Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Malay Muslim Male Privilege Checklist.

Malays don't get much privilege in Singapore by virtue of race, but among Malays, and especially among Muslims, men do enjoy from certain privileges. Of course, this list should be taken with a pinch of salt, because even in talking about gender, I would not want to pander to racial or colonial discourses.

In the bigger picture, the privilege I'm talking about here belongs to a specific groups of men. But it's also important to recognise the privilege therein.

So -- let's get to the list!

1. You can marry in Singapore without having to produce "proof of conversion", no matter your actual state of religiosity.

2. You can wear short-sleeved T-shirts, trousers, and other kinds of "Western attire" to religious gatherings.

3. You can smoke freely in private and public spaces.

4. You are positively discriminated for jobs in a religious setting, even if the scope of work is administrative.

5. When encountering a mosque, you never have to ask yourself the following questions:
  • Can I enter by the front entrance? Or will someone chase me out and tell me to go in through a separate, smaller entrance? 
  • Must I cover my hair? 
  • Must I cover my feet with socks?
  • Is my top long enough? 
  • Where is the special enclosed/dirtier section for my gender??

6. When inside a mosque, you may entertain the following thoughts:
  • Since I cannot hear the sermon very well, shall I move nearer to the imam? 
  • Since I don't agree with the imam's emphasis on heavenly rewards of wine and sexy heavenly beings, shall I speak with him after the sermon?

7. You are free to comment on how your fellow sisters are dressed.

8a. If you are married and have children...

"Bapa Mithali", Ponorogo

8b. If you are married and have no children,
  • You will never be accused of infertility.
  • You can always shift infertility to your wife.
  • You can use her infertility as grounds for divorce, or
  • You can have subsequent wives to have children, and you don't have to marry widows with orphans.

9. If you are an a position of religious authority...
  • You are so eligible that you can marry women much, much younger than you, and be hardly discouraged from marrying up to the maximum of four.
  • You can speak in public and have female groupies.
  • You don't have to keep yourself in shape because good health is worldly vanity.
  • You don't have to give sermons about our environment because that is a secular and non-spiritual topic.
  • You don't need a high level of academic education for people to respect you.
  • You can comment on the intimate lives of women and their experiences, with no fear of rebuttals from women.
  • You can inform others about the weight of the Qur'an, hadith and various opinions from jurisprudence, with no need for balance or nuance and with no fear of critical thinking from your community.

Let me know if you want to add something to the list!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

May last year.

Sorry, I'm swamped by so much work in six different projects I've taken on (including wedding preparations).

In tribute to the falling Euro currency, here are some posts from May last year, when I visited Greece.

We met with different groups in Athens...
- a migration research group
- an elite feminist group
- an informal association for queer rights
- a government department for gender equality

while also having deja vu while gawking at Greek architecture...

and trying to stay out of trouble.

Monday, May 14, 2012

What is conversion?

I just saw the first episode of the first season of All-American Muslim (for the first time!) on TLC, and in this episode, Jeff, an Irish-American from a Catholic family, has to undergo a conversion in order to marry Shadia, a Lebanese-American who was raised as a Muslim.

Episode 1 Season 1

There was a good amount of footage of Jeff's mum who had flown in from Chicago for the wedding, but she didn't know that Jeff had to convert. That was a huge parallel with our personal situation. I saw what the Dutchman went through, but those scenes with Jeff's mum had me almost in tears (minutes 19:15-21:28, 24:50-25:50) because that was a side of the story that I didn't participate in.

Of course, it's difficult to see a huge break with tradition. Maybe she also felt like she was losing her son to an unknown pack of wolves terrorists Muslims, because of the dominant image of Muslims who bring a lot of their culture with them (in the case of migrants) , and who may also expect conformity to the culture as part of being Muslim. I understand it would feel like her son was lost to these people. And when you add the whole formal conversion procedure...

One of the biggest bones I have to pick with being Muslim in Singapore is that Islam is so heavily institutionalised. If you are not Malay on your identity card, or if you don't have an Arabic name, then you are assumed to be non-Muslim and in socio-legal situations you have to prove that you are.

If you are Malay, then to act in a way that is counter to institutionalised Islam in a socio-legal situation (such as opting to register your marriage in the secular court or ROM), you have to prove that you are not Muslim. For example, the Dutchman was not raised Muslim, doesn't have an Arabic name, and as a "foreign spouse", so no matter the state of his heart and beliefs, he would have to show proof of being Muslim if we were to marry, pay zakat, or arrange for a pilgrimage from Singapore.

The firmly-held belief that it is only men who have to convert to marry Muslim women, while Christian or Jewish women do not have to convert to marry Muslim men, is also rooted in a certain idea of a male-led family, which is for another post. In Singapore at least, bother parties have to be Muslim in order to register their marriage in the shari'a court, because that's written in the law (thanks to the British?).

