Friday, October 31, 2014

Stability and sustainability: Interview with Dr Hawa Abdi

It is a calm and cool afternoon in Nairobi, Kenya, when I catch up with Dr Hawa Abdi over Skype. After working hard in Mogadishu’s difficult circumstances with her two physician daughters Deqo and Amina Mohamed, she sometimes comes to Nairobi to rest and relax. Speaking over a passable internet connection, our conversation is peppered with silences, as our words travel between Kenya and Singapore.

68 year-old Dr Abdi, affectionately known by Somalis as Mama Hawa, is more than Somalia’s first gynaecologist. From 1964 to 1971, Dr Abdi specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology in Kiev, and later came back to work in one of the biggest hospitals in Somalia. It was during this period that she saw to many women from prison, who were handcuffed or chained to the hospital beds as they waited for treatment. This sight spurred her to continue her education in Somalia, this time earning a law degree in 1979.
"And I feel that for these women, I feel that there is no justice."
To help provide maternal care to rural women, Dr Abdi started a free rural clinic in 1983 on some family-owned land, which quickly grew into a 400-bed two-storey hospital. When Somalia broke out into civil war in 1991, her hospital started to take in refugees. The surrounding land quickly expanded into a refugee camp that housed 90,000 internally displaced people. This haven however, became the target for several attacks by militants over the last few years.

Today, the camp houses 5,000 internally displaced people in six sections, each with their own committee, water tank and farmland. The camp’s primary school, Waqaf-Dhiblawe, teaches an equal ratio of boys and girls. As of 2012, the hospital has a capacity of 400 beds, maternal mortality rates of 1 per cent, and infant mortality rates of 4.3 per cent, well below national averages.

Sya Taha: Why did you choose to study medicine and then law?
Dr Hawa Abdi: I chose medicine because my mother died in a delivery complication when I was still young. I have seen how she was suffering and could not help her. After the death of my mother, I felt such deep pain, which I want to avoid for other people. Many children of my age at that time also had mothers who died from delivery complications. I decided to become a doctor and specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology.

I spent seven years in the [former] Soviet Union until 1971. When I came back I was working in one of biggest hospitals in Somalia at that time and saw many women from jail coming to the hospital. They were chained with some kind of iron to the bed.


Because they were from prison. The policeman did not want them to escape! And I feel that for these women, I feel that there is no justice. So after I finished my [medical] studies in 1971, I began my law studies from 1972 to 1979.

What does your average day in Mogadishu look like?

There are so many things to do! Now my daughter came to Mogadishu just on Friday, and she was seeing 100 women and children – this is the most vulnerable group. Different people are coming every day, some are coming because they are hungry, some are facing different diseases. You have to talk to them and give them whatever you have.

You give nutrition lessons in your camp. What are these lessons like?

In our country Somalia, and in [many parts of] Africa, children are dying because of malnutrition. We also have many cases of malaria. Economic development cannot avoid [the issue of] children’s food. But we have no possibility to give children the food they need because our country is now 23 years with no government, no jobs, and no stability. Because of the destruction and killing, people have no stability to farm or rear animals.

So our children are dying now, the 18% child mortality rate [for children under 5] is one of the highest in the world. This is mostly due to malnutrition and some curable diseases like malaria and anaemia, some of which are also based in malnutrition.

So even though there are nutrition plans, families cannot afford to feed their children?

[International organisations] give us nutrition lessons, and we try to feed the children. When they come to us, we admit them to the hospital and feed them. Within a week, the child recovers. But you have to send him home because you cannot care for all the children in hospital. Afterwards, he will come back with even worse malnutrition because the family has nothing to give him.

This problem is economic as the society is not developed. Without peace we can do nothing. We cannot grow anything, we cannot educate children, we cannot give nutritious food.

What is your philosophy towards maternal care?

Families need to be economically sufficient. Most of the maternal mortality is due to anaemia. There is also a need to develop healthcare in our country. Not all women have the possibility to reach health centres because of transportation or because they live in faraway rural areas. We need moving doctors – there are some but not enough.

