Muslim Womanhood and Hierarchical Gender Relations in Southeast Asia

THE MORAL DISCIPLINING OF MUSLIM WOMEN
Noor Neelofa Mohd Noor is a popular actress, television host and entrepreneur from Malaysia. She is also the founder of NH Prima International Sdn Bhd, a fashion business hijab empire known for selling chic headscarves under the brand name Naelofar Hijab. Her hijab line is sold in 38 countries, including London’s upmarket Chelsea district. In 2017, Neelofa made it to the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list under the retail and e-commerce category. She was also appointed as French beauty brand, Lancome’s first hijab-wearing ambassador. Lancome Malaysia saw her career success, confidence and vivacious personality as the perfect embodiment of femininity. Indeed, her accomplishments, and image of the ‘modern’ Muslim woman, have made her an inspiring figure for many.

Nonetheless, as with any celebrity, especially in a country with a huge entertainment industry, Neelofa is not free from controversies. In February 2018, she incurred the wrath of local Muslims for launching her new headscarf collection in Zouk, a renowned nightclub in Kuala Lumpur. What had sent netizens abuzz was the choice of venue, which was seemingly at odds with the Islamic virtues that the hijab is supposed to symbolise. The sight of hijab-wearing Muslim women dancing in the club to Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You had also caused a huge furore among her female detractors. Although it was an all-women’s event and did not transgress the Islamic ruling on gender segregation in the socialisation of Muslims, it was highly criticised by the public.

Responding to media reporters, Neelofa initially commented that she was unfazed by the negative public reactions. Hosting the event elsewhere would have her paying eight times more. Moreover, Zouk’s lighting with neon effects, LED displays, and other facilities were necessary and aligned with the event’s theme. However, netizens continued to criticise Neelofa, whom they regarded as a hijab icon, on social media. One fan was so upset that she burnt six scarves and two inner scarves that she had purchased from Naelofar Hijab as a symbolic protest to the launch. Male religious authorities were quick to weigh in on the issue. Musa Awang, the President of the Malaysian Sharia Lawyers’ Association, warned that Neelofa, the organiser and the guests could be charged under the Sharia Criminal Offences for insulting Islam and bringing disrepute to a religious symbol. Muftis from the states of Perak, Negeri Sembilan, and the Federal Territories, also issued open letters to Neelofa.

While the intervention by the male authorities was expected given the high manifestation of patriarchy in Malaysia, Malay women too internalised the moral policing of females by men. Some had even urged her, who was still single, to “settle down quickly so that a man could lead her to the path of righteousness”. Fellow female artistes such as Erma Fatima advised her to heed the Muftis’ advice. A month later, Rizalman Mokhtar, a leader of political party, UMNO, was arrested during a police raid at a karaoke centre in Kuala Lumpur in the wee hours of the morning, after being allegedly tested positive for drugs. Being a married man with children, he had drawn criticisms.

FROM ‘MODERN’ HIJAB ICON TO NIQAB ‘ROLE MODEL’
In October 2020, Neelofa made the headlines again when she posted photos of herself wearing the niqab or face veil, and loose outfit, on her Instagram. She explained her new image as a form of hijrah, or journey towards becoming a better Muslim, adding that she was willing to sacrifice what she had loved, which is worldly beauty, for the sake of the hereafter. Following this decision, her Instagram posts were replete with religious-oriented messages that urged Muslims not to be obsessed with worldly pursuits and to focus on the afterlife instead. Female fans expressed admiration for her new appearance.

The practice of wearing the niqab is hardly universal in Islamic societies; it is more closely associated with the Arab states than the Muslim communities in Southeast Asia. By framing her new image as a form of hijrah, she had conflated cultural norms with religious requirements. In their research on female Muslim another better and discuss the next steps to take. Her sister, Nabila, also shared that Neelofa’s ideal qualities of a husband included the ability to give a tazkirah or short sermon every Friday evening, to lead her to Paradise, and one who keeps a beard. The latter is perceived as a trait of a pious man since it is a sunnah of the Prophet.

Videos of PU Riz delivering a sermon to her female family members at their home went viral thereafter. Netizens also expressed hope that PU Riz could advise Neelofa’s sisters, who are not wearing the hijab, to cover their aurat. It remained unclear if PU Riz was influential in Neelofa’s decision to don the niqab – he might have. Implicit in these statements are the taken-for-granted assumption of male authority and superiority over women, which entails a sense of entitlement to guide and discipline the latter. The climate in which male religious authorities dominate state policies on the family and public life legitimise hierarchical gender relations within Malay families and the community.

PU Riz shot to fame in 2016 as a contestant of the fourth season of ‘Pencetus Ummah’, a local Islamic reality programme that features young male contestants in the pursuit of finding the most competent and charismatic winner. He has since built his career as an actor and motivational speaker. Outwardly religious men such as PU Riz are not without controversies either. Shortly after the merisik ceremony, his former girlfriend of five years, Amal Syahmina, attributed the end of their relationship to a ‘third party’. Netizens rallied behind her and expressed hope that she would find someone better than PU Riz. This was not the first time that a seemingly pious man left his partner for another woman. Earlier in 2020, another preacher from the same reality programme, PU Abu Sufyan, divorced his first wife who was seven months pregnant after she refused to practise polygamy two months after his second marriage.

