Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Silent Speaker: Framing of Halimah Yacob's Political Promotion

Cross-posted at Muslimah Media Watch.
Last week, Singapore saw its first woman Speaker of Parliament, Halimah Yacob. Halimah started her political career by joining the governing party since independence, the People's Action Party (PAP), in 2001. She represented the electoral division of Jurong as a Member of Parliament and was later appointed a Minister of State for the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (now the Ministry of Social and Family Development) in 2011. However, barely a year after being a Minister of State in a portfolio where she would be able to influence the government on issues that she felt strongly about, she resigned and was nominated by the current prime minister for her new position as Speaker a few days later.

Source: Straits Times

I noticed a few interesting aspects of the news coverage of her new position as Speaker of Parliament. First, while the local, mainstream, and largely government-controlled media mentioned her newsworthy gender (here, here, and here), there was no mention at all of her ethnicity, her religion or the fact that she wears a hijab, even though all the accompanying photos show that clearly. While she is not the first Malay to hold this position, she is the first Malay woman, and certainly the first hijabi to do so. (Compare this lack of attention to Amra Babic, the first hijabi mayor of Bosnia and Europe). This is possibly due to the legislative restrictions on free speech, which prevent open discussion on issues related to ethnicity and religion.

However, the lack of attention to her ethnicity and religion is uncharacteristic of Singaporean politics. The electoral division that Halimah represents is known as a Group Representation Constituency, which makes obligatory the inclusion of at least one politician from a minority ethnic group (designed by the PAP, no less). Other policies that demonstrate the salience of race is the ethnic quota for public housing (but not private housing) and the existence of ethnicity-based 'self-help' welfare groups that deal with education subsidies and social assistance (one each for the Malays and any MuslimsIndians, Chinese, and Eurasians). Race-based policies are also found in education, employment, and immigration, and are popularly found to be increasingly irrelevant in a country where 20 percent of marriages is inter-ethnic.

Second, most articles mentioned her predecessor, Michael Palmer, a man of Eurasian descent (a political category denoting third generation intermarriage between 'Europeans' and 'Asians'), who resigned after his extramarital affair broke out. The juxtaposition of the immoral actions of her predecessor when announcing Halimah's new position (here, here, here, and here) seems to imply that she -- whether as a woman or a Muslim -- would be less likely to engage in such activities.

Third, these articles focused on Halimah's legal training and related work championing the rights of those who are socially marginalised, such as migrant domestic workers, the poor and the aged. As a result of her new position, some members of the public were concerned that she could not longer advocate for them in Parliament, because she would have to remain neutral as the moderator of parliamentary debate. Throughout her career, she has been steadily highlighting social issues in Singapore such as the treatment of migrant domestic workers, lack of female corporate leadershippoverty among the elderly and minorities, and the lack of adequate childcare. Would it make the PAP government relieved to not have their failures of social engineering  highlighted constantly?

Fourth, the media found it worth highlighting that Halimah lives and plans to continue living in public housing, despite her promotion. This gives her an aura of humility; she is passionately dedicated to serving the people. This helps to soften the image of the ruling party, and at the same time temporarily obscure the fact that Singapore's ministers are the highest paid in the world. Even after a dramatic pay cut, the prime minister is still earns the most out of all political leaders in the world, with an annual salary of USD1.7 million.

For now, Halimah is the poster girl for meritocracy and multiracialism, values pushed by the governing party for the sake of 'racial harmony'. Whatever the reasons that the PAP government has for nominating and electing her as the Speaker, the fact remains that the government still implements legislation that restricts freedom of expression and assembly. Halimah's previous work in pushing for social change within this restricted system was possibly a thorn in the government's side, but by promoting her to a 'silent' position, the government was able to kill two birds with one stone: show to Singaporeans that meritocracy applies to a middle class Malay Muslim woman, while taking care of the more unsettling aspects of her previous political role.

By not mentioning her ethnicity or religion, while focusing on her gender and class, the mainstream media has framed Halimah as a successful product of a meritocratic Singapore. However, highlighting her political achievements has only served to raise suspicions about the motivations behind her promotion to Speaker. Ultimately, Halimah is still part of a restrictive government, and any policy changes that she could pursue in her new position can only take place by challenging the very structure that she is part of.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Why McDonald's is not halal: Part 2

In Part 1, I suggested three guidelines to eat halal, according to how eating and drinking are spoken about in the Quran.
#1: Halal is moderation.
#2: Halal is good, clean, and pure food.
#3: Halal is local, organic, and/or fair trade.

