Would Ramadhan ruin the pleasures of a stiff drink?

Or rather, would a good stiff drink ruin your Ramadhan? Khaled Diab writes eloquently (as always) about mixing fasting with alcohol during the holy month of Ramadhan at The Guardian. Here’s a teaser:

In Europe, Ramadan creeps up on you with none of the fanfare associated with the fasting season in the Muslim world, where it is a unique time of year. It is a month of fasting and feasting, frugalness and greed, night turning into day, spirituality and commercialism. When it started this year, we’d arranged, by chance, to go out for drinks with some friends, where we, blasphemously, drank an impromptu seasonal toast.

While the majority of people go without food or drink from dawn to dusk, some Muslims suffer a special kind of thirst. For those who drink alcohol, the holy month can be a very dry spell.

Many do this voluntarily, much like Christians give up certain so-called bad habits for Lent. One Bosnian woman describes people who practice this temporary abstention as being “Muslims on batteries“. In Bosnia, the majority of Muslims still drink alcohol, despite the growing religiosity of society there since the traumas of the Balkans conflict in the 1990s.

Read the rest here. Ignore the many comments that follow.

I’m going to take a brief break from blogging here for a few days to write on a research proposal and spending Eid Mubarak with my boyfriend on which also happens to be his first day of work!! Happy Eid al-fitr/Selamat Hari Raya, everyone!

A (post)colonial love story

Read this today and nearly puked:

“Ours is a classic story of forbidden love, elopement, family estrangement and reconciliation. People say it’s so romantic,” says Englishman Tim Wallace from the veranda of his home in the town of Tura in north-east India.

“People say it’s so romantic”, he says. Honestly, I hate stories like this, and I can’t believe the BBC has dropped its standards so low as to publish yet another white man-meets-‘tribal’ girl-girl’s family object-but they live happily ever after in the end sort of staple you find in cheap tabloids or mail order bride agency success stories. Tales of intermarriage such as this are always imbalanced, because it is always told from the man’s point of view, who is always white. This is because the women involved are unlikely to speak his language fluently enough to express their innermost thoughts, and because it’s likely that she is poor and uneducated. What makes their love story newsworthy has largely to do with where the woman is from. In this case (in a David Attenborough voice), from the remote Garo hills nestled in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya. They have a daughter together, Amazonia, because she’s like, from the jungle, and all jungles are like all the same y’know, whether it’s in India or South America. But it gets much worse:

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Oh dear…

Originally posted part of the ‘Bollywood Nights’ series at The Guardian:

“The most God-awful film I have ever seen in any genre, anywhere in the world”

Nirpal Dhaliwal reviews ‘The Last Lear‘, the latest in the emerging English-language Bollywood film industry, starring the ubiquitous Amitabh Bachan.

You’d think that Shakespeare and Bollywood would be made for each other. If the Bard were alive today, his histrionic melodramas would’ve made him the fattest cat in Mumbai, his couch worn to splinters by the legions of actresses he’d have cast for his ridiculous scripts. Even dead, he’s still managed to inseminate India’s movie industry to spawn the ghastly bastard devil-child that is The Last Lear – the most god-awful film I have ever seen in any genre, anywhere in the world.

Bollywood overlord Amitabh Bachchan plays a cranky ageing thespian, Harish Mishra, who is lured out of retirement in Calcutta for his first movie role by a hip young director, Siddarth (Arjun Rampal). During filming he befriends Shabnam, a naive young starlet, played by the enticing Preity Zinta. An English language movie, rare in mainstream India, The Last Lear possesses the worst traits of Indian English-language novels – prolixity, sanctimony and an absence of any originality – while lacking their craft and erudition. Plodding, cliche-ridden, humourless and wholly one-dimensional, the script feels as if it was written by a lobotomised Kiran Desai.

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Gender trouble: some thoughts on transgenderism in Malaysia

If there’s one thing about feminism that I feel proud to be identified with is its struggle for the abolishment of traditional gender roles. For the uninitiated, this means rejection of women as natural homemakers and men as pre-determined breadwinners. Rejecting the social conditioning of gender also means redefining the feminine and masculine and who has the ‘rights’ to them. While many in this day and age do not see anything wrong in seeing women in important decision-making positions in politics and business, and becoming successful doctors and engineers, discussing the rights of men and women who reside outside the sphere of heterosexuality is enough to raise so-called tolerant and progressive eyebrows.

Take for example all the talk about America’s Next Top Model (season-n) first transgender hopeful, Isis. Looking every bit like catwalk material, she’s like any other woman with a big dream – in her case to be a female fashion model – a popular standard for female beauty.  Should she be chosen by the arbiters of style and fashion solely for she what does best, and not because of her gender, would mean a huge leap for mainstream media – the arbiters of popular culture and social acceptance.

