Friday, September 30, 2011

Being visibly Muslim.

I love visiting my Moroccan-Dutch girlfriends -- we always end up discussing Islam and the societies we grew up in: Dutch, Moroccan, Malay. Recently one of them met a Dutch (without qualifiers it means you know, white Dutch) girl at the mosque who had just converted after eight years of presaging dreams and converted after studying a few months in Indonesia.

Two days ago another friend also told me about meeting a close friend who converted just a few weeks ago. Being one of the few Muslim women she knew, she wanted to put us in touch, which I enthusiastically accepted of course. Subhanallah..

With all the negative propaganda about Islam in The Netherlands, many people think that Dutch values are completely opposite to Islamic ones, when both actually have much in common and are anyway, always in a state of flux.


For example, in contemporary Dutch society, cohabitation is seen as an important stage in courtship. More important than marriage sometimes. Somehow marriage is seen as restrictive, and not to mention loaded with all kinds of religious (read: Christian) values which modern Dutch people prefer to distance themselves from.

This was not the case just a generation ago, when couples still got married before living together. But today marriage is more for the legal benefits (for example, your spouse can share your health insurance) than for anything else. After living together for five years or so, friends and family start to pester you about getting married, and eventually you cave in and have a big, fun, party.

They claim to be liberal, individualistic and pro-choice, but sometimes it seems like it's only acceptable when people make certain kinds of choices. For example, you can be spiritual and pick and choose from any kind of religious tradition (keeping stone or plaster Buddha heads in the house is really popular here), but converting to Islam? No way. (Although arguably no one's converting because Islam is the most fashionable religion today. Haha.)

I'll have to be a little reflexive on this point though, because Muslims also think this way. We claim to be accepting of all humanity, but we always look at class/education level, race, migrant status, and appearance. For example, to be seen as Muslim women, you have to wear a headscarf and be able to read Arabic. What if you don't want to cover your hair for whatever reason, and like to wear short sleeves and nail polish? Then you're not such a good Muslim woman, sorry!

I wore a headscarf publicly on and off, and more constantly for four years. In university, I was sometimes the only headscarf-wearing Muslim girl in class, and wow did I feel visible. I felt like everyone expected me to automatically defend any attacks on Islam or Malays when actually, I didn't really care. Once a classmate got apologetic in advance because she was about to show a video of a lawyer criticising Malays for their high divorce rates (I had to assuage her by explaining that I agreed with the lawyer).

On the other hands, I became totally invisible when I was with a group of Muslim friends. At that point in time I had involved myself in several volunteer activities that required me to be in a mosque or religious school regularly, and it was easier to visibly fit in an Islamic and Muslim-dominated environment with a headscarf.

I'm sure some people feel it's great to be visibly Muslim and be given the chance to explain to others. But for me, it was not great to be assumed to be a certain kind of Muslim based on how I dress. And now that I dont cover my hair I'm taken to be not interested in Islam, to not know anything about Islam, to have suddenly adopted a sinful lifestyle, etc. It sucked when people assumed that about my core identity, but it doesn't bother me now.

And so I can understand why converts wish to be invisibly Muslim. Some do choose the visible route with headscarves and beards, but some choose to keep the same appearance. For them, all that matters is that they know their heart has changed.

Islam is not exactly the most popular religion right now (understatement!), and having to just constantly explain can be exhausting, especially when you need all that energy into just bolstering your daily practices and acts of worship.

Do you feel so visibly and invisibly Muslim at times? 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sexual fantasies. I mean, fallacies.

We're now in the heat of seminars, where we get to talk about our fieldwork and our findings. I liked F's research a lot, and her topic of teenage sexuality and pregnancy is something that I've been picking at for some time -- I want to start a research project on that in Singapore (someone sponsor me please!) because we have a disproportionate number of teenage Malay girls getting pregnant.

I think the failure of the abstinence-based interventions so far are the fallacious assumptions behind it. They assume that these young people have equal power in their interactions to say no. Unfortunately, the campaign "Lebih Seksi Katakan 'Tidak!'" (Say 'No', It's Sexier) makes sex appeal the incentive, which is not helping someone trying to abstain because then what is that sex appeal for?!

