Friday, December 21, 2012

Celebrating love: Gahmen Style.

Back in Singapore for a few weeks, and already having so much fun! Here's a 2013 calendar sent to me by the Social Development Network of Singapore, encouraging me to date and marry and build the "basic unit of society" -- family! (I guess they didn't get the memo that I got married just like they want me to.)

I'd like to call your attention to the pink heart-shaped candy at the bottom right-hand corner of the calendar. It seemed suspiciously like the candies placed on all cakes at Bagels and Beans, NL, that I picked at it for a good whole minute before realising it was a stack of Post-it!

Bagel & Beans cheesecake

Curiouser and curiouser, the stack of maybe 20 heart-shaped Post-its says "I've a DATE with (blank)". But only 20 dates in a year? How to get married like this leh?

Another tickling feature of the calendar is the inclusion of not only all our national holidays, but also "special dates whereby love is celebrated in other parts of the world"! Because we're emotionless, and unhappy, and we need our government to suggest to us how to celebrate and show love!

So here are the other dates, as bureaucratically suggested by SDN (no offense to those who celebrate these holidays; I'm only critiquing the specific aspects of these holidays as picked out by SDN!):

24 February: Dragobete
A traditional Romanian holiday originating from Dacian times and known as "the day when the birds are betrothed", as it is around this time that the birds begin to build their nests and mate. If the weather allows, singles pick snowdrops or other early spring plants for the person they are courting. It is a common belief that during this celebration, if you step over your partner's foot, you will have the dominant role in your relationship
Source: Wfriends (more fun photos of kids celebrating!)

Alamak. This description is taken almost 100% from Wikipedia! (See Dragobete). It's incredible how non-discreet the SDN is being, what with the building of nests and mating! Come on Single Singaporeans, it's time (tap tap foot)! As for the stepping on your partner's foot  (a belief only in some parts of Romania), can't you see what an unhealthy view of relationships they are promoting? What's up with that?

12 June: Dia dos Namorados. 
In Brazil, Dia dos Namorados means "Lovers Day", or "Boyfriends'/Girlfriends' Day" probably because it is the day before Saint Anthony's day, a day whereby single women perform rituals to find a good husband or boyfriend. On this Lovers' Day, couples exchange gifts, chocolates, cards and flower bouquets.

Also taken off the Brazil section on Valentine's Day! Again, putting the onus on single women to find a good male partner -- fits in well with the heteronormative ideas of family in Singapore (only married couples can get money for having babies!) as well as simmering contemporary patriarchal ideas (women depend on men, reason for fewer marriages are career-minded women).

3 October: Sweetest Day
Friends, family and lovers often give each other candy, flowers and cards on this day; and like Valentine's Day, it is associated with heart-shaped boxes, and the colours pink and red.
Source: Wikipedia

When something is from the US, it's conveniently taken to be universal. But even in the US, this holiday is only celebrated in the Mid-west, and specifically in Chicago. Actually, I think that considering the commercial and materialist origins of this holiday, having been called a "concocted promotion" created by the candy industry solely to increase sales of sweets, this is probably suitable for us Singaporeans.

The date isn't even right -- it's usually celebrated on the third Saturday of each October!

11 November: Pepero Day
Koreans celebrate Pepero Day on November 11, when young couples give each other Pepero cookies to tell their special someone that they are the only 'one' in their heart. The date '11/11' resembles the long shape of the cookie. Some singles also choose to say goodbye to singlehood on this day by attending 'blind date' parties or marrying on this day.
Source: Coreaporsiempre

This is actually pretty cute. And definitely boosting the sales of these long and thin cookies! But okay, we get the idea -- singles have to stop being single. ASAP. (On a side note, I do like these ambiguous representations of Pepero Day!)

