I’m not sure from whom I heard it. Or perhaps it’s an amalgamation of different sayings and lessons throughout my growing years. The idea was that if you’re a good and pious Muslim girl, God will provide for you, even reserve the best future for you. Specifically, if you remain chaste, feminine and a God-fearing young woman, you will undoubtedly get the man of your dreams who will also be equally chaste, God-fearing and righteous to lead you. Your marriage will be filled with lots of love and a couple of kids down the road. Your life will be the image of perfection. In a way, you will be safe – you will have done everything that you were intended to do. You were put here on Earth to love, propagate and lead a pious life of worshipping God.
You’re not a problem.
This is in stark contrast to the only other alternative, usually shown in television dramas. The scheming, vindictive and non-religious woman who sleeps around or cheats on her boyfriend will undoubtedly lose out in the end. She will usually get into an accident due to karma (unless she repents in time). She is instantly recognisable due to her hyperfeminized features: beautifully exposed hair, layers of makeup and fashionable clothes. She always wants things to be done her way and the man to be at her beck and call. However, no matter how much she threatens or has major meltdowns, the villain will never find true love because she doesn’t deserve a man, let alone a prince charming.
She is a problem.
Growing up, I did my best to stay in line. Besides doing well in school, I didn’t indulge in the vices of stereotypical “bad girls” like smoking or drinking. I was a bit of a tomboy but as long as I didn’t cross some imaginary, arbitrary line of what is deemed too masculine for a girl, I was still within the safe zone. Sure, I had a few crushes and a couple of casual relationships while growing up but they never amounted to anything serious. It wasn’t until I was almost at the brink of adulthood, did I enter my first serious relationship. I had known him for years as a friend so it seemed a safe enough option. Back then, it did seem like I had struck the lottery. A tall Muslim boy who was filial, generous and kind. He wasn’t overly religious but considering that I was just as inconsistent with my own daily prayers, I was in no position to judge.
A deluge of information that came after our honeymoon period completely and irrevocably shattered me. The first big blow came during one of our long nightly talks. I learnt that he was not a virgin. Looking back now it seems utterly ridiculous, but that knowledge devastated me. What did he mean we won’t be each other’s first if we married? What did he mean his mum and other siblings weren’t practicing Muslims? What did that make him? What did he mean he was conceived outside marriage or held the dreaded status of ‘anak luar nikah’? What will that mean for our future? How could he have such sacrilegious desires for me?
Cue the dramatic music. Someone had flicked the villain switch in me.
Initially, it felt like the devil had pulled the wool over my eyes. My cotton candy fairytale dissolved in bitter tears. I transformed into one of those female villains in Malay dramas. I was demanding him to somehow change and bend him into doing things my way. I wanted him to change for me. The problem was, I wasn’t a villain. I was playing the role of the good girl. But I was outraged and in my mind, rightfully so. I had an excuse for my piss poor behaviour. After all, I had spent all my life staying true and being good. Where were my rewards? How dare he trick me into a relationship, knowing full well that he was no prince charming? How dare he try to taint my purity?!
If I was an outsider looking in, I would be internally screaming for the guy to leave my judgmental and immature ass. Why deal with a crazy girlfriend who demands you attend religious lessons so you can ‘be a better Muslim’? Why stay with someone who was so hurtful when you were at your most vulnerable after confessing your inner most secrets? What a toxic, selfish person who clearly didn’t understand back then that there should be no compulsion in religion. Luckily for me, he didn’t leave me. Even on the most infuriating days, he stayed by my side with more patience than I could ask for or deserved. He allowed me to voice my concerns and criticisms and tried to explain the many other sides of our arguments. This is not to say that he was perfect. He had his many flaws because he was so very much human. We all are.
Even as I write this, I still cringe and want to delete everything. But I won’t.
I consider myself as an advocate for women. As a writer and occasional theatre practitioner, I want to make sure that marginalised female voices are heard. I want to keep writing about the misogynistic and patriarchal ways in which we continue to oppress girls and women. But I can also no longer ignore the fact that I was once on the other side of the fence. To keep writing about the victims in our society, we must also acknowledge that there are bullies and though this may be a bitter pill to swallow, if we grew up in such a society, chances are, we were once bullies too. We can be complicit in the oppression of others, even without realising it. It might have been unintentional but we might have hurt others in our effort to conform and uphold what we believed were the right values.
There are so many types of relationships out there that are wonderful in their own ways. We really need to do away with this notion of a heteronormative fairytale relationship where we set nearly impossible patriarchal standards for both guys and girls to achieve. Why do we keep punishing ourselves? We must stop labelling, period. The moment we label ourselves as the ‘good guys’ in our narratives, we are also implicitly labelling others who are different from us as the deviants and villains. Why do we not promote mutual love, respect and understanding as the ideal instead? We also need to stop shaming and hurting those who do not conform. There is nothing wrong with anyone who isn’t a virgin, is gay or chooses to remain single. There is absolutely nothing wrong with couples without children just as there is nothing wrong with couples who have them. It’s fine if you didn’t marry young, really. Finally, it is not true that there is only one path in life or that all paths end up in a blissful marriage.
It’s been years and the memories still haunt me on quiet nights. And there are many, many quiet nights. This is another thing that rarely gets talked about. We don’t really discuss the tempest of emotions left in the aftermath. Upon realizing how harmful it is to subscribe to problematic beliefs such as placing the value of a woman’s worth on her virginity, how do you deal with the anger, pain, disappointment and guilt directed at yourself? How do you heal from these self-inflicted wounds? I can spend the rest of my life fighting so other girls won’t have to go through this but I’m afraid I will always have, in the darkest recesses of my mind, voices whispering the old judgmental shit I was raised with. It will be take a constant conscious effort on my part to work against the old beliefs. Occasionally, I may fail, and that’s okay as long as I don’t give up.
I hope that when you read this, you will keep an open mind and have the same patience and kindness afforded to me back then. I hope you will continue to face and overcome adversity and rigid, unhealthy traditions with lots of love. But let’s start by acknowledging the beginning.
I was a problem.
With a BA (Upper Hons.) in English and a minor in Creative Writing from NTU, Ham spends her time coming up with stories in between gaming sessions. Her FYP focused on exploring the connection between the physical body and family relations through the lens of horror.
Illustration by Wan Xiang Lee.