Saturday, March 17, 2012

A hedonistic paradise?

That was my attempt at a witty title. As you can tell from the rest of my posts, I usually give really, really boring, descriptive, plainclothes titles. But I thought I'd be a little humorous today. :)

This morning the Dutchman and I were reading and discussing about about wine in paradise (47:15). He was quite puzzled why something forbidden (wine) would be found in heaven. So I thought I'd do a little exploration of the metaphors of paradise and hell in the Qur'an, and why wine might be used as a incentive to get there.

The Arabic word for what is usually translated as wine is khimar. Khimar appears together with maysir twice -- gambling, games of chance, and other ways of getting money without having worked for it (the root ya-sin-ra also appears 40+ more times as 'easy') -- as things that have both benefits and detriment to society (2:219, 5:90), but that there is more detriment than benefit (2:219) and should therefore be avoided (5:90). These detriments are enmity and hatred, caused by selfish desires produced when we choose to take part in these activities, and also the loss of consciousness about God when we consume intoxicants such as alcohol and drugs (5:91).

In two other verses khimar is used in a neutral way, as part of a story about two prisoners (12:36-41). It is also used once to refer to women drawing their coverings over their chests so that they will be recognised and not be harassed (24:31), but this is another issue for another post. :)

And then a description of Paradise includes a river of khimar, amongst other rivers of water, milk and honey (47:15). Why would something that is considered detrimental for us be found in heaven? Before we start thinking that heaven is a place of debauchery as a reward for all our hard work here, let me say that such a conception of heaven is too simple, and suits only our base desires.


I really like how Shabbir Ahmed's work on analysing the corpus of the Qur'an has produced a beautiful interpretation of the verses that describe heaven and hell, an interpretation that is more suited to the nature of the human being as a vicegerent, not desireless like angels nor merely instinctual like animals.

Both can be states of the self that begin here in this life. We build our own paradise/hell on earth through striving to make the world a better place. That includes ridding the world of injustice, helping especially the marginalised, and making sure that everyone has space to live well. We then inherit this state when we die.

Paradise/hell is also the state of our own self. Paradise can be when we strive for our self to progress, and hell is when we live only to survive and there is no meaning in our lives. Thus these descriptions of paradise/hell are more than literal, but we can only understand them at our current level of human understanding.

The khimar found in paradise is then, not simply the wine/alcohol that we know, but a drink that does not have the detriment of hangovers and the loss of the conscious mind. We are given descriptions of heaven as containing fine food, drink, clothes, companions and places of repose. But most importantly, heaven is where we have the forgiveness of God. In 47:15 we are asked if the description of heaven is the same as that of hell -- we are told to use our reason.

Everything in paradise is good -- and infinitely multiply that meaning of good beyond what we can understand now. I once saw a Christian video giving the metaphor of paradise/hell being more than our five senses. For example, the part of the electromagnetic spectrum is only visible to our eyes from 390 to 750 nanometres, but perhaps in heaven we can see even more wavelengths!


There are richer meanings: heaven is not simply a place of debauched living after suffering on earth, it is something we work towards now and then inherit it later.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Muslim women's rights in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore.

This article was originally published in Dutch in "Moslemvrouwenrechten" (Muslim Women's Rights) Al-Nisa, Islamitisch maandblad voor vrouwen (Islamic monthly for women), 31st year, Volume 2, Mar 2012.


The Muslim woman with kohl-lined eyes who peers out from a slit of dark chador, or who wears a colourful silk scarf and sunglasses, laughing while driving with her friends. The Muslim woman who is a silent blue burqa, or who runs a 100-metre dash fully-clothed. The Muslim woman who suffers in her abusive marriage with no recourse to divorce, or who sits next to her husband during a wedding and writes in her own terms in the marriage contract. The Muslim woman who always stays at home, or who demonstrating on the streets for dignity and free elections.

By divine decree, Muslim women have rights. The Qur’an supports the universal values of equality, justice and a life of dignity for women by giving Muslim women in general the right to education (6:151), inheritance to property (4:7, 4:11-12, 4:176) and to not be harassed in society (33:59). Wives in particular have the right to bridal gifts (4:4) and keeping them in case of divorce (4:20), maintenance from their male relatives (4:34), and conciliation and amicable resolution if ill-treated by their husbands (4:128).

In contexts where they appear to not have any rights, it is the lack of awareness and willingness to realise them that is to blame. If Muslim women and men were aware of the rights they Muslim women have by divine law, and if these rights were practised in the spirit of equality, justice and dignity, many restrictions faced by Muslim women today would be reduced.

