Sincerely, your recalcitrant daughter

THERE is a poem by Rupi Kaur that goes, “how is it so easy for you to be kind to people, he asked. Milk and honey dripped from my lips as I answered. ‘Cause people have not been kind to me.”

As I face a personally challenging Ramadan this year, this poem resonates, and I reflected on the very escalated societal expectations on women that come, almost like clockwork, every time the fasting month comes around.

Over a buka puasa gathering recently, a male friend reiterated his years-old comment that women should treat the tudung like fashion. After all, it is only a piece of cloth.

While I respect this man for his knowledge of the Quran and his push for moderate Islam, I also have long argued with him over this statement of his. While there are some who view fashion as dumbed-down and airy, the truth is, women’s clothing is political.

Cases in point: one, the forum on de-hijabbing held recently in the Klang Valley, where three women shared their experience on deciding to no longer wear the tudung, caused a stir not only on social media but moved religious authorities to launch a formal investigation.

Two, the case of a cosmetic mogul who abused his daughter not only for her innocent, non-malicious act (perhaps done for comfort purposes) to remove her tudung in front of “strange men”, but also exploit her to sell his product.

To date, there is no update on whether any religious authority is investigating the case of child abuse purported in the name of religion; nor is there update on police investigation despite reports lodged by civil society over the matter.

Worse, the child in question took to Instagram to deny she was abused and exploited, citing gains in material (a gift of gold bangle from her abusive father) and social media presence (in the fact that she gained followers on Instagram over the incident) as evidence that she is not abused.

This “Kardashian-like phenomena” may be a good case study for students in branding and marketing, but for some of us observing the incident from a socio-political, psychological and even policy perspective, it is indeed worrying.

Worry because a nine-year-old accepted abuse and exploitation as a way to become Insta-famous. Worry because the definition of childhood is no longer about being carefree and innocent, but submission and obedience without question.

Three, the annual summons, raids and humiliation of women who are deemed dressed “too sexily” by some religious authorities during Ramadan. This is exacerbated by citizens becoming the moral police – snapping photos of women and uploading them on social media to glorify one’s ibadah, that this style or that style is deemed too offensive during this fasting month.

I digress. Being a woman is political.

While my male friend argued that tudung is a piece of clothing and therefore should be treated like fashion, the reality is much deeper, much more philosophical, and much more political than that. Women’s clothing presents to society an avenue to criticise, to oppress and to control.

Women donning the tudung are subjected to demands to act a certain, submissive way; almost always perceived by society to be conservative and closed-minded, and in some spaces banned from wearing the headscarf. Those of us who are more comfortable with not wearing it are sometimes forced to wear it due to unwritten policy and pressures in some companies and spaces; despite this not being and should not be written into law.

Interestingly, the reverse is also true. Women like me – who do not don the tudung, gets criticised for “being too religious” too, when we demand that women who choose to don the tudung to be allowed to; when we demand for comfortable spaces to perform our prayers; and when we demand that religion should not have anything to do with our professional ability, nor should it dictate our ability to understand and uphold human rights.

In spaces where society has been unkind to women, is it too hard to understand why so many women are pushing for more kindness, compassion, and acceptance in this world? When women are controlled from as young as babies on how we dress, dictated on how we should conduct ourselves and reminded that our acts are tactical mistakes, not to be emotional, not to be a woman if you want to be a leader, instead, to act more like men – is it surprising that women took on activist roles?

More importantly, why are policies not imbued with kindness? Why not allow children to just be children; educate and empower them to build self-esteem and provide resources for them to have progressive worldview?

Why don’t employers start managing performance instead of pressuring women into donning a particular piece of clothing? Why can’t as human beings we just understand how uncomfortable it is to be covered head to toe in this tropical heat and humidity and have some compassion on how women choose to carry ourselves?

Ramadan is supposed to be a month of reflection and where we perform khalwat (solitude) to better ourselves. In Malaysia, over the years, it has been anything but.

Lyana Khairuddin is a virologist turned policy nerd living in Kuala Lumpur. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

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