Sunday, July 31, 2011


Clingendael park is my favourite place in The Hague - we cycle there almost always once a week, discovering it in autumn, getting addicted in winter, coming back in the voorjaar (early year) waiting to see signs of life. Spring was especially beautiful - peach blossoms, hyacinths, tiny crocuses, snowdrops, blauwe druiven (blue grape hyacinths), daffodils and margaritas blooming, taking turns.

It's mostly a park with a little bit of 'forest', along a large canal. When you enter from the main gate along Wassenaarseweg, a Dutch-style house greets you.

Deeper in the park there's another one for purely ornamental reasons, but it sure makes one feel like a lost Hansel or Gretel.

There's even a pet cemetery here!

Swimming in the canals and domestically walking (and pooping) along the mild hills in are storks, water fowl, swans, ducks, and geese.

Further inside there is a long canal with stagnant water that holds leaves from autumn and algae, but also a stillness that reflects sunlight and the majestic beech trees lining it.


In early June we went to Lofoten, an archipelago in the north of Norway, above the Arctic circle. Because it's so far up north, there was no true night - we experienced about 5 hours of twilight/dawn and 20 hours of sunlight everyday! In winter there is about 5 hours of twilight and 20 hours of pure, dark night.

Even though it's so far up north, the climate was quite mild because it's mostly surrounded by sea. We took a ferry from Bodo to Moskenes (but you can also take ferries to Hurtigruten or Svolvaer).

The landscapes in Lofoten are incredibly beautiful. There are several beaches that are accessible by car (there's only one main highway along the entire archipelago), and the icy sea water is surrounded by cliffs, huge rocks and green grass. We hiked up one hill called Stokvika, and saw the most amazing sight:

The main industry of Lofoten is dried codfish, which is mostly exported to Italy. The whole island whiffs of dried fish - which can be seen drying in massive rows, some with heads intact and some without.

Speaking of fish, the seafood specialities of Lofoten were happily, all halal by default. I was dying to try whale steak but unfortunately the restaurant we found had run out of whale - we ate fried cod tongues and halibut instead. Yum!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Inter-faith interactions.

During the past two weeks, I had a brief glimpse into what it's like to be in an intercultural relationship in Singapore. In the Netherlands it's much more common to see people from different cultural backgrounds together, and in different permutations too. But here people stare, and keep staring.

People have different reactions to conversion, or reversion (depends on how you see the issue! I use the term 'convert' because it's more recognisable) to Islam. Some give undue credit to people around the revert for having the powers of argumentation to convince him/her to embrace Islam. Such thinking also makes invisible the effort that the convert makes to rationalise arguments about God or Islam, and his/her own efforts to learn more.

In my opinion, people can only be good or bad examples of Muslims, but ultimately it is God that guides someone onto or off the straight path. Someone can be forced physically into signing something, but no one can change what is in someone's heart. So saying that we selamatkan ('save') or guide "lost souls" is using a Christian concept of salvation - while in Islam, only God can 'save'.

Some try to scare the convert by highlighting the juicy but fortunately untrue things they hear about Islam. These are the top two issues that I've heard so far: 1) men having to undergo compulsory circumcision, and 2) being restricted in food and drink.

The first issue is actually one of the most popular questions that young and old non-Muslims ask about Islam, from my experience giving tours at a mosque-museum for two years. In fact, circumcision is a Jewish tradition dating from the time of Prophet Abraham and has been passed down as a recommended act (sunnah) as it does not appear in the Quran. In Singapore, male babies are often circumcised at birth, or as a rite of passage around the age of nine. Older converts in Singapore don't have to do it, but those who wish to can do so (and even have it paid for!).

The second issue is often brought up with jokes. For example, someone might say "I can't be a Muslim because I love bakwa (dried pork) so much" or "When you become a Muslim you can't eat bak kut teh (or insert any supposedly delicious pork dish here) anymore!". When we get this question during tours, we like to say "Actually, Muslims can eat pork (wink wink)... only when there is no other food around!"

Sure, if you look at the restrictions, Muslims can't eat pork, blood, carrion, food without the name of God pronounced on it, and alcohol. But if you look at what we can eat: food dedicated to God, grains, vegetables, seafood, bloodless and ethically-raised meat, dairy products, eggs, fruit, chocolate... There are so many people in the world who eat different variations of a diet that doesn't include meat anyways.