Security and stability is also very important. Sometimes when women are in labour, transportation can be difficult. Sometimes when there is fighting on the roads and no one can use the road, a woman can die because she cannot get help.

I believe the world is one because we are all human beings. All our needs are one.

How do the fishing and agricultural projects in your camp interact with the work of your hospital?

We are fighting poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy. Fishing is very important to fight protein deficiency. We also grow some maize, beans, vegetables and fruits. We also try to rear some sheep, goats and cows.

In 2013, at least we have a government, even though it is still very weak, but it wants to begin [the ] process of development and not merely relief – we were surviving on relief for 22 years. But we have our farm and our tractors. Now we want to stand on our own two feet and we are searching for investment.

I hope that we can find people who will work with us, people who can invest and help us. Then we will go [ahead] by ourselves. I welcome private investors. We have a large farming area of 400 hectares where we can grow anything. Just before the civil war, we grew bananas and exported them. We have the big Indian ocean for fishing and tourism. If we have investors, we can create so many jobs.

Does religion in general play a special role in your camp?

We have simple rules. Before, there was fighting and people were killing each other because of tribal divisions. We made a simple rule: whoever enters this camp, we will give free land, water, healthcare and food, but that person or family cannot identify [by] their tribes. If they do that they have to go out. We hosted 90,000 people here before from different tribes and we succeeded in making them one Somalia.

After collapse of the government, domestic violence went up. A man would begin to beat his wife because he was desperate. Children cry because their mother was beaten. So another rule is if you want to stay, no man can beat his wife.

What do you think will be the future of Somalia?

We still have to suffer, there was no justice in 21 years under the Siad Barre regime, then we had the civil war for 22 years. Some of our community were protected, some other people were destroyed. Now there are also other groups who take and destroy what they want, raping women, without law and order. This means a total of 43 years without law and order.

Poor, honest, hardworking people need justice and help. They need protection, but it will be very difficult. There are extremist people now still inside the government. They are generals and they are doing whatever they want. In the short term we will still suffer without a big helping hand from the international community.

In the long term, those who grew up in my camp will be Somalia’s future because they did not learn any bad things. 30 percent of our camp are youth who will never participate in fighting or killing by tribes. They are honest, we have taught them to help each other, to love each other and to defend each other. Peace itself will come. Many young people who are studying in universities in Arab countries, in Somalia, they are the future leaders of Somalia. My only hope are those who grow in my camp.

What is your message to our readers?

I want the international community to know that we are in a dangerous situation now. We need food which we can grow ourselves, but we need help. I am appealing to you to support us to be sustainable. We need fishing tools, farming tools, health instruments for the hospital, medicine, equipment. Whatever the international community can give us, to save thousands of lives from suffering.

I believe the world is one because we are all human beings. All our needs are one.

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This post was originally published at Aquila Style

Monday, October 27, 2014

One Muslim's furry initiative gets Malaysian religious authorities hot under the collar

A few days ago, the Dutchman killed a small mouse which had been living in our kitchen for some time (possibly a year, if it's the same one). He meant to trap it and release it but in a moment of panic he killed it (while apologising to it and that's why I married this dude). After the trauma of having experienced the senseless killing of an innocent animal, I lay in bed thinking about why I had such an irrational reaction to seeing the mouse crawl up and down my sofa (and coming so close to my baby!).

The only other time I do this is when I see a gecko. (Ugh, just saying the name makes me squirm). Not just any kind, but the house lizards that are found in Southeast Asia. I have such a phobia of them that I don't even want to elaborate anymore. Suffice to say, seeing one a few metres away is enough to get me hyperventilating and getting my ass out of the room, super fast.

I don't have the same reaction anything else. Insects like cockroaches, silverfish and ants? No problemo.

Right before I dropped off to sleep, I concluded that it was probably because I had had no close interactions with mice before. I didn't grow up with pet mice, or ever handle one. (I did handle hamsters though.) Plus, seeing mice in the context of a pest (going after noodles, pasta, oatmeal and paper in my house) instead of a pet has sure changed my previously neutral opinion of it.

