Sunday, December 14, 2014

On trying to not be an anak derhaka.

(This actually started out as a Facebook post, and then I realised I had more to say)

Even though I was brought up to listen to authority, I now know that a well lived life is more than just being "obedient". As a child, I was told plainly to obey my parents and obey teachers. Presumably, this was to prepare me for life as a wife who should obey her husband. (That didn't go down well, obviously.) Obedience was prized as a mark of a good child and a good student - and in the context of Singapore, a good citizen.

At the root of this was love. We thought that if we obeyed well enough, we would be loved. But then when I was much older I realised that love should not be bartered for obedience, especially in a child. The ideal parent was supposed to be a benevolent dictator: the father and/or mother held power by virtue of being older/bigger/the parent, but s/he was supposed to exercise it with responsibility and kindness towards the child. So everything that the parent asked for was supposed to always be in the child's interest. 

But the saying "absolute power always corrupts absolutely" couldn't be truer in this case. When does this benevolent power stop its reign? According to what I was taught, for girls it was supposed to stop when you got married. Then you were passed over to your husband, who would be your guardian (in other words, for women it never stops).

The last four years have been life-changing for me in many ways. Moving to a new country by accident, getting married (multiple times), giving birth, raising a little boy, and another big life decision in the works. Along the way I have had to make many decisions which were not exactly the most popular ones, and faced a lot of backlash and drama for it. Soul-sucking, but I won't go down without a fight. 

Along the way I've learned strategies to deal with it: explanation, direct resistance and hiding (in that order). Unfortunately, the strategies don't always work out because there's always that cloud of anak derhaka (Malay, lit. unfilial/disobedient child) hanging over your head. At some point, you start to realise that this kind of power and control uses fear woven into cultural stories and myths.

The most important thing I learned is this: the worst thing is, in the name of obedience, to let someone else make decisions for your life that you regret and/or resent. If you want to do something for your life, whether mainstream or offbeat, then do it. Just take responsibility for it - that's good enough for me.

If you do something that someone else wants, and you think it's part of being obedient or a good child or whatever, then learn to own it or leave it. If you don't have the time, the money, or the physical and emotional energy to carry it out, then just don't do it. The martyr mentality really kills me: you do something because it's "the right thing" and then you totally find yourself in a rut or you totally hate it. Or you whine and make everyone else's life hell because your own life is hell. 

I don't want that for myself and I don't want to carry such baggage down to my own children. I don't want to teach them to suffer in the name of blind obedience. I want to teach them to make careful and balanced decisions, consulting me if they feel that I can help. It's my job to cultivate that connection with them so that they feel I can be someone they can turn to. No child is going to come running to their parents for love out of nowhere when the child-parent relationship has always been that of power and control.

I have been told I don't do what I am "asked to do". I have also been told I am "too educated" (a comment reserved exclusively for a woman, though I'm amazed to hear such a thing) because I ask questions and refuse to be bullied into life-changing decisions. 

Thank you, I take these as compliments. My life is more than the sum of other people's ideas. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rushing for Morocco’s “liquid gold”? Here’s how to get the best argan oil

Estée Lauder. Dove. L’Oréal. These brands have marketed a series of products containing argan oil, rich in vitamins E and C and often touted as a “wonder oil” to cure everything from split ends to acne. Unfortunately, these products usually contain only small amounts of argan oil.

Such advertising is often misleading since these products often contain much more of other ingredients that make hair feel smooth, such as silicones. I believe there are better forms of argan oil products, and better ways to obtain them.

“Liquid gold”

Argan oil has a strong but refined odour: a perfume that can be described as somewhere in between toasted hazelnut, almond, and sesame. In terms of appearance, it is a rich golden-brown colour with highlights of amber. Outside of Morocco, where it has been a traditional food of Berber communities for centuries, not many people know that argan oil also has precious nutritional properties.

According to various scientific studies, the nutritional and dietary properties of argan oil are superior to those of extra virgin olive oil. Argan oil consists of 80 percent unsaturated fat, just like olive oil, but has more essential linoleic fatty acids (omega-6) with an anti-inflammatory effect that helps our joints, circulation and immune system, plus it supposedly aids in fertility, too. There is also preliminary evidence that it can increase insulin sensitivity and therefore, it may have an anti-diabetic effect.[i]

Edible argan oil (pressed from toasted kernels) enhances the flavour of dishes like tagines, couscous, salad dressings, roasted vegetables and fish. A few drops on a green salad are enough to give a delicious flavour to a dish. But the simplest (and my favourite) way to eat it is as amlou, a mixture of argan oil, nuts and honey poured over a piece of bread, which makes for a nourishing breakfast.

Gold rush?

Also known as louz el-barbary or Berber almonds, the fruits of the argan tree resemble olives on the outside, and almonds on the inside. The traditional and more labour-intensive method of extracting oil from the kernels involves women who dry, de-pulp, break, roast, grind, and knead the final paste.

When bought straight from the source, pure organic argan oil costs around US$200 per litre (but luckily, they are also sold in small bottles at the affordable price of around US$4 to US$8 each). It is pressed from the kernels of the Argania spinosa plant, a thorny and evergreen tree unique to Morocco. It only grows within the Souss plain, a hot and dry 800,000 hectares in the country’s southwest, extending from the coastal city of Essaouira inwards towards the high Atlas mountains.

Since 2002, the growing demand for argan oil outside of Morocco, especially by cosmetic companies, has resulted in the creation and organisation of women’s cooperatives by the government. These cooperatives, set up by individual women, provide employment for Berber women, offer business and literacy training, and the collective revenue helps to drive village development projects and regional tourism.

Over the last decade or so, argan oil was so popular that prices have soared internationally and locally. This rapid price increase was partly due to international demand, and partly due to the reduced supply of fruit from two or three years of drought.

Today, in some areas, traditional methods of preparation have been replaced by modern manufacturing where machines are used to do the tasks, except crushing the nuts (which is still usually done by hand). This new method reduces the labour on women and increases the shelf life of the oil and its purity.

Faced with this international surge in demand, many women cooperatives are equipped with modern extraction equipment and have established organic production and certification processes (such as Ecocert for example), which have allowed them to gain significant access into the international market.

Today, there are more than 150 argan cooperatives all over Morocco, run almost exclusively by women. A number of organisations regulate and confirm the quality and origin of the oil, such as the Moroccan Association of Geographical Indication of Argan Oil (AMIGHA), which fulfils a function similar to the French appellation d’origine contrôllée for cheeses and other agricultural products.

Visiting a cooperative

The Women’s Cooperative of Argan Oil Produced by Women of Taddart is one of the numerous organisations all over the Souss plain. This cooperative was started in 2005 as a way to provide the Berber women in this small mountain town with literacy classes and alternative ways to supplement their family incomes. On a trip to Morocco a few years ago, I had the opportunity to drop by and see how this cooperative worked.

As I entered the small and cosy shop, women busy pounding argan kernels looked up and gave me tired smiles. A middle-aged woman named Aicha, who was managing the sales that day, cheerfully pointed out to me the variety of argan oil products made on-site: edible golden-brown amlou in small clay tagines, cosmetic oils in delicate glass bottles marked with a use-by date, soaps, and shampoos. I asked Aicha to tell me more about this cooperative.

She explained that at first, the men in Taddart were not keen on this organisation of women because they had traditionally been the only breadwinners. They were also sceptical about women working outside of the home. However, with time and increased family incomes, the men became more accepting.

Unfortunately, by trying to grab some of this lucrative income for themselves, Aicha conceded that the argan oil industry in Morocco is facing problems of fake cooperatives, diluted oil, bogus accreditation, and degradation of argan forests.

