Friday, May 31, 2013

Hard Day’s Night: A tale of two Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore

I remember being 4 years old and pasting stickers with the letters R-I-T-A on my pink plastic chair – that was the name of our first domestic worker. I was young and didn’t remember much of her, but over the next two decades, my household benefitted from the help of almost 10 different Indonesian domestic workers.

But there was a stark difference from what I felt in my personal relationship with these women and sentiments towards them in public discourse. Complaints by relatives about their ‘lazy’ or ‘ungrateful’ maids were a reflection of the discursive representations by the Singapore state. The reason of ‘falling into bad company’ is often invoked to justify tight social control, which is in turn based on specific ideas about their sexuality.

Through coercive policies on immigration and migrant workers, the law sees domestic workers either as potential home-wreckers or naive dependants. In the mainstream media, they are alternately either helpless victims or deviant criminals. Rarely are they portrayed as sacrificing heroines who leave their families to earn a living.

An economic necessity?
To support our post-independence capitalist development, women have been encouraged to work outside the home since our 1970s manufacturing phase. At the same time, the state insists that the best care for our ageing population is to be found within the household and family. Meanwhile, our growing urban middle class aspires to a lifestyle that previously only the rich could afford.

In short, women are valorised as workers, mothers and caregivers. But the state has never explicitly encouraged men to take up their share of housework. So who is going to do all the housework?

The solution lies in ‘cheap and disposable’[1] women from poorer neighbouring countries. Much of our post-independence development has been and is based on migrant labour from nearby Asian countries to fill in labour gaps for low-skilled, low-paid and high opportunity cost jobs that Singaporeans are unwilling to do.

Domestic work is one of these jobs. Migrant domestic workers are the answer in order to free our high-skilled but limited female labour force to work outside the home. They are the convenient response to our ageing population as smaller families mean fewer potential carers in the future.

This idea is accompanied by state policies that make it cheaper and more convenient to hire domestic workers than professional care services or nursing homes. For example, the Jamiyah Darul Takrim nursing home will only take in patients who have ‘exhausted all possible care arrangements such as hiring a domestic helper’.

Today’s pattern of migrant work was characterised by the 1978 Foreign Maid Scheme, which allowed women from mostly Indonesia and The Philippines (but also from Sri Lanka, India and other southeast Asian countries) to migrate temporarily to Singapore to work as live-in domestic workers. There are currently about 201,000 domestic workers in Singapore.

Only as of last year were all domestic workers in Singapore legally entitled to a day off. Previously, about 50 to 80 percent of all workers worked 7 days a week. While the government of The Philippines has made it a law to oblige Singaporean employers to give their Filipina workers a weekly day off, the governments of Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries have no such laws.

Negotiating freedoms
Despite these constraints, two Indonesian women tell their stories of how they negotiated for freedoms like regular off days and time during their working day to study for a degree.

Ati, 31, first left Java for Singapore 2000 and has since been working for the same Chinese family. She did not have any off days during her first four working years because she was scared to ask for anything from her employers when she first arrived in Singapore. She even had to work in two different households, which is illegal according to the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act.

However, after four years and having developed a relatively good relationship with her employers, Ati managed to negotiate for a day off.
Because after the first year I went home her child had a high fever… then my boss said “Please lah please come back to work for me again”. So when I came back I asked to not be too tired because they have three children right. Slowly slowly like maybe they liked my work and so because I was close with their children so they were happy lah. After that, no off day in four years so I said “Okay, I will renew my contract with you but I want to ask for rest day, once a month.” (Ati, 31)
Meanwhile, Mita, 34, who has also been working for the same Chinese family for 14 years, had been given days off from the start of her first contract. Even then, she used to encourage and advise other women to negotiate for days off or a higher salary. To her, a good working relationship is required for a successful negotiation – both parties must be “comfortable” with each other and the employer must want the worker to renew her contract. At the same time, Mita acknowledges that only the employer makes the final decisions.
If don’t have then you can ask, if they give you then your luck lah. If not, then no choice lah. Because sometimes after you finish contract and then let’s say you want to transfer or continue your employer if you are good and comfortable with employer then go ahead. If not, OK lah you ask your off day if want to stay. Because you bargain right, okay I will work for you and you give me money. So if you increase my salary I will stay. If not, I will change employer. (Mita, 34)

Student workers
Both Ati and Mita are working towards an undergraduate degree in communications from the Open University of Indonesia, through distance learning and tutorials at the Singapore Indonesian School. Their track record – whether as well-behaved, hardworking, trustworthy or efficient domestic workers – played a significant role in determining the success of their negotiation for time in their working day and access to resources like a computer. 
Sometimes if I finish work it’s usually 10p.m., so I study 10p.m. to 12a.m. That day I told him “I need laptop for tutorial online.” [He said] “You don’t have to buy lah, don’t waste your money, just use mine.” But it’s old so it’s lagging. Then that day I said again, “Your laptop is so lagging,” and “I want to buy”. [He said] “You don’t have to buy, use my the other one.” So in the end I use the other laptop. I mean, he’s good like that, he’s not, what’s that, stingy. (Ati, 31)
Ati has to use her employers’ computers to minimise distractions from her primary role as a domestic worker. Her employers’ control over her purchases is an outcome of power relations of class, since they provide her income. Although she could use her own money to make expensive purchases like a camera or a laptop, she still requires their permission, which illustrates the boundaries of their control. 

Mita enjoys more flexible working and studying hours; she says she is allowed to study any time she likes. She earned her employers’ trust and admiration by first going for computer classes on her days off and being open about how good her employers were. Today her employers pay part of her study fees and her phone bills.