Source: Facebook
And then it totally made sense why Muslims in my social media feeds were freaking out over an event where - duly summarised - a bunch of Muslims petted a bunch of dogs, took selfies, and washed their hands afterwards. (Most of the photos are of hijabis, because don't you know that Muslim women are the representatives of Islam?)

This event "I Want to Touch a Dog" happened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 19 October. From what I could read online, it was meant as a friendly introduction to mankind's best friend in a friendly and safe setting with many other dog-friendly Muslims around - a rare opportunity in a community whose Islam is mostly based on the Sunni Shafi'i school of thought. 
"I have seen cases of people running away at the sight of a dog, or throw stones at it. It broke my heart… How do people feel when they see an animal ill-treated, abused or knocked over?” [Source: A Big Message]
Did you notice I said "friendly" three times? It's because I believe that is the intention of the organiser Syed Azmi Alhabshi. Dogs carry a great deal of stigma in our Shafi'i Muslim community (I include Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia in this category); a stigma that extends to any Muslim that handles or owns a dog (see for example, dog trainer Maznah Yusof). Syed Azmi did well: he gave a heads up to the Selangor Mufti Department, invited an ustaz, Mohd Iqbal Parjin from UTM’s Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation (Casis) to speak about the ruling on dogs and how participants could do sertu or ritually cleanse themselves, and provided facilities for washing. All bases covered, you'd hope.

This niqabi agrees. Source: Facebook
Alas, there was so much negative reaction to the event. People went berserk on Facebook, commenting under the images of hijabis carrying different kinds of cute puppies. Add to the mix a smattering of suspicion that the event is just part of a larger conspiracy to promote "liberalism" and "pluralism" in Muslim circles.
I organised this event because of Allah, not to deviate the people's faiths, try to change the Islamic rules of law, poke fun at the ulama or encourage pluralism." [Source: The Star]
Meanwhile, the evening news in Brunei broadcasted a press statement from the ministry of religious affairs that "even though Islam has the provision of sertu to cleanse after touching najis mughallazah [major impurity], this is not an excuse to touch such things on purpose. Doing so is akin to someone who commits a sin with the excuse that one can repent for it afterwards."

The response from religious authorities in Malaysia were a little more mixed. Here's a great summary about the official response from Zurairi AR for The Malay Mail:
"...the religious authorities were at a loss to deal with the younger set of Muslims who chafe at the way they are being “managed” and not allowed to question how their creed is practised here.
The authorities reacted the only way they know how. They insisted that within the country’s borders, not only is the Sunni denomination and the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence the only right way to practise Islam, but Muslims must also accept only Jakim’s interpretation of the religion.
...younger Malaysian Muslims with access to a wider pool of information on Islam today are finding they have less in common with the country’s muftis and ulamas. As such, the Islamic religious authorities are fast losing their relevance, and with it, their iron grip on the lives of Muslims nationwide."
I'll be the first to admit that I do have an inner Shafi'i when it comes to dogs. (Yes, I know that there is a variety of opinions in the different jurisprudential schools of thought, but I'm not going there in this post.) Since I don't know if a bark is friendly or snappy, my first tendency is to jump to the other side of the sidewalk when a dog starts getting too close to me me.

I react like this despite the fact that I know the Qur'an speaks positively about dogs: an animal caught by a hunting dog is halal (5:4) and in the story of the persecuted youth hiding in a cave, a dog is stretching its forelegs at the entrance (18:18). I react like this even though I have been surprised by a farmer's dog that followed me out into a field and hung around a few metres away as if to keep guard on me as I peed. 

I am well aware that my instinctive fearful reaction to dogs and mice comes from a fear of the unknown - I'm simply not used to these animals like I am to say, cats. For that, I'm grateful and happy that there was such an event to change the attitudes, at least in this group of a few hundred Muslims in Malaysia.

