Grappling with Purity Culture

So… I’m not sure how well acquainted the general public is with the idea of purity culture. It’s something that I was vaguely aware of though not to the extent that I can define it. Here in Malaysia we have it. And I’ve recently been hit with how pervasive it is in my Muslim community.

A few months ago I attended a talk entitled “Divine Love” at my university. It was pretty much the worst. I spent almost three hours listening to some misogynistic prat prattle on about love and what it means in Islam. At one point he called up one of the boys in the audience and asked him between marrying a virgin and a woman who has had sex outside of marriage, which would he choose. After a few minutes of hesitation the boy finally answered the former. It depresses me but I can’t say that I was surprised. People should be able to love whoever, whenever and however they want. They should be able to desire whoever, whenever and however they want as long as it’s consensual. But sex is dirty. Sexuality, especially if it’s female, should be kept under lock and key until you find a husband who then has the sole rights to your body. Because once you’ve lost your V-card you’re no longer pure. In the words of that misogynistic prat, “Why would a man want a woman who’s been defiled?” There’s a fucked up concept that underpins all this and that is the Madonna/Dichotomy. It manifests in a myriad of ways and lately it’s cropping up when I hear discussions about a certain topic.

Marriage.

muslim-wedding1

 

Every young woman’s fantasy. Or so it “should” be. The notion that it is natural for women to aspire to be a wife and mother is an ancient one and it is becoming increasingly thought of as “outdated”. More women are choosing to marry late or not marry at all. But there’s a growing trend of couples marrying early and this isn’t being addressed properly by society. My situation is further confounded by the fact that a growing number of my friends have started dating and marriage is now in their minds. Of course, they could be joking or at least not 100% serious, but still, seeing and hearing this being said by young women who I’ve grown up with and haven’t even reached 20 yet and how¬†normalized it all is is unsettling to me. I feel this is because with changing expectations there is a tension between modernity and tradition. It comes from a host of interrelated social expectations that both men and women but particularly women have to be saddled with. There is the notion of following familial expectations of settling down. Marriages are very family-oriented where I come from. Then again women are still expected to be self-sufficient, educated and career-oriented, at least until you marry in which case you have various options, whether it is to be both a career woman and a homemaker, or eventually quit your job when the stress of being both is too much because who’s going to take care of the kids? At this moment I don’t want this life. Not that it’s guaranteed that this is the trajectory my life will take but the way I see it my options are limited because that’s all I’ve ever known from observing those around me. Surely I can still pursue something else that I can consider fulfilling without being pressured, implicitly or no, to tether myself to a man and a future that I’m not sure I can accept. And yet.

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Image from Pinterest

Don’t get me wrong, I get it. Women can succeed and be married with kids. They can be happy if they’re a stay-at-home mom. I appreciate marriage as something that ties you with someone you love. The institution just carries too much baggage for me. Maybe sex is becoming less of a taboo but it’s still confined between husband and wife. I wonder if it’s a cultural thing. I’m 19 and I’m still not fully aware of my sexuality. While it is religiously discouraged for me to be dating, I never got involved in a relationship out of my own volition (ironically, my mother was perfectly fine with it while other girls of my age group were moaning about their parents forbidding them to date). For a while I thought I was asexual but now I’m not so sure. Another thing that confuses me is what in the bleeding hell is this idea of “divine love” that people love to espouse these days? That love between humans somehow pales in comparison with love for God? People these days supposedly want to find their soul mates through their faith or something. Divine love is seen as being more pure because it doesn’t concern worldly matters. That desire is used as an excuse for men to choose women who are “pure” themselves. Who aren’t dirty. Because more than anything women are merely symbols of our faith.

What else can I say? On a completely unrelated note, there’s an interesting piece written by Rose’s Turn regarding an anime (because I have to make it about anime), Maria the Virgin Witch, which explores patriarchal ideals of sexuality here. I admit I stopped watching the show at episode 7, but after reading it I’m planning on picking it back up again.

Featured Image from Pinterest.