Fair trade
Should you buy that expensive bottle of argan oil, whether it’s pure or not? As with any product in today’s highly globalised world, one woman’s daily bread is easily another woman’s exclusive hair serum. If you wish to use or consume argan oil, it is best to go straight to a certified organic and fair-trade source such as Tounarouz in Agadir, or find a reliable international supplier like Saadia Organics.

It is important to look at the complex interactions between our consumption and the livelihoods of others, to help balance issues of biodiversity, fair trade and thriving livelihoods.

[i] Samira Samane, Josette Noel, Zoubida Charrouf, Hamid Amarouch and Pierre Selim Haddad, ‘Insulin-sensitising and anti-proliferative effects of Arganisia spinosa seed extracts’, Sep 2006, available here.


This article was originally published at Aquila Style

Monday, November 17, 2014

“Camel hump” hijab-shaming reveals more than meets the eye

A few years ago, I was chatting to a friend from university in her dorm room. She was raised in an East African Muslim family, but she didn’t wear hijab and I had no idea of her own religious convictions. We somehow mentioned an Arab hijabi friend in passing, and she remarked that this hijabi wore a bump at the back of her head (which I had always assumed was her ponytail). But according to her, “this is haram”.

Bewildered, I got home and innocently Googled “hijab”, “hump” and “haram”. I had never heard about this ruling taught by any religious teacher (and I’ve had my fair share of them) in the last 20 years. When I used to wear hijab, I found my own ponytail hump a rather useful spot for a pin to stop the entire scarf from moving around my head. Or was this whole hump business just not a big deal in my home region at the time, Southeast Asia?

Needless to say, the internet is full of wonderful things. I came up with fashion tutorial videos on how to do a Khaleeji-style hijab, amateur graphics blanking out faces of women done in Microsoft Paint with arrows pointing to the offending hump, and stern warnings for innocent Muslim(ah)s wondering the same thing as me. And I discovered the hadith that seemed to form the basis for this ruling: women whose heads look like camel humps “will not enter Jannah and they will not smell its fragrance.”[i]

Let’s temporarily put aside the argument that Abu Huraira is not the most reliable of narrators, and that many of the 5,300 hadith he supposedly remembered of the three years he spent in the Prophet’s company are some of the most misogynistic ones you could find in the four main Sunni hadith collection.[ii]

When I wore the hijab growing up in Singapore, a bump at the back of a hijabi’s head was simply a normal hair bun or ponytail. Today, young women use oversized scrunchies or clips resembling flowers to create volume. For brides that choose an “Arab” style outfit, their hijab also includes a characteristic hump as a fashion statement. In Turkey for example, many hijabis have proven resistant to the multitude of new hijab styles; the most popular style for some time has been a colourful silk scarf that is neatly wound around the neck and – yes – a bump at the back. In the Gulf where a large hump is the height of style, women wear it as a fashion statement.

Just like the “jilboobs” phenomenon of shaming women who are not wearing hijab in a style the accuser finds “proper”, finding fault with the way that some women choose to dress is a characteristic feature of patriarchy. In religious patriarchy, a layer of shame works especially well. With the hijab especially, there can always be a reason to shame women into dressing differently; what they wear is never good enough.

A woman wearing modest clothes in the street can be told to wear hijab; a hijabi is told that her outfit is too colourful or too flashy or her hair is showing; a niqabi is flirting with her eyes; and finally, a completely covered woman in public causes fitna, or chaos with simply her presence. I’m not exaggerating. At least once in my life, I have been told one version or another of these reasons for covering up.

While I would raise my own children to follow their own conscience and take responsibility for their actions, I also believe that the attitude of others towards us does leave an impact on our own self-image. Shame is one of the most painful human emotions. If we are told consistently that how we dress is sinful or the space we occupy is unimportant, then we think of ourselves as worthless nobodies. When we speak out against injustice and are told that our points are moot because we haven’t spent X years studying at Y university, then we think that we are disgraced failures.

Young women making fashion tutorials are constantly told that their makeup and hijab styles are unIslamic, while young men are driven to depression because of their tattoos. Instead of pointing out each other’s flaws, let’s aim to see the best in one another. How can we raise strong, self-confident Muslims if there is a constant beating down of their decisions – sartorial or otherwise?

[i] Narrated by Abu Huraira, in Riyad as-Salihin, available here
[ii] Raja Rhouni, Secular and Islamic Feminist Critiques in the Work of Fatima Mernissi, p.220, available here


This article was originally published at Aquila Style

Watch: ‘Legendary Qariah’ Faridah Mat Saman

Given the unofficial title of qari’ah lagenda or a ‘legendary female Quran reciter’, Faridah Mat Saman participated in Tilawah al-Quran (International Quran Reading Competition) held in Malaysia, over several decades.

She was the overall female champion in 1964, the first year that the competition had a separate category for women. She went on to win in 1965, 1972, 1976, 1977, 1989, 1990, and 1991. Although retired, she made a guest appearance in the 2012 competition as shown in the video below:

Saturday, November 15, 2014

10 telltale signs you’re most probably a Muslim mother

1. You have a book of foolproof baby names.
The Qur’an contains about 30 names for boys, suitable for any parents or in-laws from an Abrahamic faith. There’s only one ready name for a girl, though, so maybe you can consult a book on Islamic history for more ideas.

2. Your healthcare professional is wondering why you’re whispering into your newborn’s ear.
It’s called the adhan, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to hold your newborn babe as soon as he/she is born and let your voice be the first thing he/she hears.

3. You say “alhamdulilah” probably 50 times a day.
If this comes involuntarily out of your mouth every time someone burps, farts or sneezes, then you’ll be doing a lot of this with a baby or several children around.

4. You are expected to put something sweet on your baby’s mouth, make them bald, and sacrifice an animal.
One tradition called tahnik involves placing dates or honey on the lips of a baby within the first seven days of life. Another tradition involves shaving hair of a baby (or the alternative: snip off just seven hairs) after 40 days, weigh it and donate an equivalent amount of gold to charity. Yet another called aqiqa calls for the slaughter of a goat or cow to express gratitude for the birth.

5. Piggy plush toys are a source of discussion.
Imagine this: a well-meaning non-Muslim colleague gives a friendly, furry, stuffed toy pig as a present. You actually have a conversation (with yourself or someone else) about whether it’s okay for your kid to play with it. If you decide it’s okay, you might still have to deal with other Muslims telling you that your child shouldn’t put the toy in his mouth.

6. A discussion about whether it’s okay to let your children see you naked must include fiqh and not just revolve around issues of body-image and self-esteem.
One mother wrote on the internet about how she lets her sons see her real post-baby body so that they grow up with realistic images about women’s bodies, instead of thinking that the airbrushed photos in magazines are real women. I figure that someone that has seen your insides can probably see your outsides without being too shocked. Besides, a discussion about which parts of the mother’s body is visually off limits to her son is way too Oedipal for me.

7. “It’s sunnah” becomes your stock answer for extended breastfeeding.
Even though a minimum of two years of breastfeeding is recommended by the World Health organisation, many in our parents’ generation who were influenced by the aggressive marketing of infant formula companies may try to stop you from breastfeeding your child beyond six months, or up to several years. Luckily if you’re Muslim, you can always say the Qur’an indicates 30 months for pregnancy and breastfeeding (46:15).

8. You have to deal with equal numbers of people telling you that you can or cannot fast while breastfeeding.
Opinions are pretty divided about whether a pregnant and/or breastfeeding mother should or shouldn’t be breastfeeding in Ramadan. Luckily, whether you fast or not is only up to you and your baby. Just listen to your body.

9. You worry that your kid gets ham sandwiches at the day care.
If you live in a non-predominantly Muslim community or country, a ham and cheese sandwich is a totally normal snack. Be sure you let your caregivers know what your child should eat – or pack it along when you drop her off.

