By Nurul Huda
When I was a girl of age 7, understanding only a fraction of what it meant to be a woman, I attended primary school, dizzy with the possibility of learning and socializing, eager to meet other girls I could call friend. But, I was rather quiet and shy back then, and so, I did more of the learning to compensate for the lack of socializing. Cliques were formed, memos about how to act, to talk, to be were shared and I found myself missing out on a lot of them. We were lined up according to our heights in school and as I was one the shorter girls, I found myself at the front of the line, every time. The cool kids were at the back. I could never turn around to look at them, and they never saw me. Until one day, one girl did. She pointed at my arm and asked, how come you’re so dark and have hair on your hands? The other Malay girls don’t have so much hair? I didn’t answer. Just felt the red of shame and anger. Why was I so dark and why did I have hair on my arms? I went home and quietly stole my father’s shaver from the high shelves in the toilet and started shaving. Slowly and quietly shaving that shame and anger from my arm, until my mother walked into my room and yelled at me. I went to school the next day, with only one arm shaved.
When I was a teenager of age 15, now more aware of my body, the gaze, the expectations, I strategically planned to amp up my outgoing persona in the hopes that nobody would notice or focus on my physical being. I joined the band, became Head Librarian, and even got elected to be part of the Student Council. All these I thought were achievements, when on hindsight now realize that these were actually considered to be dorky activities. Nevertheless, I had made some friends and even though it was tough being a teenager, I felt more confident of myself and actively participated in school. It happened after one of those Civics and Moral Education classes, which we used to have back then, where we were taught about the different religions and races in Singapore and how everyone and everything was nicely classified into four categories: the Chinese were Taoist; the Malays were Muslims; the Indians, Hindus; and the Others, possibly Christians. After the class, as we were headed down for recess, a friend asked, if you are Indian it means that you’re Hindu right? How come you say you’re Muslim? Then you must be Malay, right? A simple ‘no’ wasn’t enough. I was subjected to question after question about my beliefs, my name, and my skin color. A classmate pulled my hand up right next to the hand of another Indian girl and compared us. They were convinced I was Indian, and didn’t believe that I was Muslim. I kept protesting, again and again, until I too, stopped.
When I was a woman of age 22, I started my Honors year and was in university, thrilled at my decision to major in Anthropology/Sociology, fascinated by the ways in which it had torn down all those norms I had constantly found myself thrown into battles with, especially when it came to issues of ‘race’, Religion, and Gender. I was Chief Editor of the campus paper and was constantly meeting different groups of people as part of Uni life! And as it was the first time I no longer had to use a school uniform, I was able to visibly wear my religion. Donning a tudong or what is now socially known as hijab became proof that even though I was ethnically Indian, I was still Muslim and Singaporean. I didn’t have to explain as much, and it was also possible that people just assumed that I was Malay. Either way, I felt safer. However, something else erupted. How come you can speak good English? Usually women who wear the tudong don’t wear such ‘modern’ clothes (jeans) like do you. You’re very modern! Oh, you’re the Chief Editor? That’s an accomplishment. The Chief Editors are never Malays. (The previous Chief Editor was also Malay). If you’re Indian, how come your skin not black? Wah, you go to University? Are you Malaysian? No? Singaporean Malay can go University? Wah! Angry Brown Tudong Girl. That was me in university. It was then that I adopted sarcasm, a useful tool that incorporated my love for the language and facial expressions like the side smile. It was a constant tango of questions and retaliation until I became tired of retaliating. But the questions didn’t.
When I was a woman of age 25, I was placed on the shelves of marriage, an object with an expiry date pre-determined by my Indian-Muslim community. At that same time, I was in the midst of pursuing my Masters degree, a decision that many in my community felt was a fatal one. Why study so much? Later no guy would want to marry you. This is why you’re single, no man wants a woman more educated than him! Why did your mother let you study so much? Later hard to find a guy. The burden of overachievement, especially in a woman. I found their remarks and questions condescending, both to me and the supposedly unambitious and insecure Muslim men in our community. But I thought that at least the questions had evolved from previous shallower ones. I thought too soon. You’re a bit dark, so must wear lighter make-up to brighten your skin tone. Why don’t you use make-up? You’re fat and dark, how to attract a guy like this? My body was an object on the shelves, with an expiry date of possibly 3 years to go, but, there were many faults and defects, and the possible buyers weren’t happy about it.
