Monday, May 30, 2011

Meeting top-down power.

We met the Secretary-General of the Department for Gender Equality of the Greek Parliament in Athens, bright and early. The Sec-Gen was in fact the former president of the Center for Gender Studies at Panteion University, which we visited the day before but didn't get much information because the woman who welcomed us was in charge of administration. They seem to be doing lots of interesting work though, organising conferences with guest lecturers like Judith Butler (!) and film screenings of 'Frida' and 'Boys Don't Cry'.

Anyway, at the Department of Gender Equality we were welcomed by three women and and one (gay) man. I'm sorry to see the dearth of heterosexual men in this department (possibly because most Greek men are Spartans). But they somehow managed to mainstream gender throughout the government, so at least de jure women are taken into account. Although I'm not so much concerned with parity in numbers as with social attitudes.

They started a helpline for female victims of domestic violence, and they say it's doing well. But someone asked well, what about migrant women victims? They don't dare to go to the police because they are afraid they will be deported for their undocumented (illegal) status. So even when violence happens (and with undocumented migrant men too), they keep quiet or deal with it on their own.

Immigration is framed as a 'problem' to be solved, because "these people coming, they don't have jobs, and we don't know how Greece can accept them". Never mind that they come to do all the dirty informal jobs that 'native Greek' people don't want to do.

I found this pamphlet in the office for the prevention of tuberculosis (TB). The pamphlet does not say that immigrants are bringing in TB explicitly, but the head of iRED had explicitly mentioned that immigrants bring in diseases that have already been eradicated in Greece. But let's take a look at the cover:
A dark-skinned man of indeterminate ethnic origin smiling, and the words 'Tuberculosis' - we associate foreigners with the disease.

And the inside:
A dark-skinned woman of indeterminate ethnic origin with a head covering, sitting in a dark, dirty-looking  room - the idea of foreigners (and possibly, gasp, Muslims foreigners) bringing disease because of their filthy lifestyle.

Images of 'modern science', the answer to curing TB. And science, especially medical science, can be used to justify many actions.

Conclusion: TB is brought into Greece by immigrants. Stop immigration and therefore, stop TB, the disease of the developing world and outdated times.

The ironic part about finding this pamphlet was that the Sec-Gen was very insistent on the importance of the media in reproducing gender norms and had programmes and prizes to promote gender-fair advertising. But intersectionality was forgotten, so they ended up reproducing other unjust structures.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Strong words.

Some words and phrases in Malay to me, carry such a strong image. Once a friend asked me what swear words there are in Malay, but I couldn't say them because they sounded so vulgar to me in my own head. Even though he probably would not understand them, I couldn't even say it.

One example of a phrase that I often heard in religious class and situations back in Singapore is "gaul bebas" - literally it means 'free mixing'. It refers to the interaction of girls and boys, women and men, without boundaries. As for the nature of these boundaries, feel free to set them in your mind because they have never been specified to me.

Perhaps no standing within 2m of a person from the opposite sex? Not looking down when speaking? Shaking hands? Eating or drinking at the same table? Having a conversation about the weather? Hugging?

This phrase is used to encourage gender segregation in order to avoid the perils of 'free mixing' - which seems to inevitable leads to all kinds of sins, big and small.

Another powerful word (at least in my head) is "bersubahat" - literally means 'being an accomplice of' or 'abetting'. I've heard this word in the context of positive actions (e.g. working as a supermarket cashier means you are abetting the sale of alcohol) and also negative actions (e.g. not telling someone they are doing something wrong means you are an accomplice of the wrong act).

This word connotes crime. So if you do not stop a crime, you are an accomplice. If you do not directly commit the crime, you are also an accomplice. Apa lagi if you commit the crime itself, right.

Anyway, I'm in Discourse Analysis mode and my mind is wandering. The point of this post was just to point out how words can carry strong meanings and strong images (:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The old and the new in Athens.

Does this look familiar? If you came from RGS, then it is! This is a representation of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and (intelligent) warfare, found at entrance of Panteion University, where we had a meeting with the Centre for Gender Studies.

The ruins in Athens are found in the middle of the urban centres, in between shopping areas of Monastiraki and apartments. We had time in the middle of some days to visit two main ones: The Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Acropolis of Athens. The temple is much bigger than it looks here, and is according to Irma's guide book, about 5000 years old...