10. You feel simultaneously terrified and hopeful about Islamophobia.
Parenting can be the most joyful and the most scary experience of your life. From the moment your children are born, your greatest fear will be losing them. While being Muslim after 9/11 has not been easy, you’re hopeful that your children will be the ones to change the world for the better.


This article was originally published on Aquila Style

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A bath and a bite in Budapest: a sensory jaunt around Hungary’s capital

Szia from Budapest! After about eight hours on the bus from Prague, I’ve arrived here at 5.30am, greeted by snow. As I can only check in to the hostel after 10am, I can’t get into my room yet, so I rest in the common area while waiting for my bed to be ready.

The countries of Eastern Europe are often shrouded in mystery, having been part of the Soviet Union for so many years. However, a city like Budapest is great for backpackers travelling Europe – prices here are generally lower than in Western Europe because of lower average wages.

Buda and Pest

Budapest is made up of two smaller towns that were unified in 1873: the hilly Buda on the west bank and the flat plains of Pest on the east bank, separated by the river Danube. The two sub-cities are connected by the capital’s most famous bridge, the Chain Bridge. I decide that I may need an entire day to explore Buda, so I leave Pest for the next day.

At the top of Castle Hill in Buda is Fisherman’s Bastion, a viewing terrace with seven fairytale-like white towers. These towers represent the seven Magyar tribes who settled in this area in 896AD. I discover that, in the Middle Ages, a guild of fishermen was responsible for defending this stretch of the city walls. From this location I can get a beautiful view of Pest and Chain Bridge, and for free too!

Fun fact: Chain Bridge was built by William Clark, the same architect who built the Thames Gateway Bridge in London
The next day in Pest I start with an educational visit to the chilling House of Terror on the recommendation of other guests at my hostel. Portraits along the outside walls of the museum serve as a memorial to victims who were detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in this building, which was previously used by fascist organisations. In this museum, I learn more than I have ever wanted to about the Nazi and Soviet occupations in 20th-century Hungary and, later on, the life of fear that people suffered under the Hungarian Communist Party.

I find it baffling how history repeats itself; how we humans continue to terrorise each other, time and again.

A hot bath… outdoors
The tour of terror has left me high-strung yet low in spirits – I need to unwind. I am searching for the well-known medicinal Széchenyi Baths, and finally locate them in a lush green park. This innocuous-looking park hides underground pipes pumping from two very hot natural thermal springs (74°C and 77°C) to various indoor and outdoor pools.
Outdoor pools at Szechenyi baths. Photo: Nur Febriani Wardi
The indoor pools are about 27°C, while the outdoor ones are as warm as 38°C. Ticket prices vary depending on the time and day of your visit and extras such as a cabin or locker. In general, admission will set you back roughly 4,000 Hungarian forints (US$18) per person.

As I don’t want to be alone, I decide to try the mixed pool. I’m not sure about the dress code, and so I try to enter a pool in a T-shirt and long cotton trousers, fending off comments about my trousers. When I pass through the ladies’ changing room, a woman working there tries to pull my trousers off, insisting that I am not allowed to enter the pool wearing them. After some negotiation, I eventually pass through with knee-length tights.

Later I discover that there is no strict dress code for the pools, although one must wear swimwear in these baths (including tankinis and burkinis). Just make sure you are wearing something made of Lycra, or that at least looks like swimwear, so you won’t raise the ire of the other bathers.

I contemplate dipping into the outdoor pools, but decide against it because it is too cold to run outside in my wet clothes. There are many other people though, hopping in and out of different pools, trying them all. I am feeling rather embarrassed after the changing room incident, but I definitely want to come back here in warmer weather to try the other pools.

[Warning: Waters of the Széchenyi Baths are slightly yellow because of the sulphate content (along with other minerals like calcium and magnesium). Therefore, pregnant women and children are recommended not to spend too much time in them.]

Marks of war

In Pest, I notice that many ordinary and important buildings are still riddled with bullet holes. These marks are a result of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against the Soviet-backed governments. The failure to hide these marks is probably not an oversight, as it serves to remind Hungarians of the price of freedom. Although both parts of the city bear bitter signs of fascist and dictatorial regimes, they still stand regal – proud of the beautiful and rich history behind their sites and buildings.

A bite of this and a nibble of that
After a good soak and swim, I need to restore myself. At the end of Váci Utca, the main shopping street of Budapest, is the Great Market Hall. This enormous indoor market is filled with two levels of shops. I am absolutely dazzled by the array of things on sale: spices, meat, fresh vegetables, fruit and pastries.

Vaci Utca
I select two food items: lángos and rétes. A popular summer snack, lángosis a deep-fried flat bread sprinkled with grated cheese and sour cream, with an optional rub in garlic. Other toppings include mushrooms, eggplant, cabbage and jam. It was traditionally a breakfast bread baked in the oven at home. However, these days it is fried in oil. Crispy, oily, warm – yummy!

Strudel, a traditional multi-layered fruit pastry, is eaten all across the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The deliciously sweet and sour rétes, or sour cherry strudel, is one of the ways to use up an abundant harvest of cherries, grown all over Eastern Europe.

When I lived in the Spanish city of Valencia, my Hungarian roommate Andrea once prepared lentil főzelék, a cross between a soup and a stew, usually eaten with bread and a fried egg. Since it is usually a homecooked dish, it is practically impossible to find in upscale restaurants, only in cheap diners. Andrea recommended a self-service diner in Budapest, called the Főzelékfaló Etelbár (address: Nagymező utca 18). I try the lentil főzelék here, but Andrea’s version is definitely better.

I cannot leave the capital without experiencing Budapest’s cafe culture. Walking down Váci Utca, I duck into a small, half-lit cafe decorated with chandeliers. I order strawberry-perfumed tea and spend the rest of the evening contentedly writing postcards.

Lost in my thoughts, I relive the delight of Budapest: the breathtaking views of its remarkable buildings (some with a more powerful history than others), balmy public baths and delectable bites. The past two days are just a taste of what there is to discover in this dignified city that I can’t wait to visit again.


This article was originally published on Aquila Style

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Watch: Beauty in the Middle East on Levant TV

I was approached by Levant TV, a London-based online television company broadcasting news and programmes about the Middle East, to speak about an article I wrote on beauty pageants and whether they can empower or if they ultimately objectify.

The clip of the episode on 'Beauty in the Middle East' under their series 'Forbidden Talk' is available for viewing on YouTube (the entire discussion is really interesting if you can get past the Middle East vs the West, but if you want to skip to my segment it's at the end, around 40:00).

Friday, October 31, 2014

Stability and sustainability: Interview with Dr Hawa Abdi

It is a calm and cool afternoon in Nairobi, Kenya, when I catch up with Dr Hawa Abdi over Skype. After working hard in Mogadishu’s difficult circumstances with her two physician daughters Deqo and Amina Mohamed, she sometimes comes to Nairobi to rest and relax. Speaking over a passable internet connection, our conversation is peppered with silences, as our words travel between Kenya and Singapore.

68 year-old Dr Abdi, affectionately known by Somalis as Mama Hawa, is more than Somalia’s first gynaecologist. From 1964 to 1971, Dr Abdi specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology in Kiev, and later came back to work in one of the biggest hospitals in Somalia. It was during this period that she saw to many women from prison, who were handcuffed or chained to the hospital beds as they waited for treatment. This sight spurred her to continue her education in Somalia, this time earning a law degree in 1979.
"And I feel that for these women, I feel that there is no justice."
To help provide maternal care to rural women, Dr Abdi started a free rural clinic in 1983 on some family-owned land, which quickly grew into a 400-bed two-storey hospital. When Somalia broke out into civil war in 1991, her hospital started to take in refugees. The surrounding land quickly expanded into a refugee camp that housed 90,000 internally displaced people. This haven however, became the target for several attacks by militants over the last few years.

