THE OTHER MALAYSIA

Fighting to preserve diversity

Ms Ann Osman boxes and wrestles; Ms Elina Noor pole-dances and practises the sensual kizomba and bachata dances. They would be unusual enough among Malaysian women, but even more so as both are conscientious Muslims in an increasingly conservative Malaysia. Their story, the third instalment of a nine-part series on Malaysia, reveals a side to the country many of us have never seen.

Darting lightly on her feet as she threw swift, hard punches, Ms Ann Osman suddenly lunged to toss her opponent to the floor. It was all over in a minute.

Graceful yet powerful, she grinned as her opponent picked herself off the mat. The two women were in training at a martial arts gym in a suburb of Kota Kinabalu, capital of Malaysia's Sabah state, where Ms Ann also works as a trainer.

The photogenic Ms Ann, 29, is a prominent face in Malaysia's mixed martial arts fight scene, not just because she is a professional female fighter but also because she is Muslim in an increasingly conservative country.

Muslim women are often under heavy social pressure to adopt a more conservative lifestyle. But to some like Ms Ann, being a conscientious Muslim does not preclude her from embracing life in all its fullness. She said when she started out three years ago, there were only two other girls in Malaysia in the sport. Today, there are more but still fewer than 10 active in the mixed martial arts scene. As far as she knows, she's the only female Muslim professional fighter in Asia.

Mixed martial arts, or MMA, is a tough sport that demands participants demonstrate skills in at least two types of martial arts, both standing and ground fighting techniques. It requires strength and agility. Bruises and sprains are all part of the sport.

But Ms Ann, whose specialities are boxing and wrestling, sees nothing unfeminine in this, nor un-Islamic. She said it was about developing physical fitness, self-defence skills and confidence, and did not preclude her from observing her religious beliefs such as the Ramadan fast.

During Ramadan, her daily training sessions begin close to the end of the day, with time given for breaking fast before continuing. "I know I have certain responsibilities, and I try to fulfil them," she said. She added that she was lucky to be living in Sabah, where she grew up, because race relations in this state are less fraught than in peninsular Malaysia. People also tend to be more laidback and less conservative.

Ms Ann said her experience has generally been an encouraging one, barring the occasional criticism. "You can't please everyone, but it doesn't affect me," said Ms Ann, who also runs her own tour agency specialising in outdoor activities.

Ms Ann, of mixed Dusun-Malay heritage, said her family was initially wary, more because she is a woman than because she is Muslim. They were afraid she would suffer injuries. Fighters, she said, are trained to protect themselves. Her family became comfortable after they saw her returning safe after each training or competition, and "now, they are my No. 1 fan".

For her, MMA is purely about becoming fitter, and it means following her passion and giving it her all. She loves the sport because her training covers different ground every day, and is challenging. "I did an amateur competition, and then I wanted to do something bigger. I dreamt of making my professional debut," she said. And she did so last October, becoming Malaysia's first woman professional fighter. 

In Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, Ms Elina Noor, a policy analyst with a prestigious think-tank, holds the same philosophy in a wholly different arena.

Oxford-educated Ms Elina, 36, is best known for her work in analysing security threats and international relations, but also captures attention for her unconventional athletic hobbies that range from wushu to pole-dancing to the sensual bachata and kizomba dances, which are akin to the tango. All of these, especially pole-dancing and the dances which have their roots in the Cuban and African tradition, can raise eyebrows. And they have.

"I've always been drawn to these non-traditional activities, for Muslim girls at least. Perhaps it's to balance the intellectual work that I do," she said. "Before this, it was boxing and kick-boxing." And before that, it was roller blading and ice hockey at university.

She acknowledged that some of these are not seen to be in line with Islamic teachings. Yet, she noted Malays have a natural sense of grace, and take to dancing naturally. It was only over the years that a sense of self-restriction and self-policing crept in.

Her father was a little wary too, especially when it came to yoga which some regard as an extension of the practice of Hinduism. But after her assurances, her family eventually came to see it as a form of exercise, even if they do not embrace it wholeheartedly.

"I try to be as good a Muslim as I can but it doesn't mean that I have to put my religion out there," she said.

When she does yoga, there is no element of meditation but she includes a remembrance of God during the breathing exercises, and also recites the zikir, which is sometimes described as an Islamic form of the Catholic rosary.

"We can be creative so we don't go against what we believe in," she said. "Islam is all about intention. My intention is to explore the physical limits of the body. Knowing how the body works does lead you to appreciate God's work."

Further, Ms Elina, who used to teach pole-dancing, said they do not allow men into the studio during classes. To her, it was the intention that mattered.

While these activities do require close-fitting and sometimes skimpy outfits, these had a purpose. Pole-dancers, for instance, needed to have skin contact with the pole for a better grip, especially for moves that see them hanging upside down.

She acknowledges that she does struggle with the more sensual elements in the kizomba and bachata dances, but held firm to her belief that her intention was good. It was purely to dance, and it's done in an open environment.

In an ideal world, Ms Elina and Ms Ann might be seen as inspirations for women to pursue their dreams but Malaysia is at a crossroads as far as race relations and Islam go.

Ms Elina noted that it is a natural part of democracy for more discordant voices to spring up, and, while that is good, it also carried risks. This is especially so if the more conservative voices get more airplay and, perhaps, more traction.

"There is a real concern that Malaysia will go down the conservative path, and we will lose the real essence of being Malaysian," she said. "We preach diversity but I'm concerned about the direction."

carolyn.sy@gmail.com

NEXT WEEK: THE FAITHFUL TAKE ON SARAWAK’S HIGHEST MOUNTAIN