Temple of Olympian Zeus
Climbing up the hill towards the Acropolis
The Parthenon: built with slave labour,
renovated with China-assembled machines
It is so bizarre to see architecture familiar to me because of my secondary school - like the Parthenon above. It was built as a temple to the goddess Athena in about 400 BC, converted into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in 5th century AD, and turned into a mosque in the 1460s under the Ottoman empire (it even had a minaret built into it!)

I wonder if the fact that "Parthenon" originates from the Greek word referring to "virgins' apartments" as well as being a temple for a female goddess has anything to do with its choice as a symbol for my school. 

Although it seems that Athena is such a powerful and empowering figure, actual women in ancient Greece were not actually venerated - an example being the practice of sacrificing virgins to ensure the safety of the city. Ugh. 

The Erechtheum temple
The side of the Parthenon

Migration and discrimination in Greece.

Study trips are part of the curriculum here at the ISS - we get a week off in May to go to any country in or nearby Europe to well, learn! Preferably about issues related to our own specialisation, but of course issues are always interdisciplinary and in our case, we ended up learning a lot about migration and specifically, migration in the Grecian context, while things happened 'live' around us.

A whole new alphabet
Greek salad on my menu... every day.
Instead of a blow-by-blow account of what we did each day (might be fascinating to some, but we really did a lot), I'll highlight some of the things that I remember the best, for various reasons, especially now that I've had almost two weeks to let all the events digest.

Greek policeman checking a random man's papers
Many shops indicating owners from
Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan in our neighbourhood
Greece has no official or systematic immigration policy - the most important thing I learnt from our first meeting with iRED, a research institute established in 2008, that focuses on issues of migration and discrimination against social minorities in Greece.

In the last 20 years, Greece has seen huge numbers of immigrants from Albania, Asia and the Middle East entering for employment, and they were recognised as contributors.

The day we arrived, 10 May 2011, a 44-year-old Greek citizen was "stabbed" by three "thieves" or "robbers". The attackers were described as "three dark-skinned men, possibly foreign nationals". Notice that dark-skinned = foreign = immigrants. This incident happened in the area we were staying (and even nearer to the other ISS group).

Sadly, this gave the Greek Right-wing (as represented by G. Karatzaferis of the Popular Orthodox Rally) a chance to call for the "deportation of all illegal migrants". You can read more about immigration in Greece in this paper here.

A few days later, a "clash" was planned between the Right and the Left, with the police to intervene in between, so we decided it was best to get back to the hostel before dark, and stay there.

Modernity also wants to clash...
with ancient history in Athens

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Smoking in a headscarf.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine posted a photo of a woman wearing a headscarf and holding a cigarette in her hand. There was a minor ruckus on her profile about this picture. Why does this image shake up some of our worlds?

Because in Singaporean society Muslim women who wear the headscarf have been constructed to be examples of virtuous, moral, proper women. If you wear a headscarf, you'd better behave in these certain ways -
  1. No smoking in public (cigarettes at least, but smoking shisha/hookah/Arab water pipe is mysteriously tolerated), 
  2. No kissing in public (even if married!),
  3. No unruly behaviour like shouting or fighting, and 
  4. No close contact with men in public.
Otherwise, you're going to be pointed out as a bad example of a Muslim woman. Interestingly, holding hands is still kind of acceptable, as is wearing trousers (not the same case in other Muslim communities).

In our context, the headscarf is a visible sign of morality. You can't tell if someone believes in God, or prays, or fasts, but you can see a headscarf. The wearer is assumed to be a morally-upright person who has to follow certain rules of (Islamic) behaviour, and therefore also assumed to be discipline-able by any member of the public.

No one has any qualms about telling off a woman with a headscarf if she's seen to be 'violating' any of the above rules. Many older and young women and men, have no qualms about policing young women who are not 'properly' dressed.

However, women without a headscarf can do any of the above things without nary a public comment because her morality is invisible (Or you can argue that her 'immorality' is visible, haha.). Being under constant surveillance can be annoying at best, and exhausting at worst. Is it really a surprise then that some women choose to appear in some situations with a headscarf, and some without?

