Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Will you take this Oriental as your lawfully wedded wife?

I must have visited the local municipality office at least four times in the last two months, because getting married here involves several appointments, pre-marriage (ondertrouw) and then waiting for a civil servant (ambtenaar) to contact you about a week before.

During our ondertrouw session, we had to decide on a location. I was actually quite indifferent to this, because we had planned to go for a free marriage -- where only the ambtenaar and two witnesses would be present along with the couple.

Sitting in the office, the lady pointed to some photos of available (and equally expensive) locations in The Hague. Pointing to this location, she said casually:

"This has an Oriental feel, which might be suitable for her?"


For an Oriental me! Wow, I've been mistaken for many nationalities while living here, such as Indonesian, Dutch, Chinese, Filipino, Surinamese, and even "East Indian", but I've never been labelled with such a catch-all term!

Wide-eyed, I thought she must have been kidding, in some strangely doubly ironic and amusing way, but nope -- she was serious. While I'm sure she didn't mean it maliciously, it does reveal a certain indifference to racial/colonial issues here, like how the Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) of Sinterklaas is just seen as harmless fun.

When I looked up the description of the hall on the municipality website:-
De trouwzaal op het Spui ademt de sfeer van de sprookjes van duizend-en-een-nacht. (The Spui wedding hall exudes the atmosphere of the fairytales of A Thousand and One Nights/Arabian Nights.)  
That's the collection of stories from the Middle East and South Asia as told by Scheherazade, a female captive to a fickle king, to stop him from killing a woman every night.

And that, dear readers, is how you change indifference into objection.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"If I marry you, would you marry me?"

I rarely talk about my personal life, but I can finally say this, the Dutchman and I are (finally) going to register our marriage! To celebrate the culmination of many events from the past year, here's a collection of all my previous posts on marriage:

Traditional Malay Muslim marriage customs
Mak Andam: the professional bridesmaid
Marriage tips Part I: An easy way to heaven
Marriage tips Part II: Why can't I sip your tea?
Marriage tips Part III: Helping men get into paradise
Marriage counselling

And some experiences on being in a multicolour (I have a hard time using the word 'race', and it's not about 'faith' either) relationship:
Mistaken identities
Interfaith interactions

As for why we're doing it in the Netherlands:
What is civil marriage?

The actual story is actually more complicated, but I have to keep mum (at least for now!). It makes for good stories, but for now, planning for several parties! :)

P/S: An invitation to the party if you figure out the South African reference in the title!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The hijab matrix: Part 1

In the words of Lila Abu-Lughod, 'veiling is a complex practice'. A few months ago I was doodling, trying to capture the different thoughts and opinions of the Muslim women I knew, when it comes to the contested issue of hijab. 

On one of the nights spent in Athens on a study trip, I came up with a table of belief intersecting with practice:-

No Hijab
Divine order
Not divine

Hijab/No hijab
By this binary I'm referring to the norm of wearing a headscarf regularly, and in the presence of all men who are not related to her. During an interview not too long ago on this matter I realised that the use of 'putting on' or 'taking off' the hijab did not capture the entire story, because that happens every time you go out or come home. What I believe the interviewer (and many other people who use this term) meant was, 'wearing it regularly' as opposed to 'wearing it occasionally' or 'never wearing it'.

Although hijab refers to a physical barrier in the Qur'an, the contemporary use of hijab is interlinked with the concept of modesty (haya), piety (taqwa), and a marker of Muslim womanhood in general. Covering the hair is considered part of being modest, because the hair is considered a sign of beauty/vanity/sex appeal. One's conviction to wear the hijab and commit to it (i.e. while camping, traveling, sports; sometimes requiring alternatives like hoodies or beanies) can also be taken as one's commitment to being a 'true' Muslim. This is especially true in the case of the pressure felt by some female converts/reverts to Islam.

No hijab.

Divine order
I refer to the belief that hijab is mandated by God, according to verse 24:31 in the Qur'an. The dominant interpretation verse exhorts women to lengthen their khimar (headcovering) to cover the chest area, in the presence of a list of male relatives. The extent of the covering commonly refers to everything except the face and hands, although minority opinions consider the following to be also part of a women's awrah (private parts): face, eyes, voice.

