Prambanan, Yogyakarta. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s that time again, dear readers – I’m disappearing yet again! Though I’m far from happy to say that; writing conditions here have not been conducive or ideal. So there have been fewer posts this month and Cycads is starting gather cobwebs. A new, temporary research job at University of Malaya has taken up much of my time. And now, I’m packing up for a month-long break around the peninsular and Yogyakarta for traces of my pre-Islamic roots.

I will not be writing in July and it saddens me a great deal to miss out on opportunities to engage in so many pressing issues concerning us Muslim women right now. Let us pray and hope that the protesters in Iran get their justice and peace, that Sisters In Islam win their battle against those who jealously guard their authority to speak for Muslims, and that Muslim women in France be given a platform to speak for their right to wear what they want. The position of patriarchal power is never secure and it re-asserts itself by oppressing the most vulnerable in society – the young and female, the economically, racially, and sexually marginalised – the unrepresented in “official” power. Don’t people who walk the corridors of power have better things to do, like serving the people, for example?

Photo of the day: Wall of Shame

(source: Gender Studies Programme, Universiti Malaya)

Titillating, attention-grabbing headlines of sexual violence against women and children both desensitises crimes against the weak and fuel society with the fear of the rapist-stranger despite the fact that the majority of rapists are known to victims.

Not tourists, not on holiday: World Refugee Day 20th June

Rohingya men seek refuge on the shores of Banda Acheh, Indonesia (source: The Guardian)

From UNHCR Canada:

Often classified unfairly with economic migrants, refugees flee their country not for economic gain but to escape persecution, the threat of imprisonment and even threats to their lives. They need a safe haven where they can recover from mental and physical trauma and rebuild their hopes for a better future.

The intolerance that is often at the root of internal displacement and refugee flows is also present in some of the countries that refugees flee to. Instead of finding empathy and understanding, they are often met with mistrust or scorn.

On World Refugee Day, let’s not forget that some day in the future any one of us could be knocking at a stranger’s door hoping to find a safe and friendly shelter. We should extend refugees the same kind of welcome we would like to receive if we were in their position.

While most refugees want to go home, some cannot safely return. But wherever they are, refugees will always strive to pick up the pieces and start over. The courage and determination demonstrated during their darkest hours will serve them well in rebuilding a new life. On World Refugee Day, let us honour them for these qualities and recognise the richness and diversity they bring to our societies.

Like other countries in South and Southeast Asia, Malaysia has become a major destination for political refugees from Myanmar. But like these countries, refugees are far from welcome. Often dehumanised, mistreated, trafficked for labour and sexual exploitation, and sometimes forcibly repatriated back, their plight are often ignored simply because they are undocumented and a “drain” on the host country’s resources.

What kind of “Islamic” country is Malaysia when we refuse to offer shelter to our Rohingya brothers and sisters? What kind of “Islamic” leaders were Mahathir Mohamad and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to “push back” incoming asylum seekers from our shores?

It’s time Malaysia and countries in the region recognised refugees as legal migrants, and work with the international community to alleviate the financial burden of hosting new arrivals and pressure the Burmese junta towards forming a functional democracy. But it’s also time we rethink our privileges as Malaysians and our dehumanising concept of “illegal immigration”. No one should be illegal.

Related links:

Stop the deportation of SOAS university cleaners!

Students and academics of University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) have protested against the brutal arrest of nine members of their cleaning staff for working in the UK without valid permits. Below is the summary of events posted on Facebook:

At 6.30am on Friday the 12th June, ISS (the company who contracts the SOAS cleaning staff) called a meeting for all cleaners.

Within minutes the meeting was raided by approximately 45-50 Immigration and Border police, who entered through the fire doors and the main entrance to the room and detained all the cleaning staff; the officers were in riot gear.

Following the raid the cleaners were locked in the room. One by one the workers were led into another SOAS classroom, where their immigration status was checked. During this process the staff were allowed no representation and provided with no translator (many staff are native Spanish speakers). A trade union representative at the scene was refused access to the staff members.

It is known that the contractor ISS had requested the police action. Two members of SOAS management were present during the raid, liaising with the police. This suggests that the school had prior knowledge of the raid.

ISS have informed UNISON that those cleaners detained may be fast-tracked out of the country, thus they may be deported within 72 hours.

Those detained have been working at SOAS for many years; they have settled in London. Deportation will be devastating not only for the individuals involved but also the families. They are also our friends and fellow colleagues in the SOAS community.