In conventional reality, girls may feel pressured to say 'yes' to a boy because they're afraid of losing affection. It's a classic case of 'if you love me you'll sleep with me'. Girls, contrary to popular belief, also make the first move. Boys then may feel pressured to say 'yes' for fear of being mocked by both girls or their male peers for not being 'man' enough. So if one says 'no' but the other doesn't, what happens?

No, but yes, okay maybe

That's if I assume that teenagers are having premarital sex with each other. What if one of the parties is older than the other? Conventionally, older men sleeping with younger girls. Can the girls really say 'no'?

They look about the same age here.

I think abstinence as a broad campaign works if everyone shares the same moral standards. The campaign assumes that Malay youth take religion seriously, and that a religious argument alone is strong enough to help them overcome their own desires. Abstinence campaigns are easier if there is strong social pressure to conform e.g. youths who are part of a church or mosque group who don't want to seem like they don't belong. Unfortunately, if having premarital sex is part of trying to conform to their group...

Plus, this campaign has other problems. It warns against sexually-transmitted infections, but you can still get infected if your future spouse has had previous partners. This campaign's posters (I haven't seen all though) also reproduce patriarchal ideas about parenthood and manhood.

"Is this your dream car?"

One of the posters used in the campaign (visible in the last 2 seconds of the video here) shows a young man looking rather crossly at a baby stroller, with the heading "Is this your dream car?" Not only does this erase any young man's paternal instincts, it mocks the involvement of fathers in bringing up children, while reproducing ideas that men are selfish and (should be) more interested in cars than babies. (At least, when they're young.)


I digress.

Assumptions about who has premarital sex, who initiates it, and why it's done inform any solutions that are put forth. Fallacious sexual assumptions result in ridiculous suggestions like buying sex slaves to solve the problem of adultery and premarital sex, when these solutions don't even dignify the Quranic concepts of women, men and marital relations in the first place.

Which just provokes outrage at how religion is used to defend slavery,  Even worse is when hadith can be used to twist Quranic verses taken out of context to justify slavery in the name of 'Islamic tradition'.

Men aren't the only ones who have lust. Women lust too (story of Prophet Joseph, anyone?). And this is okay. It's just that for the sake of social order, God said you should satisfy them within the safe institution of marriage. If you can't marry, then fast to dampen those desires. And if you end up doing it, then it's a sin, but it's not going to make you fall out of Islam.

Right is easily distinguishable from wrong (2:185, 2:256, 77:4, etc. Endless examples of the Qur'an as furqan or a criterion to tell right from wrong). Buying women, owning women, having sex with them against their will just because you 'own' them, men being allowed to satisfy their lust with impunity -- do any of these have any notion of right in them?

Whether in today's or yesterday's world?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Justifying slavery with religion.

Domestic worker in Syria
Yesterday there was a research seminar presented by Indonesian academics on Indonesian migrant domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates. Domestic workers in the UAE face the worst working conditions and at the same time, are barely covered by any protective legislation. 

In the law there are referred to as 'helpers', which place them in the private sphere of the household and therefore beyond the bounds of any intervention from external parties like NGOs or their embassies (except if they manage to run away). They are not officially 'workers', who can then fall under employment or labour laws. (Although Singapore gets around this by creating a separate Act that covers 'foreign workers' -- the EFMA.)

So the thing about UAE is that they get the least educated (mostly illiterate) women from Indonesia. In fact, T pointed out that there are impoverished places (e.g. Indramayu) and villages in Indonesia that form steady sources of domestic workers. According to T, many girls in these places are married off young (because of poverty and lack of alternative opportunities like education) and often divorced. 

Once married however, they are no longer regarded as children and they face three choices: 1) remain in their impoverished village 2) work as a prostitute because that brings income, or 3) migrate to work as a domestic worker.

These extremely poor and often illiterate women form the staggering majority of Indonesian domestic workers in the Middle East. What's upsetting is that labour agencies, who are often owned or affiliated to the religious teachers (who claim lineage from Prophet Muhammad) in their community, promote working in the Middle East as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit tanah suci or the Holy Land; and a way to eventually go for their haj or pilgrimage.

