Category Archives: Family

Hijab or de-jab? The quintessential hijab post

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I hate that I have to write this post but I guess I should have seen it coming. I am after all a 20 something Malay-Muslim woman and after all, isn’t this the favorite topic of the people in my generation?*sarcasm*

I need to write this for my own healing and for anyone else out there who have been questioned for their decisions around hija (…Why do you wear it? Why don’t you wear it? Bleurgh. *again with the sarcasm*)

First off, a little context: A year ago, I started wearing the hijab. I had never worn it full time before that except when attending religious classes on Sundays. I decided to start wearing it for several reasons:

1)      I saw Yuna rock the hijab. (btw, she is an amazing musician and I have loads of respect for her)

2)      I thought it would be a symbol of my willingness to start understanding and investigating Islam deeply.

3)      I couldn’t give a shit anymore about how my hair looked.

I had multiple reasons for wearing the hijab. By the way, just as a sidenote, I am generally suspspicious of Muslim women who only give one reason for wearing the hijab (e.g. to please my husband and Allah swt!). I am calling BS on that. Human beings are complex – nobody does something with just one reason in mind, myself included.

When I first started wearing the hijab, some friends who knew me from before asked if I was going through some special stage in my life or rite of passage. I told them no. I should have told them I was going through a phase of my life where I was questioning everything I learned in Islam and concluding things for myself from my own research. But most people just want short answers so I told them no.

Thank God, most of my friends were pretty cool about it and didn’t ask many questions. Sometimes, I am left wondering how in the world it was possible that I travelled halfway around the globe and met people who just took me for who I am – hijab or no hijab.

When my mother and aunts found out, they were very happy for me. I wasn’t sure why – I suspect they assumed that me putting on the hijab was a signifier for me to become ‘more Muslim’ and/or less radical. For the record, they are wrong. I will never stop believing in anti-oppression, believing that women deserve better, that racism sucks and that capitalism is evil. I also refuse to shut up about my beliefs. If this makes me ‘radical’, what does it make Prophet Mohammeh s.a.w? I know he was a proponent of women’s rights as so many Muslim men loooveee to remind me when I teIl them I believe in feminism. I also know he actively worked towards anti-racism and other social injustices in his lifetime. If being ‘radical’ is contrary to being Muslim, I’m not sure what this contemporary belief means for our Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. When I die and (inshallah) go to heaven, I’ll ask him what he thinks about this.

My partner, C, was supportive – as he always was. I’ve been with this man for 5 years now and there is nobody else except maybe Allah s.w.t who I feel accepts me fully as I am, who respects and supports all my decisions. C encouraged me to explore wearing the hijab and was there for me for the whole year ahead as I walked around in the world with hijab on.

Which brings me to the next point.

For a whole year, I wore the hijab pretty much full-time when I was in public. It got freakin hot and almost damn near impossible at times especially in the summer in Vancouver and when I was visint family in Singapore. But I persevered.

The funny thing was…I never thought that the hijab was permanent for me. To me, it was something I wanted to explore. It wasn’t something I was committed to100% for the rest of my life. But I don’t think this was clear to a lot of other people in my life who transitioned with me during this past year.

Last year, I travelled back to Singapore for Eid. I remember we were visiting an aunt when she asked me about whether my hijab was permanent or temporary. My mother jumped in before I could answer. She told my aunt ‘Of course it’s permanent!’ I just stood there pretty shocked. I didn’t know how to feel at that point. I still don’t.

I decided not to wear my hijab when I travelled back to Vancouver. At the airport, one of my uncles teased? said? exclaimed? ‘Oh, looks like you’re back to being European now you’re going back!’ I calmly told him I decided not to wear it because I didn’t want to be pulled aside or harassed for ‘random checks’ by customs officials. My aunt, his wife (herself a hijabi) was nearby and looked at me incredulously. She couldn’t believe that hijabis were subject to that treatment. In my head, I was thinking ‘Is it just me or did 9/11 not happen?’ Being (visibly) Muslim and crossing borders is no joke. I have to remind myself that border crossing and the fears and anxieties that come along with it are regular realities for me but are actually uncommon for most other folks. It was really hard for me to remind myself because I just felt so misunderstood after that comment.

I left Singapore that day feeling…fragmented. I always suspected that people never fully understood me – I am turning out to that odd radical feminist everyone would politely humor at family gatherings. But when I realized that my family misunderstood me, it was… painful.

Anyway, I returned to Vancouver and decided to do more research on hijab. The more I read and discussed with my Muslim friends who had similar experiences, the more I realized how incongruous my decision to put on the hijab was with my values of being a Muslim.

