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Life Under Religion

While I was in Kuala Lumpur, I was required to register for the new computerized National Identification Card. I'd been avoiding this for some time. I like the idea of a National Identification Card, and I've faithfully carried my old one around since I was 12. What makes the new ID cards different is that apart from the embedded microchip, the ID card will also clearly list the owner's religion up front. Muslims get "Islam". I'm not sure what other people get. This is to aid the authorities in identifying which court a person needs to be charged at according to the crime, the Syariah Court or the Civil Court. Since Malaysia has two different court systems to handle specific issues, this isn't such an impractical detail to have.

What do you do when you have no religion? Better yet, what do you do when you're atheist? I've had freethinker friends argue with their registrations officers and get ID cards that were religion free. It's possible.

None of these friends were ex-Muslims, or Malay.

Not only does my Race list me as a Malay, I have a distinctly Muslim name. My father helped fill in the form for my new ID card. He told me, we'll leave Religion blank and see what happens. I was told that I could also shorten my name, having sort of heard before that allowances were now made for Malaysian Muslims to avoid the entire hassle of having already long Malay names lengthened further with "bin" (son of) or "binti" (daughter of) in the middle.

My registrations officer was a Malay lady in a waist-length headscarf. These headscarves are common in government offices -- the highest concentration of headscarf wearers I've seen are usually in the public sector. For the record, I was dressed in an office shirt and work pants. Not provocative by any stretch of the imagination, unless you had a fetish for anything above neck or under foot level. She took a long time to register my details, and seemed to be constantly double-checking something. I asked her if everything was alright. She asked outright, "Are you a Muslim?"

Brief pause. My answer, "That's alright. Yeah. I guess that works."

Her, "You're a Malay, right?"

Me, "Yes."

Her, "Your father's a Malay, right?"

Me, "Yes."

A few mouseclicks later, from this lady, "You left your Religion blank. So I looked through your parents' files to figure out what religion you were. If you're a Muslim, you should state so."

Me, "Is it possible to leave it blank?"

Her, "Of course, not."

Me, "I've heard that it's possible to shorten my name. Like if I wanted to drop the 'binti'. Is it possible for me to do so here?"

Her, "Why do you want to drop the 'binti' for?"

Me, "My name is extremely long. When I fill in forms overseas, it becomes troublesome (because I have to explain where my first name starts and where my last name ends)."

Her, "You can't do that."

Me, "Really?"

Her, "No."

I would like to state here that changing the name on your ID card is actually possible. My father shortened his ID and driver's license. This was what I was running with when I met my registrations officer. As it turned out, my father forgot to leave in the parts where he argued with his registrations officer (my father, unlike me, is more of a presence) until said officer agreed with him that it was my father's choice what went on his ID and not a decision for the officer to make.

I wasn't even trying to change my name. I just wanted to drop the "binti", which really doesn't tell you anything new about myself. My first name clearly defines me as female. My last name is clearly my father's. "binti" isn't even Malaysian in origin, because it's Arabic-associated-with-Muslims.

In the Muslim world, I think the most dangerous thing that's happening today is the spread of Saudi Arabian culture in the Muslim diaspora. In the time since I was a child, it seems Muslims have become more preoccupied with form and structure, an emulation of the form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia. For example, when I was a child, the first and only woman I really knew who wore the waist length headscarf was my ustazah (religious teacher). I connected this to her being a teacher of religion. No child, certainly no female child under the age of puberty that I knew, wore a headscarf. Elderly women might wear a loose shawl lightly draped over their heads or their shoulders, which was part of the traditional Malay dress.

By the time I was thirteen, studying on the east coast, kindergarten students wore full-length headscarves, and the few Malay students who didn't wear a baju kurung and headscarf like myself were rare. Often, frowned upon. Very often, picked upon to follow the herd. Men have to go to the mosque on Fridays. If you missed a prayer in public, you were clearly wrong. Not because the laws said so -- and we are sometimes the luckiest Muslim nation in the world for having a comparatively sensible government -- but because people will look at you funny if you don't do what they're doing. People will judge your faith by how you look, how you wear your hair, where you eat and who you talk to.

