Thursday, November 24, 2016

Racism: a collection of 'negative' views.

The topic of International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam came up at lunch at work, so I raved about Miguel Peres Dos Santos's film 'Voices' and how some of the things you see in the film in the 70s/80s are still uncannily being seen and heard in the media of contemporary Dutch society.

For example, the film has excerpts from news interviews of a White Dutch man in the streets, saying that he doesn't think it's fair that "Mr Foreigner [from Curacao]" should get a house before him.

A White Spanish colleague (married to White Dutch) at the lunch table starts getting agitated.

WSC: You cannot say 'Wow, things like that are being said in the 70s', this is how we are brought up in society and this is what we learn from our parents".

[Right about here I'm hoping she meant that therefore it's an subconscious narrative that should be changed]
Me [confused]: "No, my point is that these things are still being said today. They still talk about immigrants like this."
WSC [getting agitated and getting up to put her things away, ready to leave the room]: You keep saying "they", "they", who do you mean??
Me: The White Dutch! And the media.
WSC: Well you seem to have a very negative view of White Dutch people.
[Nope, I was wrong! Racism is something natural, socialised, and merely a faulty perception of a POC.]
WSC refuses to believe that I have heard White people say these things to my face. Woman, you are White. It's impossible for you to see this 'negative' side and hear such 'negative' comments directed to you or people that share your religion, skin colour, hair colour or dress code.

Just a couple of days ago, I was also describing an incident that happened when I was at the film screening in Amsterdam. I had no choice but to bring Nootje along (and just hoping for the best). He ended up sitting through the 20-minute film just about okay, but he was getting restless and needed to sit on the floor with his toys during the Q&A. I wasn't too optimistic about being able to stay the whole way, so I was ready to leave -- having already picked a seat close to the exit and given weary smiles to the kind-faced host who wished me luck when I walked in with Nootje -- if he needed to.
Nootje started to talk ("Airplane is taking off!") during the Q&A, prompting a series of Very Dirty Looks from 3-4 White women just in front of him. One old woman made a big fuss, after turning around pointedly to stare at Nootje, of moving to a different seat. It wasn't loud (a 2-year-old talking, seriously) but I left the theatre after that.

When I described the incident on Facebook, an acquaintance commented that the same would have happened even if I were white, since the problem, according to her, is that Dutch people don't like playful kids.
That's the two main issues right there: she spoke of "Dutch people" when she really meant White Dutch, because Dutch POC are usually friendly to kids. And then there's the obvious thing, I'm NOT White, am I?

While I don't expect her to be able to empathise that I faced such a hostile situation, she expected that I would know what it feels like to be White/the norm. And with one sentence she had managed to turn the whole situation upside down: now I was supposed to feel sorry for her and her unappreciated playful child too.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Openseam - "Teacher, are you Chinese or Malay?"

This article was first published on Openseam.

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Happy Teachers' Day!

Today's post comes from Aliya Yeoh, an English teacher in Penang, Malaysia. She previously wrote about how she celebrated Chinese New Year. A Chinese Muslim, she reverted at the age of 35, after postponing her earlier plan to do so for 10 years. You can read more of her experiences and thoughts in her blog, Musings of a Mualaf.


"Teacher, do you understand Tamil?" asked Revathi.

I was with a small group of Indian students, on relief duty for an absent teacher.

"No, I don't understand Tamil," I smiled. I knew they just wanted reassurance that I would not eavesdrop on their conversation.

"Would you understand if I speak Chinese?" I asked. Revathi's turn to smile.

"Teacher, you can speak Chinese?" 

"Teacher is Chinese la," Ramanan answered for me.

"Really? I thought you're a Malay."

"I am a Chinese," my smile grew wider. She looked puzzled.

"But... you are wearing tudung?"

"I am a Chinese Muslim... born in Malaysia. I grew up as a Chinese and later..."

"You converted?" Shanti chipped in.

"That's right. I wear the tudung because I am a Muslim woman. But I am still a Chinese and I can speak and understand Chinese." I explained slowly.

"Ohhh..." Revathi nodded slowly.

I've been in this school since 2010. I taught these same students two years ago and strangely, they have not realised that I am a Chinese lady. The reason? I am wearing a hijab, or tudung.

Students, like most Malaysians, associate this garb with Islam and being Malay. In many minds, if you wear a tudung, then you must be a Malay.

And in their minds, if you happen to wear a long tudung, then you must be an especially religious Malay. They associate our clothing with religion.

It's bad enough that Muslim and non-Muslim students are always separated during religious activities. It would be havoc among other non-Muslim teachers if a non-Muslim student were to sit in the hall with other Muslim students, listening to a ceramah (sermon) by an ustaz.

So I can't blame them for their lack of understanding of Islam. They don't know much because we, the Muslims, don't do much. Sometimes we, as adults, are not allowed to.
Students learn best when they mix with their own friends. Which is why our teenagers need to be exposed to doing Islamic dakwah work, and not be scolded nor discouraged just because they 'lack knowledge'.

I wouldn't be surprised if non-Muslim students think that China is made up of only Buddhist people. I used to think that way too, when in reality there are more Chinese Muslims in China than there are Malay Muslims in Malaysia.

Once, I was told, in hushed tones, that there was a Chinese student who was interested in Islam. The ustazah didn't know what to do. Till today, I'm still waiting for her to approach me.

It's always fun watching how Chinese students react when I speak Chinese dialects or Mandarin to them. One day when I scolded a sleepy Chinese lad in Hokkien, his mother tongue, and he was so surprised that he actually sat up straight.
And the Malay students?

They might suddenly realise that it's a fact that there are other Muslims in this country who are not Malay or Mamak.* That there are other once-kafir (non-Muslim) people who have embraced Islam and are now their brothers and sisters in Islam. Because I'm living and walking proof among them.

"So teacher, are you a Malay or a Chinese now?"

"I am a Chinese... and my religion is Islam. There are more than 60,000 Chinese Muslims in Malaysia today, did you know?"

Ahhh, life is never boring as a Chinese Muslim. Xie xie, wo ai ni,** Allah.

*Mamak: local slang to refer to people of Indian ethnicity.
** Mandarin for 'Thank you, I love you'.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Mouthpainter shares story of love at first sight (Part 2)

This article was first published on AbleThrive. Read Part 1 here!

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One evening when they were working late in the office of their organisation, the Bandung Independent Living Centre, Indonesian mouthpainter Faisal Rusdi finally confessed his feelings to his childhood crush, Cucu Saidah. He had been keeping his feelings for his colleague and soon-to-be-wife to himself for 24 years.

When asked to describe what he loves most about his wife, he said candidly, “I liked her thick eyebrows. She is beautiful, very intelligent and she loves me.”

A year after dating, they decided to marry. But first, they had to break the news to their parents. “My mother and my family were surprised, overwhelmed and happy,” said Faisal, who is based in Bandung, Indonesia.

However, Cucu’s parents did not like the idea of them being together. “They tried to keep us apart, to the point of keeping her at home,” said Faisal. “I think they considered me severely disabled and unable to take care of myself.”

Through one of her brothers, Faisal tried to communicate to her parents. “My uncle and my family approached her family to ask for her hand many times but we were refused.”

Increasingly stressed and frustrated, Cucu grew distant from Faisal, who struggled to accept the reality of his situation. “But her love for me became stronger, and for me as well. We kept trying, and praying and consulting with many people,” he said.

Eventually, they decided to solemnise the marriage through a legal procedure that overrides the bride’s need for a wali, or guardian – the closest male relative – since her father was against the marriage. Finally, the religious court granted them a wali hakim, or a judicial guardian.