In a local context, Malaysia has witnessed over the years the persecution of transgendered men or Mak nyahs for their desire to assert their feminine identities. Transsexuals in Malaysia have been at best, regarded as inferior to heterosexual men and women, and at worst, perverted and depraved.  A fatwa prohibiting the Muslim transgendered community from access to sexual reassignment surgery in 1983 meant that many were forced into back-alley mutilations or surgery in nearby Thailand.

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On big breasts and the eroticisation of power

Talking about what constitutes beauty is always important. Beauty can empower women (and even men) in ways that money and romantic love can’t. But there will always be people who say that discussing about breast implants and other forms of cosmetic surgery is a waste of time, like the few commentors of Hephzibah Anderson’s article on Comment is Free today, who say that some people like them, some people don’t – end of discussion – ‘cos there are wars going on and the world’s economy needs a serious checkup, we have priorities to waste our breath on. But these comments often miss the point; it’s not about breast implants per se, it’s about what other people think is beautiful and how it can be a tool to oppress women. Perhaps the person who wrote this didn’t get the point:

These articles get written from time to time and seem a complete waste of time to me. Some people like implants, some people don’t. I do and have had a number of implants, making me pretty big. I have my own reasons, am happy with the results, it doesn’t effect anyone else, so what’s the issue? If you don’t like them, don’t get them.

In her article, Anderson mentions Lolo Ferrari, who was best remembered for once having the largest breasts in the world. Ferrari, whose breasts defied physics and biology, was a tragic victim of the cult of Bardot and Monroe. The 36-24-26 and blonde ideal hurts not only women in general but also pathologises men. It can be so easy to dismiss Lolo Ferrari as just another freak show who languished in a devastating case of body dysmorphia, but society’s standard of beauty lies at the root of her self-disfigurement and no one wants to admit that; not the fashion magazines, not the plastic surgeons, not the botox advertisers, not People’s 50 Most Beautiful list, and not the diet ayatollahs who hinder normal women from enjoying dessert.

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Cupcakes and consumerism

Malaysians love trends and food. Mix them together and you get a craze. What gets certain products/fashions popular are the symbols attached to them and their increased value when displayed in full view of the public. These symbols often signify status that conflate certain aspects of economic and social power, and constructs a particular image the wearer of those symbols wants to project.

Before I get too abstract, I’d like to present a case in point: the role of cupcakes in urban Malaysia. This year unfolded upon Malaysians the zenith of the humble cupcake. Not that cupcakes themselves are anything special; they’re easy to bake and can be purchased cheaply in just about every bakery and confectionery in town for as long as I can remember. But what makes them special  and a status symbol is the fact that they are sold in upmarket cafes in the trendiest shopping districts. In other words, cupcakes have become in themselves a mark of urbanity, sophistication, and aspiration.

Similar to the way brand names like Starbucks inspires its patrons to adopt a particular lifestyle; one that “appreciates” world cultures (Kenyan, Java, Columbian, Italian), one that is tech-savvy, and in touch with Western-style modernity, upmarket cupcakes is just another extension of Malaysia’s aspirational consumerist culture.

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Bringing post-colonial analysis into our homes: The Indian restaurant

An excerpt from ‘Introducing Cultural Studies’ by Ziauddin Sardar:

The Indian restaurant can be a useful model to study the history and legacy of post-colonialism. By studying its many symbols (name, food, location, patrons), we can have some ideas about how the race and cultures of the Other can be perceived within the context of immigration in Britain.

‘Mughal Balti House’ is like any other Indian restaurant scattered around Britain, the words “Take Away” tell us something of its status: a working class restaurant in a working class neighborhood. “Mughal” in the name harks back from a once great civilisation. The word “Balti” too has significance. But what, exactly?

To explore what our text is telling us, let us put “Mughal Balti” in context – in relation to other Indian restaurants, its history and cultural significance in Britain. The Indian restaurant made its presence felt in Britain in the 1950’s after the arrival of immigrants from the Subcontinent. Indian food was then associated with “curry” and the Indian restaurant was at the bottom of the heap of desirable places to eat, and was catered largely for working-class patrons. Now the word “curry” itself has a history. It was a sought-after commodity in the Middle Ages. When the mughal emperor Jahangir granted permission to Sir Thomas Roe in 1605 to establish a company in India, it was specifically for exporting Indian curries and spices.

