Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sex education, not 'sex parties': Protesting Valentine's Day in Indonesia

Cross-posted on Muslimah Media Watch.


In recent months, Indonesia has been making the Asian news every time there is a non-Muslim celebration. I first noticed this with the debates on wishing "Merry Christmas" by Muslims to Christians, on Christians holding Christmas mass, and the accounts of violence done to churches in December 2012. A few weeks ago, the same debates were repeated on the occasion of Imlek, or Chinese New Year, on the mistaken basis of it being a Buddhist tradition, even though it is a national holiday. Now, the latest controversy -- which repeats itself each February -- is Valentine's Day, deemed a "foreign" and "infidel celebration", and an excuse for teenagers to engage in premarital sex.

Several groups in particular prominently voiced their opposition to Valentine's Day: Nadhlatul Ulama, Indonesia's biggest orthodox Muslim organisation; the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam or FPI), and the Indonesian Council of Ulema (Majlis Ulema Indonesia or MUI), a clerical body that includes the previous groups among others. This year, government officials and clerics from various cities   called for boycotts and in response, students (even those from elementary schools, which shocked some readers) from various cities and islands across Indonesia organised Valentine's Day protests on 13 February.

Young hearts: Al Fattah Islamic elementary school students color placards in Surakarta on Wednesday before taking part in an annual rally denouncing the celebration of Valentine’s Day. (JP/Kusumasari Ayuningtyas)
Kids rejecting Valentine's Day. Source: The Jakarta Post

Despite the headlines identifying these calls against Valentine's Day as coming from "conservative" and "radical" "clerics", the accompanying photos all show, without fail, Muslim women with hijab and some in niqab protesting and holding placards.

Indonesia conservatives protest against Valentine's Day
Muslim women shouldn't celebrate Valentine's Day. Source:  AFP/Tengri News

Islamic radicals protest 'sexy' Valentine's Day in Indonesia
More Muslim women not celebrating. Source:  AFP/The Telegraph
Muslim students hold posters during a protest against Valentine's Day in Surabaya, Indonesia on Thursday.
Not celebrating. Source: Toronto Star
Indonesia, Muslims, Valentine's Day
Still not celebrating. Source:

According to one of the clerics in Aceh's Ulema Council, one reason why celebrating Valentine's Day is wrong is that it is endogenous to Indonesia and Islam, which is thus the same as "promoting faiths other than Islam". Even accepting the idea that to celebrate Valentine’s Day is to proselytize for a faith other than Islam, the last time I checked, Indonesia is constitutionally a secular country where promoting any religion is allowed. Despite laws protecting freedom of religion, the growing influence of extreme Islamic opinions and intolerance of the activities of religions other than Islam is becoming increasingly common and visible – as shown by the recent violent incidents (here, here, and here).

Another reason to not celebrate Valentine's Day, according to Depok's deputy mayor, is that "expressing love freely... could lead to forbidden sexual relations." He specifically felt that teenagers should not celebrate it because of their tendency towards having premarital sex. A representative from Nadhlatul Ulama even claimed that teenagers who "express love and affection" on this day would end up in a "sex party". This day has been described as a "channeling of lust between unmarried couples", "promiscuity" and "pregnancies out of wedlock".

Indonesia's National Family Planning Coordinating Board (Badan Kependudukan dan Keluarga Berencana Nasional or BKKBN) has identified 'free sex' (seks bebas or premarital sex) as a major youth problem alongside drugs and HIV/AIDS. The link made between premarital sex and Valentine's Day shows that "the West" and "Western culture" are  convenient abstract scapegoats for social issues, because 'free sex', or consenting sexual intercourse between unmarried persons is in fact legal, since the law only penalises adultery committed by married persons.