“We still invited her parents and family to the wedding, but not one of them attended. Only my extended family and our friends,” said Faisal.

Faisal and Cucu in traditional wedding outfits from Padang, West Sumatra, enter the accessible reception hall on their power wheelchairs during their wedding in Bandung.

After the wedding, the couple continued to reach out to Cucu’s family and their efforts eventually paid off. “Eight months later on Idul Fitri [a celebration after the fasting month of Ramadan], her parents started to accept us slowly,” he said.

Faisal and Cucu were married on 30th November, 2008 in Bandung. As his parents were originally from Padang, the couple chose to follow West Sumatran customs and traditions for their wedding. Naturally, since both Faisal and Cucu are electric wheelchair users, the event hall and wedding dais were designed to be as accessible as possible.

The wedding was just the start of a relationship with unique challenges, which widens the common but narrow conception that the daily work of marriage only involves two parties. For example, Faisal hires a regular caregiver. “The role of assistants/caregivers who help me in my activities is extremely important, and I do not deny it,” he said.

“An assistant [knows] the technical and ethical aspects of accompanying a person with disabilities. He is a good friend who understands me well, and is part of my life. The presence of an assistant completes my independence.”

While the couple strongly promote a definition of independence from their perspective – that includes the presence of an assistant and not solely the ability “to manage oneself” – they still have to deal with society’s misconceptions of their relationship.

“[People think] that we are not able to manage a household, be physically and financially independent, or not able to have or raise children,” said Faisal.

As for their marriage goals, Faisal and Cucu look towards helping their broader community as well. “Both of us want to own or start an art restaurant or cafe where people can come to not just eat but communicate, educate and advocate about an inclusive community.”

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Mouthpainter shares story of love at first sight (Part 1)

This article was first published on AbleThrive

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For professional mouth painter Faisal Rusdi, 41, who was born with cerebral palsy, love at first sight isn’t simply a cliché.

Faisal first saw his wife, Cucu Saidah, on his first day at a special education school in Bandung, Indonesia. It was 1983, and back then there was a flag-raising ceremony every Monday. Cucu was standing just a few metres in front of him – she was leading the ceremony.

“In that moment, I knew I liked her immediately,” said Faisal. “Perhaps we could say it was love at first sight, at nine years old.” However, Faisal’s nine-year-old self was “shy, reserved and quiet.” Throughout the four years of elementary school, he never even greeted or spoke to her. Later, Cucu continued her secondary education at a mainstream school, while he remained at the same special school. They occasionally met each other at school reunions, where they had brief conversations. “I still felt the same as I did. I liked her, but I kept it to myself,” said Faisal.

To take his mind off her, Faisal threw himself into drawing and painting. In 2002 he was part of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (AMFPA). The next year, Cucu returned from 10 months in Japan, where she had been following a leadership training on independent living. She began to apply this philosophical knowledge through events and workshops. Faisal found himself at one of these events, at the insistence of a friend and fellow painter.

‘Why, Faisal jealous ya?’

“I met Cucu after such a long time. I greeted her with a smile and at long last, we became friends,” said Faisal. Together with her friends, Cucu invited him to work in her organisation, the Bandung Independent Living Centre (BILiC). Faisal soon replaced Cucu as the head of the organisation as she had accepted a job in the US, although she soon returned in 2004 to BILiC as a consultant. As they continued working together, Cucu had no idea that Faisal’s feelings for her were growing stronger by the day.

One day in 2007, they were working late in the office – long after their colleagues had left. “As we worked, Cucu chatted with me and I don’t know why, but I told her that I had once dreamed of her walking with some guys that I knew. She replied jokingly, ‘Why, Faisal jealous ya?’”

“I was a bit scared. Slowly, I turned off my computer and told her everything,” said Faisal. Cucu was surprised, because he had been keeping his feelings from her for the past 24 years. “I made her promise to not get angry, to not make fun of me, or to tell our friends because I felt embarrassed.”

Confessing his feelings to Cucu was the easy part of their courtship. Faisal soon had to overcome many other obstacles before he could marry the woman for whom he had fallen at first sight – at nine years old.



Read more about what Faisal had to overcome to marry the love of his life in Part 2 next week!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Leaping over language barriers

This article was first published on Aquila Style.

Adventures in picking up a new language doesn’t have much to do with meeting new people.
Image: Pixabay
At this moment, I live unwillingly in the Netherlands. I didn’t move here because I loved the language or the culture. After three and a half years, I can understand most of what people are saying, but since I haven’t had (read: couldn’t afford) any formal lessons and I’m not particularly fond of the language, the Dutch language requires the activation of a whole other part of my brain.

I’ve nothing against learning new languages. Or European languages for that matter. I stuck through French lessons in middle school before I finally realised how I actually loved speaking it when I participated in an immersion programme in a sleepy French town (and later, studied there for a year). I still speak decent French and try to not lose my skills by watching French films. And because I already speak English by virtue of being born and bred in a former British colony, I think two imperialist languages are enough for me, thank you.

The thing about speaking Dutch in the Netherlands is that… you don’t have to. Most people in the big cities speak decent English, which is enough to get by if all you want is to buy groceries at the supermarket, or find your way with public transport.

But there’s a double standard when it comes to speaking the local lingo. If you’re a Caucasian or European, you’re not expected to speak Dutch. Laws that allow free movement in the European Union also mean that for Europeans, learning Dutch is merely voluntary. However, for me as a non-European permanent resident, I have to take a language exam in the next two years or risk a severe fine.

Here, there are two types of people who are usually assumed to be unequivocally Dutch: White or Brown (thanks to colonial history). Because my appearance is typically Javanese or Indonesian, I’m often mistaken as being Dutch. Many Dutch people also have grandmothers or great-grandmothers who came over from the former colonies. These women often attempted to integrate totally by adopting the local language and ways of life.

At one point in time, I figured I’d similarly integrate by forcing myself to speak and listen to Dutch. I decided to start in a prenatal yoga group that I had just joined. I figured that I would do okay since I could understand most words relating to movement and parts of the body. Plus, it was a good opportunity to learn the relevant vocabulary for labour and delivery.

It turned out to be a very lonely 10 weeks. Even though I tried my best to speak a little bit of Dutch each lesson to the yoga instructor and to the other participants, I never got around to actually striking up a semblance of a friendship with the other mothers. Perhaps it was our age difference: Almost all the other women were well into their 30s, and some in their 40s. Perhaps we lived in different places: They live in the suburbs and I live in the city. Or perhaps I was just the only non-White person in the whole group.

I had a very different experience in a postnatal Pilates class I’m currently attending. It’s a small and cosy studio not too far from where I live, run by an English woman and attended by many English-speaking people (even though most of the instructors are Dutch). I take two different classes, and both instructors willingly carry out their lessons in a mix of Dutch and English to make sure I can understand.

I’ve also met some kindred souls in this class – a total change from awkward attempts at conversation in my previous yoga class. Whether it’s because women are more sympathetic when they can bond over how bad their hospital experience was, or whether it’s just a friendlier group of women, I haven’t needed to speak Dutch at all. (Besides, my go-to excuse is that my brain is too sleep-deprived caring for a baby to string together a sentence.)

I realised then that it’s not about the language we speak, but about our willingness to know the other. Now when someone speaks to me in Dutch, I don’t feel obligated to reply in the same language to prove I’m a “good” migrant. I’m perfectly happy to speak what is most comfortable to me because what is more important is our effort to communicate, not the language we communicate in.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Fatal sedition: Noor Farida Ariffin kept in line with rape threats

This article was first published on Muslimah Media Watch.

