Sunday, December 8, 2013

Use a “Muslim Woman”: Reasserting Dutch Values 101

This post was originally published on Muslimah Media Watch on 2 Dec 2013

A few weeks ago, I went to a small, local cinema in my city to catch a film. I’ve always liked going to this particular cinema because they screen international and independent films – a fresh change from the standard Hollywood fare at the bigger cinema.

The film was about to start, so I quickly ducked into the ladies’. After I washed my hands, imagine my shock at seeing the following poster pasted behind the door:
Source: Hivos
The text on the poster says (in Dutch):
“This woman is a symbol for all homosexual women and men in developing countries that, through Hivos’s human rights programme, can come out about their orientation.”
Another version of the poster has a slightly different text, and ends on an appeal for donations:
“There are countries where people cannot say what they want, and cannot be who they are. Hivos, a development organisation, wants to give a voice to as many of these people as possible. Because everyone should be able to be, and say, what he or she wants. Support Hivos GIRO 1969.”
As you might imagine, my shock was not so much “OMG a Muslimwoman is lesbian” but “OMG misuse of images of veiled women (yet again)!”

When I posted this picture and my reaction on Facebook, bemoaning the use of a veiled brown woman to homogenise and represent developing countries as homophobic, I received an interesting reaction from a white Dutch woman.

This acquaintance made a clear comparison between “Islamic countries” and Holland. Illustrating her argument with a story that her daughter is lesbian and is able to live a perfectly heteronormative life (hoping to marry, have children and build a household), she stated that she was glad that her daughter was born in Holland and not in “Islamic countries”.

I believe this is the main reaction that the poster intends to arouse in its main viewers – middle class white Dutch people who wish to help those in developing countries: that they should feel grateful for the “freedom” and “tolerance” in the Netherlands and extend their generosity to other countries that are not as “free”.

Attempts by fellow queer Muslim women to add nuance to her argument only led to a flat out denial of any marginalisation of LGBTQ groups (for example, those of colour) in the Netherlands, and her reinforcement of the idea that Islam is (and Muslims are) inherently homophobic. In fact, she even accused me of not being sufficiently “tolerant” because I found her category of homophobic “Islamic countries” to be reinforcing stereotypes and erasing complex socio-political histories.

I still wonder about the logic behind this campaign by Hivos. What do they mean, exactly, that this “veiled lady symbolises the difficult fight against homophobia”? That all Muslims are homophobic? That all countries with Muslim laws are homophobic? That LGBTQ Muslims always want to come out? That LGBTQ Muslims need the support and solidarity from development organisations in the Global North to help them?

Further reading reveals that Hivos holds the hegemonic, liberal feminist idea that “the position of lesbian women as a measure of freedom” can and must be applied to all countries. However, such an universal idea of freedom has already been sharply critiqued, interrogated and questioned by women scholars such as Saba Mahmood,Gayatri Spivak and Lila Abu-Lughod.

As I found out, the woman in the poster is not even Muslim.

The woman in the picture is in fact Papu, a Bhopa woman from the Thar desert in Rajasthan, India, photographed by Mirjam Letsch, a Dutch photographer. In fact, in some areas in rural north India, married Hindu women veil themselves in front of certain people like older male in-laws. According to the website set up by the photographer, Papu has a husband, children, and supports her family by playing music on the streets. Most importantly, the Papu Photo Project was actually set up to support Indian “dowry victims” – women who are mutilated, set on fire, or killed for not being able to provide sufficient dowry. Not LGBTQ women who are unable to come out.

Source: NRC Charity Awards
This campaign was selected in 2011 for a charity awards competition by NRC, a Dutch newspaper. Taking a quick look at the website of this year’s awards, I found another example of the use of the image of a brown woman in hijab as a way to catch the viewer’s attention, using stereotypes about Muslims.

The text on the poster by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Foundation below says “I am against equal treatment” (presumably, of men and women). This poster plays on the stereotype that Muslims (and especially Muslim women in hijab) are never for gender equality, unlike white Dutch people – ignoring and erasing the work of Dutch Muslim organisations and platforms that believe in gender equality such as Al Nisa and Nieuwe Moskee. It turns out upon closer inspection of the text, that the ad is about cancer treatment.

This is exactly the purpose of the image of the veiled Rajasthani woman on the Hivos poster. By juxtaposing an image of what seems to be a Muslim woman from a developing country together with the text “I am lesbian”, the organisation intends to get the attention of a certain kind of viewer. This viewer is assumed to believe that Muslims are homophobic because LGBTQ Muslims are oppressed (only) by religion, and that homophobia is a problem of developing countries and not countries with lots of “freedom” like the Netherlands. 

The poster in fact merely reinforces the self-image of white Dutch people, helping them feel good about themselves (which they then act upon by hopefully donating some money).
Source: Author's own photo
In one article on their website, Hivos mentions the arrests and legal penalties for gay/lesbian people in Malawi and Uganda (perhaps more relevant to another poster from the same campaign, which pictures a black man with the words “I’m gay” ). According to Hivos, these incidents justify the use of the image of an Indian woman (so they do know that she’s Indian!).Hivos adds in the same article that “whether or not this lady herself is a lesbian, does not matter”. 

However, it matters because 1) the text says “I am lesbian”, and 2) it means that the organisation is playing on the stereotypes of a veiled woman, without caring if the woman herself is lesbian.

Is it a stretch of the imagination to feature an actual lesbian brown woman, whether Hindu or Muslim, for a really effective campaign? These two posters in effect racialise LGBTQ issues as a problem of “others” in “developing countries” and not “at home”. More importantly, why claim to support one marginalised group while further marginalising another?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Tudung or Not Tudung?: Hijabis in Singaporean Workplaces

In Singapore, the hijab is more commonly referred to with the Malay word ‘tudung’, which simply means a covering. In October this year, a petition was started on by a “Syafiqah K.” to allow Muslim women in Singapore to wear tudung (hijab) in the workplace. It aimed to reach 20,000 signatures, but was closed down recently with about 7600 signatures short of its goal. It was originally planned to be sent to several figures in the government.

As of today, the Singapore government has what appears to be an almost arbitrary policy on Muslim women wearing hijab in the workplace. According to political rhetoric, the hijab is not allowed in “front-line positions” that require daily contact with other Singaporeans, including non-Muslim ones. However, there is no law that details this specifically.