Today, the camp houses 5,000 internally displaced people in six sections, each with their own committee, water tank and farmland. The camp’s primary school, Waqaf-Dhiblawe, teaches an equal ratio of boys and girls. As of 2012, the hospital has a capacity of 400 beds, maternal mortality rates of 1 per cent, and infant mortality rates of 4.3 per cent, well below national averages.

Sya Taha: Why did you choose to study medicine and then law?
Dr Hawa Abdi: I chose medicine because my mother died in a delivery complication when I was still young. I have seen how she was suffering and could not help her. After the death of my mother, I felt such deep pain, which I want to avoid for other people. Many children of my age at that time also had mothers who died from delivery complications. I decided to become a doctor and specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology.

I spent seven years in the [former] Soviet Union until 1971. When I came back I was working in one of biggest hospitals in Somalia at that time and saw many women from jail coming to the hospital. They were chained with some kind of iron to the bed.


Because they were from prison. The policeman did not want them to escape! And I feel that for these women, I feel that there is no justice. So after I finished my [medical] studies in 1971, I began my law studies from 1972 to 1979.

What does your average day in Mogadishu look like?

There are so many things to do! Now my daughter came to Mogadishu just on Friday, and she was seeing 100 women and children – this is the most vulnerable group. Different people are coming every day, some are coming because they are hungry, some are facing different diseases. You have to talk to them and give them whatever you have.

You give nutrition lessons in your camp. What are these lessons like?

In our country Somalia, and in [many parts of] Africa, children are dying because of malnutrition. We also have many cases of malaria. Economic development cannot avoid [the issue of] children’s food. But we have no possibility to give children the food they need because our country is now 23 years with no government, no jobs, and no stability. Because of the destruction and killing, people have no stability to farm or rear animals.

So our children are dying now, the 18% child mortality rate [for children under 5] is one of the highest in the world. This is mostly due to malnutrition and some curable diseases like malaria and anaemia, some of which are also based in malnutrition.

So even though there are nutrition plans, families cannot afford to feed their children?

[International organisations] give us nutrition lessons, and we try to feed the children. When they come to us, we admit them to the hospital and feed them. Within a week, the child recovers. But you have to send him home because you cannot care for all the children in hospital. Afterwards, he will come back with even worse malnutrition because the family has nothing to give him.

This problem is economic as the society is not developed. Without peace we can do nothing. We cannot grow anything, we cannot educate children, we cannot give nutritious food.

What is your philosophy towards maternal care?

Families need to be economically sufficient. Most of the maternal mortality is due to anaemia. There is also a need to develop healthcare in our country. Not all women have the possibility to reach health centres because of transportation or because they live in faraway rural areas. We need moving doctors – there are some but not enough.

Security and stability is also very important. Sometimes when women are in labour, transportation can be difficult. Sometimes when there is fighting on the roads and no one can use the road, a woman can die because she cannot get help.

I believe the world is one because we are all human beings. All our needs are one.

How do the fishing and agricultural projects in your camp interact with the work of your hospital?

We are fighting poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy. Fishing is very important to fight protein deficiency. We also grow some maize, beans, vegetables and fruits. We also try to rear some sheep, goats and cows.

In 2013, at least we have a government, even though it is still very weak, but it wants to begin [the ] process of development and not merely relief – we were surviving on relief for 22 years. But we have our farm and our tractors. Now we want to stand on our own two feet and we are searching for investment.

I hope that we can find people who will work with us, people who can invest and help us. Then we will go [ahead] by ourselves. I welcome private investors. We have a large farming area of 400 hectares where we can grow anything. Just before the civil war, we grew bananas and exported them. We have the big Indian ocean for fishing and tourism. If we have investors, we can create so many jobs.

Does religion in general play a special role in your camp?

We have simple rules. Before, there was fighting and people were killing each other because of tribal divisions. We made a simple rule: whoever enters this camp, we will give free land, water, healthcare and food, but that person or family cannot identify [by] their tribes. If they do that they have to go out. We hosted 90,000 people here before from different tribes and we succeeded in making them one Somalia.

After collapse of the government, domestic violence went up. A man would begin to beat his wife because he was desperate. Children cry because their mother was beaten. So another rule is if you want to stay, no man can beat his wife.

What do you think will be the future of Somalia?

We still have to suffer, there was no justice in 21 years under the Siad Barre regime, then we had the civil war for 22 years. Some of our community were protected, some other people were destroyed. Now there are also other groups who take and destroy what they want, raping women, without law and order. This means a total of 43 years without law and order.

Poor, honest, hardworking people need justice and help. They need protection, but it will be very difficult. There are extremist people now still inside the government. They are generals and they are doing whatever they want. In the short term we will still suffer without a big helping hand from the international community.

In the long term, those who grew up in my camp will be Somalia’s future because they did not learn any bad things. 30 percent of our camp are youth who will never participate in fighting or killing by tribes. They are honest, we have taught them to help each other, to love each other and to defend each other. Peace itself will come. Many young people who are studying in universities in Arab countries, in Somalia, they are the future leaders of Somalia. My only hope are those who grow in my camp.

What is your message to our readers?

I want the international community to know that we are in a dangerous situation now. We need food which we can grow ourselves, but we need help. I am appealing to you to support us to be sustainable. We need fishing tools, farming tools, health instruments for the hospital, medicine, equipment. Whatever the international community can give us, to save thousands of lives from suffering.

I believe the world is one because we are all human beings. All our needs are one.

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This post was originally published at Aquila Style

Monday, October 27, 2014

One Muslim's furry initiative gets Malaysian religious authorities hot under the collar

A few days ago, the Dutchman killed a small mouse which had been living in our kitchen for some time (possibly a year, if it's the same one). He meant to trap it and release it but in a moment of panic he killed it (while apologising to it and that's why I married this dude). After the trauma of having experienced the senseless killing of an innocent animal, I lay in bed thinking about why I had such an irrational reaction to seeing the mouse crawl up and down my sofa (and coming so close to my baby!).

The only other time I do this is when I see a gecko. (Ugh, just saying the name makes me squirm). Not just any kind, but the house lizards that are found in Southeast Asia. I have such a phobia of them that I don't even want to elaborate anymore. Suffice to say, seeing one a few metres away is enough to get me hyperventilating and getting my ass out of the room, super fast.

I don't have the same reaction anything else. Insects like cockroaches, silverfish and ants? No problemo.

Right before I dropped off to sleep, I concluded that it was probably because I had had no close interactions with mice before. I didn't grow up with pet mice, or ever handle one. (I did handle hamsters though.) Plus, seeing mice in the context of a pest (going after noodles, pasta, oatmeal and paper in my house) instead of a pet has sure changed my previously neutral opinion of it.

Source: Facebook
And then it totally made sense why Muslims in my social media feeds were freaking out over an event where - duly summarised - a bunch of Muslims petted a bunch of dogs, took selfies, and washed their hands afterwards. (Most of the photos are of hijabis, because don't you know that Muslim women are the representatives of Islam?)

This event "I Want to Touch a Dog" happened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 19 October. From what I could read online, it was meant as a friendly introduction to mankind's best friend in a friendly and safe setting with many other dog-friendly Muslims around - a rare opportunity in a community whose Islam is mostly based on the Sunni Shafi'i school of thought. 
"I have seen cases of people running away at the sight of a dog, or throw stones at it. It broke my heart… How do people feel when they see an animal ill-treated, abused or knocked over?” [Source: A Big Message]
Did you notice I said "friendly" three times? It's because I believe that is the intention of the organiser Syed Azmi Alhabshi. Dogs carry a great deal of stigma in our Shafi'i Muslim community (I include Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia in this category); a stigma that extends to any Muslim that handles or owns a dog (see for example, dog trainer Maznah Yusof). Syed Azmi did well: he gave a heads up to the Selangor Mufti Department, invited an ustaz, Mohd Iqbal Parjin from UTM’s Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation (Casis) to speak about the ruling on dogs and how participants could do sertu or ritually cleanse themselves, and provided facilities for washing. All bases covered, you'd hope.