Since the explanation of the hijab matrix promises to be super long, I'll write about women who believe that hijab is a religious obligation in this post, and women who do not think so in the next post :)

Muslimah 1: "I wear the hijab for the sake of God"
The hijabi in this category believes that she is fulfilling a divine requirement. Her reasons for doing so can be quite clear. She also enjoys the peace of mind of being able to carry out what she believes in. Of course, society can be encouraging or discouraging of this.

She can be the most fashionable of hijabis, owning 50 different scarves in all colours and patterns, and harmonising it with other accessories and her outfit, or prefer (long) plain scarves in neutral colours.

Some reasons she may give:
"I am preserving my modesty"
"God wants to protect women with the hijab"
"A woman is a pearl that should be hidden"
"Women are the symbols of Islam"
Muslimah 2. "I'm not ready yet"
This hijabi  believes that covering her hair is a divine requirement, but for some reason or other doesn't carry out her obligation yet. Sometimes she can be waiting to do it when she feels she has a higher level of faith or conviction. Sometimes she may think that because she is still 'sinning' e.g. dancing at nightclubs, drinking alcohol, not praying regularly, she doesn't see herself as being worthy of a headscarf -- a symbol of piety.

She can also feel conflicted and suffer cognitive dissonance because of the contradiction between her beliefs and her actions. But, she still hopes that she will be able to be a hijabi in the future.

Some reasons that she can give:
"I don't want to be a bad example of a hijabi"
"I'll wear it after I come back from haj (pilgrimage)"
"I'm not a good Muslim, so I don't want to mislead people" 
Many women who don't wear a headscarf regularly are treated as if they belong to this category, because the hijab is taken by the majority of Muslim society as an order from God. As we'll see in the next post, there are also a group of non-hijabi who don't necessarily feel this way, and find this attitude towards them highly patronising! (Read: Yours truly.)

Read Part 2 here.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Coconut milk vs. peanut butter?

I love all my colleagues. I love how, because we come from different backgrounds, we can constantly poke fun at each other and at ourselves.

Here's something written by an extremely talented Dutch-West Papua-economist-islander and all-around funny girl, Olga. (I don't know why she doesn't give up economics for comic writing.)

Coconut milk vs. Peanut butter

As a true economist I would say it depends. There are a number of factors one should consider when choosing between coconut milk and peanut butter. Both have benefits (enjoyment to say the least) and disadvantages (saturated fat). There are also a number of questions that arise from the initial question:
“If you had to choose between coconut milk and peanut butter, which would you choose?” For example, ‘Why would you choose between the two?’ ‘When would you choose between the two?’ and ‘What planet are you from thinking that I could possibly choose between the two?’
I feel that the only way for me to figure out which I would choose is to make a cost-benefit analysis. The cost-benefit analysis that I shall conduct is not in the strict sense a cost-benefit analysis. I will specifically look at a few situational factors, and then draw an overall conclusion from this debate. I must say that there is no evidence to suggest that the two can be looked at in isolation, as they are part of a greater system- the islander system.

The two are not substitutable; choosing between the two is a pickle. Coconut milk is not consumed as is (unless you want to have a heart attack)- it’s always cooked with something. However, coconut water (only from the young coconut mind you) is a refreshing drink. Peanut butter, on the other hand, is a ready when you are type of thing. You can just dip carrot/ celery sticks into the peanut butter and hey presto a snack. For minimum input-maximum output dilemma I would say that peanut butter wins hands down.

I can hear you banter,
“If you think the two are not substitutes; do you consider them complements?”
Well, the two are not strict complements as you can have one without the other. You can have coconut rice and you can have peanut butter on bread. However the two do work well together when you make sate sauce (even if you have to add extra things, like sambal and lime leaves/juice etc). I suggest that the two are weak complements rather than substitutes as they are more often associated with edible awesomeness rather than strictly separate entities.

