Friday, 29 May 2015

From Selendang to Tudung: Scent of the Muslim Femininity

By Dr Yamin Cheng
Why do Muslim women put on the headscarf? There is no law in Muslim countries to compel Muslim women to put on the scarf and yet we are seeing more and more of them donning it. Why is a country like Turkey that practises secularism since the time of Kemal Attaturk sees the mushrooming of their women wearing the scarf, including the spouses of the President and Prime Minister? Why in Malaysia, we have the previous and the present Tuanku Permaisuri Agong wearing the scarf when there is no constitutional requirement to wear it?
It doesn’t matter what arguments are put forth as there will be counter-arguments to them but the point remains, why are Muslim women willingly wearing the scarf even when there is nothing compelling them to do so, in this country and elsewhere in the world, even in the United States and Europe? Ask Noor Kumalasari and Sarimah Ahmad why they did it, persons that nobody expected them to do it.
Surely there must be something about donning the scarf that made Muslim women to wear it. The scarf is not only a piece of cloth covering the head and hair. It is something through which the Muslim woman wearing it finds her femininity and dignity as a human being. It is about wearing an outward garment that by it a woman also wears the values and virtues of a woman’s shame and shyness the moment she puts on the scarf. It is what the Qur’an calls libas al-taqwa, garment of piety. In the scarf, a Muslim woman finds her meaning as a human being. But this meaning is not something that happens immediately the moment the person wears it. It is only the beginning of a journey of discovering how the values and virtues of humanity can blossom in a person’s personality that takes many years to happen and the scarf is the beginning point of that journey.
The scarf becomes obligatory not because there are legal precepts commanding it but rather, it is because the person donning it finds a magical touch transforming her personality and refining her femininity that she makes it obligatory upon her to do it. Obligation of wearing the scarf does not happen from the outside of the Muslim woman but it occurs from within the soul in her that yearns for her to do it because of what it can do to her human meaning. Ask Felixia Yeap, the model, why she felt there was a transformation happening to her when she put on the hijab and yet there was nobody who told her to do it. And yet she did it and after wearing it, she found a sense of serenity and security in her life, and decided to become a Muslim and since then, she has not lifted the hijab from her body because she saw how her femininity and human dignity was put back into her humanity with it.
Wearing the scarf is thus fundamentally and originally about discovering the meaning of womanhood through which a woman understands what it is to be her as a woman and how she is different from man but both need each other to make humanity complete and life realizable. In the scarf a woman discovers her most precious virtue of humanity and it is shame. In shame, she becomes polite, respectful, and humble. In being polite, respectful, and humble, she knows how to place herself in relation to others, in the way she speaks, the way shoe moves her body, and the way she does things. That is why a Malay girl brought up in a traditional upbringing knows how to blush, how to distinguish between giggling and laughing, how to behave at home and outside the home, and when to raise the tone of her voice and when to whisper. In days of old, it is the selendang, a long piece of cloth wrapped over the head and laced around the neck that through it, the Malay girl learns to be a Muslim woman. Through the selendang, she knows when to leave home and return home, not to talk to strangers except when asking for directions, and when it is time to go for Qur’anic classes and learns her religious lessons. Today, the selendang has moved on to become the tudung, fully covering the head and hair. Yet the very meaning of the scarf remains steadfast to her shame, her safeguarding of it, and the way she goes about her movements with it. Muslim women in Malaysia have moved from living in villages to living in cities, from being housewives to becoming lawyers and entrepreneurs, and from mere teachers to becoming heads of colleges and universities. At the same time, they also become more exposed to all kinds of challenges in workplaces and in business dealings. But in the tudung, they find sanctuary and security to protect, preserve, and even enhance the meaning of their femininity and womanhood in an increasingly aggressive and rat-race society. Through the tudung, they show that they can be soft but firm, humble but vocal, interact with strangers but know the scope of their bodily contacts and their barriers. In other words, the scarf is not a hindrance but rather a positive element through which the woman can raise the value of her human dignity and empower herself with more freedom to move around and express her thoughts and ideas.
It is in the tudung that the woman strikes a synchronicity between her femininity and the rules for living and behaving. It is not a question of substance over form which is a rather Western way of perceiving things that must halve things into dichotomy, opposition, and tension. The Malay and Asian way instead sees everything as the harmony of substance and form such that by the substance, the form becomes externalized and actualized for living and, by the form, the substance becomes internalized and cognized for identity. In the same way, shame is that by which the proper way of doing things is brought into existence as rules for living, what we could call law, and through the law, the ethics and moral of living are digested to become dimensions of shame. Law in this sense is not thought of as commands or restraints acting from the outside upon a person’s behaviour and actions but is the realization from the depth of a person’s psyche that structure and order are necessary to hold passions, desires, and ambitions in place so that we would know our rightful place in the scheme of our human and social interactions and that we would not transgress into the boundaries of dignity that each of us possesses individually. The tudung in this regard plays this harmonizing role for the Malay woman to bring substance and form of her shame into structure and order, resulting in a harmonious connection between intention and law, mirror reflections of one another, two sides of the same coin, about what femininity should be intended as and thought to be and what law should do to draw it into the space of open living.
In this regard, the Malay way of living as expressed through the tudung is the symbiosis of adah and Shariah, what is thought of as unique to one’s customary and cultural practices, and what is thought of as coming from divine providence. This symbiosis lies in the fact that between adah and Shariah, there are overlapping concerns that hold them together as a unity, so that as adah moves in and through time and space, it moves within the orbit of Shariah. The selendang and the tudung may be two different forms of the Malay women’s headgear as each has its own history but both exhibit a common property, and that is the shame of a woman that defines her inward femininity and her outward appearance and movement. Abdul Hamid Sulayman, the former rector of the International Islamic University Malaysia, discusses this symbiosis as the relation between Asalah and Muasirah, Principle and Historical Contingency.
A Malay woman is not going to sit and listen to all the arguments about what legal justifications are there for wearing and not wearing the scarf, and whether it is in public space or in prayer that this or that part of the body has to be covered, and whether this is old Arab custom and whatever. For a Malay woman, and to quote William James who said, ‘Truth is what works,’ and thus, for her, the truth of religion lies in the practice of her tudung that would be evidence that covering the aurah is to bring her femininity into fruition in everyday living and enhancing her human dignity and meaning of her human being.
To close this discussion, I would like to cite a Zen story about how someone came to a Zen master and asked what ‘hot’ is and to which he replied by putting the questioner’s hand around a hot pot of water. Needless to say, there is no need to argue and go into lengths in words about what ‘hot’ is. When a person asks, just put his hand on a boiling pot of water and he will know what ‘hot’ is. For the Malays, agama itu adalah rasa, dijelma dalam penghayatan, dinikmati dalam keindahan, meaning ‘Religion is to feel it, live it, adorning it.’ Such is also the way of the Chinese and other Asian ethnicities in our taste of religious meaning, feeling, and becoming Muslim.
Sumber: Facebook (MACMA Selangor)

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