This niqabi agrees. Source: Facebook
Alas, there was so much negative reaction to the event. People went berserk on Facebook, commenting under the images of hijabis carrying different kinds of cute puppies. Add to the mix a smattering of suspicion that the event is just part of a larger conspiracy to promote "liberalism" and "pluralism" in Muslim circles.
I organised this event because of Allah, not to deviate the people's faiths, try to change the Islamic rules of law, poke fun at the ulama or encourage pluralism." [Source: The Star]
Meanwhile, the evening news in Brunei broadcasted a press statement from the ministry of religious affairs that "even though Islam has the provision of sertu to cleanse after touching najis mughallazah [major impurity], this is not an excuse to touch such things on purpose. Doing so is akin to someone who commits a sin with the excuse that one can repent for it afterwards."

The response from religious authorities in Malaysia were a little more mixed. Here's a great summary about the official response from Zurairi AR for The Malay Mail:
"...the religious authorities were at a loss to deal with the younger set of Muslims who chafe at the way they are being “managed” and not allowed to question how their creed is practised here.
The authorities reacted the only way they know how. They insisted that within the country’s borders, not only is the Sunni denomination and the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence the only right way to practise Islam, but Muslims must also accept only Jakim’s interpretation of the religion.
...younger Malaysian Muslims with access to a wider pool of information on Islam today are finding they have less in common with the country’s muftis and ulamas. As such, the Islamic religious authorities are fast losing their relevance, and with it, their iron grip on the lives of Muslims nationwide."
I'll be the first to admit that I do have an inner Shafi'i when it comes to dogs. (Yes, I know that there is a variety of opinions in the different jurisprudential schools of thought, but I'm not going there in this post.) Since I don't know if a bark is friendly or snappy, my first tendency is to jump to the other side of the sidewalk when a dog starts getting too close to me me.

I react like this despite the fact that I know the Qur'an speaks positively about dogs: an animal caught by a hunting dog is halal (5:4) and in the story of the persecuted youth hiding in a cave, a dog is stretching its forelegs at the entrance (18:18). I react like this even though I have been surprised by a farmer's dog that followed me out into a field and hung around a few metres away as if to keep guard on me as I peed. 

I am well aware that my instinctive fearful reaction to dogs and mice comes from a fear of the unknown - I'm simply not used to these animals like I am to say, cats. For that, I'm grateful and happy that there was such an event to change the attitudes, at least in this group of a few hundred Muslims in Malaysia.

Dogfies! Source: Facebook

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"If the cucumbers are free, why should we eat satay?"

It's a tradition in my family (or perhaps in many other Malay families) that the first salary of one's first job is to be spent on a special meal for our nearest and dearest.

My mother was the first woman in her family to go to university, and after she graduated she got a job in television broadcasting. With her first month's wages she brought some of her brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces to eat satay.
'Aku teringat yang Mustakim tanya, "Berapa harganya?" Aku kata, bergantung pada berapa cucuk yang kita makan. Tapi aku kata, timunnya free. [Mus]takim kata, "Yuk, makan timun aje." Kelakar habis dia masa tu.'
[I recall Mustakim (the only brother) asking, "How much does [the satay] cost?" I told him, it depends on how many sticks we eat. But, I said, the cucumbers are for free. He then said, "Let's eat only cucumbers then." He was really very funny then.]

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Malay childhood home in Jalan Tampoi

This is the first of a series of posts about my mother's childhood in kampong Singapore

My mother's childhood home was in one of the Malay settlements of Singapore: Kampong Glam. It was a large area of land, big enough for a bungalow-type home with several additional attachments.
Her house was a rumah papan, a two-storey house made of wood. With a kolong or void deck below, it had the appearance of three storeys. You entered the compound through a large metal gate, with patterns. It was a beautiful gate, my mother said. The veranda and front porch were made of brick, including the steps you had to climb to enter the house.

There was a large garden round the front, and extended to one side of the house, dotted with five or six low coconut trees. These trees grew enough coconuts for any of the children to drink coconut water whenever they felt like it. In the front garden there also grew a mango tree and a rambutan tree (that unfortunately never bore any fruit). They all played within the household compound; there was enough space for these free spirits to run back and forth to their hearts' content.

At the back of the house were several attachments. My mother's oldest sister lived in a three-room attachment with her family of eight children. The second oldest sister got two rooms for her family of six. There were separate toilets for bathing and for nature's calls - the latter consisted of a hole over a large metal pot (that was later collected by the "nightsoil" men, aka ah pek taik).

There was no plumbing; water had to be collected from a main pipe. All the nine siblings were supposed to take turns doing it, but there were eight girls and only one boy (who was born second last). So sometimes the girls paid off boys in the neighbourhood to collect water for them. The children used a wheelbarrow-like vehicle that someone cobbled together; this three-wheeled contraption made it easier to carry home several litres of water.

One year in the 50s, there was a big flood and waters rose to almost the height of the first floor of their wooden house. It was the evening of Hari Raya (Eid ul-Fitr) and the villagers were just starting to boil their ketupat (rice cakes in woven coconut leaves). Somehow someone managed to get hold of an ambeng, or a wooden platform not unlike a bed frame, and to the relief of all the children anticipating the biggest celebration of the year, the boiling of the ketupat and other dishes could go on - flood or no flood!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

First time foragers

Summer has officially ended, and gone are many of the delicious things to be found in the wild. I spent the last two weekends foraging with the Dutchman (Nootje always comes along of course, in a handy backpack) in the sand dunes of The Hague.

First we went to Westduinpark, easily accessible by tram 12 or bus 22 directiom Duindorp. Armed with a children's nature guide, we spot some duindoorn berries, which cluster thickly around spiny branches. They are high in vitamin C, but ridiculously difficult to pick. Maybe we were too late getting to them as well, as the berries were quite soft and tasted overripe. They are extremely sour but with a yummy aftertaste (can imagine it as a marmalade!). I ended up snapping off two small branches to experiment with.

We looked mostly for nettles. The first time I got stung quite a fair bit, so I came armed with leather gloves the second time around! Dutchman remarks that I've become quite the nettle connoisseur, as I only snip the first four or six leaves off a small plant, and they must be of a certain shade of bright young green as well. I read somewhere to pick only the best when you forage to eat, and I am taking this advice rather seriously.
I wash the whole bagful of nettles thoroughly, toss to dry and I dehydrate them in the oven at 50 degrees. It takes three batches to dry everything. We've eaten them stirfried and mashed in stamppot but my favourite way is to make an infusion (pour hot water and leave for 6-12 hours, or overnight to simplify things) together with elderberry flowers and rosehips.

The first time, we also discovered dauwbraam or dewberries. They look like blackberries, but are smaller and less sweet. The dewberry plant also tends to creep horizontally rather than arch upwards into a bush shape, like the blackberry plant. Perhaps symbiotically, dewberries grow in between nettles, so there were many untouched berries right under our noses, in the leaves. These I washed, picked out any stems and leaves, and froze in plastic boxes.

Rozebottel or rosehips grow in abundance in the sand dunes. The Dutch variety is more round rather than elongated. The red flesh is mostly bland and very slightly savoury when eaten raw, and most of the fruit is made up of seeds and hairs. I dry these on 50 degrees in the oven until semi dry, before cleaning out the hairs and seeds. Dry them further until they crumble.

