Sunday, January 29, 2012

Women helping men get into Paradise.

I sound like a broken record on the issue of how Muslim women are portrayed by both Muslims and non-Muslims, but I have to say something on this quote, which has been going round and round on Facebook (any way to unsubscribe based on content?).

Visual design from SpreadSalam

This quote is by Dr Mohammad Akram Nadawi, a scholar from Janpur and a research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic studies. I can't find the original context of where he said this, but it's clearly rather catchy:

"When she is a daughter, she opens a door at jannah (Paradise) for her father.
When she is a wife, she completes half of the deen (religion/way of life) of her husband.
When she is a mother, jannah lies under her feet.
If everyone knew the true status of a Muslim woman, even the men would want to be women."

On a first reading, this seems to elevate women. Perhaps that's why it's been shared and re-shared on Facebook. But reproducing this quote without questioning its underlying assumptions is problematic, because:

  1. Women are framed solely in relation to men.
  2. Paradise is not possible for the orphaned, unmarried, or childless (or any combination of these 3).
  3. Male privilege is trivialised and women are patronised.

1. Women are framed solely in relation to men.

In all three instances, the worth of a woman is emphasised only as her role in relation to people i.e. daughter of a father, wife to a husband, and mother of children. Specifically for the first two roles, her worth is measured by how useful she is to men -- her father and husband -- by helping them get into paradise or making their life easier for them.

Wait a minute, I thought our worth was measured by our good deeds? Men and women who do good have the same chances of a happy life (16:97) entering paradise (4:124,16:97, 33:35, 40:40), and vice versa for those who do bad (40:40). For example, both Adam and his wife were expelled from paradise for going near the forbidden tree (7:20-22).

Most importantly, the only criteria for distinguishing between people is their level of piety (49:13). This is something invisible, so therefore it's only God that can make this differentiation.

Women have their own worth in relation to whatever good or bad they do. This of course, includes doing nice things for your father or husband, but is certainly is not limited to that. Especially if you have neither of the two.

2. Paradise is not possible for the orphaned, unmarried, or childless (or any combination of these 3).

Since the possibilities for women's status only apply to those who are daughters, wives or mothers, those who have no fathers, husbands or children cannot enjoy the same rewards (or points, according to the Dutchman).

And yet, orphans are repeatedly mentioned as one of several groups for society to be especially kind towards e.g. protecting their inheritance.

Maryam Amir-Ebrahimi wrote this great article on on how being a wife and/or mother are not the only ways to Paradise, addressing both issues of being unmarried and/or childless. She highlights how the primary role of women is to serve God, a role that is straightforward and is not conditional upon the behaviour of men.

3. Male privilege is trivialised and women are patronised.

Everyday, men can see examples of how women's de facto status in society. Being male has so many privileges in so many societies. This quote implies that men are in the dark about women's actual status, which is so elevated that they would want it for themselves.

Do men want to be under the guardianship of their parent -- requiring his permission to marry, for example? Do men want to be told to submit to their spouses and do domestic work in order to o to Paradise? Why would men want to be second in line to heaven when they can go there directly, according to all these prevalent discourses?

Women also, should not complain about any difficulties they face in being a daughter, wife or mother (look at that last picture, honestly -- is there no father around to help? Just because heaven isn't under their feet, they give up?) because actually, they don't know that all their difficulties are good for them. It's yet another way of telling women that they don't know what's good for them.

The strange thing is, Mohammad Akram Nadawi has actually written a book about muhaddithat, or the female scholars of hadith. He found 8000 female scholars throughout history. From some of his lectures too, he seems like a reasonable guy. I'm surprised that he's been quoted as saying this.

I would prefer the focus to be on the character and effort for men and women to do good and refrain from bad, instead of such 'automatic tickets' to heaven for one sex or the other, for whatever reason at all. It prevents us from striving to be better people.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


A new year brings a new project! I present to you Open SEAM, a collection of stories from Muslims all over Southeast Asia. It was almost a month in the making and thanks to the awesome computer skillz of the Dutchman, we've got the basic site and domains up and running.

Finding people to write though, is challenging. So far my strategy is to fish around in different Facebook groups, where people neatly classified themselves by ethnicity and religion. A self-reflexive moment: I have to admit that most of the Muslims are know are of the same country, ethnic group and class!

Melaka 2009

A bit of brainstorming and we decided to focus on one theme for January at least: Chinese Muslims who celebrate Chinese New Year! So many other themes buzzing around in my head, but we'll take it slow or as the Malays say it, pelan-pelan kayuh!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Queen Beatrix covers her hat with some cloth.

