Sunday, October 30, 2011

Autumn wanderings.

That sounds like weird English, and that's because I rendered it phonetically from herfstwandeling in Dutch. (Isn't herfst such a crazy word? There are 4 consonants together! Try making the sound "rfst".) The Dutchman thinks that herfst sounds just like what it means -- windy, chilly, leafy autumn.

P/S: I've given in. I've started learning Dutch seriously. It's time to knuckle down and stop making fun of this language!

To start with, we bought treinkaartjes to go to the North and South of the Netherlands, all in one day: from The Hague at 10am to Nijmegen to Woerden and back to The Hague at 11pm.

Why did we go all the way to Nijmegen? For a herfstwandeling, or literally, an autumn walk.

The nice lady working at the Nijmegen tourist office suggested two routes to us, and we chose to take Bus 5 to Groesbeek. From there it was a little side path into a park (unfortunately beside a really noisy motorbike practice track, but at least you can't hear it in these pictures).

Looking closer to the forest floor, there were all kinds of other treasures.

Nijmegen is the oldest Dutch town, at 2000 years old. Wow, and when I think that Singapore is only 46...

St Petrus-Canisius Church

St Stephen's Church
In tribute to a season of shorter days and longer nights, candles and lights in the house, and all kinds of warm and filling food, I will spend the next two weeks mostly writing my thesis. So, hang in there and stay patient if I can't churn out long insightful posts unrelated to my thesis topic.

What do you like most about autumn? Or the monsoon season?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Chastity, virginity, and hymens.

These three terms are often conflated without much thought. Let's break it down.

A hymen is an elusive biological artifact. It doesn't only, and always, occur in humans, but when it does, it can be an thick or thin tissue with or without holes that stretches across the entire vaginal opening. It can be loose bits of tissue along the opening, or completely absent. A hymen may or may not serve a physiological purpose -- one hypothesis is that it protects cervical cells from dirt and germs before they mature and start secreting protective mucus.

Exercise such as horse-riding or gymnastics can stretch, tear or reduce someone's existing hymen, or do nothing to a hymen that wasn't there in the first place. Even stretching and tearing does not guarantee copious amounts of blood, destroying the myth of wedding-night bleeding.

Defining virginity depends a lot of your social context. In contexts where virginity is strictly defined as penile-vaginal intercourse, there are a variety of other behaviours which are considered virginity-friendly, including digital, oral and anal sex. Technical virginity is easy to maintain, since there is something clear to avoid, and someone who places great importance on hymens probably have a technical definition of virginity.

Alternatively, another definition of virginity requires intention -- so if someone was raped, their virginity is still intact. Or if a woman uses tampons or menstrual cups, they're still virgins. When the definition of virginity approaches a certain or total state of mind, it approaches the meaning of chastity. This is what I think the Obedient Wives Club (Kelab Taat Suami or KTS) means when they promote being 'virgins physically, mentally and spiritually'.
"A pious woman is the best of worldly decorations"
Once you already have sexual intercourse (of any kind), arguably, you're not a virgin by the broadest definition. I see virginity as a physical state of purity. But chastity is still attainable, because it involves abstinence (if unmarried) and monogamy (if married). I see chastity as a mental or psychological state of purity.

Chastity and virginity both involve purity. For men and women who consider purity important, they know they can't determine anyone's chastity unless they can read minds, so some resort to tangible, physical indicators. And the poor hymen has been the victim of this ideological obsession.

That's why women from Pakistani and Middle-Eastern backgrounds who are caught in this hymen-virginity-purity myth sometimes resort to all kinds of procedures, products and tricks to ensure blood on their wedding night. Whether they have or have not had sexual intercourse becomes irrelevant, because there is no guarantee of bleeding.

Historically, I read somewhere that women could nick their thighs with a razor blade. Today, there are virginity restoration surgeries, blood capsules, and most stunning of all, the artificial hymen fake virginity kit. I must say, the latter kit is comprehensive and even includes instructions on how to behave like a virgin:
 If the mixture of pain and shy like a better effect.
Get acting! With some mood music.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Conviviality and instrumentality.

I had a guilty moment of reflexivity before I started doing research for my thesis. I wanted to go somewhere very different from my own social position; I wanted to talk to women living in mountains in Morocco. Instead, finally I spoke to Indonesian domestic workers, because I started to know myself before trying to know others.

I often think about, although I don't often speak about the politics of difference. In other words, how does difference work? How do we deal with difference?

