Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The 50-year-old Malay version of "Yes, we're trying for a boy"

L to R: My mum (daughter #3), daughters #4, #2, #1 and in front, #5
Today, we take so many photos of our kids on our phones but we risk losing them all once our devices are down.

When I look through old studio photographs like this, I think about the monumental effort it must have taken to get all kids fed and dressed and out the door. Arrive at the studio at an early enough time so everyone's not cranky yet. Get everyone to look at the camera at the same time.

Well, at least one little girl snuck in a funny face.

This photo of my mother and her four sisters dates from around 1956. Waitaminnit, did you mean three sisters and a brother?

Well, my maternal grandparents wanted a boy so badly that Salamah, the fifth daughter, got dressed up like a boy until she started school at the age of seven.

The one and only boy, Mustakim, came after two more daughters, followed by one last daughter, making a grand total of nine children that survived infancy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Inspiring the able-bodied, one day at a time.

Meet Siti, a heroine rising from the ashes of mainstream media representation of people with disabilities (PWD).

Siti suffers from ignorance around her medical condition which has a scary sounding scientific name. Thanks to her various mobility aids however, she is able to overcome public pity and discomfort to gain dignity and autonomy.

With the help and assistance of her caregivers, she triumphs over her limitations and accomplishes essential everyday tasks such as showering, getting dressed, eating and going to the toilet.

Because you think she probably also has mental limitations because she does not speak, look or act like you, she often suffers from patronising treatment. She fondly recalls one fancy dinner where the only thing a Very Important Man said to her, speaking very slowly and loudly: "The food OK for you?"

Everything she does is special and/or inspiring: from abovementioned daily tasks to getting any level of education or having a family. More inspiring is if she can travel from point A to point B by herself: not many possess the courage to find a stranger to press the lift button that is either too high or blocked by a trash can.

Few are able to handle the adversity of being stuck in the rain waiting for someone to pass by and pick up her dropped phone. Even rarer still are those who can keep their patience when a car blocks the ramp from her house to the road.

But Siti pushes through, day by day.

Most inspiring of all is if she is better than you in anything -- art, science, sport, procreation or religion -- because you think that anyone who has the use of their limbs should be able to be better at everything that PWD can do. This is Siti's biggest obstacle: eradicating the belief that she can only reach her full human potential if she was able-bodied.

When she's not busy being patronised, she occupies her time with helping able-bodied people feel better about themselves. She stops them from whining about their shitty lives because at least they can walk/see/drive/go to the toilet by themselves. She also inspires them to do more with their lives because of aforementioned abilities.

She helps out the well-meaning ones the most. She inspires them to create an excessively humble but uselessly hollow self-image by calling themselves things like "more disabled than the disabled". She helps them feel generous by thinking they can't even do what PWD can.

Most importantly, she helps them feel altruistic because they can raise money by dancing and singing, instead of dealing with the sticky and difficult tasks of fighting for social welfare, making public and private spaces accessible, or creating safe and decent paying jobs beyond peddling small goods on the street.

When asked about the most important thing others should know about her, she shrugged and said simply: 
"If able-bodied people can be seen as complex human beings, be portrayed with dignity, and not have mobility aids overshadow their actual talents, we can do it too! Never give up!"


This is satire, obviously, written from the limited perspective of an able bodied person who grew up with a sister with a disability. "Siti" is a generic Malay name, not unlike Jane Doe.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

With whiteness comes erasure.

I wish I could remember who wrote this. I would thank her or him profusely because when I read this, it resonated deeply with me. It was an articulation of feelings I had not been able to grasp; uncomfortable sentiments felt too often and so left no space for me to rationalise them away.

It's about being Brown and with someone White that renders you the Other. It's about White people universalising and imposing their life experiences in the 'noble' pursuit of assimilation and/or integration, so you never get to own and own and have pride in your childhood, your celebrations, your proverbs and your norms or traditions.

It's about having White people reiterating and reminding you of the 'freedom' they experience and that you are supposedly able to enjoy in their country. (They forget about anti-Brown or Black microaggressions, racism and violence, because they can't universalise something they don't experience).