Dogfies! Source: Facebook

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"If the cucumbers are free, why should we eat satay?"

It's a tradition in my family (or perhaps in many other Malay families) that the first salary of one's first job is to be spent on a special meal for our nearest and dearest.

My mother was the first woman in her family to go to university, and after she graduated she got a job in television broadcasting. With her first month's wages she brought some of her brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces to eat satay.
'Aku teringat yang Mustakim tanya, "Berapa harganya?" Aku kata, bergantung pada berapa cucuk yang kita makan. Tapi aku kata, timunnya free. [Mus]takim kata, "Yuk, makan timun aje." Kelakar habis dia masa tu.'
[I recall Mustakim (the only brother) asking, "How much does [the satay] cost?" I told him, it depends on how many sticks we eat. But, I said, the cucumbers are for free. He then said, "Let's eat only cucumbers then." He was really very funny then.]

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Malay childhood home in Jalan Tampoi

This is the first of a series of posts about my mother's childhood in kampong Singapore

My mother's childhood home was in one of the Malay settlements of Singapore: Kampong Glam. It was a large area of land, big enough for a bungalow-type home with several additional attachments.
Her house was a rumah papan, a two-storey house made of wood. With a kolong or void deck below, it had the appearance of three storeys. You entered the compound through a large metal gate, with patterns. It was a beautiful gate, my mother said. The veranda and front porch were made of brick, including the steps you had to climb to enter the house.

There was a large garden round the front, and extended to one side of the house, dotted with five or six low coconut trees. These trees grew enough coconuts for any of the children to drink coconut water whenever they felt like it. In the front garden there also grew a mango tree and a rambutan tree (that unfortunately never bore any fruit). They all played within the household compound; there was enough space for these free spirits to run back and forth to their hearts' content.

At the back of the house were several attachments. My mother's oldest sister lived in a three-room attachment with her family of eight children. The second oldest sister got two rooms for her family of six. There were separate toilets for bathing and for nature's calls - the latter consisted of a hole over a large metal pot (that was later collected by the "nightsoil" men, aka ah pek taik).

There was no plumbing; water had to be collected from a main pipe. All the nine siblings were supposed to take turns doing it, but there were eight girls and only one boy (who was born second last). So sometimes the girls paid off boys in the neighbourhood to collect water for them. The children used a wheelbarrow-like vehicle that someone cobbled together; this three-wheeled contraption made it easier to carry home several litres of water.

One year in the 50s, there was a big flood and waters rose to almost the height of the first floor of their wooden house. It was the evening of Hari Raya (Eid ul-Fitr) and the villagers were just starting to boil their ketupat (rice cakes in woven coconut leaves). Somehow someone managed to get hold of an ambeng, or a wooden platform not unlike a bed frame, and to the relief of all the children anticipating the biggest celebration of the year, the boiling of the ketupat and other dishes could go on - flood or no flood!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

First time foragers

Summer has officially ended, and gone are many of the delicious things to be found in the wild. I spent the last two weekends foraging with the Dutchman (Nootje always comes along of course, in a handy backpack) in the sand dunes of The Hague.

First we went to Westduinpark, easily accessible by tram 12 or bus 22 directiom Duindorp. Armed with a children's nature guide, we spot some duindoorn berries, which cluster thickly around spiny branches. They are high in vitamin C, but ridiculously difficult to pick. Maybe we were too late getting to them as well, as the berries were quite soft and tasted overripe. They are extremely sour but with a yummy aftertaste (can imagine it as a marmalade!). I ended up snapping off two small branches to experiment with.

We looked mostly for nettles. The first time I got stung quite a fair bit, so I came armed with leather gloves the second time around! Dutchman remarks that I've become quite the nettle connoisseur, as I only snip the first four or six leaves off a small plant, and they must be of a certain shade of bright young green as well. I read somewhere to pick only the best when you forage to eat, and I am taking this advice rather seriously.
I wash the whole bagful of nettles thoroughly, toss to dry and I dehydrate them in the oven at 50 degrees. It takes three batches to dry everything. We've eaten them stirfried and mashed in stamppot but my favourite way is to make an infusion (pour hot water and leave for 6-12 hours, or overnight to simplify things) together with elderberry flowers and rosehips.