According to my observations, there are professions that involve contact with people (thus appearing to be rather “front-line” for all intents and purposes) and yet allow hijabs. Examples include public transport companies, teachers, doctors (except when in scrubs), and politicians. In the government, for example, hijab is allowed as long as it doesn’t involve the “front-line” (case in point: my sister works in the tax authority wearing a hijab). Examples of professions that totally do not allow hijabs include police, military and navy officers, and nurses. As for private companies, their dress code is left to their own discretion.

This petition sparked a public debate in the mainstream and social media, for the second time. The first time (that I know of, at least) was in February 2002, when four little girls were banned from government primary schools after their parents sent them to school in hijabs and modified school uniforms (with lengthened sleeves and skirts). The then-mufti of Singapore (who is considered a civil servant because the Islamic authority is considered a government body) declared that “education is more important [than the hijab]” and urged their parents to comply with the school uniforms.

A glaring omission in this past debate was the voices of those girls. Note that their parents packed them off to school with hijabs when they were only seven years old. As hijab was not even obligatory on them, it appeared to me that their parents politicised the issue of hijab to highlight their own concerns that Malays, as the indigenous people of Singapore, were being marginalised in public policies. As for the government, the stock answer is that maintaining harmony between a Chinese majority and a Malay minority is hard work.

Facebook image created by anonymous artist to show solidarity with Singaporean Muslim women

This theme surfaced again in the recent hijab debate: the “integration” of Malays into the Chinese majority. Malay (and presumably Muslim) nominated member of parliament* Zulkifli Baharudin’s opinion is that Muslims need to integrate better, and “not expect others to accomodate them all the time”. He attributes the “strong religiosity” of Singaporean Muslims to something primitive, and resistant to the “years of progress, education and Westernisation”. His views echo the sentiments of Singapore’s minister mentor** in his book ‘Hard Truths’ (2011), when he said:
“I would say, today, we can integrate all religions and races, except Islam… Be less strict on Islamic observances and say, ‘Okay, I’ll eat with you’.”
Predictably, the Malay community feels attacked by the continual belittling of their customs and faith by the state apparatus and the Chinese majority.

The current mufti of Singapore, Mohamed Fatris Bakaram, has framed the issue in a way at least one blogger thinks is correct: that the hijab should not be seen as problematic to integration or racial and religious harmony, and that Muslim women who feel inclined to wear hijab on the basis of religious conviction should be allowed to do so in any profession, just as Muslim women who do not feel inclined to not wear hijab should be able to do so as well.

What about the voices of Muslim women? Their lack of visibility and voice is lamented in the public debate. On one hand, the thousands of Muslim women who signed the petition were dismissed by an MP Zaqy Mohamad, as engaging in a strategy of “astro-turfing” which he implied as being illegitimate and not constructive.
“The initiator has not identified himself or herself. So no one knows who initiated it, or whether the response is real.”
On the other hand, the handful of hijabi Muslim women who work within the state apparatus, such as Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, are pressured into giving her stand. I don’t find it surprising that she is hesitant to do so, because she is part of the state and she cannot openly counter its official stance, just as MP Zaqy Mohamad has to push official rhetoric in order to remain in office.

Personally, I believe the inconsistent hijab policy in Singapore has allowed a space for Muslim women to practise their personal convictions through different strategies. For example, I know one long-time hijabi who wanted to stop wearing hijab by deciding to become a police officer, thus avoiding social pressure. Another works as a nurse, and wears her hijab going to and leaving from the hospital. Yet another hijabi trained as a nurse, but decided to become a teacher after she realised she could not wear her hijab.

So what do we make of this debate?

It’s difficult to raise our voices in restrictive political conditions. In the semi-authoritarian state of Singapore disguised as a liberal democracy, there is no room for petitions and referendums. The inconsistent policy of allowing hijab in certain professions means that the issue can be used by both the state and the people to point out how much and how little freedom Muslims have, respectively.

At the same time, it is not to say that only democratic societies are able to handle such debates. Perhaps the blurred lines of the policy means that it is possible to have dialogue and debate in society about this issue. One profession at a time, it may be possible for Muslim women in Singapore to freely choose their career and how they practise their faith.

* NMPs are a uniquely Singaporean political creation, consisting of politicians who are chosen by the president to enter parliament, and do not represent any political party or electorate.

** Again, another uniquely Singaporean position for the man to whom much of the country’s development is credited under his authoritarian rule, Lee Kuan Yew.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Miss Malaysia – Not for Muslims?

This article was originally published on Muslimah Media Watch on 27 Aug 2013.

Beauty pageants have gotten a bad rap over the years for objectifying women by putting them on parade and privileging their looks over their personality or brains. Some pageants have actively tried to change this idea, by including a talent segment, and making charity work an increasingly bigger part of the winners’ duties. One such pageant for Muslim women was the 2011 Indonesian Muslimah Beauty competition, which emphasised women who “don hijab, have Internet and technology capabilities, Qur’an-reciting proficiencies, and accomplishments in sports, academics, and culture.”

Miss World is one of the classic beauty pageants, and in an apparent effort to reduce the emphasis on women’s external beauty, has dropped the swimsuit component from its competition. In the 2013 Miss World competition, to be held in the Muslim majority country of Indonesia (although not without protests from their ulama), participants would wear sports attire with long pants or beachwear made from a sarong (a traditional textile from the region) during the beachwear segment.

The four women dropped from Miss Malaysia 2013.
Source: The Malay Mail
However, earlier this year in July 2013, four Malaysian Muslim finalists were dropped from the finals of Miss World Malaysia. They had competed unnoticed, until the spotlight was shone on them as finalists. Federal Territories Mufti Wan Zahidi Wan Teh had raised the issue of a 1996 fatwa which states that “participating, organising or contributing to any sort of beauty contest is haram and a sin.” The reason given for disqualifying them was that as Muslims, they should not “disrespect” or “insult” Islam by joining a beauty pageant.

“Insulting Islam” has been used yet again as a reason for people to “control public conduct of Muslims in terms of dress and indecency,” according to a local NGO, Sisters in Islam. It has increasingly become a tool of public control, as anyone deemed to be “belittling Islam” can be investigated, then fined or jailed.

Earlier in 1997, two contestants of the Miss Malaysia Petite contest were fined, while three other contestants from the same beauty pageant were brought to trial for violating the same fatwa. They were arrested during the pageant, handcuffed and locked up.

In a similar vein, the four dropped finalists in 2013 were being investigated for criticising the fatwa, which was considered as “disrespecting or insulting Islam,” according to an official of the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (JAWI). Under Malaysian laws, anyone found guilty of disrespecting or insulting Islam can be punished with up to two years imprisonment or a fine of 3,000 ringgit (USD900) or both. It was under this pressure that three of the four finalists decided to issue apologies.