It's about having a hybrid child who is part White and part Brown (never mind that he is descended more of Brown than White). A child who is seen to be a rich White charge when with his Brown mother and a poor saved Brown adoptee when with his White father.

It's about White people worrying that your child will not learn his White language if he goes to your country. Never mind that they never worried he wouldn't learn his Brown language in their country.

It's about having White people worry that your child will not be 'raised properly' amongst your Brown people. Perhaps too conservative or traditional or religious or backward or primitive or savage -- their worry has been the same for hundreds of years.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Why the fact that I exercise at all is a miracle.

There's a photo of a 3 year old me with my arms in the air. I'm imitating the ballerinas on a TV show.

When I was 9, I still desperately wanted to learn ballet. I was told that leotards were immodest, and ballet would destroy my feet.

When I was 13 and started secondary school, I joined the rhythmic gymnastics team. It turns out that I had great potential at being flexible (achieving over splits within a few months) and pretty decent motor skills (ie I could copy the coach's movements without too much effort). I was told, my thighs were too fat, my knees were not straight and my belly and butt poked out too much. I was told that I had to be at least five kilos underweight. I did well at competition but my scores were deliberately lowered by my coach so that they never went above those of the skinnier Chinese girls. And again, leotards were still immodest so I wore unitards instead.

When I was 15, I visited an aunt in all my full Malay conservative glory right after a long, late morning swim. I was told to not swim so much, my skin was getting darker.

When I was 17, I had a brief foray into canoeing and dragonboat racing. I trained my right arm for dragonboat. I was told i would get abnormally muscular on one side and basically be an undateable freak. I started running once in a while, and I was told to hold my hands near my boobs while running to disguise their bouncing.

When I was 19, I took a contemporary dance class for the first time, while I was studying in France. (I still firmly believe that this was immensely therapeutic. Along with learning to eat the French breakfast staple of real butter, I regained much of my emotional health.) Goofy French-Russian teacher has nothing but praise for the way I move. But while rehearsing a piece, one second of utter dread at the possibility that we might have to perform naked scared me a little. Meanwhile, a Wallah Bro engages me in a discussion about the "permissibility of dance in Islam."

When I was 20, I join a university modern dance group. 'Group A' is made up of thin and strong Chinese girls. Group B was the rest of us. I stood out only because of my unusual pixie haircut and ability to jump. When other girls complained of being fat, I'd show them my belly and tell them to not let the instructor get to their heads. (Refer to healing properties od French butter above.) And dance costumes could be immodest, but at least you could wear a nude leotard underneath.

When I was 21, I had a brief obsession with bouldering and rockclimbing. I was surrounded by Muslim girls worried that Muslim guys were looking at their butts as they climbed. (Can you climb without moving your butt? Can you climb with your butt facing the wall instead?) I was surrounded by guys who thought it was immodest for a Muslim woman to address a mixed crowd so they demonstrated the wearing of a harness on a guy instead. (Hint: A harness is less immodest on a woman's body. Bonus factor: SAFETY.)

Luckily by this point in time, I had learned to filter out these negative voices. I couldn't stop myself from dancing as much as I couldn't stop myself from breathing.

But the 3 year old me already knew that.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"Actually, I'm his mum."

It's been a whirlwind few months since the big move back to Singapore. It's had its pros and cons, but mostly I am very glad to be back. As a Kiwi friend once said, "Singaporeans always miss Singapore, right?"

My posts have been rather depressing of late -- the cons of moving back. One of the reasons I wanted to come back was to feel a sense of a Muslim community again. Back in NL, I had cobbled together a motley group of Muslim friends, which I was and still am very grateful for. In retrospect, I realise that I should not expect myself to be able to integrate seamlessly back here -- I've changed so much as a Muslim and as a person that the Sunni Shafii mainstream is not really an Islam I am 100% comfortable with anymore. Listening to people talk about how men should only marry women who can bear children is extremely triggering.