I recently became aware of rape threats made on social media towards Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin, a well-respected former Malaysian ambassador to the Netherlands. Also a lawyer, she was the co-founder ofSisters in Islam, a local non-governmental organisation for women’s rights, and is the spokesperson of a local group of prominent Malays called G25.

In December 2014, G25 published an open letter to the Malaysian government calling for, among other things, “a rational dialogue on the position of Islam in a constitutional democracy“. Signed by 25 former high-ranking civil servants, including directors-general, secretaries-general, ambassadors and prominent individuals, the letter demands a second look at the position and application of Islamic laws in the country, as well as the jurisdiction and limits of the powers that religious authorities can have.

Why then, is her dissenting opinion not even tolerated, but considered an invitation to threats of murder and rape?

Among other points, the letter focused on a minister’s response to a recent court ruling that transgender women in Malaysia have the right “to dress according to their identity”. Even though this state ruling is in favour of a marginalised group — and therefore should be seen as justice, the main objective of Islamic law — the fact that it is related to women, their sexuality and/or their appearance makes it a favourite target for being a threat to Islam and society at large.

“… [Minister Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom] viewed the right of the transgender community and Sisters in Islam (SIS) to seek legal redress as a ‘new wave of assault on Islam’ and as an attempt to lead Muslims astray from their faith, and put religious institutions on trial in a secular court.”

The letter also highlighted the need for marginalised populations (like the poor) to feel safe from state intrusions of an individual’s privacy. One Shariah Criminal Offenses law in particular targets low-income unmarried couples who are found to be guilty of the crime of khalwat, or ‘close proximity’. Noor Farida says that “personal sin” should not be considered a crime that is punishable by the state.

The Department of Islamic Advancement of Malaysia (JAKIM) conducts regular ambushes to catch those engaged in khalwat, which have sometimes resulted in injuries or even death. Many of these ambushes are posted on YouTube to serve the sordid purpose of a public hanging. MMW writer Alicia sums this up in her piece on sexual immorality in Malaysia:

“Too often, sexual immorality is intertwined with class: cases of close proximity (khalwat) involve couples caught in budget hotels, in cars parked in quiet places, and in public parks, couples who cannot afford to marry or hire a room at an expensive hotel, a place very rarely ventured by the moral police.”

The letter invited scornful responses from two Malay rights NGOs, Malaysian Muslim Solidarity (ISMA) and right-wing Perkasa. ISMA, a group known for its Malay-centric voice, resorted to “personal taunts” such as suggesting that the letter’s “expired” authors should “go back to masjids and repent“, while Perkasa’s secretary-general merely questioned if the authors had done anything at all for Malaysia.

During a talk on “Fighting Religious Extremism in Malaysia” in London recently, Noor Farida gave a review of recent incidents of rising religious extremism in Malaysia, as recounted by Mariam Mokhtar of Free Malaysia Today:

“But the current reality, she said, was a disturbing picture of Islamic NGOs and religious authorities wielding power over a cowed population, with the Malays being watched by a brutal and unapologetic moral police who act like thugs and the non-Malays and non-Muslims subject to intense provocation.”

She gave a laundry list of vile acts which involved body snatching, the conversion of minors, the ‘Allah’ issue, the seizure of Bibles and the actions of born-again Muslims. She also spoke of Muslims being persecuted through mindless acts perpetrated by the religious authorities.

The threat of rape serves to intimidate, and showing women their ‘proper’ place in society simply contributes to the preservation of patriarchy as the status quo

In early December this year, Noor Farida was at a G25 forum on Islam and democracy. The forum aimed at creating an inclusive Consultative Committee of Experts to advise the government on amending state shariah law, within the requirements of the Federal Constitution and National Principles (Rukun Negara).

Her call for a review on the crime of khalwat was met with threats of murder and rape on social media. Facebook user Al Mujahid Arman posted “[her blood is halal]” while another Facebook user Sharul Nizam Ab Rahim threatened to break into her house and rape her.

Despite lodging police reports, the police were slow to investigate and to date, the two men have neither been caught nor convicted. Meanwhile, Noor Farida herself is under investigation for sedition. The Sedition Act, an “outdated colonial vestige”, has been increasingly used to “suppress legitimate offline and online dissent in Malaysia“. Put simply, as her opinion is contrary to ‘official Islam’, she must be silenced.

Looking through the lenses of age, gender, class and race is essential. Since Noor Farida is Malay and Muslim, being a high-ranking government official (and an elderly woman who does not wear hijab) means that she upsets notions of a proper Malay woman. (Although being a young hijabi politician in Malaysia brings with it another set of stereotypes.) As such, she must be ideologically disciplined by both the state (Sedition Act) and the public (Facebook).

Noor Farida has many important points on religious extremism and how religious laws can coexist with secular ones. Why then, is her dissenting opinion not even tolerated, but considered an invitation to threats of murder and rape? Because the threat of rape serves to intimidate, and showing women their ‘proper’ place in society simply contributes to the preservation of patriarchy as the status quo.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

When transphobia blocks justice for survivors of sexual violence

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussion of underage rape and of transphobia


Four months ago, the Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times ran a few articles on a case involving Malay Muslim transgender man Zunika Ahmad, 39. He had been charged with 20 counts of sexually penetrating a girl, a minor who was between the age of 13 and 14 at the time of the offenses between April 2012 and December 2013, with a dildo.

Last week, the same newspaper ran several more articles to update on the decision of the High Court. High Court Senior Judge Kan Ting Chiu, acquitted Zunika of six charges (although Zunika was convicted of one charge of sexual exploitation and sentenced to eight months’ jail). The judge said that Section 376A of the Penal Code implies that only a person with a penis (i.e a man) can be guilty of sexual penetration: “The reference to a person who has a penis cannot be construed to include a woman without doing violence to common sense and anatomy.”

What’s interesting about this case is that while the offender is a man and should be considered as one, the sex he was assigned at birth was used to erase his sexual offenses.

Earlier coverage of the story in December 2015 spoke of Zunika as a person with “gender dysphoria” and describes a transgendered man as someone “who was born a woman but identifies as male“. The newspaper’s representation of Zunika as a trans person is mixed; it uses the wrong pronouns throughout, but in other ways it could even be considered sympathetic: Zunika felt “betrayed by her [sic] own body” when he entered puberty.

Not being able to express his gender identity is portrayed as a source of mental distress (“When her mother forbade her from going for a sex change operation, she cut her forearms […]”). Zunika was expected to be able to go for sex reassignment surgery and “rebuild” his life.

While a medical diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria’ suggests that this condition is something innate and fixed, words and phrases used in the newspaper’s language, such as “bogus persona“, “disguised as man“, “fooled” and “her real gender” imply that transgendered people are also deceptive and manipulative. Furthermore, the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ are used consistently throughout all articles – even if the term “transgender man” is used – to further emphasise that transgendered men are actually still women.

What is the purpose of law when it cannot bring about justice?

There is also a tone of incredulity at any type of marriage that is out of the heteropatriarchal norm. This is shown by the putting in apostrophes the words “married”, “husband” and “wives”. Such marriages cannot possibly be real or recognised because they do not involve the union of two people of opposite biological sexes.

The most important issue at hand, however, is the sexual exploitation of a minor. The first article describes the sex as “consensual” even though the victim was below 16 years old, the age of consent in Singapore. The purpose behind legal ages of consent is to protect minors, who are presumed to not be able to give informed consent due to unequal relations of power. Sex with a minor under 16 is an offence with or without the minor’s consent, let alone a 13- or 14-year-old having sex with someone more than 20 years older.