Instead of putting everyone together in the spirit of a harmonious humanity, I choose to differentiate between groups because all the knowledges from different people are valuable. The knowledge about the desert from Bedouins who have generations of nomad living behind him, the knowledge about the body and the spirit from waste-pickers who have sorted out recyclabe materials in Jardim Gramacho for the last 26 years, the knowledge about caring from men and women who take care of their mentally or physically-challenged spouses and children -- these are all different, and valuable.

After considering how everyone is different, I realise that not everyone has a voice. Privilege comes from many sources: language, money, education, urbanity... So it's okay to want to speak on behalf of a marginalised group. But I can't speak for them, I can only speak as myself in relation to them. And so I tried to find people that were not too different from me, so that my voice would not sound so different from them. But it's also important to ask how they see me? What kind of prejudices did they have about me?

My intention for speaking about them is to dignify them. When we consider difference as valuable and worth speaking about, we recover dignity -- the opposite of dignification is denigration. Considering difference gives dignity to everyone.

And so that's how I am learning to live with the world, instead of using it.

Conviviality, not instrumentality.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Sex Manual of The Obedient Wives' Club.

If you haven't heard of the Obedient Wives' Club or Kelab Taat Suami (in Malay) before, read this previous post first.

Abuya Ashaari Muhammad's characteristic pout.
Well, they know that sex sells to everyone. And to a narrow-minded, mainstream, and (dare I say it) extremist Muslim audience, anything to do with Jew-hating sells. So OWC/KTS combined the two concepts for the title of its latest book, 'Seks Islam, Perangi Yahudi Untuk Kembalikan Seks Islam Kepada Dunia' (lit. Islamic Sex, Fight the Jews to Return Islamic Sex to the World), in addition to holding several workshops in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. Maybe I'm too ignorant or not anti-Semitic enough, but what has 'Islamic sex' and fighting Jews got to do with each other?

It turns out, not so much. And here's the twist, it turns out that KTS' brand of 'Islamic sex' has more to do with sensationalised idea of sex in Mormonism ('Mormonic sex'?) and cult sex than anything else.

Did I catch your attention? Read on.

The KTS released this controversial book on 12 October 2011, and was immediately publicised in the Malaysian Berita Harian. This Malaysian blogger does a good job of summarising and defending the negative responses received by KTS (also worth reading some other entries from his blog to understand more about the way KTS thinks). Some of the gems in this book include advice for newlyweds, in addition to sexual positions and ways for wives to allow husbands to enjoy '100% and not 10%' of their bodies.

Here's the first few pages from the book:

"Tips from Obedient Wives' Club:
  1. Why fear obeying your husband 100% when you will obtain the love of your husband as well as God and the Prophet. (Did anyone notice that husband was mentioned first, before God?)
  2. Isn't it true that women would not be married if there were to be no sex? If so then surrender yourself and give your full cooperation to your husband, until he enjoys it 100% and not 10%. (Because marriage is only to make sex permissible, and women don't and will never like sex and have to be always coerced into submission.)
  3. This guide is only able to destroy the Jewish sex protocol, (and) will return pure sex to the Islamic world. The West will be lonely and ashamed to carry out anymore lewd sex because the East has purified it. Given with the price of love and compassion, and not with money and things anymore." (So 'Jewish sex' is transactional, lewd, and non-loving sex, which, like prostitution and pornography only happens in the hedonistic West and not the pure East, of course.)
And the titillating back cover:

As spiritual people, the capabilities that God has permitted to them (men) is simultaneous conjugal relations with all wives. Whereas if the wife is also spiritual, even better. Flying (going?) anywhere for or while having sex is more enjoyable and easier compared to physical sex. And for that Abuya is processing his wives towards the spiritual (or spirits).

When I read this I immediately thought to this idea of 'celestial sex' in the Book of Mormon that has been sensationalised. Admittedly, this doctrine, while present in older teachings, is not emphasised in mainstream Mormon/Latter Day Saints churches today, along with plural marriage (polygamy) -- possibly because of its unpopularity in its social context. They emphasise the metaphorical, instead of taking literally, ideas of becoming like (and possibly better than) God, having spirit children, and being reunited with their multiple spirit wives in heaven.

KTS promotes physical, mental and spiritual virginity -- on Earth, women are the 'best ornamentation' and enjoyment of men, and in Paradise, they are mythical angelic companions. Not only are women portrayed to be objects for the sole enjoyment of men, but their existence is reduced to being only that!

