Thursday, January 12, 2012

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? 

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