More disturbing perhaps is the squabbling over legal definitions (i.e. sexual offender must be a man, must have penis, etc) over the actual application of the law to derive justice (protecting a victim who was a minor at the time of the crime).

“If a court were to interpret A to include a woman, it would be rewriting the law, said [High Court Senior Judge Kan Ting Chiu]. [He] said the ‘better course’ was to leave it to the legislature to amend the provision to make it clear that A includes a woman, if that was indeed the intention.”

While the subject of this analysis is a Muslim transgender man, the insistence of the media on framing him as a woman raises several interesting points.

First, representing transgendered persons in the media only in relation to sexual offenses serves to strengthen the link between being a sexual minority and a moral deviant. In this case, Zunika not only committed the moral crime of deception, but also adultery (“cheats on wives“), paedophilia and deviant sex acts (“using sex toy“) in addition to a whole list of other charges.

“Besides the sexual offences, Zunika is also accused of four counts of using a forged Indonesian passport at Singapore checkpoints, and one count each of voluntarily causing hurt and permitting a false entry to be made at the registry of births and deaths. She will be dealt with on these charges separately.”

Second, we should be vigilant of the use of religion to provide a cover for sexual abuse. The victim, known as R, said: “My family trusted her because she has her own family and seemed very religious. She taught me and my siblings how to pray and made me wear a hijab.” Apparently Zunika also wore an “ankle-length robe and turban during religious occasions,” Arabised items of clothing that give the wearer more religious legitimacy.

Third, we need to be aware of the history of laws. The Penal Code was enacted in the late 19th century in British colonies, based on British law and understandings of society at that time. While British law today may have evolved through amendments, many former colonies remain with fossilised versions of colonial-era law that limit sexual offenses to sexual penetration with a human penis, for example.

As a mirror to Section 376A, the Penal Code also does not recognise men or boys as victims of rape, since Section 375 of the Penal Code states that a victim of rape must have a vagina. This eliminates many other types of sexual offenses that may not involve penetration, or that may involve the violent use of other objects.

Ultimately, such laws fail to protect the underage victim, whether it is a boy or girl. And what is the purpose of law when it cannot bring about justice?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"Do you work here?"

Institutional racism means that when you are Brown, you're taken to be a low-wage worker. Not that you might want or desire such a job, but that these are the opportunities open to you.

Institutional racism means that when you're in a clothing store, some White people will assume that you work there. You might be holding a few pieces of clothing over your arm, as you look through the shelves and racks. These are not things that you're browsing for and that you can afford to buy, but items that were already tried on or misplaced and it's your $5-per-hour job to fold and put them back.

Institutional racism means that when you are seeking something more beyond the 9-to-5 grind, some Rich people assume that you're unemployed and would be grateful for any job offered to you. You may have been privileged enough to get a degree, but educational qualifications are invisible. A rich person may look at your skin colour, and the skin colour of their loyal chauffeur and secretary, and offer you those jobs. These are not jobs you are necessarily interested in, but you are supposed to be grateful that you were offered them at all.

Institutional racism means that when you send out dozens of resumes with your Arabic-sounding Malay name, some White people will offer you a secretarial or administrative job, if it's not a cleaning job. Some White people will offer you unpaid internships. Some Rich people will, during your interview, tell you that they are glad you are not wearing hijab, because women that wear hijab "think differently". Institutional racism means that when you hyphenate your father's name to your husband's Dutch family name, you get an interview and you are assumed to be of mixed parentage.

Institutional racism means that when you find yourself too close to a person who has more privilege, other people might mistake you as the domestic worker of the person you are helping. You might be just offering a wet wipe to a Chinese woman who fell down, or helping a wheelchair-user buy something or get somewhere.

Institutional racism means that when you're doing anything resembling manual labour, some Chinese people will assume that you are the cleaner of the premises humbly doing your job. You might be moving boxes and equipment because you train with athletes in this hall everyday. It's your last day in this place and you have to pack everything to be picked up the next day. You know the Malay pakciks and Indian aunties that set up and put away sports equipment and furniture in this hall. Institutional racism means that a Chinese person may see you as just another Brown menial worker.

So the first thing he asks you is, "Do you work here?"

Monday, April 25, 2016

Calling the shots in life with wheelchair basketball

This article was first posted on AbleThrive.


Singaporean para­athlete Emilio Choo, 34, came into contact with wheelchair basketball through something completely unrelated: learning how to drive a hand­controlled car.

During a driving lesson at Handicaps Welfare Association, the person in­charge of wheelchair basketball noticed that Emilio was still “young and mobile”, and told him he was suitable for the sport. He had always been a fan of team sports, playing soccer and basketball long before a spinal injury 14 years ago left him paralysed from the waist down. “A team complements each other. You can be good at something but no one is perfect. A team can cover your shortfalls,” he said.


But he didn’t think that he would be able to continue playing sports – or achieve anything significant – after his injury. “To be independent is a big enough accomplishment. For a year I even thought, that’s the end of it and I would be bedridden for life. But to be out here and doing something [at] the ASEAN Para Games [in December 2015]… I never thought I would be able to represent the nation in any way at all.”

Being active can mean different things for different people. For some, it can be a way to meet new people. For others, it’s a way to improve their health – both physically and mentally. For people with disabilities, sports can also serve as a way to empower themselves. Emilio thinks that trying a new sport encourages people with disabilities to get out of their physical and mental comfort zones.

“I know it’s tough initially – I went through it – there’s no need to rush. But I really think sports and interaction can help you overcome all challenges. Even if you have a family that’s encouraging and providing you with help, there’s nothing better than being independent. By coming out and meeting people in similar situations, you can gain the confidence to improve your life.”

Although Emilio went through a bout of depression after his injury, he feels his mental health improved greatly with the help of his teammates. “Hanging around with them helped me a lot because they went through the same things and had good advice for me. They also made me feel that there’s nothing wrong with being in a wheelchair. We joke about it, we say things like ‘why your hands so short’ and ‘jelly legs’. We laugh at each other. Those kind of things help you accept who you are.”


Since becoming a wheelchair athlete, Emilio has had his fair share of physical and psychological challenges. For example, he has had to shift his perceptions of fitness. While as an able­-bodied athlete, he was more concerned with stamina, his priorities now are his upper body strength and balance.

“In the past, I was tall. So it was easier for me to play basketball. I didn’t even need to jump, I just had to lift slightly and I was taller than everyone else. But now I have to learn to do things differently. For me, because of my disability I don’t have much balance on the chair. I have to learn to shoot from a wheelchair and to get my balance, [I have] to strap myself down.”

His favourite part of being on a team is being able to build on the strength of others and to know that he can always count on their support. Each player has a specific role to play to the best of their abilities, which enables them to support one another on and off the court.“At the ASEAN Para Games, even though I took most of the shots, I would not have been able to do so without my teammates. They gave me good positions, and gave me the ball to shoot.”

As for the value of sports in his life, Emilio counts “a fighting spirit” as the best dividend from investing himself in wheelchair basketball. “Even when the odds are down, don’t give up. Like life, you have to try and try. You cannot get things right from the start, so you have to practise to get the perfect shot.” Vulnerability in teamwork is another valuable lesson he has learned: “You need help in team sports, you cannot do it all on your own. You don’t have to.”

Emilio is predictably wistful about the importance of his team in his life. “My teammates, I have been playing with them for 13 years. They are [not only] my teammates, but also my mentors. They taught me a lot in life.” For him, basketball isn’t just an opportunity to regain physical, but also emotional strength. It has been a way to regain his independence and self­-confidence to call his own shots in life. “Someone told me this: you might miss a shot if you’re not good. But if you don’t even try to make a shot it will never even get in.”