The degrees that they are working towards points to their career goals. Ati plans to return in 2014 to her hometown and start a catering business. Mita wants to work in mass communications, and laughs when she says she wants to be a deejay. Their peers, who work and study like them have ambitions to be English teachers or businesswomen.

Even though these women are a small group and do not represent all domestic workers in Singapore, they help us to see a more optimistic side to domestic work in Singapore – it’s not just all about the abuse and crime we read about in the mainstream media.

Global chains of care
Even though more Singapore women are working outside the home, the inflow of women from neighbouring countries means that women (of a different class and ethnicity) remain responsible for the home – keeping state-endorsed patriarchy intact.
But in the end my boss don’t allow me to go home yet, until 2014, then I can go home if I want. But boss hopes I don’t go home, and stay here forever. I said “You ask me to work here OK lah, pay me $5000 a month as compensation, I don’t get married!” (Ati, 31) 
While family members (mostly women) carry out some household chores and do care work by themselves, other domestic work is transferred to domestic workers, allowing female employers to enjoy the emotional value of motherhood. As domestic workers are also women, with their own families, this shifting of the burden of care should make us think about whose children and whose families are more important and deserve care: the rich or the poor?

Domestic workers are not the economic necessity that the state and employers often say it is. They are a luxury because they facilitate aspirations and affirm status for those aspiring to a middle-class lifestyle. But they are also a symptom of our state policies and rhetoric on what makes a man, what makes a woman, and what makes a family.
Photos: Ati
[1] Sassen, S. (2002) 'Global Cities and Survival Circuits', in B. Ehrenreich and A.R. Hochschild (eds) Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, pp. 254-274. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Dutch Muslim Women Make a Mark on Society

This article was first published in Aquila Style.
A few months ago, the former Queen Beatrix (who is now known as Princess Beatrix) of the Netherlands announced that she would abdicate the throne on April 30, and her son Willem-Alexander IV would be the new king (and the first since 1890!).

Also known Koninginnedag, or Queen’s Day, this date is a much-loved holiday for Dutch people involving dressing up in orange, flea markets, street performances and making merry.

Many Dutch companies responded with special offers and discounts on their goods to celebrate this last Queen’s Day. Al Nisa, an organisation for Dutch Muslim women, saw this as an opportunity to promote their organisation and send a message of appreciation and thanks to the royal family. Al Nisa’s warm relationship with the royal family has been expressed in the form of invitations to dinners and New Year gatherings, to recognise and acknowledge the importance of the organisation’s work.

But one incident in particular made the deepest mark on Al Nisa. In 2012, Queen Beatrix made a diplomatic visit to the United Arab Emirates and Oman, where she visited some mosques. As a mark of religious respect for these places of worship, she wore bright blue and red headscarves over her trademark wide-brimmed hats.

In a debate in the Dutch parliament after her return, right-wing politician Geert Wilders claimed that she was ‘legitimising women’s oppression’ by wearing a headscarf. Queen Beatrix was said to have heaved ‘a deep sigh’ and in a most politically incorrect way, dismissed these comments as ‘nonsense’ – a highly exceptional response that was much appreciated by Al Nisa. The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, supported her actions as a mark of respect for a house of worship.

Al Nisa’s campaigns have historically aimed to react quickly to comments made by politicians in the public domain, to avoid a negative political climate by clearing up misconceptions in an informative and unique way. Previous campaigns have focused on the debates to ban the burqa (‘Get Real’), and the mistrust and misconceptions surrounding Muslim women (‘Real Dutch’ and ‘Do You Know Me?’)

Al Nisa hoped that the new monarch, King Willem Alexander, and his wife, Queen Maxima, would continue the open-minded attitude of his mother. So they decided to send them a message to bring society together with a new campaign.

A change of royal rule is usually characterised by issuing a new set of coins or stamps. The new king has just been celebrated with his own set of stamps. How crazy would it be to see a stamp with a Muslim woman, majestically radiating with a vision?

Al Nisa got a designer to make a Moroccan dress known as a kaftan, with silver details on the buttons and belt. For the colour, they chose orange – the colour of the Dutch royal family. In the final image, the model wears a bright orange hijab complete with a tiara. She looks off into the distance, arms akimbo, with confidence and poise.

The stamps were launched on April 30 to celebrate the royal abdication and coronation, as the country celebrated nationwide. The royal family also received a set of stamps as a sign of appreciation from Al Nisa.

In the first few days of the campaign, there was an immense wave of positive comments through social media. The campaign was covered by local Dutch newspapers and radio, and did not escape attention from Austrian and French media as well.

One thousand two hundred-fifty stamps have been sold so far, with orders still being taken. One supporter is even planning to use these stamps for his wedding invitations!

With only a few weeks to work on and execute their pro-bono campaign, Al Nisa inspires us to see just how much can be achieved with the creativity, passion and commitment of a few Muslim women.


If you’d like to buy some stamps to support this campaign, send an email to

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Muslim Women in Development Literature

This post was originally published at Muslimah Media Watch.

I recently came across a publication by Cordaid, a Dutch development organisation, called "Looking for That Other Face: Women Muslim Leaders and Violent Extremism in Indonesia" (available here). This publication recounts the stories of six quadragenarian Muslim feminists from three islands of Indonesia (Aceh, Java and Lombok): Ibu Umi Hanisah (Meulaboh), Badriyah Fayumi (Kota Bekasi), Enung Nursaidah Ilyas (Tasik Malaya), Inayah Rohmaniyah (Jogjakarta), Nyi Ruqqoyah (Bondowoso), and Aini Masruri (Lombok).