My parents had always raised me to think of hijab as a choice. I am thankful for that. Without that upbringing, I would never have had the courage or common sense to do my own research and come to my own conclusions about hijab. So here they are:

1)      I realized I don’t need to wear the hijab to be a ‘good Muslim’ (whatever that means). I basically realized through my research that being a good Muslim does not equal hijab. Most people assume that hijabis are good, decent people but I know better. I know some hijabis who are one of the worst, most unself-aware, gossipy, backbiting, indecent people. When I realized this, I realized that my belief was incongruent with my actions. I refuse to reduce my faith and my journey within Islam to a piece of scarf on my head. Being Muslim does not stop at hijab for me – it is so much more. A way of life, a philosophy, a belief system in justice and kindness….not just hijab.

2)      Everyone loves a hijabi and nobody loves a sinner. Apparently, everyone was in love with me when I decided to put on the hijab but when I decided to take it off, I received resistance. This resistance would often come from the same people who told me that the hijab was just a piece of cloth. If it’s just a piece of cloth, why can’t you accept me with hijab or not? I am the same person underneath.

3)      I do not appreciate the heightened scrutiny of my body with the hijab on. Some people believe that hijab was designed to protect women from the male gaze. I guess those people have never lived in Vancouver in 2013. I have literally been the victim of so many dirty looks, unwanted stares and stare duels while on transit. I was so shaken up by one incident recently and this has been one of the catalysts for me deciding to remove my hijab. But what if I’m just being oversensitive or self-conscious you say? Frankly, I know how it is to feel unsafe in public, to have to deal with dirty looks and polite or impolite stares from strangers. It’s not a particularly pleasant feeling in fact, it kind of sucks. And having to deal with it mentally all the time while I’m in public is ridiculous. No one should be treated that way. So if I can remove myself from that amount of mental anguish, I will take it thank you very much.

4)      ‘Haya’ or modesty was only emphasized in terms of what I wore, not how I carried myself or how I thought. This was the main reason for me removing my hijab. I sincerely believe in modesty in actions, thoughts and behavior. Contrary to popular belief, hijab does not make one modest. Haya makes one modest. Haya is not hijab. They are not the same thing although they are frequently conflated together. (Here, I really have to give a shoutout to all the religious ‘teachers’ I had who consistently told me this. Also to my community in general for upholding this belief without question. Way to go, people.)

It started to really annoy me when I was policed for little ‘transgressions’. For example, I was wearing a ¾ sleeve top once in Singapore and my aunt asked me why my sleeves didn’t cover my wrists. She then told me that when she was younger, she used to do the same. I don’t get it – do Muslim men consistently get aroused by looking at Muslim women’s skin? Or is it just hijabi skin that arouses them? Or maybe it’s just when they’re in the mosque that they get so distracted by the beauty of women while trying to pray that we are not even allowed to pray in the same space or near them (and therefore women regularly get sidelined with subpar praying spaces and dirty toilets to take wudhu)? Why do we keep allowing this idea of men’s arousal to dictate women’s behavior and dress? Something is wrong here.

Conversely, Muslim women who don’t wear the hijab seem to be able to wear whatever they damn well please. My sisters and lady cousins leave the house wearing shorts and miniskirts with their long silky hair flowing in the wind…. and get the occasional grunt of disagreement but I can’t wear ¾ sleeves when wearing hijab? Have my parents/aunts/uncles given up on my sisters and lady cousins as ‘sinners’ or do they just actually sense that I’m the shmuck who would take their ‘advice’ to heart and dissect each word over a year later?

I’m not asking for them to be policed either. What I am asking is for basic respect which doesn’t seem to apply to women and girls. Stop telling us what we can or cannot wear. Stop blaming sexual assault on what we do or do not wear. If men get aroused by the skin on my wrists, how is that my fault? Why is the modesty of the man not in question? Why is mine?

Sometimes I think that if I could have chosen to be born the way I wanted to, I would not have chosen this body. There are just so many damn rules that are made up to oppress me…as a woman, as a brown woman, as a Muslim woman. I can’t keep up and I just want to be me. I just want to wear what I want to wear. I just want to be respected as a person – not as a woman, or a man or a scholar or whatever. Just as a person. Why is this so difficult to do?

The more I read and reflected sincerely, the more I feel that Allah s.w.t is not as rigid about the hijab as some Muslims make it up to be. At the end of the day. I have to answer to Allah swt and that’s it. No one else. One of my friends told me ‘God will judge us based on our efforts in anything and not whether we happen to be in the right camp, or not.’ *much love to you ST* For now, I am content with the amount of effort I have put into trying to understand this issue. I’m not saying it’s enough…I’m just saying it’s enough for me, for now.

So how is life without hijab?

Well, I don’t get dirty looks or get into stare duels with strangers on bus anymore. I feel more anonymous now… I don’t stick out like a sore thumb. When I meet someone new, I can sense they are not judging me by my hijab (instead, I am back to getting lots of ‘Where are you from?’ or the more insensitive ‘What are you?’ questions). I don’t feel the burden of having to constantly explain why I wear the hijab, what haya means and then get into debates with people I hardly know about terrorism and/or why Muslims in x or x country are oppressing other religions. I am not pushed to speak for Islam and Muslims all the fkn time anymore.