(I can't imagine being able to articulate that only just 5 or 6 years ago, which is when all my questioning started.)

Being a mum to 17 month old now, I've changed so much. While I already had to learn to put aside other people's opinions because of many of my feminist-social-justice beliefs, I definitely give even less consideration now -- in short, IDGAF. My priority is to advocate for my kid.

Staying in a neighbourhood with many White foreigners is also creating its own series of misconceptions. Because many of their kids are cared for by live-in Filipina oIndonesian migrant domestic workers white women assume I am also a domestic worker. Never mind that Nootje is practically a carbon copy of me (when compared to his dad at least). When he is near me my Brownness is enhanced. Especially if I'm out and about in my Tshirts and jeans/shorts as opposed to a fancier skirt or blouse, with makeup or accessories.

The privilege of being able to groom myself into socially acceptable femininity every day (or any day) is what distinguishes me from migrant working women. They only get Sundays (their day off) to dress up as they like. This counts for women who wear hijab as well, as the headscarf functions as a marker of urban modernity. If I wore hijab and presentable clothes at the playground, I would not be mistaken for an Indonesian or a Filipina. Hijabi migrants might be allowed a simple 'instant' hijab on trips to the supermarket, but only on Sundays can they go all out with their outfits.

Having had the last few months to process all this, and now that I am aware of how I fit into this intersection of race, gender and migrant status, what do I do?

The 'me' of 10 years ago would have detested being mistaken for a 'maid'. Her choice to wear hijab would have been partly influenced by this (not the only or the most important factor, but a factor nonetheless).

The 'me' today? IDGAF. I dress in what makes me comfortable in the heat, considering my need to safely cycle and run after, carry and breastfeed Nootje. When I'm in the mood, I take the opportunity to educate the adults and children who assume I am Nootje's 'maid', 'auntie' or 'bibik' simply because I have brown skin, plain clothes, a plain (and very Javanese) face, and I sit on the bench watching him at the playground instead of constantly following him around (aka "helicopter parenting", a fun post for another day).

When I'm not in the mood, I simply say, in the coolest tone I can muster and witness the offending adult flush with embarassment: "Actually, I'm his mum."

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Only fertile women are marriageable, she said.

At a lecture I recently went to, the female speaker - a well-known and well-loved Arab woman with a charming accent and persona - bluntly said that men should not marry women who could not have children. She cited a hadith to back up her argument.

Hadith hurling aside, I couldn't believe that there wasn't a peep of protest when she said that. (I was shaking my head, not approving of this at all, and was ready to fall out of my chair.) Her statement sounded so fleeting and inconsequential, as if it was just another day that we could decide who deserved to be loved and who didn't.

We were taught that marriage is "half of your deen": unions between two compatible and loving people has such a big impact on how we are able to practise other aspects our religion. I've written previously about how meeting a married couple with cerebral palsy changed my idea of marriage. That while we are so caught up in our social norms of what marriage should look like (with this much money, between people of such status, that they MUST have children, that it should last forever), meanwhile there are couples who quietly defy these expectations.

Besides the tiny details of the existence of male infertility, or how a man would know his future wife is infertile, or questioning the diagnosis of fertility itself, I think it was extremely pompous of the speaker to suggest that "infertile" women are not marriageable.

Conception, pregnancy and childbirth are not exact sciences. There are many things that modern obstetrics and gynaecology don't know about or don't want to acknowledge, seeing that it's a relatively recent science dominated by white men (as almost every form of Western knowledge is). For me as a Muslim mother, and going by my first-time experiences, there are also many things that I leave to God.

Allah knows what every female carries and what the wombs lose [prematurely] or exceed. And everything with Him is by due measure. (13:8)

That's my favourite Qur'anic verse pertaining to pregnancy, that a doula friend introduced to me. She used this verse to explain that from an Islamic point of view, unnecessary medical induction (which is often done as a matter of convenience for the OB's schedule, and which often ends in a Caesarian surgery) indicated a lack of knowledge or faith in God.