Their life histories on how they oppose patriarchal dominance and other oppressions, and fight for social change and justice within their own communities, are told in individual chapters. For example, the first chapter is dedicated to the story of Ibu Umi Hanisah, 44, the head of a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) for girls. She recounts how her pesantren grew to be the go-to centre during the Acehnese struggle for self-determination and later on, the tsunami disaster in December 2004.

The authority she earned during these two events gives her credibility as a female community leader, which she uses to mediate cases of rape, domestic violence, and other social and interpersonal conflicts -- always following up on criminal cases. One of the ways she guards against future abuse is by ensuring that for example in the case of domestic violence, the man will sign a written contract to not abuse his wife, in the presence of representatives from their families, police, village, government, and social organisations.

These six chapters are amazing examples of how to portray Muslim feminists: let them say what they want to say. Apart from a few introductory paragraphs that summarise the life history of the featured woman, most of the chapter's text is in the form of quotes, which allow us to hear their story first hand (albeit translated from Bahasa Indonesia into English). Devoting an entire chapter to the story also allows for nuance and a tracing of their thought processes, which were not a result of the "West". As Enung Nursaidah Ilyas, a head of a school and a crisis centre for abused women, says:
"I am not a westerner. I am an Indonesian Muslim woman standing up for social justice."
However, I had the general impression that there was a clear difference in what the author had to say (in the form of his own text), and what the women themselves had to say (in form of quotes). Despite the clear inspiration of Islam for these women's feminist activism, the author seemed to insist on pigeonholing their actions into a liberal feminist framework. Freedom is only legitimate when one is "liberated" (p.73), when marriage is "self-chosen" (p.64), or when one is not sexually "prudish" (p.79). The author only highlights the importance of the Islamic framework only when talking about "increas(ing) women's sexual freedoms" (p.33).

For example, the author emphasises the individual choice of Inayah Rohmaniyah in choosing her own path in life even when she had already stated that her choices were influenced by her father's egalitarian ideas and the works of two prominent Indonesian scholars, Fazlur Rahman and Nurcholis Madjid.

The more important issue of the gendered and classist application of interpretations of sharia law, in the example she gives of poor girls being picked up for the offence of khalwat (close proximity between unmarried couples), but not elite women in cars. However, the author gives a hypothetical situation of a woman being arrested for wearing tight pants!

Another concern was textual accuracy. I was troubled by one of the quotes which wrongly attributed to the Quran a story about a pregnant woman asking to be stoned for adultery. This quote by Ibu Umi Hanisah is used to explain the "heart of our faith" as being "education and nurturing", not harsh punishment. The author then implies that praying and repentance were the true aims of sharia law.

His own interpretation of her words shadows the nuance from Ibu Umi herself. The text before and after the quote is more nuanced about sharia, emphasising that the real problem is the institutionalisation and unjust application of sharia, since sharia "is in everything we do" (p.20). As the publication was mostly targeted to the European donor and development industry, it would have been more useful to explain the misconception around the definition of sharia, in the light of recent right-wing fears of the "tsunami of Islamisation" of Europe, similar to the fear of 'creeping sharia' in the US.

Finally, I was concerned about the amount of self-reflexivity put into the publication. As a white Dutch man interviewing these women through a local woman translator, he seemed rather unaware of local social and religious norms. When a 14 year-old  girl in Nyi Ruqqoyah's pesantren refused to shake his hand just before maghrib prayer, he retells the incident in a condescending way.
"Goodness -- almost touched an unknown man! That would have undone her wudhu, the ritual hand-washing before prayer." (p.83)
Being a publication of one of the most well-known Dutch development organisations, it seems to target the Dutch development industry in general (since words that are similar to Dutch like "misi sosial", or social mission, are not translated). Despite some factual errors and a lack of self-reflexivity from the author, I think that the stories of these women collectively form a valuable resource to promote greater understanding of how feminism can work within an Islamic framework.

Friday, May 17, 2013

What is awra?

In mainstream Islam, aurat/awrah is taken to mean 'private parts' of women and men. This word comes from fiqh or jurisprudence; it does not appear in the Quran. This word is then used as a guideline for how women should dress, in addition to indications from hadith (and you all know how I feel about them by now: guidance, not law).

The verses from the Quran often used to explain awra actually contains words like zeena, furuj, and sawaAwra as it is used today conflates these three concepts in the Quran. Awra does appear in the Quran (33:31) but! let's analyse how it are used.


The root 'a-w-r (ain-waw-ra) appears only 4 times in the Quran in the same form of a noun, each time referring to different things.

The al-Ahzab verse (33:13) talks about a situation of war and unrest, known as the Battle of the Trench/Clans (Ahzab). Some believers were scared and wanted to flee from Yathrib (Madinah), by claiming that their houses were awra. However, such an argument made them bi'awratin. According to this interpretation, this group claimed that their houses were vulnerable. But by not showing solidarity with everyone else in Yathrib, they exposed their own cowardice and hypocrisy. (How you can use this verse to explain hijab is beyond me.)


But! The other verse in al-Ahzab (33:59) is even more interesting. This verse is in the context of war, and the Prophet was told to tell women to wear jalbab in public, so that they would be recognised and not harassed. The verses before had been talking about hypocrites and other people in society who were out to make trouble. Wearing an outercoat/loose-fitting garment was supposed to help identify these women as believers, and therefore not to be harmed.

(A little bit like how more Afghan women started wearing the full burqa in times of political instability under the Taliban and occupation. Not so much that women are responsible for not being harassed or raped -- more on that in another post.)