How many cults have there been over the decades that taught that sex was the way to enlightenment for both men and women? Children of God, The People's Temple -- does KTS want to go down this road? KTS in this book has tried to promote orgies* as a way to reach spiritual enlightenment, and they justify it as the word of God ("God has permitted men to have simultaneous conjugal relations with all wives").

Abuya's depravity strange religious ideas are seeking justification and acceptance from the public. People in Malaysia have been calling to ban this book, but I say, distribute it so everyone can read it and have a good laugh. And if you can't see how incorrect their teachings are, then you know you have to go and understand the Qur'an a little bit more.

*Update 24 Oct 11: The book speaks of spiritual, not physical orgies. The authors base this argument on some obscure hadith that claims that the Prophet's companions were allowed by God to have 'spiritual sex' when they were fighting somewhere far away from their families. They were able to do this because they were extremely spiritual people. In other words, when there was no woman available, they masturbated.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why can't I sip your tea?

Thirsty, and you didn't order one for me.

I found this in a group called 'Ingredients of a Happy Muslim Marriage' on Facebook. The complete list appears in the group, but I reproduce some of the more interesting ones below.

Love her …when she sips on your coffee or tea. She only wants to make sure it tastes just right for you. She should be able to share any of your food and drink without any husband-centered reason, unless either of you have compulsive hygiene issues. 
Love her…when she "pushes" you to pray. She wants to be with you in Jannah (Paradise). Why aren't you praying on time anyway? Aren't you supposed to be the household leader? 
Love her…when she asks you to play with the kids. She did not "make" them on her own. You should not only be playing with your own children, but also bathing, feeding, and reading to them. 
Love her…when she has annoying little habits that drives you nuts. You have them too. Copy "So do you". 
Love her…when her cooking is bad. She tries. Why don't you cook instead? Or eat takeout? 
Love her…when she looks dishevelled in the morning. She always grooms herself up again. Paste.  
Love her…when she asks to help with the kids homework. She only wants you to be part of the home. Unless you're afraid of emasculating yourself when the kids find out you can't solve their math sums. 
Love her...when she spends hours to get ready. She only wants to look her best for you. Paste. 
Love her…when she buys you gifts you don't like. Smile and tell her it's what you've always wanted. Or, you could work on those communication skills. 
Love her…when she suffers from PMS. Buy chocolate, rub her feet and back and just chat to her. You don't have to let her talk back. 
Love her…when whatever you do is not pleasing. It happens and will pass. Paste. Because when the husband makes a mistake it 'will pass'. 
Love her…when she stains your clothes. You needed a new thobe anyway. Do your own laundry.  
Love her…when she tells you how to drive. She only wants you to be safe. Um, or maybe she actually knows a faster route?

In the first place, these kinds of lists are suspect because they have as a premise a great and irreconcilable abyss between men and women -- we are so different physically, emotionally and spiritually. In actual fact, many men find this list irrelevant because they do many of the abovementioned tasks themselves.

What is so remarkable about this list are the things that men or husbands are supposed to be annoyed about in the first place. It appears to be a response to a collection of complaints that husbands have towards their wives. Is it just the stereotype of the hot-tempered Arab man? (Clue to the cultural context: 'thobe' is a long robe worn by Arab men.) 

Supposedly, these husbands get angry when their wives take a sip of their drink. Seriously? I thought only children had problems sharing their things. With regards to domestic work, their wives stain their clothes, don't cook well, and encourage their husbands to do the most minimal and hardly unpleasant work -- playing with children and helping with their homework. What are these men expecting after marriage if not to devote their lives to raising their children?

With regards to the appearance or character of the wives themselves, these husbands seem completely oblivious that each of these criticism applies to them. Annoying habits, looking like they just woke up when they wake up in the morning, and taking time to get ready -- all these are simply gender-neutral personality characteristics. Some of the advice seems totally bizarre, for example, that even though she looks like crap in the morning, she will revert back to the made-up perfumed beauty you courted, pronto.

Nevertheless, some of the advice I omitted actually sounded okay. It was just these ones that were too strange to not talk about! (:

Here's a link to a similar article on the blog of Mars Hill Church, in which the suggestions on 'honoring' women are more respectful, and cover multiple aspects of married lives.

See something offensive?

Don't laugh and promote it, speak out and stop it.

Ah, social media and the power of involuntarily discovering hidden chauvinism. A friend sent me a picture that a friend of hers posted this picture on Facebook, and she was outraged at how his friends (both male and female) so easily took it in stride.

The picture shows a motorcycle that has been modified with an incredibly tacky plastic model of an practically naked woman in a position that makes the rider look like he's, well, riding her. It looks quite realistic so you could almost mistake it for a real woman.