In Singapore last week, parliamentary questions focused on the breakdown of MRT services. Yes, everyone lauds us for being First World with everything incredibly efficient, but we had windows broken with fire extinguishers because people were fainting from the lack of ventilation. After that, we talked about lowering the salaries of ministers.

Thankfully, all the Dutch parliament discussed last week was the Queen's visit to Oman and the UAE with her son, Prince Willem Alexander and his wife, Princess Maxima.

Did you notice anything? I thought the headscarf-on-hat was retro! And harks back to the 90s where wearing a songkok under your headscarf was fashionable. But the anti-muslim extremist politician Geert Wilders is calling Queen B out for supporting women's oppression using colourful cloth and pretty brooches.

Maybe he's never flown on Emirates before.
Or Royal Brunei.
This led to a commotion about her bending to these evil Islamic oppressive notions, which she promptly and sensibly dismissed as nonsense, and the Prime Minister has her back.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry -- this is considered serious enough to be raised in Parliament!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cheers to ethnicity.

Here's an example of how my own assumptions about ethnicity created an extremely embarrassing situation.

I was talking to an Indonesian friend on Facebook, asking if he wanted to write something for a new site I'm setting up for Muslims in Southeast Asia, going on and on about what he could write about. He then asked me if it was only for Muslims.

"If yes, then I'm so sorry... I'm not Muslim. I'm Protestant."


The thing is, I know that although the majority of Indonesians are Muslim, not all are. I've travelled there and seen Hindu temples, heard Buddhist chants, and personally know several Catholics at my university. I can't blame my mistake on ignorance. I knew it, so why did I immediately assume that this guy was Muslim?

I guess some (or many!) things are drilled into us from such a young age, it becomes almost like fact and terribly hard to disentangle. Like this advertisement for example, which originally appeared in a booklet of the Annual General Meeting of the Association of Malay Teachers in West Malaysia (KGMMB) in 1968. Apparently someone found it in Ohio University and sent it along to this guy, but also picked up by him, who says it was apparently first posted on Facebook by a Ben Golimbi.

"Good for us!"

I couldn't help smiling as I read this, yet I can't put my finger on why. Maybe it's because I associate such simple Malay with the Malay books and stories of my childhood. Maybe it's because the poster uses an old type of Malay full of hyphens and the number '2' to signify plurals. Maybe because the models look so happy and unaware of the controversy they would spark 40 years later. The text reads:

"Sa-tegok Guinness Stout membuka selera. Sa-gelas Guinness Stout memuleh tenaga. Kerana tiap2 sa-gelas Guinness Stout mengandongi khasiat. Ia memberi tenaga di-waktu badan berasa leteh dan lesu. Ini-lah minuman yang menambahkan khasiat kepada sa-barang santapan. Ya, sa-lepas bekerja, apabila berasa penat dan di-kala tiada selera, maka tidak ada-lah yang lebeh sempurna daripada sa-gelas Guinness Stout."

which roughly translates to:

"A sip of Guinness Stout whets your appetite. A glass of Guinness Stout replenishes your energy. Because every glass of Guinness Stout contains nourishment. It gives energy when your body feels tired and fatigued. This is the drink that adds nutrients to any meal. Yes, after work, when you feel tired and lack appetite, then there is nothing better than a glass of Guinness Stout."

I found some vintage beer ads that frame it as a medicinal product for mothers and babies, or something to be enjoyed with food. It's certainly very different from the highly sexualised imagery found in beer ads today (although there were plenty of chauvinistic beer ads!).

There's even the recent creation of halal beer -- a case of trying to Islamise too much?

Anyway, back to the poster. There are reams of comments on the Facebook post, mostly centering around:
  1. Ethnicity is not equivalent to religion. 
  2. These Malay-looking models as bad/lost/not strict enough Muslims.
  3. Judging, respect, and tolerance.
1. Ethnicity is not equivalent to religion. 

The models in this ad look Malay. Sure, I've been told by Indonesians that I have extremely typical Javanese facial features (thanks to which, I could be an undercover researcher on domestic workers!), but I have also been mistaken for Thai, Burmese, Malaysian, Cambodian, Filipino, French and Dutch. 

Take for instance, this blog. It is maintained by a Singaporean Malay Christian. He remains anonymous because of the enormous social consequences of being taken for having 'left' Islam. This is because Malay culture and Islam have intermingled to such a high degree that it is rare to find Malay Christians and it is easy to forget about Chinese Muslims.