It's important to note that awrat in al-Ahzab (33) was used to refer to houses and people's character, not to women being exposed or not.

Another verse in an-Noor (24) talks about 3 times of the day -- before dawn, at noon, and after isha' -- that are times of awra for anyone. At noon especially, it mentions that it is a time when we 'put away our garments', perhaps to rest or take a nap. The period before dawn and after the night prayer is also commonly the time we sleep, have sex, or rest. So what does it mean that these moments are awra? It can be translated as 'moments of privacy', since children below puberty should ask permission before meeting someone at these moments (24:58).

The last verse is giving guidelines on the different levels of undress that women are allowed in front of different groups of men (24:31). There is no harm for a woman to reveal her zeena in front of helpers, attendants, and children who do not yet know awra-t-al-nisa, translated as the 'private aspects of women'. To understand this verse better, we must look at zeena (seriously, click and read this before reading on.) furuj and sawa.


The root s-w-a (sin-waw-hamza) appears 167 times in the Quran. The most common verses used to explain awra is the disgrace of the first two humans in Paradise. When Adam and his wife ate from the forbidden tree, their sawa was revealed to them when it was previously hidden (7:20). Saa  is something evil/harmful that causes distress (4:22, 4:38, 4:97, 4:115, 5:66, 6:31...). Sayyia  are bad deeds that are despicable because they cause harm to others (2:271, 3:193, 4:18, 5:12...) Sawata refers to a dead body (5:31).

Taking the meanings as a whole, I think that the sawa revealed to Adam and his wife go beyond simply their nakedness. I think it refers to their ability to do evil, when in Paradise they were only able to do good; and also to be mortal, since they were tempted into being immortal (7:20, 20:120). An alternative interpretation: when Adam and his wife (metaphor for humanity) ate from the Tree of discord, they tried to covered themselves with righteous behaviour, but it was too late -- humanity had already split themselves into factions and started committing harmful deeds towards each other.

Sawa refers to the ability of human beings to have free will and do good and evil. It could mean nakedness, but it's still in the context of a specific story, possibly full of deeper meanings.


The root f-r-j (fa-ra-jim) appears 9 times, referring to a rift or breaking open of the sky (77:9, 50:6) and chastity. Maryam is taken as an example of one who guarded her chastity (21:91, 66:12). Chastity and related modesty (as opposed to openly promiscuity) is part of virtuous behavior for men and women (23:5, 24:30-1, 33:35, 70:29).

Clearly, chastity is not something to be covered physically. When we are told to 'guard our chastity', it doesn't mean we literally wear a chastity belt. It means we control our actions. Whether what we wear helps us to control our own carnal desires or not, it's in our minds, not in our genitalia.


As a summary, awra in the Quran has only been used to refer to 'moments of privacy' (24:58) and 'private aspects of women' (24:31). What is often meant by awra in the conventional sense is actually zeena, furuj and/or sawa. Zeena talks about a women's beauty in an abstract sense, furuj is about chastity, and sawa is about our humanly characteristic to do good and evil.

Taking awra to mean a conflation of these concepts does not only mean that we currently have a weak understanding of the Quran (because no one can even point out the error of citing 33:59!), it also means that we confuse ourselves with the dominant, orthopraxic teachings, when the Quran has made these three concepts so rich and so useful for our daily living and spiritual sustenance.

Why reduce it to whether you are supposed to cover this or that, in front of whoever?

What is zeena?

The root z-y-n (zai-ya-nun) appears 46 times. It appears almost half as zayyana meaning beautified/made attractive and the other half of the time as zeena. For example, the earth has been adorned and made beautiful (10:24), with the sky and stars for example (37:6), often translated as beauty, decoration or adornment. Beauty and other niceties of this world are provided by God for us to enjoy and can be a form of worship (18:7, 7:31) and should not be made forbidden because it is a mere taste of what believers can enjoy in the afterlife (7:32). Examples are gold (20:59), horses (16:8), wealth and children (18:46, 57:20), and festivals (20:59).

We are encouraged to look moderately nice at the masjid (7:31). But we shouldn't be excessive, as Pharaoh (10:88), and lead ourselves astray with it (11:15, 18:28). Disbelievers will be attracted to worldly life (2:212, 3:14, 33:28, 28:60) and just like every other community, be pleased with their wrongdoings (6:43, 6:108, 6:122, 8:48, 9:37, 10:12, 13:33...).

So most of the time, zeena is referring about something beautiful, aesthetic, and enjoyable, than can be enjoyed in moderation. It only becomes harmful when taken to excess.
And tell the believing women, they should lower their gaze, guard their private parts, and not display their zeena except what is apparent of it. And draw their khumur over their bosoms, and not display their zeena except to their husbands... (list of un-marry-able men here)... or their women, or what their right hands possess, or male attendants with no physical desire, or children who are not aware of the awra of women. And don't let them strike their feet to make known what they conceal of their zeena. And turn to Allah altogether believers, so that you may succeed. (24:31)
There is no harm for a woman to reveal her zeena in front of helpers, attendants, and children who do not yet know a women's awra (24:31)There is also no harm for older women with no more sexual desires, to remove some of her clothes, but without revealing zeena (24:60). Women should not reveal their zeena except what is zahara or apparent/obvious/dominant (24:31). But we still don't know what zeena is. Some say hair is naturally apparent and thus the exception which can be revealed. Some say it's what you cannot control when it rains, the wind blows, etc.

