The boy who cried "Witch!": Saudis investigate domestic workers for witchcraft

First published at Muslimah Media Watch

Something decidedly medieval is in the air in Saudi Arabia. Fears of black magic and curses cast by Indonesian domestic helpers have spread across the country, and  Saudi employers increasingly feel the need to hire private investigators to check their domestic workers for suspicious behavior and evidence for witchcraft.

Investigators, mostly foreign women from neighboring countries, are paid to search for photographs, hair, or clothes belonging to the employers before the domestic helpers are repatriated, reports Arab News. The employers do not do this themselves because they feel it is immoral and something Islam prevents them to do.

This is a strange story, worthy of trashy tabloids and supernatural fiction. But clearly, superstition is a habit that dies hard, often with dire consequences. There is no mention in the report about the rampant abuse of migrant domestic workers by Saudi employers, but I assume that that is the long running back story that needs no introduction. Abuse of domestic workers ranges from emotional and physical abuse to rape, slavery, and even murder. There is very little sense or a trace of rationality to fear domestic workers for practicing black magic unless one’s judgment is clouded by xenophobia and the normalization of the dehumanization of working-class foreigners. Even the Saudi religious police, the mutawa, have become self-styled witch-hunters, lacking only a burning stake in the middle of a city square to complete the image in a country where witchcraft is illegal and punishable by death.

But stories of black magic do not just arise out of thin air. They are a byproduct of a larger economic and political structure that renders migrant workers vulnerable to xenophobic and racist attacks. The U.N. research institute for social development has identified three aspects attributable to the heightened xenophobia in the Middle East. First, a preference for a temporary contract labor. Second, discriminatory employment practices and the special “allocation” for menial jobs for migrant workers; and finally, a culture of disdain towards those who are visibly different.

Abuse of every despicable kind is by no means limited to Saudi households, but is also widespread in where I come from, Malaysia. High-profile cases involving horrific abuse of domestic helpers grabbing international attention in the last ten years have hardly left a dent on the conscience of many Malaysians. Having been brought up for a number of years with a domestic helper at home while both my parents went to work, it is an accepted way of life for a significant proportion of Malaysians. Domestic helpers provide huge relief for double income families, and many became part of the family, joining in on holidays and included in family portraits. Muslim Indonesian maids are preferred in most Muslim households for a variety of reasons, food preparation and religious sensitivity among them, but they are also some of the most badly treated.

Filipino workers, who majority are Christians on the other hand, suffer lower rates of abuse because arguably, they are better protected: thanks to government lobbying, Filipino migrant workers are paid better than their Indonesian counterparts, and in places like Jordan, bans have been imposed on potential employers to receive Filipino domestic helpers due to reports of abuse. They are also a smaller group compared to Indonesian female migrant workers. Most Filipino maids are older than Indonesian workers, better educated and skilled. But this is not about numbers–cases of abuse no matter how high or isolated deserves the attention and effective action.

It’s difficult to piece together the macro structures such as the economy, world poverty, and immigration policies with attitudes of ordinary families toward domestic helpers to fully understand what brings people to commit inhuman acts on other human beings. I often wonder if whether having a person contracted to live under one’s roof has anything to do with it. Bringing in someone to cook, clean your clothes, look after the children and/or elderly relatives must involve a tricky negotiation over privacy and other practical matters included in having another person under the same roof.

Perhaps there’s very little in terms of a middle way between welcoming a domestic helper as a new member of the family or simply as a stranger in the home. If the case is the latter, then life at home must be uncomfortable not just for the employers and their family, but particularly for the domestic workers who’ve travelled far from home to find a better life. Is this an effect of our changing values vis-a-vis a rapidly changing urban landscape where increased contact with “the outside world” through immigration and migration has become inevitable and unsettling for many?

Notes on interracial and (post)colonial traveling

Some interracial couples may have some misgivings about traveling abroad together, particularly to places that are reputed to be intolerant – Saudi Arabia, Dubai and a host of other predominantly Muslim countries are quick to come up as examples. I can kind of understand why. The ghost of anti-miscegenation laws, racism, and the effects of migrant sex work and pornography (I know, Muslim countries don’t necessarily have these issues, all at once) have a role to play in society’s ugly perception of interracial relationships, but I don’t think couples have that much too worry about as long as they stay respectful of the places and peoples they visit.

But while traveling in my own country Malaysia as one half of an interracial couple who is female and of darker skin tone, I was struck by the patriarchal attitudes and imperialist nostalgia/longing that exist at the heart of tourism.

Some things I noticed:

1.Everybody ignores me. In shops, restaurants, and hotels, I become invisible. Unless I open my mouth no one is going to give me a second look much less acknowledge my presence. Perhaps as a woman I am viewed as the insignificant, meek and mute half. And perhaps as a local, a native, I am unimportant and someone not worth to impress. But it’s also likely that I am often viewed as the gold-digging Asian stereotype, but without the mini skirt and platform shoes. Crudely put, the White man is viewed as the one with the money, making him a worthwhile object of attention and reverence.