If you've heard of the phrase 'objectification' but you didn't know what it meant, this is a good example. Here women's bodies are literally objects. To use and to be used for decoration and to demonstrate sexual prowess. Is there anything right with this picture at all?

Worse are the comments that came from women. Why do we willingly participate in our own objectification and humiliation? So that we can maintain 'friendships' or so that some guys will think we are so 'cool' when we understand their sense of humour? Instead, if you see something unjust or offensive, speak out. To my friend's credit, she promptly unfriended this guy on Facebook.

You feminists have no sense of humour at all. People, humor and offensive stereotypes are not mutually exclusive. That means, something can be funny and offensive at the same time.

P/S: There's another minor issue that's not so relevant here so I left it out. Ejaculation does not mean conception -- a topic for another post. :)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Explaining "thesis" to a 5 year-old.

Him: What are you typing?

Me: This? This is my thesis.

Him: What's a "thesis"?

Me: You know, next year you'll go to elementary school, then middle school, then high school. After that you'll go to university, then another university. Before you can leave that second university, you have to write a thesis -- it's like a little book.

Him: How thick is the book?

Me: Only about this thick (holds fingers half a centimetre apart).

Him: What's the story about?

Me: (Okay how do I explain this!) You know sometimes there's a woman who comes to clean your house?

Him: A femme de ménage?

Me: Exactly. Well in my country some of these femme de ménage also go to university. So they have to ask their boss first, before they can go. That's the story.

Him: Oh. Why do you write in English?

Friday, October 14, 2011

On gender segregation, appearances, and bravery.

Last night I watched a French programme on Tunisia after the revolution. What really made an impression on me was a scene where almost equal numbers of women and men (1 or 2 more) sat around a table to discuss how they would invest in their country, giving up their salaries for a year to do so.

The women were so visibly Muslim with their headscarves, sat in between the other men, and spoke freely during the discussion. It was a sight I have very rarely, or quite possibly never, seen.  The street scenes in the programme look so familiar, they remind me of Morocco, but there I had never seen women sitting with men in outdoor cafes, not even in big cities like Casablanca or Rabat. (Quite possibly, I was in the wrong places).

Such a scene I’ve seen in Singapore maybe only in university, when we were not used to the idea of gender segregation yet, when we had to mix with young men and women who were not Muslim and who did not consider the need for gender segregation at all.

But in a situation where we’re talking about Islam? Never. During the time I spent volunteering at an inter-faith organization, gender mixing is the norm when there are non-Muslims around – it’s just part of normal everyday life. But when it gets to Muslim-only events, situations, or meetings, gender segregation or a majority of men becomes the norm. Men gather to overcome religions, but not gender issues within.

For example, this organization had a big oval table used for conferences. Not many women dared to sit at the table itself, preferring to form a second row on chairs, lining the walls of the room. Yet, I think visibility matters a lot. Seeing men and women sitting together or dressed in a variety of ways (at a religious meeting especially) can makes a difference in helping people feel that they also are welcome, and their input too.

Norms of gender segregation are not the same everywhere in the world. Okay, it sounds obvious but you’ll be surprised, many people hold a certain (Saudi Arabian) idea of gender segregation, not considering that this is a social construct. Different norms can also be a source of conflict and injustice – for example, Indonesian domestic workers shaking hands or talking to men or havingboyfriends in Saudi Arabia is cause enough for arrest.


Much of this phenomenon is self-regulated – most of the time, no one is forcing men and women to separate themselves, or dress in a certain way for an ‘Islamic’ event. Foucault says power is usually exercised bottom-up instead of top-down; people internalize social norms and regulate their behavior, which perpetuates these norms further.

This is an exercise in self-reflexivity – in a room full of Muslims, and especially when there are only women with headscarves around, I (with my formerly headscarved head) sometimes hesitate to say something related to Islam. Whether it’s to protest some ruling that I think is absurd, or to correct someone. I self-regulate, I self-censor, even though I am aware that I should not judge based on appearances  – exactly the way I would like others to treat me. So then I wonder, why do I still self-regulate?

Can we imagine a meeting of Muslim men and women of equal numbers, who work together in one mosque, sitting together around one table, speaking freely and consulting on a matter like programmes for the next Ramadan, for single unmarried mothers with children, and on reserving clean and accessible prayer spaces for women in the mosque, and especially during Friday or Eid prayers? Can the content of these discussions be so significant that each person’s appearance or identity doesn’t matter?