I hope this can help us have a little more understanding for people who are not similar to us.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Expressing masculinity and femininity.

Foucault conceives power not as being imposed from the top, but as being reproduced through the words we say and the things we do. One of the ways that certain norms, such as how to be a proper man or woman, are reproduced in a society is through proverbs and expressions in the language. I'll give two examples of how norms of Dutch masculinity and Singaporean Malay femininity are reproduced.

Een echte vent strijkt zijn eigen overhemd
A real man irons his own clothes

This Dutch expression promotes household work such as ironing as valued work and is part of masculinity. A real man is not one that knows how to beat up people, but one that can take care of himself and not depend on someone else to do handle the intimate details of his life, such as the clothes he wears.

This may not necessarily result in all men ironing their own clothes, the fact that such an expression exists means that men who may already be sympathetic to doing so can find recourse in an already existing concept. By wanting to be independent and do their own household chores, they are not considered strange or emasculated, because there is already an existing idea in their society.

Belajar tinggi-tinggi pun, mesti tahu jaga rumah
No matter how much a woman studies, she must know how to manage a household

This may not be a definitive Malay expression, but it's definitely familiar to many Malay girls and women in Singapore. When a girl wants to further her education, her mother may say this to her to remind her of what a proper woman is - the ability to manage a household is what ultimately counts. Domestic work is valued more than education.

This phrase is most definitely never said to boys and young men, because they are expected to study as much as they can in order to earn as much money as they eventually can, being the expected main breadwinner of their future family.

What's interesting is that this expression is turned right on its head with the next one, usually said by the younger generation:

Belajar tinggi-tinggi duduk rumah buat apa?
Why study so hard if you're going to be a housewife?

In contrast to the other Malay expression, this one values education over domestic work. This is also unfair to women who are highly educated but choose to stay at home and take care of the home and their children. These women have their reasons, whether they believe that their own education makes them better parents, or that they view the rearing of children as being a valuable job that requires their full attention.

Interestingly, both expressions focus on women and their choices. In our postfeminist world, it is not that women are striving to be like men, to value work outside the home more than domestic work, but that women should have the choice to do what they like because both kinds of work should be equally valued.

Perempuan vs. Lelaki

Went for a marriage guidance course last week, and while observing a floor-to-ceiling shelf of books, this bright pink one stood out:

The text on the back says in Malay:
Teknik Berkomunikasi Supaya Lelaki Tidak Salah Faham
Buku 'Perempuan vs. Lelaki' dapat membentuk seorang perempuan menikmati keistimewaan-keistimewaan berikut:
  • Menguasai etika berkomunikasi secara lisan mahu pun tanpa lisan.
  • Mengetahui cara untuk menghadapi dan menangani lelaki: Rakan sekerja, kekasih, suami dan anak.
  • Mampu menawan lelaki ketika berbicara.
  • Mengetahui cara menghadapi ajakan nakal dan gangguan seksual.
  • Disenangi dan difahami oleh rakan sekerja.
  • Mampu menawan suami yang bersikap panas baran.
  • Menjadi isteri yang romantik dan selalu dirindui suami.
  • Lebih bijak dalam menghadapi kehidupan sosial.
  • Lebih bersikap positif terhadap kehidupan dan orang di sekitar.

Which roughly translates into English as :
Communication techniques to prevent men from misunderstanding
This book can help a woman enjoy the following benefits:
  • Learn the ethics of verbal and non-verbal communication.
  • Know how to cope and deal with men: colleagues, lover, husband or son.
  • Be able to charm men when speaking.
  • Know how to confront cheeky teasing and sexual harassment.
  • Be liked and understood by colleagues.
  • Be able to capture the heart of a hot-tempered husband.
  • Be a romantic wife who is always missed by her husband.
  • Be smarter in facing social life.
  • Have a more positive attitude towards life and surrounding people.
This list is fascinating for so many reasons, but I'll just pick on two points:

1. Women are responsible for dealing with sexual harassment and quick tempers from men.

Some men commit sexual harassment, but there are no books (self-help or not!) that address their behaviour. Women just have to put up with lascivious stares, wolf-whistling and name-calling (unless they have a man walking with them) that some men continue to make.