But apparently it's easy to be so black-and-white when it comes to deciding which women are marriageable and which are not.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Breaking up with the good wife

I only went because I was craving a sense of Islamic community again.

It's been almost five years of a patchy but still lovely period of deep connections with other souls because we deeply shared something and not just a label: Muslim.

Things started out great and maybe because I was riding on a tidal wave of hope from the topic of your talk. I'm a first time mum; who wouldn't want to learn how to raise children who have love in their hearts for God too?

Why did you have to start on with terribly narrow minded ideas about the kinds of partners we can have? That it's totally okay to marry a woman for her wealth, family, beauty or deen. Pick the one with deen but no one would fault you, random man, if you just wanted to marry a pretty little thing. Or a rich little thing.

Why did you reduce us to our wombs, the only organ in the human body that shares a name with the Merciful? That a woman who cannot bear children must unequivocally unmarried because a man isn't allowed to marry her because the purpose of marriage is to produce children, full stop?

Why must women do it all: bear babies, nurse babies, wake up at night for their babies, wash their husband's clothes with the easy breezy washing machine and make sure she's perfumed and put together when he gets home? God forbid she ever complains about household chores because don't you know Fatima had to walk miles under the hot sun for water and scrub her husband's clothes by hand? Today's working mum can only have it all if she has a domestic worker who often has left her own children so she can earn a living taking care of yours. Is it only the superhuman women or the rich women that enter heaven?

You broke my heart. And so I won't be coming back anytime soon.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

7 ways to ace the Dutch integration exam

Last month I spent eight hours in a centre proving how worthy I am of staying in this country. In other words, the Dutch integration exam or inburgeringexamen.

As I walk into the ordinary looking building that houses several other offices, about 30 faces greet me: mostly brown, some are white. Some are married to people holding Dutch passports and must do the exam or risk a fine, some are refugees who have lived here for almost a decade and need a Dutch passport, some are from rich countries looking to gain another citizenship in order to become "a world citizen", some have come in the 70s as guest workers and have to show that they haven't been creating their own ethnic ghettoes, others are economic refugees or students looking to escape their countries.

I fall under the first category. But I'm about to find out that this exam is not created to take all these candidates into consideration; it's just one long day of alternate feelings of embarrassment, amusement, outrage and pity.

It doesn't take long to be micro-aggressed. First I have to register, standing face to face with an overly chirpy Dutch woman who makes it a point to note on my paper that although my name is too long to fit on my residence permit, it is indeed my name and I am not posing as someone else. Smiling too much and enunciating each word slowly, she even tells me that since my hairstyle is different from my photo, I need to tuck my hair behind my ears because it's hard to tell brown people apart or something. 

I chose to do all 5 exams in one day: Dutch language listening, speaking, writing and reading skills, and knowledge of Dutch society (kennis nederlandse samenleving). Each test presents a few "cases" or situations, with 2 or 3 related questions. They're all done on a computer except for the writing test. One participant who is on her third attempt tells me that the speaking test used to be done with an examiner, which predictably makes things more stressful. With the new format, you watch a video of someone making small talk and asking a question. You record your reply in the software and you can repeat until your time is up.

I laugh out loud at certain questions, because they were so ridiculous. But I know I just have to put aside any critical thinking skills (saving it for this blog post) and just give the right answer. So here you go, here are 7 ways to ace integration, the Dutch way.

1. Work a labour-intensive job and don't study too much

One of the writing tasks is to compose an email to a colleague (you work together in a cleaning company) asking her to please vacuum the next day because you forgot to do so, and explain what you'll do for her in return. My vocabulary on household chores is pretty poor (because hey, I don't go around talking about it), so I come up with the only thing I knew the words for: that I'll clean the windows.

In one of the questions for the speaking test (which consists of only a handful of actual speaking into the microphone and then a series of multiple-choice questions on what your best response would be), you have to pretend to be a (Black) baker, busy packing something when your (White) boss asks you to get him coffee. The computer suggests that you can give a plain "no", you can tell your boss to get his own coffee or that you can tell him that you're busy. It's clear you need to say no without pissing off your boss. (No points for guessing the right answer.)