That being said, I do miss wearing the hijab. When I open my closet, I look at my scarf collection over the past year and I dream about an ideal world where I would be able to wear it one day and not the next with few questions.

Unfortunately, I don’t live in an ideal world. And neither do you.

Mostly, I’m just glad I can run my fingers through my hair again.

Dear Allah swt…I know you can hear me. I have felt your presence before and I feel closer to you now more than I ever have. You have been so kind to me and blessed me with so much but I am most thankful for your blessings of my courage, persistence and resilience. Please give me the strength to continue and be assured with this decision. You have given me lots of questions and I will try to find the answers. Please give me the courage to stand true to my beliefs and my search for congruity and answers. Please give me strength to withstand others’ judgments of me. Please let others learn to accept me for who I am. More importantly, please let me be OK with just being me.



White Paper, Red Eyes

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Last night, I decided to read the ‘Population White Paper’ document that has been making its rounds on Singaporean news networks. The ‘Population White Paper’ is a document that outlines population policies for the next few decades. Mostly, the news reports were about how flawed the document from what the title of the paper should actually be to immigration policies  and  baby policies.

So naturally, as a lover of intellectual debate, an amateur policy analyst and a mid-level shit disturber,  I decided to weigh in on the topic. Unfortunately, the only outlet I have as a 20-something Malay woman living abroad to get my thoughts heard is the Internet. So I took to Facebook and over a 30 minute period, updated my status and comment sections with my thoughts on the White Paper.

This commentary below would make more sense if you have read the actual document. Here it is. 

If you’re too lazy for that and I don’t blame you, imagine a government document with lots of touristy pictures of Singapore and its people all happy in pictures where multicultural beings wave red and white flags and children run in the park with kites. That interspersed with graphs, pie charts of population statistics and a whole bunch of words and sentences that start with ‘We will continue to…’ and ‘We must ensure…’

So here is a screenshot of the running commentary on Facebook:

white paper

If you click on the image and zoom in on it on your webpage, you should be able to read it. Otherwise, here is a transcript below:

Status update – Monday, February 4th 2013 at 8.30pm: 

finally got the time to read Singapore’s recently released ‘Population White Paper’ and am already laughing at the second page. Get a load of this bull:

“We may have diverse geographical and ethnic backgrounds, but we are all Singaporean because we share certain key values and aspirations including meritocracy, a fair and just society, and respect for one another’s culture within a broad common space where all interact and bond.”


haha! gonna continue reading this tonight and see what else I can laugh at sarcastically.

Comment update – 8.35 pm:

I’m having a hard time stomaching the binaries between civilized and non-civilized here. We get it Singapore. You is developed. You is smart. You is also paranoid as shit with other countries ‘catching up on you’.

Comment update – 8.37 pm :

“We will continue to welcome immigrants who can contribute to Singapore, share our values and integrate into our society.”

read: we love people who think like us. otherwise, we dont give a shit about you. kindly exile yourself in other places. until you win the Nobel Peace Prize at which point, it will suddenly become important that you are Singaporean.

Comment update – 8.38 pm:

“Taking in younger immigrants will help us top up the smaller cohorts of younger Singaporeans and balance the ageing of our citizen population.”

We can top up populations like we top up EZ link cards.

Comment update, 8.40pm:

“Our economy must stay ahead of other Asian cities, so that we can provide them with the high-end goods and services that they need but are not yet able to produce themselves.”

read: we must make sure that we continue to oppress the working classes in our own country but also in the other countries of South East Asia.

Comment update, 8.43 pm:

OH something good at last:

‘99% of married respondents in the 2012 Marriage and Parenthood Study agreed that fathers and mothers are equally important as caregivers for children.’

Comment update, 8.49 pm:

and an acknowledgment that Singaporeans abroad aren’t useless complete with an acknowledgment? plea? for us to come home.

“Many Singaporeans living overseas continue to contribute actively to Singapore from around the world. We hope they will return home after studies or working stints abroad, adding a further dimension to our society.”

read: we want you to come home but we won’t listen to anything you have to say because you are now too Westernized. go sit in the corner and learn the words to ‘Dick Lee’s ‘Home’ again.

Comment update, 8. 54 pm:

investing in education sounds good and then it ends with this:

“The Ministry of Education is also conducting a study to see how to increase access and quality in the pre-school education sector.”

great. so my non-existent children can now be diagnosed with anxiety disorders at a younger age.

Comment update, 8.57 pm : 

what is up with the coy ‘we love immigrants but we cant let too many of you guys in’ thing? make up your mind. you can’t use people like tissue paper. get em when you need them then chuck them. sheesh.

Comment update, 8.59 pm :

“All our public buses will be wheelchair-accessible by 2020, up from about half today.”