Additionally, there are many Malays in Singapore who may not identify as Muslim, although they may have grown up as Muslims (or even then, not). This is why a campaign to reduce pre-marital sex (and consequently, unwanted teenage pregnancies) which used Islamic principles did not touch all the Malay youth. 

There are also Malays who identify as Muslim, but do things that the majority of Muslims would not consider very Muslim, like identifying as homosexual, drinking alcohol, dancing in clubs, eating pork, and having pre-marital sex (I know, sorry to clump it all together like that!)

2. These Malay-looking models are bad/lost/not strict enough Muslims.

Some respondents call out to this being a time of ignorance or zaman jahiliyah (as my mother likes to say), when Malays did not know all the rules about being Muslim. Because religion mostly consisted of learning how to recite the Qur'an melodiously (without necessarily knowing the meaning), listening to elder male religious figures of authorities known as kyai, tok sheikh, ustaz (oops, that's still in use today), and memorising a list of 25 prophets and 99 names/characteristics of Allah.

3. Judging, respect, and tolerance.

A couple of Malay commenters who drink alcohol justified their decisions. Others called them out for being sinners, cowards, and so on. Thankfully, many also called for others to stop judging, because only God alone can judge. But well, there is a strong discourse in Islam about giving advice (or use the Arabic term naseehah  if you like) to people with one's hand, mouth, and prayer -- based on many ahadith such as this one.

I believe this is also why some countries choose to include restrictive shari'a laws that cover the moral sphere, in addition to the usual women-related areas of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. For example, in 2009, there was a controversy on whether an Indonesian woman caught drinking beer in Malaysia would be caned. The Malaysian religious authorities threatened to cane her, but then they decided not to after all. Even though she asked for it to be over with, she still wasn't caned. It led instead to an intense debate about the Islamisation of Malaysia.

In any case, all the poster says is one glass for appetite or replenishing energy. It sounds just like an ad for tonic drinks like Yomeishu! 

Yomeishu: Baik untok kita!

Thursday, January 12, 2012


I started this blog with the initial intention of documenting everyday life, when I started my Masters in The Hague. But the wonderful thing about plans is that they always go awry. As I learnt more, I started thinking differently too, and I wrote more and more about all of it -- stereotypes, assumptions, injustices, words that I had taken for granted before.

So I have this blog and my time at ISS to thank for helping me see and think about the world in a different way. And I felt that a makeover was due since I graduated in December last year. I had initially planned to go back to Singapore or find some awesome job somewhere, but God had other plans, and so for the next year at least it seems that I will stay here, and the blog title has changed to reflect that.

Besides, I'm reclaiming the term 'minah' from its pejorative connotations to encompass more positive things -- a woman who is more concerned with what's in her head, and not what's on it.

I've also been published in NL! A few days after submitting my thesis last year, I went to interview the filmmakers of 'The Light in Her Eyes', a documentary about the work of Houda al-Habash, a female director of a girls-only Qur'an school. The interview is translated into Dutch (by none other than the Dutchman of course!), but the original English article is available here

I also got to watch a private screening of the film (which had juuust been completed) along with the filmmakers, another Dutch female filmmaker, and some officials. The film is fantastic. It reminded me so much about going to Sunday madrasah when I was young, except that I considered that so banal I wouldn't have thought of making a film on it! Besides, the teachers then didn't exactly emphasise the importance of secular education, like Houda does. (You can help increase publicity for the film by liking its Facebook page here.)

During the private screening, present was a rather famous female Dutch diplomat, who quite modestly described herself as an "expert on the Arab world", having lived in Syria and Jordan for oh, four years, and having quite recently predicted the Arab spring herself. She made me think quite immediately of the upper-class Greek women I met in Athens.

Anyway, I'll be writing more for this magazine, inshallah! :)

Footwear segregation.

So the Dutchman and I were in Singapore for the last two weeks. We dropped in on a workshop held for the new members of a group I used to volunteer with -- we tutored and mentored 12 year-olds in Math, Science and English leading up to the important end-of-primary-school exams.

"Why is the footwear segregated?"

It prevents young, unmarried and therefore uncontrollable Muslims from
brushing against each other  and therefore sinning when they look for their shoes.

It's for your own good!

As we approached the classroom in the Islamic school where the workshop was held, we noticed that the front and back doors of the classroom had been designated "Men's Footwear" and "Ladies' Footwear" respectively. Naturally, men would enter by the front and women from the back. However, to their credit the men and women's seating area had been separated down the middle of the classroom -- so it was men on the right and women on the left, not men at the front and women at the back.