How different is gender-based segregation from race-based segregation, anyway? Or class-based segregation? Especially in situations where the gender, race or class is not relevant. Is it all apartheid with different justifications?

Can we imagine a time where it doesn't matter whether someone wears a headscarf or wears her hair free, is bearded or clean-shaven, wears prayer caps or baseball caps, prays or not, fasts or not – as long as someone calls himself or herself Muslim, we accord them the special respect that they are due as fellow believers, if not the same dignity we accord all other human beings? That we don’t need people to prove their Muslim-ness, we don’t search for theirMuslim-ness before doing so.

And then I think, could I be brave enough to be one of those people?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Women working in mosques.

There's a debate going on in the forums of Berita Harian (BH), the Malay-language newspaper in Singapore right now, about whether women should serve on the administrative board of mosques. Not about women working in mosques per se -- they're fine with women serving as secretaries, doing data entry, collecting zakat and other sai kang stuff like that.

It all started when the head of MUIS (Islamic Religious Authority of Singapore) published an article on the front page of BH on 26 Sep this year, encouraging administrative boards of mosques to mobilise men and women to work for them. Specifically, he proposed gender quotas (touchy subject!), proposing that 1 or 2 women be hired in higher positions such as a Secretary or Treasurer -- notice that he didn't propose quotas for the Chairman or Vice-Chairman. However, he did not refuse the possibility of a Chairwoman someday. And this touched so many (Muslim Malay male) nerves!

Then on 1 Oct came a flurry of responses to the Forum of BH. One was from Md Maidin Packer Md, whose main argument was that it's not good (tidak elok) for women to administratively lead in a mosque. Unfortunately, all these articles are in Malay, so you can't read for yourself the gems that this man has written. Basically his arguments for not hiring women are:

  1. There are enough talented men working. Administrative work requires talent in... filing? Making phone calls?
  2. Not all mosques will agree.
  3. Men are doing a good enough job now. What value can women add? Perhaps ensuring that there will be clean female prayer spaces, non-misogynist sermons, and the possibility of not entering the mosque via the toilet?
  4. No Islamic precedence. Managing and attending mosques are men's jobs. So you do know what patriarchy means. While we're at it, let's say that Islam is a religion exclusively for men!
  5. Women's menstruation will affect their work. Can I bang my head against a wall?
  6. Hiring women is an innovation (bid'ah) and an evil progressive notion. Because you label everything you dislike as 'modern', 'progressive', 'liberal' or 'secular'.
  7. There will be sex scandals akin to the Catholic Church. Um, I think he just insulted all the men who currently work in mosques!
  8. Only men should sacrifice themselves for this great and noble work. Right on, keep thinking that.

On a side note, I love the word elok (lit. good). It's so vague and can be used to enforce any number of customs, traditions or personal preferences in a gentle way. For example, jangan keluar rumah lepas maghrib, tak elok (lit. Not good to go out after sunset) or tidak elok anak dara bersiul (not good for unmarried women to whistle), or as it has been used in his article, Tidak elok wanita pimpin masjid (lit. Not good for women to lead a mosque).

There's no rational reason for it, it's just not... good. And these people just want the best for you, you know?

Maidin found an ally in Nordin Amat, who wrote on 12 Oct 11 that female leadership in a mosque will bring about fitnah. Fitnah is another great word. Originally from Arabic, it appears in the Qur'an to mean discord or dissension between people who disagree over meanings of verses (3:7) or between those who believe and disbelieve (2:102, 9:47-48, 22:53), great corruption/transgression/oppression such as being expelled from where you live (2:191-193, 4:91, 8:73), among other meanings.

However, when used by Malays in a religious context it is conventionally taken to mean temptation that women can exercise over men. This is potent when combined with the meanings of chaos or disorder, because then it evokes the idea that women can seduce men and thus cause chaos on Earth. Or in this case, in the offices of mosques.
Nordin is another example of a discourse in our community that forbids the use of our own God-given gifts of intellect and rationality as they can lead us astray. A tactic of a growing group of disgruntled, educated and 'anti-West' Muslims, he uses labels such as 'relevant', 'progressive', 'liberal', 'secular', and 'modern' to make the whole move by MUIS seem like they are pandering to the modern, Westernised, Singapore state. (Because gender equality, contraception and anything involving giving women more control over their life here on Earth is Western and atheist and therefore evil.)