Oh SDN, whatever will you come up with next? Pay us to date? Oh, wait.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mak Nyahs: Transgendered Muslims in Malaysia

Mak nyah is the term that transgendered women in Malaysia use to identify themselves. 'Mak' means 'mother', and 'nyah' is derived from the literal meaning of 'running away' to refer to 'transition'. Khartini Slamah, a well-known 49-year-old activist and counselor to other transgendered women, explains how and why this term came about in the late 80s, in her chapter in the book Sexuality, Gender and Rights: Exploring Theory and Practice in South and South East Asia by Geetanjali Misra and Radhika Chandiramani (2005):
“First [...] to differentiate ourselves from gay men, transvestites, cross dressers, drag queens, and other ‘sexual minorities’ with whom all those who are not heterosexual are automatically lumped, and second [...] to define ourselves from a vantage point of dignity rather than from the position of derogation in which Malaysian society has located us”.
Mak nyahs do not necessarily have to undergo, have undergone, or plan to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Khartini elaborates on the groups of people that self-identify as mak nyah:
“Mak Nyahs define themselves in various ways along the continuums of gender and sexuality: as men who look like women and are soft and feminine, as the third gender, as men who dress up as women, as men who like to do women’s work, as men who like me, etc.”
Compare this strong and empowering self-identification by Khartini to an article published a few months ago that featured Adam Shazrul's experiences as a transgendered woman in Malaysia. I found this article as a rather sympathetic portrayal of transgendered women since female pronouns ('she' and 'her') were used throughout. However, the accompanying image seemed to be a bit of a forceful effort to show how feminine she can actually look ("Look Ma, I'm not born a woman but I can still be sexy, as a woman should be").

Adam Shazrul. Via New York Times.
Despite the fact that Adam Shazrul (I would like to refer to him using his preferred female name, but this is kept from the reader for privacy reasons) identifies as a practising Muslim who "fasts during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and sometimes visits the mosque", the accompanying image shows the clear outlines and curves of her body in a lighting perhaps more suited to a more shifty kind of story. I've yet to come across an article about a practising cisgendered Muslim woman being accompanied with such a photograph.

Last year, the Equal Rights Trust (ERT) published a report about four transgendered Malay Muslim women in their biannual publication. Recently, the ERT helped four Malay Muslim transgendered women present a case to the High Court, challenging the unconstitutional basis of the ban on "cross-dressing", which was unfortunately rejected. In this report, the testimonies of these women show how gender, race, class and the religio-political system in the state of Seremban (and Malaysia at large) intersect in structural and physical violence towards mak nyahs in Malaysia today.

The justification for this violence towards mak nyah mainly comes from their race and class. All the four women interviewed explained how it was difficult for them to rent a house, continue their education (the stress of having to room with a male student) or find jobs other than low-paying and precarious ones in the field of administration, food and beverages, or as a last resort, sex work. Even if they looked convincingly female (which even the ERT report also tried to emphasise with one of their accompanying images), their identity card revealed their masculine gender and names, as given at birth, resulting in discrimination and ridicule.

Via Equal Rights Trust
As they identify as Malay and (automatically) Muslim, they are subject to a section in the Seremban syariah code that makes it an offence for a "man to act like a woman". Specifically, "wearing women's attire" or "posing as a woman" is reason for being arrested, having their breasts groped (on the pretext of checking for bras), and being asked to undress in front of other men. The women also state that they do not wear bras because this could be used as evidence of their 'cross-dressing', but sometimes even when they are wearing masculine clothing like football jerseys, they are still arrested for having a "physical appearance [...] of a woman."

The systematic violations of their modesty as self-identifying Muslim women, by the Muslim male officers from the religious department is something that we as Muslims should be ashamed and critical about. Previously on MWW, Alicia pointed out how "sexual immorality is intertwined with class"; that these religious officers mostly target the lower classes of Malaysian society for offenses against 'Islamic law'. One the scale of class and gender, the mak nyah are arguably on one of the lowest rungs of society, despite belonging to the majority ethnic group of Malays, because they fail to act like 'real men'.

As Linda (not her real name) said in her testimony:
These people arrest us, beat us up and break into our properties. They hunt us down as if we are the biggest murderers, when the only “offence” we are “guilty” of is wearing female attire.
In short, mak nyah are those who are not 'real Muslim men', it seems that society still needs to be convinced that they are 'real Muslim women'. (Although then perhaps they are subject to a different standard of sexual policing – you just can’t win.)

Even though Khartini has defined mak nyah as a continuum that encompasses a rich diversity of men and women, I find it unfortunate that the photos in the article and report suggest a rigid representation of women (sexy, must wear make-up).

Gender isn't everything. The case of mak nyahs in Malaysia show how it is important to consider race and class as well. In any case, it should not stop us from speaking out against violence towards other human beings who only wish to be safe, make a living, and "take care of our people like everyone else."
Cross posted at Muslimah Media Watch.


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