Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Mak Andam.

Lately, I've been bugged to find a mak andam (because apparently the best ones get booked first!) and since I've always had a nagging disturbing feeling about this Malay custom, I did a bit of research. By serendipity a friend posted a terribly fascinating article on the Malay custom of Potong Andam, with more details here.

In pre-Islamic times of the Malays, this ritual was carried out before the wedding to ascertain if the bride was a virgin, which consequently says something about the happiness and longevity of the marriage -- bccause virginity is important, even more than emotional maturity or financial stability.

I trawled through this fascinating Multiply site of a mak andam who posts reviews from her clients. Reading through dozens of reviews, it seems that some brides change their wedding date just to hire their preferred certain mak andam on their wedding day. This mak andam plays multiple roles -- being a wedding coordinator for the day (both in the professional and cultural sense since she ensures the adherence to traditional wedding protocol), make-up artist, on-the-spot counselor to give tips on wedding life, as well as a bridesmaid to make the bride calm, comfortable and wipe away her tears and sweat with on-hand tissues.

Because make-up makes you beautiful.

One phrase that repeatedly came up in the reviews is 'naikkan seri', literally 'bringing out radiance' (which has roots in making a bride look virginal/chaste just in case she really isn't, according to the potong andam rites of seeing which way her hair curls). It's interesting to see how 'seri'  has been discursively picked up when talking about making a bride beautiful, without realising its superstitious roots.

I can understand the part about making the wedding day the most important and historical day of the bride's life. I don't mean to be pessimistic, but it's just the first day of a long process that is marriage. Plus, with all the divorces happening left and right in Malay society (and top two reasons for divorce is money and drifting apart), it seems that this great emphasis on the bride's preparation for the wedding day (resulting in a drain in finances) is not helping.

Let's not forget the groom - he doesn't get anyone to give him tips on how to handle the wedding day. He, in the words of an observer, "has not been touched and suddenly looks 'surprisingly' dark and brown" in pictures taken with his shining bride. He's surely got all kinds of nerves thinking about how to execute the wedding contract smoothly, not tripping over the carpets, not calling the elders by the wrong names, etc. Someone give him a Pak Andam (who can sometimes be played by the husband of the Mak Andam)!

The ensuring of wedding protocol also serves to ensure that customs are passed down 'properly'. It also makes it harder to do things your own way, even if you feel that you have good reason to not follow adat. Nevermind that the mak andam is a lady hired to do all this, who is often not related to the bride or the family at all, you must listen to her (and also random religious men) to tell you what you can or cannot do on your wedding. It's so dangerous to use your mind.

I agree that outsourcing certain skills in society like how to succeed in marriage (among other things) is not a common thing. In fact, in one class last term we discussed the sexual initiation rituals among the Baganda people in Uganda. There are certain women in society that are considered to possess all the knowledge relating to sex or marriage and families send their daughters to learn from them. And if they come back not knowing enough, the specialists will have to answer for it!

I would personally prefer to have people with whom I have a meaningful relationship give me advice when I request it, rather than take it (unsolicited) from a total stranger, especially in personal issues like this. There are important people in my life with whom I would like to share an important day. Blind deference to authority is not that fun.

Eid ul-Fitr.

So it's Eid ul-Fitr, the first day of Shawal 1432. I just want to touch on how we celebrate it here, and why it's often mistaken for our New Year (which is the first day of Muharram), and why some Muslims should not get so pissy about this misunderstanding.

The following traditions may or may not have roots in Islam, Hindu, Arab or animistic culture. It's important to highlight that the Malays have a rich and varied heritage that expresses itself as a fluid culture. It's delusional to think that everything we do is 100% according to Muhammad the Prophet, but for some things, as long as it's not counter to anything in the Qur'an, in my opinion it should be seen as a valid expression of being different 'peoples and tribes' (49:13).

In the morning there is the Eid prayer and sermon. Muhammad encouraged everyone to attend -- that includes women -- but some families with a traditional gender division of labour tend to keep their women at home, cooking for the men of the family (because woman, domestic work is an act of worship!) to come back and eat breakfast together. Consequently, many Muslim girls grow up thinking that the Eid prayer is not important for them.

Some may go straight from the mosque to visit graves of deceased family members. They may offer prayers for the dead, but in my opinion, this is not useful because once God the most Merciful has passed judgment, no amount of prayers change it, because he has already expressed his ultimate mercy. In the same vein, each soul can only get credit for the work that s/he has done (6:164, 53:39), and no one can or may carry the burden of another (6:164).

