Muslim women here write about struggles to balance society's expectations

An e-book of essays and poems looks at their struggle to balance cultural and societal expectations

When Nurul Huda Rashid was in primary school, a classmate pointed at her arm and asked: "How come you're so dark and have hair on your hands?"

She did not answer, burning instead with shame and anger.

But when she got home that day, she grabbed her father's shaver and held it to her arm, "slowly and quietly shaving away that shame and anger" - until her mother walked in.

The next day, she went to school with just one arm shaved.

Nurul's story is one of the 31 deeply personal accounts that make up a new e-book of essays and poems by young Muslim women in Singapore.

We have shied away enough... We can start by listening to the stories that every person has about herself and seeking to understand that different lives can co-exist.

PROJECT COORDINATOR FILZAH SUMARTONO, on the decision for the book to take on thorny issues

Perempuan: Muslim Women In Singapore Speak Out is an honest and unapologetic look at these women's experiences and their struggles to balance cultural and societal expectations with their own individuality.

Written mostly in English, with a couple of entries in Malay, the 186-page book is curated by Gender Equality Is Our Culture, an Aware (Association of Women for Action and Research) project aimed at promoting the understanding that women's rights are compatible with the culture of Muslims here.

The book, which delves into issues such as gender roles, body image, sexual identity, and rites and rituals in the Muslim community, can be purchased from major e-book retailers, including Amazon, iBooks and Google Play Books for US$2.99 (S$4.15).

A limited run of 100 physical copies will be available and can be pre-ordered for $9 from the Aware website until Nov 6.

Nurul's essay, The Why And Why Not Of Being An Indian Muslim Woman, is a revealing account of stereotypes at play as she recounts the barrage of questions that she has received about her identity over the years.

Some were curious to know why she claimed to be Muslim when she was Indian - with a classmate pulling her hand up to another Indian girl's to compare their skin colour.

In university, where she wore the tudung, other questions came her way: "How come you can speak good English?" or, referring to her jeans, "Usually, women who wear the tudung don't wear such 'modern' clothes."

Nurul, now a 33-year-old lecturer - she declines to say where - tells The Sunday Times: "We somehow live in a society that seems rather comfortable with stereotypes. I don't feel compelled to 'break free' from supposed stereotypes because I aim to be who I am.

"But when it comes to the 'breaking' of stereotypes, I believe it's the task of those who bear or impose said labels - especially onto others - to recognise the problems that come with such a way of thinking. It's largely their responsibility to not subscribe to such categories, and they should learn to free themselves of it."

Her essay was among the submissions Gender Equality Is Our Culture received during an open call for stories in June.

Its project coordinator Filzah Sumartono, 26, says a recurring theme among the submissions was that of choice: These women wanted to have a say in what they wore, what they did with their bodies and whom they could be with.

"Even in modern, multicultural Singapore, being a Muslim woman still comes with myriad social pressures, expectations and harmful stereotypes - all of which ought to be critically addressed in our everyday social interactions and in our national conversation," she says.

The stories in Perempuan discuss stereotypes frankly and deal boldly with taboo topics such as discrimination and homosexuality.

Filzah says of the decision to take on thorny topics: "We have shied away enough.

"In all of society - including among Muslims - we need to better understand diverse experiences of gender, sexuality and culture. We can start by listening to the stories that every person has about herself and seeking to understand that different lives can co-exist."

Staying silent on some of these topics just because they are tough to talk about does no one favours, she adds. Not openly discussing discrimination, for one thing, helps breed harmful stereotypes.

In a cheeky piece titled A Muslim Woman's Guide To The Workplace, a woman who wants to be known only as Raudah, recounts her experiences at the office - from sitting through entire conversations conducted in Mandarin to dealing with comments such as "Eh, you wear like this very nice. You look like Halimah Yacob". Madam Halimah is the Speaker of Parliament.

Women who wear their religion on their heads share their thoughts on the tudung - and the expectations it brings too.

Nurul Fadiah Johari, 27, who started wearing the tudung at 11, has always struggled with the double standards imposed on people who don the tudung, "as though they are placed on a higher moral plane and thus expected to be perfect human beings".

"When public morality is weighed so heavily upon how one dresses, it creates a lot of pressure on the individual to conform and so I wanted to speak about such issues," says the graduate student at the National University of Singapore.

She wrote two stories for the book, as an act of catharsis and a way to make sense of her journey and struggles. Through her stories, she says, she wanted readers to understand that the road to self- acceptance is a tough one.

"I also wanted readers to know that it is perfectly human to have struggles with spirituality, self- expression and seeking autonomy, especially in a social environment which demands Muslim women to be submissive and accepting of what is expected of them," says Fadiah.

"I wanted to be raw and honest in my writing, even if it challenges dominant interpretations of the religion. I wanted my readers to know that it is all right to be angry, or even sometimes have conflicting sentiments, with certain social norms and expectations, because it means that we are actively negotiating with society."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 23, 2016, with the headline 'Muslim women here speak out'. Print Edition | Subscribe