Growing Up Perempuan


“The last time I was beaten terribly was during my fourth pregnancy.”

“My older sister would ask our neighbours for an egg or something to feed us.”

“[He would] demand sex even when she was still recovering from multiple miscarriages.”

“Colleague: Eh you not bad ah. You Malay but you smart.”

“A little bit over a decade ago, men were told that unless a woman’s response to marriage was hysterical, they could assume they have her consent.”

These are a few lines from a book that has sent so many readers in tears. Growing up perempuan (as a woman) is not easy. Growing up as a Muslim woman is even harder. As Singaporean-Muslim women, most of us deal with being a woman as well as being minorities in a country where the Muslim community & its issues are brought up & represented by our male counterparts. Representational politics render so many people voiceless. The Muslim woman is often spoken over and spoken for. The image of Muslims are often monolithic in the first place. We do not understand sufficiently the diversity in our own community. And rarely are we given the chance & platform to authentically express ourselves with the safety & assurance that we will be heard & that our concerns will not be ridiculed or trivialized.

To be heard & seen as a valid member of society, one often has to conform to a narrow, acceptable view of what a Muslim woman should be. Anything else & you are threatened with being seen as rebellious or heretical. Part of the pain of gendered violence & discrimination is the command that we also be speechless. We are expected to repress our pain & bear it alone.

A culture of silence means that we are unable to connect with each other, find strength in solidarity & to collectively disturb the main narrative imposed on us. Especially in a country like Singapore where most Muslims are also racial minorities, we struggle in speaking out about our issues because to speak about our problems also runs the risk of shaming our community to islamophobic sentiments. Often, while our male counterparts may passionately rail against racial discrimination, they do not extend that nuance & awareness of injustice when it comes to gendered violence & discrimination.

The women in this book struggle with domestic & sexual violence, racial harassment, body image issues, sexuality, amongst others. They talked about internalised racism, workplace discrimination, & being overlooked by their fathers in favour of their brothers. So much of what I read hit so close to home. The body policing, the realisation late in life that you have undergone female circumcision, racial microaggressions, questioning literalist & dogmatic ideas in religion & being met with unsatisfactory answers & so much more.

And then there were things that I could not relate to & could only read with an aching heart: girls who wrote about growing up in shelters, in severely abusive homes, being so poor they had to beg neighbours for food, being so neglected that they took themselves to school each day. There are stories by sex workers who talk about how & why they took up that profession & the struggle & stigma they bear. Women who endure horrific partner abuse or take on responsibilities when their husbands leave them, or are in jail. We often think of these things as exceptional cases affecting troubled youths or individuals. But these are not problems that should be individualised. They are the natural result of a society that is deeply unequal, deeply prejudiced, & unwilling to allow women full agency in their own life-decisions & choices. A capitalistic society that is hostile to helping the poor & provide them with a decent living wage. It is a reflection of our own values & attitudes when people in our community say that the people that have disappointed them most were members of their own community who judged them instead of helped them.

Because the dispossessed do not have the social capital to be heard; because the system benefits from forcing them into silence, there are often people who go through life with the illusion that our society is not at all unhospitable. People think that these kinds of stories are few & far between when the fact is that these everyday violences are so common. You have to approach this book with an open heart. Middle- & upper-class Muslims I think especially are sheltered from so much of the realities that are happening & affecting their brethren. They often discuss issues like gender violence, polygamy & marital rape in the abstract, without understanding the lived realities of people on the ground. This is it. These are women speaking for themselves. It is up to us if we will listen or not.


The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy

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Her first fiction book in 20 years! For some it may feel like a huge gap, a great absence, if one were not familiar with the fact that Roy is a committed activist and has in fact published books in between these 20 years and worked tirelessly in her activism in her home country of India. Knowing this is important, and I do think that my knowing, and my enjoyment of her works in the interim, listening to her interviews, has sharpened my enjoyment of this novel, or at least made it more accessible to me. This book is dense, it is not easy. It can be slow, and it can make you feel lost sometimes with its references to the complicated politics through the decades of India’s contemporary democratic existence.