Once they get there though, they are often locked at the labour agencies to prevent runaways, overworked by their employers to the point of not having enough time to even pray (in the Holy Land!), suffer physical and sexual abuse at the hands of both male and female employers, and can be sent to jail for having boyfriends or any kind of communication or proximity with males. (And these employers also hire male migrant workers as their drivers and gardeners - do they expect no communication at all??)

Of course there are good employers, but unfortunately they are a minority. There are also domestic workers who actually commit crimes, but I'm just presenting the bigger, general picturs.

What's so great about claiming descendance from the Prophet if you implicate yourself in a business that is basically trafficking young vulnerable women with glass dreams of fulfilling their religious duties? Will you still listen blindly to religious authorities?

This is another example of how religion is used promote a business, a practice which I find disgusting, misleading, insulting to God and shameful for Muslims all over.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The indulgent employer.

The Madam and the Maid
(Restaurant in Hiyoshi, Japan)

One of the main discourses that keep popping up when reading the things that employers say about their domestic workers is a double-pronged argument: defensive and offensive at the same time. It's easy to imagine how they feel when you read what they say or write, but it was hard to come up with a word to summarise that feeling.

As I discussed this R (while re-enacting the voices of employers), he remarked that it was close to the Catholic concept of indulgence. Historically, the early Catholic Church allowed sinners to pay a certain amount of money to shorten their penances. In other words, for some money, people could rapidly reduce the time spent feeling guilty. So for the sake of simplicity, I'll refer to this as the 'indulgence discourse'.

Employers who indulge (pun intended) in this discourse explicitly show off about how 'good' they are to their domestic workers, especially in material terms (although they do illustrate other, non-material ways, such as 'not overburdening' them). Examples include stating how much bonus they give, any presents (which often include second-hand things) and how much they give (or allow) their workers to eat or the quality/price of the food.

My first, albeit judgmental response to this is that I think the degree to which one talks about their work, especially good works, is inversely proportional to the amount of sincerity behind it. In the first place, some of these material 'gifts' are actually part of the employer's responsibility, such as providing sufficient food and rest. Framing a right as a gift does not make one seem more compassionate.

Do they expect their workers to be so utterly thankful for just having enough food to eat when it is their right to have enough to eat? Just like it's anyone's right to live safely, be clothed and be educated? Who grants rights - people, or God?

At the same time, the indulgence discourse includes a defensive posture. To further show how their workers are in fact, not being badly treated, they point to other cases of workers who are worse off. They use examples of workers being abused, starved, and overworked against their comparatively better-off workers to carefully, but erroneously, construct themselves as compassionately superior employers. In fact, these workers barely enjoy the minimum of what they are entitled to.

R helped me in theorising that employers exercise their penance both materially and discursively: by granting material and non-material gifts to their workers, and then by announcing it to others, employers are trying to assuage their guilt for not treating their workers like full human beings.

I really think this is the case because employers who actually do treat their workers 'with dignity' don't go into detail about how much they pay or what kind of gifts they give. Those that I approached also actually prefer to not talk about it at all.

This provides an excellent example of Hegel's master-slave dialectic: the master is only aware of himself because he is obsessed with passive consumption, but the slave is aware of both himself and his master because he works tangibly in the production of what his master consumes.

In other words, it's better to ask the slave about the power relationship because he can see power working both ways (top-down and bottom-up) while the master can only see power working one way. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Wishing for success.



A few days ago when it was still sunny and humid we went to Meiji Jingu (Shrine) in Shibuya, Tokyo. It's a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Shoken for his role in the Meiji restoration, and his wife, Empress Shoken.

In this Shinto shrine (and many others), worshippers (or tourists!) can pay 500 yen and buy an ema tablet. They write their 'special personal prayers' on these small, thin wooden plaques with a flower or animal designs, and hang them on a wooden fence surrounding a 'divine tree' for the kami (spirits/deities) to receive them, after being 'conveyed by priests'.