So what is zeena?
  • It comes from the root meaning beauty, adornment, ornamentation and attractiveness.
  • It can be revealed in front of certain groups of men.
  • It can cause desire in front of unrelated and marriageable men (although arguably men can still feel desire for their marriageable female relatives, so for me it's weird to lump husbands and all the other men together)
  • It can cause desire in the sexually-mature / who are aware of the 'private aspects of women'.
  • It can be exposed when the feet are stamped / struck e.g. catwalk?

Perhaps a clue: Women should draw their khumur or (head) coverings across their bosoms/ cleavage, and not display their zeena. If zeena is referring to breasts or cleavage, then it makes sense that revealing it in front of attendants or young children is acceptable, in the case of nursing or caregiving. That older women who are relaxing their dress code around men should still not reveal breasts makes total sense. As for 'what is apparent', this could refer to whatever is out of the women's control.

But it doesn't make sense that one could reveal breasts among related and marry-able men. I certainly wouldn't!!

Perhaps zeena is hair then, as the mainstream argument goes? Some argue that a woman's zeena is her beauty (pretty vague), and according to various schools of thought, include her hair, neck, cleavage, feet, or voice. Some even say the entire woman is zeena and therefore cover completely. The vagueness of the concept, and the contested authenticity of its hadith, means that there is still no certain answer.

But then it wouldn't make sense that hair causes desire in only certain men, or that you are allowed to show your hair to children because hair causes desire in sexually mature people?? However, you could walk in a way that shows off your hair.

I don't think it zeena refers to only one or a few body parts, I think it refers to something more abstract that is beyond me for now. Perhaps it has been left vague, perhaps because it is culturally constructed. What is suitable for women to reveal in front of these men differs in each social context.

Taking everything into account, it seems to be referring to a collection of behaviours that are aesthetic and can cause desire in sexually mature people. I can't say I know for certain the definition of zeena. Perhaps in some other I'll read something else and understand it better, inshallah.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Why I don't sing in a choir.

One morning, the Dutchman and I tried to sing a song about love, taking turns with each word.

DM: Love, love, love...

Me: Love, love, love, love, love...

DM: Love, love, love...

Me: Love, love...

DM: There's nothing you can do that can't be done...

Me: ...Makes the world go round.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Housework and the City: A Tale of Muslim Domestic Workers

This article was originally published at Aquila Style on 10 May 2013.
Two women from Indonesian recount the challenges they face in practising Islam in a way that is important to them, while working with employers in Singapore.

It’s a combination of circumstances, time and the type of work that I do now to earn money to help my family.

Wati (not her real name) is a 31-year-old Indonesian Muslim woman from Java who has been working as a live-in domestic worker for a Chinese employer – who is Christian – for almost 13 years now. When she first arrived in her employer’s house 13 years ago, she was told that she was forbidden from performing solat, or ritual prayer, in the house. Afraid to anger her employer and her labour agent, and thinking about the debt of almost S$2000 (US$1600) she incurred in getting to Singapore, she meekly nodded ‘yes’. If she had protested, she might have been blacklisted, terminated and sent back to her homeland of Indonesia – just like the stories she had heard in the Jakarta holding centre before flying to Singapore.

Singapore is currently temporarily ‘home’ to at least an estimated 201,000 migrant domestic workers, who are usually referred to as foreign domestic workers or ‘foreign maids’. Since the 1980s, Singapore and other global cities in Asia and the Middle East have been looking to ‘cheap’ and ‘disposable’ (female) labour from poorer countries as substitutes for the high cost of local labour. This increasing demand over the last decade means that more and more Indonesian women are migrating for work, with their movement being made easier by offers of capital in the form of debt.

Why did Singapore allow the influx of migrant domestic workers in the 1980s? Why do Singaporeans today hire domestic workers? Economic necessity is the most popular answer to both questions. During the post-independence manufacturing boom of the 1970s, more women started working outside the home. Someone had to pick up the burden of housework and childcare in the (female) domestic sphere; domestic workers from poorer neighbouring countries were the most feasible and logical option in order to free Singapore’s scarce resource of local female labour to engage in high-skilled paid employment outside the home.

The existing pattern of migrant work in Singapore is characterised by the Foreign Maid Scheme of 1978, where women from mostly Indonesia and the Philippines were allowed to migrate to Singapore to work as live-in domestic workers. Most of the women from Indonesia are Muslim, while those from the Philippines are mostly Catholic. However, greater numbers of Indonesian workers were hired in 1995, after the hanging of Flor Contemplacion, a Filipino domestic worker, for murder. The execution strained relations between Singapore and the Philippines and resulted in a temporary ban on the deployment of Filipina workers to Singapore.

Two years ago, I spent a few months speaking to some domestic workers about their relationship with their employers; specifically investigating how they negotiated for certain freedoms such as what they were allowed to do while living in their employers’ houses (eg using mobile phones or computers). In this article I speak to the two of them again to find out how they expressed their Muslim identities while working.

‘Perhaps God will forgive me’

I was only following my employers’ demands. I had to accompany their children to church, and almost every day I had to handle and cook pork, which was clearly forbidden in Islam. That was perhaps my fault that I agreed and wanted to work in such conditions. But it was only because I desperately wanted to get an employer…

During the first few years of working for her Chinese employer, Wati was not allowed to pray, fast, eat the foods that she preferred (including halal food), or recite the Qur’an, as she was afraid of being caught. Even though she was receiving a salary far beyond what she could earn back in Indonesia, without being able to fulfil her religious obligations, her life felt dark, as if she had no religion at all. She would think, ‘Perhaps God will forgive me, because my intention is to work and to carry out my tasks.’