Sadly, there are no equivalent markers for men in our Muslim community. In some other societies, perhaps a beard plays the same trick, albeit to a lesser extent (and a beard doesn't entail an entire dress code). Baju kurung? No one wears that anymore except to the mosque or during Ramadan or Eid. Long sleeves and long pants? Come on man, Singapore is too hot and humid. But why do young men wearing (tight) T-shirts get picked on far less?

Because of the invisible morality of young Muslim men, they can get away with a lot of things. For example, wearing a T-shirt that says "Playboy" on it. The contrast is even starker when you know that they are probably good, practising Muslim men, who have 'proper' social relations with young Muslim women.

Heck, the best contrast is to see them in the company of 'properly-dressed' young Muslim women at Islamic events. Young men are free to go everywhere in their T-shirts and no one is going to say, Hey dude, your T-shirt is a bit too tight, eh? But you can hear, Eh your hair is sticking out! Or, You should wear a top that covers your butt, or, You look so beautiful in an abaya!

There will be people who say that if a woman really wore the headscarf for God, all this would not matter. But my focus is not on the reasons for wearing it. My focus here is on the headscarf as a visible signifier of morality and its implications for the daily lives of young women.

I can't change the way people think, but I think awareness of why we think the way we think is the first step.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Meeting diverse minds.

In commemoration of today, the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, I'll write a little bit about a meeting we had with the Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece (OLKE) during our study trip to Athens.
Two representatives from OLKE came to our little informal meeting on the rooftop of our hotel. Their work focuses on lobbying for legal reform in favour of homosexuals in Greece. Most of their members are Greek citizens, because when we broached our favourite topic of immigration to them, one of the representatives believed that for homosexual immigrants, their immigrant status is their primary identity, and therefore do not want to risk deportation by being publicly involved in lobbying activities. All this just convinces me of the importance of intersectionality and contexts. I must never use broad categories like homosexuals without thinking of their race, age, migrant status and religion.

Did you know that in Greece, civil partnership is only available for heterosexual couples, while it is usually for either only same-sex couples or for both same-sex and heterosexual couples in other countries? Weird, because the heterosexual couples can just, you know, marry? Ha.

Whatever your opinion or moral stand is on homosexuality, what can we learn from same-sex couples? For one thing, that the gender roles of men and women are actually related to income. Women tend to do reproductive work (childcare, housework) because they earn less - whether it's due to glass ceilings, privileging family life, tendency to work in lower-paid/part-time/informal sector.

In a lesbian couple for example, one cannot use the argument that reproductive work should be done by women because both are women (haha). Instead, this reveals a negotiation process based on other factors, like who earns less or who is better at doing what kind of tasks. Likewise, the fact that one gay partner in a household may become the main breadwinner is because of his greater income, and not because he's a man.

OLKE also aims to fight against hate crimes based on sexual orientation. The problem though is that most of the hate crimes is discovered only through hearsay, since there is no definitive way to prove that someone was attacked because of his sexual orientation.

We are not only afraid of people with sexualities and sexual practices not our own. Even within heterosexuality, some of us are afraid of those who have premarital sex. Some of us may also find it hard to believe that young men can choose abstinence until marriage. We all have a story in our heads since we were children; a narrative that we use to interpret the world and to which we go running back to when something new shakes up our worldview.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Malay culture in discourses of sexuality.

The Malay language does not have specific words for the sexual organs in its indigenous vocabulary – zakar (penis) and faraj (vagina) are both borrowed from Arabic. The term usually used to refer to male or female genitals is “kemaluan” which comes from the root word “malu”, literally meaning “something that one is shy of” (Shamsul and Fauzi, 2006). 

This concept of shyness reflects the attitude of the Malay community as a whole towards premarital sex – we do not want to talk about it – at least, until it becomes visible through unwanted pregnancy. The cultural shyness towards premarital sex is not only reflected in public attitudes, but also in social policy. To address the problem of unwanted pregnancies among teenage Malays, a few years ago, a Malay self-help organisation promoted a campaign focused on abstinence and not safe sex.