But why restrict this debate to consumption….
If the two were super heroes though, then it would be different. If I think about it- Coconut Milk would have the power of blinding people with shaves of coconut (as coconut milk is made from straining coconut shaves). Peanut butter would have the power of stickiness- stopping people dead in their tracks with peanut butter. If coconut milk and peanut butter met in battle I think coconut milk would win by default. Blinding someone is more effective way to destroy them then just making them sticky.

In their natural state
I must say in their natural state both are brown, one is hairy and the other is pale slightly bumpy; one a nut the other a legume. With a coconut you see it grow then you watch it fall (hopefully not on your head) a peanut on the other hand grows underground- so the end result is a surprise. Thus making the peanut slightly more intriguing, well at least to me.

If I think about it, it takes more effort to get coconut milk then it does peanut butter. Peanuts just need to be crushed, whereas a coconut needs to be husked, cracked open, scrapped and then strained. The energy taken to make coconut milk makes it more worthwhile. This means that although peanut butter wins when it comes to efficiency, coconut milk trumps peanut butter when it boils down to the desirability of the end result.

To fuel the fire
Both are quite oily so they make for a good source of fuel. The more important question is however, how much energy one can extract from burning the coconut compared to the peanut. An important implication here is that you should have the same weight in each substance prior to burning. Not only is the fuel important, but the carbon imprint. The trade-off here is between the amount of energy produced compared to the carbon imprint. As the coconut is oilier than the peanut it will produce more fuel. More smoke is produced when burning a coconut- thereby making it less environmentally friendly than the peanut. Given that I appreciate the environment more than energy (islander mentality); I would sway the way of the peanut.

Looking at the coconut and the peanut you realize that the peanut rejuvenates the soil. It’s used quite often to re-add nutrients to the soil in tropical countries. The process is as such that after growing a crop (and yielding set crop) the soil becomes less nutritious. By default this means that the next crop that is grown in the field will not be as good as the last. So to re-use the field rather than watching it reduce its nutritious value, peanuts are grown in between. This rejuvenates the soil and allows the following season’s crops to do as well as the last. Peanuts win hands down.

The conclusion drawn from this little intriguing question is that it depends per circumstance whether I prefer coconut milk or peanut butter. Looking at all the evidence supplied above peanut butter wins hands down. Its more efficient and effective snack, its more environmentally friendly and its more intriguing as it grows as you have to dig it out. I do however feel that more research needs to be done to statistically prove that peanut butter is actually preferred over coconut milk.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The magical touch.

Some months ago, a family friend came over, with one of many magical cures for my mother's illness. All these superstitious cures brought back a memory of when a cure was being sought for my sister's condition, which after many 'witch doctors', massage cures, physiotherapy, and doctor visits later, was found out to be hereditary (!).

So this woman, whom I'll call Kak Pah, came along with her sister. Kak Pah started telling my mum about a friend of hers that does urut, or massage, with her elbows. Apparently this masseuse was rather gifted at it because Kak Pah was experiencing irregular menstruation, and these elbow massages made her menstruation come.

What I remarked from listening to their conversation was how she kept using the word ikhlas (Arabic/Malay, lit. sincere) in describing the masseuse's actions. She was sincere in wanting to help people, so even though she did not have any massage techniques, her mere touch could help to cure. Furthermore, her magical massages were made more credible because she does not ask for payment in return.

Kak Pah continued that the masseuse's husband was part of a tariqa (Arabic, lit. path/method) when he was alive, and suggested that the pesan (Malay, lit. advice) he gave her before he died could have contributed to her massage 'powers'. A tariqa/tarikat is a kind of Sufistic, or mystical religious order, where a group of students learns from a guide, in seeking truth. (A half-joke: you can often identify followers of such groups by looking at the number of men in beards and turbans they exalt like celebrities on Facebook.)

The husband of the masseuse also had some 'powers' of his own. Apparently, he could tell when people were going to die. Kak Pah countered this borderline polytheistic suggestion by adding that he died himself a few months later after this power was revealed, so that he would not be deified by others -- this was "God's mercy".

Kak Pah was so firmly convinced by the 'powers' of the masseuse that she wanted her to come and visit my mum so that inshallah with her usaha (Malay, lit. efforts), my mum's paralysis and blood circulation could be improved.