Comment update, 9.02 pm:

This is laughable:

“Our immigrant heritage has shaped the Singapore of today, including the values that we hold dear – respect for others, family ties, hard worj, meritocracy, multi-racialism as well as a robust sense of social justice, harmony and cohesion. These values have enabled Singapore to develop into a First World Country in a few short decades.”

HELLO, Singapore. Not all of us have ‘immigrant heritage’. Some of us are actually indigenous to the archipelago. But oh yea. You’ve been trying reallllllyyyy hard to forget that.

Comment update, 9.02 pm:

that followed by pictures of smiling people waving singapore flags. LOLLLL

Comment update, 9.03pm:

I have now finished reading the document. overall, an informative read – some interesting bits for sure that make me excited to be a part of the growth but some pretty serious flaws in this document.

Comment from a friend, 2 hours later:


As always, it seems as if policies don’t match with the real experiences of Singaporeans on the ground.

I know that feelings of mistrust and racism are growing towards ‘foreigners’ especially towards new non-white immigrants. If we keep talking about integration of new immigrants, where is acknowledgment for the responsibility of Singaporeans to be more empathetic towards these new immigrants?

I’ve lived in Vancouver for 6 years now and though it is far from perfect, at the very least, there are outlets, programs and communities that engage new immigrants to help us ‘integrate’ and learn about the history of this city and its inhabitants of the white settlers and First Nations peoples. There is an honest acknowledgment (in some communities and increasingly so) that Vancouver sits on unceded Coast Salish territory and movements that explicitly support anti-racism on all fronts. Can Singapore say the same? Can we honestly and openly acknowledge that Singapore sits on ‘tanah Melayu’ and that the Malays are its indigenous population, not to a country that is only half a decade old but to a region and an archipelago that dates back hundreds of thousands of years?

As long as we do not admit this to ourselves and we continue to perpetuate the idea that all Singaporeans are immigrants, we will never be able to integrate our new immigrants properly. I have heard of new immigrants disrespecting Malays and it is not uncommon to see flaming Internet-ers making rude and racist comments about Malay and Tamil communities in Singapore. There are reasons for this just like there are reasons that the Chinese community escapes this treatment that the Malays and Indians are given.

As far as the half-assed plea for Singaporeans abroad to return, Singapore has made it abundantly clear that Singaporeans overseas are largely to fend for themselves. Unless one of us brings home an ‘internationally recognized award’ given to us by White Men in the West, our presence is unimportant just like our votes in any elections.

I do love Singapore. My roots are in Singapore. My family is in Singapore. My ancestors are from Singapore. The region is my home and the nation is my home. Singapore is where I grew up and its humidity is familiar to my brown skin.

But reading policies like these just make me angry, upset and lead me to question my value as a Singaporean. It affirms my decision of self-exile from Singapore until I accumulate more degrees and more knowledge that Singapore will someday deem ‘enough’, ‘acceptable’ and ‘important’.  For now, my radical left-winging shit disturbing, direct talking ways will have to wait. Singapore is not ready for me and I am not ready for Singapore.

I wish to return someday and be accepted for who I am fully, as a person – not just as a Malay person, not just as a woman, a baby-making machine, not just a young consumer but as a WHOLE person. I wish I can return someday and be loved.

When women of color talk back

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Rush to arms

Beat us down

Tell us we’re the racist ones.

Spit on us

Threaten our lives

Tell us we’re the oppressive ones.


When women of color talk back

What did you think we would say?

Did you expect us to give thanks at the altar

of White Supremacy?

of Widespread Misogyny?

Thank you oppressors for giving us the right to speak.


You didn’t give us the right to speak.

Our mothers did. Our grandmothers did. Our great-grandmothers did.

They spoke to each other, they resisted together and they went underground.

Deep underground where you forced them to go.

Some of them never came back.


Your ancestors were deaf

and blinded by greed and ignorance

They built nations on the backs of poor brown women,

And then waged wars in their name.



We are asking you to remove your noise cancelling headphones

We are asking you to



You are still deaf.

Your eyes glaze over and then…

they burn with self-defense.

Deaf and stubborn.

Your ancestors would have been proud.


Go away.

Go whine to your friends

Go tell everyone how you were ‘attacked’

Go tell them you’ve been hurt

Go bask in loving commiseration and lick your wounds

Go. Go away.

Make it about you.

It’s always been about you anyway right?


Warn your friends. Tell them about us.

Yes, tell them about us!

Tell them to watch out for those brown women who refuse to be silenced.

Those uncontrollable savage women who just won’t shut up.


Gone are the good ol’ days

When you could trample on our heads and spit on our bodies

We freed ourselves. We removed our shackles and our mufflers.

We smashed your noiseless headphones

We rose above ground .


We are strong

With strength you can never understand.

Strength from generations of broken and beaten women who refused to give up.

