Between worlds: the jilbab and being transgender in Indonesia

It is a scene that wouldn’t be unfamiliar in France or Belgium: a woman’s hijab is snatched away by strangers on the street from her head despite her protest. She is told she shouldn’t wear it, or rather, she has no right to because her wearing it mocks other women and femininity itself. But it is not an episode of Islamophobic rage that is recounted by Shuniyya Rumaha Haiibalah, but an incident in her native Indonesia that would later become the title of her best-selling memoir, Jangan lepas jilbabku! (Please do not remove my jilbab!)

Haiibalah is Muslim and transgender. The hostile reactions from other women and men towards her decision to wear the jilbab (hijab) in public was based on the belief of the irreconcilability of being waria* (transgender) and expressing religiosity in the gender of choice.

While other waria do not mix gender identity with religious identity (as the video above shows, some transwomen dress as men in places of worship), women like Haiibalah attend prayers at the mosque alongside other cis-gender women much to disapproval of some, particularly those who argue that physical contact with Haiibalah’s biologically male body can render another woman’s prayers annulled.

Jangan lepas jilbabku! begins in 1997 when Haiibalah turns 16. The writer describes her gradual transition from male to female as eventful as the moment Indonesia regains its democracy at the end of Suharto’s dictatorial regime in 1998. She describes the kind of woman she wants to be: an ordinary woman, good-looking even without make-up, someone who wears the jilbab, independent, headstrong, and accepted. In school, Haiibalah is an active editor of the school’s Islamic magazine, and a popular student. Using her popularity and religious image as a social buffer, Haiibalah began experimenting with her appearance. She plucked her eyebrows into a pair of thin, arching crescents; suffice it to say, this led to other arched eyebrows. After being told that her eyebrows were seen as “inappropriate” for young men, Haiibalah went on to tackle what ostensibly is taboo: she, a transwoman, wearing a jilbab.

Haiibalah is one of many transgender Indonesians who are religious and adopt the jilbab, but how the transgender community see themselves is diverse. Some, like Haiibalah, identify as women—within them lies a woman’s soul (jiwa) in a man’s body. Others, on the other hand, view themselves as both male and female, and there are waria who identify as the third sex. Unlike Haiibalah, some transwomen who wear the jilbab attend prayers in male attire but revert to women’s clothing and feminine demeanor the rest of the time.

The waria community has long been stereotyped as hairdressers, make-up artists, and sex workers in Indonesia. In film, they are doomed to dehumanizing comedic roles. But transgender Indonesians, particularly the male-to-female waria, have witnessed the rise of high-profile media personalities, such as Dorce Gamalama, cited by many as Indonesia’s answer to Oprah Winfrey. Her success is a significant step towards more positive representation of the waria.

More recently, the well-received film, Realita Cinta dan Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reality, Love, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, 2006), foregrounds the relationship between a transwoman and her son. The film is a startling departure from older cinematic stereotypes of the waria, as it features a good-looking, affluent, judo-wrestling and salsa-dancing trans-mother. Jangan Lepas Jilbabku is not the first book by a transperson to make it to the best-sellers list. Both Jangan Lihat Kelaminku (Do Not Look At My Genitals) and Perempuan Tanpa V (Woman Without a Vagina) by Merlyn Sopjan are tales of personal triumph over transphobia, winning Sopjan fame and fortune as writer, later as beauty queen, AIDS activist, and mayoral candidate.

Although much of their media presence is highly sensationalized, the rising number of transgender Indonesians entering the public sphere in the face of increasing Islamization may be a strategy for acceptance. But as Haiibalah’s experiences attest, even religious expression is a gendered privilege. The hostility against transwomen like Haiibalah who adopt the jilbab as part their identity raises new questions about the hijab and femininity.

In this case, the jilbab becomes more than just a head covering, as it is perceived as a kind of privilege accorded to cis-gendered Muslim women. Also, it throws the issue of transphobia within sacred spaces into sharp relief. Denying a transwoman’s right to wear the jilbab highlights the fundamental notion that being a woman is reduced to a vagina attained at birth. Like public toilets, not only do places of worship pose as no-go zones for transwomen, but they undermine the assertion that transwomen are women.

Haiibalah sets a precedent for a public discussion on gender privilege and religious expression in Indonesia, and indeed, the discussion goes beyond the jilbab and praying next to other women, as it is fundamentally about power and privilege in religious communities.

*Waria is a combination of the words for woman (wanita) and man (pria).

Of sartorial choices and oppression

First published over at the F-Word blog.