There were quite possibly, thousands of ema tablets hanging when we came, and it was really interesting to see what people wish for.

Serenity, Health, Happiness
Please grant health and safety to my wife and sons,
and that my new son be born healthy and smart.
Grant me peace in my life and marriage.
I make a wish to have a successful career...
To become regarded as someone who build change.
To move successfully into the company position I want.

Everyone wants happiness, success, serenity and importantly, health. The topic of success is an interesting one -- a career is so important here, that people are wishing for smart children and being able to get the 'company position' they want! We had met up with three Japanese female friends while here and all of them shared with us a common problem: That the conventional Japanese person has only one chance to enter the corporate world.

Ideally (and this was more common in the previous generation), one joined a company as a new graduate and slowly climbed the corporate ladder. It wasn't common to change companies -- one expression summarised it as "die with the company". In this generation, it becomes more acceptable to change in the first two or three years of working with the same company (otherwise it looks really bad on your CV), but it should still be done early on in a career.

The death knell for any chance at a stable job? Coming back to Japan and trying to enter in middle age. Since institutions relating to family and childcare remain tailored to a conventional idea of a breadwinner father and a homemaker mother, working women today find themselves caught between childcare and work -- more clearly dichotomous than perhaps Singapore.

It's near impossible to work and raise children at the same time, because of limited financial child support (to place children in daycare) and possibly, the upper-class expectations of intensive mothering, so women often quit their jobs to raise children.

Entering the job market after many missing years means half the salary, low or back-end positions, contract-based -- precarious for single mothers in the country with a high cost of living!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Artificial barriers.

We went in search of the Tokyo Mosque, which is better known by it's Turkish name Tokyo Camii (pronounced ja mee ee) as it's also a Turkish Cultural Centre. The nearest train station is Yoyogi-Uehara, and the mosque website gives excellent directions on getting there. In any case there's a very obvious minaret visible from far away:

Entering the main prayer hall
Looking back towards the main door
Having read that Turkish mosques are not so hung up on gender segregation and since there was about an hour before the sunset prayer (which would be in congregation), we decided to do the afternoon prayer together. This was the closest that I had ever prayed so near to the front of the mosque, where the mihrab is. And beside a man:

Grounds for being chased out of any mosque in Singapore
The whole Earth is a place of prayer but God also loves beauty, and there's something to be said about being able to look up and see this from where I sat:


The mosque is really small and I thought maybe the two elevated corners near the back of the mosque could have been designated as prayer areas for women in cases of larger congregations, but it turns out that there's a designated 'ladies' area on the second floor. 


Spacious!
The view from women's area

To put this into perspective, the main prayer hall is on the 2nd storey. The men's ablution and washroom area is on the 1st storey. The women's prayer hall is on the 3rd storey while their ablution area is on B1! That makes it a mighty total of 6 flights of marble stairs to climb to reach the prayer area, versus a mere 2 flights for the men. Hey, what happened to men being more able and fit?

I have one good thing to say about segregation though, compared to the previous post on segregation in Singapore's mosques. During the sunset prayer done in congregation, there were just two other women in the women's area - one Indonesian and one Russian. The great thing was that we were all dressed differently, with various body parts covered. One of us was even wearing short sleeves and a sheer head scarf.

The great thing about being segregated was that the men couldn't police us for what we were wearing. Assuming they wanted to (yeah, I think short sleeves is a good enough reason in most countries). And since neither of us policed each other, we just prayed in peace. In this way, some women would like segregation - I definitely was grateful for it because I wasn't "appropriately dressed" according to a madhhab or two.

When there is a diverse enough congregation, with Muslims from different nationalities, madhaahib (schools of thought), and travel status (travelers get concession for a lot of things to a certain extent), people in the mosque don't usually end up policing each other.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Helpful people.

In Tokyo for three days now, just to see if I like it (no I don't mean to sound like a rich brat, haha.) and so far, I really do! Like the taxi driver from Belfast who said that it's the people you live with that make somewhere a nice place to live in, it's the lovely people in Japan who are making my first few days so pleasant.