MAKING SENSE OF EDUCATED WOMEN’S INTERNALISATION OF PATRIARCHAL IDEOLOGIES
One may wonder how educated and ‘modern’ women like Neelofa could submit to patriarchy. It can be argued that their internalisation of patriarchal ideologies is partly attributed to transformations of authoritative forms of religious authority brought about by popular forms of Islam, at least in the Malay world of Southeast Asia. Religious-oriented television programmes and social media sites featuring more youthful religious leaders or ustaz who embody chic Islam that merges elements of piety and global consumerism has not only challenged the status quo of the older and more conservative generation, but has fed into a public fascination with charismatic and young male religious leaders. Unlike ustaz from the older generation, these younger ustaz do not necessarily don outfits that resemble those worn by Muslims in the Middle East, such as the robe and turban. Instead, they put on outfits that are more congruent with the sartorial norms of local Muslims. Additionally, they actively tap on social media platforms to proselytise Islamic messages, especially to the youth. This persona has made them figures whom society perceive as embodying traits of the ‘ideal’ Muslim man, and whom young and single Muslim women valorise and aspire to marry.

Other reasons for the conformance to patriarchy lie in male religious elites’ invocation of religious concepts to justify their moral authority, women’s uncritical acceptance of such concepts, and their longstanding preference for men to assume the role of religious authority. My research on Malay-Muslim women’s interpretation of polygamy in Malaysian and Indonesian films and drama series shows that women too can uphold patriarchy, especially when discourses on gender relations are masked under the guise of religion (Humairah, 2019). Those who accept polygamy in their lives would often conflate the terms ‘sharia’ and ‘fiqh’. Their lack of understanding of the difference between ‘sharia’, which means ‘path’, and is divine and eternal, and ‘fiqh’, which is the human understanding of the Quran, and is therefore dynamic, explains their unquestioning attitude towards the norms surrounding polygamy. Such attitudes are not unique to Malaysia. Kloos and Künkler’s (2016) study on female Islamic authority in contemporary Asia highlights that despite permissiveness for female juristic expertise in Islamic law, Muslim believers, be it men or women, still prefer male religious authority over female, and regard their legal interpretations as more authoritative. Nurhaizatul’s Singaporean Muslim female interviewees did not reject patriarchal religious leadership either (Nurhaizatul, 2016).

 GENDER EQUALITY WITHIN AN ISLAMIC FRAMEWORK
Though there are many empowering verses in the Quran about gender equality, they seldom form the source of values to frame the relationship between men and women because classical interpretations of the text, as well as discourses on gender relations, have been monopolised by men to their advantage. Hence, it is important to raise society’s awareness of egalitarian family laws and values within an Islamic framework, and bring Islamic thought into conversations with feminism. This will pave the way towards transcending ideological dichotomies such as ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ feminism. Progressive gender narratives can be promoted at various levels. The private realm of the home would be a good launchpad to advocate notions of equality within Islam since the home is where patriarchal ideologies are deeply embedded. These include upholding gender egalitarian figures such as Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and highlighting the general Islamic principle for leadership that necessary day-to-day tasks should be fulfilled in the most efficient manner by the household member best suited for the tasks rather than by gender. Although gendered division of labour has worked out for some Muslim families, it does not have explicit Quranic ordinance. So is the notion that men are natural leaders. At the community level, conversations on gender equality and women’s rights should be extended to men since gender discourses and issues affect everyone in society. One way to normalise discussions on gender is by framing the struggle for women’s rights and gender equality as part of a broader struggle for human rights rather than women’s rights per se. Studies have shown that when men are able to realise the broader structural issues at stake, they are more likely to embrace notions of social responsibility, and be willing partners with women in the fight against sexism and unfair treatment. In addition, there needs to be a greater commitment towards initiating reforms on positive gender relations in public spaces especially at the workplace. This would include fostering collegial and respectful relationships between men and women, and encouraging men to take a public stance at the workplace, such as calling out sexist behaviour and policies that discriminate against women, for the sake of women’s empowerment and gender equality. ⬛

REFERENCES:
HUMAIRAH ZAINAL. INTERSECTIONAL COSMOPOLITANISM: MUSLIM WOMEN’S ENGAGEMENT WITH POLYGAMY ON MALAYSIAN AND INDONESIAN SCREENS, CULTURE AND RELIGION. 2019, 20(2): 151-168.
KLOOS, DAVID AND KÜNKLER, MIRJAM. STUDYING FEMALE ISLAMIC AUTHORITY: FROM TOP-DOWN TO BOTTOM-UP MODES OF CERTIFICATION. ASIAN STUDIES REVIEW, 2016, 40(4): 479-490.
NURHAIZATUL JAMIL. “YOU ARE MY GARMENT”: MUSLIM WOMEN, RELIGIOUS EDUCATION AND SELF-TRANSFORMATION IN CONTEMPORARY SINGAPORE. ASIAN STUDIES REVIEW, 2016, 40(4): 545-563.
WILLIAMS, PATRICK JAMES AND KAMALUDEEN MOHAMED NASIR. MUSLIM GIRL CULTURE AND SOCIAL CONTROL IN SOUTHEAST ASIA: EXPLORING THE HIJABISTA AND HIJABSTER PHENOMENA. CRIME MEDIA CULTURE, 2017, 13(2): 1–18.

 


Dr Humairah Zainal is a Research Fellow at Singapore General Hospital. She is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA).

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