Strength from humility

Strength from hope

From our bodies, the next generation of super human babies

It’s beyond genetic…

it’s authentic.


We will continue to rise

You can try to

Rush to arms

Beat us down

Spit on us

Threaten our lives

But we know better.

Our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers

They taught us better.

The search for the history of my people

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In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful…

Last night, before I went to sleep, I was lying awake in bed thinking about my paternal grandfather, Arwah Tok Iswan.

I didn’t know him. My paternal grandfather. He died when my dad was a kid.

I didn’t know how he looked like because no one in my family had taken or kept a picture of him.

One day when I was 10 years old and at the museum in Singapura for a family outing, I saw his face.

I found out how my grandfather looked like by accident. I found out who he was by accident.

His photo was in the exhibition focusing on the history of Singapura, pre-independence years (1960 – 1965).

I still remember that photo – his passionate face, his fist in the air, the banner he was carrying. I try to remember every detail.

He looks like my dad.

I remember calling out to my mom who was a few steps behind and she was equally shocked to see the face of Arwah Totok Iswan. My late grandfather.

Last summer, my mother and I tried to secure a copy of that photograph but since it was nearly a decade ago, the Museum exhibits have changed.

It was a long and trying process. In the end, we didn’t manage to get the picture.

We did manage to get a clearer shot of what is pictured below but as you can see, his face is slightly out of focus. He’s the second guy from the right – with the songkok on his head.

This picture was taken on 23 September 1963 – at an event attended by UMNO supporters in Singapura welcoming Syed Albar – then Foreign Minister of Malaya who were visiting Singapura and its local UMNO (United Malays National Organization) branch members.

For those of you unfamiliar with Singaporean history, I’ll give you a brief rundown. Basically, after the British split and left Singapura at the mercy of the Japanese during WWII, people started demanding independence. Singapura and Malaysia merged briefly from 1963 – 1965 and then split. It’s no secret – we didn’t get along and it partly, if not largely, was because of racial politics. Singapura’s then (and now) Chinese-dominated political party and ideology (People’s Action Party – PAP) did not mesh well with Malaysia’s (then and now) Malay-dominated political party (The United Malays National Organization – UMNO)  and ‘bumiputera’ ideology which recognizes the Malays as Indigenous and accords them special privileges.

At the event on 23 September 1963 – where my grandfather is pictured above – Syed Albar accused the Malay candidates of the PAP to be ‘race traitors’. His comments are seen by many historians today as the catalyst for the 1964 Race Riots in Singapura. It was tough, turbulent times.

Before I stumbled onto that picture in the museum, I didn’t know a thing about my grandfather except that he died when my dad was a child.

I find it ironic that I started the search for my personal history and the history of the Malays as a kid in a museum. Museums are widely contested spaces especially for Indigenous peoples all over the world….and yet, that is where it all started.

In later conversations, my dad told me that my grandfather used to write for Utusan Melayu and was an active member of UMNO in Singapura.

My grandfather was a writer and an activist.

Like me.


If he was alive today, I wonder what he would have said to me?

Would he have told me that he took to the streets and marched so that I wouldn’t have to? Would he have told me that the battle is no longer to be fought on the streets, through rallies and speeches but in the classrooms, in academia, in the halls of ‘higher learning’?

What would I have told him?

In some ways, my search for my grandfather’s picture is similar to my search for my Indigenous,  Malay identity. Trying, long, arduous and emotionally taxing.

I did not believe I was Indigenous until I was 20 years old. I’m nearly 23 now.

It took me 20 years to believe that I was who I was, that my skin had a reason, that my language had a reason, that the stories my mothers and my grandmothers told me had a reason.

I’ve gotten into several arguments with Malay and non-Malay friends alike over this topic. It usually starts with them asking me to convince and/or prove to them my ‘Indigeneity’ as a Malay person.

For the record, I think this need to prove anything to anyone who doesn’t believe me when I say I am what I am is ridiculous. It reminds me of Americans asking Obama to prove that he was born in America. He finally showed them his birth certificate after being elected into the Oval Office, proving once and for all that he was born in the US. And even then, people don’t believe him. Since I don’t have a card that reads ‘I am Bugis/Boyanese/Malay/Indigenous, believe me!’ (like First Nations in Canada with their ‘status’ cards to ‘prove’ their Indigeneity) – I cannot pull an ‘Obama’. This obviously doesn’t stop people from trying to ask me to prove to them that I am indigenous as a Malay.

I do try anyway (sometimes).

The Malays are listed in the Singaporean constitution as ‘Indigenous’.

Article 152, part ii Minorities and Special Position of Malays

(ii) The Government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognize the special position of the Malays, who are the Indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.

Political designation not enough for you?

Alright – what about ‘scientific’ evidence?