You know I don't like unhelpful people -- they make you feel like you are just an annoying bug on their windshield. And to have come back straight from the Netherlands, where it's usually so hard to ask people working in the service sector for some help, straight into Japan, it's like paradise for interpersonal interactions.

People bow to each other as a form of greeting, farewell, thanks, gratitude, and so on. And with the smiles on their faces it seems sincere! Having to smile at people sure put me in a good mood all day. We were walking in the food department of Tokyu mall and I took a picture of an elaborately-decorated fruit tart. The woman behind the counter thanked me (for taking the picture? for appreciating her awesome products?)!

I feel safe walking around, no men are staring at me, and even though I can't speak a word of Japanese people smile when you pass them. Especially the elderly. Speaking of which, there are so many of them walking around, fit as fiddles, without nary a walking stick.

There's also soothing street music (yesterday we passed by an instrumental version of 'The Lion King') piped into the streets. I didn't even realise it was public -- I thought it was coming out of one of the shops -- until our friend pointed it out. What a way to keep people calm and nice to each other, instead of using annoying sounds to prevent teenagers from loitering in public spaces.

The place we're staying in, Hiyoshi, reminds me a lot of Bangkok. Except that here it's really, really clean. I mean, the only dirt I see on the street is drain water.

Photos coming soon. (:

Friday, September 9, 2011

The husband creche.


At first, nothing much about this pub in Belfast attracted me -- I took a picture of it because of the giant pot of flowers along one side. Oh but look here, this pub was advertising its 'Husband Creche' services!

Is he getting on your nerves and under your feet??
You can leave him here and shop in peace!!!
Free Creche!!!
Just pay for his drinks and we will look after him.
BARGAIN!!!

I thought this ad was interesting for so many reasons:


1. (Married) men are infantilised, since they need a babysitter.

A creche is day-care for very young children, who are grouped together and taken care of by an adult while their parents go to work. Historically, a creche was public and primarily targeted poor mothers who had no choice but to work.

Since this ad targets women whose husbands start to complain and whine as they go shopping, understandably it uses the word 'creche'. But instead of being partners, husbands just start to become another dependent to entertain and take care of.

2. Men hate shopping and love drinking. Women love to shop. (Till they drop.)

I'm pretty sure you know at least one man who loves to shop. For new clothes, parts for his car, cosmetics even. And so what? Shopping is just buying things -- some women and men make a list and zoom straightaway to find the things they need and want, some prefer to take long leisurely strolls.

Although shopping has been constructed to be the favourite past time of women (and if you're a woman and hate shopping, you're called a man), it's an arbitrary choice. It's like how watching sports while drinking beer with their buddies has been constructed to be a male hobby. 

And just as men are not simple primitive creatures who are easily satisfied by a beer, women do not have a one-track desire for shopping.

3. Men are reluctant to accompany their women (but may perhaps pay for?) shopping.

This generally makes men and women enemies of each other. Worse, this makes husbands and wives enemies of each other, unable to communicate or agree on how to spend their time and money.

I can just imagine the scenario that the pub had in mind: wife wants to go shopping, husband doesn't want to walk around for hours, wife insists because she wants to spend time with him, husband reluctantly goes and complains all the way.

People, if she wants to shop but he doesn't, don't go together. Men, if you go then don't complain. Women, if he hates shopping, find some other activity to do together. 

4. Men and women have opposite views on shopping. Period.

Classic generalisation. Personally, I hate spending hours shopping (I think it's a waste of time) and may exceptionally walk around with a friend to accompany him or her to buy something. 

I'm trying to imagine if I was a man and my woman wanted to dump me at this 'creche' -- uh, I think I could make better use of my time instead of being forced to do something I don't want and then being 'taken care of' by strangers like babies, with drinks to occupy me.
--
Update 22/9/11: Here's a great post by Sociological Images on how the idea that men are like babies is 'obnoxious' and 'offensive'; it mocks men while upholding patriarchy at the same time.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Some Malay employers of Indonesian domestic workers.