Speaking of breakfast, Malays use the main ingredients of coconut and rice to make all kinds of yummy dishes. The ketupat and pulut classics: coconut leaves are woven into a small pillow- or onion-shaped bags, filled with rice, and boiled to create thick rice cakes.

3x3x1 inches square of ricey goodness

And with that comes an entire plethora of meat and seafood dishes cooked with coconut milk, desiccated coconut, chilli, vegetables, spices, etc. Each family has their own special dish (or more) for Eid.

Then we visit the houses of extended family members, beginning with the eldest and therefore the most important to respect. Once there, the host/hostess urges us to eat or taste cookies and/or food that they have cooked themselves -- this is more important that eating food cooked and given by someone else or bought from a store. This visiting goes on during the following three weekends (until Shawal is over) because 1) Malays have large families, and 2) if Ramadan is a month of fasting, ergo Shawal is a month of celebrating.

Money is given in small colourful envelopes to children and those who have not started working, or those married. Those who have started working are generally expected to start giving envelopes of money to those younger than them. So, the net number of envelope givers generally remain about the same, haha. This is also done by the Chinese during their New Year, so honestly I don't blame anyone for thinking that Eid is a New Year too.

Because the Arabic language is so flexible -- words have multiple meanings -- the phrase Eid ul-Fitr can be translated in several ways. One is 'Celebration of the Breaking of Fast' which directly translates into the standard Malay Eid greeting of 'Selamat Hari Raya'. Another is 'Return to the Original State', which refers to the pure(r) spiritual state one is in after fasting during Ramadhan. Is it this idea of this change of state or renewal that prompts Malays to getting brand new houses and clothes?

One thing that struck me when going to Geylang Serai (an area of Singapore historically full of Malays, and now full of Malay shops) is the enormous bazaar (that is rented out by Chinese businessmen, by the way) that sells among other things, curtains and cushion covers! Some Malays take the idea of renewal très seriously -- they carry out massive spring cleaning, change their curtains, cushions and even furniture! Spring cleaning is also done by the Chinese before they celebrate Chinese New Year.

Interestingly, as far as I can remember (that's to say, about 20 years or so), there has also been a variety show on the Malay channel on television, with local and regional singers, actors and comedians presenting song, dances and skits for the amusement of the Malays. Recently, it's been getting bigger, grander, and shinier (all those sequins!). This year though, they had a street concert on 30th July, just 2 days before the start of the fasting month of Ramadhan. They called it "Raya Gemilang" (lit. 'Shining (!) Celebration') and you can see a video of it below:

Suria, the organisers, says that the concert is to launch the decoration of the streets Geylang Serai with neon lights and posters with educational information about well-known Malay pioneers like businessmen, religious teachers, and poets (why they are on lamp posts and not in museums is another hot issue altogether). But a lot of people are thinking that celebrating Eid/Raya before Ramadhan has even started is pushing the envelope (haha!) a little too much.

We called it 'Raya Gemilang' but it's not for Raya - honest!
Finally, forgiveness is the main theme of Eid in Singapore. The classic greeting goes 'Selamat Hari Raya, Maaf Zahir dan Batin' (the hilariously literal translation being 'Happy Day of Celebration, Sorry Outwardly and Inwardly') with the second part referring to the sincere asking of forgiveness that is done by family members in the mornings, and before leaving other houses. Doing this at the end of the visit is convenient because if it gets too emotional, they can always pull away and get into their car. Ha!

When I was ten years old and carpooling with a schoolmate, a family friend of hers asked me,
"Do Malays really mean it when they say sorry during Hari Raya?"
Hey, you gotta take it as it is. Of course it's absurd to think that this is only done once a year, but for those who may not think about it at all, it's a start. So Muslims, don't get pissy about having Eid ul-Fitr being mistaken for a New Year celebration when your rituals are similar to Chinese New Year -- be forgiving.

And on that forgiving note, I'm sorry if the words in this blog have aggrieved any of my readers (you always have the option of clicking over to the next Blogger blog, heh) and ultimately, God is most Forgiving.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Indecent exposure.

At the rockclimbing workshop a few years ago, I was wearing a headscarf and as I raised a part of the cloth up to cover my mouth while laughing, a male friend sitting opposite me got all bothered and hissed at me to cover a sliver of neck made visible because I lifted the cloth.

Before we continue, here's how I used to wear the headscarf, which is common in Southeast Asia (and funnily, in Denmark!). A large square piece of cloth is folded into a triangle and held with small pins under the chin, on the shoulder. The cloth I lifted was the bottom piece.