Now I am a woman of age 32 and am an educator in the most part of my profession. And in these situations, there are no questions. Nobody questions me about my identity, religion, marriageability, skin color/tone, why I could speak English eloquently, or my education. This is possibly because I am the one in a position of power, teaching or facilitating classes with a ‘presumed authority’ that does the questioning, not the other way around. In fact, I often find myself questioning those who question others, using it as perfect teaching points in the classroom. In some respect, the classroom became my brave space. Beyond it however, it was still a battleground as I was now bombarded with a whole slew of new questions, questions I had never gotten before. Are you a Singaporean? You look like a foreigner. Are you Arab? Is it hot under the hijab? Why isn’t your hijab black? Why are you so modern? Why are you so conservative? Are you Muslim-muslim? There are times when I would offer a response, a teaching moment possibly triggered by my role as educator, but at other times, it was a short ‘yes’ or ‘no’ followed by a physical removal of myself from said location, especially if the question was more of an angry demand. And then, there are times when there were no questions. This could mean either of two things: that we have begun to be more accepting of difference and diversity or that there’s already have an assumed answer, whether real or misinformed. I have hope that it is the former. There are times however when I do wish I was questioned so that I could explain and inform, if needed, for now I had the words and courage to respond without letting it affect me. For now, I am braver. One thing I constantly learn throughout my years of being questioned is that, the questions are a greater reflection of the person, community, or society asking it, than it was a reflection of my being. And in that respect, I too shouldn’t question myself.
Read the other posts here: Questions blog series
This is absolutely true. I went through the very same questions throughout my school life. It is indeed a reflection of our society. How very ill informed they are. Fortunately for me I was very vocal and assertive since young and always always correct others. I actually felt like it was my duty to educate those around me bcos clearly no one was doing that job. It was frustrating yes. I wondered how come so many are so stupid. Even when I lived abroad so many people were shocked that I spoke English fluently bcos girl, if you be in hijab, there ain’t no freaking way you could speak like that. You be all stupid and baking bread for them men that’s what you should be.
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Thanks for your comment! It’s great that you have asserted your identity 🙂 Unfortunately Singapore society as it stands to be is rather ignorant of the Indian Muslim community. While it shouldn’t be your duty to educate others, it’s great that you have helped increase awareness of the community to the people around you 🙂
I’m a Chinese guy. I realize being in the majority can make me less aware of, if not insensitive to, the situations that others find themselves in.
One thing that struck me about the race questions your peers subjected you to was how you didn’t appear to have gotten advice / assurance from your parents or elders. Perhaps you did but declined to mention specific instances of this.
I think, living in a multiracial and multicultural country like Singapore, parents have a role as educators to their children about navigating interactions with people who are different. And I think this applies to everyone whether they are in the majority or minority. Your peers, for example, could certainly have been taught to be less intrusive in the way they approached someone different from them.
In any case, thanks for this thought-provoking piece. It’s great to read something every now and then that makes us think about our unconscious biases and attitudes towards others.
Thank you for your comment. It is the author’s prerogative to include what she wants or does not want to include in this post.
One Indian to another I feel you. I hated school, the Chinese kids with their “oh so clever racial taunts”, mashing a few Tamil words together and saying it over and over completely mispronouncing the words. Making fun of my hairy arms and legs, pinching their noses, wagging their heads. Happens in adulthood as well. Now I always get ” Are you a PR? You from India?” These people never took History I believe or just dreamt through class.
For all the social studies classes, racial harmony day and boasting about SG’s so called tolerant society many here are ignorant about the difference between race and religion. An Indian can be Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist or atheist. Just like how there are Chinese Muslims. And to this day many think Indians only celebrate Deepavali and Vesak Day. Hindus celebrate Deepavali, Buddhists celebrate Vesak Day.
I think there never will be true racial harmony in Singapore. I’ve never felt Singaporean my whole life here even though I’m born and raised here as I’m viewed as Indian first or keleng rather as affectionately called by my fellow Sinkies.