Not bad for a first time forage, and i learned the second time around to lay out the goods after foraging to let all the wood lice and other bugs and worms escape before I inadvertently cook or freeze them. Though we couldn't find our coveted elderberries, next summer I'll be prepared early in the season for all kinds of berries, and try my hand at making my own red raspberry leaf tea as well!

Free superfoods for the picking

On death and why I do what I do

Last night, I was having a heart-to-heart with the Dutchman about ideas of death, and God. While we both have wildly varying ideas, we take comfort in the fact that we are at least impossible to understand by much of the mainstream.

He told me that as a kid, he prayed extra hard during funerals that were held in churches because he felt like there was a stronger chance that God was there during that sombre moment. Helping to create the atmosphere was some serious organ music (playing Ave Maria), flowers, people wishing each other "Gecondoleerd", crying because he felt sad that other people were crying, and the ubiquitous and uniquely Dutch "coffee table" of sandwiches and cakes served after the memorial service.

I told him about the time I waited in the living room of a late grandaunt as a jenazah professional (JP) prepared her body for burial. She removed the wads of cotton wool that had been stuffed into the body's ears and nostrils (after being washed, to trap excess fluids), applied makeup (loose powder, eyeliner and lipstick) to the exposed face, and sprinkled drops of attar perfume. Her face was the only part of her left exposed, and JP asked the attendees if anyone wanted to give their last kisses to my late grandaunt.

A few persons away, my mother nudged me to come forward. I must have been about 7 years old and I tried to silently, telepathically communicate to my mother that I didn't want to kiss a cold face. (She looked so cold.) I had no idea if she was going anywhere else after she was placed in the ground.

I've been raised to fear a Hell (and dang those Sunday school teachers know how to describe it), but not to love a Heaven. As I grew older, I often found myself making decisions based on the fear of "going to Hell", even as the idea of a hot place grew less and less real to me.

A very good friend said to me once, "What if it was an all an illusion? What if, on Judgement Day, God said everyone gets to go to Paradise?" While my idea of justice makes me lean to the other side of this argument (how can evil people get away with it in this world and the next?), I do wonder if the version I was sold tells just a tiny part of the story?

Then I think, it could have been so easy for me. If I just prayed, fasted, wore a hijab, married an ustaz, got a stable job, had a few kids, saved up for hajj, spent my retirement reading the Qur'an and doing dhikr non stop, and spent the rest of the time advising others to do things just like I do, would it have been enough? If life is - as they say - about pleasing God, and the formula has already been decoded into a simple series of steps, would that guarantee me (or at least give me a pretty good chance of) Paradise? Is living life without rocking the boat the key?

The Dutchman can hear that I am asking rhetorical questions. "Obviously, you don't think this is the only way."

That's true, I don't. I'd like to think that rocking the boat, creating shit storms when trying to defend the oppressed and upsetting people into thinking differently matter too. This was not taught to me for many reasons: patriarchy and authoritarianism are the most important. I was taught that authority is only to be obeyed, not to be challenged or God forbid, usurped.

So where does that leave me? On days when it seems everyone hates what I write and what I do and can't stop calling me names, I try to remember the reason I believe I am living for: I am a creation of Allah, and this is my testimony of faith.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why you should talk about sex before marriage.

It’s time to clear the air and shame in our communities about sex education, sexual rights and chastity. By Sya Taha.
(Image: Fotolia)

The shame that surrounds sex in the Muslim circles I’ve encountered sometimes makes me think that talking about it is equivalent to the act itself. (Well, guess what – I’m going to open my mouth-vagina anyway.)

Sex and intimacy between Muslim couples is often a topic that is saved for the marital covers – with lots of nervous giggles (often coming from all parties including my middle-aged premarital counsellor). Couples may find this difficult and embarrassing to talk about, even if they find it necessary.

Much of this comes from the expectation that our spouses should be virgins, with zero experiences of sex or even affection like holding hands or hugging members of the opposite sex (also known as “halal dating”). But somehow, the moment we are pronounced man and wife, we’re expected to go from zero to sixty in as many seconds. Foreplay – that’s like, kissing, right?

The reality is that many young Muslims are having all sorts of sexual experiences. Even the definition of that is highly subjective. An Indonesian friend who interviewed several young Muslims about their sexual experiences found that some of them did not consider oral sex or intimacy with members of the same sex to be “sex” per se. Meanwhile, the obsession for abstinence-only sex education and the strict definition on virginity as the absence of penis-vagina intercourse means that some Muslims are engaging in anal sex, and without the knowledge and tools to keep themselves safe.

Before getting married, it’s worth discussing with your partner if he/she is a virgin or that he/she has previous sexual experiences. There’s no shame if both of you want to marry only strict virgins, or that both of you are fine if one of you has had experience. The point is, both of you have to be okay with it. If you want to remain a virgin while your partner has experience, then great. But if you know a thing or two but expect your partner to be totally innocent and clueless, then you might want to evaluate your expectations. Likewise if you feel you have to hide your “past” from your partner.

I once had a Muslim friend tell me that sex education was not necessary: women can learn from their husbands on their wedding day. When I asked her where the young men would have to learn about sex from, she was silent but we both knew the answer: pornography. Needless to say, I think this double standard is highly damaging to both husband and wife.

Pornography is highly staged and doesn’t reflect the real-life spectrum of sexual acts and experiences. Trying out porn moves on your wedding night is not the way you want to empower your marriage. Unless you seek out specifically feminist pornography, much of what you can find on the internet also focuses mostly on male pleasure and universalises ideas about what men and women like. Everyone is different and likes different things – it’s a lot better to get what you want and give what your partner wants.

There’s a dark side to talking about sex, too. Unfortunately, in many of our societies, any kind of sex-related act is seen as the ultimate lack of piety – including rape. This happened to a Muslim friend. She was raped by a then-suitor. The guy then insisted on marrying her, threatening to shame her as a “loose woman” if she refused to marry him. Eventually the threat of marring her family’s name overwhelmed her and she ended up marrying him. (Predictably – and thankfully – she is filing for divorce.)

Recently, I read a blog post written by a young (married) Muslim woman that talked about what to do if one wasn’t a virgin, without unpacking the concept of virginity or chastity. Predictably, she said we had to make lots of du’a, but what I found more distressing was that she conflated rape and consensual sex as being unlawful sexual acts in the eyes of God.

Rape can happen to anyone because it’s the rapist’s fault – hijab or no hijab, halal dating or not. Rape is an unspeakable crime and it’s not something for the victim to be ashamed about. There are many Muslims who see a previous sexual assault as a loss of virginity and carry the shame with it into their marriage. (These issues must be worked through with a licensed therapist.) But virginity and chastity are two different things.

Sex, on the other hand, should be consensual. More than that, it should be wildly enthusiastic. With this in mind, rape can also happen within a marriage – though many may think otherwise. Marital rape is when you do not consent to sexual intercourse. As a partnership of mercy and affection (30:21), marriage should be a safe space for mutual love, pleasure and respect, not for one party to mindlessly demand rights from the other, or to unquestioningly do something they don’t really want to, in the name of obligation.

Testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is also important. I can’t stress this enough, as it’s part of the things to consider before you commit to each other. You don’t want to be surprised with symptoms a few weeks after your wedding. We often think to test for major diseases like HIV/AIDS, but others like syphilis can be non-deadly but equally damaging (or at the very least, annoying). If one of you does have an STD, you will have to think about what you will do – would you treat it first and then marry? Or is it a deal-breaker? For common and incurable STDs like human papilloma virus (HPV), will you agree to use condoms and dental dams for the rest of your life, or are you okay with contracting it and learning to keep the virus under control?

