My Life is Not Mine – Intruding on young women’s personal lives

By Zarifah Anuar

I’m not too fond of Hari Raya. I guess quite a lot of good things come out from it – great food, an excuse to bring out all my gorgeous baju kurungs, money from distant relatives who think I’m still schooling – but there are also so many things to dread, like the questions I get asked.

One of the questions I get asked is regarding the hijab, which is worn for a variety of (very personal) reasons. My grandmothers wonder aloud when I will grow up and put it on. Distant relatives compare me to their pious daughters. Many scrunch their noses at my dyed hair. My nine-year-old cousin asks me when I will wear the hijab, because I am “less beautiful in the eyes of God” without it.

My relationship status also comes under scrutiny. Ever since I hit my late teens I have been bombarded with questions about my dating life and if I have met someone. When the answer was no, prayers were offered so that I would be able to find my soulmate. My paternal grandmother has, in the past three Rayas, clasped my hands in hers and told me, with teary eyes, that she would like to see me married before she dies. My aunt and my parents plan my wedding without me, and suggestions about how my wedding should go are tossed around in front of me.

Our community seems to put quite a large personal investment into our young women and their personal lives. So many choices that should be considered to be deeply personal are perceived by our families to be anything but.

In our community, women are not seen as independent people with their own unique goals and aspirations beyond family, God and marriage. There is an increasing emphasis on how feminine icons of piety such as the hijab and marriage should be something that all Malay-Muslim women should aim towards. However, Malay-Muslim women are not a homogenous demographic, but one that consists of vastly different individuals.

I want many things for myself. A career that draws on my strengths and passions, holidays spent exploring the world, sustaining close and fulfilling relationships with dear friends, and a place I can call my own. None of these seem to tick the boxes of family, God or marriage in my family’s eyes.

Our community seems to have a mistaken sense of responsibility towards young Malay-Muslim women. It is thought that if an elder does not tegur, or advise, a young women perceived to be rebellious, she may go astray, and it will be partly the elder’s fault. This ends up manifesting in the form of intrusive questions and the bombardment of expectations upon young Malay-Muslim women that sometimes are directly against their own goals. This intrusivity and sense of entitlement in young women’s lives is dangerous, for it continues the patriarchal belief that women do not own their bodies and lives.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, the perception that women do not own their bodies and lives, that it all ultimately belongs to God – is patriarchal in nature and has absolutely no basis in the Prophet’s teachings or the Quran itself. This is undoubtedly a result of the lack of respect patriarchy has of women’s bodies, and is a mindset that we need to unlearn.

Fortunately, this is easy to do. All it takes is to understand that young women are people with very unique goals and ambitions of their own. Sometimes it may include a strong sense of filial piety or a desire to find a life partner, other times it may include a strong desire to be closer to God. Ultimately, it is her own personal choice, and above everything else, it is something we should learn to respect.

Read the other posts here: Questions blog series