The first time, we also discovered dauwbraam or dewberries. They look like blackberries, but are smaller and less sweet. The dewberry plant also tends to creep horizontally rather than arch upwards into a bush shape, like the blackberry plant. Perhaps symbiotically, dewberries grow in between nettles, so there were many untouched berries right under our noses, in the leaves. These I washed, picked out any stems and leaves, and froze in plastic boxes.

Rozebottel or rosehips grow in abundance in the sand dunes. The Dutch variety is more round rather than elongated. The red flesh is mostly bland and very slightly savoury when eaten raw, and most of the fruit is made up of seeds and hairs. I dry these on 50 degrees in the oven until semi dry, before cleaning out the hairs and seeds. Dry them further until they crumble.

Not bad for a first time forage, and i learned the second time around to lay out the goods after foraging to let all the wood lice and other bugs and worms escape before I inadvertently cook or freeze them. Though we couldn't find our coveted elderberries, next summer I'll be prepared early in the season for all kinds of berries, and try my hand at making my own red raspberry leaf tea as well!

Free superfoods for the picking

On death and why I do what I do

Last night, I was having a heart-to-heart with the Dutchman about ideas of death, and God. While we both have wildly varying ideas, we take comfort in the fact that we are at least impossible to understand by much of the mainstream.

He told me that as a kid, he prayed extra hard during funerals that were held in churches because he felt like there was a stronger chance that God was there during that sombre moment. Helping to create the atmosphere was some serious organ music (playing Ave Maria), flowers, people wishing each other "Gecondoleerd", crying because he felt sad that other people were crying, and the ubiquitous and uniquely Dutch "coffee table" of sandwiches and cakes served after the memorial service.

I told him about the time I waited in the living room of a late grandaunt as a jenazah professional (JP) prepared her body for burial. She removed the wads of cotton wool that had been stuffed into the body's ears and nostrils (after being washed, to trap excess fluids), applied makeup (loose powder, eyeliner and lipstick) to the exposed face, and sprinkled drops of attar perfume. Her face was the only part of her left exposed, and JP asked the attendees if anyone wanted to give their last kisses to my late grandaunt.

A few persons away, my mother nudged me to come forward. I must have been about 7 years old and I tried to silently, telepathically communicate to my mother that I didn't want to kiss a cold face. (She looked so cold.) I had no idea if she was going anywhere else after she was placed in the ground.

I've been raised to fear a Hell (and dang those Sunday school teachers know how to describe it), but not to love a Heaven. As I grew older, I often found myself making decisions based on the fear of "going to Hell", even as the idea of a hot place grew less and less real to me.

A very good friend said to me once, "What if it was an all an illusion? What if, on Judgement Day, God said everyone gets to go to Paradise?" While my idea of justice makes me lean to the other side of this argument (how can evil people get away with it in this world and the next?), I do wonder if the version I was sold tells just a tiny part of the story?

Then I think, it could have been so easy for me. If I just prayed, fasted, wore a hijab, married an ustaz, got a stable job, had a few kids, saved up for hajj, spent my retirement reading the Qur'an and doing dhikr non stop, and spent the rest of the time advising others to do things just like I do, would it have been enough? If life is - as they say - about pleasing God, and the formula has already been decoded into a simple series of steps, would that guarantee me (or at least give me a pretty good chance of) Paradise? Is living life without rocking the boat the key?

The Dutchman can hear that I am asking rhetorical questions. "Obviously, you don't think this is the only way."

That's true, I don't. I'd like to think that rocking the boat, creating shit storms when trying to defend the oppressed and upsetting people into thinking differently matter too. This was not taught to me for many reasons: patriarchy and authoritarianism are the most important. I was taught that authority is only to be obeyed, not to be challenged or God forbid, usurped.