The worries voiced by opponents of Valentine's Day, such as sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies out of wedlock, reveal  the inefficacy of and confusion surrounding sex education. For example, during last year's resistance, one opponent from Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia made the opposite correlation between contraception and "social evils":

Siti Nafidah, the head of the HTI’s provincial women’s chapter, said the threat of youths engaging in premarital sex as part of the Valentine’s Day spirit was “right before our eyes.”
“There’s even a convenience store giving away condoms with purchases of chocolate,” she said. She said this could eventually lead to a host of social evils, from unplanned pregnancies and abortions, to the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The state of sex education in Indonesia is woefully lacking and there have been calls for more comprehensive sex education in schools -- one that teaches the difference between love and sex, diseases, contraception, and what constitutes harassment. The lack of effort to rectify this is shown by the conservative and flimsy response of the Minister for Education and Culture (who had earlier suggested that rape victims enjoy being raped) towards these calls:

"According to our traditions, it is indecent to talk about it, and that is my standpoint. I don't believe we need that yet. (...) I am sorry, mentioning s-e-x is already taboo to me," he said.
One counter-movement to Valentine's Day was a movement for a Cover Aurat Day (the official Gerakan Hari Menutup Aurat Facebook page), started in 2012 by Herry Nurdi, together with a teachers working group. The aim of this movement is to reject Valentine's Day and replace it with Cover Aurat Day in order to fight 'moral problems', denounce (commercial) stakeholders, encourage society to cover up and avoid 'free mixing' and 'free sex'. To achieve this, activists protested on the streets and in groups on motorcylces, handing out headscarves and posters to the public.

Students hand out Hijabs during Valentines Day Protest
Promoting Cover Aurat Day in 2012. Source: Demotix

On a more optimistic note, there have been several events that demonstrate how Valentine's Day could be used to promote love and understanding. Some examples are an event for female inmates in a prison in Denpasar, Bali, designed to instill an "atmosphere of love", and a campaign to "promote love and reduce smoking" on Valentine's Day in 2009. A reader's letter to the Jakarta Post emphasised the need to apply the rhetoric of "expressing love to followers of other religions" instead of branding them as heretics, pointing to Valentine's Day as a positive opportunity. Some counter-protests focused on eliminating "radical" groups and associated violence such as the Islamic Defenders Front.

As these contrasting events show, how Valentine's Day does not mean anything by itself -- it is the way that we choose to celebrate it that has meaning. The assumption that it is only about sex reveals a deep-rooted fear and insecurity on the part of the traditionalists on how to raise the next generation of Indonesians in a time of high unplanned pregnancies, rape, and HIV/AIDS, and a lack of sex education. At the same time, deflecting the blame onto an abstract concept such as "the West" and "infidel culture" is unfortunately always useful in distracting people from focusing on real solutions for Indonesia's teenagers.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"A tiny cut": Female circumcision in Southeast Asia

Cross-posted at Muslimah Media Watch.
I once asked my mother why boys had to be circumcised, but girls weren't. Growing up in the 1990s, it was more common for boys to be circumcised at the age of 7 or 9, where it resembled more of a rite of passage. They were not allowed to eat certain foods, had to wear a kain sarong for less discomfort, and had to be fanned at night to keep dry. My mother said to me that it wasn't compulsory for girls, and anyway, the procedure was just "a tiny cut" -- something that she felt was negligible, unnoticeable, and probably not a big deal if it wasn't done.

Recenlty, photographs taken by Stephanie Sinclair of a mass sunat perempuan (female circumcision) ceremony in Bandung, Indonesia, in 2006 and published in 2008, surfaced again late last year. The ceremony that Sinclair attended was organised and sponsored by Yayasan Assalaam Bandung, a foundation that provides Islamic education and social welfare services. Yayasan Assalaam sees itself to be an open, inclusive, moderate, and dynamic organisation.

I called my mother and asked her if she had been circumcised, or if my sister and I had been. She said that she was, and my sister too. I asked her to elaborate on the extent of the circumcision. She explained that at the age of one or two weeks (around the time when the umbilical cord heals), she had had her clitoral hood snipped at the tip (to make it flat instead of hanging over and covering the clitoris), while my sister had a different procedure -- her clitoral hood was scraped. She explained that this was the trend by the time my sister was born in the 1980s.

