Editor’s Letter: South Asian Muslims

by ‘Afifah Shameemah


“They call us crows; black, ugly, noisy. ‘The crows have descended’, they’ll joke among themselves.” – M. A.

A friend, M, reached out to me to share her experiences as an Indian Muslim woman in Singapore through an insightful yet disheartening email. Much like her, many other South Asian Muslims have taken to Social Media to share their personal experiences with racism in the Muslim community.

My own earliest recollection of a racist encounter was as a 10-year-old. I had to wear slippers to school with my baju kurung uniform because I had a toenail injury. A teacher called me out when she saw me and said something along the lines of “Jangan pakai selipar macam gini. Nampak macam anak keling.” (Don’t wear slippers like these. It makes you look like an Indian child). I didn’t know what to tell her. I am Indian, and proudly so, but at the time, I thought that I shouldn’t tell her because she sounded so condescending, like being Indian was a bad thing, and I didn’t want to be treated as less than.

My ancestors are Indian and they married into Malay families when they settled down in Singapore. I am more in tune with my Malay roots than my South Asian ones, with my mother tongue being Malay, my social circle being consisted of primarily Malays, wearing traditional Malay clothing, partaking in Malay cultural practices and etc. For this reason, I am privileged in a sense where I can pass off as Malay and fit into the Malay community, the race that makes up majority of the Muslim population in Singapore. But from time to time, I get racist remarks from the people around me about my dark(er) skin, my ‘angry’ and ‘unapproachable’ demeanour, loud voice and my temper – traits people associate with being Indian. I believe that this is a shared experience many other Indians feel because we no longer fit into the CMIO model so easily.

I was incredibly honoured to be invited as a guest editor for this edition, but I was honestly contemplating whether I should take up the offer. Some people think that I am not ‘Indian enough’ or that I’m not a ‘real Indian’ because of how disconnected I am from my Indian heritage, which means that I don’t have the right to speak about the complexities of being a South Asian Muslim in this country. But what pushed me to do this is my privilege. I am privileged enough to be accepted by the Malay community as a Malay while at the same time being tethered enough to see and understand the marginalisation South Asians face, even if my personal experiences haven’t been ‘extreme’.

The objective here is simple: To provide a platform where we can amplify the voices, experiences and concerns of South Asian Muslims, the minority within the minority, if you will. Hopefully this experience can be liberating and cathartic for our fellow South Asian Muslims. Beyond that, hopefully, after listening and reading, we can work towards positive changes by reflecting on our personal prejudice, internalised racism and even systemic injustices that oppress our own Muslims.

This series is dedicated to South Asian Muslims, people of Afghan, Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, Indian, Maldivian, Nepalese, Pakistani or Sri Lankan origins and/or decent. It was imperative that we used the term ‘South Asian’ instead of just ‘Indian’ because one of the most common forms of microaggression is the racial grouping of all brown people as Indian, when in actuality, the variety of ethnic groups in South Asia goes beyond that. When any individual insists that all brown people are the same (read: semua pun sama: India), they are invalidating and disrespecting the origins, heritage and ancestry of South Asians, the differences that distinguish their cultures and their diversity, even if there are some similarities.

This microaggression is not only seen in day to day experiences, but in media as well. It is important to acknowledge the existence of this casual racism in mainstream media because media has a big role in influencing the masses, especially those who are not exposed to the racial diversity of South Asians. Let’s look at Disney’s rendition on Aladdin.

While they took steps to be more mindful of racial complexities in the 2019 version as compared to the 1992 animated film, there were still many instances where they mixed Middle Eastern culture and South Asian culture. Granted that these two cultures may have influenced each other to a certain extent due to some of our shared history, there are still very stark differences between the two that should not be cherry picked at the convenience of white producers for entertainment. Between the dance scene that was clearly inspired by Bollywood dance numbers to the clothing worn typically by South Asians (not Arabs), the movie being filmed in Jordan and the casting of both South Asians and Arabs, the movie lumped many different races and cultures into one: Exotic Browns.

While the racial diversity of the cast was admirable, we have to ask: why? Was the cast racially diverse for the sake of appealing to people to reap a larger audience or was it for the sake of empowerment and representation? How can we claim to appreciate and respect different racial groups, diversity and cultures when we don’t even bother to learn and portray their differences properly? If proper representation wasn’t the goal of creating these movies, what is? Entertainment? At who’s expense?

For a more localised context of the portrayal of South Asian culture in media, let’s look at Malay social media. In recent months, a Malay celebrity/model advertised for contact lenses by donning the lehenga, a large nose ring, bangles, with henna on her hands while lip syncing to a Hindi song. This was inspired by her appreciation and fascination for Bollywood films. Many questions were raised from this incident: Is this cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation? Is this fetishizing South Asian culture or is this appropriate for a multi-racial country like Malaysia and Singapore? In his Facebook & Instagram posts, writer Alfian Sa’at asks three important questions: Where do we draw the line? Who gets to draw the line? What would our country be like if we loved South Asians as much as we love their movies, food and fashion?

Perhaps in this case, the intention of the model and the company should not be put under scrutiny. Perhaps what is more important is that we ask the bigger questions like as part of the majority, how does one show appreciation for a culture that is not theirs? Is it enough to appreciate the culture and their people simply through wearing traditional costumes and eating their food? Do we go the extra mile to speak about difficult topics and address the racism within our own communities to truly be allies and supporters of South Asian people? How can we do better by South Asian Muslims in our countries?

The issues faced by South Asian Muslims in Singapore is a non-exhaustive list. While it is simple for me to sit down and write about the struggles we face, I hope to remind people and myself that the experiences of our contributors should not have to be here for intellectual discourse. These are their lived realities. I urge readers to read their words, internalise them, ponder on the questions asked and think of how we can do better as part of the majority so that the lived realities of South Asians can shift away from what it is in our present day.


‘Afifah is an aspiring Social Worker who is passionate about Social Justice and holding up safe spaces to discuss anything and everything for anyone and everyone.

Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu