Beer and the intoxicating effect of power

Black-eyed Peas: Made a pact with the devil.

Malaysia has given the BBC news more ridiculousness to report. As of three days ago, the world can confirm that the religious right in Malaysia are obsessed with beer. Not long ago Kartika Sari Dewi’s postponed sentence for drinking beer in public made international headline news and now Malaysian Muslims will not be allowed to attend upcoming The Black Eye Peas concert mainly for the fact that the event is sponsored by the drink of the devil himself, Guiness stout. It looks like Malaysia is set to become a nation increasingly at odds with itself.

Malaysia serves up its citizens plenty to be decadent about: an impressive skyline at par with many of the world’s greatest cities, an economist’s nightmare number (and size) of shopping complexes, an ostentatious city dedicated to administering the country comparable to the parliamentary palace in Romania and Rashtrapati Bhavan in India, and colossal skyscrapers to match its leader’s egos (while making up for other areas). These are merely crude markers of the country’s direction: towards modernity at breakneck speed but out of touch with the people who struggle to catch up. And it is often within these circumstances that the young and urban find themselves swept off the by tide of modernity’s lure of popular consumerist culture.

Now, the religious right’s moral nitpicking has made victims of the young Muslim Malaysians yet again. As usual, their strategy with regards to engaging with Muslim youth particularly during this blessed month has been one of stern reproach rather than cordial approach. And without fail again, no cultural alternatives are offered to fill a more religiously-approved vacuum.

Why blame Malaysians for being interested in Western popular culture? For anybody who’d ever been to Malaysia in the last two decades will know, global pop culture and its derivatives are everywhere; they are there the moment you step outside your home, when you take the bus, what you hear on the radio, what you see in the national papers, forcing their presence on you whenever and wherever they can in a never-ending capitalistic symbiosis.

Linking companies that run a haram business with moral degeneration at a pop concert is a real stretch. It shows how little the religious elite know about young Muslims today and how pop culture plays a part in their identity-making and socialisation. Further, it insults what Malaysian Muslims already know about alcohol, thanks to the constant drilling of Islamic education in school. Malaysians parents often leave their children to their own wits to find what interests them, be it video games, Harry Potter books, chart-topping hits, or the bland Hollywood films playing at the nearest cinema. Family outings on weekends take place at shopping malls, not the nearest mosque.

If all this noise is about how young Muslim people should be behaving, where is the genuine and non-authoritarian interest in the development of Malaysia’s youth? An unsubstantiated ban on pop concerts will push the divide between the religious elite and their intended audience further, and continue to make a mockery of Malaysia’s self-lauding moderate Islam.

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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.

Guest post: Asian fetishism is sexist and racist

The following is a guest post by regular commenter, Gareth:


I am a white Englishman with an Asian girlfriend. I believe the so-called ‘Asian fetish’ is both racist and sexist, and here is why.

Being a white, straight man gives me a ton load of privilege, and that privilege is systemic and global. I am aware of my various privileges and can learn to ‘check them in at the door’, but I can never get rid of them. My privileges are not just to do with me, but they emanate from a system of privilege and prejudice with global reach. Everyone who is white or a man has these privileges, and they are not mitigated by being poor, working class, disabled, gay or being part of any other oppressed minority: you just get the mix of certain privileges with certain prejudices against you (this is intersectionality; more on that later).

My privileges put me at the top of a significant power differential when it comes to interactions with others who do not have my privileges. This means that I should be keenly aware that my privilege begets power, and power can be abused. Using this power is racist and sexist.

Sufferers of Asian fetishism often describe their malady as an ‘appreciation’. Try looking that word up in a dictionary; its original meaning is ‘to set a monetary worth on something, to appraise’. Now, we are so used to this word being used to describe non-monetary praise, we are not aware that is still an objectification and commodification of that we appreciate. The male gaze is sexist when all it sees is a smile, breasts, legs, bottom and so forth. The sufferer of Asian fetishism takes this sexist objectification of women and adds skin tone, cheekbones, small build and slit-eyes into the mix. The sufferer of Asian fetishism does not care what your name is as long as it does not sound too white; he can not tell the difference whether you are Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian or Chinese. Prejudice is based on preconceived opinions. There is no doubting that Asian fetishism is prejudiced, and, when this prejudice is coupled with power differential of privilege, it is definitively sexist and racist.