Via New York Times

Both of these procedures had been done by a mak bidan, or post-partum midwife whose role is to help mothers to help mothers with their babies and also get back into shape after a natural birth with the use of tummy wraps, herbal drinks, herbal applications, massage, and bathing of the newborn baby. One day when the mak bidan was bathing my sister, she announced to my mother that my sister's circumcision had been effectuated.

When my mother was growing up, there was a lot of mystery surrounding the practice. Coupled with the certainty of being ridiculed for asking questions, this practice was passed down quietly and without protest. It was "just tradition". The experiences that my mother had described to me was consistent with what I had read. In the province of Satun in South Thailand, the bidan has the "exclusive authority to perform female circumcision and reject the idea of this operation ever passing into the hands of medical personnel" for physical and ritual/religious reasons. In Indonesia, traditional circumcisers say they "learn the practice from other women during several years of apprenticing."

While there is a large debate on female genital cutting in Africa, the literature on these practices in Asia is sparse. In Malaysia, a university survey of 1000 respondents found that over 90% of Muslim women reported being circumcised. In Indonesia, the figure is upwards of 86%, with 90% of adults supporting it. In her study "Sunat for girls in southern Thailand", Claudia Merli (2008) applies the same description to the province of Satun, because of cultural and regional proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia. However, in Singapore, based on anecdotal evidence, the different economic circumstances probably means that the incidence of female circumcision is very, very low.

Via New York Times

Some of the reasons given for female circumcision are to be "clean", to "purify the genitals and bestow gender identity", to "control women's sexual urges", because they can only be beautiful if chaste, and help them not be "as wild", which will "make men more excited in bed". In Singapore, some of the older generation do point out that the reason that some young women are "wild" today is because they are not circumcised. Some also point out that there is not much harm because of the very small amount of flesh removed (described as the size of a quarter-grain of rice, a guava seed, a bean, the tip of a leaf, or the head of a needle), and the importance of supposedly avoiding the clitoris. Merli (2008) gathered a testimonial from Wati, a villager from Satun on her decision-making process:

She had discussed the topic of sunat with a man well versed in Islamic law who had not let his own daughter be circumcised, claiming that the practice is neither necessary nor compulsory because it is not mentioned in the Koran. Despite this conversation, Wati and her husband decided to follow the local tradition, with a sense of pressure coming from other villagers, whose disapproval they wanted to avoid.
The local bidan was not taken on as she was ill-famed for cutting away “too much,” some even said the whole clitoris. Another bidan was summoned from another location.

Worryingly, there seems to be a trend towards institutionalising and medicalising this practice in the contemporary era (even for cosmetic purposes!). Merli (2008) noted that the trend towards medicalisation was worrying because while it may reduce the girls from struggling, it would also allow a deeper excision, a practice that was being promoted in the village by some missionaries from India. In Malaysia, the Fatwa Committee of Malaysia's National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs ruled in 2009 that female circumcision,  was "obligatory for Muslims but if harmful must be avoided".

More recently, in Indonesia, the Indonesian Council of Ulema ruled in favour of female circumcision and added that although it can not be considered mandatory, it is still "morally recommended". The leader of this council, Kiai Hajj Amin Ma'ruf, however warned to avoid "excesses" in the removal or cutting of the clitoris -- a position supported by several hadith

In late 2006, the Ministry of Health in Indonesia banned doctors from performing it on the grounds that it was "potentially harmful", but this ban was not enforced. Hospitals continued to offer sunat perempuan for baby girls, sometimes as part of "birth packages" (which include vaccinations and ear piercing).Yayasan Assalaam also links the practice to celebrating the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, and even provides incentives like money and food to the parents who bring their daughters to their annual ceremony.