I find this topic important because debates around fast food and halal only talk about whether the meat was slaughtered in a halal way (by hand, with a knife, with the name of God pronounced on it), or grilled on separate grills from bacon, or whether it is permissible as Muslim minorities to say bismillah before eating any kind of non-pork meat. For an example of this dominant kind of reasoning, see how Jamal Badawi answers a question as to whether fast food is halal.

Hint: The answer starts with 'N' and ends with 'O'.
But now I want to get into the dirty business of showing why McDonald's and other fast food corporations do not follow the Quranic guidelines for halal (lawful) and tayyibat (good, clean, pure). Almost every aspect of global fast food corporations like McDonald's is neither halal nor tayyibat, from the content of their food to the very philosophy that drives their business. 

Violation of #1: McDonald's items are all excessive in calories, saturated fat, salt, and/or sugar.

This is no secret. Even an internal memo once popped up stating that "We can’t really address or defend nutrition. We don’t sell nutrition and people don’t come to McDonald’s for nutrition." A Big Breakfast is already a whopping 560 calories, with barely any precious micronutrients from fruits and vegetables. An average burger is around 300 to 400 calories, with almost half an average adult's saturated fat intake. You could eat all of these fruit and vegetables below for less than 300 calories, no fat and tons of vitamins and minerals (but most people wouldn't).

A burger or papaya, carrot, apple, orange, dragonfruit, cucumber, chye sim?

Diabetes, hypertension and heart disease are the top diseases among Singaporean Muslims. These conditions are also very highly correlated to our diet, fitness and weight -- and therefore inarguably preventable. Our body has it's God-given laws. Eating excessive amounts of fat, salt and sugar is a transgression of those laws, resulting in clogged arteries, high blood pressure, low energy, and so on.

In high school I knew a friend who ate McDonald's every day. Check out the documentary Supersize Me by Morgan Spurlock and Food Inc. for the effects of that.

Verdict? An average serving of fast food fails the principle of moderation. However, you could limit the damage to your body by severely limiting fast food to say, half a burger, once a month.

Violation of #2: McDonald's items contain highly-processed foods: high-fructose corn syrup, processed meat with additives, and refined and bleached flour. 

Even if you try to minimise the amount of fat and sugar by adding more lettuce and tomatoes on a McChicken, or having a McGrill without sauce because it "seemed so healthy", the problem lies in the very ingredients and processed nature of these foods. With the exception of lettuce and tomato, everything you see in a burger has been refined in one way or another. (Well maybe fries, but they have never pretended to be healthy.)

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is basically a man-made sweetener which has been linked to obesity. While there is nothing wrong with sweet foods (our bodies do crave something sweet now and then), there is a vast difference between natural sweeteners like raw, organic honey or blackstrap molasses and HFCS. The former contain many trace nutrients and minerals (taking a tablespoon of organic molasses each day can even eliminate menstrual pain), while HFCS is pure sugar, with nothing else of benefit to your body. (Fun fact: a 500ml cup of iced Milo is an insane 600 calories of sugar.)

Processed meat is another set of problems. Compare a cut of meat from the butcher to the meat patty in your Prosperity Burger -- does it look anything alike? Even though McDonald's boasts of using 100% beef in its patties, this could come from any part of the cow, including fat, gristle, offal -- you just don't know what you're eating. Add to this mystery meat a whole list of additives, flavourings, and chemicals, some of which we know are harmful, some of which we don't know yet. The fish used in Filet-O-Fish is a combination of white fish, including a mostly tasteless pollock that requires added chemical flavourings.

The buns used on burgers contain 32 or more ingredients (in comparison, bread only needs flour, yeast, water, and salt). These superfluous ingredients are basically describe additives, preservatives and emulsifiers (those 'E' numbers).

The cells in our body are built from whatever we put in it. In other words, what we eat now becomes our body later. Eating additives and chemicals will produce low-quality cells and our liver spends precious energy to process all these strange chemicals. Eventually, our immune system weakens from not getting enough vitamins and minerals.

Immortal cheeseburger = not halal.

Verdict? A sign that a food is pure, clean and good is that it rots quickly, because other organisms, which instinctively follow God's laws, actually want to eat it. Another sign is if it's something that your grandmother would serve. If your cheeseburger doesn't rot, chances are it's not good to eat. McDonald's meat may be ritually slaughtered, but as you can see this is not the only criteria.

Violation of #3: McDonald's imports its french fries and other frozen products in from USA.