My poor Dutchman -- he was about to be banished to the male section where he didn't know anyone. Finally we sat together at the back of the women's section with our girlfriend who came with us. I wasn't wearing a headscarf, so I figured if you've already defied one social convention, you might as well defy 'em all. :)

Growing up Muslim, I have a bone to pick with gender-segregated spaces. It starts in religious institutions like mosques and madrasahs, or Islamic schools. Boys and girls can be separated medially or laterally in classrooms. Medial segregation allows for segregation, while not compromising each sex's opportunity to sit at the front of the class. Lateral segregation, more popular in mosques, means that all women will sit behind all men. This gives men more acoustic and visual advantage in every case.

With technology like microphones, video cameras and televisions, spatial segregation is getting more and more popular. Women are often put in completely separate spaces. It's the perfect combination of technology and patriarchy aimed at reducing women's voices and presence.

Found during Eid Adha prayers in Den Haag

Once I heard a sermon where the female teacher was promoting this to segregate the bride and female guests at a wedding from the other (male) guests. She said that Singaporean Malays should follow the example of Pakistan, where some brides give their consent behind a curtain or even from another room, so that no one (especially the male judge!) would commit the sin of looking at the bride or God forbid, hearing her voice.

You know what I think is the actual flaw in gender segregation? Taking males as default speakers. If people want true segregation, there should have been a female speaker for the women in addition to the male speaker. There should be a female judge/marriage officiant for every male judge. If this can't be fulfilled, you end up with unconventional situations not even found in 'The West' such as men selling lingerie to women in an otherwise highly morally-regulated country.

Life becomes morally too easy when everything is segregated and separated. We don't have to learn how to lower our gazes, speak respectfully to each other or carry ourselves in upright ways. We simply avoid the Muslim members of the opposite sex completely, pretending they're not there.

It is also hypocritical to segregate only in 'Muslim' or 'Islamic' settings. In Singapore especially, when Muslim men and women encounter and interact with non-Muslim women and men in all aspects of their daily lives, why do they suddenly become holier in a Muslim setting? If we can behave respectfully in public with non-Muslims, why can't we behave respectfully with Muslims in a smaller space?

It also emphasises differences between the sexes, and creates hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity. Nothing against differentiating men and women, but do we really need men who go on and on about their experiences in the army and make sexist jokes about women's bodies, attire and morality; and women who laugh and talk in whispers instead of a moderate tone and spend too much time thinking about what's on their head and body instead of what's in it?

Did I mention, it also makes you look really rude? I can't count the number of times where I am with the Dutchman and when we meet some Muslim men he is greeted with a "Salam" and a handshake while my presence is not even acknowledged. If only I wasn't just invisible, but had powers along with it!

I understand social conventions. Unlike Indonesia, most Muslims in Singapore don't shake hands with the opposite sex, even for greeting purposes. I'm not expecting them to start shaking everyone's hands if they don't want to, or engage in simple, interested conversation in the name of courtesy.

A simple and respectful smile, "Salam" or "Hello" would suffice because isn't that charity, no matter who you address it to? 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Online learning: Religious fundamentalisms.

A few weeks ago I attended an e-learning session organised by the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID), under the initiative Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms (CF). Fascinating stuff -- technology-wise and knowledge-wise -- to listen to activists from Canada and chat with participants from all over the world (Malaysia, Ecuador, India, El Salvador just to name a few) 'live'.

The session started with a short lecture on the various and dynamic definitions of 'religious fundamentalisms'. Of course there are always ideas that we have when we hear that loaded and vague term 'religious fundamentalisms', and just like how a favourite professor of mine starts his class, we threw out related phrases and words.

It gets difficult when certain religious circles appropriate this term and use it in a positive way, but it has the unfortunate effect of total confusion. For example, they emphasise fundamentalism as a good thing, because it's about going back to the 'fundamentals' i.e. basics of the religion, which can't ever be a bad thing. The problem is when, one can't agree on what exactly the basics are.

Religious movements address the growing youth's need for identity and a sense of purpose in society. This is especially important in cases of marginalisation due to ethnicity or class (or both -- again, sounds familiar?). When the state does not provide for the basic needs of their citizens, and religious groups step in to provide health and education, for example, declaring your public belonging to these groups make total sense.

Especially if such aid is conditional -- you have to behave and dress in a certain way and believe (or profess to, at least) certain things.

But what about when there is decent provision of basic services to society? Why do young men (largely) still fall prey to groups like Jemaah Islamiyah? One writer suggests that their type of education -- mostly hard sciences, therefore no notion of nuances or grey areas -- is to blame. Another suggests their economic marginalisation in Singapore society.

Whatever it is, can we at least agree that religious fundamentalisms are not a positive force?


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