The official pageant organiser Anna Lim acknowledged that she knew about the 1996 fatwa against Muslim participation in beauty pageants, but believed it was on the basis of revealing their bodies. Considering that the pageant had changed its rules on clothing to eliminate swimwear, and that the finals would be held in Muslim-majority Indonesia, she believed that these four women had a chance.

One of the young women, Sara Amelia Muhamad Bernard (20) called the fatwa “outdated”. Wafa Johanna de Korte (19) added that she found it disappointing that after 17 years, the perspective that Muslim women should not join pageants “is still out there.” The division that these two women have made, pitting tradition against modernity, has not helped the situation because it prevents critics from questioning the very assumptions that underpin these two dynamic concepts.

Despite the attempts at making beauty pageants less about beauty and more about personality, some articles reporting on the incident still focused on the visual beauty of these four women anyway. Following the popular maxim that “mixed kids are always so beautiful,” the young women’s “mixed parentage” was detailed (German-Iban-British-Malay, Arab-Malay, Dutch-Malay, English-Malay); elsewhere, they were simply called “beauties” (here, here and here) and repeatedly described as “very beautiful.”

But I find it interesting that despite their mixed parentage, the “Muslimness” and the “Malayness” of these four women took precedence. Even in Malaysia, where most Muslims are ethnically Malays, and where these two terms are often used interchangeably, these young women were not purely Malay in any case. Even though one’s ethnic group or “race” is no longer stated on Malaysian identity cards, the Malay part of their parentage was given precedence in order to justify norms of proper Malay behavior.

Furthermore, being Muslim is described as their primary identity. Their protest at being banned meant that they had to convince others that they were indeed Muslim enough, and that being Muslim and a beauty pageant participant were not mutually exclusive. One of the finalists, Miera Sheikh (19), stated the following:
“To me, Islam will never fade in my life until my last breath because my roots from my ancestors till my parents’ generation and mine will still be Islam.”
In the bigger picture is the instrumentalisation of religious opinions as state laws. Zainah Anwar of Sisters in Islam (SIS) has previously pointed out that fatwas are giving too much legal power to the opinions of the ulama in Malaysia. In 1997, SIS issued a memorandum to the then Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, as a reminder that the legislative authority to make laws in Malaysia lies with Parliament and the state assemblies, not with fatwa committees:
“We pointed out that in Islamic legal thought, fatwa are mere advisory opinions and do not have the force of law; to make it a crime to challenge a fatwa in force is to equate the opinion of a Mufti to the infallible word of God; the legislative authority to make laws in Malaysia lies with Parliament and the state assemblies, not the fatwa committees; the right to restrict fundamental liberties lies solely with Parliament and thus the provisions in the law that punish indecency amounts to an unconstitutional trespass on federal powers.”
The NGO also added that there is the risk of unfairly targeting certain groups:
“Such laws could only lead to select prosecution and victimisation, as they cannot be enforced fully and equally. Don’t get me wrong, we can still have a central fatwa-making body to provide guidelines for the people but we don’t have to make it a criminal offence to go against a fatwa.”
To me, the criminal offence of “insulting Islam” has never made sense. When the organiser of Miss World Malaysia Anna Lim said that “As Malaysia is a multi-racial country, we have to show respect to the Muslim community”, I wonder: Do we respect Islam or Muslims? In other words, do we respect an abstract concept or living breathing human beings? And what are we doing in the name of prosecuting those who “insult Islam”?

On insulting Islam: Maznah Yusof, dog trainer

This article was first published on Muslimah Media Watch on 14 Aug 2013.

In Ramadan this year, a video made by Maznah Yusof, a 38 year-old Muslim woman dog trainer, caused controversy in Malaysia. Three years ago, she had created and uploaded a video of her and her dogs in celebration of Eid ul-Fitr. The video shows her walking her dogs on a street as the takbir (chanting on the eve of Eid ul-Fitr) is heard in the background.
At the end of the video, Maznah explains that her message was meant to show that Eid should be celebrated regardless of species (animal or human), colour (illustrated by different coloured dogs), or origin (illustrated by different breeds of dogs).
To bring across her message, she shows short scenes of her washing a dog’s paws and her own feet, wiping its face and her own face with a (different) towel, and then feeding three dogs treats that resemble the small cookies usually offered to guests during Eid.
Source: Youtube
The director-general of JAKIM, Othman Mustapha, gave two contradictory statements on the video. While he seems to agree that ‘all animals are the same, except in terms of the purification’, he also said that the ‘video gave the impression that it was allowed in Islam’.For this, she was arrested, detained and questioned for two days while being investigated under Section 298A of the Penal Code, which deals with ‘causing disharmony on grounds of religion’. The Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) sent a report to the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) for  action to be taken against her.
What exactly is not allowed in ‘Islam’? All four Sunni schools of thought touch on the purification of one’s self after touching a dog. The Shafii school of thought, which is followed by Malaysian religious authorities, declares a wet dog to be a heavy impurity (najis mughazallah) that requires washing with water and earth. An impurity has to be touched in order to exist. If it was simply avoided we would not need any rulings on it.
Additionally, the Maliki school of thought distinguishes between domestic and wild dogs. And where the Qur’an speaks of dogs it speaks of their benefits, as a protector of the persecuted youths in the cave (18:18) or of their abilities as hunters of our food (5:4). (See here for a video on the use of salukis as hunting dogs, and a writeup by a Malaysian veterinarian about his pet salukis).
Furthermore, Maznah herself explains that the video had been re-edited by someone else, and that she is merely showing compassion to dogs, like she would any other animal:
“Is rearing dogs something non-Islamic? I want to ask, who is actually insulting Islam? I make sure my dogs are clean. I take care of them well. So, what is the problem?”
Another quote by Othman reveals why Maznah was charged only now, three years after posting the video, and without committing a clear crime:

‘…What is demonstrated by Maznah is wrong and seen as intentional, what more (sic) when it is recorded on video for public viewing. Although some quarters see the views by JAKIM as petty and inappropriate, the fact is that it has stirred anxiety among the public.’
In fact, it was only a few weeks into Ramadan that two Malaysian Chinese bloggers caused a similar polemic. Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee posted a picture of themselves on Facebook, that suggested that Muslims break their fast with bak kut teh (Chinese pork dish). They described the dish as being delicious and placed a ‘halal’ symbol on their image. They were later charged under the Penal Code, Film and Censorship Act and Sedition Act.
Malay text in English: "Happy Breaking of the Fast (with Bak Kut Teh... fragrant, delicious, appetising!).Source: The Malay Mail

The reasons for Maznah’s arrest were not clear. She did not clearly violate the law, besides the vague charge of ‘insulting Islam’. Indeed, that is the most common accusation levelled against her by those who commented on the video, who could not see beyond the juxtaposition of something religious (takbir) and something traditionally considered irreverent (dogs).