The Sunday after Eid ul-Fitr I went and met one of my research participants for the last time before going back to The Hague. It was just my (bad) luck that most of them weren't around -- they were possibly out socialising for Eid. One participant, Y, couldn't get time off (though she usually gets Sundays off to come to the school) because her Malay employer needed her to take care of her children (while she went Eid visiting?).

So me and K just had a pleasant mid-morning chatting about all kinds of things, but we kept going back to the same topic: why do Malay employers disproportionately treat their Indonesian domestic workers badly, in comparison to Chinese and foreign employers, despite having a similar language, diet, religion and culture?

I wrote an essay on this last term and my hypothesis was that these employers tend to see their domestic workers, on the basis of similar language, ethnicity, religion and diet as their own young daughters, and thus they want to protect them in the same way.

For example, not letting them out to socialise is a way of protecting them from the tall, dark (read: Bangladeshi) migrant workers who are ready to take advantage of them. Making sure these women dress 'properly' (read: long sleeves, loose clothes, short hair, possibly headscarf) if they do let them go out is a way of minimising their sexual appearance to again, protect them.

Pass

Fail

The dampening of their worker's sexuality is also linked to the ethnicity and religion. Since these workers are so similar to the wives, they are seen as a threat, possibly seducing the male employer for material gain (citizenship, money).

After discussing with K, it seemed possible that the many similarities between Malay employers and their Indonesian domestic workers sometimes results in the need to differentiate employer from domestic worker in different ways: class and urbanity.

For example, the rural background (and associated lower education level) of domestic workers is used to justify the complaints that employers make about how their workers do not shower often enough, don't know how to use electrical appliances, save water, etc.

Many employers do not allow their worker's clothes to be washed together with theirs ("dulu baju saya kalau kena baju dia dibuang, disuruh cuci lagi, benar!") -- unknowingly they reproduce ideas about purity and pollution that are associated with class. Poor people are dirty. Rich people are clean. Poor people can contaminate rich people and make them seem poor (the horror!).

One of my participants had to wear a uniform every day during the 4 years she worked with one employer, and she was given 3 pieces: 1 to wear, 1 in the wash, and 1 hung out to dry.

"Saya ngga boleh pakai baju saya, ada uniform, 
yang garis-garis kayak babysitter ada poket dua kat sini, 
lepas tu kat sini ada button tu. Every day I have to wear like that for 2 years.
Sampai baju itu rosak, dia belikan lagi! Adoi."

Class differences at the national level are mimicked at the household level. K had suggested that the higher-educated Malay employers tend to respect their workers better. Since Malays as a whole are disproportionately at a lower socio-economic level than the Chinese in Singapore, do they also disproportionately treat their workers worse?

Statistics of abuses towards Indonesian domestic workers quoted by an official at the Indonesian embassy show that Malay employers are disproportionately enact more physical abuse. Informally, it seems that Malay employers also tend to delay or withhold their workers' salary more often than other employers -- likely due to the unstable income of employers themselves..

Hiring a domestic worker is a way to aspire to middle-class urbanity. For a few hundred dollars a month you can have a spotlessly clean house -- you can have the floor mopped every day, while you wouldn't do this if you didn't have a domestic worker. This extra money comes from both husband and wife working outside the home. You also don't have to upset patriarchy -- why make an effort to equally share household chores between the couple and their children when you can hire a brown Third World woman for the job?

So in the end, class differences trump the similarities of language, ethnicity and religion. I find it especially sad that the material (class) trumps universal values (humanity/Muslims). Both employer and worker being of similar backgrounds seem to point to a common ground for poorer instead of better treatment.

Thanksgiving Square Belfast.

Thanksgiving Square Belfast

When I think of Northern Ireland, the first thing that came to my mind is my secondary school (circa 2000) Social Studies version of the Catholic-Protestant conflict, and by specifying it so I mean that we got a simplified, watered-down version biased in a way to suit the purposes of Social Studies. I'm not too sure either that there is an objective truth -- everyone gives their own subjective version of history -- but I think it's always nicer to hear from someone closer to the topic.

In a taxi back to Jordanstown from Belfast city centre, I had a really interesting conversation -- after I got used to the thick accent! -- with the driver. He lived in Belfast all his life, and he really likes it because 'it's the people that make where you live, a nice place to live in'.