2.“Good afternoon, Sir!”, “Can I help you, Sir?”,”Yes, Sir!”. Going to places with my boyfriend and being greeted with “Hello, Sir” and “Good afternoon, Sir” makes my blood boil. Never would the complimenting “Ms”, “Madam” or even “Ma’am” be accorded to someone like me (See 1). Again, the White man is revered as a most valuable and esteemed customer, adding a kind of prestige to the establishment, “See, a white tourist has walked into my shop, he must have been reading Lonely Planet. How my heart swells with pride.”

3.We started seeing ourselves as “squirm-inducing” subjects. Being a product of conquest and racism, specific combinations of heterosexual couplings (Older, larger, White man/Younger, smaller-built, Asian woman) have mushroomed across the post-colonial, developing world. Southeast Asia sees no shortage of this classic combination. And so it doesn’t help that in Malaysia, local women are meant and made to be fetishised. Airline companies built their image upon the looks and curves of their female flight attendants (Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia, I’m talking to you), who are the first in line to welcome visitors from abroad (“Before you feast your eyes on the beauty of our country, feast your eyes on our women first!”). Which brings to me the trickier issue of coming to terms with being complicit in perpetuating the myths about women of “the Orient”. Ourselves fitting the stereotype, looking at other interracial couples like us can be a discomforting experience.

4.Many tourists depend on imperialist nostalgia to inform their interest in the places they visit (yes, sometimes former colonised subjects, too). English cottages, once homes of British officials of yore, which have been opened to the public as hotels and restaurants in hilltop destinations in Malaysia recreate the delights of colonial high-living, are obvious examples of such places. Coined by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, imperialist nostalgia is defined as longing for the culture that their colonial ancestors have destroyed while at the same time making racial domination seem innocent and pure. In Yogyakarta, it came as hardly a coincidence that the Dutch represented a significant proportion of tourists from Europe. However, compared to Singapore and Malaysia, traces of Indonesia’s colonial past appear to be have been greatly diminished. Other than the odd word in public spaces that can be recognised as Dutch, colonial memories exist in more subtle ways. So I wondered what was drawing many visitors from Holland to Indonesia?

Traveling is a privileged act of observing and of vicariously experiencing the lives of others. Once a preserve of the elite few, travel has become democratised to allow the rest of the world to wield the power of the gaze, brush against the Other and come out unscathed, and be a conquerer of the unbeaten path. But what of travelers who are self-conscious of how their presence impact on the observed? Macon D’s blog Stuff White People Do catalogues some thought-provoking writings along these themes. But what about the power-relations that impact on non-White tourists? I have to admit, my thoughts on this are still pretty undeveloped, so comments would be most appreciated.

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.

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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.

Guest post: Redefining Malay womanhood in Yasmin Ahmad's films

The following was written by guest contributor and fellow Malaysian feminist, Mohani Niza. Writing on the “New Malaysian Femininity’ in the films of Yasmin Ahmad, she presents a Malay womanhood that contrasts squarely with the misogyny and whore/virgin stereotypes typically found in Malaysian cinema.


In 2004, Yasmin Ahmad, famed for her Petronas advertisements depicting multi-racial Malaysia released the movie Sepet, to much controversy and praise. It won a string of foreign film awards, a legion of fans local and abroad but was also lambasted by certain quarters who felt that the movie threatened the moral fabric of Malay/Muslim life in Malaysia by showing its Malay female protagonist “betray” her bangsa (race) by falling in love with a “kafir” (infidel) [1].

Sepet centers on the relationship between Orked (Sharifah Amani), a teenage Malay girl who has just graduated from secondary school and Jason (Choo Seong Ng), a pirated VCD peddler.  This is followed up with Gubra in 2006, which tells the life of an older Orked, now married; and in 2007, Mukhsin, the prequel in the Orked trilogy which depicts Orked’s childhood in a sleepy Kuala Selangor kampung (village).

The character of Orked marks a departure from the typical heroines we see in Malay films. Unlike most Malay women we see on screen, Orked represents a refreshing take on what it means to be a young Malay woman in Malaysia, a rapidly modernizing country which has to delicately deal with globalization and also the paradox of a multi-racial society, still raw from the May 13th 1969 racial riots. As Khoo Gaik Cheng notes in her book Reclaiming Adat: Contemporary Malaysian Film and Literature, “Socio-economic forces, state-initiated, and the cultural development of the NEP years (National Economic Policy 1971-90) had produced a burgeoning discourse about subjectivity among the children of the NEP themselves: what is it like for urban Malay women and men to be both modern and Muslim?”. in his review of ‘Mukhsin’ Michael Sicinski writes that “… transnational feminist theorists would do well to examine Ahmad’s work, since like them, Mukhsin is about complexifying the world, deepening interconnections, delving into the messiness of the conundrums that women face, and moving outward, forging even more connections.”[2]

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Cinema of sexism: Misogyny in Malay films

Because woman did not fight back, man quickly took over the advantage and made her the scapegoat for all his vices and fears. […] He was intimidated by woman’s sexual desire, and so he invented the mutually exclusive virgin and whore. […] He was ashamed of growing old and ugly, and even more ashamed of being ashamed, and so he invented female vanity to exorcise and account for these fears.