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The pains of being a humanities student

So I am an Arts student. I don’t study visual arts, but liberal arts. Things to do with the Humanities like literature, history, philosophy etc. Later this year I’m going to pursue a degree in International Relations. See, everything that I just wrote is nearly impossible to explain to anyone who asks me the question “So, what course are you taking?”. I just get tongue-tied. It’s not like ‘Medic’ or Engineering or even Psychology (people tend to automatically assume ‘counselor’ when they hear that, which is not quite accurate but I would gladly take it). This sort of thing happened again when I went to my cousin’s event thing (we have a lot of events here) and someone who I don’t even know (I’m pretty sure she’s a relative though) asked me that same dreaded question and I don’t even bother to answer anymore.

It’s bad enough that when I say I go to Nottingham they get this glazed look in their eyes which to me indicates, “Oh. Private? Eh, won’t bother then.” At this point I really wish people would stop frick frackity asking me. Another thing that makes me apprehensive about telling people what I study is if I answer ‘Politics’. Politics is a dirty word, no matter where you come from but it’s the closest thing to describing International Relations. And I know people are going to make assumptions about if I want to be a politician, which I don’t. Not to mention my mother’s disapproval of my political views in general and my dad’s dismissal of anything to do with Humanities (I guess he’s secretly an alien), it’s just frustrating.

Recent Reads

So I’m a pretty avid reader of fiction and non-fiction literature but I don’t tie myself to a specific genre. In general though I do have a preference for books that give an insight into the lives of people in different societies and cultures. And I try to diversify my choice of reading material too.

The Dark Road – Ma Jian

The Dark Road takes place in a time when China is cracking down on those who have unauthorized children which goes against its One Child Policy. The protagonist, Meili, is one such “criminal”.

Musings:

– First of all, I’m pro-choice. Whether a woman wants to have an abortion or not should be up to her. Still forced abortions and sterilizations are abominable and the scenes that depict the two are brutal and definitely made me uncomfortable.

– It’s also disconcerting to read that this kind of thing is common enough to be considered just another day’s work for the authorities (doctors, family planning officers, etc.). Obviously, the victims don’t feel the same way. Casual cruelty enacted by humans towards their fellow humans. Brrr.

– The writing style is simple and concise, which works for situations like the above, but may come off as lacking when it comes to depicting emotion and nuance between characters. But maybe that’s the point.

– Women and their lack of autonomy. Meili’s husband, Kongzi, and his Confucian belief dictates that he must produce a male heir. Meanwhile, the State rules that Meili’s body and womb are not hers.

-Western countries and international organizations such as the UN supporting repressive regimes of developing countries. Hmm

Paradise Mislaid – Jeffrey Burton Russell

The second book is Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It by Jeffrey Burton Russell. So out of intellectual curiosity I am interested in finding out what a Christian Professor of History has to say about heaven.¬† The book is something of a sequel to another book entitled A History of Heaven which I haven’t read so hopefully I won’t miss out any information which might be important. I also feel that it will address similar topics as in the book The Experience of God Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart which I also have in my possession.

This book’s heaven is a very Christian one which I don’t have a particular problem with but it does inform me about the overall focus of this book which is the history and development of Western Christianity. However, it seems more philosophical than theological and interested me more in detailing the evolution of thought and the secularization of Western society. The author attempts to give a more balanced account of the s0-called clash between science and religion and in fact, rejects this narrative and I appreciate him giving prominent thinkers and figures their due for revolutionary ideas and schools of thought even though he might personally disagree with their worldviews.

Underground – Haruki Murakami

I consider myself to be a Murakami fan even though I’ve only modestly consumed his works. So far I like what I’ve read of him which includes Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki, The Strange Library and After the Quake.

This is the first non-fiction title of his I’ve read. It consists of interviews that Murakami has done of the victims of the Tokyo Gas Attack by the Aum Shirikyo cult in 1995, his own thoughts on the disaster and interviews with the members of the cult. Murakami stated that he wanted to delve into Japanese society as a “collective consciousness” in the wake of something so traumatic as the gas attack. Call it Japan’s 9/11.

I also can’t help linking this book with the anime Mawaru Penguindrum. I guess that’s unavoidable since the anime introduced me to Murakami and it also tries to address and make sense of the gas attack. What do we make of the people involved? What is lacking in our society that would lead to such a disaster? In a way, Penguindrum provides an “answer” to the questions brought up in Underground. If I have to go more in-depth about this my thoughts on it are pretty in line with Gabbo’s analysis on the book and the anime.

Suami Aku Ustaz Movie Review

Note: This is less of a review and more of a discussion with myself.