Via New York Times

Local explanations for female circumcision centre around the lack of harm that it does to the girl, and that it indeed has positive benefits. However, anecdotal evidence includes pain while passing urine, or desensitivity of the clitoris and reduced ability for sexual pleasure. In any case, these explanations are situated in a web of political, social, and economic phenomena: preserving one's Muslim identity by ensuring that the practice will continue through law and medical justification (as male circumcision has become), controlling the sexual urges of girls in the light of increasing teenage pregnancies, and the influence of Wahhabi or Salafist elements on Islam in Southeast Asia.

The target audience in this debate are not the midwives or the medical practitioners, but the attitudes of parents vis-a-vis their daughters' sexual and physical health.

I asked my mother if I had been circumcised. She said I wasn't, because by then the mak bidan was nowhere to be found. She had come over from Malaysia through family contacts for my mother's post-partum birth rituals, and she was part of a dying trade in an economically-growing Singapore.
"Why didn't you ensure that I was circumcised?"
"It's a sunnah anyway, it's not that important."
For some, defining female circumcision as “a tiny cut” means it is considered “harmless.” I can only say I am glad that my mother felt that this “tiny cut” was equally “harmless” if not done.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Wondering why I no longer wear hijab?

In celebration of World Hijab Day, I'm telling you the story of me and my hijab.
Me and hijab can be summarised as mostly on, sometimes off, and as of now, off. I was encouraged, but not particularly forced to wear it since I was very young, so it became something I wore outside of school uniform times.

I always thought I would wear it full-time after high school (when we stop wearing uniforms), and I eventually did in university, although I went through periods of less-than-100% conviction where I went a year or two without it. In any case, I did a lot of sport (gymnastics) and dance so in any given day I would be taking it on and off anyways -- and in terms of personal physical and psychological comfort, this was no big deal.
The last time I wore it 'full-time' was my last three years in university (2007-2010). Before this I honestly thought that it was an obligation (because of what religious teachers and other people said) and I felt like a sinner when I didn't wear it. But also during this period, I had been studying the Quran more on my own, as well as going to lots of Islam-related classes and seminars. I was also working in a mosque and in a religious school and I was surrounded by many wonderful, pious Muslim friends.

Towards the end of this period, my personal research had led me to conclude that the hijab was not an obligation, and I felt like a hypocrite explaining to others (and little girls especially) at the mosque the conventional reasons behind hijab, when even though I was wearing one, I didn't think that nine year-olds should have to.

What bothered me also was how it created a literal barrier between men and women. I felt always a heightened sense of propriety when wearing the hijab, and I observed that a little transgression (e.g. a bit of neck showing when the hijab blew) would lead to absurdly exaggerated policing by men and women.

Whereas women who did not wear hijab were not policed -- to me this contradicted the aim of the verses meant for women's protection, and for both sexes to remain modest. Also, as a hijabi I received 'advice' from my parents and friends to be more conventionally feminine (wear nice hijabs, pins, dresses, makeup) which again, contradicted modesty. At the same time, other forms of modesty were sidelined.

The more I read and reflected sincerely, the more I feel that God created us just fine. The discomfort of wearing hijab all day long in a tropical climate just seemed absurd (at some point, I regularly got heat rash on my face and neck as well).

I believe that the head and ears (and mouth and nose in the case of niqab) serve divine purposes of creation (releasing heat and sweat, hearing), which should make it perfectly permissible to leave uncovered. With this conviction in mind, I stopped wearing it full-time in April 2010 and only put it on during congregational prayers (I don't wear it for individual prayer). A lot of my friends and colleagues had assumptions about my decision but no one asked me directly.

Honestly, at this point in my life I've reached a stage where I can say that I don't care for others' opinions of me, because my conscience is clear: I read the Quran and I reflected, and I made my decision. I feel that God will judge us based on our efforts in anything and not whether we happen to be in the right camp, or not (also applicable for being Muslim, eating halal, etc). It took me a long time to feel comfortable about this, because of how judgmental we all tend to me.

That being said, some days I miss wearing the hijab. In my ideal world, I would be able to wear it on the days I felt like wearing it, and not wear it on the days I don't feel like wearing it (because of doing lots of physical activities for example).

Most days, I'm just glad to feel the wind in my hair.


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