Sure, the conversation is going to be uncomfortable at first. Many of us are not used to even using the proper words for our genitals (personally, in my native language, the words feel obscene and vulgar; proper texts use the Arabic equivalents instead). Many of us might grow up with shame around masturbation, which means that we may not know what feels good for us.

But at the risk of sounding cliche, communication is the most important tool. So starting slow and experimenting with different positions, places, props and moods can be a wonderful time for practising your sexual communication skills in your marriage. Open and matter-of-fact communication can also help in times of stress or bad health, as a rejection of sex doesn’t have to leave you feeling hurt. If you like wildly different things, communication means that you can find a compromise or a middle way.

The good news is that sex gets better the more you can talk to your partner about it, especially if you can let each other know what you’re enthusiastic about and can appreciate what your partner likes. Safe and healthy sex gets better with time. Have fun!

This post was originally published at Aquila Style

Monday, October 6, 2014

When you're being chased out of Eid ul-Adha prayer because of a baby

Hope everyone is having/had a blessed Eid ul-Adha 1435.

This was the first year that I was not alone in the women's section of the mosque, since being married. I'm largely unmosqued, mostly because I hate going to a mosque and then having to be separated from the Dutchman - with the exception of the Tokyo Camii (Mosque), where we prayed side-by-side in one of the first rows. (Being a musafir or traveller can buy you a lot of leeway, just plead ignorance.)

I know I'm not alone in having this sort of separation anxiety. Many other couples made up of one partner who is not raised Muslim, may similarly feel anxious being handed over to the 'sisters' or 'brothers' (ie total strangers) in a completely different part of the mosque. (I mean, somehow total strangers can be more helpful just because they are of the same sex?) That being said, I'm very proud of the Dutchman for being able to hold his own among these 'brothers' (after I prep him on what to expect).

This month marks the fourth year I've been in the Netherlands, and also four years of this blog! (So much for the initial title, A year in NL). It's also the fourth year that I've been going to the Indonesian mosque in my town. It's three storeys high, and the main prayer space is on the second floor (there's a complimentary balcony for women). The first floor houses some classrooms and a kitchen.

Spot the complimentary balcony
As with many other mosques that make space for women, during big congregations like the two Eids, this mosque repurposes the first floor classrooms into special rooms for women and children. All men go into the main area space, while the female congregation is split into four different spaces: the (complimentary) balcony, two or three saff or rows in the main hall, and two rooms on the first floor: one for women with children, and one for women without children.

I've always been a big supporter for equal and equally decent prayer spaces, and ever since I saw the room labelled 'women with children' four years ago I've told myself, hell no. By putting all the children into one room, it becomes extremely chaotic because the children don't see the imam and learn how to carry themselves during a congregation. Nothing against the need for children to play and run around - in which case why confine them to a room with women trying to get the best of both worlds? Just set aside a room dedicated to fun and games, get a few adults to watch them and ta-da, everyone's a winner. (By the way, this arrangement is exactly what several mosques in Singapore organised during tarawih sessions in Ramadan earlier this year.)

I rave about this mosque because of the low wooden barrier (lower than waist-height) that seems to nominally demarcate the male and female praying spaces in the main hall. But this year, with little Nootje I had to face the attitudinal barriers head on.

When we arrive at the mosque a good 30 minutes before the Eid ul-Adha prayer is due to start, I wave off the Dutchman into the main entrance and I go round to the side entrance. I saunter up the stairs to the main area space, carrying Nootje in my arms. I find a spot near the door ( to make a quick exit if he starts bawling) in the front row, look around for the Dutchman in case I decide to pass Nootje over to him, and settle down.

The takbir is being chanted over a booming microphone, which freaks out Nootje a bit. He unusually lets me carry and rock him in my arms, hardly moving (very rare since he doesn't like being held unless we're walking or bouncing him) since he's an hour overdue for a morning nap - I have high hopes that he will zone out through the noise or maybe even fall asleep (a mum can dream can't she!).

There's a mother on my left, with a 1.5 or 2 year old girl in a pink dress, who is sitting quietly. Not five minutes pass when one of the women who is working today as an usher for all the congregants tell me that babies are not allowed in the main hall. I decide not to point out the toddlers in the men's area, who are shrieking. The mother beside me quietly sneaks away to the second row and her little girl almost melts into the pipes along the wall - she's just as stealth as her mum!

I have so much to tell this woman who's trying to chase me down to the vrouw met kinderen room. 

Did she know that God loves the laughter of children? That the Prophet would shorten the prayer if he heard children crying in the congregation? That the Prophet's original mosque was relaxed and inviting? That if families were so highly regarded in our religion, they should be able to sit and worship together in the mosque, which is meant to symbolise society? That asking me to leave the area because I was holding a baby made me feel like a baby is unclean, unholy and unworthy?

Instead of all that, I fumble out an answer in half Indonesian and half English and respond to her order as if it was posed to me as an option: it's okay, I'm staying here. She looks confused and tries her command again, this time in Dutch, stressing that "it's the rules". Another woman chips in with English, because I'm beginning to look like a right tourist who doesn't understand anything anyone is saying.

By this time, another mother has taken the empty space to my left, and she has two children: one looks about 6 or 7 and the other is older. She helpfully tries to encourage me into leaving ("This is the first time I'm here [in the main hall]. All these years I've been downstairs.") but this only makes me determined to not banish myself.

I simply shrug and smile to both women and assure them that I'm not taking extra space and that Nootje will be quiet. Mosque lady is not satisfied, but happily she moves away to usher more women downstairs as the main hall is filling up. Woman to my right is ambivalent, and no one comes to my support. Clock is ticking... ten more minutes to prayer. I continue rocking Nootje and whisper the takbir in his ear.

Finally! The prayer starts, and it's an exercise in balancing a 8kg weight while bowing and prostrating without putting any hands on the floor. Takbir seven times with one hand, and hope that the communal and extra loud "Ameen" doesn't startle Nootje. He doesn't mind the shift in orientation during the ruku', and I make an almost-there prostration with him right under me. 

After the prayer ends, he is looking super tired (nap is two hours overdue by now) so I pop out a boob under my hijab to feed him. He contentedly nurses to sleep and I get to listen to 15 minutes of the sermon. And no one seems to mind the two toddlers running around in the men's section during the prayer. (The section which, by the way, had two extra rows free, which could have been filled up with women.)

The imam tells us the story of how when God created Adam, God told all the malaikat (angels) to prostrate to the first human being. They all did so, except Iblis. Iblis believed that being created from fire was better than being created from clay. Because Iblis disbelieved, he was sent out of Paradise for his arrogance (7:11-18).

(Side note: I'm often quoted this story from the Qur'an by those who think that whatever I write or post is controversial, or that I'm being arrogant and stepping over my God-given womanly boundaries, whatever those may be. Essentially, likening me to Iblis... stay classy, guys.)

But I love how the imam interprets this story. To him, the moral of the this parable is that even though God creates beings from clay, fire and light, all the creations lived in Paradise together. While we humans, all made out of earth and are all flesh and blood, can't even live together on Earth. 

Post-sermon selfie

Monday, March 3, 2014

Circumcision: Choice Not Coercion

This post was originally published on Aquila Style on 25 Nov 2013


Circumcision keeps a man clean, neat and healthy, right? As it turns out, however, not every guy who was circumcised at a young age is happy with what he’s got left. These stories of regret (and anger) surface sporadically from two communities that routinely circumcise newborn or young boys for religious reasons (Muslims and Jews),[i] as well as from a country that does it for primarily health reasons (the United States).

Discussions by Muslims around circumcision usually centre around male circumcision. This is perhaps not surprising, since in many Muslim communities (Indonesia, Turkey and Morocco, for example) a huge party or feast is organised around the boy who is soon to be a man. In Singapore, it used to be the norm to circumcise a boy just before puberty (a tradition carried over from Javanese migrants) and have a big celebration. This norm has lost favour over having the procedure done discreetly at younger and younger ages, sometimes before the baby has even left the hospital at a day old.

