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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 3 Nov 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Let There Be No Compulsion in Religion



By Azrul Mohd Khalib

October 25, 2012

An Indonesian friend once remarked how interesting it was that each time she visited Malaysia there seemed to be more women wearing some version of the tudung, hijab or jilbab as she calls it.

Coming from the country with the largest Muslim population in the world (an estimated 205 million of the Indonesian populations are Muslims), she said that in Indonesia though there were more Muslims covering their heads, in Malaysia it seemed as if every third woman was wearing a headscarf. I laughed and said, “Obviously you haven’t seen Bangsar or been to Bukit Bintang very often.”

Later while I was sipping my teh tarik in Bangsar, I looked around and somehow made the same observation my friend did.

Is it possible that the increasing wearing of the hijab is symbolic of the increasingly narrowing and limiting of dialogue space with regards to Muslims and their faith? We are told time and again how only the qualified can speak of religion and that the rest of the flock must heed the guidance of the shepherds. That we cannot question. That we cannot discuss. And that we cannot have an opinion when it comes to matters of religion for fear that we will lose our way down the wandering path.

But I fear instead that due to the imposition of restrictions by religious authorities, the overbearing need for control and our unquestioning and blind faith in others, we are already lost.

In many Muslim countries, the reality is that when people want to demonstrate their piety and faith, their eyes inevitably fall on the women. Restrictions are introduced. The distance between ankles and hemlines are measured. Jobs and education are curtailed and denied. Homes become prisons. It is a daily struggle for many of these women belonging to a religion which is supposed to be liberating and embodies concepts of contemporary women’s rights but shackled by the patriarchal bondage of culture and traditions.

Which is why I worry that there is an increasing trend of religious compulsion which is slowly and surely making its way through our society. A trend that is being confused with being Muslim. Making things compulsory and mandatory seem to be the modus operandi for making people look a certain way and act a certain way. The wearing of the tudung is a manifestation or symptomatic of that trend.

These days, it is not uncommon to hear how all Muslim students are required to wear the tudung by the school authorities. It used to be only during the Ramadan month that it was compulsory but nowadays, many schools make it a requirement for all Muslim girls to wear the tudung, whether they want to or not.

Some of us would ask, what’s wrong with that? Others, including myself, would say that the choice should be theirs and not on instructions by the principal or ustazah. We have even seen children barely old enough to walk wearing the tudung. Who made that decision for them?  Compulsion to wear the tudung also exists in those working in the civil service where they are frowned upon or even marginalised for not doing so.

Wearing the tudung should be a personal choice made from free will. One that is made between a person and God. Not be forced to by others.

Religion should not be about compulsion. It says so in the Quran.

Increasingly there is very little or no space at all for women who choose not to wear the tudung to voice out their concerns, issues and experiences. We observe that in France, women who choose to wear the hijab are denied the freedom to do so. In Malaysia, the reverse is happening. It is becoming increasingly harder for those who choose not to wear the headscarf. There are many who feel that such a minority should not be allowed any space to express their thoughts and opinions on this matter as they are thought to be un-Islamic and wayward. Who can speak for those who do not want to conform but are afraid to do so?

The reality is that not all women who wear the tudung actually want to do so. There is compulsion where there should not be.

Do we ever wonder why Indonesia has a more vibrant, inclusive and dynamic form of Islam? It is because they generally allow for dialogue and discourse over the many perspectives and issues affecting the Muslim ummah. Granted, there are also extremist elements there which have been responsible for, among others, the persecution of religious minorities and terrorist activities. But in Malaysia, what has happened is that we fear dialogue on anything that is related to religion.

What is emphasised instead is conformity through intimidation and doctrine by those who find it easier to do so then answer questions and engage in dialogue. For too long, we have conveniently hidden behind statements such as “not qualified to discuss issues.”

We are comforted by the belief that those who are in authority (i.e. scholars, ulamas, muftis and other religious persons) in their wisdom must know enough to decide and guide us. In other words, we have outsourced understanding of our personal faith to others. Easier that way, isn’t it?

Islam is one of the richest religions in history. Why? Not because of the dogma and the rituals embodied within but because it emphasises the need for us to learn. Learn from other religions, cultures and ourselves.

Rather than chastising ourselves for asking questions in the first place (due to our conditioning, most people feel intimidated, guilty and unwelcomed about asking anything which shows uncertainty and doubt), we need to create space to ask questions we were afraid of asking, to express doubt, to speak of a more enlightened and progressive Islam.

Far from weakening one’s faith, these opportunities will strengthen our understanding of our faith and enable us to be better Muslims.

Let’s not deny ourselves that opportunity through compulsion and conformity.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

Azrul Mohd Khalib works on HIV/AIDS, sex and human rights issues. He is becoming cynical and is in danger of losing his sense of humour and mind. He also runs and is battling an addiction to the "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series.