I am not a mannequin.
Another male friend was also fond of pointing out strands of hair below one's temples that tend to come out after a long day wearing a headscarf. Specifically, he would announce "Mr Tumnus!" to indicate this phenomenon. Mr. Tumnus is a character in C. S. Lewis' Narnia. He is a satyr, which in Greek mythology, are bottom-goat-top-man creatures that are the companions of the fun-loving gods Pan and Dionysus. As part of their nature, they play pipes, drink wine and love all kinds of pleasures.

Yeah, so he has some serious sideburns.
So he just compared a girl who is striving to achieve modesty in her physical appearance to a half-animal male mythical hedonistic creature? It's not funny unless the girl herself claims the title for her self.

On both counts, I felt ashamed -- without knowing exactly why. I didn't expose that bit of skin on purpose; I knew that situation I was in required a certain kind of 'modest' behaviour, which ironically I was trying to uphold when I covered my mouth when laughing.

Inwardly, I seethed. The fact that he had a problem with a sliver of skin which under non-headscarf circumstances would not have aroused such hostile (or perhaps sexual?) feelings in him creeped me out. Why couldn't he just have looked away?

What I should have said to both of these guys was, "Lower your gaze, dude! You shouldn't be looking in the first place. And if you have a problem with a sliver of skin showing, then you have more problems than neither I nor any amount of cloth can help you with."

This is not uncommon. Muslim men do this disciplining of Muslim women's appearance, all the time. It's only a question of being aware of it. Is this a part of believers being guardians and enjoining good and forbidding bad among each other? (See 3:104, 3:114, 5:105, 9:71 for some examples).

In that case, I don't see Muslim women stepping up to the plate to tell Muslim men to stop wearing their short-sleeved T-shirts, or T-shirts with "PLAYBOY" written on them, to stop playing hockey and soccer in shorts or wearing board shorts at the beach, to grow beards because otherwise they look feminine and attract the wrong kind women with their clean-shaven faces (you know, a kind of woman that doesn't want a tough man?), and to wear turbans, and to stop saying "sial lah"* or "siol" at the end of every other sentence.

And we don't, because we don't have the social privilege of speaking to men that easily. But to my Muslim brothers and sisters out there busy policing those with or without headscarves, here's a verse from the Qur'an to ponder:
"What! do you enjoin men to be good and neglect your own souls while you read the Book; have you then no sense?" (2:44)
Sial is a slang word used in colloquial Singaporean (Singlish) which comes from Malay, used to indicate admiration, anger, envy or conviction. Sial is considered vulgar because it means 'bad luck' -- implying that the user is wishing misfortune on the other speaker.

The point of travel...

... is not only to see the bad in every place you see in order to make you feel grateful for what you have. The place that you come back also has its flaws, and a little discomfort in a "Third World" country like not having a consistent source of clean water or having to poop in an outhouse should not reduce your gratitude to only for the basic necessities (although it's a good level to start with, haha.). Then what would you make of the good you see?

... is not to search high and low for the same food and shops that bring you comfort, like McDonald's or The Body Shop. Sure, the food tastes (disgustingly) the same, and the products are alike but sold at a cheaper price, but the price of your plane/train/bus ticket probably made up the difference.

... is not to blank out all memories of sights and interpersonal interactions with alcohol or drugs. Intoxicant tourism is young men from Norway and other countries in Europe with a less-than-liberal drug policy coming to the Netherlands to smoke marijuana in the coffeeshops, English youth fresh from their GCSEs taking a gap year in Southeast Asia drinking their livers to cirrhosis with cheap beer in every town they go to, repressed Asian men and women enjoying the 'freedom' of Europe to do, wear, and sleep with anything.

... is not to take photographs without the permission of the people you meet, in artistic (and often black-and-white) ways in order to fish for compliments on your photographic abilities. These are whole people, not only a face or a smile or a financial transaction for you to immortalise and sell prints of, beyond their control.

... is not to generalise about whole populations based on some spectacularly negative experiences with some (men). A farmer's handful of plums tumbling into your palm or the opportunity to help someone you cannot even speak the same language with will surprise you and strengthen your faith in humanity and God.

The point of travel...

... is to make genuine contact with the faces and hearts of inhabitants, eat their food, walk their paths, take their buses/trains/motorcycles and if possible, understand how and why they live. They have entire lives of which the ritualistic, religious or recreational parts are often romanticised and repackaged for your neverending touristic consumption. You may not like people asking you why you're not married with no children but respect and try to understand that worldview; don't be smug about your 'modern' lifestyle and social norms.