So where does that leave me? On days when it seems everyone hates what I write and what I do and can't stop calling me names, I try to remember the reason I believe I am living for: I am a creation of Allah, and this is my testimony of faith.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why you should talk about sex before marriage.

It’s time to clear the air and shame in our communities about sex education, sexual rights and chastity. By Sya Taha.
(Image: Fotolia)

The shame that surrounds sex in the Muslim circles I’ve encountered sometimes makes me think that talking about it is equivalent to the act itself. (Well, guess what – I’m going to open my mouth-vagina anyway.)

Sex and intimacy between Muslim couples is often a topic that is saved for the marital covers – with lots of nervous giggles (often coming from all parties including my middle-aged premarital counsellor). Couples may find this difficult and embarrassing to talk about, even if they find it necessary.

Much of this comes from the expectation that our spouses should be virgins, with zero experiences of sex or even affection like holding hands or hugging members of the opposite sex (also known as “halal dating”). But somehow, the moment we are pronounced man and wife, we’re expected to go from zero to sixty in as many seconds. Foreplay – that’s like, kissing, right?

The reality is that many young Muslims are having all sorts of sexual experiences. Even the definition of that is highly subjective. An Indonesian friend who interviewed several young Muslims about their sexual experiences found that some of them did not consider oral sex or intimacy with members of the same sex to be “sex” per se. Meanwhile, the obsession for abstinence-only sex education and the strict definition on virginity as the absence of penis-vagina intercourse means that some Muslims are engaging in anal sex, and without the knowledge and tools to keep themselves safe.

Before getting married, it’s worth discussing with your partner if he/she is a virgin or that he/she has previous sexual experiences. There’s no shame if both of you want to marry only strict virgins, or that both of you are fine if one of you has had experience. The point is, both of you have to be okay with it. If you want to remain a virgin while your partner has experience, then great. But if you know a thing or two but expect your partner to be totally innocent and clueless, then you might want to evaluate your expectations. Likewise if you feel you have to hide your “past” from your partner.

I once had a Muslim friend tell me that sex education was not necessary: women can learn from their husbands on their wedding day. When I asked her where the young men would have to learn about sex from, she was silent but we both knew the answer: pornography. Needless to say, I think this double standard is highly damaging to both husband and wife.

Pornography is highly staged and doesn’t reflect the real-life spectrum of sexual acts and experiences. Trying out porn moves on your wedding night is not the way you want to empower your marriage. Unless you seek out specifically feminist pornography, much of what you can find on the internet also focuses mostly on male pleasure and universalises ideas about what men and women like. Everyone is different and likes different things – it’s a lot better to get what you want and give what your partner wants.

There’s a dark side to talking about sex, too. Unfortunately, in many of our societies, any kind of sex-related act is seen as the ultimate lack of piety – including rape. This happened to a Muslim friend. She was raped by a then-suitor. The guy then insisted on marrying her, threatening to shame her as a “loose woman” if she refused to marry him. Eventually the threat of marring her family’s name overwhelmed her and she ended up marrying him. (Predictably – and thankfully – she is filing for divorce.)

Recently, I read a blog post written by a young (married) Muslim woman that talked about what to do if one wasn’t a virgin, without unpacking the concept of virginity or chastity. Predictably, she said we had to make lots of du’a, but what I found more distressing was that she conflated rape and consensual sex as being unlawful sexual acts in the eyes of God.

Rape can happen to anyone because it’s the rapist’s fault – hijab or no hijab, halal dating or not. Rape is an unspeakable crime and it’s not something for the victim to be ashamed about. There are many Muslims who see a previous sexual assault as a loss of virginity and carry the shame with it into their marriage. (These issues must be worked through with a licensed therapist.) But virginity and chastity are two different things.

