Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Whose Peace?

Should religion be a strictly personal experience, or a community-based faith? Should state interfere, or can beliefs and practices be interpreted 7 billion different ways? "People should be guided to the path of truth"; isn’t that statement an irony, for if it is the truth, shouldn’t it be self-evident?

These are questions that are worth asking given the paradox we find ourselves living in. What recently ignites my ingrained curiosity with Islam and the Western world is a book called The Butterfly Mosque, by G. Willow Wilson. Expecting to read a story about a Muslim convert trying to live a normal life in the United States post 9/11, it was a nice surprise reading about her feeling of attachment in an Islamic country that to me resembles home.

Rather than writing my opinion on the book, let the book speak for itself through pages that spoke to me.

...the street where we were harassed on a daily basis. Cairo was crawling with unemployed, furious, infantilized men who were still sleeping in their childhood beds and taking order from their mothers. Parents of girls were demanding more and more in bridal settlements and real estate, putting marriage—and therefore adulthood—out of reach for many in this poverty-stricken generations. As the middle class shrank, marital expectations rose; by marrying well, a working-class girl could help her family climb back into a “respectable” social stratum. There was no higher goal than being an ibn i’nas or binti i’nas, the son or daughter of genteel people. The stress this put on working-class men was almost unfathomable. These were the men who hunted us and hated us. In their eyes, they had been betrayed by female social mercenaries and denied their dignity by a class-obsessed society. I was marrying into a country on the verge of a meltdown.” (page 59)

Doesn’t the paragraph above hit a bit too close to Malaysian society?

I was surprised by how often Islam, in its purely textual form, took my side. There is no religious limit on the public spaces that women can inhabit; nothing prevents them from running businesses or driving cars, there is no reason they must walk behind men or cover their faces. A woman’s role is not defined by the kitchen and the nursery.

…The Prophet’s first wife, Khadijah, one of the most beloved women in Islamic history, ran her own successful business. Muhammad spent much of his early life working as her employee; they were married after she proposed to him. She was almost fifteen years his senior. Her death plunged the Prophet into mourning so intense that it is known even today as the Year of Sorrow. The Virgin Mary, known to Muslims as Maryam, is mentioned more times in the Quran than she is in the Bible, and raises her miraculous son entirely on her own; Joseph is not present in Islamic version of her story. Asia, the wife of the Pharaoh, is revered by Muslims for having disobeyed her husband in defense of Moses. A powerful entrepreneur, a single mother, and a rebellious wife: all three women are revered as the embodiment of perfect faith.” (page 80)

The women’s car was a moveable, segregated hothouse—a determined peace prevailed there, and produced a miniature society. I began to write an essay in homage to the women’s car, picking out narrative threads that I thought might help a western reader understand its subtler implications. I sent the essay to the New York Times Magazine.

…When several furious responses were published a week later, full of blistering language about gender apartheid, I was totally unprepared.

…Japanese officials announced that a women’s car would be added to the Tokyo subway to protect female commuters from inappropriate male attention; precisely the reason the women’s car had been implemented in Cairo. The Tokyo car was hailed as a step forward for women’s right.” (page 260-263)

If that is not blatant discrimination against a religion with more than one billion adherents, I don’t know what is.

Time to re-write the narrative, perhaps?


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

1st 23

It is always fun when people find out we are married, regardless if it’s a friend, a teacher, or just the owner of our favorite restaurant. The shock on their faces is priceless. The next question to follow would always be, How old are you? And then they start to do the math. When, then, did we get married if we’re so young?

We got married when we were 20. Too young, to most. A fellow Intian, who barely spoke two words to me in a year, sent a message on Facebook after our wedding asking, How do you know he’s the one? I remember saying I just know.

Now, two and a half years later—and after four years of being together—I can finally answer that question. I know that he is the one because I could not imagine a person better than him. A lot of people thought he was too good for me, and maybe they are right. But maybe he is God’s gift to me for doing something right, who knows? With no disrespect to the men I know, I simply couldn’t think of a person better than my husband. He is kind, gracious, patient, smart, loving, independent…and have I mention patient? It is not easy being with me, or any woman, for that matter. But I’ve never met a person whose love really does conquer the demon in me. On top of all that, he helps me with house chores—now that’s a real man.

Today is his 23rd birthday, and as I said to him yesterday, I can’t believe that we’ve been together for four years now. But since I have the time to ponder on it, I realized that being with him has actually been the easiest thing I have ever done in my life.

Happy 23rd Birthday,



Friday, January 6, 2012

Sphere on shoulder

Culture shock is a dead term in our Malaysian dictionary. As my wise husband aptly puts is, “culture shock” went out the window years ago when we fervently brought Astro into our living rooms. May I add, the term further perishes into obsolescence with the ubiquity that we now call the Internet. Malaysia is no longer a “third world country”—whatever that means—but a developed country (albeit being behind Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand). Thus, I’m going to be frank here: there is no more escaping from the reality of sex, drugs, and booze, unless you live somewhere deep in our rainforest with no immediate means to access the outside world.

I am tired of people making assumptions that the recent news of our students going “astray” abroad was caused by culture shock. My guess is that who they are, and who they have become, is merely the result of western infiltration into our living rooms since the early 1990s, mixed with their eastern upbringing. I am not saying it is either right or wrong, but it has nothing to do with supposed “shock”. Perhaps by being away from home, away from the shackles of miscommunication, this new-found freedom finally provides these young adults with the opportunity to experiment with the alternatives that they have known of all along. They are not shocked by western culture; if anything, they are shocked by how similar their friends and classmates are compared to the people back home.

To the parents and teachers that talk about westerners like they know them from the back of their hands, I have a few questions: Do you know what your locally-studying Muslim children were up to last weekend? Can you for certain tell me that they have not once tasted a drop of alcohol? Or that they don’t have drugs hidden behind their headboard in their dorm rooms? What do they do at their so-called innocent birthday parties? To further prove my point that culture shock no longer exists in our Malaysian vernacular, I dare you to take a stroll through KLCC, or MidValley, or One Utama, or Pavillion, and tell me that the girls you see are not dressing exactly like the western idols they look up to. Again, I’m not judging, but simply sending a friendly reminder to stop using culture shock as an excuse.

Don’t treat the symptom, treat the disease.