If you’re a newcomer or beginner to wheelchair basketball, but curious and game for an aggressive sport and working as a team, contact us and we’ll put you in touch. (Don’t worry, you won’t be pressured into joining the team!)

“Be daring, don’t be afraid. If you keep trying, we’ll support each other.”

Check out this YouTube video of Emilio explaining why he loves wheelchair basketball, and watch him take a shot!


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Does religion trump race? Yes, at least in Singapore.



One of the biggest problems that Muslim women face today is the need to deconstruct and reconstruct narratives of ourselves in the media. (That’s why Muslimah Media Watch exists, amirite?) A recent interview of Professor Jackie Ying, a Chinese Muslim scientist in Singapore, by a Singaporean Malay language news channel shows that this need can exist just as painfully among Muslims themselves.

50-year-old Professor Ying is presently the Executive Director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore. Born in Taiwan, she came to Singapore at the age of seven to complete her primary and secondary school education. At the age of 15 her family moved to New York, and she attended high school and The Cooper Union to complete a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Afterwards, she obtained her MA and PhD from Princeton University. In 2001, she became one of the youngest full professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The interview was brought to my attention through a blogpost by Singaporean blogger Zaihan, in which he highlighted the problematic ‘entanglement’ of race and religion. (The blog was last accessed on 26 Feb 2016 and seems to be currently unavailable.)
“Due to her choice of converting to Islam about 15 years ago, Professor Ying is somehow now seen as a representative of the Malay/Muslim community. She was asked to comment on issues that this group faces; on how she would change or improve interest in the sciences amongst the youth of the demographic, for example. She was even prodded to share the “kemelayuan”—Malayness, in short—that she sees in herself. It’s so strange because she is Muslim, but not Malay. She was not quite able to answer so many of these queries levelled at her, because she had not lived as a Malay (…)”
In Singapore, just like in Malaysia, ethnicity and religion are deeply intertwined. To be a Malay often means to be Muslim, and Muslim converts are usually expected to adopt Malay practices. Elsewhere in MMW I wrote that “these two terms [Malay and Muslim] are often used interchangeably.” One problem with this false equivalence of terms is that it erases the experiences of Muslims of other ethnicities, like Professor Ying herself. However, this is something that is sometimes reinforced by the ehnic group itself, in this particular case, the Malay community, as highlighted by blogger Zaihan:
“The blatant manner that Berita Harian and local Malay news programmes claim her amazing achievements (she is truly prolific and well-decorated) as a Malay-Muslim point of pride—simply by virtue of her holding the same faith as their target readers—is not only very silly but also insulting to her journey.”
The other problem with equating Malays and Muslims is the discursive erasure of Malays of other religions, even though they make up a very small percentage of the population. One’s religious identity takes precedence over any other identities.

In the half-hour clip, the interviewer asks several questions that assume that Professor Ying somehow would understand what it means to be Malay, just because she converted to Islam. The interviewer poses these questions:
  1. What is the reason behind the low numbers of Malay Muslims participating in science and research?
  2. What more can the Malay Muslim community do to encourage, ensure and produce a group of science practitioners?
  3. Do you see any Malay Muslims [in your institute] who have the potential to be [a Nobel Prize winner]?
Professor Ying works with the local Malay/Muslim community through Yayasan Mendaki, a “self-help” semi-governmental organisation. She mentors young Muslims interested in science by giving them the opportunity of working on research projects in her laboratory. While she could not answer these questions from the perspective of a Malay, she did have insights from the perspective of an educator.

She highlighted the shortcomings of science education, and she said,”I think it’s the same problem for everybody. Students learn science as a fairly dry subject.” Furthermore, she spoke about the emphasis on exams and early streaming, “Doing well academically is different from being able to do research well in the lab. We have too much of a civil service mindset.”

Even though the interviewer’s questions framed her as having to speak for the Singaporean Malay community by virtue of being Muslim, I think she managed to steer the conversation away to – as much as she could – create her own representation. The struggle continues for Muslim women to create their own narratives and resisting those imposed on them.
“I think from being young, we wanted to grow up to be individuals. It was important for me that my parents did not set me in certain pigeonholes. They are very accepting of who I am (…) Of course society is a different story. We have a lot of constraints. But because my parents never set those limitations, I never felt there was something I couldn’t do. I think it’s that: we set our own challenges that makes it possible for us to try different things.”
In Singapore, the conflation of ethnicity and religion erases individual narratives, as Professor Ying highlights here. However, with this interview she has given us an example of how to resist dominant media narratives – an example both media makers and participants can learn from.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Chinese convert is "content wherever she finds herself"

This article was first published on Openseam. Iman Wong is a Chinese convert from Singapore. She enjoys reading, brisk walking and listening to oldies. She currently volunteers at Darul Arqam, where she counsels new converts and teaches them about Islam and prayers.

By Iman Wong

It started way back in 1978. I had decided to embraced Islam. It was indeed a very trying and difficult period for me but I survived.

I lived in a kampong area in Geylang and there was a mosque near my home. Every morning I could hear the sounds of adhan I disliked it because it was noisy and interrupted my sleep. I had many different neighbours: Malays, Indians and Chinese. We played and ran around together. All our homes were always open and we only locked our front doors after midnight. It was so safe and so sound...

Then, I was studying in a Roman Catholic school, where all of us went to church, sang hymns and also studied catechism. The British nuns would read from the Bible and tell us stories even though we were non-Catholics. Incidentally, I remembered a handsome British priest who visited our class -- all of us were mesmerised by his big blue eyes. I was not keen or interested in being a Catholic as I did not feel anything when I looked at a statue of Jesus Christ.

My parents were Taoists and they only worshipped ancestors. I was a free thinker and I simply followed what they wanted me to do, like holding joss sticks and cleaning the altar of my late grandfather. Sometimes, I followed my mother to the temple to pray to deities, but I really disliked it. The smoke from the joss sticks and the solemn looks on the deities made me feel very uneasy whenever I visited the temple. For me, worshipping deities are definitely out, because deities are all made by men.

Then, I was aware that there was a God but I did not know how to get to Him. I was like a lost ship floating on the sea.

My dearest father was hardworking but a man of very few words. He was the only breadwinner in my family and when he was stressed out, he drowned his sorrows by drinking! I did not understand him too well as there was no communication between us at all. He was like our ‘commander’ from whom we only took orders. Then, I was rather rebellious, always wanting to do something different from my siblings.

One night, I did some soul searching and wondered if life should be so monotonous – eat, sleep, work, play? I started thinking about the meaning of life and concluded that there must be some superpower that created everything. My head kept pounding.

Who is He and where is He?

Finally, one day my question was answered. A Malay Muslim neighbour gave me a English translation of the Qur’an, written by Mohammed Pickthall. When I finally found some time to take a look, I read the first verse, Al Fatiha. The phrase, "Show us the straight path" (1:5) attracted me. I felt that this was the wake-up call for which I had been searching.

I began to attend classes at Darul Arqam under the late Cikgu Zaini, at Pheng Geck Avenue. He gave me the impression of a father, a respected teacher, and a knowledgeable person. He had a good sense of humour and in other words, a jolly good fellow. And he looked so Chinese too! My first question to him was, “Are you a Chinese?” and he said "No, I look Chinese but I am born Malay."

Of course, my parents didn’t know that I was attending Islamic courses. How would they have reacted! When I decided to convert in 1978, my father was so mad at me and did not speak to me for a year, but my mother was very supportive, alhamdulillah. My eldest sister was strongly against it because she is a Catholic. I embraced Islam without their blessings and I did feel very upset.