The best part of his article is his citations of verses from the Qur'an (the highlighter version, i.e. out of context) and some hadith (obviously, the best and most misogynist ones that contradict the Qur'an). Here's what he cited from the Qur'an:
And abide in your houses and do not display yourselves as [was] the display of the former times of ignorance. (33:33)
He conveniently does not add in 33:32 for more context, because then we would know the subject of this verse which has been clearly stated -- the wives of the Prophet (The Qur'an is specific about who it addresses when it says 'O (title of people)' e.g. 'O believers!' 'O submitters!' 'O Prophet' or 'O wives of the Prophet'. So if you're a non-believer, or not a wife of the Prophet, you can bet God is not addressing you.) Even the rest of 33:33 gives more context, that this refers to ahl al-bayti, the members of this (the Prophet's) household.
And do not approach unlawful sexual intercourse. Indeed, it is ever an immorality and is evil as a way. (17:32)
Um, who's having sex in the mosques in the first place?

Fortunately, two voices of reason (male of course, to speak back to these men) prevailed. Muhammad Haniff Hassan, a religious teacher and researcher on terrorism, wrote in on 8 Oct to destroy the previous two men's arguments from a well-argued, jurisprudence point of view. He clarified that Islam does not forbid women leading a mosque administratively. I think this is really responsible of him as a religious teacher and knowledgeable scholar to step up and clarify when women's rights are being discursively threatened.

Most importantly, he stated that there is no single verse in the Qur'an that clearly forbids women to lead in a mosque management board or to be a leader in general. All verses relating to female leadership are speculative and ambiguous, meaning that no single interpretation can be fixed to it.

Likewise, another young man named Nuzulul Qadar Abdullah, a graduate from the International Islamic University of Malaysia, warned against ignoring the rights of women in Islam. He highlighted the differences of opinion among ancient scholars regarding this matter, and the specificity of the quoted hadith. I was especially tickled that he brought of the issue of Maidin Packer's discomfort (ketidakselesaan) with having a woman as a boss over the male imam and muezzin.

Some men are too chauvinist and egotistical to accept a female boss. But using religion to defend preferences? I mean, I don't like mutton and I don't like men saying that women are the source of chaos but I'm not about to quote verses out of context and claim that God forbade the eating of mutton or free speech.

What's interesting is that although the later two men argued against the earlier two, they distanced themselves from promoting the idea of women taking up these higher position or to go as far as encouraging women to do so. Oh well.

Here's a great video (in Dutch, unfortunately with no subtitles) of a tour to Esmaa Ihlas, a Turkish mosque in Geleen, as led by Leila Çakir, the first female president of the mosque as elected in 2001. I am absolutely bowled over by the fact that her hair is not covered, and by the ease with which they sat down to eat cake with other men and women at the mosque.

Slowly does it! (:

Monday, October 10, 2011

Babi panggang.

'Babi panggang' (roasted pork) is commonly seen on Dutch restaurant blackboards (and also in the Albert Heijn supermarkets, heh). Surprisingly, a few Dutch people that I spoke to recently think these are Chinese words.

It all starts when people I just meet ask me what language I speak in Singapore. I explain that we all speak English, but there are people who speak Mandarin, Tamil and other Indian languages, while I speak Malay.

Then they ask, 'Malay, what's that?' I don't expect any non-Malays except Filipinos to know what Malay is, so I explain that it's spoken in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. And that they should be familiar with it because there are so many Malay words around in their country.

'No way. Like what?' Well, like 'babi panggang' for starters. 

It seems that the Chinese, who lived among the Javanese in Suriname or the Antilles (former and present Dutch colonies), created their own version of the Indonesian chicken or beef 'ketjap' (soy sauce) or 'panggang' (roasted) dishes by using pork. They called it 'babi panggang' because that's literally what it is. When they migrated to the Netherlands they sold this dish in their Chinese restaurants.

I find it amusing because I grew up with the word 'babi' used as an insult, since pigs were completely absent in our daily life and cuisine. Malays didn't traditionally raise pigs because Muslims are forbidden pork, and pigs were generally regarded unclean because of this. Even the Malay word for 'pig' seemed unclean and was hardly used; when referring to the animal Malays preferred the Arabic word 'khinzir'. (Arab speakers: Uh, but it still means 'pig'. Me: Don't you know Arabic linguistically purifies??)

What's so amazing is the mixing and appropriation of the cuisine and cultures of so many parts of the world. What's not so amazing is passing it off as Dutch.

'Sate' is another thing considered Dutch, by the Dutch! Admittedly, they've modified it: it's bigger pieces of meat on a kebab skewer, served with baked or fried potatoes and salad. But it's still known as 'sate'.