It is not a coincidence that SOAS cleaners were one of the first university cleaners to fight for Union representation and a decent wage. The events on Friday appear to be aimed at sending a clear message to other agency workers in London not to fight for union representation, such levels of intimidation cannot be tolerated.

We believe the heavy-handed treatment which the cleaners received was grossly over the top and ISS/SOAS are complicit in this.

We believe that these appalling events are proof once again that SOAS cleaning staff need to be brought in-house and that companies like ISS which exploit and intimidate workers have no place at SOAS.

Update: Five have already been deported, and the others could face deportation within days. One has had a suspected heart attack and was denied access to medical assistance and even water. One was over 6 months pregnant. Many have families who have no idea of their whereabouts.

This is a public revolt against what being “illegal” means and puts into perspective the privileges of “belonging” and situations we often take for granted. One commenter on the Facebook group says:

The term “illegal” migrant is a complete misnomer. The freedom to move is an international human right-it is not illegal to cross a national border. Undocumented workers make this city work; doing the jobs others wont do, for the lowest pay, working such long hours, often in terrible conditions, just to get by. Paying emergency tax (stuck with temporary NI number), entitled to no health care provision or protection from the police etc. Unable to marry, have families & live the “normal” life that the rest of us take for granted. People live in fear of raids & deportation when all they are trying to do is live. What exactly is it that they are doing that is unlawful? Please people, think critically about the concept of “illegal migrant”. Just because there is a law against something doesnt mean it is wrong. SOAS used to be a place to critically reflect and question the system.

No country for Muslim women

First published at Muslimah Media Watch

I am not an Islamic scholar, therefore my opinions on Islam do not count. Worse still,  I’m told that it’s not my place to have an opinion on Islam at all.

This is the general climate of thought in Malaysia put forth in the recent proposal by the country’s main Islamic party, PAS, to investigate the Muslim feminist non-governmental organization Sisters In Islam (SIS) for un-Islamic activities and to “rehabilitate” its members to “the right path”. The announcement has sent shock waves across the country.

The feminist organization has long been the thorn on many Muslim Malaysians’ sides, of both conservative and moderate persuasions, mainly for their outspoken critique of book-banning, polygamy, and state-imposed concepts of modesty. The latest in the string of attacks against SIS is by far the most extreme and is said by many to be a major political misstep for PAS, which once vowed to be “modern” and “democratic”.

But PAS has yet to retract their demands amidst growing pressure from many quarters, including criticisms from within party lines. But more importantly, it has yet to disclose further details of their charges against SIS. In the meantime, their contempt for Sisters In Islam touches on more personal issues that raises questions as to whether accusations against them are really from a theological standpoint; from the members’ choice of dress (many do not wear the hijab) and marital status (many are also unmarried). These claims to discredit SIS have been reactionary at best, intolerant and anti-women at worst.

Read More »

Thoughtful quote of the day

“When talking about aerospace, you ask somebody from NASA, not someone in Somalia,”

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party’s (PAS) president, Abdul Hadi Awang, on the party’s democratic right to ban the Muslim Feminist NGO Sisters In Islam for ‘unqualified’ involvement in Islamic law. [Source]

Joint statement by civil Malaysian society on PAS resolution to ban Sisters In Islam

In light of the recent furore over the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party’s (PAS) iron-fisted decision to ban the Muslim feminist non-governmental organisation, Sisters In Islam, and to severely punish its members if found to conduct “un-Islamic” activities, a joint statement on behalf of a democratic Malaysian society has been released for the consideration of PAS members and those who share their views:

We the undersigned are deeply disturbed by the call on the part of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to have Sisters in Islam (SIS) banned and its members rehabilitated should its activities be determined to be contrary to the Islamic shariah. It is apparent to us that in making the call in the manner that it has, PAS has already formed the view that SIS should be banned and its activities brought to an end.

While we respect the freedom of members of PAS to associate in a manner that they consider appropriate or warranted as well as their freedom to express a view in association on such matters as they see fit, the members of SIS, or any other organization for that matter, are equally guaranteed those freedoms. No one person or organization has a monopoly over the right to express views on matter of public importance. The call to silence SIS and send its members for rehabilitation is an act of violence against those freedoms and their constitutional underpinnings. It also lends itself to further closure of the already narrow space of public discourse and debate that a slew of anti-expression laws have allowed Malaysians.