... is to be socio-politically aware of the consequences of your presence and actions. Taking pictures with little girls in their 'traditional' costumes for some coins, and buying bracelets off child vendors is sometimes too lucrative to put or keep them in school. At the same time, bragging about saving monkeys while you remain oblivious to begging children and women is not quite getting it right either.

... is to leave a place cleaner than (or at least as clean) you found it. Bring plastic bottles, sanitary napkins and plastic sheets into a rainforest or beach and you must bring them out. It's tempting to throw one little biscuit wrapper into the deep grass, but don't. God made us stewards of the Earth, and every little bit of God's creations - trees, mountains, children, grown men - help us to understand ourselves and everything else a little bit more.

... is to be appreciative with modesty and stillness of all that you've heard, seen, smelt, tasted and touched. Friendship that remains over years is my personal favourite way to live out God's reminder to us in the Qur'an:
"O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. Indeed, God is Knowing and Acquainted." (49:13)
A reflection and reminder to myself. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

On being introduced.


I don't like being introduced to other people with adjectives, unless the description is something relevant to the person I'm being introduced to, which would then help to provide a topic for small talk. For example,
'This is Sya, she's from RJ.' 
Fine if I'm meeting someone who's an alumni. Not fine if not.
'She's a feminist.'
Awesome if I'm meeting a feminist academic or who does women-related work. Not awesome if male, misogynist, or feminist-hating.
'She's a dancer.'
Great if I'm meeting someone who does something related to performing arts. Not great if clueless about dance or has a fetish for flexible people.

Why does this make me uncomfortable? It took me a long time to figure it out, but it's because I realise that my identity, activities or experience have been appropriated against my will to act as a boost for the image of the person introducing me.

A guy I was dating spoke often about a good friend who lived in a neighbouring country, and she was someone he used to date. Since I had a genuine interest in his life and that blossoming relationship (and I was visiting a friend in the same town), I contacted her and made plans to meet up (bringing along two friends for backup, haha.).

It was a party of six, and I was introduced to her two friends like thus:
"This is the current girlfriend of my ex-boyfriend, who's now one of my best friends."
I was amazed - why did she say that? It became clearer when her two friends responded with:
"Oh, you know so many people - you're so cool!"
"Only you can make a party like this work!"
Don't get me wrong, it would have been okay to have simply been introduced as a new friend (or friend of a best friend, that could have worked too!), because I had never met her before. But the only thing she knew about me (my relationship status) had been used against my will as a theatrical prop to demonstrate uncommon open-mindedness and fun-loving personality.


In Belfast, we got a bag of potato crisps with our lunch packs - along with salad or sandwich, a chocolate bar, a bottle of water, and fruit or yoghurt - everyday, but in one of the university residence kitchens I found a bag of crisps from McCoy's, who apparently think that crisps need to be gendered:

The text on the back says:
As thick as you like them and built with ridges deep enough to carry the maximum load of our unique full-on flavours!
Remember, these are crisps. How similar are they to male sexual prowess? I say, not at all. It also puzzles me to whom these crisps are supposed to attract. Men - so they can be as manly as these crisps? Women - so they can be satisfied by these crisps? It's baffling.

Another campaign going around on Facebook for breast cancer awareness is a game that gets people to post in their status their shoe size followed by the word "inches", then the number of minutes they take to do their hair, and then a sad face. (There's a copy of the inbox message on this blog). Bizarre? But this is what you get:
9 inches, 10 minutes ):
5 inches, 15 minutes ):
Apparently this is to create a mixture of anger and curiosity in men upon reading about how their women are unsatisfied, and get them to ask questions. Upon which, one presumably explains the purpose of the game - to raise awareness for breast cancer. However, men are completely left out of the campaign, and they can only find out by trying to break into an inside joke, if they even would ask The above game also specifically focuses on men's sexual prowess (or lack thereof) which again, have nothing to do with breast cancer.

This is the latest in a series of Facebook status games (started anonymously) to raise awareness - all involving risqué undertones. Previously, there was a game to post "I like it on the..." followed by the location where a woman places her handbag or purse. There was also another game to post "I like..." followed by one's bra colour as a status.

The main aim is to get both women and men curious about such a strange status, which allows one the opportunity to explain about breast cancer. But some people just play along because perhaps suggesting one's sexual activity and habits is supposed to be empowering. However, these games construct women as being frivolous, seductive, and hostile to men - so how are men supposed to help the women in their lives prevent and deal with breast cancer?

