Everything in Malaysia seems to come down to religion – and I don’t just mean Islam. Whether you are Muslim, Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist, many aspects of life seem to be a reflection of one’s religious beliefs, and therefore, or an individual’s place within the system.
When I first arrived, I was struck head-on by this fact when the taxi driver “warned” me that my name, Melissa, is a favorite of the orang Islam, or Muslims in Malaysia. Since it is a Greek name, which is by no means Muslim, I found this to be very odd. But never mind the technicalities – it was a preview of the inevitable tendency for people here to be labeled according to religion. I have been asked what my religion is so many times since I arrived that I was beginning to wonder whether I had anything else to offer beyond that. I learned that before I arrived, one family refused to host me because I was American. Others wanted more information about my ethnic and religious background. People determine how they should treat you or what they can say around you by knowing your religion. But the questions directed towards me are not merely for personal curiosity. In Malaysia, different rules and norms apply – not just socially, but legally too. While the country has civil courts, Sharia courts also exist here, but they are supposed to apply only to the Muslims in religious and family matters (from what I understand, an ethnic Malay is automatically a Muslim and is not free to change religions).
Walking through the crowds of Kuala Lumpur, one can see many examples of these disparate identities expressed through the clothing that is worn. Some women, and even young girls, take great pains to make sure that every centimeter of hair is hidden underneath beautiful bright scarves that often match the rest of their flowing blouses and skirts. Others appear to blend tradition and comfort as they wear a scarf, but then also sport jeans and a t-shirt. Then, you have the other extreme, where even I raise my eyebrows at the low-cut blouses and skimpy micro-mini skirts that barely cover the wearer. A part of me wonders if this is in “quiet” defiance of a restrictive system. Or maybe it is just fashion.
However, sometimes the lines separating the different religious and ethnic norms get blurred. The papers recently gave an update on a story from several years ago when two ethnically Chinese teenagers were arrested in the park for kissing. They protested on two points – one, they said there were not even kissing, but that the charge was brought against them because they refused to pay a bribe to the park’s police officer; and two, the law should not apply to them because they are not Muslim. Debate arose from all sides, with the Chinese and Indian communities up in arms. Even Muslim groups questioned how far the courts should go in determining codes of decency. (Interestingly, I went on a walk in a park close by that has signs up warning visitors that kissing is not allowed.) While in the U.S., we also have laws regarding public decency (for example, we can’t sunbathe topless at most beaches, whereas in many parts of Europe, this is acceptable) the issue is more complex in a country like Malaysia where different courts and rules for the different groups have been established based on religion. The tension is further heightened because of Malaysia’s “positive” discrimination, or bumiputra laws that favor (the majority) Muslim Malays in government, job promotions, university entrances and government assistance.
While this controversy has been getting its time in the press, I see plenty of teenaged girls in headscarves holding hands with their beaus, riding on the backs of motorcycles with them and just hanging out with their male friends. I know KL is a bit of an exception in terms of its tolerance, but the newspaper article and the comments that followed all sited prohibitions in Islam against showing affection, including hand-holding, in public. It is not clear to me how far this interpretation goes. In any case, the continuing controversy points to an underlying discord that results when people do not feel sure of their situation because the same rules and privileges are not always shared by all.
Posted By Melissa Muscio (Malaysia)
Posted Jun 13th, 2006