The cultural historical mix of so many Indonesians means that racism or discrimination skims over Indonesians.  So many times Dutch people speak Dutch to me or assume that I've lived in the Netherlands all my life (Funnily, this also happened in Grenoble. Long live ambiguous olive skin!). I look Dutch because of their colonial history -- many Dutch people have some Indonesian blood in their lineage.

The infamous allochtony and autochtony debate (foreign-born or native-born) that surrounds immigration and 'problems' with Turkish and Moroccan immigrants -- also linked to discourses on racism and Islamophobia -- excludes Indonesians and other Southeast Asians. Indonesian-born immigrants are classified under 'foreign-born' from 'Western' countries, which includes Japan and the USA. Moroccan-born are classified under 'foreign-born' and 'non-Western'. It's not consistent; it doesn't make sense.

When Geert Wilders talks about Muslims, he's not talking about the brown, quiet and meek Indonesian Muslims. He is referring to the disadvantaged sections of Turkish and Moroccan immigrant communities who may have Dutch passports already. Clearly, his problems have nothing to do with Islam, but with a certain disadvantaged section of society which happens to be Muslim.

Sound familiar?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Touching the circle.

Earlier this week I presented my findings to some classmates and my supervisors, getting some really useful feedback afterwards. I find that it really helps me to talk about my research to others, daydream about it on the beach, and cycle through some forests to get a better visualisation of my findings.

I got a wealth of interview data from my respondents -- they told me so much about their previous and current work experiences, their relationships with their employers, and what they expect to achieve when they go home. Now is the time to pick out interesting themes, contradictions and try to summarise everything meaningfully.

I had 3 research sub-questions, 1) to analyse how my respondents gained domestic skills during the 5 to 12 years they have been in Singapore, 2) to analyse how they use these skills to bargain with their employers for 'off' days, salary increases and distance learning for their undergraduate degree, and 3) what discourses surround this process and how they react to them.

Almost all of my respondents had planned to go to university in Indonesia after completing high school, but because of the Asian Financial Crisis (1997-8), unemployment, corruption or lack of funds, they migrated to Singapore to work as domestic workers. They had planned to work for 2 years, save up, and then go back to Indonesia to study in university.

However, after those 2 years they found out that they could not save as much money as envisioned. At the same time, they were 'subjectivated' (taken from French as used by Foucault, referring to how a subject forms herself in a structure) to become domestic workers by learning domestic skills: cooking, cleaning, and child-minding among other things.

They became really good at their work; in fact, so good that their employers wanted them to stay for more than the 2-year probation period, for various reasons. They could then use their domestic skills to bargain for benefits that were due to them (e.g. working only in one household) or extra benefits (e.g. salary increase, part-time study).

Domestic workers, and especially Indonesian ones, are represented by the state, the media (arguably still the state, haha), and employers as either deviant criminals or naive, helpless victims. One of my respondents brought up something really interesting: she said she chooses to ignore and not comment on these discursive representations because her her relationship with her employer is the most important.

That really struck me, and led me to a (preliminary) conclusion that no matter how optimistic I was in the beginning in imagining their ability to act independently to resist these restrictive structures they've found themselves in, they can only act within a circle.

A bigger circle is still a circle.

This circle is set by their employers. A small circle represents restrictive employers who may not give their workers their minimum rights (e.g. adequate rest, food, salary, 'off' days). A larger circle represents 'compassionate' or 'good' employers. Domestic workers can enlarge this circle when they bargain with their domestic skills, and try to touch the circle when they seek to achieve maximum possibilities, but they are still in the circle.

One has to concede that employers have far more power than their workers. It may be quite a pessimistic conclusion, but I think that the ability to enlarge the circle, when seen in the context of the unpredictable and potentially exploitative conditions of their work, is a kind of agency that  gives hope.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Putting up with it.

Two days ago we attended a session to evaluate our MA course, and one issue we had to address was sexual harassment -- if any of us had encountered it, and if there had been enough action against it.

It's no secret, we all hear from each other about a guy who hugs girls a tad too tight and long, another who passes off kissing girls on the cheek as 'part of his culture' (happily there are many other decent men from 'conservative' cultures who are offended by this blatant lie), and another who accosted a girl on her way back from the bathroom in these gender-mixed hostels of ISS.

A friend recounted her experience in an elevator with a male student who gave her this look, but you can't exactly report that as harassment. She brought up a great point -- that sometimes a look, word or a stance can be intimidating, but then because it's so subtle, you wonder if you as a woman are just being paranoid or if you should trust your gut feeling?