These sexual innuendos attract attention because sex sells. Breast cancer awareness has unfortunately bought into these frivolous constructions of women, along with associating irrelevant concepts which may not be so effective in informing women and men about the statistics, methods of prevention and cure of breast cancer. Associating irrelevant concepts also has the unfortunate consequence of reducing the respectability and credibility of one's product or campaign.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On giving assistance.

I'm now in Belfast, Northern Ireland helping my sister compete in the Boccia World Cup 2011. Boccia is a target game played in singles, pairs or teams of three. The aim is to get the most number of your own blue or red balls closest to the white target ball (known as the jack) at the end of four rounds of six to eight minutes each.

Soft boccia balls

I help my sister by being her sports assistant and caregiver. Athletes with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy or others with limited control of their upper bodies, are classified into four different categories based on their ability to throw or catch the hand-sized, soft, leather balls. In the BC3 category, athletes use assistive devices such as ramps to roll the ball from various heights and angles, and head or mouth pointers to hold the ball.

Adding ramp extensions

The sports assistant, being merely the arms and legs of the athlete, is not allowed to turn around during the game. My sister tells me to shift or turn the ramp left or right, forwards or backwards, 'a little bit' or 'a lot'. Then I pick up the ball she chooses and I place it along the ramp. She is the final one to touch the ball, and she releases it accordingly. Then, I adjust the ramp (turn it left and right to change its position from the last throw) and wait for her next instruction.

Individuals play side by side

So, there's a lot of waiting in between. I amuse myself by watching the game going on in the opposite court, looking at the linesman who patrols the players to make sure they don't have any wheels or devices on the white line of or outside of their 1m x 2.5m box during their turn, or observing how the opponent sets up his devices and releases his ball.

Caregiving is another matter altogether. Most of us carry about our daily activities without even thinking about how we brush our teeth or put on our clothes. But for many of the athletes here, they need assistance with every little part of their bodies' actions - some even need towels because they cannot swallow their own saliva. Most of us are not aware of the fact that we turn during our sleep - something some cannot do on their own and need help with.

Father and daughter
What's nice though, is seeing fathers doing caregiving for their sons and daughters, wives for their husbands (although I have yet to see the reverse, haha.) sisters and brothers taking care of each other, though sometimes they are unrelated too, like friends, teachers, or coaches. Every type of caregiving relationship is just that, giving in its own way.


Before coming into my Masters course, my head was full of old-style woman-versus-man feminism (known in academic circles as the Woman in Development or WID paradigm). The short experience I had in Morocco made me realise that ethnicity and class played a part, because it was upper-class urban woman who worked in the association to successfully help the women of the Soulaliyate tribe claim payments for privatisation of their land (which had been previously given only to men, who were assumed to be the heads of their families).

Then I read Mohanty and the concept of the Third World Woman - another case for specifying the woman (or man) one is talking about when promoting or discouraging rights. Basically, Third World Women do not all face the same problems by virtue of being poor(er) and in developing countries - they are not all oppressed by their men, or religion, or cultural norms. At the same time, bigger processes like globalisation affect them negatively, albeit in different ways.

This concept called intersectionality calls for specifying the kind of woman or man one is talking about, and not generalising. Race, class/urbanity, ethnicity, religion, age all have to be considered. For example, women's movements in Singapore are small and tend to be divided along class and racial lines. An association and movement by richer, expatriate women has different aspirations (e.g. friendship, networking) from that by Malay or Muslim women (e.g. education, piety).

After spending much time observing and interacting (but not living the life of ) many athletes with physical and/or intellectual disabilities (e.g. muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy) disabilities at two major sports events - Boccia World Championships 2010 and Boccia World Cup 2011 - I see an even bigger need to add dis/ability when considering intersectionality.

At these competitions, the richer countries, like those from Europe and the USA, have the funding to construct fancy and high-tech assistive devices such as ramps and helmets. They can also afford motorised wheelchairs with extensive and expensive modifications (I met one guy who can drive his chair with the help of sensors around his head!), and communicative devices if they can't speak clearly or at all.

Those from the South such as Latin America have more basic ramps which are not as easy or efficient for the athlete to use. They may also only have manual wheelchairs, and not have any communicative devices (although Facebook can work wonders: I can communicate with a Colombian boy in Spanish by typing since he can't speak); they have to rely on their own sign language which is usually understood only by a few people close to them.

This is not to say that all wealthier countries can afford these devices - those from the poorer classes of these societies may find it difficult to access them. They rely a lot on the compassion of those who are abled around them to help them communicate. In cases where their family may not speak the main language or navigate the welfare provisions of their country well, or not have enough time to dedicate to ensuring a life equivalent to an abled person because they have to work, the disabled person could very well not obtain the maximum potential benefits available in their own country.