This book is a whole world. The scope of what she has included, the breadth but also the depth of it, is so staggering and utterly amazing. How did she fit it all? How did she talk about it all with so much tenderness, humanity, and love? At no point did she discount the amount of violence that we have to also think about. I thought that she captured the complexity very well too, especially if she were to talk about the politics without the characters. Some characters are quite obviously stock, in terms of the opinions they have (like the typical of ‘liberal’ or ‘centrist’ types, and one of course one of them is a journalist! lol) but I guess it is quite necessary especially for people who are not familiar with the politics, just so they can get some sort of approximation of what the different viewpoints are. (Also definitely, while she is nuanced she does have a firm stand which is why the book pisses off so many nationalists). Having watched/read enough Arundhati Roy interviews I could recognise that some parts were based on her own experience too.. I’m glad that her writing this was just so fully human, so full of the blood that made senseless violence feel a bit more human.

Despite some stock characters, she still manages to write about it all with the heartbreaking intimacy that I love about her writing… this quote:

God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred. Neighbours turned on each other as though they’d never known each other, never been to each other’s weddings, never sung each other’s songs.

When I mention how ambitious it is however, I also have to mention that there were some moments when it felt strained. The book is populated with characters, and you can feel a bit lost sometimes. The chronology can confuse you too. Furthermore, the fact that she has included a kind of ‘parody’ with certain characters means that it will bring about some less-than-serious passages than are a bit of a contrast to her beautiful prose.

This is an incredibly political book. And I think when I see negative reviews of it, it is often incredibly apolitical. They cannot stand how the inclusion of the politics disturbs their experience of reading. At the same time, I guess Arundhati Roy is such a firecracker of an activist it obvious that she can’t help but go off sometimes in the text.. sort of running away from the story for a while when it hits on a certain political hot spot. Basically sometimes it isn’t done with the sort of finesse that is considered ‘literary’ and elegant. The density of the book’s politics also meant that I was acutely aware that there’s a lot I will not fully understand because I am not living in India or fully immersed in their politics, life there, nor experienced the decades that have unfolded.

Reading this goodreads review for example gives us an example of the references that she puts in the book:

There are unflattering depictions of characters based on AB Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal. And, of course, Roy’s favorite Gujarat’s Lalla, who happens to be a very popular PM currently. For these reasons, it won’t be surprising if in the way things are handled these days (in India and in many other parts of the world), there would be widespread criticism of the book (some nutcase might even call for its banning!) by many who haven’t even read it.

Ultimately though, I still do find it an incredibly beautiful, tender book that makes me feel quite awed.

The way she wrote about what Kashmiris feel, go through, were parts where I felt most touched.. nobody really goes into that level of human understanding where you try to understand what violence can do to a community, how they regard each other, how it affects the way they might trust or view each other, their own history or survivability. How that level of violence and trauma affects the deepest level of human affection and relational experience.

Of course on the other side of it all is that it can be so chilling how she writes about the mechanical cruelty of the ‘right’, the way they clean up the street after a massacre-

The post-massacre protocol was quick and efficient- perfected by practice. Within an hour the dead bodies had been removed to the morgue in the Police Control Room, and the wounded to hospital. The street was hosed down, the blood directed into the open drains. Shops reopened. Normalcy was declared.

The way they systematically torture and kill. The way they practice their lies so easily. The way the deaths of people are rewritten in official reports. Think I’ll never forget that part of the book where they made one Kashmiri man try to bring out another severely injured Kashmiri man they were chasing who had hidden in sewage. For one a half hours they had looked at each other until the suspect died there, in sewage, and then he was reported to be a terrorist/militia member the authorities had captured in a supposedly tense face-off. It was these kind of episodes that really revealed the cruelty and inhumanity so much, & it was parts like this where I the aforementioned heartbreaking exposition on Kashmiris really tore through me:

Those eyes that stared at us for one and a half hours – they were forgiving eyes, understanding eyes. We Kashmiris do not need to speak to each other any more in order to understand each other. We do terrible things to each other, we wound and betray and kill each other, but we understand each other.

I know it’s really unfair to compare to her first novel 20 years ago but I really can’t help it. I didn’t give her a full 5 stars on goodreads because this novel did not grip and move me as much as the God of Small Things, which I found so breathtaking, spellbinding, and just.. god I feel so emotional just thinking about it. Truly one of the most beautiful books I’ve read. But I think in a way there is something to say about the experience of the novel, of fiction, of whether the book allows us to fall into itself. For The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, there was that kind of falling that Arundhati Roy’s writing has the magic to induce, but not as deeply… but I feel like I can’t possibly hold that against her. She is writing around a bloody history. Do we want to experience that as fictional pleasure? Nevertheless.. it is still an enjoyable read.