The ban on the full-face veil in Belgium seems like the easiest thing to mete out as far as unconstitutional legislations are concerned. Out of about 215 women who wear either the niqab or burqa in the country, many belong to immigrant communities, many are hard done by multiple forms of discrimination already in addition to being economically disadvantaged and politically under-represented. Penalising them is like flicking away ants or beating someone when they’re already down.

It appears that a woman’s sartorial choices have confirmed the highest place in the pyramid of oppression in the eyes of the Belgian and French powers that be; high above xenophobia, Islamophobia, classism, and sexism. Removing the offending piece of cloth worn by over 200 women is tantamount to restoring not only female dignity but the fragile values of an entire nation.

The discomfort about the burqa in particular can be felt on both sides of the ban. Those who are quick to say that, “I do not support the ban but…” have the made the same over-emphasis on a piece of cloth but little attention to the continuum of oppression that the majority of Muslim women face in Europe. If anything, the superficial concerns levelled against the way Muslim women wear have almost always been made by those who are neither Muslim nor wear the hijab, much less the burqa.

The unanimous decision to ban the full-face veil in Belgium speaks volumes of the symbolic unity against visible Islam in a country where Muslims make up only 3 percent of the population. It is also a patronising push towards a kind of women’s liberation that is measured against what European women wear. But before we even consider that the burqa is self-effacing in its most literal form, should we think about how punitive such a ban will be on a woman who might wear it under duress or otherwise? Before we make judgements and decisions about the sartorial choices that certain groups of women make, have we spared the time to ask these women themselves if they are complicit in their own oppression?

The heavy-handed penalty against the niqab and burqa is just another way to punish women without having to address the systemic racism and Islamophobia plaguing right-leaning countries like Belgium and France. This ban is not an emancipatory cause to celebrate or one that is steeped in so-called European values. It is not about emancipation if the law can decide that you are free. It is not about European values if Muslims make a sizeable number of Europeans in the continent. One should remember that many do not claim that the wearing of the hijab to such extremes is a religious obligation but rather an anachronistic cultural practice or simply a protective cloak from the male gaze. However, the hubris of the Belgian and French brand of secularism is such that in the case of Muslim women, those distinctions do not matter.

Marketing Muslim lifestyles and redefining modesty

This post was first published on Muslimah Media Watch

If a hijab in Pucci-designed print could speak, what would it say?

I attended a seminar presented by Professor Reina Lewis on Muslim women’s lifestyle magazines last night and was faced with this bizarre question. It all started with the actual seminar itself, which showcased the latest research adventures of the fashion and design professor. Weaving together previous work that included alternative Orientalist narratives in the 19th century and queer lifestyle magazines, Lewis’ paper focused on the Muslim women’s magazines that emerged at a crucial time (post-9/11) when more positive representations of Muslims were needed in a Western public discourse that had  none. And the so usual suspects were mentioned: emel, Sisters, Muslim Girl, Azizah, and an anomaly, Alef–being the only one that didn’t try hard to get a particularly Muslim lifestyle look.

Having the enviable position of fashion professor, Lewis was more interested in how women/the human form were presented the magazines, what Islamic fashion is really all about, and the advertising contained within the magazines than the content. For her, visual representation in print media of women who were getting more covered up than their mothers, grandmothers, and their non-Muslim peers was striking and counter-cultural.

The same way Nylon and Harper’s Bazaar are different from each other in presentation and content, Muslim lifestyle magazines set themselves apart in these ways too, but addition to that the magazines self-define or defined by others as either “Muslim” or “Islamic”. emel, Lewis said, is a “Muslim” magazine in that it reaches out to an audience of diverse backgrounds and levels of religiosity, while Azizah is more “Islamic” because it caters to a more conservative readership. It’s hard to not find these labels contentious as they could lead to a series of polemical questions, like, is emel less Islamic than say, Azizah or can a lifestyle magazine as a guide help a reader gain a more Islamic look?

Of course the latter is a silly question, but having read fashion and lifestyle magazines myself before I’d say that there is a level of self-identification in (a few of) the models and the “I am what I buy” ethos that is much invested in brand advertising today. And so for attaining the trendy or at least up-to-date Muslimah look, one only need to look at what other people are wearing, and simply flick through magazines for reference.

During the Q & A session, someone from Saudi Arabia had asked a thought-provoking question about the real purpose of fashion in faith-based women’s magazines. It was a question that I had pondered over a long time ago when I decided on two things: to not be a follower of fashion and not to wear the hijab. The question goes something like this, “If fashion is about self-expression and to a large extent ‘being noticed’, how does Islamic dressing and the fickle world of fashion reconcile with the concept of modesty and inconspicuousness?” I remember the days when I had to wear the hijab in college and becoming the object of male attention which made me uncomfortable. Without the hijab, I found to my relief that the unwanted attention seemed to have lessened, but this had nothing to do with how much skin I was showing with or without the hijab, rather the headscarf became a marker of what good young Muslim men found attractive. This was when I learned that the hijab had more complex meanings.