My faith fluctuated when I lost my late husband

Fortunately, I met Brother Kamar Lim, whom I greatly respect, and also the late Sister Saibah – both of whom became my mentors. They understood the conflict with my family and gave me a lot of support and encouragement. They said, keep praying and Allah will lighten your burden. I felt so much better after talking to both of them. Brother Kamar Lim asked me to be a council member with Darul Arqam and in short, Darul Arqam became my second home.

After a year, my father started speaking to me. But, he told me that he wanted his future son–in-law to be a Chinese. I was astounded but I had no choice but to take up his challenge! As it turned out, in the same year, I attended a youth camp in Taipei organised by the World Assembly Muslim Youth (WAMY) with another Muslim sister. I was really excited to meet so many Chinese Muslims in Taiwan and, guess what, there I also met my late husband. My late father was so happy that I was marrying a Chinese Muslim and we were blessed with a son, alhamdulillah.

In 1998, my late husband met with a car accident. I realised that death is inevitable. That took me to further understand that life in this world is not forever and that one day, we have to return to God whether we are ready to or not. My faith fluctuated when I lost my late husband but it was a trial that I had to quickly get over for the sake of my only son. I renewed my faith and occupied myself with classes and activities at Darul Arqam. Just like the Chinese saying, ji lai zhi ze an shi. Be content wherever you find yourself.

Time flies. I have embraced Islam for 38 years. Thank God that He blesses me till today. I am imperfect, I still have weakness and flaws in my journey to Islam but my faith keeps me going. New converts? Put your trust in Allah and everything will fall in its place, insha’allah.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A quick guide to Islamic empires

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 Heritage issue of Aquila Style magazine

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History is dreary no more when the subject is the political theatre of Islam’s Golden Age.

The interior beauty of the Alhambra (Image: Fotolia)

When I was a young Muslim kid growing up, I had to attend Islamic classes every Sunday. The history lessons were unclear, but from them I got the (correct) idea that there were four caliphs who ruled after Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). And since I had also vaguely heard about several Islamic empires, I got the (false) impression that each caliph had his own dynasty.

I was an intellectually awkward teenager trying to empower my Muslim self with the achievements of the Golden Age of Islam, but I had no idea where this time period fit in with the rest of history. Later I realised that what could be called an “empire” happened after the reign of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs who strove to keep the message of Muhammad (pbuh) alive: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali.

The Umayyad elite 
(661 – 737 CE / 40 – 120 AH)
When Muhammad (pbuh) first began his prophetic career, the Umayyads were part of Mecca’s rich elite, who also harassed his followers when he still lived in Mecca. When Muhammad (pbuh) was spreading the Word of God, condemning those who were rich but did not care for society’s downtrodden and marginalised, the Umayyads were some of the people he was referring to.

Before Islam the Umayyads were merely the city elite. But once Islam started to prove, in a way, how Muslims could also achieve success in this world, they converted to Islam and became the elite of a global empire.

The main man in this empire was Mu’awiya; he was the cousin of Umar, the second caliph. Earlier during Umar’s reign, Mu’awiya was appointed the governor of Damascus and he kept this position throughout the reigns of the next two caliphs, Uthman and Ali. Towards the end of Ali’s reign, Mu’awiya formally refused to accept Ali as caliph, and led an army against him. When Ali was assassinated by one of his own followers, Mu’awiya declared himself caliph. Towards the end of his life, his son Yazid succeeded him.

The empire of the Umayyads launched the evolution of Islam as a civilisation and political empire. During their reign the Umayyads nurtured Islam’s religious institutions, like mosques and waqf – philantrophic religious foundations. They also declared Arabic as the official language, replacing Greek in the western ends of their empire – an empire that stretched from Cordoba in the west to Persia in the east, covering parts of modern day Iran and Afghanistan.

Mecca as depicted in the Qatari TV series ‘Omar’ (2012) Photo: YouTube
The second caliph of Islam, Umar, portrayed by Samer Ismail in the TV series ‘Omar’ (2012) Photo: YouTube
A map of the city of Baghdad between 150 and 300 AH (767 and 912 CE). William Muir / Wikimedia Commons
Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo was named after the 6th Fatimid caliph. Photo: Fotolia
A manuscript written during the Abbasid era. Wikimedia Commons

Abbasids take over, one Umayyad gets away 
(737 – 961 CE / 120 – 350 AH)
The Umayyads had created what seemed to be a stable empire, with Yazid’s descendants ruling for several generations. But the homogenisation of doctrine and bureaucracy within the empire had resulted in growing discontent among two marginalised groups: the Shi’a against the orthodox religious establishment, and the Persians against the Arab political establishment. Eventually, these two groups mapped onto each other.

This 1940s picture shows the 9th-century Malwiya Minaret with a spiral ramp at the Great Mosque of Samarra, 125 km north of Baghdad. Photo: DSK/AFP

Meanwhile in Iraq, a small anti-government band called the Hashimites dispatched to Merv (in today’s Turkmenistan) a professional revolutionary with the pseudonym Abu Muslim. His job was to protest against the growing materialism of the Umayyads and to promote the installation of Abu al-Abbas, a distant relative of the Prophet (pbuh), in order to return the Muslim world to the right track.

Abu Muslim’s army clashed with the Umayyads in Iraq, but not before incorporating bands of discontented Persians along the way. They won, and the Hashimites proclaimed Abbas as the new caliph. To cement his power, Abbas had the leading members of any surviving Umayyads killed; his brother Mansur later had Abu Muslim executed as well. The Abbasid empire had officially begun.

In embracing an orthodox approach to Islam, which had been developing under the Umayyads, Sunnism was born and was considered a clear sect, separate from Shi’ism. Perhaps the most important outcome of the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled for over 200 years, was the building of Baghdad.

Civilisation, culture, philosophy and art blossomed and reached a peak during the first two centuries or so. When Abbas died, his brother Mansur decided to build a new capital to serve as the empire’s focal point. Called the Round City because of the circular palace complex at its centre, Baghdad became the biggest and busiest city of its time. Traders, merchants and vendors settled in concentric circles around the palace, creating a maze of streets and alleys, mosques and bathhouses.

This 1940s picture shows the 9th-century Malwiya Minaret with a spiral ramp at the Great Mosque of Samarra, 125 km north of Baghdad. Photo: DSK/AFP
The thing about history is that it’s never linear; there are many simultaneous events happening all the time. If you’re sad that the Umayyads were all executed by Abbas, don’t despair: there’s a glimmer of hope. The last Umayyad nobleman, Abdul Rahman, fled to Andalusia (today’s Spain) while the Abbasid dynasty was starting up. Andalusians accepted him as their leader because as far as they knew, the Umayyads were still their leaders. And besides, Baghdad was geographically too far away to make much of an immediate impact.

Andalusia claimed to be independent from Baghdad, believing they were still the rightful caliphate. When Muslims (and non-Muslims) talk about the Golden Age, they are often referring to the Andalusian Umayyad empire. At its peak the capital of Cordoba boasted the largest libraries in Europe, hundreds of mosques, schools and bathhouses, as well as trade with North Africa and across the Mediterranean. Muslims, Jews and Christians lived under their own religious leaders and legal systems, practising their respective rituals and customs.

Co-existing caliphates: Andalusian Umayyads, Baghdadi Abbasids, and Cairene Fatimids 
(958 – 1095 CE / 347 – 487 AH)
In the 10th century yet another city rose up to challenge the Abbasid caliphate, which was by now clearly Sunni. A group of Tunisian Shi’a warriors seized Egypt from the Abbasid empire, and declared themselves the true caliph of Islam because they were descendants of Fatima, the Prophet’s (pbuh) daughter. They built a new capital and named it “Victory”: Qahira, or Cairo.