Some may also feel more strongly patriotic (since this is an international event!) and so have a stronger spirit of sisterhood with their own citizens. But for some who have not met anyone else with their (sometimes a rare type) condition, they may feel more connected even though they are of different gender, age, class or nationality.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

An easy way to heaven.

Recently I've been hearing a lot about how it's so easy for women to enter Paradise. This does not actually contradict the sayings that imply women naturally commit more sin, because the women referred to in this case are married, and not unmarried women, and I personally feel this is a nice example of positive psychology for men to get women to behave the way they want.

I found it incredibly contradictory that during a Muslim marriage preparation course, trainers emphasise the mutual love , respect and mercy that spouses should cultivate in a marriage. But once we got out into the real world, all kinds of people like to offer hadith as extra, unbalanced advice for the wife (and if you've read enough posts here you'll know I'm not a fan of Man's laws that add to God's laws).

"I'll permit you to walk around the block"
"Yes, thanks dear"
I'm not promoting the reverse, where husbands obey their wives, because I believe that both should obey only God. What's so difficult about both spouses respecting, understanding, embracing and encouraging each other? But let's get to the juicy stuff.

First one is written by Tirmidzi, who claims that Umm Salama attributed this saying to Prophet Muhammad:

"If a woman dies while her husband was pleased with her, 
she will enter Paradise"

I must have missed this when learning about the pillars and articles (core beliefs) of Islam. It looks almost like the word 'God' has been substituted for 'husband' here - elevating him to some sort of demigod! Personally, I think there is no guarantee of entering Paradise - whether we are Muslim or not - which is the point of us striving constantly to be good and hoping for God's mercy.

It would make more sense to me, if the cultivation of love and respect between spouses could help them to enter Paradise, because such a state could help each spouse to live a meaningful and useful life while being supported and encouraged in fulfilling religious duties.

Some say that this refers only to a righteous husband who will only be pleased at a righteous wife, but why does the wife have to fulfill two levels of righteousness (husband's and God's), and why is the husband assumed to do no wrong? Otherwise, just iron your husband's shirts, cook his favourite food and allow him to take on additional wives - it's not about you, it's about your husband as a gateway to Paradise.

Second one is written by Bukhari, from Abu Hurayra who claims to attribute this to Muhammad:

"A woman should not fast 
except with her husband's permission."

This is bizarre, where in the Quran does it say that one soul needs permission from another soul to carry out religious duties like praying, fasting, paying alms? Isn't everyone responsible for their own deeds? (16:93, 53:39) Unfortunately, these notions are prevalent: that a husband will be questioned about his wife's and children's sins, or parents will carry their children's sins, or wives will be questioned about their households.

Some say that this refers to the optional fasts and prayers, but once again, I believe each person is responsible for their own deeds. It implies difficulty for the married woman to do achieve spirituality and righteousnouss through supplementary acts of worship because she needs permission from her husband - to ensure that she will or will not be available to fulfill his 'rights'.

If she's doing an optional fast and her husband wants sexual intercourse in the middle of the day, will he nullify her fast or will have to wait till sunset? (and we're not even discussing the hadith related to a wife rejecting him!) If she's doing an optional prayer and her husband wants a cup of coffee, will he have to wait or God forbid, make it himself?

Not all prostitutes give good sex.

Third one is reported by Ahmad and Al-Tabarani through apparently thiqat or reliable/trustworthy narrators, again attributing this to the Prophet:

"If a woman prays her five daily prayers, fasts her month (of Ramadan), obeys her husband and guards her chastity, then it will be said to her: 'Enter Paradise by whichever of its gates you wish.'"

I personally had this one directed to me and it makes no sense because this practically puts obedience to the husband on par with one's obligatory duties, with no basis in the Quran. Some say that there is indeed a verse in the Quran that says women have to be obedient (4:34), but the word qanitat, which has traditionally been translated as 'devoutly obedient' and interpreted as 'obedience to the husband', is also used in other places in the Quran (2:116, 2:238; 3:17, 3:43; 16:120; 30:26; 33:31,35; 39:9; 66:5, 66:12) to refer to men and women who are 'devoted to God'.

Both men and women have to pray, fast, guard their chastity, and be 'devoutly obedient' to God. This saying gives wives a fantastic incentive to obey their husbands - poor husbands can't enjoy the same reward! Some also say that the domestic work a wife does for the husband and household is counted as ibadah or worship. But it's difficult to consider domestic work as giving the same psychological and spiritual benefits of acts of worship like praying, fasting, and dhikr - otherwise why aren't men rushing to do domestic work for its spiritual benefits as well?

