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Muslim in Malaysia

22 August 2017

It was another Monday morning in 2013 when I made my way to Jaya Driving School to attempt to get my driver’s license. It was hot, like most days in Kuala Lumpur, and sitting outside next to a parking lot did not make it any better. Mrs Ang, my petite, grey-haired driving instructor, told me that I needed to wear covered shoes and long pants. Sleeveless tops were not allowed under any circumstances. With at least a hundred other people in the waiting area with me, it was going to be a long day of sitting around.

Jaya Driving School was far down on the list of places I enjoyed being. The crowd of seventeen year-olds trying not to stall or crash their cars was funny to watch, but also nerve-wracking. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes – particularly in the tiny Malaysian-made cars, with their lack of power-steering and sticky hand brakes. Mrs. Ang did not make things any easier either. She taught most girls in the city, and would complain because she felt we were always bad drivers.

Of all the things I disliked, though, the invigilator from the Road Department was the worst.

I entered the car for my test just after lunch hour and gave my papers to the man from the Road Department. He wore a dark blue uniform which made him look stern, but his face seemed warm and friendly. He reminded me of an uncle that also had greying hair behind his ears. He looked at the papers, read my name aloud and said, “Oh, you are a Malay.” I explained to him that I was of a mixed background.

He said to me, “So you must be a Muslim, then.”

It was obvious from my name. I nodded. His face changed and became more serious. He then told me that we would begin the test. I put my seatbelt on and checked my mirrors and indicators before pulling away to the busy road.

The rest of the test felt like a blur. I drove around in the traffic surrounding the driving school. I concentrated my hardest, so as to not stall the car, and to block out the conversation going on.

The man from the Road Department decided that being a good Muslim was an appropriate conversation topic during the test. He told me I shouldn’t dress in such skinny jeans and that I should wear looser tops so I would be a better Muslim. He told me that I needed to pray more, especially when studying overseas. He told me to learn more about the Prophet Muhammad so I could love him more. He even told me many people nowadays are not good Muslims and that I needed to change if I didn’t want to go to hell.

I tried to concentrate on driving.  I did not want to upset or anger him, but more than that, I was at a loss for words.

We got back to the driving school as quickly as the traffic allowed us to. He ticked things off my test sheet, and made me promise that I would become a better Muslim and that I would pray more. He told me that if he ever saw me again, he wanted me to be suitably dressed and wearing a headscarf. I made the promise although I had no intention of ever crossing paths with him in the future. He wrote my final score on the paper. He gave me back my documents, and told me not to worry, that I passed the test.

Looking back now, it wasn’t the only test I passed that day.

A year before this incident, I had moved to Australia to further my studies, and for the first time had been exposed to the ideas of feminism. It was no surprise that I had momentarily forgotten what it was like to have someone comment on what I was wearing. So when I told my family about the strange occurrence, I did not expect them to laugh. My dad told me that the man likely felt he was doing his religious duty by helping me become a better Muslim. Then I realised it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. There had been other instances when strangers commented on my personal choices. They saw it as a way to help others become better people.

But this so-called religious duty of helping others to be better Muslims is being taken to the extreme in Malaysia. The Malaysian Department for Islamic Development, or JAKIM, are officially involved in upholding Shari’ah law, through administration and education. But ask any Malaysian Muslim, especially those in the cities, and you hear crazy stories of how they operate. JAKIM has been known to break up Muslim couples on Valentine’s Day dates. They have removed swear words from songs played on the radio. Words like ‘vodka’ and ‘whiskey’ are deemed obscenities to them. They have tried to ban yoga, as it has Hindu origins, and could “destroy the faith of a Muslim”. They have banned women from entering government buildings on the basis of ‘inappropriate dress’. They have even raided nightclubs and bars looking specifically for Muslims that drink – all in the name of saving these people from themselves.

It has become more difficult to be a moderate Muslim in Malaysia. For women, it is even more complicated, regardless of where you sit on the religious spectrum. Islamic law still favours men in terms of inheritance, family law and even in some cases of domestic violence. But it was not so long ago that Islam and feminist ideals coexisted in harmony. When the religion was first founded, Muslim women were given more rights than any other religion at the time. For a moment, Islam was progressive and inclusive, as women were to be considered equals. But over time, mankind has gotten in the way, as it so often does, changing small rules to suit its needs, until practices become unrecognizable.

That is where the divide in understanding Islam lies. As a Muslim, I know that feminism and this religion go hand in hand, but I am very much aware that we often inundated with stories, like mine, that show us to be an intolerant, close-minded society.

In my mind, Islam has always been a religion of peace, fairness and one that is open to interpretation. My parents have always been open-minded in their religious practices, but now I realise that they were the exception. I was not forced to wear a hijab every day in school like so many people I know. I was not yelled at before dinner and forced to pray. I was not shamed when I felt too tired to continue fasting during the month of Ramadan. At home, religion has always been a choice. Yes, my parents encouraged me to pray, fast, and dress appropriately but it was never forced upon me. It became my choice to do those things, and I believe my faith was made stronger as a result. So if I could be a good person, without being forced to do so, why is there such an obsession to save others from sin? Only when we stop trying to change others and start looking inwards at our own reflections can we become better people and a more tolerant and understanding society.