Some say such clashes of beliefs happen with Chinese employers, and that Malay employers, most of whom are Muslim, are generally more understanding to Muslim domestic workers. For example, my family not only encouraged our domestic workers to pray and fast, but they also expected them to, regardless of how the women themselves related to their faith. My family expected that a pious worker would not cause any problems such as running away, having a boyfriend, or expecting too much freedom.

‘No time to pray’

Sinta (not her real name), a 35-year-old from Java, was glad to finally be working with a Malay family after transferring between Chinese and Indian employers six times, ‘because those Chinese employers they eat pork. If I have to cook pork, every day I wash my hands with earth.’

Sinta so valued having an employer of the same cultural background and religion, that she was willing to accept a lower salary and less-than-ideal working conditions. Despite being paid late and about S$100 less than the market rate of S$500 (for an experienced worker), and having six children to take care of, she still felt it important to have a Muslim employer so she would be allowed to pray and fast, among other things.

Alhamdulilah, with this one, they let me pray, but no time to pray.

Unfortunately for a domestic worker, work always comes first. Live-in domestic workers are often expected to be on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, even though they are now entitled to a day off, by Singapore law. The finer details of how much privacy and day-to-day rest time are usually left to the goodwill of the employer. For Sinta, even though her employers had agreed to give her Sundays off, when they had to attend an event like a wedding, this usually meant that she had to stay at home to take care of the younger children.

When life gives you lemons…

Despite these gloomy accounts, these women also show us how to make the best of such a situation. During her first Ramadhan, Wati longed to fast and decided to do so in secret. She fasted for the first day of Ramadhan with just a glass of water for sahur (pre-dawn meal) because she was afraid to take any food without her employers’ permission. At lunch, she stored her share of food away neatly in the refrigerator for the next day’s sahur, and told her employer she had eaten. She managed to do this for two weeks until she was caught having sahur by her employer, who reported her to the labour agency. Rebukes and tears ensued. Although her employers feared for her safety and energy levels during Ramadhan, Wati was not convinced, but decided not to continue fasting and tried her best to be ‘good, hardworking and willing to learn’.

When her contract came to an end after two years, she wanted to go home. But when her employers wanted her to renew her contract by offering a salary increase, she took the opportunity to negotiate.

Okay M’am, I want to continue and work with M’am, as long as I am allowed to pray, and fast during Ramadhan, because these are my religious obligations, just like when M’am goes to church to pray and surrender to God.

Eventually her employer agreed, as long as she did not neglect her work and did not influence the children by praying or fasting in front of them.

As for Sinta, even though she does not get a consistent salary, she is able to bank on the common religion and cultural background of her employers to understand her religious and academic pursuits. She first asked to take an English class and a sewing course at a nearby mosque. Since she wears the hijab (which reassured her employers that she was a ‘good woman’) and the classes were held at a mosque, it was easy to convince her employers to give her a day off on Sunday to attend these classes.

Even when I used to work three days three nights because of Hari Raya Puasa [Eid ul-Fitr], we always work more, making cookies and whatnot, but the ang pow [cash gift] is only ten dollars. But grateful, alhamdulilah! At least got ang pow.

Sinta shows gratitude and relief for the ease of working with a Malay Muslim employer. Even though she could earn more elsewhere, she thinks she might not be able to practise her religion as freely as she could with her current employers. For Sinta, being able to be a Muslim without fear was the most important factor.


While the experiences of Wati and Sinta are not representative of all Muslim domestic workers, Chinese or Malay employers, or non-Muslim and Muslim employers, they do help to make us aware of the situations faced by women who work in a legal labour arrangement where good treatment is highly dependent on the goodwill of one’s employer. Having an employer of a common cultural or religious background is no guarantee of their attitudes, which can also change over time.

So, who says it’s difficult to be a Muslim?
In fact, it depends on how an individual handles it, because from my own experience and patience, I managed to carry out my duties to my employer and to God.

While Wati and Sinta have shown extraordinary patience and tenacity in handling their circumstances, employers also have to go beyond the idea of treating their workers as subordinates and more as co-workers in managing a household. Treating workers with the dignity and respect they deserve is likely to result in cooperation and a more productive and pleasant working relationship.

Quotes from this article were sourced from Open SEAM and the author’s master’s thesis.

Friday, May 10, 2013

"Lift your skirt?" For what?

Source: Singapore Cancer Society
I previously blogged about how campaigns on breast cancer and promoting regular check-ups are framed (here and here). In particular, I argued that the Rethink Breast Cancer campaign, whose promotional video went viral because it contained half-naked hot men, promoted heteronormativity,  rugged masculinity and the male gaze.

This recent ad campaign by Singapore Cancer Society promoting free Pap smears for women in Singapore is just another example to add to my list. It was covered by The Stream Al-Jazeera, which collected a variety of responses from social media.

Source: Stomp

In short, the idea behind the sexualised women was catering to the male gaze, suggesting voyeurism and sexual availability of women. This copywriter thinks that puns hardly work in ads, while others thought that it's not a good idea to sexualise ads which carry an important message. 

What word would trigger the Singaporean mindset to pay attention to this ad? For the next campaign, I suggest the following headline:

FREE Pap Smears!

That oughta attract attention and get women to sign up for the free checkups. :)

Colour, ethnicity, and privilege: A response to Disappointed Exchange Student.

It all started here. Someone identifying as "Disappointed Exchange Student" submitted a short article to The Real Singapore, recounting an incident at Clarke Quay, where she was molested by an "older very large white man". She concludes that she pities Singapore: for all its attempts at "artificial decor", we have not been able to create "MEN" (i.e. chivalrous men who are knights in shining armour) even though we have "mandatory military service".