Other government officials agreed with this sentiment. Communications and Multimedia Deputy Minister Jailani Johari, for example, labelled Maznah to be ‘morally defective’ and ‘requir[ing] rehabilitation’. Meanwhile, the secretary-general of the Malay Consultative Council, Hasan Mad, suggested that people who ‘played up sensitive issues in the country’ should be sent to a civic rehabilitation centre for guidance and counselling.

By attempting to summon Maznah for questioning, JAKIM is also acting beyond their jurisdiction as the religious body has no legal authority to question Maznah over her video.

But Maznah is standing her ground. She says she will not apologise because she has not done anything wrong:
“If I apologise over the video, it means I am submitting that I have indeed done something that is opposed to the Islamic teachings. The video did not insult Islam. Accusing me that I wanted to insult Islam is akin to defaming me.”
Finally, while this article briefly mentions that Maznah, who has short hair and dresses in masculine clothes, was dressed in a baju melayu, a traditionally male Malay outfit (versus a baju kurung, which is traditionally worn by women), none of the other articles mention her choice of masculine dress and appearance.As this fact was not explicitly linked to her alleged misdemeanours, I wonder how much of a comment like ‘morally defective’ is related to the fact that Maznah does not look like a typical Malay Muslim woman, let alone behave like one.

To me, the video is also doubly significant for showing a marginalised Malay woman caring for an animal similarly shunned in her society. The fear and unfamiliarity with dogs in Malaysian Malay society has resulted in a disproportionate amount of hostility in the name of ‘Islam’, directed towards a dog trainer who loves her animals.

Little Hijabis: To Wear Or Not To Wear?

This article was first published in Muslimah Media Watch on 4 Oct 2013.

Recently, a series of online shopping sites were brought to my attention: at first glance, they seemed to be the garden-variety online hijab shops. Some even had blanked-out faces – again, nothing that I hadn’t seen before. However upon a closer inspection, I noticed that the hijabi models on the website were smaller than usual – they were little girls.
My immediate reaction was that of uneasiness. Even though in Singapore where I grew up, it is common for parents to dress their pre-pubescent daughters in hijab (as young as just one year old), I only recently found out that it’s not the norm in other countries with Muslim communities. I myself wore it to kindergarten at the age of five, and I remember wearing it during Eid at the age of seven onwards. My mother thought it was harmless and she never forced it on me because she thought it would be better for me to get used to it in the most pleasant way possible.
It was only when I travelled to Morocco about five years ago, where I met young girls who were allowed to wear anything they wanted, and it was only after reaching puberty that they would usually wear a hijab when leaving the house. This made sense to me, because even the most oft-cited hadith that provides the guidelines for hijab mentions menstruation, or puberty, as the starting point.
However, I could also understand why parents would want their young daughters to start wearing hijab or cover up at an early age, even though this was not a religious requirement. The reason usually given is that it is easier to make them get used to wearing it. I even heard one of my aunts suggest that parents should dress their girl infants with headbands so that they would get used to having something on their head, which would make wearing hijab easier later on.
This forced socialization has its drawbacks, for example, when girls are old enough to question why they have to wear the hijab. In fact, this was exactly the question posed to me by a nine-year-old girl, who had come to the mosque where I volunteered by giving tours, as part of her weekend religious class activities.
Because women (she was not a woman) have to cover up their beauty (‘beauty’ as a euphemism for sexual appeal) in the presence of men they are not related to (is mahramrelevant for a child?) and can only show it to men she is related to, like her husband (she was decades away from having one): all my stock answers simply fell short of satisfying her innocent curiosity.
This little girl’s question eventually led me to a long journey of researching about hijab, especially for myself.
Another concern I have with making little girls wear hijab is that it is prematurely socializing them into worrying about their looks, especially in the context of the male gaze. Take a look at the models on some of these online shops:
Source: Little Zee
Source: KidsMii
Some of these outfits are too complicated (not to mention impractical in hot weather) for these girls to be doing everything they would want to go, like playing freely outside.
Another common reason given for dressing little girls modestly is that it counters the sexualized girl outfits that come from “the West”. I agree that these shops provide some very lovely and simple alternatives, with no glittery slogans like “Cutie Pie” emblazoned across the chest.
But hijab sexualizes its wearer in its own way, because in a social setting it indicates that the wearer has the ability to give off sexual appeal in the first place. (Sometimes at a glance, it can even make the wearer look older than she really is.) One of the shops even showcases a fashion runway of young girls in various styles of hijab and clothes that cover all their limbs – what’s the difference, exactly?
I truly believe in wearing the hijab for spiritual reasons. I also acknowledge that hijab has social reasons, for which some women wear it as well. The bottom line is, the informed decisions that grown women make, with their own research and knowledge, is something to laud. But let’s allow our children to choose for themselves when they are old enough.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

What a woman wants.

Just a quick one, been seeing too many religious-type dudes going on about how they think they know women and all our 'womanly secrets'.

Here's a fiqh, or jurisprudence seminar on 'The Secrets of Women'. Papers presented are on 'Fashion and womens' beauty' (alternative title: what men like to see in their women, but only at home), 'Husband-wife harmony' (is this just a euphemism for sex?), and 'Responsibilities of a Professional Woman' (ie the double shift of working women).

Here's one that purports to know the desire of every woman: 'Every woman waits for that moment when a husband becomes the imam during her prayer'.

To that, one can only say:
Source: I want to eat and not get fat

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Do beauty pageants empower or objectify?

Some Muslims in Indonesia are unhappy about the finals of Miss World 2013 to be held in Bali this week. The event has sparked protests from conservative groups across Indonesia. As a response to classic beauty pageants, Rofi Eka Shanty founded the World Muslimah pageant in 2011. This annual event selects 20 finalists from over 500 candidates using an online selection process based on their proficiency in reciting the Qur’an, and sharing anecdotes of how they wear the hijab.

Shanty explains her reason for creating Indonesia’s alternative to Miss World: ‘We don’t just want to shout “no” to Miss World. We’d rather show our children they have choices. Do you want to be like the women in Miss World? Or like those in Muslimah World?’

