“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.