This brings me back to the rhetorical Pucci headscarf and what modesty means to different Muslim women. In addition to being a symbol of devotion, modesty, and cultural identity, the hijab today has taken an extra meaning, one that fits nicely with the global consumer culture and current trends. The hijab as represented even in the most conservative Islamic women’s magazines often doubles up as a fashion accessory.

Not to sound overly fussy, but isn’t being fashionable attention-grabbing and hence immodest? I need to mention again that I am not into lifestyle magazines, fashion, and do not wear the headscarf, so I’m perhaps the least equipped person to explain whether Islamic fashion is modest or not. At the same time I think my assumptions that modesty clashes with fashion is probably unfounded, too.

What are your thoughts?

Purdah

When I was in school, congregations in the surau (small prayer halls or mini mosque) would be segregated by gender: women on one side, men on the other. We would enter the same door, pray next to each other but separated by a wispy thin, almost see-through curtain. I understood that women simply felt comfortable this way; taking their hijab off to put on their telekung (prayer scarf) away from the sight of unrelated men. And so this kind of gender segregation didn’t really bother me. In fact, that’s one practical side of gender segregation that made sense to me. However, an undercurrent of discomfiting feelings about why women and men should be separated at such events, especially religious ones, soon became more difficult to ignore.

When mosque spaces became a constraint width-wise, women would to be relegated to the back, behind the men. Why to the back of the mosque? Would it be too much for men to view women bending over for rukuk and sujud I wondered?

The answer was indeed ‘yes’. The idea that the female form as a sexual distraction to heterosexual men in places where men need to be serious and focused on the act of worship disturbed me. The female form, as it were, is reduced to an enticing object whose presence needs to be concealed or simply made ‘unattractive’ to maintain spiritual order in the house of God. For someone who was growing into her adolescence rather ungracefully – all frizzy-haired and pimply-faced – being a sexual distraction was the last thing I thought I could be to these men.

I began to understand that women navigate the space around them quite differently from men.  How women present themselves in public and private spaces are tightly controlled and monitored by family, society and eventually, themselves. For men, both the private and public are their domain.

To further reinforce this sexual difference, purdah is applied to women and men (a little on this later). Purdah is a centuries-old custom that comes in two forms: the spatial segregation of the sexes using either curtains or walls, and the other by sartorial means such as the burqa. Today, purdah is maintained to various degrees; from extreme enforcement in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, to certain occasions, like weddings and funerals, in many Muslim communities.

It seemed as if spatial purdah would quietly do its own thing, existing in its comfortable, uncontroversial confines of tradition until recent criticism against it involved the British MP Jim Fitzpatrick who walked out a wedding in London because it was gender-segregated and could not sit with his wife. The furore over his actions boiled down to accusations of Fitzpatrick’s racism against ethnic minorities in Britain and their cultural practices, rather than his protest against the sexism in segregated weddings.

In a response to the media’s one-sided focus on Fitzpatrick’s ‘bad manners’, Jobeda Ali writes about the sexism in gender segregation that is ignored for the sake of preserving respect for certain customs:

No-one disagrees with respecting other cultures. But respecting an unjust practice just because some people claim it is their culture/religion is us cringing from the difficult task of social change, especially the advancing of women’s rights in resistant cultures; it is one of the hardest things to do. But we should not use culture and tradition as an excuse to not challenge injustices. We should not shy away from issues just because our own society does not practice them.

I agree with Ali’s argument in that some customs related to space must be challenged if they pose as an excuse for gender discrimination. Challenging these norms allowed women to attend university – once a male-only institution, a kind of zenana for men in privileged purdah if you like – to gain employment outside the home, and ultimately reclaim equal rights to public space.

At the root of all this is the propagation of myths about women’s bodies and sexuality that keeps women in check and insults men’s abilities to control themselves, faith-wise and sexually. And so it’s about time women and men embrace inclusion in religious gatherings in ways that everybody can understand and respect, not exclusion. Changing attitudes to gender relations would eventually change attitudes towards gender discrimination that underpins many social customs.

Burqas and the British Police Farce

First published at Muslimah Media Watch

Oh, this is just hilarious.

Three female police officers were ordered to dress up as Muslim women for the day just to see what it felt like. They wore traditional burkhas as part of a scheme designed to help police interact better with the Islamic community.