This hints of a divisive us-or-them attitude towards the women who participate in Miss World as being immodest or having loose morals – a view supported by Indonesian protestors holding placards reading ‘Miss World Is Whore Contest’ and ‘Miss World Go To Hell’. Women in World Muslimah, in contrast, are pious and modest.

Often confused with other classic pageants such as Miss Universe (promoting intelligence and good manners) and Miss International (promoting world peace and goodwill), Miss World is the world’s oldest beauty pageant. It began in 1951 as a bikini contest, but added intelligence, personality and talent segments in the 80s as a response to protests by women’s liberation activists in the 70s. A more recent campaign to promote the concept of ‘beauty for a cause’ is the Philippines-based Miss Earth pageant (promoting environmental activism), which started in 2001 – an idea echoed by the World Muslimah pageant with its goal to show how ‘beauty can be a driving inspiration’.

Although not judging women’s (uncovered) bodies seems to be the main idea of the World Muslimah pageant, the event still includes a ‘parade of Islamic fashions’ to show that young Muslim women do not have to show their ‘immodest’ hair and bare shoulders in order to be considered beautiful. Indeed, wearing the hijab is one of the main (and most visible) requirements of the World Muslimah event, with photos of previous events showing a sea of elaborately-decorated hijabs. Demonstrating a hijab style is also one of the event’s segments.

Furthermore, before entering the grand final of World Muslimah 2013 on September 18, the 20 finalists have to participate in workshops covering spiritual subjects such as Qur’an memorisation, developing ‘humanitarian intelligence’, Islam’s challenges, how to be the best wife and mother in Islam; as well as practical subjects such as fashion photography, public speaking, presentation skills, beauty, style, fashion modelling and stage performance. This is in addition to reciting the Qur’an and performing both compulsory and optional evening prayers on the day of the finals.

I can appreciate the alternative criteria for the World Muslimah pageant, which includes academic and social achievements and certain markers of religiosity, as a means to promote positive role models for young Muslim women. It is also a way to make Islam more relatable to young people, as shown by a male version of an Islamic pageant in Malaysia called Imam Muda (Young Imam), although this television series did not include any physical markers of religiosity (eg keeping a beard) and judged young men based on their religious knowledge and skills.

However, the claim that World Muslimah is ‘Islam’s answer to Miss World’ begs the question: What was Miss World looking for? Miss World accepted Muslim women, even though the swimsuit segment of their competition often meant that they were excluded.

World Muslimah is mostly an Indonesian women’s pageant (14 out of 20 finalists are Indonesian). At its core, it is still about judging young, slim, educated women and what they wear and do. The crucial difference is that piety, the only thing that remains invisible and that only God can assess (53:32), is now reduced to markers like Qur’an recitation (not necessarily understanding it) and wearing hijab in fashionable ways. What about Muslim women who do a lot of social and humanitarian good, without necessarily being hijabis?

Women who participate in beauty pageants should not be accused of being immodest whores. There is no need to react to whatever we find degrading from the ‘West’ by making Islamic versions for hijabis. Let’s instead think twice about supporting the institution of pageantry that promotes the objectification and judging of women’s bodies and minds.

This post was originally published at Aquila Style

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Budding Bedfellows: Islamists and Feminists against Beauty Pageants

This post was originally published on Muslimah Media Watch on 11 Sep 2013

This last week has seen protests in Jakarta, Medan, Surabaya and Jogjakarta over the Miss World 2013 beauty pageant to be held in the next few weeks. Recently, I wrote a post about a similar debate in Malaysia where their Muslim participants were eventually dropped. The Miss World 2013 protests numbered in the thousands and were made up of members of small Islamist organizations such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front or FPI) on the island of Java, and Muslimah Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (MHTI) in Sumatra. The protesters were described as ‘conservatives’ and ‘Muslim hardliners’ (here and here).
‘Miss World is not of our culture’ and ‘Miss World destroys women’s character’
Source: Demotix
The main reasons given for rejecting the beauty pageant, as expressed by the Majlis Ulema Indonesia (Indonesian Ulama Council or MUI) was that it was not in line with ‘Eastern’ culture:
“Muslims should protest strongly against this event, especially as it is linked with the self-worth of the Muslim community and our Eastern culture.”
Similarly, the spokesperson of MHTI, Honriani Nasution, used the protest as an opportunity to push for Islamic law:
Miss World = A Cultural Liberalization Campaign’
Source: The State
“At the North Sumatra governor’s office, we sent a delegation to convey our opposition to the organization of the 2013 Miss World and other similar contests and urged the government to immediately implement Islamic law because only under Islamic values are women honored deeply.”
I did not find it surprising that the pageant was constructed as a ‘liberal Western’ import and that opposition to it should come in the form of supporting ‘conservative Eastern’ culture. However, I was interested in the fact that most of the pictures featured women. I was also interested that some placards appeared to indicate other reasons for being against the pageant, such as anti-corporation or anti-capitalism, and the objectification and exploitation of women’s bodies.

Poster suggesting that participants are being ridiculed, with the hashtag #RejectMissWorld
Source: The Wall Street Journal
These other reasons for opposing pageants seemed to make more sense, especially since it had already been confirmed by the chairwoman of the Miss World Organization, Julia Morley, that there would be no bikinis in the swimsuit segment; instead, participants would wear a one-piece suit and a showcase of sarongs.

While browsing the hashtag #RejectMissWorld on Twitter, I came across several tweets that highlighted a 2011 protest in London by the London Feminist Network at the 60thanniversary of Miss World. The founder of the feminist organization UK Feminista, Kat Banyard, made an argument against Miss World that similarly pitted the ‘backwards’ culture of female objectification with ‘modern Britain’:

Source: Twitter @hidcom
”We’re here because Miss World has absolutely no place in a world that treats women and men equally. It perpetuates the beauty myth [and] indoctrinates people across the world with its toxic ideals, We know that [those ideals] have a very harmful effect.”
This is essentially the same argument as the ‘Muslim hardliners’ in Indonesia. While the conservative Muslims point towards the superiority of Islamic values and Islamic law in deeply honouring women (but not necessarily considering them as being on equal footing to men in all aspects), secular feminists point to the notion of the modern, egalitarian nation-state that rejects female objectification (but not necessarily acknowledging or appreciating any material or spiritual differences between sexes).

It is indeed fascinating to see two groups who would hardly consider each other allies, or work together in solidarity, somehow agree that Miss World (and perhaps beauty pageants that show women’s bodies in general) is an event worth protesting against.