This is what Malaysia has come to, in my eyes. The country, my own country, is starting to make me nervous. Maybe I'm pushing it by wearing spaghetti-strapped tops and jeans in public. Maybe I'm imagining these eyes on me in what should be the most liberal parts of town. But, you see, I can remember a time barely 6 years ago when Malaysian girls of all stripes wore spaghetti-strapped tops, or even strapless tops. I'm pretty certain they still do, because I've seen a few. Maybe I'm starting to look foreign. I've never actually looked normal to lots of folks. Chinese people, you understand, are typically non-Muslim. To the Malays most corrupted by the Middle Eastern culture of Islam, this amounts to Their Neighbours, the Not One of Us. I have not spent any point in my life during introductions to strangers without being asked about my apparently not-Chinese, not-Malay face. If they are Muslim, sometimes even when they're not, they might ask me if I'm Muslim. But the way people are looking at me now is even worse than that. If I walk with my father, because I don't cover my shoulders or my head nearly enough, I get asked if I'm his wife.

Do you know how old my father is? Would you suppose that since I am 25, my father would look old enough to be my father?

What does this tell you about the culture I go home to?

It was not always this way. I genuinely fear for my countrymen. Not because I think we'd go full tilt into fundametalist Islamic law -- this is one thing I am certain of, that my country is inherrently smart enough to skip this trap -- but because the growing conservatism of our Muslim population is a rot that bites at our cores as tolerant, thinking human beings.

One does not have to wear a headscarf to be protected from men. This assumes men do not have the mental capacity to think for themselves. Nor does a woman who wears a headscarf have to be an evangelical religious maniac. They can be personalities all their own, to be judged on their personal merits. Having said that, they don't need a headscarf first to be judged as another person either.

One's faith does not have to be defined by other people. Shouldn't a person's faith be determined on his own, or better yet, between himself and his god? A person's level of religiousness is not directly proportionate to how much he follows his neighbour. That's called being in a cult.

Our constitution does in fact state us as being a nation under God. But our constitution does not say, "60% of our population will be Muslim, and everyone else will be looked at funny for not being Muslim." Nor does it say, "You have to be Muslim because you're Malay." Malaysian culture is a mix of the cultures of the Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous ethnicities of our nation. It is not Islamic "culture" transmogrified upon our country for political purposes. Islam is a religion. One can be a Malaysian who practises the Islamic religion. Our criteria for citizenship does not call for a person to be a Muslim practising Malaysianism.

We are Malaysians first, with a shared cultural heritage by virtue of being neighbours responsible for our entire national home.

No one cares.

I am not a Muslim. I haven't been for 13 years. I could go to the Syariah Court, where apparently applications by dropouts are at waist height and ratio of failures to convert to something else is something like 99%. I could go to the Syariah Court, have people come harass me wherever I go, face the possibility of mandatory counselling and possibly get stalked by the Religious Department for being quite awful.

I could've tried listing "Atheist" as my religion, which would probably have dragged me through the same legal proceedings I've just stated.

I could've officially told someone in an official capacity, "I'm not Muslim."

I don't want to go through that idiocy. I'd be nuts to put everyone I know through that. And this is the compromise I make for my cowardice. Being forever careful who I tell about myself in Malaysia. Carrying an ID card that says I am a number of things I'm not. Carrying a piece of official documentation that could basically have me liable for a whole number of religious issues if I were to be harassed by the right person -- like being alone with a boy while I'm unmarried (carries a jail term or a large fine -- Malaysia doesn't kill anyone for dating, or even for cheating on one's wife), eating in public during the fasting month (carries a large fine), giving my younger brother twice the amount of any inheritance I receive from my father's estate (boys get double what girls get as all Muslim estates are divided up by the Syariah Court), or never being able to register any marriage I have in Malaysia, if I ever intend on marrying anyone, unless my partner converts to Islam (Malaysia only recognizes marriages between a Muslim and a non-Muslim if the non-Muslim partner converts to Islam -- cases of the other way around happening are rare and often heavily disputed, so many couples in this situation have verbal conversions to Islam and live a different religion; better yet, some just move out of the country).

I mulled about this for weeks. However I look at it, I am still Malaysian. And if there ever is a change, it will happen by the system. I do not doubt it will happen. But this is not the time or the way to fight.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 25th, 2006 04:24 am (UTC)
Hi I understand how you feel.
I actually bumped into this page of your blog a couple of months ago whilst googling for a research paper on the Malay dilemma (mostly on NPE and the likes).
I'm Malay and officially Muslim but agnostic in reality and a coconut at heart. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to come upon your blog as I have never met any freethinking Malays (though i know quite a few liberal ones).
Since I entered a private local (but highly affiliated with the government) university this year, many curious people have asked me if I was Malay and what not - probably because my English is pretty good, I don't wear the tudung, I like to read, I don't hang around with the other Malay girls, I wear shorts and I occasionally indulge in crude jokes only people who are truly comfortable with their horny-ness would understand. I thought look quite Malay to me.
By the way my parents are super liberal to the ordinary Malay but they still consider themselves as Muslims - basically they wouldnt allow me eat pork.
I love Malaysia but I seriously share your worries about the future.
PS: I don't get the binti thing either

Dec. 25th, 2006 06:59 am (UTC)
Hi. It's not often I get visitors off a google. :)

It's hard to find a freethinking, particularly an atheist, Malay. Quite a few are agnostic, quite a number more are liberal. More often than not, they're too quiet to be seen.