This blog post responded to the comments on the first article; specifically how commenters tried to minimise the girl's trauma, blamed her, pointed to her non-Singaporean nationality as a reason, and claimed it a Singaporean characteristic to not be nosy. This blogger is "ashamed" for our collective lack of humanity for not helping the girl in distress and for their unhelpful comments.

What troubled me most when reading both articles was the dichotomies: 1) men versus women; 2) Singaporeans versus foreigners.

1) Men versus women.

Disappointed Exchange Student (DES) rightfully pointed out that no one helped her or "stand [sic] up" for her when she was harassed and molested. However, by specifically blaming Singaporean men and all men in general was counterproductive. Singaporean men became defensive, especially when told that NS did not make them men (even though the NS motto promises this!).

Yes, those men were bystanders. In Psychology 101, you will be taught concepts like the bystander effect and the diffusion of responsibility, using the case of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered near her home even when some people heard her cries and saw her struggling. In short, the more people there are at the scene of a crime or accident, the less likely that any of them will do something, unless you point to someone specifically -- this should make it more likely that the person will help.

Harassment is also very site-specific. Depending on where and what time of the day, men are more likely to harass and women are more likely to be victims. If Channel News Asia is to be trusted, this news clip shows that there have been increasingly more cases of harassment, molest and/or flashing in Clarke Quay (all tastefully lumped under the offence category of 'outrage of modesty'). I lived for some time in Morocco, and there were higher rates of harassment in urban neighbourhoods (compared to rural villages), and especially where there was high male unemployment.

The blogger pointed out how the commenters' responses to the girl's article were "inhuman", petty and "uncompassionate". Yet other commenters gave examples of how Singaporeans have helped each other. So it isn't about a crisis of masculinity, nor of humanity.

2) Singaporeans versus foreigners

Protests for our generation are a new thing; we grew up knowing almost nothing of civil society action. Today, activists have smart ways of going around the rules against "illegal assembly". In the most recent protest, there were placards saying "We are not xenophobic" (here and here), illustrating that foreigners are not the enemy (who are the people who work in our homes and build our roads?), but too many rich foreigners are.

By Ogawa Ryuju. Source.

Dividing the world into 'foreign' and 'non-foreign' makes sense when this is state rhetoric. 'Foreign workers', 'foreign domestic workers', 'foreign maids', 'foreign talent': these labels make 'foreign-ness' the most important thing, when what is more important is the class of the migrant (worker = poor, talent = rich), the work they do (low-skilled v. high-skilled), and the opportunity for long-term stay (yes to Chinese and Indian nationals getting permanent residence, no to migrant domestic workers and construction workers staying longer than 2 years at a time).

When our population increases rapidly by adding 'foreign talent', who pay little tax, inflate housing prices, increase consumption tax, and don't have to do National Service (NS), then all foreigners start to get lumped together (and not in a nice way!).

The rich from outside Singapore get tax breaks and all kinds of concessions to come and live in our post-colonial but still mentally colonised country. Check out this documentary about how Singapore is now a playground for the (white) rich.

A long time ago, our local rulers were happy to let the British come and occupy us. Then our own government built our country with the help of capitalists symbolically molesting our country's resources while indigenous peoples become increasingly marginalised, why wouldn't it ever filter down to other rich (white) men who want to grope a woman in Clarke Quay?

Which brings me to my main point...

3) Intersectionality matters.

When do we ever see a Singaporean (of any size or colour) standing up to a white man in Singapore? The average man and woman, socialised into docility and politeness, without having lived in a country with a different ethnic composition, would not stand up to a drunken white man in Clarke Quay. Either because of physical size, psychological intimidation, self-consciousness, etc. White men can get away with a lot of shit because of their privilege.

If it was a dark-skinned man (say, a Bangladeshi) who groped a woman, I bet everyone would be scrambling to get him. They have been vilified enough (as prostitutes, criminals, etc.) in our local media. 

In this case, the specific combination of dark spaces, availability of alcohol, and the entitlement felt by white men in Clarke Quay led to molest. This is the deeper and more systematic social problem: white/rich/privileged men in Singapore feel entitled to groping women of colour (I don't know what ethnicity DES is, but I'm pretty sure she wasn't white, because she wouldn't be expecting Singaporean men to save her).

Why did DES blame Singaporean men? Why didn't she blame the white man's friends (his immediate peer group), who were more likely to be able to stop him? Why didn't she blame white women there? Singaporean women? Everyone in Clarke Quay? The whole country?

I feel that DES, not disclosing her origin, thinks that ethnicity doesn't matter. But it does. Yes, harassment and violence against women in all forms is awful, but colour matters in determining who will help you, especially in a country so coloured by racial politics.

Meanwhile, the only person that wasn't blamed was the "older very large white man". He's the one that harassed and molested DES. He should be the one who is blamed, not half a people, an entire people or an entire country.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review - Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World by Shereen El-Feki

This article was originally published at Muslimah Media Watch.

Sex and the Citadel is a collection of stories by Shereen El-Feki, who spent five years traveling across Egypt and several other Arab countries asking people about sex: “what they do, what they don’t, what they think and why”. Why write about sex? Her choice of subject matter is partly stimulated by how sexual attitudes and behaviours are intimately (pun intended) linked to the regions religions, traditions, cultures, politics and economics. True to her mission to understand sex in Egypt and the Arab region through the stories of its peoples, El-Feki also gives some insight to her own story.