Women that identify themselves as Muslim feminists, such as Asma Lamrabet and Ziba Mir Hosseini (and perhaps some of the writers on this site) often find themselves at the intersection of this debate: do they oppose or promote an issue because they are Muslims, or because they are (secular) feminists? The recent troubles with Femen’s anti-Islam actions seem to further divide these two groups. Nevertheless, the protests against Miss World suggest that female objectification is certainly one issue that both groups could agree on.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Tips to Keep Your Husband Happy

I'm back! And I haven't seen such a misogynist, egotistical and male-serving piece of marriage advice in such a long time. I can't make this crazy oppressive stuff up (original Malay text below, from here).

  1. When your husband is speaking, keep quiet and listen to him, and don't interrupt or cut him off. Ever heard of conversation? 
  2. When your husband is angry,  keep quiet and don't answer back. If you like to answer back, make your point or strengthen your argument, you will make your husband even angrier. Don't be surprised if your husband leaves the house for days, or doesn't want to talk to you as a form of penalty for your wifely stubbornness. Oh but I am surprised! However, if he comes home don't continue or repeat the old issues. Welcome him with a loving smile and immediately ask for forgiveness. I think if or when he comes home it's my turn to leave. Don't wait for a husband to apologise to a wife, because this kills his ego as a man. That's the point of apology though, right?
  3. Sometimes a husband likes to tease his wife on purpose. If he hurts your feelings you have to be patient, and don't sulk. But if you hurt his feelings the sky is falling! See #1. Sulking is an immature and childish reaction. Let us observe the behaviour of children, they will quickly shout if something is wrong, especially if it's their own mother telling them off. They will stamp their feet and shout their lungs out to get sympathy from their mother. Um, I'm not sure how this is such a great analogy. 
  4. If his nails, moustache or beard is long then don't hesitate to cut it (if the beard is longer than a fistful). You mean, ask him to cut it, right? Do I have to cut it myself? They don't call it 'personal hygiene' for nothing. I thought we weren't supposed to be like children? See #3. Choose the best days like Monday, Thursday and Friday.
  5. If he wants something then the wife should quickly respond. Get up immediately when he calls you. Don't delay his demands so that you will not make him angry or hurt. Are we in bootcamp or what? 
  6. You should cook according to your husband's preferences, not your own. If he likes to eat curry or really spicy coconut curry, then don't cook sweet and sour fish or fried fish. How about really spicy fried fish curry? That's called compromise. He will be happy when his appetite is satisfied. Don't take it out on the fish by smashing it as a way to take out your anger on your husband, who wants food cooked his way while you don't like these dishes. I told you I couldn't make this up.
  7. If his clothes are torn or has a missing button, quickly fix it. Sew it as beautifully as you can so that the clothing looks neat and pretty. Don't take this lightheartedly because the stitching symbolises a wife's personality and intention - whether she was sincere or forced herself. Even sewing has symbolic significance now? I thought it symbolised a withdrawal from the capitalist economy and the support of sweatshops in China and Bangladesh. All husbands would be proud if their clothes were sewn by hand by the delicate fingers of his wife. At least this can help save on household costs. I'd save more money if he had less clothes. Or if he didn't live in this house!

Petua Melayan Suami

1. Semasa suami bercakap hendaklah isteri diam mendengarnya dan jangan suka menyampuk atau memotong cakapnya.

2. Bila suami marah hendaklah isteri mendiamkan diri,jangan suka menjawab. Sikap suka menjawab, bertekak dan... menegakkan kebenaran sendiri akan menambahkan lagi kemarahan suami. Jangan terkejut jika suami angkat kaki meninggalkan rumah berhari-hari atau tidak mahu bertegur sapa dengan anda sebagai denda di atas kedegilan anda sebagai isteri. Sebaliknya, kalau suami kembali ke rumah jangan disambung atau diulang-ulangi cerita lama. Sambutlah suami dengan senyuman kasih sayang dan bersegeralah meminta maaf. Jangan kita tunggu suami meminta maaf dengan isteri, jatuhlah martabat keegoannya selaku seorang lelaki.

3. Kadang-kadang si suami sengaja suka mengusik isterinya. Bila dia menyakiti hati isteri hendaklah banyak bersabar, jangan cepat merajuk. Merajuk adalah sifat orang yang tidak matang dan seperti perangai keanak-anakan. Cuba kita perhatikan perangai kanak-kanak, mereka akan cepat menjerit bila ada sesuatu yang tidak kena tambahan pula kalau yang menegurnya itu ibunya sendiri. Sengaja dihentak-hentakkan kaki meraung sekuat hati meminta simpati dari ibunya.

4. Bila kuku, misai dan janggutnya panjang hendaklah segera dipotongkan (jika panjang janggutnya lebih dari segenggam). Pilihlah hari-hari yang terbaik iaitu hari Isnin, Khamis dan Jumaat.

5. Jika dia berhajat sesuatu hendaklah isteri cepat bertindak. Bangun segera bila disuruh. Jangan melengah-lengahkan kemahuannya supaya tidak mencetuskan kemarahan atau rasa tersinggung di hatinya. Jangan isteri buat acuh tak acuh, hatinya akan kecewa dan menandakan isteri sudah tidak taat padanya.

6. Hendaklah memasak mengikut kesukaan suami bukannya ikut selera isteri. Kalau suami suka makan gulai kari atau masak lemak cili api, janganlah kita masak lauk asam pedas atau ikan goreng. Suami akan gembira bila seleranya ditepati. Janganlah pula ikan yang menjadi mangsa, diketuk lengkang-lengkung hingga hancur kerana meradangkan sikap suami yang mahu lauk tersebut dimasak mengikut seleranya sedangkan isteri tidak menggemarinya.

7. Apabila pakaian suami koyak atau tercabut butangnya hendaklah segera dijahit. Jahitlah dengan secantik yang boleh supaya pakaian itu kelihatan kemas dan cantik. Jangan dibuat sambil lewa kerana jahitan tersebut akan melambangkan peribadi isteri samada ikhlas atau terpaksa. Semua suami akan berasa bangga jika pakaiannya dijahit sendiri oleh jari-jemari halus isterinya, sekurang-kurangnya dapat menampung ekonomi rumahtangga.

Friday, July 26, 2013

In Their Own Words: The Ups and Downs of Fasting Abroad

This post was originally published in Aquila Style, 18 Jul 2013.
Whether by choice or compulsion, sometimes we spend Ramadan away from family. Four Singaporean Muslim women speak to Sya Taha on their experiences fasting overseas.

