Perempuan: Muslim Women in Singapore Speak Out

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[a shorter, edited version of this review was published in Association of Muslim Professional’s Karyawan, vol 12, issue 2]

Late last year, the anthology Perempuan: Muslim Women Speak Out, was published. The publication is the first of its kind in Singapore and garnered some measure of attention for its showcase of diverse voices in the Malay and/or Muslim community. In this anthology, Muslim women speak out about their experiences and struggles to negotiate their with the cultural and religious expectations of the community. The book is an effort by the Gender Equality IS Our Culture (GEC) programme that seeks to advocate for more gender-equitable interpretations of culture and Islam for women in Singapore.

Perempuan: Muslim Women Speak Out may be a self-explanatory title, but it is also a bold proclamation. Muslim women in Singapore may speak, but do they speak out? The latter connotes a certain disobedience, a certain insistence on being heard by the audience addressed. When we speak out, instead of simply speaking, perhaps it is because simply speaking will not ensure that you are heard, and are muslim women heard in the first place? The act of speaking, then, is not a benign one. Especially not when you’re a Malay and/or Muslim woman.

Associate Professor Maznah Mohamad explains this best in the Foreword when she says:

“Being Muslim and female in Singapore has its unique existential quality. The writers imply that they are trapped within two, or even three worlds. The modern Singapore promises individual liberty, yet as daughters, sisters and mothers within the Muslim home, women are not expected to express their true desires and will. But the disquiet is not just about the home forcing a Muslim-female identity upon one’s subjecthood but also about a radicalised society profiling the self through the blinkers of the Malay-Muslim stereotype.”

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The stories in the anthology are for the most part personal, revolving around the themes of body image, sexuality, and the experience of resisting against stereotypes. Due to the nature of these themes, there is an unmistakable and pervading sense of ache and loss at the lives, opportunities, and dreams the women have felt they had to sacrifice, or the extent to which they had to minimise and shrink their own wants due to gendered expectations.

In “Crossing The Ocean, Crossing The Boundaries”, Azura mentions how she was accomplished enough to have received a scholarship to study in Canada. Instead of an appreciation for her accomplishment, she was met with questioning aunts who had asked her mother:

“Shouldn’t the boys be the one to go? She’s still too young and there is not much point in her going abroad”.

This dismissal of a girl’s achievement due to her divergence from traditional gender norms is again seen in “Why?” by Nazihah Ramli, now pursuing a diploma in Islamic studies, who had dreamt of being in an engineering course but was told that engineering is not for girls. Disappointed by her parents refusal, she had asked:

“How does an education path have a gender?”

Some stories reveal the difficulties women face in pursuing their artistic interests and talents in the face of gendered expectations. In “Call Me Ham”, we begin with a lilting description of the writer’s mother as she dances on stage. This moment is, however, quickly cut short, before we learn that her mother sacrificed her talent after marriage out of “respect” for her husband. With her mother’s history lingering in the background, Ham recounts her own struggles in repressing her love for theatre as she held herself back from taking on roles and acting on stage due to the negative perceptions held in her family:

“..performing was dangerous, especially for girls. We are the weaker sex . . . How blasphemous it was for us to parade our bodies with no regard to the shame we could bring to our families!”

Ham’s struggle is mirrored in “The Stage” where the writer S.A.Y, a dancer, faces judgement about her passion in the form of religious moralising and body policing. Her boyfriend even asks her not to mention her passion to his mother. Her fear of being seen by her boyfriend and mother during a performance paralyses her so completely that she fails to go on stage.

In these stories, we see how the writers’ accomplishments and passions, whether in the academic or artistic field, are compromised and disregarded because they do not fulfil traditional and cultural notions of ideal femininity. One wonders how many brilliant potential engineers the community loses when it discourages girls from entering the field, or how accomplished artistic practitioners like Ham and S.A.Y could be if they could practice their art without having to deal with the shame and guilt.

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Body image also figures strongly in the anthology with stories dealing with fat-shaming, such as “You Have to Lose Weight” by Huda K. where she writes:

“When you grow up heavy, you get very familiar with one phrase. “You have to lose weight.”

It comes from your teachers in primary school who compare you to your active classmates. It comes from aunts who suggest you control the portions of your food so you will lose some weight.

Then you start yourself.”

In “Eaten Up”, Atifa Othman charts through the years through short vignettes, the various ways her struggle with body image issues leaks into moments in her life, whether it is during a scuba diving session, or brief moments when family members drop casual, hurtful remarks about her weight.