I've always found it horrible that people immediately wonder where you're from by speaking decent English in Malaysia. It's not like people don't speak decent English in Malaysia at all. Almost as if people have temporary memory loss when they meet a Malaysian who speaks English by default. Didn't we all not go through the same educational system?

That look of the headscarfed, mousy Malay girl is becoming a kind of standard by which we are defined. I find it disgusting, since the foreign press has picked up on this. News broadcast overseas actually are pointing us out by "headscarf, baju kurung, hey, this must be a Malay!" It's unbelievably crude. It wouldn't have happened in my parents' time.

I worry a lot about our country, but again, I think a lot more of us are smarter than we appear in the vocal minority. There's growing conservatism, but there's growing liberalism too -- you'd be a product of this growing class. The one group can't really form without the other. Malaysia's good at finding middle grounds. So we will eventually find a middle ground for this, I think, because our political system and our social make-up will refuse anything less. (60% of Malaysia is Malay -- that's hardly a majority. And if you consider that not all Malays/bumiputeras have to be Muslim, (lots of the aboriginal groups aren't), that's a pretty good mix of religions and cultures).)
Dec. 27th, 2006 04:14 pm (UTC)
Well you can call me a google dork :)

There are quite a number of liberal Malays especially from where I live. I'm from one of those suburbs where the percentage of English speaking snobs is comparatively high. Though I do agree that the freethinkers are too quite to be seen as we don't really "come out of the closet" and tell the world what we think (for very good reasons).

Honestly, I never really thought much about faith and religion when I was still in school. My school was pretty open and they almost never forced anyone to where the tudung - though my primary school did made sure we did during religious classes.
My environment changed drastically when I entered a compartmentalized pre-u scholarship program at a local uni of 60-odd students. 99% Malays. Majority are from MRSM type of schools. And I was literally the only Malay girl without the tudung.
Most of them are definitely conservatives who do not seem to see any shades of grey. The girls have an (almost) weekly usrah gatherings (religious talk/chat/class type of thing) which I have tried to surreptitiously not attend - in one of the gatherings that I actually did attend they were discussing about apostasy and how it is an insult to Islam. (I have a vivid memory of a girl trying to pronounce the word "secularists" as if it was some alien word). I felt like I have entered the underworld. These are people who are supposedly going to be studying overseas under scholarships and they will become the future "ambassadors" of the multicultural Malaysia.

By the way that mousy Malay girl with the baju kurung and tudung is real. I have three of them as my housemates (just out of curiosity, why was this in foreign press?). It's a horrible stereotype but stereotypes only exist if there is truth to it.

I must sound like I do not like Malays now (which is of course not true) though I have convinced myself this is how the majority of Malays are like. Gone are my idealistic muhibbah dreams.

Yeap things have definitely changed since our parents' time. Malays are just true-conformists. The sultan converts, we convert. The British came, we hardly put up a fight, we started speaking English, we let them bring immigrants in. Imagine if all these had happen to some proud country in the middle-east. Chaos. The same thing is happening now with all the conservatism and the almost fatalistic view on religion. Well at least that is my take on the current trend.

I find comfort that we have a "comparatively sensible" government. I feel that Badawi is sincerely trying his best to work forward while manoeuvering around sensitive topics. Though I did find the general UMNO assembly quite disturbing by all accounts. (Some digression here)I find the whole Malay privilege thing rather stupid and some politicians are definitely taking it a little bit too far. The fact that they demand "special privileges" just proves that Malays cannot survive on their own in the real world. They should instead "berkobar-kobar" to figure out when they can do away with it to show that we are indeed capable of achieving without anymore help.

Anyway you're right that it is utterly impossible for Malaysia to turn into a Taliban like state (though Kelantan is on its way there). I just hope that the ordinary Malay Muslim can see that not all Malays are Muslims or even practicing Muslims and that religion should be of personal matter and not of the authorities. Basically if a religion was so perfect it wouldn’t need fines and counseling sessions.

My classmates would kill me if they knew I have just wrote all of the above.

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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