I want a cute husband too.

Those who perpetuate this saying recreate the conditions for keeping women at home - saying that all kinds of prayers (in a mosque, Friday congregational, and Eid) are unnecessary for women. When I was growing up I constantly heard that women did not have to go for Eid prayers - it felt unfair because as a child I also wanted to witness a religious celebration - because their cooking for the family at home counted as an act of worship as well.

In the end, making it seem easy for wives to enter Paradise by promoting these sayings with no basis in the Quran only serves to ensure that wives do their domestic work without complaints. These sayings also take away a woman's agency to choose what she would like to do to gain God's favour and mercy (for e.g. working for a just cause), and leave her fate in the Hereafter at the mercy of their husband instead of rightfully, God. These sayings also indirectly blame women who may have unrighteous husbands for not choosing properly, and finally, are silent on how unmarried women are to attain Paradise!

Joy to the wife that has a compassionate and righteous husband, because she'll easily go to Paradise without having to do extra good deeds, and woe to her that has an unreasonable, hot-tempered and disbelieving husband - because she has to please and obey him anyway if she wants to go to Paradise.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Malay-Muslim marriage customs.

There are many aspects of wedding-related Malay customs that I find problematic but it is difficult to point them out or resist them on my own, because the nature of culture is that it is shared by many people, who collectively make them last through the generations.

The first is the separation of the bride and groom during the Islamic solemnisation ceremony, known as the akad nikah (lit. marriage contract). While there are no set rules on where to place the couple during the ceremony, it seems that Malays wish to place the bride anywhere but beside the groom himself. Some families isolate the bride in her own room while the ceremony takes place between the groom and her guardian outside. Some families place the bride in the same area but she is either on a different chair, facing a different direction, a distance behind - basically anywhere that the groom cannot directly look at her.

The main attraction involves the groom being able to recite the preset contract dialogue stating his acceptance of the bride with a chosen mahr with the guardian or registrar smoothly and in one breath. How does a bride feel married when her role is passive (giving consent) and not active (stating a wish)?

Spot the bride
Source: http://danielzainphotography.blogspot.com/

Second, people here are often shocked if Muslims choose to marry in a civil ceremony with the Registry of Marriages (ROM) instead of a religious one with the Registry of Muslim Marriages (ROMM), because it implies an inter-religious or non-religious marriage. They might also think that the presence and permission of a guardian is important. (Yes, you read right: I consider marrying ROMM-style a custom! Haha.) 

But I think that the spirit behind both types of marriages are the same, except that a civil marriage allows more freedom in determining the solemnisation procedure. The bride and groom can face each other or face the same direction; they are allowed to stand beside each other in anticipation of the mutual partnership and promise that marriage brings. In other words, I think a civil marriage embodies the spirit of Islamic marriage more - ironically.

Third, the excessive exchange of  gifts and money. I concede that in many (if not most) cultures, marriage is basically a contract between two families involving material assets. In Malay engagements and marriages, hantaran (trays of various gifts) are exchanged, and the groom is also socially required to pay an expensive brideprice to the bride or her parents - correlated with her educational level.

The 'market rates' (according to my mum) are around SGD3000 to SGD4000 for brides with less than university education, SGD10,000 for graduates and SGD12,000 for postgraduates - argh! It's no wonder that some Malays are not keen on having their women study too much! From my personal observation, Malay couples who don't agree with such wastage find it hard to not conform to adat because their families expect this:

A dizzying array of gifts: shoes, chocolate, fruit, clothes, perfume, wallet, watch, towels

I'm not saying we should all scrap hantaran because it is acceptable if it's a mutual agreement between spouses (4:24). But I do find it insulting that it's related to the woman's level of education. It suggests that the more educated a woman is, the more difficult it will be to marry, because the groom has to pay more. Since the hantaran could also be directed to the bride's parents, it also suggests that the family is being compensated for the loss of the earning power of their daughter.

The hantaran could also be used to offset some of the costs of a wedding reception, which suggests that the more educated the woman, the bigger the reception should be. Generally, these requirements of adat tends to delay a marriage because of the required financial and logistical resources (and we haven't gone into the environmental aspect of all that use of organza and cut flowers!)