Muslim women, in many geographical contexts, suffer under patriarchal social systems. Their subjugation has been falsely justified by customs, traditional practices, and religious texts. However, these vary from country to country. Mainstream media tends to show the same few stereotypes of Muslim woman, which has been filtered to audiences over decades. These stories repeat themselves in mainstream media: women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, illiterate and impoverished women in Pakistan who are jailed after being accused of zina, or unlawful sexual intercourse,[1] or young women killed for the sake of their families’ namus, or honour, amongst Turks in the Netherlands.[2]
All the Muslim women and all the Muslim men
Chandra Mohanty warns us of the portrayal of Third World women as a ‘monolithic’ and ‘oppressed’ group in need of salvation.[3] Mohanty also reminds us that not all women, especially Muslim women, are oppressed in the same way. Similarly, when talking about the rights of Muslim women, not all Muslim women enjoy the same freedoms and face the same restrictions.

For a fuller understanding of the different contexts that Muslim women live in, we need to look at the socio-cultural, economic, and political situations of Muslim women in countries that codify shari’a law. Southeast Asia has typically received less coverage than the Middle East with respect to issues of Islam and Muslim women. It is worth looking at countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia because of the large Muslim population, the varying contexts, and the varying use of religious laws in tandem with secular laws.
As a measure of freedom and restrictions, I will look at four aspects of personal life – dress, education/work, marriage, and divorce. The first two aspects belong to the socio-cultural and economic spheres and are usually enforced by a series of social norms, while the last two aspects belong to the economic and politico-legal spheres.

Who can talk about Muslim women without mentioning hijab? In Singapore, the secular state respects one’s freedom to practise any religion. Although female students of government schools must wear a uniform that consists of a blouse and knee-length skirt of various school colours, female students that go to Islamic schools must wear a uniform that consists of a Malay traditional dress (baju kurung) and a waist-length hijab. In any case, uniform requirements last only up to the age of 18, so young Muslim women who pursue tertiary education in polytechnics or university are allowed to dress in any way they please.

Institutions can also enforce an ‘Islamic’ dress. For example, government offices in Malaysia require Muslim women to wear a headscarf and a baju kurung, and recently in the district of West Aceh in Indonesia issued a new regulation that forbids Muslim women in particular from wearing ‘tight clothing’.[4]

Students from a full-time Islamic primary school in Singapore.

In this case, social customs can play a large role in determining the way Muslim women dress in Singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia. Whether in school or at work, the Muslim community (the majority of which is made of up a single ethnic group in the case of Singapore or Malaysia) enacts socio-psychological supervision. Students who actively participate in clubs where there are mostly Muslims may feel pressured to wear hijab in order to fit in, display more authority when speaking on Islamic issues, or assure others of their propriety and morality. When visiting a small, conservative town in Padang, Indonesia, I remarked that a handful of observant young women who did not wear a headscarf, but had many hijabi friends, eventually did so within the next year or so.

Education and work
Fortunately, Muslim women in all three countries enjoy a high level of education today, despite traditional customs that restricted the duration and type of education that Muslim women could or should receive, in the past. For example, in the early 1900s, it was common for Singaporean Muslim families to send their daughters to Islamic schools while their sons were encouraged to receive a secular education. This was related to the belief of men as breadwinners and of women as caregivers of children and household managers; men participate in the (secular) public sphere to earn money while women participate in the (religious) private sphere as nurturers and teachers of children.

In Southeast Asia, women have historically worked alongside men for centuries as traders. Even after the spread of Islam to the region in the 16th century onwards, this pattern has not changed. Today you find Muslim women in almost every aspect of economic and political life, including the military. Doubtless, the presence of Muslim women in almost every occupation may be related to per capita wealth and the need for two breadwinners to cope against rising costs of living, but having one’s own source of income can increase women’s bargaining power in a household.[5]

Butcher in Ponorogo, Indonesia
Even though the majority of Muslims in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia follow the Shafi’i school of thought and consequently codify their laws formulated according to this fiqh, or jurisprudence, the process and requirements of marriage differ for Muslim women in these three countries. Each country has two systems of law: a civil one that applies to every citizen, and a set of shari’a laws that apply to only Muslims with respect to marriage, divorce and inheritance. Since an extensive review of the double legal systems of all three countries is an article in itself, I will only look at the right for Muslim women to marry and to divorce.