Suami Aku Ustaz or My Husband is a Religious Teacher as it translates into English. Oh boy, I’ve been meaning to watch this one. I was vaguely aware of this movie from coming across the novel that it was adapted from in my local bookstore. I had absolutely no desire to see it since judging from the title I could guess it was going to be a real turd, but after it came out in the cinema it got some attention in social media (mostly negative). So naturally I got curious. For research purposes. Recently there has been a trend of godawful Malay romance movies usually entitled “My Husband is …”. Really, the movie that is to blame for this is definitely Ombak Rindu (Waves of Longing) as it was the first of these kinds of movies and it did pretty well domestically.

I’ll be honest, while it is bad, and it is definitely worse than Ombak Rindu (at least that movie had nice scenery) I found myself not as angry as when I watched Ombak Rindu. Maybe because I’m deeply desensitized to these kinds of stories. I guess I have a horrible fascination with love stories with unhealthy, abusive couples that are romanticized. But it still made me plenty angry.

When My Husband came out people got really political about it. This is because it depicted a 17 year old girl being forced by her horrible parents (not that the movie knows that) to marry her cousin who also happened to be her religious teacher. Many women’s rights groups and NGOs used the movie to reaffirm their stance on child marriages, regardless of whether they have watched the movie or not. I noticed this is the angle that most people who criticize this movie came from. Since I doubt I can contribute anything new to the conversation, I won’t focus too much my views on child marriage except that in principle, I oppose it. This movie just further reinforces my view on it. Furthermore, the movie doesn’t seem to even completely register the implications of how society perceives marrying minors (the legal consequences felt like an afterthought and I still cannot fathom what role it played in the narrative except as the turning point for the heroine’s 180 degree turn in character, which I’ll get to later).

So I’m mainly going to explore my opinions on the movie’s ideological leanings (besides on child marriage that is). After watching this movie and thinking more about it I found that there’s always this mental disconnect between my worldview and the movie’s. I’ve always considered movies and other media forms as conversations between creators and their audiences so I believe that almost all movies will give me insight into the creator’s worldviews. In that way, all media is political even if it isn’t directly so. In the case of Ustaz, I don’t know whose voice is the most important in the making of this movie, the author/director/producer, but I find that I strongly disagree with what the movie’s selling me about marriage, love and relationships. This is more in line with what middle-class and fairly conservative Muslims would think and that seems to be the audience this movie is aiming for. Because as the title indicates, and the producer has explained it himself, the movie is meant to present an “Islamically acceptable” romantic relationship. Which means that it’s within the confines of marriage and at least one of the partners will be a pious, good Muslim and the other will be steered in the right path. As I’ve said in my “to be a good Muslim post” I don’t particularly care about what religion says if it’s not in line with my beliefs and principles so here goes.

So in the first ten minutes the heroine is married off to her religious teacher cousin against her will (not very Islamic ironically). For the next three quarters of the movie she is pretty much taught the ropes of how to be a good wife by her overbearing, emotionally manipulative and downright preachy husband. From the onset there are power dynamics at play, not just because of their age difference but also because he’s her teacher and he subscribes to a patriarchal, frankly outdated ideal of gender roles in a marriage. He demands respect from the heroine as head of the household, does not let her hang out with her friends and even forbids her to leave the house without his permission. He also has this pathological need to “advise” her whenever she does something that he disapproves of like *gasp* watching Korean dramas. So she reacts how I imagine any teenage girl would; with bitter, angry resentment. Throughout most of the movie she rebels and resists his attempts at “educating” her which I found to be perfectly reasonable. But framing is important. Unfortunately we’re supposed to sympathize with the husband and find his efforts well placed. The heroine is a “bad wife” and she needs to be taught a lesson. Never mind that she didn’t want to be married in the first place, being, you know, 17. And forbidden from hanging out with her friends. And has to bear the brunt of the responsibility to hide their marriage. Rightly, because when the secret gets out she becomes the laughing stock of the school.

But it’s OK! Towards the end she miraculously has a change of heart after her hubby is arrested under suspicion of statutory rape (seriously did no one realize this might happen?) and quite out of nowhere, decides that she actually does love him and after he is released they embrace and supposedly consummate their love. Well, after he emotionally guilt trips her again. This development makes no sense whatsoever and frankly, I just wanted to get it over with.