The episode touched on the issue of choice, or agency, to convert -- at least in the Singaporean context. (I'm tempted to make a conversion matrix!) It doesn't matter what you actually believe, the fact that you have to provide proof of conversion (and from a semi-government body, no less) makes a mockery of the supposed division between religion and state. In other words, there is freedom of belief for all Singaporeans except Muslims.

So I did experience several awkward moments when people asked if the Dutchman was 'converting', and it didn't matter which way I said it; skeptics would insist that he converted just so we could marry, and the naive would insist that a formal procedure (i.e. with a ceremony, a certificate, change of name, offer of circumcision) was the only way to ensure that he was a 'true Muslim'.

I'm not a fan of formal procedures for something so personal, and here's a beautiful story to explain why. I personally believe in the concept of fitrah (every human being is born with the tendency towards God), and I do prefer the term 'revert' because it reflects this. But I wouldn't go so far to say that the parents of non-Muslims 'corrupt' their children with another religion, because which parent doesn't want the best for their child, and which parent doesn't want their child to be a good, moral, ethical, loving person that is useful to society?

I concede that some of the aspects of a formal conversion procedure may have sociological or psychological benefit, like letting the wider Muslim community know that they have a saudara baru (Malay, lit. new relative) whom they should support, cognitive clarity or the feeling that one is turning over a new leaf, and legal and financial support (enough money for a round of teh tariks in Singapore or monthly income in Brunei!). Also, in case of death, finding a conversion card would be helpful for burial, for sure.

However, I feel that the obsession placed on formal proof of conversion is not reflective of Islam's teachings of compassion. There are many reasons why a public, formal conversion would not be ideal for someone. In the episode, Jeff ended up cursorily reciting repeating the shahada (Arabic, lit. testimony. To bear witness that there is only one God, and the Prophet Muhammad is his Messenger) in Arabic, a language he doesn't understand (minutes 13:45-15:30, 27:00-28:30), as part of his 'conversion'. And in Singapore as well, you're expected to memorise these foreign sounds and repeat them in front of two witness (male, of course, did you expect anything else?).

Maybe some people feel that Arabic is a magic language, but I don't see why one has to prove to be a Muslim only by being able to pronounce the shahada correctly. Witnesses and friends then celebrate...his ability to imitate sounds accurately? In the episode Jeff clearly says that he converts to make the family of his future wife happy, and so that he can stay with her -- I couldn't help but wonder if the Dutchman felt a little bit of this too? But what disturbed me the most was how everyone just seemed really happy that his commitment to Islam involved only repeating the shahada.

How do you be sure that someone converts for the sake of God? You simply can't. That is in itself, a way of thinking that is specific to Muslims and our socialised desires for authenticity and visible sincerity. Some converts tell me there is no internal conversion process at all; there is no change from a non-Muslim to a Muslim. They remain the same person as they are, and they hope that their family and friends will also see them the same way.

For some, a formal procedure is helpful. But for some, it is enough that the realisation that the actions, beliefs and values they have felt all along to be true and right, has a name to it... finally.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The benefit of a traditional religious education.

Some people think I'm against traditional religious education -- that's not true! It's a lot like learning how to dance.

I learnt this from my wonderful dance instructor in Grenoble, who gifted me my first experience of contemporary dance. He taught us that to be able to move freely, you first have to learn the classics -- only then can you depart from form. We had to learn classical ballet, not necessarily for us to all become ballerinas, but so that we would not move in preconceived ideas of dance rooted in ballet.

Traditional religious education is not to be discounted, because it is a good grounding in hegemonic discourse. It is important to know what most Muslims around the world know, because it helps to create a shared cultural history with others. It also helps to create a point of departure for other kinds of religious education.

I'll give some examples of how I experienced a shared referential consciousness with Muslim women from different parts of the world.


A few months ago I was talking to a friend from Central Eastern Africa about how the Muslims in her country adapt their traditional dress to the requirements of hijab, and we had a great discussion about social norms and sensibilities about how much flesh non-hijabi women could show without everyone freaking out about it.

She mentioned an acquaintance in school who wears the headscarf, and commented that it was strange that she wore a 'bump' at the back of her head -- because that was haram.

I was taken aback, this was a bump from her natural hair, how else was she supposed to wear it? I rather thought that if you were going to take a hair-bump that as a sign of the inhabitants of hell, you had to pick on a more "camel-hump" looking bump.

But actually that isn't my point. My point is that we came from different regions, countries, and cultural backgrounds, but I knew why had made such a judgment on our friend's headscarf. We had both been taught a lesson on morality and how to dress, by religious teachers or elders in our communities, based on this hadith(Although I only heard about this in the last three years or so, I seem to have heard about it in time!)

Another incident happened about six years ago. I was studying in France and was extremely pleased to have met a girl from West Africa. We were talking about dogs and she said that at home, if she touched a dog, she was taught that she should wash her hands with earth and water. When I told her that yes, that is a religious requirement (this was me six years ago!). She marveled at how we had learnt the same things, even though she didn't know whether this was a cultural or religious practice in her country.