The legal age for marriage in each country varies, requiring additional special or parental consent. There are also different federal laws across provinces and states in Indonesia and Malaysia respectively. Nevertheless, a common phenomenon across all three countries is that the legal age of marriage of Muslim girls is lower than the requirement for non-Muslims; sometimes the onset of puberty is considered old enough. The requirement for a male guardian for a bride also plays a role in underage marriages, since the consent of the (virgin) bride is not expressly sought. 

Despite arguments that brides are protected under Singapore’s shari’a lalw, I know of a friend whose sister was forcibly married to a man at the age of 19 by her father. Also, polygamous marriages are allowed for Muslims in all three countries – a comprehensive Malaysia-wide study of polygamy[6] estimates as little as 2.5 percent and as much as 5.7 percent of all marriages per annum could be polygamous.[7] In Singapore and Indonesia though, a Muslim woman may prepare a pre-nuptial contract that allows divorce in cases of polygamy. I know of some Muslim men in their fifties and sixties who marry a second or third wife, sometimes in secret and done overseas, and some resulting in the divorce of the first wife.

Interestingly, albeit ironically, one way for Muslim women in Singapore to gain access to the more egalitarian civil marriage and divorce laws available in their country is to declare themselves non-Muslim and register their marriage in a civil court – but this carries heavy social consequences. Muslim women in Malaysia are in a more complicated situation because their constitution conflates ethnicity (Malay) with religion (Islam), legally rendering all Malays as Muslims and vice-versa.

Like marriage laws, divorce laws also vary in these countries, with shari’a courts existing in parallel with secular courts. Unfortunately, the former provide less rights to Muslim women with regards to divorce, division of matrimonial property, alimony and custody of children. For example, in Singapore, a Muslim husband may divorce his wife in a variety of ways, with him having the exclusive right to talaq (divorce by repudiation). 

Both parties may seek a court-approved divorce by ta’liq, or the breach of the pre-nuptial contract.[8] The wife can only seek two kinds of court-approved divorce: fasakh (annulation) based on the husband’s failure to provide financial, psychological, sexual, or physical maintenance, or khulu’ (divorce by redemption) based on complaints of either party finding difficulty in being obedient to God, or the wife to the husband.[9] In this last type of divorce, a wife even has to pay the husband a sum of money.

Under Malaysia’s civil law, a husband who ‘neglects or refuses to maintain’ his wife and  not provide maintenance can be brought to court and be forced to do so. However, under shari’a law, a husband may even seek matrimonial property from a wife he is divorcing, a clear violation of her Islamic right to keep matrimonial property.[10] Again, while Malaysia has provided model statutes of the Islamic Family Law which ‘provides for greater protection of women’s rights’, different states make their own trimming amendments. In practice, crossing state boundaries makes it possible to evade court judgments and maintenance payments.[11]

De jure and de facto
The introduction highlights some of the God-given rights that Muslim women enjoy. In practice however, with the existence of double legal systems and social norms, reality paints a different picture for Muslim women. The diversity of shari’a laws in states and provinces result in a muddled image of ‘Islamic law’ and great difficulty in enforcing the politico-legal sphere.

In the socio-cultural and economic spheres, social norms and traditional customs may interact with institutions to create interesting outcomes – the personal is also political. By educating both Muslim women and men on the rights that are due to Muslim women, Muslims can work together as an ummah towards establishing social justice in our communities.

[1],Definitions of zina can include adultery, premarital sex, and in the case of Pakistan, rape. While the Qur’an places the burden of proof on the accuser (24:4-5), the Pakistani Zina Ordinance requires a rapist’s confession or the female victim to produce ‘four pious male witnesses’ instead. For further information see Shahnaz Khan (2006), ‘Zina,Transnational Feminism and the Moral Regulation of Women’, Vancouver: UBC Press and Marie-Aimée Hélie-Lucas and Harsh Kapoor (Eds.) Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) Dossier 18.
[2] Clementine van Eck (2003) ‘Purified by Blood: Honour Killings amongst Turks in the Netherlands’, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
[3] Chandra Mohanty (1988) ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’, Feminist Review, no. 30.
[5] Bina Agarwal (1997) ‘Bargaining''and Gender Relations: Within and Beyond the Household’ Feminist Economics, 3(1):1-51.
[6] Ding Jo-Ann (21 July 2010) ‘TheImpact of Polygamy in Malaysia’, The Nut Graph.
[7] Norani Othman (16 July 2010) ‘Response to Comments in Article on Polygamy’, The Malaysian Insider.
[8] This includes a wife’s breach of a husband’s verbal contract, according to Syariah Court Singapore, ‘Types of Divorce’.
[9] Ibid.
[11] Aminah Ahmad (1998) CountryBriefing Paper: Women in Malaysia, Asian Development Bank.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The creeping Islamisation of meat and cheese.