He gave us his summary of the religious history of Northern Ireland: In the 16th century, The British Empire had plans to colonise the Irish people by resettling Scottish people. "But they didn't buy the land; they stole it and forced the people off the land." The previously poorer Catholics, upon seeing how the richer Protestant settlers were gaining control of important industries, started to educate themselves more and now they dominate instead.
"There was a lot of violence in our history, a lot of injustice as well. A lot of it by the King of England building an Empire, you know?"
"Yeah, they came all the way to Singapore too."
"Yeah, I know. Did you guys have a similar experience in your history -- was it violent?"
"Well, not directly, and it was more like, divide-and-conquer."
"Yeah, well they did that with us too."
And so that bring us back to the sculpture found in Thanksgiving Square in Belfast city centre, by the River Lagan: 


The aim of this sculpture is to bring people together and to change hearts and minds; to make bridges across the divides in our community. To work towards a peaceful, happy existence for everyone on this planet by respect for each other, their cultural heritages and all our aspirations.

Sometimes you just need someone to tell you like it is!

Multifaith prayer room, Heathrow

Monday, September 5, 2011

On disability in Belfast.


This poster was found in two locations around the hostels of the University of Ulster in Belfast. It covers the main groups toward which hate crimes can be directed, like 1) ethnicity 2) sexual orientation 3) religion, and remarkably, 4) disability. The fourth picture is especially difficult to look at because it shows a man in a wheelchair with bruises being pulled by the collar of his shirt with two arms. I don't know if it's a real picture, but it is sure hard to look at for long.

Yesterday during a family outing, my father tried sitting in a wheelchair and I wheeled him for a few blocks. He remarked that he expected that people around him would be more friendly towards him because he was sitting in a wheelchair, but to his dismay he realised that most Singaporeans either don't care or are too scared to approach people with disabilities (or as my friend suggest, difabilities!). 

Most usually just stare (as if the person is not aware of this) until they've stared enough or until the person is out of their sight. People, that's really rude -- if you're curious you can just ask and most will be happy to enlighten you.

I see this as a kind of quiet violence towards people with disabilities in Singapore. It's not punching or hitting, but those kind of rude stares remind them that they are different, when many just want to get about their normal lives everyday -- to work, school or home.


This was found on several campus noticeboards. It invites postgraduate students to work part time, earning £10 to £12 an hour being a campus assistant, helping disabled students in the form of notetaking and moving around -- taking lifts, getting cutlery at the canteen, and so on.

While we idealise this sort of care work to be done for free and out of the goodness of our hearts -- as if altruism is somehow reduced if there is monetary compensation -- it's not realistic to expect everyone to be, well, nice for nothing. Because we think this way, we consider the work that stay-at-home mothers do for their families (washing, ironing, cooking, nursing, repairs) to be free because they are good mothers.

I really like this arrangement of the university because it benefits all parties: the disabled students get assistance, the university pays but does not miss out on smart students who may have disabilities, the assistants get paid (postgraduate studies is frugal living), and the student population at large benefit from diversity.


This sign was found near the university to warn drivers on the roads near the Jordanstown School for Children with Auditory or Visual Handicaps. Can I just briefly say that I think this school is fabulous? They have specialised curricula for students and use a variety of techniques to suit each child. They also use Northern Ireland Sign Language and/or Irish Sign Language in the Deaf department in addition to Signed English.


This was found in Belfast city, marking the entrance to an office building. It was really heartwarming to see how people with disabilities are taken into account in various aspects of living in Belfast -- so progressive!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mosques and barriers.

Has anyone else felt as unwelcome in a mosque as I do, as an adult? I'm no stranger to mosques, having had 'Sunday School' religious instruction in one since the age of five. I went to a kindergarten that was housed in a mosque, and we learnt a little bit about Islam alongside some Maths and English, but I mostly remember playing (catch) with plastic cabbages.

When I started school I was sent to two-hour classes on Saturday or Sundays at a mosque in Telok Kurau. It has since been refurbished, but in the old mosque we all learnt to pray in the main prayer hall, girls behind boys. Classroom chairs had an aisle in the middle, boys on the right side and girls on the left side.