Premarital sex was framed as a ‘sin’ according to the Qur’an; the organisation assumed that a moral or religious reason would be powerful enough to encourage abstinence. The low rate of success indicated that these teenagers did not consider themselves to be practising Muslims anyway, and ‘sins’ were not important to them. Thus the use of a religious discourse to address teenage pregnancies is not effective.

In heterosexual marriage however, sexuality is spoken of in the framework of Islam. For example, a husband and wife are allowed to dress or behave in any way they wish in private. There are also several ahadith (traditions of the Prophet Mohammad) that narrate the importance of sexual pleasure for both men and women.

However, there are also some other hadith that favour men’s sexual agency. For example, one oft-cited hadith with regards to consensual sexual activity narrates that if a wife continually refuses her husband’s sexual demands, ‘angels will damn her until sunrise’. Here a certain Islamic discourse is used when outlining the proper behaviour (including sexual behaviour) of men and women in society.

Polygamy is permitted according to all interpretations of Islamic law, and this is sometimes used by older Malay Muslim men to justify taking younger second, third or fourth wives. Some men give reasons of a ‘natural’ high sex drive in men that tends them towards polygamy, citing male infidelity as a ‘natural’ consequence. They also claim the superiority of Islamic law in this aspect as it recognises the supposed high sex drive of men.

What is often not emphasised when citing this law are the subsequent verses in the Qur’an on which this law is based - that if a man should not take another wife if he fears being unjust. Here a certain Islamic discourse that favours men’s sexual agency is invoked around the issue of polygamy.

Shamsul, A.B. and M. Fauzi (2006) ‘Making sense of Malay sexuality: An Exploration’, Sari, 24: 59-72.

Meeting upper-class 'native' Greek women.

The last week was spent in Athens, Greece for a study trip (and of course, some sightseeing). We met several organisations related to gender equality, migration and sexuality and I learnt so many things about Greece that I wouldn't have if I had just gone there for a holiday.

One of the organisations we visited was the Hellenic Association for University Women. And I must repeat, as they did (at least five times), for “university women”. Such repetition was already instructive in warning us what awaited us in the next hour and a half.

We were welcomed by three women, including the Vice-President and Secretary of the association. After a short presentation we introduced ourselves, and two of them asked us further questions which said more about them than about us. A sampling of their questions:

  1. Was it difficult to come to the Netherlands? (Yes, I had to pay 3 smugglers to get here and now I have to work in the informal economy to pay off my debt.)
  2. Are you the only child or do you have brothers and sisters? (Is this your subtle way of finding out if my family fits your African stereotype of big families?)
  3. Do you want to go back to your country? (No, because Europe is a heaven for all from the Third World and I'll stay as one of many undocumented migrant workers who are "leaking" into Greece, making up 2 million of your total population of 11 million.)
  4. Which genocide? (You haven't heard of the genocide in Rwanda? Didn't one of you study Political Science?)

They stated their aim as increasing the educational level of young girls in Greece, but they weren't the most intersectionally aware. The problem, according to them, was that young women today, especially those from private schools, dream of having a 'good family' and as a result, give up their career ambitions in order to find a husband. Girls who don't go to private schools have similar dreams because of the popularity of Turkish soaps which show examples of more 'traditional roles' (yeah, blame the foreigners!).

After quoting statistic after statistic of the grossly lower percentage of women in the higher ranks of career hierarchies and the disproportionately higher number of women making up the unemployed (total unemployment is at around 13%, highest ever!), they implicitly blame immigrants for stealing away women's jobs, making no distinction between the types of jobs immigrants are likely to be doing (low-wage or unsafe, and usually in the informal economy).

Their solution for the lower number of women in high positions (CEOs, professors, etc.)? Give young women more accurate information on the types of careers, trainings and educational fields they can have. No acknowledgement of the fact that they want to have families too. Since they said before that women tend to give up or slow down their career to give way to their families, they seem to imply that a more aggressive pursuit of career instead of family will bring success and bring down glass ceilings all over Greece. Alternatively, one of them mentioned that it was really difficult for her to work with men in the workplace, because they would talk about football and girls to make her uncomfortable.