For most of my life, I have spent Ramadan in my native Singapore. Since my family members have differing schedules, Ramadan was one of the rare periods in the year where we were able to eat together at least once a day.

While many Singaporeans try to spend Ramadan and Eid together, some may have to fast in other countries due to work assignments. Nadia, 27, a young Chinese woman, has experienced fasting a few days each in Hong Kong and Sweden:
The wonderful thing about fasting overseas is the high level of energy and enthusiasm I feel throughout the day, despite the lack of food or drink. Somehow the experience of being in a foreign land assuages any hunger or thirst or lethargy I may otherwise feel.
The variety of women who observe Ramadan abroad mirrors the diverse experiences they have. Syah, 24, a young Malay woman who did her undergraduate degree in Canada, saw her experiences change over the four years she spent in Vancouver:
It was very different from the first year I was here until now. The first year, I was pretty much alone in the dorms. It was winter so the hours were shorter. The dorms had a cafeteria which had this system of giving food from the previous day as the morning meal for those who fasted. But for sahur, I would just eat some cereal since there wasn’t a kitchen. My roommate was really nice and would often eat her dinner when I broke fast so I wouldn’t have to eat alone.
Syah started out rather isolated from Vancouver’s Muslim community, its ethnic segregation making it hard for her to connect. Now engaged to marry a white Canadian Muslim man, she says the difficulties largely persist, despite having eased somewhat:
Now, I’m a bit more connected to the Muslim community for Ramadan since I’ve made Muslim friends. Even so, I still pretty much fast alone otherwise, just with my fiancĂ© because the Muslim community is still pretty rigid in terms of who they accept, [especially] us as an interracial couple. The Muslim community here in Vancouver is very divided along racial lines and there tends to be racial exclusivity in mosques, events, and so on.
On the other, young Malay women who have studied and lived in countries that have similar cultures and customs find a Muslim community that is welcoming. The presence of similar foods also makes for a more comforting Ramadan spent away from home.

Masaini, 29, did her undergraduate degree in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of the small nation of Brunei on the island of Borneo. With more than 60 percent of Brunei’s population being Muslim, she found comfort in the similar foods that were available during iftar such as air kathira (a sweet milk drink with coloured syrup and basil seeds), and rice porridge with meat. Despite the similar Malay culture, Masaini found something different in Brunei:
My fondest memory was the Islamic atmosphere and ambience. I could feel the strong spiritual aura that is not present in Singapore.

Likewise, Liyana, 28, who spent Ramadan in Kuala Lumpur while she studied there, enjoyed the widespread availability of air kathira, halal-certified food and the company of Muslim students from the Middle East and African countries like Eritrea:
My friends and I always enjoyed the luxury to choose where to break our fast. The mosque in our campus always surprised us with different types of food every single day. There would always be a pool of students, both local Malaysians and internationals, who swamped the mosque area in the evening, filling up the seats while waiting for the adzan to break their fast. That was when I got the chance to get to know other students whom I had not met before.
Liyana has fond memories of the generosity of student associations in her university who sponsored food for iftars, and warmheartedly recalled discovering a surprising benefactor behind one of these iftars:
My friends and I were on our way to the campus bazaar to buy food for iftar when we were stopped by an Arab man who encouraged us to break our fast at the campus canteen. He told us to sit down while he continued to prepare the food. I saw huge portions of food being served: rice with lamb, salads, desserts and drinks. We were also given a Qur’an each. Exhilarated, I asked the man if he knew who had sponsored this iftar. He told me it was the courtesy of an anonymous Palestinian man. I was stunned and touched at the same time, to think of how much most Palestinians had gone through but that this had never stopped them from radiating blessings in the lives of others. It was a great reminder to myself.
Despite not looking like a typical Muslim, especially with her Chinese appearance, Nadia also points to experiencing the kindness of strangers when fasting overseas:
One of the things I’ve noticed about being a foreigner in a strange land during the fasting month is how warm and welcoming local Muslims always are towards their fellow Muslims who are travelling and fasting away from home. At times I’d even receive offers to break the fast with these locals, indulge in their local cuisines and join in congregational salat with them in a show of shared solidarity for a fellow fasting Muslim. Such occasions are both memorable and precious. I’m very much aware that I may not have been privy to such offers or opportunities had it not been for my status as a Muslim, and the occasion of the fasting month.
Thanks to such overwhelmingly positive experiences, even after all these years, Liyana sometimes longs to spend Ramadan again in her former university, where she had the chance to befriend many women from all over the world:
One of those moments that I truly miss during Ramadan is getting to know women from various countries and cultures in my campus mosque. Most of the married women would bring their children to the mosque, and they would get request any sister in the mosque who was free to help take care of their children while they were doing the tarawih prayer. Every sister would help each other. It was a place for Muslim women to befriend other Muslim women – each had her own story on how she ended up in Malaysia. It was a wonderful gathering of women.

Overall, the experience of fasting overseas was a learning experience for these young Muslim women. Despite the cultural similarities or differences of the places they found themselves fasting, they were able to derive social and spiritual benefits from being with another of God’s many nations and tribes (49:13). While it can be comforting to spend Ramadan together with our family, spending it outside our native countries also brings an array of benefits.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Challenges of FWM (Flying While Muslim)

This post was originally published in Aquila Style, 20 Jul 2013.
Having to fast in the summer months for the second year in a row, I’m escaping to the tropics towards the end of this Ramadan. After about 20 days fasting for 19 hours each day in the Netherlands, I’ll be over the moon thinking about fast for a duration that I am most used to: 13 hours in Singapore.

I realise that this is a privilege on my part, to be able to fly halfway across the world. I’m not doing it just for the shorter hours, though; I’m also looking forward to being with my family during what I consider to be the most special celebration of my entire year. I have explained it to fellow Dutch people that Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr in combination is just like Christmas for them (perhaps a weak analogy seeing how Christmas and Easter celebrations have been secularised for most of the country, but it will have to do).

Today’s travel times are much shorter than what the 7th-century travellers mentioned in the Qur’an had to deal with. We can travel almost anywhere in the world in a matter of a few days. Some things, however, remain the same. Here are some things to consider if you are flying during Ramadan:

1. Fasting

Travellers are exempt from fasting during a journey (2:184-5), but some will want to anyway. Those whose work involves travel may decide to fast some days instead of missing out on the whole month.