In recent times, I've entered about a dozen different mosques in Singapore (and a few more in other countries, I'll keep the analysis to Singapore to control for culture though the pictures are mostly from other countries) and these are some of the things that I found.

Gender segregation is a mainstream issue in conventional Islam, and I'm not going to challenge this (just in case any of you are starting to get a bit defensive, haha.). But there are differences in how segregation can be carried out.
  1. Side by side (with no/semi-barrier)
  2. Women behind men (sometimes with no/semi-barrier)
  3. Women and men in separate rooms/floors (i.e. high/complete/space barrier)
2. Low barrier (The Hague)
2. One-way/Semi-opaque barrier (Granada)

Option 3 is the most common form of congregation segregation (that rhymes!) in Singapore. In all of the mosques that I have been to (but I have not been to all) in Singapore, the main prayer hall is reserved for men during prayer time, while there is a separate women's area with a complete barrier -- a "tent-like structure" (as said by my man) at the back corner of the main hall, or a completely separate floor for, labelled as such.

Sign for separate ablution area (Granada)
Segregation for all (Sikh Temple)

From this separate floor, only the front row can see the imam -- but same goes for the men's section. Technological conveniences like video, microphones and loudspeakers help to maintain the third form of segregation (because now you can see and hear everything without actually being there). In mosques where there is no sound system, it is difficult to hear the sermon. This is sometimes circumvented with a projection system, but only from certain areas is the angle clear enough to read from.

There are sometimes also separate entrances for women. In the case of a mosque in Novena, I attempted to enter by the main, obvious entrance but was immediately told by a man who jumped to his feet to tell me to go through by the small 'women's gate' (hmm, peace upon you too) along at the side wall.

These women's areas are sometimes appallingly less clean than the main areas -- not that I can compare both prayer areas objectively, but surely mosques are regularly cleaned! When I went to the women's area of a mosque in central Singapore almost two months ago, the carpet had bird droppings and recent stains.

A (male) friend commented that it seems that the beautiful architecture of a mosque as seen from the main prayer hall is meant to be enjoyed during prayer by men only.

Peeking through the barrier (Granada)

When there is a lack of space, women are bumped up or out. This is especially the case for special occasions like Friday prayers or Eid. Perhaps due to the hadith that says Friday prayers are compulsory for men, or the one that says it's better for a woman to pray at home? No one highlights that God's command is gender-neutral in 62:9.  In my neighbourhood mosque, the women's area on the third floor gets terribly hot and cramped on Eid, while the men's area stretches out to the roadside and garden.

Second floor on a normal day (Singapore)

In two other mosques in Singapore, when there is a need to accommodate more people, the women's area is bumped up another floor in (okay for the latter since there's a lift, not so okay for the former especially because there are a lot of older women). If one made Friday prayer area available on a first-come-first-served basis would there would be a lot of male latecomers not having space?

The point is, men are the default mosque-goers, while women are the special case. Men can freely enter by the main entrance of any mosque and their main concern is to do their prayer, not finding their specially-assigned ablution and prayer area. They simply do not have the worry that they are entering by the wrong entrance, or praying in the wrong area.

Psychologically, women are disciplined to be unseen in the mosque. It's fine if one is familiar with a mosque and where are the women's areas are. But on the occasion that I can enter an unfamiliar mosque by the main entrance, I may have to scuttle to the second floor (through a toilet, sometimes) or guiltily look around for a separate room or tent before (someone sees me!) I find that blessed hidden refuge of the women's area.

And so sometimes I prefer praying alone -- give me a field, or the side of a dune:

Rejoice! 7:29

A painting and a poem.

My blog has reached 10,000 views (woo!) so I'm celebrating with a poem given by a dear friend whom I've known since I was a wee lass of nine. The painting is 'Road with Cypress and Star' by Vincent van Gogh, a Dutch painter who has several of his paintings exhibited in the Kröller-Müller Museum in Hoge Veluwe.


On Marriage
Khalil Gibran

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.

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