Other situations involve characters that work in a nursing home and supermarket. While their ethnicity or cultural background is not overtly stated, there are obvious clues that they are Moroccan, Turkish, or Black Antillean. There are some situations with characters pursuing some sort of education, but these are limited to vocational courses like cooking.

2. Submit to authority 

Meet Zam (not his real name). He has a headache and he goes to the doctor, who prescribes him a medication. He doesn't feel too good after taking the meds for a while, so he stops taking it. He shouldn't have done this even though he may know the best for his body (this is actually one of the answer options, but it's accompanied with a very Photoshopped photo of Zam looking like an arrogant know-it-all so WINK WINK). Instead, he should apologise to the doctor for not having consulted him first. (Though from my experience with medical professionals here and how some pretend they cannot speak English unless you're White, they should be the ones apologising to you.)

3. Learn the value of (White) opinions

In life, you will hear about the trials and tribulations of others. If you hear about a jewellery store robbery, you need to learn to accept that robbers are perhaps poor people who needed to eat (I'm pretty surprised at the compassion taught in this example but anyway). It's unacceptable to say that this is a ridiculous idea or that one is forbidden to have such ideas.

If you tell someone else that you plan to divorce your wife and said friend is not married, you must not assume that said friend doesn't know anything. White people can have an opinion on any and every topic (including how C-sections are not all that bad hey, true story) and you must listen to this opinion because, free speech. To be properly integrated, you should ask him why he holds such an opinion even though you're starting to feel mighty irritated.

4. Love gay people

This is very important. Probably the most important thing that determines your worth as an immigrant. It's not important to think of people as being on a continuum of sexual orientation, but rather that "homosexuals" are a simple alternative to "heterosexuals". Trans? Queer? What's all that complexity?

Just remember that gay people are allowed to hold hands anywhere in this country. Especially if they're white. Never you mind about the hostility faced by queers of colour (or God forbid, couples of colour!). Just love them for being lucky enough to be living in this country of freedom.

5. Love the police

Never mind that if you look Moroccan or Turkish, or if you have dark skin, you're more like to be stopped by the police on the street. Never mind also that you can be shot for merely putting your hands in your pockets because it looked like you were reaching for a gun.

Repeat after me: the police is your friend. If you are just taking an innocent walk around the block with your wife and you see a young man in a hoodie throwing a brick through a shop window, what should you do? (hint: call the police.) If you encounter a group of protesters who are suddenly attacked by a mysterious group of young men (with the same hoodies), what should you do? Just. call. the. police.

6. Accept whitewashing of history

Meet Dinh, a new immigrant from Vietnam. He wants to learn more about Dutch history so he goes to the museum. There he sees an exhibit about the VOC (Dutch East India Company). Now as a migrant from a former colony of France, Dinh probably knows a thing or two about colonial powers, so he knows that the VOC didn't just go what is Indonesia today to simply trade in spices so they could establish Conimex.

But just pretend that that is all they went there for. Colonisation, oppression, violence -- that's all much too messy for the integrated mind.

7. Know that this is not real life

It is striking how the test tries to consciously work against stereotypes. Although many practice questions for the test focus on how this country is the land of gender equality (where men and women split housework 50-50, where contraception is seen as female emancipation, and where men are not allowed to hit women), during the test you'll meet a white man who hits his wife and kids, while his Moroccan neighbours are left with the awkward dilemma of trying to get him to stop drinking, get a job and stop abusing his family (no idea why you can't call the police in this case, because it seems like a pretty good option).

This Moroccan couple has the darndest life. Not only does their daughter's bicycle get stolen, but one day they encounter a group of white protesters on strike, demanding higher wages. For some reason, they are attacked by a few young brown boys in hoodies (I get it, hoodies are scary).

The most important thing to know about the exam is that these situations do not reflect real life in the Netherlands. The test is a representation of what a few people in power thought Dutch life should be. If you can put this aside and put on your integrated-immigrant hat, you'll pass with flying colours.

At least I did. :)


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