A common argument is that some women are asking for it (e.g. the case of US high school cheerleader Joanne Bamberger), but there are also many other women that dress normally and are still stared at. For example, in Morocco, I've observed women being harassed whether old or young, dressed in a djellabah (thick Moroccan outer cloak) or not, wearing hijab or not.

Wives with hot-tempered husbands? Instead of promoting communication or some anger management for these men, they are just left alone. Their women are the ones that have to pacify and learn how to deal with the ways of their men. One way to apply natural selection? Don't marry a hot-tempered man in the first place, haha.

2. Women should be charming, romantic and generally likeable in their interactions with men.

This serves to heighten differences between men and women. While R. W. Connell has written about hegemonic masculinity, there has not been any academic writing (as far as I know) of hegemonic femininity - in other words, what type of woman is the most common and receives the most privilege in a certain society.

From my own observations of Singaporean Muslim women, it seems that the shy, modest, sweet, pious, and demure woman has the most privilege among Muslims here. In theory piety can trump all other traits, but it works only for the truly pious men.

To end this post, let me just say that I'm not a fan of books that make nice, sensitive and sensibly communicative men the exception in society.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Misogynist myths.

Over a massive dinner of barbecued seafood with wonderful friends, we talked about the bizarre, inaccurate and often misogynist things we learnt from orthodox religious teachers - whether it was from full-time religious school in the case of my two friends, or Sunday religious classes for me. These three gems stick in my mind, and the following analysis should be read with a pinch of salt:

1. Women have nine nafs (internal desires), while men only have one.
The elaboration of this is that women have one 'intellect', while men have nine. This is used usually as a justification for polygamous marriages, as has been famously said by the spokesperson of Ikhwan Polygamy Club, Hatijah Aam (There are also other very interesting quotes by her in this article). Polygynous marriages can supposedly tame these multiple emotions of women by hurting them. I don't see how that's nice, but one woman's meat is another woman's poison, right?

2. Women are buried one foot deeper at seven feet under, while men are buried six feet under.
My friends had never heard of this one, but I've heard this more than once at the tender, impressionable ages of 8 to 10 years old, during Sunday religious classes, and it has stuck. The argument given by the uztazah (religious teacher) was that women commit more sins than men, such as gossiping (but hey, boys gossip too). Therefore, they should be interred deeper below - presumably to punish them further by placing them further away from God, or to stop their sins from coming out? Assuming that He is found somewhere up above?

A friend suggested that the teacher should have said that women should be buried one foot less deep, because with all their sins they need to be closer to God (again, assuming that God is somewhere up there). A better argument, perhaps.

3. Men have one less left rib because the first woman was fashioned from Adam's left rib.
And for the longest time I thought it was true, and that this could even be a way to identify a skeleton's sex! I don't know why I didn't go around poking my brother's or father's ribs, but of course, biologically all humans have the same number of ribs on each side.

This story is actually very interesting because it can be used to promote a repressive or loving opinion of women in general. The repressive version goes like this: because the first woman was fashioned from Adam's rib and not from clay/water as Adam was, she is a second order being and is thus doomed to be forever inferior to him.

The loving version goes like this, and can be found in the form of this story (by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a 19th century American writer, but often appears anonymously on many Christian and Muslim websites): 
Woman was created from the rib of man
She was not made from his head to top him
Nor from his feet, to be trampled on.
She was made from his side, to be equal to him
From under his arm to be protected by him
From near his heart to be loved by him.
It's fascinating how much sticks in our minds, but thankfully we also have the gifts of reason and logic to make sense of it all.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The good maid.

I found this advertisement for a domestic worker agency in Geylang, a Malay area in Singapore. It shows the (presumably) boss of the agency posing with 14 Indonesian women, dressed in telekung (a billowing 2-piece outfit used for female prayer that usually comes in white) and posing with Qur'ans. The text below the picture is translated as "Hire a domestic worker from us, God-willing there will be wisdom behind it."

I found this advertisement incredibly fascinating - that this agency chose to construct their workers as religious (or at least, moral) women who are devout to God, when being religious or belief in God is not part of their job scope as domestic workers. (Notice that the lady in red - presumably the boss - does not have to appear as devout as the domestic workers).