In 2009, a comprehensive study of genetic diversity and history of Asian populations was carried out by HUGO (Human Genome Organization) involving almost 2000 people across Asia. The HUGO found genetic similarities between populations throughout Asia and an increase in genetic diversity from northern to southern latitudes. These findings indicates the origin of Asia’s population and support the hypothesis that Asia was populated primarily through a single migration event from the south, entering South East Asian first. The South East Asian civilizations including the Malays, are possibly much older compared to East Asian civilizations.

I can argue on and on and try to prove just how ‘Indigenous’ the Malays really are but in the end, it is like asking a grain of sand on the beach to prove that it used to be part of a mountain. It is both ludicrous and offensive – I, nor any other Malay person who claims ‘indigeneity’ because of their Malay identity, have nothing to prove to anyone. Just because our history have not been taught in schools, have not been neatly written in books, have not been written in a language or expressed in forms you can consider ‘legitimate’ doesn’t mean we are not Indigenous. It is not our problem that you refuse to understand that.

As with many other Malay kids in Singapura (and arguably many Indigenous communities across this planet), I was not taught my history in school. We were, all of us, led to believe that we are ‘immigrants’ to the land. I agree – we are all immigrants. Nobody can be Indigenous to a country that is only 47 years old this year.

When I say that the Malays are Indigenous, I mean that we are Indigenous to “Malayadvipa” – Sanskrit meaning ‘insular mountain continent’ which refers to insular South East Asian continent. Our people existed throughout the peninsula before borders were drawn and therefore, we are Indigenous to the peninsula, not to any specific country.

Our experiences with national borders (which are arbitrary and temporary) are similar to the experiences of First Nations and Native peoples who live on Turtle Island (present day Canada and USA) , the Mayans in Territorios Maya (present day Guatemala, Hondura, Mexico etc) and the Hmong who live across present-day China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Indigenous peoples all over the world existed in lands before borders were drawn by colonial forces or otherwise. This does not de-legitimize that we are Indigenous – borders being drawn were not of our doing but that of governments and people in power who did not understand that our ancestors did not see the world like they did.

So many of us have been fed the ‘we are all immigrants’ rhetoric by the majority-Chinese government in Singapore. While I do understand some of the motivations behind this discourse (a big one being preserving ‘racial harmony’ to avoid the horrific and violent race riots of the 1960s), I cannot stand by and support this rhetoric any longer. Not after taking the time to do painstaking research into my own history and the history of my people. Not after crying for many days and nights in a country 8000 miles away from home over the sheer frustration of only finding out about and believing my indigeneity at 20 years old. Not after feeling robbed from learning about my own identity and our rich and diverse history. Not after feeling ashamed for so many years about my brown skin and my flat nose. Not after writing fictional stories when I was a kid, imagining I was someone else…anything else but a Malay kid. Not after all of that. I cannot stand by this rhetoric any longer.

Indigenous communities all over the world are not taught to be proud of ourselves, our histories and our people. We are taught what governments want us to think, what border-makers want us to believe, what the ‘winners of history’ want us to buy into.

So many of us have been fed the ‘we are all immigrants’ myth so I understand how many of us feel alienated from the label ‘Indigenous’. I’m just starting to reclaim my Indigenous Malay identity so I understand how it might be difficult for others because it’s been a long and ongoing process for me.

This has not been easy to write. As I sit here and write, I ruminate over whether I am sharing too much ‘personal information’ or whether I will be considered ‘traitorous’ to Singaporeans who insist on erasing our painful history for the ‘greater good’.

I am experiencing many conflicted feelings.

Does acknowledging the fact that Malays are Indigenous make me less Singaporean? Does it make me a national traitor? Does it mean I am ‘not proud to be Singaporean’? Will I now put on my baju kurung and join UMNO thus denouncing the PAP? Will I immigrate to Malaysia where Malays are ‘treated better’? Why do I give a crap about any of this anyway?!

This is the eternal/internal debate for the Indigenous person who has been told that they belong within certain national borders when their Indigeneity clearly transcends the very borders that were not drawn by them. UMNO and PAP are two sides of the same coin to me – both are responsible for creating the arbitrary border that exists between our two countries. To me, these questions are for the narrow-minded, for those who do not understand Indigenous history and for those who insist on pledging patriotism to imaginary nation-states without first understanding the meaning and repercussions of creating borders. Borders alienate, they do not unite. Borders oppress, they do not free.

I write this with the hope of reaching out to other young Malay people who are interested in finding out more about your personal history and the history of our community. It was a long and hard road for me but let me tell you, it was worth every drop of sweat and trickle of tears. I am not done and not satisfied with what I have learned. I still have many questions.  When I get tired or downtrodden, I pause to catch my breath and then, resume the search again.

My personal history is a shared history. It is the history of our community.

…Last night, I lay awake thinking about what my grandfather would say to me if he was alive today.

I wish I knew him.