For example, my friend works as an air stewardess and crosses time zones every three days. When Ramadan comes around, she eats a meal on board for sahur, and breaks her fast when the sun sets at the plane’s destination – wherever that might be, and however long her fast may be. At the end of the month, she tallies the total number of days and pays back a few days later in the year to make up 29 or 30 days.

2. Conserving energy

During Ramadan my energy levels are lower than usual, so I don’t want to deal with the extra hassle of luggage. I pack only the bare minimum and try to travel as light as possible. While I may have to carry on a heavy item like my laptop, I try to check in as much of my other belongings as possible.

As much as possible, I make use of online check-in (if available) so that I only have to drop off my luggage at the airport. This is often a separate and shorter line, or for some airlines a completely automatic process with the use of drop-off luggage machines. No more standing in long queues!

3. In-flight meals

As I booked my ticket for this upcoming journey, my husband realised that the flight was at 10pm – just after iftar time. I didn’t know if the airline would serve dinner so late at night, so I sent them a quick email. Happily, the airline responded that they would serve meals in time for iftar and sahur to any passenger that wanted it, throughout Ramadan.

If in doubt, ask in advance. Many airlines are happy to accommodate their passengers’ needs even though Ramadan may not be in their calendar. If there are no meals served, it is also possible to bring your own dates and meals onboard, and water is always available upon request.

4. Prayers

While this may not be a concern specific to Ramadan, it’s still helpful to know that many airports have a meditation or prayer room (specific or interfaith) in at least one of their terminals (even where you least expect it). While such rooms are expected and abundant in airports of Muslim-majority countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, I have been to prayer rooms in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, Madrid Barajas airport, Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and, of course, Changi airport in Singapore.

I was once in Paris’ main airport, where there were separate Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayer rooms. When I peeked into the Muslim room, it was full of men in congregational prayer. Intimidated, I tiptoed over to the empty Jewish room. I opened the door tentatively and ready to explain myself, but there was no one there. It was also spacious and clean and I could do my prayer in total silence. Thank Allah!As for praying on the plane, while I have seen some passengers pray in the aisles in their best approximation of the direction of Mecca, I usually pray unobtrusively in my seat. By checking the ‘live’ flight path on your inflight entertainment screen (if available) or visualising the airplane’s general flight path, it is also possible to approximate the direction to Mecca from your seat.

The Qur’an also gives travellers the option to shorten their prayers when in unusual circumstances (4:101-3). The Shafi’i school of thought elaborates on how to do this through the use of qasar (shortening) and jama’ (combining) prayers. The Qur’an also gives the option of doing tayammum (dry ablution) in special circumstances (5:6). If water is available, one may also do only the obligatory ablution (5:6) – washing hands, face, arms, hairline, and feet, only once – to save on time and public water resources. Make the most out of these exemptions.

5. Security checks

I’ve been asked to remove my headscarf and cardigans at security checks. I’ve also had friends recount to me their unpleasant experiences being asked to remove their hijab or their dupatta. I have also been detained, without any explanation, in a room at Houston Airport, while my name (well, more probably my father’s name which contains ‘Muhammad’) was run through a database. I have also had immigration officers ask me unnecessary questions because of my name.

These experiences are indeed extremely unpleasant and I wish no one had to go through them. However, I try my best to get around the situation with excuses such as ‘I am bald and would rather not remove it’, ‘I’m not wearing anything else underneath’, or simply say ‘I cannot remove this’. Depending on the country I fly from, I have varying degrees of success when doing this!

I also try to get past security checks and get to the boarding area as soon as I can. This gives me some quiet moments to myself and also reassures me that if I ever fall asleep, someone will wake me up to make sure I board the plane!

Whether one travels for work or pleasure during Ramadan, I hope that it can be a pleasant experience for everyone. I believe that the reason God gives us exemptions while travelling is because it can indeed be difficult and God understands us best.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fatima Hamed Hossain: Politician or Jihadist?

This post first appeared on Muslimah Media Watch on 3 Jul 2013.
A few weeks ago, I attended the Critical Muslim Studies summer school in Granada, Spain. One of the speakers, Fatima Hamed Hossain, a lawyer, spoke to us about the social and political participation of Muslim women in Spain.
There are about one million Muslims who currently reside in Spain, with an estimated number of about 50,000 converts, and the rest being mostly of Moroccan, Syrian, Lebanese and South Asian origins. Immigration and growing rates of conversion of Spaniards from the late 1970s are the two biggest factors for the growth of Islam in Spain.
Fatima Hamed Hossain was born in Ceuta, and was trained as a lawyer. She currently practises as a civil and commercial mediator. In 2006 she joined the political party Democratic Union of Ceuta (UDCE) because she wanted to help marginalized groups, having grown up in a marginalized neighbourhood of Ceuta herself, and also because it was symbolically important:
“I have to say that for me it was a challenge, and I felt that despite all the difficulties and criticism it was necessary; it was about time to involve Muslim women in politics.”
She contends that the media creates a particular idea of Muslim women as being illiterate and submissive.
“My main motivation, in addition to fighting for social justice, is to break the prejudices and stereotypes that have been built on some Muslim women: we are not ignorant nor uneducated nor submissive. We rebel like any other woman against injustice and wearing the hijab does not prevent this. It shows my faith, my culture and my background that I’m very proud.”
She refutes the construction of Spanish liberal values as being superior as a recent phenomenon. This was because under Franco’s administration, married women needed their husband’s permission for all economic activities such as working or owning property. It was only in 1975 that this permiso marital (marital permission) was abolished.
Fatima was the first Muslim woman to be elected to the legal assembly of Ceuta in 2007.Her election became a question of national news – reported by the national newspaper El Pais. However, she is not the first Muslim woman with hijab to sit on a regional parliament: four years earlier, Salima Abdesalam was elected into the regional parliament of Melilla.
To conclude her short talk, she speculated that the newspaper El Pais had included a discreet message in reporting her new political position.
In an El Pais article after Fatima was sworn into the assembly, a photo of her is front and centre, with the accompanying headline below. “With the hijab and the constitution” implied that there was a need to reconcile her Spanishness with her own religiosity, given that she wore a visible marker of Islam, a religion that was different to the Catholicism associated with Spain.
The most telling message, according to Fatima, was the headline right next to her face, which said “Police warn of threat of second generation jihadists”. This clearly implied that she was such a threat, which – whether intentionally or unintentionally – aimed to bring down her political worth.
Despite such setbacks, Fatima states that her biggest task is to normalise the participation of Muslim women in social and political life in Ceuta, commenting, “If just one person changes their perception about Muslim women, my job is done.”


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