This agency targets Malay employers because the catchphrase is written in Malay and the ad was found in an area where a lot of Malays work and live. I suppose this could help to reassure these employers that they will hire a worker who will not do 'immoral' things like have relationships and boyfriends, run away or steal their employers' things. It's also because domestic workers must live with their employers in Singapore, so this agency is trying to reassure them that they will bring in someone religious and 'safe'!

But I take the most issue with the catchphrase on the ad, because it's using Islamic concepts and Arabic words as a gimmick. Would you go to a car mechanic who says that "With God's will, your car problems will be fixed!" I think not! I'm sure people would engage a service if there was evidence to back up the quality of their service - there would not be a need to resort to entice people like this.

I think that a customer would want as much evidence as possible of getting good service. Faith is needed only when you can't see things - that's why it's part of religion.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Being invisible.

I got home a week ago and I had to push myself to start doing some research for the RP. I didn't have official permission to go to the place I planned to, because it's an educational institution and my paranoid self thinks I could be trespassing. But I don't have much time (about 5 weeks) to get data, so I just went to the school early in the morning to try my luck.

Surprise - although my father sent me there in his fancy car, the security guard thought I was just one of the domestic workers and said "Masuk, dik" (Come in, child). Not to exaggerate, but it was probably the first time I felt completely invisible - that I was exactly the same as everyone else in that vicinity - and undifferentiated on the basis of clothing, skin colour, accent, nationality or cultural background. (When in Ponorogo I looked the same as most people but my clothes and headscarf gave me away as being from Singapore, Malaysia or Brunei).

I asked around and found my initial contact person and had a chat with him, before being introduced to the head of the school program for domestic workers that I was looking for. I was most surprised by her sudden switch to Singlish, so fluent she was, having worked for a Chinese employer for several years. My contact person gave me some background info on employer-worker relations, and that he found that Malay employers are disproportionately represented in cases of abuse or low wages. Why??

Since my target are women who work for Singaporean employers, she introduced me to some of them and I learned so much about their studies and their goals for themselves. I was lucky that there were actually no lessons on that day - they were having a big carnival to celebrate Independence Day before Ramadan comes and they were busy having fun! And the fact that I could speak Singlish mixed with Malay was the best part - I could really be myself and also prevent any miscommunication.

I saw some women playing volleyball too, and what struck me the most was how fully a person they could be here. I look at my own domestic worker as just that - a worker, but I could not imagine her playing soccer or volleyball, or just having fun. It made me look deep inside as to why I had such prejudices.

Mistaken identities.

Some of you might know that the Dutchman is visiting me in Singapore for two weeks. He wants to learn more about Islam and so we went to a centre in Singapore that specialises in providing information for non-Muslims, in English.

Sadly, we had a terrible experience. We were assigned a male, middle-aged Singaporean teacher of Pakistani background (according to his name), whom we'll call Mr. O. At this center, you can choose to take weekly classes but we chose the speedy version. In general, though one can convert at any moment, without even any knowledge of Islam, the centre recommends taking classes to know at least the history of Islam, the main principles (6 Articles of Faith and 5 Pillars of Islam), the details of taharah (keeping physically and ritually pure), how to pray, and the aspects of halal/haram (what is allowed or forbidden). 

The Dutchman has never had any formal or informal education in any religion, and is a self-confessed agnostic. But the teacher assumed that he (along with another white male classmate) is Christian, because all whites and Westerners must be Christians or Jews. So Mr. O sporadically made counter-arguments to Christian concepts - which no one actually asked for.

It's different, when a religious person (whether Christian, Hindu, Bahai, etc), agnostic or atheist is asking about Islam. In the first case, the person already believes in God and does certain practices, so it's a matter of arguing why there's one God, or that Prophet Muhammad is the last Messenger. In the second case, the person believes in something, but doesn't know what to call it, so one has to argue for God, and not a general, unnamed, unknown power. In the third case, the emphasis will have to first be on an omnipotent power.

