Sunday, November 10, 2013

Tudung or Not Tudung?: Hijabis in Singaporean Workplaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do we make of this debate?

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 4, 2013

Miss Malaysia – Not for Muslims?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On insulting Islam: Maznah Yusof, dog trainer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Hijabis: To Wear Or Not To Wear?

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

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


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