Molly Haskell, excerpted from Reverence to Rape: The treatment of women in the movies

Haskell wrote her stinging review of sexism in film over thirty years ago but a similar scenario in current film-making still rings true: a male-dominated film industry will always make films that maintain the patriarchal heteronormative dynamic. And although she was talking about Hollywood film-making in general, negative cinematic representations of women can be found in mainstream Malaysian (read: Malay) cinema. If speaking in broad terms, it is perhaps the only form of representation accorded to Malaysian actresses.

From 1990’s onwards, burgeoning modernity (e.g. market-driven conspicuous consumption) and resurgent religiosity (i.e. Saudi-inspired interpretation of Islam) in the country became the conflicting forces that usually fought over the bodies of women. This resulted in a rather schizophrenic representation of the new NEP Malay (men and women) in film – full of capitalistic aspirations but rooted firmly in traditional, patriarchal orientations.

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Truly Asia: I don't want to sleep alone (2006)

In Malaysia, vacuous horror flicks and Hollywood copycats rule the local cinemas. They promise nothing but instant sensory gratification yet still manage to attain box-office success. In many of such films glamorous personalities compliment the glitzy and oh-so aspirational KL scene. They’re good-looking, they’ve got star quality, who cares if they’ve got no talent, but most noticeable of all is that they’re overwhelmingly Malay.

It is perhaps for these reasons film director Tsai Ming Liang left Malaysia for greener pastures. After decades of making films in Taiwan and hailed as one of the paragons of second-wave Taiwanese cinema, he returned to his homeland to find a completely different country. The financial crash of 1997 had left the country in paralysis. Jobless migrants, many illegal, lurked the streets for scraps of opportunities. And suddenly sex was out in the open: the Anwar Ibrahim case got everybody talking about anal intercourse and homosexuality. For Tsai, this helped set the scene for his film I don’t want to sleep alone (2006).

The inhabitants of Tsai’s Kuala Lumpur are, however, far from glamorous. Lee Kang Sheng, Tsai’s regular leading actor, plays a paralysed man cared by an overworked waitress who falls in love with Lee’s other role, an immigrant who is nursed back to health by lonely squatter played by Norman Atun. The theme of urban alienation and deprivation speak louder than words here, as the characters barely utter a word throughout the film. With more music than dialogue (though hardly a musical), old-school Malay and Chinese song lyrics and urban soundscapes somehow make up for the silence in the relationships the characters form around sex and their desires.

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"The day I met Amina Wadud" – a critique

American scholar and thinker Amina Wadud

Any self-respecting news editor would know that significant, if not historical events require pretty polished reporting. The star-studded Musawah conference last February on Islamic family law reforms was one such significant event. Organised by Malaysia’s very own Sisters In Islam (SIS), it was something to be proud of. But reading Malaysian journalist Siti Nurbaiyah Nadzmi’s take on it and her “interview” with Amina Wadud gave me plenty to be embarrassed about. As if faced with a perilous task, she writes about her anti-Amina colleagues, warnings of Wadud’s “standoffish” character, the intimidating books she has to read prior to meeting the writer herself, and the “mouthful” title of Wadud’s conference paper (Beyond Patriarchy Through Gender Inclusive Qur’anic Analysis) – a subject, she describes as “too big to chew”, “unless one is a sociologist”.

Um. Yeah.

Her self-deprecating outlook aside, the article itself, published both in The News Straits Times and the SIS website, is pure fluff. Sadly, this is the kind of journalistic writing Malaysians love to read. Rather than focusing on what Wadud thinks about the future of Muslim women in Malaysia (like herself) or even WHY a Quranic scholar thinks that the Islamic family law reform is so important, the reporter asks about her time in Malaysia when she taught at the International Islamic University between 1989 and 1992, and of course the perennial question about local food:

She still craves fish head curry and roti canai. “The stalls here are the best,” she said. She enjoyed living in Taman Tun Dr Ismail in the early 1990s.

“I’m never one for loud and busy cities. I prefer a quiet neighbourhood. Taman Tun was perfect then. But recently my friend took me there and I discovered this huge shopping mall…” she gestured, quite overwhelmed by how much the area has developed.

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Confronting Malay privilege

It is true that whenever I write about the state of feminism in Malaysia, I write from a point of view of a privileged Malay whose ethnicity is a dividing force in Malaysia. While I write about the challenges of Muslim women with a global view in mind, my own Malayness oppresses every one else in my backyard who does not fit the exacting and discriminating elements that make the Malay composite.

priv-i-lege, noun
A special right, advantage, immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.

Everyone has some form of privilege one way or the other; either it’s physical ability, economic background, heterosexuality and/or possessing the Y chromosome. However, the more vicious forms are those that are enshrined in the federal constitution to benefit only a select group of people. For decades, the Malay community has been socialised into thinking that they are made of something quite special, that the state of their specialness, or supremacy, is the norm. Supreme entitlement to such things as greater access to university education, public funding, jobs, and homes allows for the upward social mobility of those lucky enough to be born Malay and Muslim in Malaysia. This is how the Malay middle-class was born. But when their privileges are challenged, it is seen as an attack on their humanity and on their way of life.

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