Importing any kind of food from around the world has its environmental costs. While their vegetables and beef could be sourced from closer to home (e.g. Australia, Malaysia), all of its french fries are imported frozen from USA, and processed from the same kind of potato (Russet Burbank). That's why their french fries always taste the same, no matter which outlet you go to in the world.

Violation of #3: McDonald's supply chain is linked to rainforest destruction, animal cruelty, child labourunsustainable fishing, and reduction in biodiversity

Enough said. Why do you want to support a company like this? Every burger you buy is a vote for their destructive global actions. A bite-sized summary on environmental damage and animal cruelty here.

Verdict? These are definitely examples of 'abuse on earth' (2:60), which we have been warned against.

Violation of #3: McDonald's workers are underpaid and work long hours.

While there is no minimum wage anyway in Singapore and no possibility to unionise, McDonald's pays the lowest out of all fast food restaurants at S$3.50 to S$4.00 per hour. They also show a preference for young workers, who can show enthusiasm and energy to their customers. This discriminates against the elderly and traps young people into a precarious, low-paying, part-time job with no extra benefits.

For every McDonald's or fast food chain that opens in a town, a small local independent business does not get the chance to establish itself. The 'specialised' menus in different countries also aims to get people to stop eating healthier traditional foods by creating sad, industrialised substitutes. (See the 2012 ad for the Prosperity Burger.)

More information about worker exploitation and neocolonialism here.

Verdict? Definitely 'oppression of others' (20:81), which we must consider and strive against. The whole concept of industrialised food is to create as much profit in as little time as possible. The care and consideration of humans, animals and our environment is far down the list. This is the opposite of what we are encouraged to do in the Quran.

Source: mcspotlight.org

Now what?

I hope I've convinced you that no matter what legal certification McDonald's or other fast food corporations have, the quantity, quality, and sourcing of its ingredients, together with its relationships to people and nature, show that their food is far from being tayyibat and halal.

You can make changes! Just like the different levels of fasting, we don't have to jump to the third level. We can always start with whatever we are eating, and apply the first rule of moderation. Once we're used to not eating so much, we can start by changing the kinds of food we eat. Finally, try to improve the sources of your food.

As stewards of the earth, we can eat our way to a better life, inshallah!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why McDonald's is not halal: Part 1

During my recent interactions with Singaporeans encouraging them to boycott some of the world's largest global corporations linked to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, some protested with the argument that these fast food joints have been given the sticker of halal approval by the MUIS, the Islamic Religious Authority of Singapore. So what right did I have to say that people shouldn't eat food that is state-endorsed halal?

Hard to argue with this.

Most of what I knew about fast food corporations such as McDonald's, I learnt in a sociology class in undergrad. After that class, I was convinced that nothing about their food (and fast food in general) could possibly be halal! I previously wrote about the ethics of eating halal, and in this post I will include two general Quranic guidelines on eating well and halal.

On food consumption in general, this article beautifully summarises the importance of quantity and quality. We should not be extravagant when nourishing ourselves (7:31), even when eating healthy foods (6:141). The root of extravagance or excess (s-r-f) appears 23 times in the Quran, referring almost equally to transgression. Eating or drinking too much connotes the idea of transgressing the limits of your God-given body, or disobeying physical laws. Hence, we come across our first Food Rule:

#1: Halal is moderation

As for the quality of food, we should be eating foods which are tayyibat, or good, clean, and pure (2:172, 20:81). 

Tayyibat foods can be unlawful, as mentioned for Jews (4:160). But for us, whatever that is tayyibat is halal (5:5) and we should not prohibit ourselves from good and pure food (5:87). I therefore argue that whatever that is not good for our bodies and minds is not lawful: halal = tayyibat, the second Food Rule!

#2: Halal is good, clean, and pure food

Eating and drinking is also mentioned together with a warning to not commit abuse on earth (2:60), alluding to the source of our food. Eating good food is mentioned together with not oppressing others (20:81) but instead, doing good works (23:51). This means that we must pay attention to the source of our food. It should not be causing abuse on earth (e.g. air/land/water pollution, rainforest destruction) or the oppression of others (e.g. exploited farmers, underpaid workers).

Organic fruits, vegetables and other products, means that they are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers (read some of its environmental effects here) or chemical pesticides (here). Organic fertilizers (e.g. compost) and pesticides (e.g. vinegar, lemon juice) could still be used, as they achieve the intended effect without 'abusing' the earth.

