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. :)

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