Two different countries in Europe. Two food products. Same fear-mongering tactics about Muslims. The objects of these political manoeuvres: meat and cheese.

Focus on the sliced beef

Some background information on this polemic: Sometime in 2010, Uitgesproken EO, an evangelical (read: Christian) broadcasting organisation did a feature on halal food in NL. They filmed interviews of people on the street, asking them questions like "What do you think of the involvement of ritual slaughter (read: Muslim) in your food without your knowledge?" and their shocked responses.

It turns out that Friesland Campina, a major producer of dairy products in NL, is using rennet from halal-butchered calves to make their cheese. Rennet contains several enzymes used to coagulate milk into curds and whey. These enzymes can also be derived from plant or microbial sources. A comprehensive explanation here

The reason for their use of halal rennet? One reason is profit -- there's simply more demand for halal lactose for use in halal baby milk products than there is supply -- possibly driven by the 1 million Muslims in NL or the 53 million in Europe.

Muslims who read this might think, that's good news! I don't have to worry about eating Dutch cheese! And these non-Muslims shouldn't worry because they are following the right path, without even making the effort to do so! 

But let's put aside this attitude of Muslim superiority for a minute. Let's consider for a minute that others have other paths, which they consider every bit as legitimate as we do our own. I can understand why they would be freaking out:

1. 'Halal' could refer to unethical slaughter practices. 
Contrary to popular belief, a halal-certified butchery may still stun their animals before slaughter. In an ideal world, we would all ensure that our actions match our words. This means that all livestock and poultry raised for food would be treated well, given enough space to run around, no antibiotics or growth hormones, given food and drink before slaughter, and would be slaughtered by a pious Muslim, with a sharp knife, pronouncing God's name while facing Mecca, without letting the animal see the knife or other animals being slaughtered.

In reality, there are many practices that deviate from this ideal, e.g. using a speaker for God's name, stunning the animal before slaughter, hanging chickens upside down from a conveyor belt where they can all see each other, etc. In summary, a halal certificate may not necessarily include all of the above ideal conditions, and there is no way to know unless you visit the slaughterhouse yourself.

2. Non-religious or non-Muslims don't want their food slaughtered in the name of God.
In an ideal world, Jews, Christians and Muslims all theoretically and practically worship the one and the same God, and so all their food would be good to eat. Remember Qur'an verses 2:173, 5:3, 6:145, 16:115? Food dedicated to something other than God is for us, not permissible. This blogger has the same reasoning about  unknowingly eating halal food (although he says it with a bit more vitriol). I also know a Sikh who avoids halal food for the same reason.

I understand. However, this incident has been used as an example of "creeping shari'a", the Islamisation of Europe, or the slow but steady "economic jihad" of Mozlems all over the world. Calling these food "secretly" halal just compounds fear about Mozlems!

It's interesting what halal food can be equated with. In the words of this Dutch blogger, eating halal food = stoning an 11 year-old girl in Sudan, putting women into blue burqas in Afghanistan, throwing a gay Yemeni off a building (could you possibly add more violent and backward stereotypes to the list?), therefore unknowingly eating halal food = agreeing with the abovementioned cruel practices happening in Muslim-majority countries (Hey, I don't agree with these practices either, and I condemn those who do!).

Over in France, Marine Le Pen from the far-right National Front Party fires up her (non-Muslim) voters with a similar idea of creeping Islamisation of Europe by claiming that all meat in Paris is, in fact, halal. O Marine, je suis venue, j'ai vu, et c'est pas vrai. The only halal meat one can find in Paris is still mostly in the Lebanese and Turkish kebab and shawarma shops, sorry! 

Although I remember that Carrefour (back in 2006), just like Albert Heijn, sells clearly-marked halal certified  meat in its larger supermarkets.

Here you find 100% halal meat! @ Albert Heijn The Hague

Where do we go from here? By all means, mark the meat as halal  so that consumers can make informed choices, but there is no need to be equating halal with shari'a (because shari'a is so much more!) and the restrictive laws and practices of some sorry Muslim-ruled countries. There's also no need to use this halal issue to increase prejudice against immigrants of Moroccan, Algerian, and Turkish origins to Europe.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Guide me to heaven.

There have been more friends than I can count off one hand (maybe even two hands) that have gotten married in the past year. Sometimes, it seems like marriage is just one of those things that happen after graduating with a bachelor's and working for a year or two. Especially if they have been with the other person since their undergraduate days.