Locally-grown means that less fuel is used to fly in products from other countries. I've never eaten a juicy, ripe, sweet, tomato in Singapore. (I recently learnt that many Singaporeans, about to travel, were forewarned of the gastronomic awesomeness of tomatoes grown in temperate climates.) I've also never eaten a juicy, ripe, sweet lychee in Holland. Local organic tastes best and is much cheaper. A quick survey of Cold Storage and other local supermarkets proved to be scarily expensive non-Asian vegetables imported from far away.

Singaporeans, check out Bollywood Veggies and Green Circle for organic, local, Asian vegetables! Look for key words like kampung (lit. village, refers to free-range) chicken or eggs. Better still if you have a banana or guava tree in your garden, or in your relatives' gardens in Malaysia!

Source: Green Circle Eco-Farm online store

Okay, now what about not exploiting humans or animals when trying to find something to eat? There are certain brands (e.g. Dole), products (e.g. tiger prawns, coffee), and provenances (e.g. Israel) that you could look out for. Recently I discovered that a brand of vegetarian products was in fact an Israeli settlement company (hence produced on stolen land and water and all that nasty stuff), and I promptly gave it up.

Here is some information about the conditions in halal farms in Australia (where most of Singapore's beef comes from). Surprisingly, not many people know that stunning is used regularly as part of ritual slaughter -- not every halal farm can do things the way this Texan ranch does. Recently there was a focus on the paltry conditions of live-export sheep to Singapore for Eid ul Adha slaughter. Is the meat from scared, cramped, stressed sheep halal?

Here's a resource about fair trade in Singapore, and fair trade and Islam in general. If you go to Malaysia often, pasar tani or farmer's markets are also good places to start.

Now that you know how to find what is considered respect for nature and other people, we arrive at the third Food Rule! (You can't always find something that fits all 3 criteria, but please always try!)

#3: Halal is local, organic, and/or fair trade

As for the kinds of food, fruit is explicitly stated as provision sent from God (2:22, 14:32, 28:57)! There's a hint if I ever saw one. The colours and growth cycles of fruits are signs of God (6:99, 35:27, 41:47). Aspiring traditionalists can also take a hint and start eating grains, grapes, palmfruit, pomegranates, figs, dates, olives, quails, and seafood. (Rather than conveniently giving a lecture on how we should dress and then heading out for burgers and Coca-cola). Just kidding.

What else is good, pure, and clean? If you have some time, watch this documentary and ponder that question.

And then read Part 2.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Child brides in Malaysia: Agency or abuse?

Cross-posted at Muslimah Media Watch.
This year saw two instances of Malay Muslim girls in Malaysia, below the legal age of marriage, getting married to boys who were not so much older than them. One couple was Nor Fazira Saad (13 years old) and Mohammad Fahmi Alias (19) from Kedah, Malaysia who were married in their kampong in November. Earlier this year in July, a couple identified only as Yana (14) and Syafiq (16) from Pahang, Malaysia, were married in a grand ceremony attended by many guests -- with all of the details captured in the professionally-done wedding video (available here).

Nor Fazira and Mohammad Fahmi. Source: Asiaone
Wedding ceremony. Source: Youtube

In 2010, there were also three well-known instances of underage Malay girls being married off, but to older men. In December 2010, Siti Maryam Mahmod (14) married her teacher Abdul Manan Othman (23), in a mass wedding at a mosque in Kuala Lumpur. They met when Abdul Manan was giving religious lessons to her younger siblings, and Siti Maryam defends her decision as being fully aware her choice and had not been coerced by anyone -- she has "thought about the responsibilities and the consequences of marrying at a young age."

Abdul Manan and Siti Maryam. Source: Seniorsaloud

Earlier that year, Siti Nur Zubaidah Hussin (11) was married off as the fourth wife to Shamsuddin Che Derahman (41), a "religious sect leader". Shamsuddin had talked her parents into sending her to his religious school in another town, and convinced them to let him marry her so that she could be under his care. Her father claimed to be "not fully aware of what was happening" during the illegal wedding ceremony. Siti Nur Zubaidah then went missing for 20 days and was later found abandoned at a mosque in Kepongin a semi-conscious state and consequently hospitalised for shock.

Around the same time, the groom had also married off his own 10 year-old daughter to his middle-aged friend, in a similar illegal ceremony (a nikah that is unregistered with the state is known in Malaysia as nikah koboi or literally, "cowboy marriage") without the presence of the bride or any witnesses.