Despite not asking anything about our cultural and religious backgrounds, relationship to each other, Mr. O went on to rant about former students who complained of their “corrupted spouses” and consequent inability to practise Islam properly. If he had bothered to ask, he could have avoided making all the following assumptions:
  1. He is being forced or pressured to convert.
  2. He thinks all Muslims are terrorists and commit jihad.
  3. He, as a 'Westerner', adores logic and rationality.
  4. He might want to join other religions instead. 
  5. That I am a Muslim by name and not in practice. So I don't know any Arabic terms, I don't pray, I can't read Arabic. (Heck, why did he even assume I was a Muslim at all? Because I look Malay?) 
1. He is being forced or pressured to convert.
Mr.O forcefully repeated several times that conversion should be done willingly, when there was no sign of force from either of us. Okay, we get it, and we never said it in the first place. 

2. He thinks all Muslims are terrorists and commit jihad.
He insistently made several defensive remarks about Muslims when there was no indication from any of us that we held such opinions. R’s question to him on Mr. O’s “feelings” as to what R should know about Islam was misunderstood. Mr. O went on about how “there are no feelings in Islam…when you start to have feelings is when people become terrorists and shout ‘jihad jihad’”.

3. He as a 'Westerner', adores logic and rationality.
After the whole terrorist-jihad tirade, Mr. O kept emphasising that Islam is "logical, rational, pragmatic, sensible". It seemed almost like he was trying to sell Islam in a way he thought Westerners might like.

4. He might want to join other religions instead. 
To pre-empt this, Mr. O commented on the other religions in Singapore. This is not a new discovery, but I've met some Muslims in Singapore who learn about other religions with the intention of countering their arguments as a form of da'wah (missionary work). He could have at least gotten it right - he said Zoroastrians "worship fire", when a simple glance at Wikipedia would have corrected that. 

He commented on  how Islam is not named on a person, while Christianity, Judaism, Baha'ism, Zoroastrianism and Confucianism (which by the way, is not a religion!) is - but I mean, so what? What's in a name? Is it necessary to disparage other religions in order to promote your own? Market your own product, don't bring down the competitors'.

5. That I am a Muslim by name and not in practice. 
I should have seen this one coming, actually. I didn't cover my hair for the class and so my morality is invisible (or you can argue that my immorality is quite visible!). He asked cheekily if I knew what taharah meant, if I prayed or not, and also challenged me to read a short chapter of the Qur'an in Arabic (in Malay no less, so the other two wouldn't know how rude he was acting). When explaining that there are 4 Books or Scriptures, he pointed me and said "But if you ask any Malay Muslim, they will tell you that there's only 1 Book!"

I suppose I could have looked quite immoral in my long pants, long Indian tunic and uncovered hair - but I was not the main focus of the class and he could have just ignored me or assumed better. I wouldn't have the gall to bring someone to learn about Islam if I didn't fully believe it myself.

He assumed that I didn't know anything about gender segregation. Since we initially thought the lesson would be personalised, I sat in to give him moral support. When Mr. O revealed that another male student would join us, he proposed that I leave the “male session”. Although I eventually didn't because the other student said he was not bothered by my presence (he's just a normal guy!), Mr. O pulled that guy's chair a metre away from me after he had sat down.

The funny thing was, I was sitting right next to the Dutchman - why didn't he separate us too? And for that matter, why did he stand so close in front of my chair and speak down to me while pointing a finger and looking straight at me? Where's all the supposed modesty? Not to mention that such a stance was intimidating.

Finally, he made arguments with the intention of us listening like empty vessels and showing awe instead of actually engaging in some interaction. When he asked me "Can you prove that God exists?", I offered the elements of Creation as signs of God as stated in the Qur’an in many places (for example 2:163-4, 3:190, 17:12, 36:33, 30:22). But he flatly said "No, wrong”. He added that reasoning God’s existence is “dangerous” because “the mind can go anywhere” – contradictory to the spirit of verses like 8:22 and 10:100 that tell us to use our God-given gifts of logic and reason. 

Instead, the circular argument he offers for God’s existence is Chapter 112, al-Ikhlas, where the first verse says "Say (O Muhammad) that God is One." He said “a document is better proof”, using the analogy of a passport to give proof of someone’s identity. But look at how the Ahmadiyyas claim that Mirza Gulam Ahmed was the Messiah, because he wrote some scripts saying that he was the Messiah.