Do I think that this movie is socially responsible? No, I think every movie’s first priority should be to be a good form of art and to tell a good story, where this movie fails but let’s not get to that. And I’m not averse to unconventional unions, even when they’re problematic because it can be a great source of drama. But portraying unhealthy relationships is not the same as normalizing them and given the state of our romantic dramas, where toxic relationship dynamics are constantly idealized and paraded as normalcy, I think this shit is getting normalized as hell. It has no place in 2015 where romantic relationships are now all about mutual respect and equal partnership. I have to wonder, when will the general public get tired of this nonsense? We deserve better than this.

 

On Being a “Good Muslim”

Image from: http://kucinghilang.deviantart.com/art/muslimah-324987002
Image from: http://kucinghilang.deviantart.com/art/muslimah-324987002

So the issue of marriage came up while I was in the car with my mother and brother. My brother said he didn’t want to get married so my mother started explaining to him why marriage is so important in Islam. It was the usual ‘God created us in pairs and procreation is in our nature’ spiel that I’ve heard a million times from the educated and less educated alike. What a crude explanation, I thought. Not to mention listening to her telling a 12 year old boy how allowing men to marry up to 4 women to release their sexual urges proves that Islam is a complete religion is simply embarrassing. Do I have to explain to non-Muslims that Islam considers marriage to be nothing more than an institution that accommodates baby-making and halal (permissible) sex? Well, maybe some people do agree that that’s what marriage is ultimately about, but that hardly makes Islam special then, if these people who constantly repeat the same thing over and over again are correct. This is an ancient idea that predates Islam and one that still pervades society to this day. Things are changing of course albeit on different levels but we can see that we are still struggling to redefine the idea of marriage such as determining the woman’s role and the rights that they deserve and what exactly is a “traditional” marriage. Note that I don’t think this is the only stance on marriage that Islam has. In fact, what are we talking about when we talk about “Islam” anyway?

Anyway, I asked my brother whether he agreed or not with the answer which made my mother a bit annoyed. She said that it’s not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing. A bunch of things happened after that but basically I was berated for some things I said or posted on Facebook. Apparently some of her friends and relatives saw what I was up to and started complaining. If you know me, you would know that I can be pretty opinionated about political, social and religious issues on social media, for better or worse. Apparently, this is because I lack knowledge (the word she used was jahil) and that makes me a bad Muslim.

Actually, I think I can live with that. I had a conversation with a friend who also identified as such for being an LGBT rights supporter (incidentally, that topic came up in the argument as well). Throughout my years in high school I’ve had to struggle with the realization that our religious institutions in Malaysia kind of suck. Also, they’re a sycophantic cult that breeds unthinking sponges that absorb everything they hear without question. So recently I’ve been trying to distance myself from all that by trying to find answers on my own whether it is online or from books. And now, I’m effectively a bad Muslim.

Finding your place in the world is hard for pretty much everyone no matter your race, gender, culture, place of origin etc. But as a person of faith I feel like it is especially difficult if you’re stuck in the middle of the increasing polarization of the fundamentalist, the religious, the “lukewarm”, the non-religious and the outright anti-theist. These labels are convenient for boxing people into supposedly easy to define categories. But is it really that easy? While it should be obvious that defining the human experience is more complex than what can be described in over-simplified labels, I still fear that I will get caught up in a discussion that will force me to do just that. When I go online I can’t tell you how many times I cringe every time an intellectual or pseudo-intellectual attempt to box entire groups of people into seemingly arbitrary categories to differentiate the “Us” from “Them”. And I’m not just referring to certain people like Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two non-Muslims who attempt to pigeonhole Muslims into “Jihadists”, “fundamentalists”, “moderate Muslims who don’t take their faith seriously” and so on, but really, Muslims do this to their fellow Muslims too, just with different labels and perspective. So really, everyone is judging you. And I assume this is also the case if you’re a Jew, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist etc.

Labeling isn’t always bad but are these classifications even helpful? Do they help us understanding one another? Who gets to define how to be a good Muslim? In my case, I can’t say I know everything about Islam but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to learn. And does that mean I have to stay silent when I hear problematic statements being said in the name of Islam? If I follow the “correct” way of stating my opinion will I be heard? Why am I writing all this? Well, maybe because if being a good Muslim entails being sexist, intolerant and homophobic, I don’t want to be a “good Muslim”.