Newsflash: using Arabic and religious terms like inshallah and ikhlas does not make this way of thinking any less superstitious! The Qur'an is a highly pragmatic book, and states that God has power in the whole of creation (6:73, 7:54, 45:22...) According to S. Ahmed's (2008) research, the Qur'an "negates the existence of witchcraft, black magic, soothsaying, astrology, palm-reading... fortune-telling, clairvoyance, and all superstition"

To me it's quite clear that it's not about God's physical and biological laws of menstruation, or God reducing someone's adversity or pain. God does things as God deems fit, and to get this woman to ‘cure’ my mum with the 'powers' she received through her connections with men and religious orders is practically thinking that she has the ability, not God.

And why did her words have such authority, that she was taken so seriously? Because she looked like a purist, pious, traditional Muslim woman in her waist-length headscarf in a neutral colour, her arm sleeves which covered her wristbones, and her use of words with strong religious connotations.

It's an image that is constructed to be the very epitome of good female Muslim-ness, so when you say something related to Islam, people will believe you more easily. I'm not saying they are doing it on purpose (I'm sure Kak Pah had the best of intentions in suggesting this cure for my mum), but I think in this case the maxim to not 'judge a book by its cover' also applies to positive images, and not only the bad ones.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Islamic cartoons

Dear Readers, thank you for continually coming to check on this blog even though I've been so scarce. The last few weeks were hectic, organizing a huge international conference in Amsterdam. But everything went smoothly (alhamdulillah!) and things will start to peter out slowly till I find myself jobless again. :)

But I don't worry about being aimless, because trawling Facebook always brings out loads of stuff to blog about! In this post, I'm going to show you some wonderfully-drawn comics found on many groups and web sites, in the style of manga, that are aimed to help impart Islamic lessons to the impressionable and 'cool' young men and women...

Let's take a look at some drawings by 'farish'. Here's a young man symbolising what is important: seeking knowledge, having faith, and doing good deeds. These are equally expected of both men and women. The next cartoon shows a young woman saying the same thing.

In fact we own nothing in this world. Our bodies and wealth are not ours, everything will perish and be left behind. What we own is love for God and good works done when we're still alive.

And what about women? Many of the cartoons about women focus on their modesty. Here's one telling us about the rules of covering a woman's awrah/aurat (private parts, can range from everything except face and hands, to the entire body plus her voice):

The characteristic of modesty (or having shame) is one of women's accessories. 4 rules in covering aurat: 1. Does not show the colour of skin 2. Does not show the shape of the body 3. Does not attract attention 4. Is not perfumed.
I do recall some other rules that are traditionally included in such a set of rules, such as not wearing colours other than black, grey, or brown (otherwise you would irrepressibly incite the desire of men), or not wearing tinkling ornaments such as anklets. But, such rules are often quoted in a number and combination that best shows the attitude and worldview of the author.

Here's another problematic hadith:

 The Prophet of God said: This world is full of ornamentation and the best ornament is a pious Muslim woman.
A Muslim female friend once called this one out publicly, arguing that this constructs the ultimate goal of a Muslimah's life as a worldly ornamentation. Being pious makes you a worldly decoration. Is this a beautiful value to uphold?

When it comes to talking about soft issues like protecting our environment, a woman is a better representation than a man. Because a Muslim man with a beard and kufi holding a little seedling, I mean, that's a little emasculating isn't it?

And here are 2 more cartoons from CahayaIslam, which provides 'cartoons as education and advice for dakwah (missionary) activities on the Internet'.

Dear, remember Mummy's advice. Obey God's commands... cover your private parts, pray, fast, obey your parents... and when you are married, obey your husband, OK?
Obedience to God is listed as covering, praying, fasting and obedience to parents and husband. Not to mention that obeying a husband is nowhere near obeying God! But, actually, this list of an ideal Muslim woman comes from one interpretation of Qur'an 66:5, which I'll discuss in another blog post soon, inshallah. :)

Finally, a hadith that absurdly lumps human beings with houses and cars (or camels, rather):

Four things bring happiness, that is, a pious woman, a spacious house, good neighbours and a comfortable means of transportation.
Sigh. Cartoons are fun, and help to reproduce ideas and messages easily.


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