For Malaysia to mature into the democracy that Malaysians aspire to, it is vital that diversity, even of views, be protected and nurtured. Respect for the freedoms guaranteed to all Malaysians by the Federal Constitution, be they members of PAS or any other organization or simply individuals, is crucial to this endeavor.

The demand for action against SIS culminating in a ban is not easily reconciled with PAS public rhetoric in favour of a more democratic and inclusive Malaysia. On the contrary, the demand is wholly anti-democratic. We reiterate that though members of PAS are entitled to their views, the call for the banning of SIS is wholly unacceptable. As a matter of principle, the question of banning any organization purely for their views should not arise at all. Differences of views must be respected and, if at all, be resolved through constructive engagement.

In view of this, we urge PAS to reconsider its position and take such steps as are necessary to retract the call for action against SIS.

Sisters In Islam represents one the few, if not the most formidable, critical voices against the discrimination of Muslim women in Malaysia. Their dedication in reforming the Islamic family law has been shared by women’s organisations from around the world, culminating in the groundbreaking Musawah conference last February. For an Islamic political party to express contempt for an organisation that lives and breathes for Muslim women is shooting itself in the foot and exposing itself as dangerously intolerant and anti-women.

Mild toxic waste: Malaysian Women's TV Programmes

Cross-posted from Muslimah Media Watch

As I count the hours to the day I return to Malaysia, I’m compiling my notes and thoughts for a small research project on media images of women in the capital. But I’ve already started collecting preliminary data; my immense curiosity in the representation of Muslim Malay women in the current media took me as far as binging on toxic levels of Malaysian online television recently. So in a way, this post will serve as an introduction to an analysis of the popular trends affecting Muslim Malay women as depicted in the media in Malaysia today.

Far from the most progressive form of mainstream media, Malaysian television plays host to boring gender stereotypes in film, advertising and, most prominently, in women’s programs. Yet, it’s a place where women rule. The majority of programs, whether they’re dramas, sitcoms, or day-time talk shows, are aimed at women. Not only does this suggest that a bigger proportion of the TV audience is female, but also implies the fact that more women spend more time at home than men do.

Further, the growing visibility of women in hijab on television in recent years goes hand in hand with the glamorous and ’sellable’ image of the hijab and the increased religiosity of the mass media. Personally, I find the diversity of Muslim women on TV a positive change, but when I watch two extravagantly-dressed women talking on a half-hour segment about nothing but pillows and mattresses, I begin to feel a disconnect between the image and the message: it’s all looks but zero substance.

Read More »

Pink is for tween Muslimahs

Update: An extended version of this post can be found at Muslimah Media Watch

It had to happen sooner or later. With Barbie and now Hannah Montana merchandise dominating the tween to early teenage market in Malaysia, products for young Muslim women in hijab are starting to appear, particularly on the bookshelves. And they look very pink.

Sayalah Puteri Raja (I'm the princess here!)

There are also whiffs of collusion with the Disney conglomerate’s marketing strategies; princesses sell. Now, I’m not the only one who thinks that princesses make one of the worst kind of role models. They’re expected to be beautiful, rescued by Prince Charming, and either acquire or inherit wealth and royal status patrilineally. But then, stories of princesses and other beautiful heroines make an obvious progression towards the Malay novel and its main theme: romance. The contemporary romance novel is pretty much the only form of Malay fiction writing popular today. So pervasive is the Malay romance novel that it’s even taught in schools as ‘Malay literature’.

I’m assuming that this is part of the mainstreaming of ‘Islamic culture’ to reach out to younger Muslim-Malaysians. It’s saying that you can be hip and with the times and still be a good Muslim. But here, to be hip is to be a sad carbon-copy of Disney princesses with blue eyes and fair-skin and colluder of Western gender stereotypes.

Other examples of ‘pink and feminine’ novels for Muslim young women:

Diari Aneesa (Aneesa's Diary)
Kotak Rahsia Ismah (Ismah's Secret Box)
40 Lukisan Hati (40 Drawings of the Heart)
Thank you, Puteriku (Thank you, My Princess)
Dia Ataupun Dia? (Her or Her?)
Dia Ataupun Dia? (Her or Her?)
Balqis dan Pukauan Si Jelita (Balqis and the Spell of the Beautiful One)
Balqis dan Pukauan Si Jelita (Balqis and the Spell of the Beautiful One)