Sex, on the other hand, should be consensual. More than that, it should be wildly enthusiastic. With this in mind, rape can also happen within a marriage – though many may think otherwise. Marital rape is when you do not consent to sexual intercourse. As a partnership of mercy and affection (30:21), marriage should be a safe space for mutual love, pleasure and respect, not for one party to mindlessly demand rights from the other, or to unquestioningly do something they don’t really want to, in the name of obligation.

Testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is also important. I can’t stress this enough, as it’s part of the things to consider before you commit to each other. You don’t want to be surprised with symptoms a few weeks after your wedding. We often think to test for major diseases like HIV/AIDS, but others like syphilis can be non-deadly but equally damaging (or at the very least, annoying). If one of you does have an STD, you will have to think about what you will do – would you treat it first and then marry? Or is it a deal-breaker? For common and incurable STDs like human papilloma virus (HPV), will you agree to use condoms and dental dams for the rest of your life, or are you okay with contracting it and learning to keep the virus under control?

Sure, the conversation is going to be uncomfortable at first. Many of us are not used to even using the proper words for our genitals (personally, in my native language, the words feel obscene and vulgar; proper texts use the Arabic equivalents instead). Many of us might grow up with shame around masturbation, which means that we may not know what feels good for us.

But at the risk of sounding cliche, communication is the most important tool. So starting slow and experimenting with different positions, places, props and moods can be a wonderful time for practising your sexual communication skills in your marriage. Open and matter-of-fact communication can also help in times of stress or bad health, as a rejection of sex doesn’t have to leave you feeling hurt. If you like wildly different things, communication means that you can find a compromise or a middle way.

The good news is that sex gets better the more you can talk to your partner about it, especially if you can let each other know what you’re enthusiastic about and can appreciate what your partner likes. Safe and healthy sex gets better with time. Have fun!

This post was originally published at Aquila Style

Monday, October 6, 2014

When you're being chased out of Eid ul-Adha prayer because of a baby

Hope everyone is having/had a blessed Eid ul-Adha 1435.

This was the first year that I was not alone in the women's section of the mosque, since being married. I'm largely unmosqued, mostly because I hate going to a mosque and then having to be separated from the Dutchman - with the exception of the Tokyo Camii (Mosque), where we prayed side-by-side in one of the first rows. (Being a musafir or traveller can buy you a lot of leeway, just plead ignorance.)

I know I'm not alone in having this sort of separation anxiety. Many other couples made up of one partner who is not raised Muslim, may similarly feel anxious being handed over to the 'sisters' or 'brothers' (ie total strangers) in a completely different part of the mosque. (I mean, somehow total strangers can be more helpful just because they are of the same sex?) That being said, I'm very proud of the Dutchman for being able to hold his own among these 'brothers' (after I prep him on what to expect).

This month marks the fourth year I've been in the Netherlands, and also four years of this blog! (So much for the initial title, A year in NL). It's also the fourth year that I've been going to the Indonesian mosque in my town. It's three storeys high, and the main prayer space is on the second floor (there's a complimentary balcony for women). The first floor houses some classrooms and a kitchen.

Spot the complimentary balcony
As with many other mosques that make space for women, during big congregations like the two Eids, this mosque repurposes the first floor classrooms into special rooms for women and children. All men go into the main area space, while the female congregation is split into four different spaces: the (complimentary) balcony, two or three saff or rows in the main hall, and two rooms on the first floor: one for women with children, and one for women without children.

I've always been a big supporter for equal and equally decent prayer spaces, and ever since I saw the room labelled 'women with children' four years ago I've told myself, hell no. By putting all the children into one room, it becomes extremely chaotic because the children don't see the imam and learn how to carry themselves during a congregation. Nothing against the need for children to play and run around - in which case why confine them to a room with women trying to get the best of both worlds? Just set aside a room dedicated to fun and games, get a few adults to watch them and ta-da, everyone's a winner. (By the way, this arrangement is exactly what several mosques in Singapore organised during tarawih sessions in Ramadan earlier this year.)

I rave about this mosque because of the low wooden barrier (lower than waist-height) that seems to nominally demarcate the male and female praying spaces in the main hall. But this year, with little Nootje I had to face the attitudinal barriers head on.

