Of sarees and other sins

sareesBy Meera Badmanaban

July 1 has been declared by some quarters as “Saree Day” and many Malaysian women, including myself, have been inundated with requests and demands to wear the garment in protest against the recent prohibition of wearing sarees at a government Aidilfitri function to be held tomorrow in Ipoh, Perak.

Why prohibit the saree?

The mind boggles as to what concerns were really in the minds of the Ipoh Council authorities when they issued the statement on the dress code for the function; urging residents to wear their national costumes “except for the saree”. This unleashed an outpouring of anger over social media, for many people understandably felt that this was an unacceptable and unfair discrimination over a minority. At its lowest, this exclusion of the saree is plain and simple bullying. At its worst, however, it is an act of bigotry and intolerance. And one that should neither be condoned nor endured.

Why exclude the saree? No doubt this is the holy month of Ramadan, but surely it is an insult to Muslims to suggest that a mere saree, baring a little flesh is so effortlessly capable of rendering a Muslim’s fast as “haram” or “batal”. Not only is that a preposterous suggestion; it is discriminatory to many sections of the public; not just Indian Hindus. In fact many Indian Muslims wear the saree too, and to prohibit its wear is discriminatory to them too. The saree is part of Indian culture; not religion. There is a clear difference. Anyone can wear a saree. It does not “belong” to any one particular religion.

Most Malaysians respect the holy month of Ramadan and are careful to be considerate to their Muslim friends when they are fasting. Not eating or drinking in front of them is basic manners and etiquette which most people possess, without having to be lectured by a Morality Police (MP). It is condescending and indeed deeply patronising to tell us not to eat or drink in front of our Muslim friends, because we would not do it anyway.

And to summon, berate or belittle non-Muslims for eating in public places or wearing attire deemed “unsuitable” to the MP is again a form of bullying by those in power. To further prohibit the saree on the grounds that it is an “unsuitable” and perhaps “seductive” garment is simply ludicrous. I guess if we were to tie a saree and go for the said function, all the fasting men would fall foul and succumb to our seductive wiles? What an insult to the devout Muslim man! There are many such persons who I know who would not even bat an eyelid at a woman who is deemed to be attired in a different manner. Why? Because their abstinence from food and drink; their practice of restraint and fervent discipline is an internal, pure and holy exercise. It is an expression of religion, spirituality and a personal conversation with God. And a simple saree cannot come between him, the devotee, and God. That is the beauty and purity of virtue that is associated with fasting and Ramadan. It is a month to do good deeds; to try to be a better person; to reach out and help others; to be the best that we can be, as human beings.

Furthermore, one must remember that the other races in this country have their own religions, cultures and beliefs too. For us Hindus, we have numerous festivals such as Thaipusam, Skanda Sashti, Navarathri, Portasi and so on, where we undergo various types of fasting too. Does that then mean that the ordinary, everyday lives of other Malaysians ought to be restricted and rotate around our own small little worlds? Would that mean others cannot eat publicly just because we choose to fast on a particular day? Or that everyone must be bound by what we perceive as the only acceptable moral code? The simple answer is no, it does not. We have to get on with our own lives and let others get on with theirs without undue influence or persecution by the MP.

Religion is a deeply private affair and morality does not have a universal code. It is thus all the more important that in the holy month of Ramadan, instead of engaging in discriminatory and hateful practices, we learn to be more tolerant and accepting of our differences in race, religion and culture.

Sins and probe over “kafir harbi” statement

The holy month of Ramadan should also not have to bear the heavy burden of ugly incidents such as the recent “kafir harbi” one. This occurrence illustrated dangerous elements of racial hatred and bigotry, and was essentially seditious in nature.

A few days ago, a Pahang mufti, Abdul Rahman Osman, outrageously labelled non-Muslims as “kafir harbi”. This is a pejorative term which has the disparaging effect of terming all non-Muslims as infidels. This phrase is also dangerous from a seditious point of view because it has the potential to spark violence, incite religious hatred and encourage racism. The term is also controversial as those who have been categorised as “kafir harbi” may be killed for being against the implementation of Islamic principles and going against God.

Abdul Rahman had initially used the term last week when he said that it was a sin for Muslims to support the DAP , which he labelled as “kafir harbi” due to its opposition to hudud laws being implemented in Malaysia.

Any right-thinking individual should be able to work this out with a rational, common sense approach. “Kafir harbi” for supporting the DAP? What a silly sin indeed!

Thankfully, Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin came to the rescue by reiterating that non-Muslims in Malaysia cannot simply be categorised as “kafir harbi” as they are protected under the Muslim country. He opined that the term “kafir harbi” was reserved for non-Muslims who reject and oppose Islam and conspire with the enemies of Islam and have no peace agreement with Dar-al-Islam (which refers to the land where a Muslim government rules and the Holy law of Islam prevails). Therefore non-Muslims who have citizenship and are protected by the laws of a Muslim country should not be called “kafir harbi.”

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has also fortunately issued a clarifying statement yesterday that the “kafir harbi” statement was not a religious edict and that any official fatwa must go through the fatwa council. The statement stressed that “the government hopes this statement can put the people at ease.”

Why does all this matter? It matters because certain irresponsible individuals are using Islam in order to divide and rule the public for selfish and political reasons. It matters because Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, and its manipulation in this form is unacceptable and deeply unethical. It matters because God, at the end of the day, wants his children to show, above all, compassion, love, tolerance, and understanding to each other. It matters because in order to oust extremism in this country, we must learn to reject both sides of the divide. This means that both Islamophobia and also Islamophilia have no place in a secular country like Malaysia.

Other silly sins

Another pressing current concern by yet another mufti, this time from Perak, is with regard to ending cinemas, as he is overly concerned that Muslims only go there to “beromen”. He has thus urged the authorities to reconsider awarding licences for cinemas claiming that Muslims frequent them not to watch films but to engage and indulge in “hanky panky”. Apparently cinemas have now become a “vice” detrimental to the faith of Muslins in this country. So what should we do next ? Ban couple seats in cinemas? How hilarious!

The absurdity of this concern leaves me speechless. It looks like there is no need for Malaysians to buy tickets for stand-up comedy, for the daily occurrences in our political and religious arenas are comedic trysts of Olympic standards. And the shows are; delightfully, for free.

Ramadan and the holy month

At the end of the day, religion transcends over petty politics and ideologies, because God is above us all. When we die, the way we have lived our lives will determine our eventual destinies. All faiths teach us this, in some form or another. So let us start by being more compassionate towards each other. Enough of the hate and vitriolic posts on social media. Let us build instead of destroying. Let us pray together instead of attacking each other’s faiths.

Let us, Insya Allah, as responsible Malaysians, work together in peace and harmony in the holy month of Ramadan.

Meera Badmanaban is an FMT reader.

With a firm belief in freedom of expression and without prejudice, FMT tries its best to share reliable content from third parties. Such articles are strictly the writer’s personal opinion. FMT does not necessarily endorse the views or opinions given by any third party content provider.