Getting more and more curious about who will do the housework and childcare when both parents work, I asked them what the gender division of labour was like in their own homes, and in Greek society in general. The VP replied with " My situation is exceptional, I have a very progressive husband, he encouraged me to travel and further my career" - completely personalising a needed transformation of gender relations. Of course, if women are to pursue their careers as aggressively as men who do, they need the same (emotional and physical) support that men receive (from their wives). Progressive men don't fall from heaven and marry career-driven women by luck, they are made through egalitarian socialisation.

Another lady replied that in most of Greek society, the men are "Spartans", just like her husband, who doesn't do anything at home. When I spoke to her privately after the meeting, she revealed that she hires a domestic worker - aha! The women that should get higher education is only 'native' Greek women, naturally. Such is the nature of domestic work - women from bordering Albania do the housework and childcare, making it possible for Greek women to pursue careers like Greek men, while also being responsible for raising a family. On a side note, she also insisted that "there have been no cases of abuse of domestic workers, but there have been cases of child abuse from domestic workers".

When asked if the Association does any work with men (to transform gender relations), they rather defensively said that they "don’t see ourselves as opposite to men, so when we have events, our husbands come along." I don't think attendance does much for any social transformation.

This association was the perfect illustration of the modus operandi of positivist feminists. They want women to be 50% in every sector, and focus their interventions on putting women into these positions. Problems or exceptions are often individualised (progressive husband; psychological difficulties of working with mostly men), and desires are universalised (all women should have careers - too bad if you want career and family).

There is also no intersectionality (immigrant women or women from developing countries don't need to have education or careers). This is often the mentality of women from the economically/ethnicaly dominant class, who can't see social phenomena from a nuanced perspective (e.g. migrant work, immigration) and also reinterpret history to explain the  status quo ("In fact, Greece has been a homogeneous country until the 90s").

To these upper-class 'native' Greek women, I say: show the young women of Greece some role models of women who have careers and a family, and who managed to do it with the help of their feminist partners. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lest we forget.

Yesterday (4 May) was Dutch Memorial Day . It initially was a day to honour soldiers and civilians who died in WW2, but now it's to remember those who died in other wars (including peacekeeping efforts). Remember Palestine, Southern Thailand, Libya... the list goes on.

We went to the Peace Palace near ISS, where an orchestra played several sombre pieces until 8pm, when everyone observed two minutes of silence. (My first encounter with silent minutes was in secondary school where my mother advised me to recite the Al-Fatihah when marking such a moment.)

Several people placed wreaths of flowers and leaves on the monument. It was the most touching sight to see an old man in his eighties, supported by his elderly daughter, put down some flowers too. Everyone then walked past the monument, putting down bouquets of tulips, stalks of roses, and even a branch of flowers plucked off a tree.

Truly we come from Him, and to Him we return.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On being a good girl.

My mother always told me to “duduk diam” (lit. to sit and keep quiet) as a child when there were adults around. Since I liked to talk a lot and had a phase of saying “what the hell” when I was five years old, my mother was exasperated.

For example, when I was twelve years old and had to have my photo taken for a newspaper, my mother told me to “be nice” to the photographer - I should listen, follow instructions and especially not talk back to him while he was doing his job. Here, the message I received about being a ‘good’ girl was to be quiet and to do as I was told.

When I went on my first date at the age of fifteen, my mother (plus countless religious teachers) told me that I should not hold hands or hug boys. This has roots in some interpretations of Islamic law that claim the nullification of ablution and the promotion of sexual desires if members of the opposite sex touch, without specifying the nature of the physical contact. 

Another interpretation claims the presence of the ‘devil’ as the third person when a man and woman are alone together. The message I received about ‘proper’ dating was to date a man, but not be alone with him, nor have any physical contact. 

In religious classes, the promotion of ‘contact-less’ dating (if dating was seen as allowed by the religious teacher in the first place) was framed in the dangers of physical contact. This was seen as the slippery slope to premarital sex, which is forbidden in Islam because of the possible consequent social problems. 

I was taught that it was important for both women and men to “guard their chastity/modesty” i.e. remain virgins until and practise fidelity in marriage (I was forbidden from using tampons because it was considered it a menstrual product for married women i.e. those who already had sex.). 

However, modesty as a value was seen as more important for women than men, because of various reasons like “innate beauty” or women’s stronger ability to tempt men into committing sinful acts.


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