This made me think to the years of incidents, which I now call harassment. I remember being as young as 14, visiting my aunt in Kuala Lumpur, taking a walk in the early morning with my mother in my (what I considered) normal decent clothes -- long cotton pants, a long-sleeved tshirt and a headscarf worn in the simplest, most unfashionable way imaginable. We walked past a man in his twenties standing at the side of the road leading our from my aunt's residence, and he whistled at us.

During long morning and evening rides in the car pool to and from secondary school (I went to a secondary school 30 minutes away by car), Bangladeshi migrant workers would make faces at me as they sat in the back of lorries. I still don't walk by construction sites without thinking about men staring, but this is quite the worldwide phenomenon.

The most intriguing experience I had was in a food stall tucked away on the fourth floor of Far East Plaza, an old-ish shopping mall near Orchard Road, the shopping centre of Singapore. I was 19 and had come from a language class nearby to have dinner with a friend. I wore pretty much the same things as I do today -- Indian tunic, long trousers, headscarf. Nothing fancy or striking.

There were a group of young men who were leaving and whom we had to walk past to get to our tables. As we passed, one of them said:


I wasn't looking at him and I didn't reply.

"Sombongnye, kenapa tak balas??"
(Why don't you reply, you're so arrogant!)

Really? I was being arrogant because I didn't give him the attention that he felt entitled to? I don't greet random men in the street, perhaps only if I pass them in a mosque, and in Singapore (and many other countries) greeting a stranger of the opposite sex in the mosque is not even the norm. And if I do, I don't expect a greeting in return, let alone insult the person for not doing so.

For years I wondered what this incident meant, why I felt so uncomfortable by it even though there was a perfectly good Quranic justification for it: to reply if someone greets you with a similar or even better greeting (4:86).

Then I read this article about why 'hello' can make some of us so uncomfortable. It's about the attention that these men want, it's not about the greeting or the sincerity of the greeting. (You could perhaps gauge the young man's sincerity by his expectation of a greeting from me, and his reaction when there was none!)

I don't think it would be a stretch to conclude that this young man was saying 'hello' in a way to get attention, and not to greet me as a fellow Muslim. It's like the countless other men who mutter 'hello' under their breath as they pass (they're not even waiting for a reply!) you in the street, except this guy used a 'religious' greeting.

Here's another article on how harassment can be in the form of compliments. What I liked in this article was a comment by a reader at the end:
"...the worst problems with street harassment often don’t come from the men on the street harassing you – but rather from the prevailing attitudes among society/other men that it’s something you should welcome."
This is nicely illustrated by something that happened last year when I was in a supermarket in Johor. Another young man said 'hello' in Malay as he walked past me in the aisle. When I told my father what happened, he said:
" Well he just wants to be friends."
Men, don't feel left out. I know some men also experience this, especially those who do not fit the heterosexual, macho-looking norm. I kept short hair for 5 years and was constantly mistaken for a boy in Singapore and in Morocco (this was good though, prevented a lot of harassment!). The one incident I'll never forget -- I was sitting in Starbucks with a male friend and this rather old Indian man said this gem in passing:
"Handsome virgin boy..."

My friend and I fought over who he was directing his comment to. Hah!

What about you? What do you consider harassment? Do you do anything about it? Share your experiences.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Sorry for the lack of posts - I'm busy with my thesis and a presentation of my findings at the moment, but I'll be back with a post by Friday.

About my findings.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ridding prejudices.

It started about six years ago, that I used to constantly be mistaken for Indonesian domestic worker. At that time I used to get so offended when other domestic workers approached me to ask if I was working nearby. I suppose I must have internalised what everyone was implicitly saying around me -- that because these women do unwanted, 'dirty', work, they are by extension symbolically polluting themselves.

Nasty prejudices right? I think so too.

The fact that I had a domestic worker in my home for years didn't do much to change this mindset. I even tried to wear clothes that subconsciously differentiated me from the people that I looked so similar to. And yes, I look so incredibly Javanese because both sets of grandparents come from East Java.

This year I had a complete turnaround in outlook when I did my research. Things turned out to be so favourable and so many Indonesians (officials and domestic workers) helped me so readily, and so much based on my appearance. Can't deny that seeing someone that looks like you helps in creating trust, because you assume that person has a similar background to you.

Now I realise it was arrogant of me to not want to be mistaken for a domestic worker. Now I'm proud when someone says I look Javanese or Indonesian (mistaken nationalities don't bother me, haha.). The women I met during the course of my fieldwork are some of the most determined, talented and yet humble people I've ever met, and I respect them immensely.


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