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Malaysia: talibanisation lite

Singer Sharifah Aini
Too hot for men's iman: Malaysian singer Sharifah Aini

The recent imposition restricting female singers/dancers from performing in a mixed-sex audience in the northern Malaysian state of Kedah is just another heartbeat away from the talibanisation of the country. Malaysia has claimed to being an example of moderate Islam against a backdrop of multiple ethnicities and religions, and there have been praise for the country for successfully keeping that balance. But in spite of these proud claims and admiration, Malaysia has received many a spotlight for being intolerant, sexist, and just plain ridiculous. The latest in the list of shame is the further infringement of women’s rights to be heard and seen in the artistic arena.

The Malaysian women’s movement has failed to define itself as feminist for various historical reasons, and as a result failed to benefit from mainstream feminism’s expansive narrative. The first few women’s groups have been largely politically motivated at the doorstep of the country’s political independence in 1957. In the decades that followed non-governmental organisations became the avenue for the local women’s movement to focus on the protection and refuge for victims of domestic abuse and rape. The 1970’s became a time of Islamic revivalism and disillusionment with the west in Malaysia, and became a trying time for local women in general. The religious resurgence meant a greater control over the private lives of Muslims, and women  became a threat to the country’s moral decline.

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Unexpected sexualities: the sexual limits and trangressions of Muslim women in film

A scene from Nadine Labaki's 'Caramel' (2007)
Come into my parlour: A scene from Nadine Labaki's 'Caramel' (2007)

Portrayals of liberal Muslim women in film is groundbreaking on many levels. In a time where the veil is a symbol of subjugation, films about Muslim women like ‘Caramel‘ (2007) by Nadine Labaki, with a narrative composed of universal themes like love and sex can stunningly shatter stereotypes. It is an anomaly amongst the more mainstream media imagery of women from Islamic countries; it revolves around a beauty salon in which its characters tackle issues of virginity before marriage (by way of hymen reconstruction), disappointed love, and even lesbianism. More commonly, the sexuality of Muslim women is a mystery. Often she is portrayed as sexless and submissive, covered from head to toe, even though in reality only a small proportion of Muslim women actually do so.

‘Caramel’ offers a rare glimpse into the private lives of Muslim women and that their lives can be no different from women living in more liberal societies. However, one can argue that Lebanon has a reputation of being more progressive than its regional neighbours, but their differences are often cosmetic. In ultra conservative post-revolution Iran, the subject of romantic love and even sex is carefully depicted; often symbolically and abstract– imbued with Persian philosophy, and flying white doves. Even the adoring gaze between lovers was deemed too hot for mullahs: the first love story to come after the revolution was about a pair of blind lovers! While the Muslim world constructs sex and womanhood around some well-defined limits, Western popular culture re-hashes over and over again the image of the belly dancer.

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Lipstick feminism is not feminism

There are a couple of reasons why feminism has a difficult time taking root in many places; first, it’s because there is widespread suspicion of its origins. Historically and currently (by the Bush Admin), it has been abused to spread imperialism. It has strong associations with the privileged and ironically, paternalistic women who like to tell Muslim women what not to wear. Also, because it is home to lipstick feminism. Renee at Feministe has posted a good argument against women who claim empowerment from fashion and make-up but often forget the many other women who are tragically disempowered to keep lipstick feminism alive:

When women who are middle/upper class engage in a debate as to whether an article of clothing, or makeup is suitably feminist what they are ignoring is that they are  in a position to engage in this particular conversation, because they exist with class privilege.

A woman who is making less than 1USD per day does not have time to concern herself with whether or not patriarchy is informing her clothing choices.  This woman must deal with trying to provide subsistence for herself and her family under brutal economic slave labour.  Her class location informs her position, as the realities of her daily lived experience extinguish the angst that lipstick/utility feminists engage in.

Regardless of your position regarding performing femininity through make up and or  clothing, what cannot be denied is that any purchase within our capitalist economy is predicated on the exploitation of women.  The cult of I blinds us from the reality that in  our debate about agency and autonomy, we are completely obscuring the degree to which we personally are responsible for the impoverishment of others.  Class position we posit is based on meritocracy, but I must ask, who works harder than a sweat shop labourer?  Though feminism is a movement to end oppression against women, often times the failure to acknowledge privilege leads to the marginalization and exploitation of the most vulnerable within our society.  Class division is not a  flight of fancy, and to ignore the ways in which the Cult of I, turns us into oppressors is to decide unilaterally that only certain women matter.

You can read her full article here.

Update: Here’s an article posted at The F-Word that got me questioning about how I identify myself as a feminist and here’s a bit of defending the post’s title (Lipstick feminism is not feminism): I like lipstick and I do believe that to some extent it boosts my self-confidence, it assures me that I look pretty. There I said it, I need make-up for self-esteem sometimes. But then again, without make-up and new clothes I’m still me, the same self-assured woman-Muslim-feminist-daughter-lover-cook-pianist-artist who does not need to put everything I enjoy into boxes labeled feminist or not, ‘cos that’s just silly.