The Shi’ite Fatimid empire could be proud of building Al-Azhar, the world’s second university after Al-Karaouine in Fez. Drawing upon their natural resources of the Nile river and the Mediterranean sea, this caliphate dominated the maritime routes along the Red Sea and probably outshone both Baghdad and Cordoba.

Later on, the Fatimid empire was conquered and absorbed into the Abbasid caliphate. Meanwhile, the remaining Umayyad empire in Al-Andalus lasted until 1031, when it was conquered by Catholic Spain. The Abbasid dynasty and the Golden Age effectively ended when Baghdad was conquered by the Mongols in 1258. They regrouped in a weaker form as the Mamluk empire in Egypt, which was eventually conquered by the Ottoman empire in the 16th century.

This green glass weight from the Umayyad Dynasty is dated 743. In addition to the name al-Walid, who was the financial director of the Damascus treasury, the weight’s inscription, stamped on top in an angular script known as kufic, evokes Yazid III, a caliph of the Umayyad Dynasty. Acquired by Henry Walters, 1914. Wikimedia Commons
Map of the Umayyad Caliphate in 750 CE. From The Historical Atlas by William R Shepherd, 1926. Courtesy of the General Libraries at the University of Texas at Austin/Wikimedia Commons
An artist’s sketch of the main market in the Cordoba capital during the Andalusian Umayyad dynasty. Exhibited at Madinat al Zahra Museum. Photo: Sya Taha
The interior of Cordoba’s Mosque-Cathedral, rebuilt from a Catholic cathedral in the 8th century by Caliph Abdul Rahman. The red and white arches were inspired by the blue and white arches of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Some say that the many rows of arches were meant to resemble the palm trees of Arabia that Abdul Rahman so dearly missed. Photo: Fotolia
A dome inside the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. Photo: Fotolia
The mihrab of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is richly decorated with gold and designs of flowers and plants. Unusually, it faces south instead of south-east towards Mecca. Photo: Yarehk Hernandez
The exterior of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. Photo: Sya Taha
The ruins of Madinat az-Zahra (“City of the Flower”), a palace-city built in 936–940 by Caliph Abdul Rahman that contained mosques, offices, gardens, residences and baths. Representing the power and legitimacy of the caliph to continue the Umayyad empire in Andalusian Spain, Madinat az-Zahra served as the capital of al Andalus. Photo: Fotolia
The chamber in Madinat az-Zahra. Photo: Fotolia
The Court of Lions in the Alhambra. The Alhambra was first built under Caliph Abdul Rahman in the 8th century as a fortress, before being renovated in the 11th century as a palace. Photo: Fotolia

Who rules the ummah?

Prosperous as these caliphates were, they symbolised a clear fragmentation of the Muslim world. Each of them claimed to be the true caliphate, even as it was painfully obvious that the ummah was no longer coherent and united, and that their leaders were appearing to be more and more like secular kings.

From the 9th century onwards, other Islamic empires and sultanates also began to rise (and fall) in regions such as Persia, North Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. What most of these had in common was a claim to be a descendant of the Prophet (pbuh) or some other legitimacy to rule as a Muslim ruler.

I found it enthralling to know that Islamic empires co-existed, involved different degrees of bloodshed during takeovers, and included more than just the main three. When I think back to my scattered Islamic history education, an Islamic Empires 101 course sure would have kept my attention as a kid!

For historical sources and maps, see Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes(2009) by Tamim Ansary

Khalifa / Caliph: Khalifa in the Qur’an (2:30,38:26) means a vicegerent on earth, referring to human beings. Historically, when the ummah (global Muslim community) could be considered one governable population (during the time of the Prophet (pbuh), for example), the leader was called a khalifa, or caliph. When Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) passed away in 632, the four rulers who succeeded him each became known by the title of Rightly Guided Caliph. The political rulers of the various Islamic empires that came afterwards also proclaimed themselves the rightful caliphs.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A young Muslim's empathy in the mosque

This article was first published on Openseam.

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Every day, I commute to work on my motorcycle. It allows me to avoid the traffic jams that Kuala Lumpur is notorious for. Last week though, it was raining in the morning, so I waited for the rain to stop before setting out on my journey to the office, which is about 25km away.

After about a kilometre or so from my home, a car suddenly came out from a junction on my right and caught me by surprise. I reflexively applied the emergency brakes -- which caused me to lose control of the motorcycle, which slipped on the wet road.

The next thing I knew, I was still sliding on the road while the motorcycle had stopped. After I managed to stand on my own, I tried to move my motorcycle and myself to the side of the road to avoid being hit by incoming vehicles. It was rush hour, so everyone was heading to work and traffic was heavy.

Any pain had not yet set in, so I managed to get my motorcycle to a workshop while I dragged myself to a nearby clinic to have my wounds cleaned and bandaged. I had scraped the lower part of both my palms, right knee and toes. The pant leg that covered my right knee was totally torn away, leaving holes. 

For the next few days, I had to pray in a sitting position. I was given a few days off by the doctor, but by Friday I was back to work. 

During my lunch break, I usually pray my zohor (midday) prayer in the surau (prayer room) of a nearby shop. Surau Nurul Hidayah in Taman Putra Damai is also where I perform my Friday prayers. There are about 200 people who pray there, so it has been given special dispensation by the local religious office to host and conduct Friday prayers. (Normally only mosques can host Friday prayers).

There's no special place for people with special needs to pray as it is only a small surau. So as usual, I chose an empty spot and listened to the khutbah (sermon). After the sermon, a young Malay man joined my row. He glanced at my bandaged hand. He was praying on my right. 

The prayer started and we didn't say anything to each other. Because of the injury to my knee, I could only bend it a little. Part of my leg slightly jutted out to the side. 

Despite this, I noticed that with every ruku' (bow) or sujud (prostration), this young man moved only after I had positioned myself -- presumably to see where my knee would end up, so he could avoid jostling it. I noticed that he had been doing this from the beginning of the prayer.

In my heart I was thinking, here's someone whose Islam berbuah (is bearing fruit)...

When we gave salam after the prayer, he apologised if he had accidentally jostled me during the course of the prayer. My heart warmed, thinking that people nowadays seem to put themselves first, putting aside basic societal values such as politeness and consideration. This young man had made the effort to make me comfortable, and still had enough humility to apologise in case he did hit me, despite everything he had done.

In a time when I feel that there are a lot of selfish and inconsiderate people, this young man, barely 20 years old (since he has more hair than I do!), stood out by showing values that all Muslims should have: empathy, consideration, compassion.

After we parted, my heart sent out a sincere prayer for him. 
"O Allah, there goes one of your servant whose Islam is sprouting well. Please give him more knowledge and understanding of your religion and elevate him above his peers. Amin."
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By MHSA. MHSA is 38 year old Chinese Malaysian who converted to Islam about 24 years ago. He currently works as a senior programmer at a small software house in Klang Valley.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Book review: Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

This article was first published on Aquila Style.

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For a version of ancient and modern history from the eyes of Muslims, look to this easy-to-understand book as a beginner’s resource.



It’s important to know where you come from, so that you know where you are going. For many Muslims who live as minorities in their countries, learning about the history of the Muslims before them can be a powerfully empowering way to overcome many of their struggles today.