El-Feki was trained as a immunologist and then worked as a health and science journalist at The Economist. Half Egyptian and half Welsh, she is able to be both an insider and an outsider, which seems to have served her well in her research for this book. She also provides much self-reflexivity in the book - especially at the beginning and the end – which provides a clearer picture of how she positions herself as a researcher from the Global North studying the South, as a woman raised in the West (Canada) interacting with Arab women and men of various religious and socio-economic backgrounds.
Like the topic of sex, the book is both personal (as seen by her extensive use of quotes from her interviewees and the use of her grandmother’s sayings to preface each chapter) and political (although the book focuses on Egypt, it also includes examples from Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabic, and so on).
This review provides a brief summary of the book’s chapters, highlighting specific events or personages that I found particularly interesting, before touching on some aspects (both encouraging and downbeat) of the book.
The first chapter (Shifting Positions) looks at how sexual attitudes have shifted globally over time, through stories from her El-Feki’s Welsh mother and her Egyptian friends and research from prominent academics from the Arab world like Abdessamad Dialmy (Morocco) and Abdelwahab Boudhiba (Tunisia).

The title of the second chapter (Desperate Housewives) alludes to the universality of anxiety surrounding various marital issues. It looks at issues such as the singles’ quest for marriage, types of informal (non-state) marriage, sexual activity inside and outside of marriage, male impotence, reproduction, and divorce – featuring interviews with Heba Kotb, the most well-known sex therapist in the Arab world.
The third chapter (Sex and the Single Arab) attempts to make sense of the sex lives of unmarried Egyptian youth, through a hodge-podge of topics such as classical and contemporary courtship (the latter being aided by “technology-assisted flirtation” using the Internet and mobile phones), female genital mutilation (FGM), the value of virginity, moving out without being married, and sexual harassment. This chapter briefly addresses Egypt’s widespread FGM in the context of controlling youthful libido, and interestingly concludes that the clitoris is not usually seen as being an integral part of sexual pleasure for women.

The fourth chapter (Facts of Life) is about sex education, contraception, abortion, and unwed motherhood. The feature on Shababna, an Egyptian telephone helpline for youth to ask about health and sexual issues, could be an best practice example for other Muslim communities to provide much-need sex education for their youth, who are otherwise getting information from films and Internet pornography. Besides the Qatari and Emirati examples of comprehensive sex education aimed at married couples, there are also examples of abortion or support services for unwed mothers.
The fifth chapter (Sex for Sale) focuses on sex work and its customers, which not only gives insights into the economic options of a class of Egyptian women and men, but also into conjugal happiness and the need to hide any same-sex tendencies. Tunisia’s legal brothels and Moroccan NGOs that reach out to sex workers are contrasted with the risky nature of illegal commercial sex work in Egypt.

The sixth chapter (Dare to be different) covers a variety of non-heterosexual sexual practices, reparative therapy for homosexuals, and the love lives of gay men and lesbian women. While interviews with homosexual men were mostly from Egypt, those of lesbian women and transgender women were mostly from Lebanon. The chapter also looks at several feminist LGBT organizations in Lebanon, aimed at providing a best practice for Egypt in the future.
What I enjoyed most from this book was the extensive collection of best practices from Egypt and its neighbours. In my opinion, this valuable collection does not only help Egypt, but also Muslim communities around the world, who may have a shared understanding of concepts and principles surrounding sex. El-Feki’s personal experience of being introduced as a researcher of “reproductive health and marital relations” instead of the straightforward “sex” shows how to address an audience in a non-offensive but effective way.

The most useful example I found was the initiative of Palestinian Safa Tamish to get sex education into Arab schools in Israel (Chapter 4). El-Feki’s details show a concrete way of getting around the fear of sex education (which is often seen as only suitable for the West): Tamish manages to soften parents to the idea of sex education by gathering information from the children using surveys.
However, I find El-Feki’s use of verses from the Quran and hadith literature problematic. While these textual sources provide an overall guidance and climate for people in Egypt and the Arab region to lead their lives, it is mostly through the interpretations that are given to them by authoritative religious figures. Even though I am not from the Arab region, religious and social norms taken from these textual sources have a strong hold in the Muslim environment I grew up in.

I feel that for a non-Muslim audience, it might have been helpful to mention that dominant interpretations, while they hold much socio-cultural and legal power, they are still only interpretations. Minority (but ideally, equally valid) egalitarian interpretations (especially those by contemporary feminist scholars) may also have a growing role in the future of Muslim communities.
This book does not spare the reader from truths, no matter how ugly some of them may be. While it was difficult to read about reparative therapy of homosexual men in Egypt (Chapter 6), the voices of men who are happy to have been ‘cured’ cannot also be ignored, no matter how strongly one might believe that same-sex attraction is inborn.

It was also difficult for me to read how men were sometimes portrayed in a reductive fashion, especially when talking about their attitudes towards women (Chapter 3). Some of the quotes from her interviewees hinted at a Western imperialist idea of Third World women being oppressed by their men, but I had to accept that they said it themselves. While El-Feki filters an immense amount of information, she deliberately provides nuance and historical context to an issue. For example, while sexual harassment is sub-headed as ‘battle of the sexes’, she links masculinity and youth unemployment with government failings to provide security.
Overall, I immensely enjoyed reading Sex and the Citadel. It is much needed in most, if not all, Muslim communities today, to see examples of how other Muslim communities have responded to the call for sex to be addressed in a mature fashion. This book is particularly useful for religious teachers, social workers, activists for sexual and reproductive health As a Muslim from Southeast Asia, I think this book is also valuable in providing a nuanced representation of the Arab region, which has often been romanticised (both as a sexual and puritan society) in our imagination.


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