The body is also policed in terms of the demand that is placed on Muslim women to be modest. Whether it is the tussle between mother and daughter over whether her clothes are modest enough (Zarifah Anuar’s “Armpits, Breasts, and Vulva), or realising that hair and how its worn can be infused with political and religious meaning due to its inseparable nature with discussions on the veil, modesty and femininity (Fadiah Johari’s “A Hairy Situation”). Three writers even take on the topic of sunat perempuan, and ask if it is a necessary procedure if it is not in the Qur’an, and whether we should accept the popularly believed (but scientifically disproven) justifications of it reducing libido and improving cleanliness.

There is a kind of quiet violence then that we see in the extent that the female body is managed and controlled, not just by institutions and patriarchs, but sometimes even from other women. Muslim women are at times taken to represent the whole community when all they should be representing is themselves. This of course happens outside the community too. In “A Muslim Woman’s Guide To The Workplace” for example, Raudah recounts hilarious snippets of conversations with her non-Muslim colleagues who seem to enjoy dishing out stereotypes. Of course, these are moments of microagression, and Raudah calls on Muslim women to carve their own space in an environment where others often speak for you, or have decided what your identity seems to automatically mean.

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The book also has a few entries by contributors who are LGBT. Homosexuality is of course a contentious topic in the community, with the dominant consensus being that it is unacceptable in the faith. These personal stories reveal the consequences of this prevalent belief when it is sharpened into normalised prejudice and even hate speech.

In “Allah Take The Wheel”, Joyene Nazatul, who introduces herself as a lesbian who dresses in a masculine way and often passes as a man, recounts a harrowing experience in a cab where the driver questions her in a hostile way about the way she dresses, with the obvious implication that her dressing in an unfeminine way was unnatural and wrong. She also recounts a driving teacher who had said that he would have put her through “corrective” rape if he was younger to ensure she would like men, before going on to talk about Islam and its teachings. These experiences made her fear for her life, and ask herself:

“How many other people suffer aggressions like this, everyday, and ever say anything about it?”

Violence is a common occurrence in the stories submitted by gay contributors, with Orchid Blue writing that she fears being open about her bisexuality due to expected violent backlash. Zuleiha in “Cover Up” is threatened by a classmate who says:

“You like girls and that’s disgusting. Change or I’ll tell everyone what you really are.”

Earlier, in a religious classroom setting, Zuleiha had sat silent as a the teacher asked students if they knew anyone who was homosexual — “No one raised their hand that day. Little did they realise that there was such a person sitting in the class”.

In another story, “Human” by Oman, the writer too is sitting in a religious class that is discussing homosexuality, and she too, like Zuleiha, keeps silent as everyone around her judges her existence:

“I keep quiet when they talk about such issues. I keep quiet when they tell me they think “gays are disgusting” and it’s “unnatural”. I keep quiet.

What is common for these LGBT writers is the desire not even to be accepted, but to simply be regarded as equally human, and to not be recipients of hate. There is also in them a marked comfort that is derived from the faith. Oman thinks of God as a compassionate, supreme being that is more accepting than followers. Zuleiha finds comfort in the act of wudhu, although it saddens her that each time makes her feel like the waters are washing away the guilt and sin she feels for simply being herself. In these stories, we see how LGBT women try their hardest, while quietly taking in verbal violence and hatred, to foster the love in religion for themselves that has not been extended to them from others. 

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How do women who may not occupy identities that are conventionally accepted, share their stories, remove themselves from the pain of isolation, and be open with their needs and desires?

The importance of the book cannot be stated enough. For the women whose voices are so marginal that some of them have to use a pseudonym in their submissions, it is a brief relief from isolation and from having to silence one’s self from normative society. The demand of conformity, the punishment of any kind of divergence from the norm (what Muslims will derogatorily call “deviance”) is a kind of violence that is inherently unjust, but some find to be religiously sanctioned.

The power of Perempuan is that it is a book filled not with calls to theologise or to propose a new way of understanding Islam, it is merely a collection of personal stories and experiences. It is a revealing insight into what women go through when faced against the tide of expectation and demands to conformity. How we react would either punish their speaking, or validate their experiences. In any case, many of these voices would have known what it is like to be silenced or dismissed. What I know though, is that pretence that these voices do not exist will not solve any problems and silence will only perpetuate persecution. The book is a good first step in simply putting to light to corners of our community that have for so long been in the dark.

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