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?"

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