Although all these weddings involved underage Muslim girls, the main differences between the weddings in 2010 and 2012 are the age difference between the couple and their method of marriage. Although the legal age of marriage for Muslims in Malaysia is 18 for boys and 16 for girls, underage couples may (with their parents' permission) request approval from the state syariah courts on a case-by-case basis. However, there is no minimum age limit and this approval seems to be easily given, according to government statistics of premarital HIV screening tests, which are compulsory for all Muslims just before marriage. Nor Fazira (13) and Mohammad Fahmi (19) appear to have received blessings from their parents and their state syariah courts to marry, and the latter even says that he is "responsible and ready to be a good husband".

Reading the stories of these girls, I try to understand their socio-economic circumstances. Living in a kampong (rural area), where many of their relatives and friends are also married in their teenage years, this is not something that is so out of the ordinary. Furthermore, many girls in rural areas may not continue their education past the elementary level, while boys may already have jobs in their families' farms or local businesses. With clear social roles of men expected to be the main breadwinner and women in charge of housework and childcare, financial ability and physical maturity are taken as more important factors over emotional maturity or romantic notions of childhood.

The comments on the wedding video of Yana (14) and Syafiq (16) reveal much support for them, seeing marriage is a way to avoid maksiat or sexual immorality. Nor Fazira (13) and Mohammad Fahmi's (19) wedding was precipitated by her father's suspicions that they were engaging in pre-marital sex, as Fahmi explains that it was "better for us to get married than do things forbidden by our religion" and Fazira adds that "our actions are not wrong and it's better than being involved in social problems".

On the other hand, supporters of marriages between a girl of 10 or 11 years old and a man above 40 years old simply cannot wave away the asymmetry of power in the name of avoiding sexual immorality or social problems. Ratna Osman, the executive director of Sisters in Islam, points out the issue of seeing marriage as a panacea to social problems:
“Yet once you do it under the name of marriage, she is no longer a minor? Her body has suddenly transformed into an adult body?” Ms. Ratna said. “You would be charged under the law on statutory rape but get permission from the court and suddenly it’s O.K. to have sex with a 12-year-old.”
A report by the United Nations Country Team Gender Theme Group also found other reasons for underage marriage. For example, to avoid state policing for khalwat ("proximity", or the Malaysian criminal offense of an unmarried Muslim couple being caught alone in a private or public space), coercion by elders, or pregnancy.

Despite popular support for child marriages, the former Women, Family and Community Development Minister, Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, sees child marriage as abuse:

"A child does not have the choice or capacity to give his/her full consent, and as such child marriages must be viewed within the context of force and coercion; an act that subjects the child to physical, social and psychological trauma and abuse."
It's clear that legislation has no effect on child marriages of Muslims, and that court approval can always be sought. Even so, illegal ceremonies could still be carried out. While there are arguably some young Muslim girls who demonstrate some agency in thinking about what they want in life, our desires and actions are constructed from our surroundings. The socio-economic circumstances of the girls who are in these marriages (low education, rural area, poor) and the prevailing cultural norms (female chastity and family's name as important) are contributing factors to their decisions.

This phenomenon of child marriages also show the loopholes in the ages of consent, and how a child or adult is constructed in Malaysian society. Although we all hope and expect that laws are be formulated to protect the weakest groups in society, this is sometimes not the case. If a Muslim girl under 16 is not legally expected to be able to exercise proper judgment in signing a contract, buying tobacco, or even driving, why is marriage -- socially considered a major, life-changing decision -- suddenly appropriate?

The dichotomous framing of child marriages as either 1) blanket exploitative abuse, or 2) purely consensual and expressions of the agency of children, often obscures the complexity of the debate. While voices from civil society and the state may unequivocally view both categories of child marriages as abuse (especially due to the gendered risks of early marriage such as poverty, pregnancy complications, or the social stigma of being divorced/widowed), for some underage girls in rural areas, marriage is one of a few life options available for them and which parents sometimes make on behalf of their children.

On the other hand, when popular opinion condones the ‘Islamic’ aspect of avoiding sexual immorality and preferring to instead “pray for their happiness” (as reflected by many comments on the Youtube video), it leaves out the importance of education and financial independence for securing these girls’ futures. A campaign against child marriage needs to address the underlying causes of poverty and a lack of access to education and employment in rural areas.

A middle ground needs to be found between recognising the agency of girls living in rural areas and with limited life options, and the protection and foresighted decisions that their parents (or other legal guardians) could and should be making about their children’s futures.


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