To end off this long note, I think that as a teacher one should at least show a modicum of consistency if one is not going to admit inconsistency. Mr. O said that Islam is beautiful because it does not discriminate on the basis of age, sex, nationality or race. But the way he treated us betrays his assumptions that white people are reluctant converts from Christianity, and that women who don't cover their hair are not Muslims or don't know anything about Islam.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Cultural capital.

One of the things I like about Facebook is finding people once thought long-lost, like classmates from the time when I was as tall as a grasshopper. I was talking to someone I had never even had a proper conversation with before back in primary school (we were nine years old and at that age we thought boys had cooties), and he was telling me how he had to fund his own way through design school, and it was too difficult to work and study at the same time, so he dropped out.

I saw some of his work and I think he's a brilliant designer, so it's such a waste to not have qualifications to back it up. I realise that for artists the portfolio is more important, but there's no denying the value of developing thinking and management skills in school. At the same time, I understand how it can be so difficult to have to find your own money to go to school, when for so many people it's merely the effort of finding the suitable school or course.

Now, clearly we are not from the same class in society. Most of the friends I know from the very small, (what we call 'neighbourhood', versus 'elite') primary school I came from didn't go to university. Some of them are no doubt brilliant, but money is what stops them. I've written elsewhere about the Malay Gap (and reflections on it) but it's worth repeating that wealth is linked to education. It's much easier to be rich and well-educated when your parents are, for so many reasons.

Let's use this friend as an example. In many conversations I've had with rich people (I know it's kind of crude to just separate society like that, but bear with me for the purposes of my explanation, heh) who think the poor are poor because they are lazy, they tell me that there are so many scholarships and bursaries around - why don't these poor students apply for them? My response to that: cultural capital in the form of information.

My friend didn't know that there were several organisations (that target Muslims in particular, because students can receive zakat, or charity tax) that he could ask to fund his studies. Since the amounts they give can form a large percentage for local courses, these organisations can easily make the difference between one more year of school or dropping out.

The catch is, you have to be aware of these sources of funding. That comes with being socially involved, and knowing organisations work and who is in charge. Navigating bureaucracy and red tape also involves some communication, interpersonal and management skills. And when it comes to writing that appeal letter, good language skills (whether English or Malay, but English is preferred) basically, make you look good.

And if you come from a background that is not conducive to the development of all these skills, you don't have the cultural capital to move up. This concept actually comes from Pierre Bourdieu, who pointed to the knowledge, skills, education and privileges that people in a higher social status have, which allows them to succeed in the current educational system.

Parents transmit to them the necessary attitudes ("Education is the most important thing you can work for") and knowledge ("Here's a list of organisations and people that you can write to for funding"). And cultural capital takes time to accumulate and embody, because it involves the priming of one's character and way of thinking (Bourdieu calls this 'habitus') to be sensitive to certain influences.

Even my friends from Kenya, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia tell me that even within their country, it's those with access to computers, printing facilities and information on the Internet that can afford to search for scholarships, make applications and eventually leave the country on a scholarship. Applying for a scholarship itself already requires some cultural capital.

So, back to my friend. He was surprised when I listed out some of the organisations that I benefited from, because he simply didn't know. Anyway, I hope he can finish what he wants to someday, inshallah.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hoge Veluwe National Park

The weather is finally getting a little sunnier (spring and summer seem to have switched), so last week we went cycling to Hoge Veluwe, a national park in the center-east part of the Netherlands (yeah, the country is kind of oddly-shaped).

Cool fact No.1: The park provides 1700 free bicycles (witte fietsen) at three different points of the Park, so you can cycle everywhere and drop them off. The only requirement is that you can't lock them, so it's good for everyone to use.

Cool fact No. 2: Vincent van Gogh's painting, "Terrasse de Café, la Nuit" is housed at the Kröller-Müller Museum of the national park. This is my favourite piece of his, and I even have a really old writing pad with this print on every page. I never remembered that he was Dutch, but the "van" is staring me in the face now.

Cool fact No. 3: In the middle of the park is a large sandscape, which looks just like the Merzouga all over again! Though here the sand is rather damp, and the landscape is dotted with lonely-looking trees. In late summer purple heather (just like in Enid Blyton!) grows all over, and the forests are thick with the smell of pine trees. 


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