Religion is a matter of identity more than beliefs. I’ve had to struggle with deciding how my identity as a Muslim fits with the other markers that make me who I am. Right now it is still an ongoing process. And only God knows whether I’ve made progress.

Thoughts on “No god but God”

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Written by Reza Aslan (who is my new favourite person). It’s pretty good as a general introduction to the religion for non-Muslims but Muslims can learn something new from it too. Here’s some notable things I got out of it:

– Understanding the different sects in Islam. While only providing an introduction, the chapters on Shi’ism and Sufism were nevertheless very informative.

– A more cohesive narrative of how Islam came to be from pre-Islamic Arabia in what Muslims often (inaccurately) label as “the age of ignorance” to the Prophet’s life to the spread of Islam throughout the globe.

– Demonstrating a more human side of the Prophet and his Companions. This is the most valuable aspect of the book for me. Learning about the four Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali) in school, I could never really connect with them. This book proposes that there were disagreements, personal disputes etc. that would have been natural during a period where Muslims were trying to determine the future of the Ummah.

– Challenges widely-held notions about the Prophet Muhammad in regards to his literacy. Muslims largely agree that he was illiterate in order to safeguard the legitimacy of the Qur’an as a divine text. But how could he be illiterate if he was also a successful merchant who would have to know basic letters and numbers? That doesn’t necessarily mean he wrote the Qu’ran (it wasn’t written down until Uthman’s Caliphate anyway). He was no poet but he probably knew basic Arabic. Aslan also suggests the possibility of Muhammad being a pagan before becoming the Messenger of God.

– Tries to reconcile ideals of democracy with Islam and that concepts of egalitarianism, political participation and pluralism reflect the visions of Prophet Muhammad for society as a whole.

– Brief overview of the diverse movements that Aslan summarises as the “Islamic Reformation”. He argues that the religion as we know it is being redefined for the past century now.

– I guess my only complaints about the book is that because it is an overall simplified account of Islam as a religion, political system, way of life etc., it may resort to generalisations without going into much detail or elaboration. I’m not sure if the assertion that the majority of the world’s Muslims want democracy is completely accurate. For Malaysia at least it is way more complicated. Like Aslan says, it is an ongoing process and while 60% of the population are Muslim and we’re technically a democracy it still is… very flawed (putting it mildly). And we’re undergoing an identity crisis. Are we an Islamic State? Or secular? In fact mainstream politics have pretty much turned liberalism, secularism and pluralism into dirty words. So while Aslan’s theories are on point to some extent, some clarification would have been somewhat more helpful.

I’ve also read some criticisms of the book giving “undocumented feelings and motivations” to the players involved which may or may not be true (hey, I’m no expert). Granted, some creative liberties were probably taken in order to make the book more interesting. To me, the criticisms are valid but still worth overlooking when taking into account how well-written the book is. Seriously I love Aslan’s writing style. At times it reads like a gripping novel.

First Entry

And so begins my first attempt at writing a blog. Basically, the purpose of this is to improve my writing skills, explore and reconnect myself to my religious background, and write about books and anime. Writing has never been my strong suit, so hopefully I will be able to learn something from all this. My name is Nabilah binti Abu Hassan Alshari and I am a 19-year-old Malaysian Muslim. I’m currently taking Foundation in Arts and Education in the University of Nottingham Malaysian Campus and am hoping to pursue a degree in International Communication Studies later this year. I’m also a bibliophile. My scope tends to cover fiction but recently I’ve been meaning to read a lot of autobiographies as well. I am also a weeb. I love to scrutinise movies and TV series, especially Japanese cartoons, and finding out what they say about human nature and society usually by way of reading reviews online (because I don’t need a life). Y’all human beings are so fascinating to me so I would consider myself a humanist. And that will be the theme that underpins all of my future posts basically. Plus some posts about Islam give or take. Either opinion pieces of shit that I watch or read or maybe some philosophical ruminations of my identity as a Muslim and the nature of humanity. So look forward to that. At the moment, I don’t have a fixed updating schedule but for now I will at least try to update at least once a month. But I make no promises. Assalaamu ‘Alaikum, I’ll see you next time. Edit: I’m now going to study International Relations later this September. Really I’ve always been conflicted in choosing between the two and it’s a matter of which way the scales tip towards at a particular time.