I first learned about the Golden Age of Islam as an undergraduate, in an extra-curricular course at a mosque I was active in. I never quite got the order of the caliphates right, confusing the Umayyads with the Abbasids. Perhaps it was a trend to hark back to this Golden Age in that decade, but I began to notice that more and more of the Muslim social circles I found myself in began to talk about these (male) travellers, astronomers, mathematicians, herbalists and doctors (these scholars were the epitome of multidisciplinary) in glowing terms.

I never heard a peep about the grand women of this history, like Fatima al-Fihri, the founder of the first university in the world in 859: Qarawiyyin University in Fez, Morocco. I had heard mostly of male scholars like Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd (along with their Latinised names Avicenna and Averroes respectively, given to obscure their Muslim origins), but I had never heard some of the latter’s philosophical ideas that I could best describe as overwhelmingly feminist. It seemed that an incomplete version of Islamic history was being presented for a particular purpose.

So I was a little sceptical to read Destiny Disrupted, which I had received as a birthday gift. But I cracked open its fresh pages anyway, since it was also the most appropriate attitude to take towards gifts.

Barely five pages in, I was hooked. As an example, the author cites Ibn Khaldun’s dry codification of the process of empire creation – “conquest, consolidation, expansion, degeneration, conquest” – as a running theme of history. The author then goes on to give a lively description of the process in detail:

“The pattern went like this: settled farmers would build irrigation systems supporting prosperous villages and towns. Eventually some tough guy (…) would bring a number of these urban centers under the rule of a single power, thereby forging a larger political unit (…) Then a tribe of hardy nomads would come along, conquer the monarch of the moment, seize all his holdings, and in the process expand their empire. Eventually, the hardy nomads would become soft, luxury-loving city dwellers, exactly the sort of people they had conquered, at which point another tribe of hardy nomads would come along, conquer them, and take over their empire.”

The dominant version of world history taught in most educational systems around the world divides time into periods like the medieval Dark Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment and the two world wars. When this version of history is taught, Muslim players are often left out. While many of us have read the classics of Shakespeare, how many of us know that in his time there were three Islamic empires that held most of the world’s power? “If you didn’t know Moors were Muslims, you wouldn’t learn it from Othello.”

Instead, this book tells the story of world history as seen “through Islamic eyes”. There are a series of simple but informative maps throughout, and an extensive list of footnotes for those who hanker for further reading. The crucial time periods for this narrative are the birth of Islam, the four caliphates, attacks by Crusaders and Mongols, and European colonisation, for example. There is also a brief tracing of the rise of “Islamism”, which can help both Muslim and non-Muslim readers understand the crisis of terrorism and violence in recent decades.

The author does a tremendous job of bringing important characters of these historical dramas to life, in each page. I would feel like I had learned so much just from reading a page or two; it is a challenge to squeeze thousands of years into 350-odd pages.

The author is remarkable in covering the scope of academic research, making these stories come to life, and then whittling it down to what he considered as essential. What I missed and would have loved to read was an inclusion of a history of the Islamic world that includes the sultanates in Southeast Asia, as well as the empires of Africa, as these had Muslim rulers too.

There was also very little mention of women in history besides the timeless examples of Aisha and Khadijah, which also reflects a problem of history in general. In the last chapter, the author makes the awkward essentialisation of Muslims as people who believe that men and women should live in separate realms. This is in comparison to people from “the West”, who believe that genders can mix. This completely erases the experiences of Muslims who are born and bred in countries where the majority are not Muslims, or who don’t have Muslim rulers.

Overall, the book is a great place to get acquainted with the alternative, Islamic narrative of world history, and the points at which they intersect with the Western one. It helps the reader to understand the motivations of the Islamic world, the violence that occurred, and where we are heading now.

“But what if we look at world history through Islamic eyes? Are we apt to regard ourselves as stunted versions of the West, developing toward the same endpoint, but less effectually? I think not.”

Friday, March 18, 2016

The sustainability of selfless parents

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 Family issue of Aquila Style magazine.

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Why taking care of yourself is the first step to providing good care for your children.

Image: Fotolia

As children, my friends and I would compare our parents to one another. At five years old, I pleaded with my mother to wear skirts like the other mothers of my kindergarten classmates. When I was 14, I car-pooled to school with a neighbour and remember being amazed to learn that her mother – who worked full-time – went for massages regularly.

In comparison, my own mother was a full-time stay-at-home-mum, and we always employed a domestic worker as well. I never remembered her going to a spa or anything similar, even though I’m sure she was pretty stressed out running the logistics of a household, raising three children (one with special needs), and managing a live-in employee virtually by herself (my dad is the hands-off kind of father typical of his generation). I thought she was selfless, always putting others before herself, as mothers should ideally be.

Looking back, I’m not sure why I thought that way about motherhood, other than it was probably because society had normalised it. As a new mother myself, I understand that this model of selfless motherhood was not only unsustainable and unhealthy for me; it was also apt to drive me nuts. So, with the birth of our son six months ago as a turning point for our own household, my husband and I reconfigured our duties and came up with strategies to keep ourselves physically and mentally recharged.

Delegate and take turns

My husband and I consider ourselves co-parents, with our duties pretty evenly divided. While we both work, I have the fortune of working from home. Being able to care for your child while also pursuing your own interests is priceless to me.

There are certain chores that are exclusively mine: breastfeeding is one of them. My husband takes out the garbage and recycling. For all other chores, we take turns.

On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays I am the “primary parent”, taking responsibility for diaper changes and entertaining the baby when he needs attention. My husband takes this role on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. On Fridays – what I consider my “day off” – I get to work undisturbed when my mother-in-law comes to babysit.

Pay someone

Exclusive breastfeeding takes energy. I often joke to my husband that I’ve already prepared 6–8 meals every day. In return, he’s in charge of preparing breakfasts and dinners every day. Both of us work full-time, so we find it affordable to get a cleaner to come every two weeks to do the heavier household work like vacuuming, wiping down surfaces, folding clothes and mopping the floor. It depends on what you consider the more difficult chores – laundry and cooking are easy for us.

My son is also reaching an age when he’s starting to recognise who his primary carers are, so he won’t be okay with an unfamiliar face. I’m lucky that our babysitter is an elderly Indonesian woman – my son probably finds our faces rather similar!

Reconceptualise “we” time

While I love spending time with my son, I think it’s also important to spend time with only my husband. Admittedly, “date nights” don’t happen much because, so far, going everywhere as a family unit is just easier for all of us.

I lucked out with my son being such a good sleeper and having a calm disposition. My husband and I still manage to do many things we used to do as a couple, like watching movies and going to the park. But it’s important to have some time to myself, too.

Find “me” time

While I get several opportunities a week to be by myself for a few hours, I don’t always take all the time off because of the hassle of pumping and storing breast milk for when I’m away. At this point in time, I feel that two hours of exercise a week is the right amount of time for me to recharge physically. I go to Pilates twice a week and a chiropractic adjustment once every few weeks. On some Fridays, I indulge in my biggest treat: spending an hour or two at a neighbourhood cafe with a book and a cup of tea.

Surprisingly, what I relish most about being by myself is that I can cycle to my destination. Even while I was pregnant it was my main mode of transport. (My son can’t join me yet; I still have to wait a few months before he can sit up properly in a bicycle child seat.)

Since becoming a mother I’ve had to let go of my adolescent notions of what it means to be a good parent. Not eating properly, not exercising and feeling stressed can negatively affect my ability to feed, play with and pay attention to my son, all of which ultimately affect our relationship.

I’ve also learned that it’s important to listen to yourself and your child, in order to figure out what works for you both. The individual needs of families vary tremendously, and it won’t be long before it is my son who is comparing me with his friends’ mums.

Image: Fotolia

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