Thursday, June 25, 2015

Why the fact that I exercise at all is a miracle.

There's a photo of a 3 year old me with my arms in the air. I'm imitating the ballerinas on a TV show.

When I was 9, I still desperately wanted to learn ballet. I was told that leotards were immodest, and ballet would destroy my feet.

When I was 13 and started secondary school, I joined the rhythmic gymnastics team. It turns out that I had great potential at being flexible (achieving over splits within a few months) and pretty decent motor skills (ie I could copy the coach's movements without too much effort). I was told, my thighs were too fat, my knees were not straight and my belly and butt poked out too much. I was told that I had to be at least five kilos underweight. I did well at competition but my scores were deliberately lowered by my coach so that they never went above those of the skinnier Chinese girls. And again, leotards were still immodest so I wore unitards instead.

When I was 15, I visited an aunt in all my full Malay conservative glory right after a long, late morning swim. I was told to not swim so much, my skin was getting darker.

When I was 17, I had a brief foray into canoeing and dragonboat racing. I trained my right arm for dragonboat. I was told i would get abnormally muscular on one side and basically be an undateable freak. I started running once in a while, and I was told to hold my hands near my boobs while running to disguise their bouncing.

When I was 19, I took a contemporary dance class for the first time, while I was studying in France. (I still firmly believe that this was immensely therapeutic. Along with learning to eat the French breakfast staple of real butter, I regained much of my emotional health.) Goofy French-Russian teacher has nothing but praise for the way I move. But while rehearsing a piece, one second of utter dread at the possibility that we might have to perform naked scared me a little. Meanwhile, a Wallah Bro engages me in a discussion about the "permissibility of dance in Islam."

When I was 20, I join a university modern dance group. 'Group A' is made up of thin and strong Chinese girls. Group B was the rest of us. I stood out only because of my unusual pixie haircut and ability to jump. When other girls complained of being fat, I'd show them my belly and tell them to not let the instructor get to their heads. (Refer to healing properties od French butter above.) And dance costumes could be immodest, but at least you could wear a nude leotard underneath.

When I was 21, I had a brief obsession with bouldering and rockclimbing. I was surrounded by Muslim girls worried that Muslim guys were looking at their butts as they climbed. (Can you climb without moving your butt? Can you climb with your butt facing the wall instead?) I was surrounded by guys who thought it was immodest for a Muslim woman to address a mixed crowd so they demonstrated the wearing of a harness on a guy instead. (Hint: A harness is less immodest on a woman's body. Bonus factor: SAFETY.)

Luckily by this point in time, I had learned to filter out these negative voices. I couldn't stop myself from dancing as much as I couldn't stop myself from breathing.

But the 3 year old me already knew that.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"Actually, I'm his mum."

It's been a whirlwind few months since the big move back to Singapore. It's had its pros and cons, but mostly I am very glad to be back. As a Kiwi friend once said, "Singaporeans always miss Singapore, right?"

My posts have been rather depressing of late -- the cons of moving back. One of the reasons I wanted to come back was to feel a sense of a Muslim community again. Back in NL, I had cobbled together a motley group of Muslim friends, which I was and still am very grateful for. In retrospect, I realise that I should not expect myself to be able to integrate seamlessly back here -- I've changed so much as a Muslim and as a person that the Sunni Shafii mainstream is not really an Islam I am 100% comfortable with anymore. Listening to people talk about how men should only marry women who can bear children is extremely triggering. 

(I can't imagine being able to articulate that only just 5 or 6 years ago, which is when all my questioning started.)

Being a mum to 17 month old now, I've changed so much. While I already had to learn to put aside other people's opinions because of many of my feminist-social-justice beliefs, I definitely give even less consideration now -- in short, IDGAF. My priority is to advocate for my kid.

Staying in a neighbourhood with many White foreigners is also creating its own series of misconceptions. Because many of their kids are cared for by live-in Filipina or Indonesian migrant domestic workers, white women assume I am also a domestic worker. Never mind that Nootje is practically a carbon copy of me (when compared to his dad at least). When he is near me my Brownness is enhanced. Especially if I'm out and about in my Tshirts and jeans/shorts as opposed to a fancier skirt or blouse, with makeup or accessories.

The ability to groom myself into socially acceptable femininity every day (or any day) is what distinguishes me from migrant working women. They only get Sundays (their day off) to dress up as they like. This counts for women who wear hijab as well, as the headscarf functions as a marker of urban modernity. If I wore hijab and presentable clothes at the playground, I would not be mistaken for an Indonesian or a Filipina. Hijabi migrants might be allowed a simple 'instant' hijab on trips to the supermarket, but only on Sundays can they go all out with their outfits.

Having had the last few months to process all this, and now that I am aware of how I fit into this intersection of race, gender and migrant status, what do I do?

The 'me' of 10 years ago would have detested being mistaken for a 'maid'. Her choice to wear hijab would have been partly influenced by this (not the only or the most important factor, but a factor nonetheless).

The 'me' today? IDGAF. I dress in what makes me comfortable in the heat, considering my need to safely cycle and run after, carry and breastfeed Nootje. When I'm in the mood, I take the opportunity to educate the adults and children who assume I am Nootje's 'maid', 'auntie' or 'bibik' simply because I have brown skin, plain clothes, a plain (and very Javanese) face, and I sit on the bench watching him at the playground instead of constantly following him around (aka "helicopter parenting", a fun post for another day).

When I'm not in the mood, I simply say, in the coolest tone I can muster and witness the offending adult flush with embarassment: "Actually, I'm his mum."

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