But what is the difference between male and female circumcision? Although female circumcision might be more accurately called female genital cutting since it ranges from a prick on the clitoral hood to a complete removal of the clitoris and inner labia,[ii] I retain the term “circumcision” because in many Muslim communities it is referred to with the same word, sunat or khitan, as male circumcision. Just like female circumcision, there are different types of male circumcision done at different times (newborn, toddler, prepubescence) and for different reasons (aesthetics, phimosis, infection, religious tradition).

In this article I refer only to non-therapeutic (ie, done without medical reasons) circumcision done on boys and girls before they reach the age of majority (ie, ranging from newborns to teenagers).

Religious justifications

The religious sources often cited to justify male circumcision are also the same ones used to justify female circumcision. These sources include a verse from the Qur’an accompanied by two hadith, as the verse alone does not exactly refer to the act of circumcision.

The Qur’anic verse often quoted is 3:95, which tells us to follow in the millah, or the way of Prophet Abraham (the verse later explains that we are to follow his monotheistic beliefs). The two most cited hadith are one that reports that Prophet Abraham circumcised himself at the age of 80,[iii] and another that includes circumcision as one of “five acts of fitra”[iv] (but is the only irreversible act among the other four acts of personal hygiene).
The four other acts of personal hygiene are removing pubic hair, plucking or shaving the armpit hair, trimming the moustache, and clipping the nails.

Muslims who are against female circumcision also use the same hadith to justify why girls should not be cut. For example, a representative of the Egyptian mufti has stated that female circumcision has only social roots, not religious ones.[v]

It is also important to point out that circumcision is seen as a purely religious topic (sometimes explained together with health reasons), and anyone who attempts to discuss this topic will have their authority questioned. In other words, unless you’re a (male) Islamic scholar, it’s going to be difficult to be taken seriously.

Dr Sami Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, a Palestinian-American lawyer, has written extensively on this topic, pondering the question of why discussions around circumcision remain gendered. He argues that the texts used to promote circumcision among Muslims (which are virtually always the same) are in fact gender neutral, making the issue more about political agendas rather than religion.[vi]

Circumcision is seen as harmless, or even beneficial in many Muslim communities

Both male and female circumcision cut parts of the genital organ that have similar roles; both the male foreskin and the female clitoral hood serve to protect a spot on the human body with the highest concentration of nerves. Each area also plays an important part in sexual arousal and satisfaction: the male glans and the female clitoris. Both procedures also privilege the parents’ religious identity over the child’s capacity to shape their own future.

However, news of female circumcision, especially when coming from the so-called “barbaric” Muslim world,[vii] is more apt to make headlines – especially when something has gone wrong.[viii] Botched male circumcisions, though, hardly make the mainstream news, even though there are often reports of a boy dying from complications from their non-therapeutic circumcision.[ix]

Underlying assumptions

But I don’t want to compare the degree and extent of harm being done to boys and girls all over the world. Such comparisons often lead to defensive attitudes, because one’s cultural and religious identity becomes encapsulated in the tradition of circumcision, which is then pitted against modernity, Western international organisations, or other cultures.

Arguments about the physical harm done to boys and girls may also not convince everyone, because the procedure is seen as harmless, or even beneficial in many Muslim communities. That many baby boys cry only shortly after the procedure is interpreted as sign of little or no pain (and the procedure’s harmlessness); however, medical studies show that it is a sign of neurological shutdown from severe shock.[x] For many prepubescent boys, it is a rite of passage or a chance to feel like a “tough hero”.[xi] For girls, however, the belief is quite different: they need to be purified or else they will become “wild”.[xii]

Religious and health arguments obscure the more important issues of giving consent, and imposing control

Religious or health reasons also reveal our own assumptions about our body as God’s creation. God tells us that we were created in “the best of moulds” (95:4). But proponents of circumcision believe that all foreskins – not only those in need of medical attention – are inherently impure, no matter how much physical or spiritual purification is done. The only solution is to permanently remove it. What does it say about our belief in God if we think we are created imperfect and thus in need of a corrective procedure?

Consent and control

I think that religious and health arguments obscure the more important issues of giving consent, and imposing control over a child’s body. I don’t doubt that parents wish the best for their children, and that they are always looking out for their children’s best moral and physical interests. However, it is one thing to dress a child in a kufi or hijab, but quite another to irreversibly change their body without any medical reasons. We might recoil in horror to see a toddler seemingly being given a tattoo,[xiii] but how do we react to a toddler being circumcised?

I will not circumcise my son when he is a day old, a month old, or even 10 years old. It’s not because I am discarding a sunnah or tradition; it’s because I see circumcision as an optional act that a fully cognisant adult should undertake if she or he believes that it will help him or her become a better Muslim. By not circumcising my child before he can fully understand what it means to be a Muslim, I am leaving the way open for him to choose what he wants to do – because as parents we can only guide but we cannot force our children to believe (11:42-43). I want to raise him to have good values, and I’m not sure what kind of values a physical act like circumcision will impart.

Men are allowed to be scared, and it doesn’t make them any less Muslim

There are actually many Muslim men walking around with perfectly clean, intact penises. Just like women (cut or not), they must regularly wash themselves to keep clean, for hygiene is a part of everyday life. When people argue about the obligatory nature of male circumcision, they are often not talking about grown men. In fact, there is much leeway when it comes to the circumcision of adult men – acknowledging their fear or uncertainty.[xiv] Men are allowed to be scared, and it doesn’t make them any less Muslim.

There are Muslim women and men who have chosen circumcision for their own conscience and belief. I fully support their ability and right to decide for themselves – just as I support those who decide as adults not to do so, for whatever reason, because there is no compulsion in religion (2:256).

As for children who are supposed to be under our protection, I pray that we can support their right as Muslims to choose too – just like Prophet Abraham was allowed to choose to believe.


[i] See for example, ‘A young Singaporean Muslim: I am now against circumcision’ available here
[ii] ‘Classification of female genital mutilation’, World Health Organisation, available here 
[iii] Narrated by Abu Huraira, in Bukhari, available here
[iv] Narrated by Abu Huraira, in Muslim, available here
[v] ‘Mufti’s deputy reiterates: Female circumcision prohibited by religion’, Egypt Independent, 23 Jun 2013, available here
[vi] See for example, the article ‘No distinction between male and female circumcision’ here or the book Legitimisation of Male and Female Circumcision here
[vii] Rebecca Steinfeld, ‘Like FGM, cut foreskins should be a feminist issue’, The Conversation, 18 Nov 2013, available here
[viii] Sara C Nelson, ‘Soher Ebrahim Egyptian girl, 13, dies after illegal female genital mutilation’, 10 Jun 2013, available here
[ix] For example, seven botched circumcisions in Saudi Arabia caused injuries and hospitalisation, available here. See also the hospitalisation of a three-year-old Indonesian boy with haemophilia here, and the deaths of two Indian toddlers here
[x] See medical studies by Brady-Fryer, Wiebe and Lander (2004) available here, or Williamson and Evans (1986) available here
[xi] Shahnawaz Abdul Hamid, ‘Circumcision in Islam: a meaningless tradition worth discarding?”,, 11 Nov 2013, available here
[xii] Sya Taha, ‘A tiny cut: female circumcision in Southeast Asia’, The Islamic Monthly, 12 Mar 2013, available here
[xiii] Maria Vultaggio, ‘’Tattoo forced on toddler by mother’ video goes viral; but is it a hoax?’, International Business Times, 29 Jan 2013, available here
[xiv] See sources cited in ‘Considering converting: is it necessary to be circumcised?’, available here


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