Indeed, even now I still marvel at how we learn the same things, even though we don't know if it is a cultural or religious practice.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Native wines!

I saw this yesterday in Woerden. It's a banner advertising for 'Native Wines', a selection of wines from Cape province, South Africa.

I don't want to get into a long discussion about appropriations of other people's art, the use of the female body to sell anything and everything, and the colonial taste of marketing a wine on account of it being 'native' when all the vineyards in South Africa are owned by White people, so let's just ponder on  two Orientalist questions:
  1. Why are the breasts of African women appropriate for public display?
  2. Why do Third World cultures make your product exotic?
Netherlands, you've got a long way to go.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The hijab matrix: Part 2

If you haven't read Part 1 of the hijab matrix, read it here first.

In these two posts, I wanted to highlight the different motivations behind the (non-)veiling practices of Muslim women. This blog mostly talks about issues of intersectionality, and within the issue of hijab there are already multiple intersections! Having been one of the four 'Muslimahs' discussed here, at different points in my life, I saw these posts as a way clarifying the issue for myself. And if you get something good out of it -- good on you!

I'm reproducing the matrix here for your reading convenience:

No Hijab
Divine order
Not divine

Muslimah 3: "Modesty is possible without hijab"
This Muslim woman is a practising believer in other visible aspects (e.g. praying, fasting), but she doesn't see hijab as obligatory and she doesn't wear it. This contradiction in her image as a non-hijabi Muslim can confuse people, or make them really concerned. If she has never worn it, they might assume that she is like Muslimah 2. If she used to wear it but no longer does, they will be really concerned. (Because she must have done something really bad to shame her into taking it off, right??)

So why does this woman find hijab unnecessary? It could be due to different interpretations of the Qur'an and ahadith. Although the vast majority of Muslims believe that hijab is obligatory (with some proponents upholding it as the 6th pillar of Islam!), there is a minority view that the word khimar in verse 24:31 may not be referring to a head-scarf, but rather, to any sort of covering. The emphasis is then on covering cleavage or the chest area in general, and not the hair specifically. (See here for an example of this reasoning.)

As for ahadith related to hijab, they may be regarded more as a source of history and not binding law. For example, the most common one cited to indicate the areas to cover (everything except the face and hands after puberty), may be taken more as an indicated of the social context of the Prophet's time and what was considered appropriate.

Needless to say, in a society with a dominant discourse of the obligatory nature of hijab, it is very difficult to state that one holds a minority view.

Muslimah 4: "Hijab has social benefits"
The women in this category do not see hijab  as obligatory for the same reasons as Muslimah 3, but choose to wear hijab. One woman could have been forced to wear it upon reaching puberty, and does not stop wearing it later in life even though she doesn't believe it is obligatory, because of the social risks.

Another woman may chose to wear it later in life because it makes things 'easier'. For example, she may be  active in the Muslim community; attends many religious seminars and classes, or works in a religious institution like a mosque or Islamic school, or finds that her social circles consist of many hijabis and she is constantly questioned for being the odd one out (or she is constantly told that she would look beautiful in a hijab).

Yet another woman could wear it for the social benefits such as appearing more religious, having more legitimacy to speak on religious issues, or reducing peer pressure to dress stylishly. (Although arguably, there is are entire separate fashion trends in the hijabi world. But you can always use the religious discourse of simplicity and modesty to justify your simple clothing choices, no one will fault you.)

One also can't argue that a hijab keeps you fair, protects your hair from exposure to the sun, and makes you more attractive due to the aesthetic nature of framing the face with fabric. In some societies, parents may trust their daughter more and let her go out late, date boys, go to school/work without fear that she will be up to no good.

There are also socio-political benefits: in Singapore for example, the hijab is increasingly a sign of middle-class sophisticated and modern religiosity young women. In Indonesia, scholars saw the rise of the jilbab in the late 1980s as 'resistance to an authoritarian and secular government' [1]. In the Netherlands, it can be a sign of solidarity against wider local and regional sentiments that are hostile to Islam and its visible Muslims.

I wanted to differentiate between the visual practice of hijab, and the beliefs that underlie it. Often a woman that wears hijab is expected to behave in a certain way, without considering her motivations (divine/social). A woman without a hijab suffers likewise from certain assumptions about her religiosity or morality, without considering her beliefs.

The first row of the table represents the dominant discourse in society and for this reason I find the second row of the table more interesting. To me, the motivations of the different categories get more and more interesting from 1 to 4.

I hope that this helps to hold back any quick judgments that we tend to pass on Muslim women because of what we see, because there is much we won't know.


Do you see yourself as any of these Muslimahs? Share your experiences!

1. Brenner, Suzanne. 1996. "Reconstructing Self and Society: Javanese Muslim Women and the Veil, American Ethnologist 23(4):673-97.


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