It’s like going to a fancy dress party, because, you know, Muslim women dress up all funny and weird! But, boy, them Muslims are really nasty, too! That’s what the British police force is for. To catch them Muslim baddies while being undercover. Who knew police work can be so much fun?! Tee hee!

But seriously, have these people ever watched Police Academy and not see the irony? Do they think that, by dressing up for just one day, police officers can truly understand the complexity of the British Muslim population in the North of England, one of the largest in the country? And do they think that dishonesty (by pretending to be Muslims) is really the best policy to engage with Muslim communities? It’s like Undercover Mosque all over again.

You know you want more:

Two covered their faces with hijab headscarves and niqab veils, leaving only narrow slits to see through, and another wore Muslim dress and a headscarf showing her face. […]

The officers, Sergeant Deb Leonard, Sergeant Deb Pickering and Police Community Support Officer Helen Turner, all from Sheffield, were accompanied by four Muslim women to help them learn more about the Islamic faith on a tour of the city. In return, the Muslim women were shown around South Yorkshire Police’s custody suite and CCTV office and learned about the day-to-day duties of a police officer. A spokesman for the force said the exercise, called ‘In Your Shoes Day’, was designed to help officers interact better with the Muslim community across Sheffield.

Burqa, hijab, niqab – what’s the difference? What’s important is that these Muslim ladies know what it’s like if they find themselves on the wrong side of the law, particularly when Muslims are over-represented in British prisons.

The Sheffield police’s warped understanding of what interacting with the Muslim community means reeks of bad stereotypes and Islamophobia, among many other things. At the root of this farce is Britain’s flawed dream of social integration and the harmonious sharing of British values. But this approach to “secure strong relationships, celebrate diversity and encourage integration, working towards a safer, closer society” is glaringly lopsided. Social integration and a safer society in Britain really means more unwarranted surveillance and ethnic profiling of brown, Muslim people. A subtle hint at their Islam-only police jaunts speaks volumes of their bias:

[…] there were no plans to extend the scheme for officers to dress up as members of other minority communities.

Hmm, I wonder why. Maybe it’s because Islam and Muslims are believed to be high profile threats to the British way of life like no other religious beliefs and ethnicities. And besides, dressing up as Catholic or Buddhist nuns would be over-the-line-insensitive to their respective communities, right? But it appears that, for these policewomen and their superiors, trivializing what many Muslim women see as an important aspect of their identity is perfectly acceptable. Moreover, it’s acceptable because these women put themselves under public scrutiny and persecution anyway:

‘Two of the Muslim women anticipated that people may stare and possibly make comment, whilst the police officers entered this exercise with an open mind not knowing quite what to expect.’ Sergeant Leonard said the experience had given her a greater appreciation of how Muslim women feel when they walk out in public in ‘clothing appropriate to their beliefs’.

Oh, bless their innocent, open minds. Perhaps a day out with Muslim women was a good idea after all. Perhaps the Sheffield police unit might finally see that Muslims are really quite normal people with struggles like their own, and one day discover that unaccounted institutionalized racism in policing does nothing but push Muslim communities in North England further into alienation. Does it really help anybody that the police is singling out Muslim women in headscarves in their feeble efforts to engage with the ethnic minorities in Sheffield? Certainly not. What playing dress-up as shabby stereotypes does best is feeding into the undying Orientalist fantasies of unveiling (whether literally or symbolically) those oh-so-unattainable and mysterious Muslim women.

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)

Unveiling the feminist gaze

Are you a Muslim woman living in the US/Europe? Is there too much attention on your veil? Do you hate being defined by your veil? Then you might agree with Faisal al-Yafai’s article in the  Guardian’s Comment is free today. The veil, he argues, is a prominent focus on the mainstream feminist agenda. Too much focus he reckons. One possible reason why obstacles Muslim women face in obtaining education and work take the backseat to a piece of head cover is because western feminism hasn’t won its own war yet. He writes:

One of the dilemmas feminists in the west face is the lack of an overarching narrative. With initial struggles for voting, education, equal pay and abortion rights largely won, feminists have grappled with less tangible issues such as family-friendly working hours, glass ceilings and societal expectations. Unable to agree on big themes, feminists have grasped at small issues. That would explain why nothing – absolutely nothing, not forced marriage, not losing their sons and daughters to bombs from the air, not being denied an education – nothing seems as important as the veil.

It is why feminists have struggled to work out a coherent response to coercion. The Taliban forcing Afghan women to hide under burqas is condemned; the Tunisians, Moroccans and Turks forcing them to uncover is not. But coercion is coercion.

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