by Diana Rahim
Beyond The Hijab began four years ago as a platform for Muslim women to share their stories. I often say this when asked to describe the beginnings and the purpose of the blog, and I am always struck by its simplicity. All we wanted to do was to be a space where women can share their own stories, in their own words, and to feel safe doing so.
How can something so simple be so controversial to some? How can something so simple still be so needed? At the end of the day, it points to the uncomfortable fact that many Muslim women in Singapore are still very much spoken over, unheard, or reduced to unsatisfactory stereotypes. As an editor of the site the past few years, it has become increasingly clear to me how there is a lack of acceptance and willingness to even confront the more “unsavoury” realities that people go through.
The public is more than happy when we speak about our happiness and our successes. State papers celebrate the model minority with perhaps the same intensity they regurgitate culturally essentialist reports on our rates of diabetes. They may even tolerate stories of grief, difficulty, and overcoming adversity if it lies within the comfortable limits of the apolitical and personal. But when we speak of our deepest griefs and difficulties that we have yet to resolve, or may never resolve; the ways in which our own community can be cruel or fail us; the ways in which our elites can be condescending to experiences they don’t understand (e.g. poverty); the lack of institutional support (be it state or religious bodies) when faced with issues like domestic violence—these are things that can unearth hostile reactions from certain readers.
Because Beyond The Hijab functions as a safe space where writers are even allowed to write under a pseudonym for interest of safety, we often receive stories that do not enter mainstream conversation. Whether it’s mental health, sexuality, domestic violence, or education—to name a few of the topics we’ve covered—women submit stories that are often uncomfortable and at times elicit antagonist reactions from certain groups of people.
I can understand the hostility and defensiveness up to a point. In the Muslim community, there is often the concept of adab and to tutup aib. Good manners is not to air the dirty laundry. That’s how it goes.
I also understand that this anxiety over maintaining our good image is especially felt for minority communities which are already burdened with negative stereotypes. I understand that there can be a certain anxiety in not wanting to shame the community or to further confirm the negative, even racist assumptions people may have for our community.
Those who hold this anxiety may even function from a position of love for the community. But is it truly an act of love to demand that those who suffer, who go through abuse, who struggle with issues that are not brought to the public eye, to continue to suffer in silence, ignored, just for the sake of our image? Are we truly willing to throw the suffering and the marginalized under the bus because we value the approval of others to such an unhealthy degree?
Another refrain I often hear is: “you are so one-sided, what about the other side of the story?” This refrain often appears when those in a position of power do not come off in a flattering light. Whether it is stories of domestic violence, of how conservative family members enact body shaming to the point of abuse, of how spiritual abuse resulted in anxiety attacks and mental health problems, the testimony of the woman who shared her story is sometimes met with this skepticism. What about the other side of the story?
Of course the truth is a good thing to know, but what lies within this refrain is the quick instinct to disbelieve, a kind of defensiveness. This is not to say that skepticism is unhealthy. In fact, I do think it’s a necessary element of the serious intellectual. But is this instinct to be skeptical of what is read, the instinct to ask “what about the other side of the story?” present whenever the person consumes the narratives they are presented with every day in mainstream conversation and media? When certain groups of people are vilified, or when they are taught a certain narrative about a historical event, or a social phenomenon, do they also ask the same question?
Additionally what lies behind this demand for us to not be “one-sided” is the assumption that dominant opinion and narratives are somehow neutral and do not advocate for a specific position or maintain a certain status quo. It assumes that the field is equal and that all narratives have the ability to enter the field of conversation.
This is truly not the case. If this were the case, then many of the stories shared in Beyond The Hijab would have appeared a long time ago, and the conversations surrounding the difficult topics within the community would have already begun. Many of the women who share their stories on Beyond The Hijab do so because there were little other spaces available for them to safely share their story without judgement. For many of them, sharing their story on Beyond The Hijab was also the first time they shared their story.
The fact is that “the other side” of the story is often on the side of power, on the side of the status quo, of institutions, and with little difficulty in making itself heard. It sees itself represented in mainstream media, in daily conversation, and has little difficulty expressing its views. Despite being on the side of power, of representation, and the already heard, why exactly do some people feel so offended hearing some of the stories shared in Beyond The Hijab? Why are those on the side of power often also rather fragile?
I don’t think a community can truly progress if it is unwilling to interrogate what makes it uncomfortable. At this point, it feels like we are still trying to chip away at even trying to start the conversation, to bring willing listeners to the table.
The hostility, the common refrain, the request to hide the “shameful” aspects of one’s experiences—these are all ways of silencing what ultimately cannot be fully suppressed and silenced. I don’t want to reduce the stories in Beyond The Hijab to simply those of the taboo, of suffering, and marginalization. Because even within these stories lie immense love, wisdom, and a treasure trove of tried and tested advice.
In struggle, people often find innovative ways of coping and living that break against established forms of affection and care. For those who have no family, they learn that collective forms of care can be even more fulfilling. For children that grow up in domestic violence households, they learn (though not through any happy willingness) how to recognise manipulative language and tactics. Through sharing their stories of struggle, they also often shore up the areas in our community and institutions that need urgent work and improvement. They often also recognise the solutions because they have been victims of its failures.
I learn so much the past few years by simply reading these stories, by actively listening. It is quite easily the most rewarding aspect of being able to be the editor of Beyond The Hijab. If everyone could open their hearts to truly listen, so much can be improved.
Stories are never just stories. They are the bed upon which the prevailing ideology, the status quo, rests. They craft a narrative, and therefore help to substantiate certain beliefs. Stories are powerful things because within each story lies a kind of meaning.
I said in the beginning that I am often struck by the simplicity of Beyond The Hijab’s purpose — that it is a platform to share the stories of Muslim women. In our context in Singapore, it is an aim that is both simple and profound, because sometimes the most powerful thing you can do, in a society that is intent on ignoring your voice and invalidating your pain, is to share your story. They may close their ears, look away, invalidate you, but in the process of sharing your story, you affirm another person. You make them feel a little less lonely, a little more represented and heard, and the world a little more bearable.
This piece was first published in the NUS Malay Studies Society Annual Publication, Coretan: Kita Edition.
Illustration by Lee Wan Xiang