Immediately following the solemnisation, some hadith-aware grooms recite a supplication while placing his hand on his new bride's forehead, to ask "O God, I beseech You for the good that You have placed in this, and I seek refuge in You from the evil that you have placed in this." Apparently, this supplication is traditionally recited upon the acquisition of something new. Notice how this is one-way and also implies that there is 'evil' in the bride! Plus this was originally a supplication meant for the acquisition of a new camel (where holding the head makes total sense), what's the link?

Another custom after the solemnisation is to get the bride to kiss the groom's hand, while he kisses her forehead. A long time ago, this might have been the first time the couple touches each other. But today, most couples have probably held hands during the courting stage. The customary or traditional reason some give for these gestures is the nullification of one's wudu' (state of ablution). To me, why is this the point when ablution can be easily nullified by going to the toilet (haha).

And besides, doesn't marriage create a halal (permitted) relation between husband and wife? How are they going to live together, kiss or salam each other hello and goodbye and pollute (i.e. nullify ablution) each other in each instance? In any case, I also find it absurd that skin contact between a husband and wife is considered to be polluting - which is the opinion of some Islamic schools of thought except for the Maliki, Hanafi, and the Shia - a concept not found in the Quran.

These customs are the creations and ideas of Man - whether imam, scholars, or family - and Man's opinions are just that, and should be able to be refused or accepted without social consequences. I find the idea of guardianship unwarranted, and I find the idea of hantaran wasteful and excessive. As long as the divine requirements for marriage are met (mahr and family/people's permission), couples should be able to make the choice of not marrying according to Malay adat, because I find that it is insulting to the bride, privileges materialist and patriarchal values, does not have a strong Islamic basis and makes marriage difficult and burdensome.

Guardianship in Muslim marriage.

The idea of a guardian in Arab society permeates into Muslim societies until today, as can be seen by the relegation of women in Saudi Arabia as being in the eternal custody of a male guardian. In Southeast Asian culture where women have historically worked alongside men in the public space, I find that the idea of guardianship in Singaporean Malay Muslim marriage exists solely in a symbolic sense.

What I found in the Quran pertaining to marriage (4:23-35) is that the groom must give a mahr (gift) to the bride, and must seek permission of ahlihinna (her people). But here in Singapore, an Islamic solemnisation ceremony takes place between the bride's male guardian (father or next closest relative) and the groom, while the kadi (registrar or court representative) if present checks with the bride if she gives her consent.

It is not a directly a contract between the bride and the groom - it is a contract between the bride's guardian and the groom, who takes over as her new guardian. The idea of an obligatory guardian in marriage is backed by the opinions of scholars of the Hanafi, Shafi'i and Maliki (but not Hanbali) schools of thought - and most of Singapore's Muslims follow the Shafi'i school of thought.

Interestingly, wali is used as the title of a woman's guardian only on her wedding day and in no other social situations in Singapore - showing that there are no other events in a Singaporean Muslim woman's life that requires guardianship. In the case that the bride is a convert, she does not even require the permission of her guardian - implying that guardianship only exists in a specific religio-cultural context, and does not transcend boundaries - even though she may still maintain links with her male relatives.

What I found in the Quran made more sense to me. Doing a quick concordance, I found that the word wali in the Quran is overwhelmingly used to refer to Allah, as He is the Guardian and Protector of those who believe.* Awliya' (plural) is used to describe those who should protect Masjidil Haram (the Prophet's Mosque in Mecca). It is also possible to take as awliya': Shaytan (4:119, 7:27, 7:30), unbelievers (4:139, 8:73, 9:23) or anything else (7:3), but this is of course a really bad idea (: 

The verse that is often used to justify a bride's need for a wali is 4:25, but here the Arabic word that is often translated as 'guardians' is not awliya' but ahlihinna - used in other terms like ahl ul kitab (People of Scripture) - which could reasonably be simply translated as 'people', not 'guardians'. In other words, before a man marries a woman, he should ask permission from her people - her parents, extended family, or others in her society - again, perfectly reasonable.

As for the marriage ceremony itself, it seems that one is free to marry in any way one wishes - following customs or not, since I find that guardianship is more a custom (whether Malay or Arab) than a religious argument. Believing men and women are awliya' of each other (9:71), much like those who disbelieve are awliya' of each other (8:73). Personally, I would rather enact a marriage contract with my future husband than have him enact a contract with my father.

So why does this half religious, half cultural custom exist? Does religion or culture perpetuate it? Why are we holding on to elements of patriarchy when it comes to marriage and inheritance?
* See 2:107, 2:120, 2:257, 3:68, 4:45, 4:75, 4:173, 5:55, 6:14, 6:51, 6:70, 6:127, 7:155, 7:196 for some of many examples.


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