with Galaxie, a local entertainment magazine, Stefani said she had made many changes for Malaysia, calling it a “major sacrifice.”

“I’ve been in the music industry for 20 years and this is the first time that I’m facing opposition from people who have misunderstood me,” she was quoted as saying.

“I’m not a bad girl,” she said.

I do think Gwen Stefani is being unfairly criticized over this.  Let me provide some context about Malaysia that her critics do not provide.  Malaysia is hardly the Islamic radical society that the critics of Gwen Stefani are trying to make it out to be.  Gwen Stefani did not give into the pressure from any Islamic group, she just followed the country’s performance laws.  The US has performance laws as well that can cause entertainers to be fined, Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction is plenty of evidence of this. 

Additionally the Islamic student group criticizing Stefani wanted the government to cancel her concert which they did not do.  Also this Islamic student group is not a mainstream group in Malaysia.  Neither I or my Malaysian friends have ever heard of this group before.  This group simply protested against her to get their names in the headlines and the media in the US played it up. 

The media in Malaysia meanwhile could care less about this student group and if you do an internet search for Gwen Stefani on the website for Malaysia’s largest newspaper the New Strait Times you will find no articles critical of Gwen Stefani and supporting the small amount of protesters.  In fact the articles such as this one prior to the concert were very positive of Stefani coming to Malaysia:

Gwen Stefani embraced her fans in Singapore and the audience responded, touched by her sincerity and charisma. FARIDUL ANWAR FARINORDIN was there and expects the great vibes to carry through to her concert in Malaysia on Tuesday.

GWEN Stefani has so much love and respect for her audience and it came through in an earnestly sweet and endearing way. At her The Sweet Escape Tour 2007 concert in Singapore last Tuesday, the 37-year-old Grammy winner acknowledged her fans, pointing out to their homemade "We Love You Gwen" banners and gleefully remarking: "You guys are really cute!"

This article was even critical of the country’s performance laws:

Okay, this is not really original, since multi award-winning vocalist Mariah Carey has done this before — singing her empowering ballad Hero while meeting her audience and shaking hands with them.

And Gwen surely deserves our love doing that too. However, the Malaysian audience is going to miss this. Too bad. For your information, just like Miss Carey (who was here for the Charmbracelet World Tour three years ago), Gwen has been issued a list of do’s and don’ts prior to her performance at the Putra Indoor Stadium in Bukit Jalil on Tuesday.

Apart from a "stricter" dress code, she was asked by the authorities not to have any physical contact with the audience. Yeah, what a bummer. Aren’t we all friendly, calm and peaceful people?.

But Gwen loves her Malaysian fans so much that she’s more than happy to do whatever’s necessary so as not to offend anybody here. So those who are getting antsy over her visit, there’s no reason to raise the alarm.

Here is an editorial from the New Strait Times after the concert that I think sums up the whole situation very well:

NO doubt about it, Gwen Stefani’s concert in Kuala Lumpur was a huge success, and an important one.

The bad press the country got over the American pop superstar’s recent Malaysian gig was unfortunate, as international headlines seemed to zero in on the protests by some minority zealots opposed to her show. To her credit, Stefani remained unbowed — though she did promise to be a "good girl" and adhere to the local guidelines on live acts that dictate the minimum dress code and some "no-no’s" for onstage behaviour. She kept her leotards on throughout, and in no way was her show less exciting. In the end, she proved, at least to her 16,000-strong audience at the Putra Stadium on Tuesday night, that a performer can follow our rules without diminishing the performance itself.

It was also commendable of the authorities to stick to their guns and allow the concert despite the uproar by Pas and the little-heard-of National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students, who wanted her show cancelled — reportedly because it could "promote promiscuity" and "corrupt the country’s youth", among other things. True, the authorities made Stefani stick to the guidelines on live performances. But whether or not the rules place the bar too high — or too low — is a secondary issue. There are rules for live shows in most countries, including Stefani’s own. The Malaysian guidelines may on the surface give the impression that we’re prudes, but they are, warts and all, standards defined for our heterogeneous developing nation, and Stefani has shown that there is at least a workable middle path.

The publicity Malaysia draws over the protests against numerous foreign acts who have landed here over the years, ranging from Mariah Carey three years ago to the Scorpions way back in 1996, has led some to wonder whether the majority of us agree with the agenda of those who want to dictate our lives based on their own narrow interpretation of religion or cultural norms. These groups often claim their own narrow-minded opposition to popular entertainment as the voice of the majority. This is all the more reason to understand why every successful show, with Stefani’s concert being the most recent, represents a victory over the intolerant trying to browbeat the rest of us into submission. Malaysians, in refusing to bow, must send these people a clear message that the show must go on — and will.

Does this sound like something from a wacko Muslim country that the US media wants you to believe Malaysia is?  The US media could not even get the attendance numbers correct by claiming that only 7,000 showed up at the concert when in fact 16,000 did yet we should believe them that Malaysia is the second coming of the Taliban? 

Now look at this video of the concert and tell me if this crowd looks like a bunch of Islamic extremists?:

First of all, you can tell Stefani is not wearing a burkah like the US media seems to want you to think she was required to wear and if you look at the crowd you can see that many of the females in the audience are wearing even less than her.  The US media is trying to lump Malaysia in with other intolerant Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia when Malaysia is nothing like the Arab countries.  The vast majority of Malaysians do not want to be like the Arabic countries and in fact enjoy being a liberal Islamic country.  Just the fact that Gwen Stefani is allowed to play to an audience of 16,000 should tell you something right there.  Can you imagine a singer like her singing in Riyadh or Damascus any time soon? 

What people don’t realize is that ethnic Malays make up only 52% of the population while ethnic Chinese make up 30%, ethnic Indians make up 10%, and aboriginal Malayans make up the rest of the population.  The Malays make up the Islamic population along with a few aboriginals which means that just over half the country is Muslim.  Malaysia’s Muslims do follow Islamic Sharia law, but it is not the same as Sharia law that the Taliban used.  Sharia law is dictated by Islamic scholars and Malaysia uses a more moderate form.  The last time I was in Malaysia this year my Malaysian friend’s wife who is Muslim walked around with no head covering and no one cared.  Notice Gwen Stefani did not have to wear a head covering either.  This is hardly the makings of a Taliban society that the US media wants you to believe it is.