Humility, Resilience and Connection: What I learned from First Nations communities in Vancouver

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 I’m a featured contributor at the Dialogues Youth Vancouver blog today. Here is an excerpt from my piece:

“I was born in this skin for a reason.” – Lynda Gray, First Nations activist and author

“O mankind! We created you from a single pair of male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other).”  – 49:13, The Quran

I’ve been asked to share my story. My story is not unlike many others – my voice is one of many, one in a chorus.

I want to start my story by situating myself. I’m currently writing on unceded Indigenous land in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. On this land, I am a visitor….

To continue reading, click here.

How the personal is political: From reflection to action

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**Warning: This post contains excessive positive language and lots and lots of love. The language is very mushy-gushy, lovey-dovey and touchy-feely. If this will trigger your cynicism or negativity, please don’t read this.

How can we, as a culture and as members of the global community, involve, educate, and inspire girls in a positive way?

I’ve been brewing over this question for a month, ever since I signed up for Gender Across Border’s ‘Blog for International Women’s Day’…and honestly, I STILL don’t know how to answer it.

But this is what I can do.

I can look back at my own journey…how I became involved, how I was educated and how I was inspired. After all, the personal is political isn’t it? So here. I offer my story.  I hope my story will join the many stories out there about personal journeys of coming to terms with being me – a woman, a brown woman, a Malay woman, a Muslim woman, a lover, a fighter, a feminist, an anti-racist, an activist.

I want to start my story by situating myself. I’m currently writing on unceded Indigenous land in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. For those of you who don’t understand what ‘unceded’ means, please take the time to Google the word and educate yourself on its implications. It is important that I position myself because on this land, I am merely a visitor. (As a Muslim, I would also say that I am merely a temporary visitor on Earth)

I’m not going to bore you with the minute details of my life. I’m just going to give you a snapshot. I’ll be naming some important actors in my life so far – people who’ve been influential, inspirational and fundamental to my development as a girl and as a woman.

I grew up watching and learning a lot from the women in my life.

The women in my family inspire me.

If I there is one thing I learned from my Mama…I would say that it was to be fierce. My mother is fierce in everything she does. She loves her daughters fiercely, she loves her husband fiercely, she loves her friends fiercely, she loves her parents and her siblings fiercely.  She is unafraid to live in contradiction and she is unafraid to say what she thinks. She is unafraid to believe the best in people and she is unafraid to feel. I learned from my mama that it is okay to cry and that it’s alright to let ‘friends’ treat you like shit as long as you become wiser, smarter and faster at recognizing the negative energy in your life.

My sisters – Kin and Rais-  inspire me to love. They inspire me to love someone other than myself. They inspire responsibility, learning how to cope in emergencies, and optimism. My sisters might look up to me but little do they know that they are my role models. When I look at them, I see strong, caring, genuine women whom I will always share my life with.

My aunts – Uda, Uteh, Tante, Andak, Ma Long – inspire what family means. Their relationship with my mother taught me what family means. You can disagree, fight, argue, tear each other’s hair out, put lizards in each other’s textbooks, lodge a Cold War but at the end of the day, family means everyone gathers when someone is in the hospital. At the end of the day, you still love each other… no matter how hard it might be to admit it.

My cousins -Adel, Ella, Alysa, Alya, Jeehah, Reisydah, Nina – inspire what sisterhood means. Sisters can be people who only share a bit of your DNA – or not at all. Sisters are people who make time for you and who you make time for… even if it means you see each other once a year or once every ten years.

My Nenek and Nek Ngah inspire meaning into the term ‘traditional Malay women’. Let me  tell you- to me, there is nothing traditional about these women. My neneks taught me to make the most of what life gives you. To raise children in the best way you know how. To know when your voice is needed and when it isn’t. My neneks taught me to be stubborn and to hold on to what you believe in.

The women teachers in my life educated me.

In elementary school, I struggled. I struggled with Math. I disliked Science. I struggled with being the only Malay kid in my ‘Stream 1’ class. I struggled with being scrawny, skinny and really, really dark-skinned. My teachers in elementary school – Mrs. Tan & Mrs. Sim – taught me to focus on my strengths (English, Art, writing, reading, my neat handwriting) and keep working on my weaknesses. I still dislike Math and my relationship with Science is limited to science fiction fandom and psychology but my teachers taught me something important. They taught me to believe in myself.

In high school, I was so fortunate to have two women teachers who really believed in me. I was only as popular as my involvements in Student Government, Choir, Newspaper and the honor roll made me. Frankly, I was an over-achieving nerd (I still am). I was awkward and unsure – trying to fit in and trying to make the most of high school without breaking any of my parent’s rules. Miss Greason and Miss Childs both taught me to never be afraid of being myself. They accepted me and weird ideas in creative writing, they encouraged my efforts in Math. They were always gentle when talking to me and always, always supportive.