When we arrive at the mosque a good 30 minutes before the Eid ul-Adha prayer is due to start, I wave off the Dutchman into the main entrance and I go round to the side entrance. I saunter up the stairs to the main area space, carrying Nootje in my arms. I find a spot near the door ( to make a quick exit if he starts bawling) in the front row, look around for the Dutchman in case I decide to pass Nootje over to him, and settle down.

The takbir is being chanted over a booming microphone, which freaks out Nootje a bit. He unusually lets me carry and rock him in my arms, hardly moving (very rare since he doesn't like being held unless we're walking or bouncing him) since he's an hour overdue for a morning nap - I have high hopes that he will zone out through the noise or maybe even fall asleep (a mum can dream can't she!).

There's a mother on my left, with a 1.5 or 2 year old girl in a pink dress, who is sitting quietly. Not five minutes pass when one of the women who is working today as an usher for all the congregants tell me that babies are not allowed in the main hall. I decide not to point out the toddlers in the men's area, who are shrieking. The mother beside me quietly sneaks away to the second row and her little girl almost melts into the pipes along the wall - she's just as stealth as her mum!

I have so much to tell this woman who's trying to chase me down to the vrouw met kinderen room. 

Did she know that God loves the laughter of children? That the Prophet would shorten the prayer if he heard children crying in the congregation? That the Prophet's original mosque was relaxed and inviting? That if families were so highly regarded in our religion, they should be able to sit and worship together in the mosque, which is meant to symbolise society? That asking me to leave the area because I was holding a baby made me feel like a baby is unclean, unholy and unworthy?

Instead of all that, I fumble out an answer in half Indonesian and half English and respond to her order as if it was posed to me as an option: it's okay, I'm staying here. She looks confused and tries her command again, this time in Dutch, stressing that "it's the rules". Another woman chips in with English, because I'm beginning to look like a right tourist who doesn't understand anything anyone is saying.

By this time, another mother has taken the empty space to my left, and she has two children: one looks about 6 or 7 and the other is older. She helpfully tries to encourage me into leaving ("This is the first time I'm here [in the main hall]. All these years I've been downstairs.") but this only makes me determined to not banish myself.

I simply shrug and smile to both women and assure them that I'm not taking extra space and that Nootje will be quiet. Mosque lady is not satisfied, but happily she moves away to usher more women downstairs as the main hall is filling up. Woman to my right is ambivalent, and no one comes to my support. Clock is ticking... ten more minutes to prayer. I continue rocking Nootje and whisper the takbir in his ear.

Finally! The prayer starts, and it's an exercise in balancing a 8kg weight while bowing and prostrating without putting any hands on the floor. Takbir seven times with one hand, and hope that the communal and extra loud "Ameen" doesn't startle Nootje. He doesn't mind the shift in orientation during the ruku', and I make an almost-there prostration with him right under me. 

After the prayer ends, he is looking super tired (nap is two hours overdue by now) so I pop out a boob under my hijab to feed him. He contentedly nurses to sleep and I get to listen to 15 minutes of the sermon. And no one seems to mind the two toddlers running around in the men's section during the prayer. (The section which, by the way, had two extra rows free, which could have been filled up with women.)

The imam tells us the story of how when God created Adam, God told all the malaikat (angels) to prostrate to the first human being. They all did so, except Iblis. Iblis believed that being created from fire was better than being created from clay. Because Iblis disbelieved, he was sent out of Paradise for his arrogance (7:11-18).

(Side note: I'm often quoted this story from the Qur'an by those who think that whatever I write or post is controversial, or that I'm being arrogant and stepping over my God-given womanly boundaries, whatever those may be. Essentially, likening me to Iblis... stay classy, guys.)

But I love how the imam interprets this story. To him, the moral of the this parable is that even though God creates beings from clay, fire and light, all the creations lived in Paradise together. While we humans, all made out of earth and are all flesh and blood, can't even live together on Earth. 

Post-sermon selfie


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