But today I don't want to talk about marriage as a predictable life phase, I want to talk about one of the reasons some people marry. Several young women have said that they are not looking for a soul mate, but they are looking for someone to 'guide' and 'help' them get to heaven.

Waitaminnit. So women are helping men get into heaven, but they can't get to heaven by themselves?

Better to say that women are 'garments' for men and men are 'garments' for women (2:187). The word in Arabic for 'garment' is libaas, used literally to refer to clothing: used to cover our private parts (7:26-7), for decoration (7:26, 22:23, 35:33) to protect us physically during fighting (21:80). As metaphorical clothing, one could also wear the libaas of taqwa (righteousness, piety).

Libaas is also used as metaphors for nighttime, as a time for sleep and rest (25:47, 78:10), and the spread of  hunger and fear in a town, because the people in this town did not share their abundant provisions with their needy (16:112). Here the word has the idea of a comprehensive phenomena.

Getting back to the use of libaas to refer to spouses, perhaps we can look at it with a wider perspective. The idea of a metaphorical garment goes beyond protecting one another from sin (as is commonly promoted). A spouse works to be protective in many aspects: spiritual, financial, psychological, physical. Being with someone legally in the eyes of God will not prevent adultery, but you can at least be happy to know that someone likes you enough to stay with you (for a long time you hope!).

It's no secret that living together with someone else economises much of your spending needs, and having someone to talk to everyday is like having a therapist, but for free (haha!). And if you need a workout buddy, who else but the person you'll share your sleeping and eating habits with?

So clearly, we help each other live a full, useful, and balanced life, and then hopefully to go to heaven together too. However, I find that much of conventional Islam emphasises the guidance that the man must give the women in his life, and the sacrifice that the woman must make for the men in her life. Women are often also framed in relation to the men around her and the 'roles' she must play in each of these relations, whereas for men, this is not often the case.

It's like hoping to marry Prince Charming; that by marrying the right person, we will automatically solve all of our problems. I don't agree with women who look for the most religious (looking) man around to marry, to guarantee themselves guidance and by default, heaven. I also don't agree with men who insist on their wives wearing headscarves for the same reason. At the very simplest level, it's imbuing normal people with power and symbolism, giving them authority which they do not have otherwise.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Physical and ideological diversity.

Last month I attended a production in Dutch called 'The Evening of the Muslima(n)' -- a monthly production at a great, small theatre in Amsterdam.

What was so remarkable about this was having a panel filled with Muslims of different backgrounds: there was a Turkish-descent woman on a wheelchair doing a rather funny piece about wanting to be a single mother by going to a sperm bank; a Somali-descent singer who had to hide her singing from her mother until she couldn't hide the endless bouquets anymore; a Pakistani-descent journalist/presenter who spoke about the first time she realised the significance of the dupatta; a researcher who spoke to other Muslim women on how they interpret qawwamun; and a Moroccan-descent male professor from Leiden University who spoke about the portrayal of men in the Qur'an.

The sight itself was remarkable, seeing diverse Muslims at one table, having a civil discussion. This is unfortunately something quite rare in Singapore -- I know only of one religious teacher who accepts visually diverse Muslims in his class. That means that women with or without headscarves, men with or without beards, everyone wearing T-shirts, blouses, thobes... you name it, he accepts it!

It's sad, but it's common, to have religious teachers turn you away (physically or ideologically), or subtly mock you in class for not meeting the norm of dressing. You can also be turned away for not meeting physical appearance expectations, even. This is pretty much the lowest of the low, because how does this have anything to do with what is really inside your heart? Muslims get so defensive when we are portrayed as uneducated barbarians, yet we treat others exactly as if we were.

This un / acceptance goes beyond the expectations of physical appearances. What about migrant status? How different do we treat Muslim migrant domestic workers, or Muslim migrant construction workers?

Recently a working professional lamented on Facebook that her students did not meet society's "accepted norms", that they were proud to show that they partook in 'sinful' activities like drinking, smoking, having tattoos, engaging in premarital sex, and so on.

Is the solution to tame and make everyone the same? Or to understand how each person is different and comes from a different physical and ideological space? Someone may look or behave unconventionally Muslim but what is really in their heart and mind? Ask that same question to someone who looks or behaves according to the accepted norms of a society. I believe we can learn more from those who are different and have the moral courage to stay different.

In response to that Facebook lament, when we bemoan today's teenagers (or migrant workers), what does it say about us? When we speak of them with derision instead of sympathy, what do we betray about ourselves, our philosophies, and who we deem real people?

I'll be blogging more about this in relation to the headscarf -- come back to this space once in a while and look out for that. :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...