Asian fetishism has previous, and its history is intimately connected with abuse of power. The image of the odalisque reclining on silk cushions in an Ottoman harem, attended by a black eunuch was the Asian fetishism of the 17th and 18th centuries. This image of Asian sexuality appeared at a time when France and Britain were beginning to compete for supremacy over the Ottoman Empire. There is so much sexism and racism that could be unpacked from the odalisque image, but we shall move on. The women of the Indian subcontinent were the next focus of fetishism during the expansion of the British Empire. The power differential there is obvious. The Pacific campaign of the United States during the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War (read that as: war, war, war) were the backdrop to the specific fetishisation of South-East Asian women during the 20th century. Sufferers of Asian fetishism probably do not realise how much their diseased desire is influenced by popular Western culture and its spinning and retelling of war stories. After all, the classic lines of modern Asian fetishism, ‘Me so horny’ and ‘Me love you long time’, come from the 1987 Vietnam war film Full Metal Jacket.

(The ‘Me Love You Long Time’ scene from Full Metal Jacket)

Intersectionality is the combination of two or more dichotomies of privilege-prejudice, like sex and race. Whereas it is clear that the intersectionality of prejudices should lead to the observation of a more intense prejudice, what is often observed is the obfuscation of prejudice. By that, I mean that the sexism is covered up by appealing to cultural appreciation — these women are so cultural/ethnic/interesting — and the racism is covered up by appealing to sexual appreciation, in turn disguised as ‘love’ — Asians are so beautiful.

Film Review: The Mosque in Morgantown

First published at Feminist Review. Muslimah Media Watch has also the goods.


Reading the official synopsis of The Mosque in Morgantown, I quickly got the impression that it was a documentary film that revolved around the battle between journalist-activist Asra Nomani and “the extremists” in her hometown Morgantown, West Virginia. It is the kind of image that feeds into the Islamophobia that often conflates pious and conservative Muslims with the violent and deeply intolerant—this appeared to be the picture Nomani intended to paint.

If I could summarise a fairer synopsis, it would sound more like this: Asra Nomani fights a personal battle with an established mosque community in her hometown for the right to pray alongside men at congregations. But Nomani’s anti-extremist impetus for change is best described as misguided. Driven by the trauma of her friend Daniel Pearl’s death at the hands of Islamic extremists, Nomani takes it upon herself to expose the mosque as an anti-women and a potentially dangerous institution.

Far from embodying extremist fervour, the Morgantown mosque community is actually reflective of what Islam looks like in America—complex, pluralistic, conservative, liberal, and everything in between. There are individuals in the film who wouldn’t look out of place in a madrasa in Lahore, and there are also those whose images and stories remain under the mainstream media’s radar. Stories like Christine Arja’s conversion to Islam, and her going from Nomani’s critic to ally is one such example.

By the conclusion of the film, I ended up siding and cheering for the so-called “extremists” rather than Muslim feminist Nomani. Despite Nomani’s uncompromising ways, the Morgantown’s mosque community loosened their conservative grip as far as community events are concerned. Men and women freely mingle rather than coerced to segregate, and a male mosque-goer expressed regret over his sexist comments he made earlier in the film. Nomani’s refusal to properly engage with the members of the mosque is a case of a clash of personalities, and not because of intolerance and extremism. Further, she makes a mistake that many do: she throws labels like “extremist” around to suit her definition of Islam, which doesn’t agree with her code of liberalism and freedom.

The Mosque in Morgantown is an important film for our troubled times. As a Muslim feminist who supports her cause, but not her method, I would like to see this film making it across the world. Its narrative has a place in America’s message of change and in the feminist movement that is gaining momentum in many predominantly Muslim countries.

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.