In university, I met some of the best teachers I’ve had in my life. Sunera, Nora, Litsa showed me what it takes to become outstanding women of color scholars. They told me I could ‘do it’ and they’ve supported me ever since. Becki and Nikki supported me throughout my ventures in the Women’s Studies program and dispensed valuable advice whenever I needed it.

My girlfriends involve me in their work and their lives.

We’ve shared secrets together, we’ve cried together, we’ve argued together, we’ve laughed together, we’ve ate desserts together, we’ve travelled together, we’ve sinned together and we’ve talked for hours on end.

My friends in elementary school – Zat, As, Fara – they generously involved me in their lives a few years ago and taught me that I was accepted even though I came back, after 10 years of being away, with a funny accent, strange ideas and in need of a serious tan. I’m so excited to watch our renewed friendships grow.

My secondary school friends – Bella, Aisha Cat, Shaza, Ruby –  pushed me to become a leader and believed in me. They accepted my sarcasm and nerdgasms and reassured me when I needed them to. They told me I was different. In a good way.

My high school friends – Erin M., Anna K., Aysha, Sarah, Ashley, Sinikka, Chanu, Ripika, Laure, Alizaeh, Makana, Haejin, Alice, Inhee – were there for me throughout my awkward phase. They were there for me in Turkey, in the water after banana boating, in student government, in school dances, in classes, in the hallways. They involved me in healthy activities throughout high school and kept me from feeling like I was strange and nerdy (even though I really, really was and still am).

My best friend and roommate from first year in university – Sonia – is the most giving, most gentle, most warm and genuine person I know. She still makes the top of that list. I owe a lot of reassurances from panicked, late-night calls to her. Also, a lot of shared experiences from just being ‘Asian’.

The girlfriends I met from the first day of orientation – Amy, Emily, Swati – taught me that time meant nothing for friendship if it was not backed by genuine compassion and care. They have stood by me through my best and worst times at university. Through the snow, sleet, cold and rain that Vancouver has given us.

My Chinese-Singaporean girlfriends – Sulynn, Joy, Livia, Grace, Natalie, Zoe, Mel, Jiefang  – were always willing to listen to what I had to say even if it differed from their own opinions. They made me feel like my thoughts, actions and ideas were valuable. They engaged me in open and honest conversation. Their friendship is invaluable especially in a national community that insists on second-guessing my nationality (are you Malaysian??) because of the way I look.

My friends who’ve supported and nurtured my feminism – Lau, Jennifer, Erin K., Anna, Sarah-Nelle, Reggie, Ej, Kim, Anna W., Rebecca Bailin, Anoushka Ratnarajah, CJ, Tati, Irese, Nina, Homa – they involved me with their lives. They took the time to explain why what I said was ‘problematic’, they congratulated me on my achievements, they appointed me to positions and believed that I had the ‘kahunas’ for it. They share their thoughts and their ideas and listen to mine. These are women I look up to who and women I respect.

My friend and mentor, Shehneen – she showed me what it means to be an authentic person. She is unafraid of hard work, of new experiences and new things. She taught me to be patient and to listen to myself. Through her own authentic voice and beauty, she taught me that I was real and beautiful.

So how can we, as a culture and as members of the global community, involve, educate, and inspire girls in a positive way?

We can admit to ourselves that we are dependent on each other. We can accept that we do not live for ourselves. We can stop and think who made us who we are and who we are blessed with to know. We can reflect on our histories, think about our current lives and imagine what the future would like. We can hope.

Most importantly, we can keep on doing what we’re doing – raise funds, attend school, write, play, sing, dance, draw, paint, teach, love, fight, do the dishes, make love, watch TV, make dinner, pack lunches, counsel, listen, speak, cry, fight, read and learn.

As women, as mothers, as daughters, as nieces, as cousins, as granddaughters, as students, as lovers…we are already doing so damn much.

Girls are always watching, listening and learning.

Bad feminist confession: I lie to my mother about not wanting children.

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Ok, ok. So this isn’t really a bad feminist confession since I subscribe to the form of feminism where women are to respected for the choices they make. But it is bad in that I lie to my mother and it is a confession in that I actually tell lots of people I do not want to get married ever or have kids ever (mostly to irk them and their sensibilities on what a nice Malay woman should do).

Some people think that feminists are ball-busting, men-hating, children-eating witches. While I do keep a collection of testicles for busting in my underwear closet and several pickled jars of men’s heads in my kitchen (totally kidding on both counts), I actually like children. Here is a picture of me and my baby cousin, who might just be the cutest thing in the world.

I keep telling my parents not to expect grandchildren but in fact, I would like kids in the not-so-near future. I just can’t seem to justify why I would go through 9 months of limited ability, hours of labour pain and put my partner through the trauma of childbirth to bring a little person onto a very, very f**ked up planet. Until I find a convincing, non-selfish reason to do so as well as the means to finance the life of a little person, I will keep myself contented by working with kids and being around my little family members.