Dr. Annisa R. Beta.
THE SANDS ARE shifting. Young Muslim women of Southeast Asia are reconnecting to an earlier tradition of strong female voices seeking to make changes from within and outside of Islam. Dr. Annisa R. Beta, a lecturer of Cultural Studies from the University of Melbourne, proclaims this during the public lecture Re-imagining Muslim Women organised by the Muslim Societies in Southeast Asia (MS-SEA) Research Network last January.
The embrace of the hijab has increased, but who is to say that being fashionable and religious are mutually exclusive concepts? Rather than viewing the hijab as an Arabisation of Malay culture, its donning can just as well be seen as a uniquely individual choice; Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna still insists on covering her hair in public despite being an international pop sensation.
Recent years have seen millennial Muslimah trendsetters incorporating contemporary fashion trends in their devotion to Islam, becoming a tour de force in the global expansion of the Islamic clothing market and opening numerous opportunities for young Muslim women to enter the fashion industry.1 Local fashion entrepreneurs Neelofa and Vivy Yusof are embodiments of such successes. Both these women were among the honourees in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia list in 2017.
Faith Practice Evolves with the Use of Technology
The proliferation of social media has allowed for an interactive faith experience. The growth of content with regard to Muslim perceptions and representations, especially on Instagram, testifies to this. To be sure, the spiritual journey is still as personal, but smart phones have enabled a departure away from how the Islamic faith was practiced in earlier decades. For individuals and communities interested in embracing the religion, this can be an added boon.
The characteristic multi-faceted prism of social media acts to discern the dynamics and subjectivities of Muslim women and communities. For example, Singaporean blogger-turned-influencer Aida Azlin2, who is now based in Morocco, chronicles her journey in learning Islam through her blog. She also leads online classes where scholars and experts are invited to teach an audience of young Muslim women from around the globe.3
How Gender is Dictated in Islam
Conservative. Deferential. Meek. These are but some adjectives the general public has fastened onto Muslim women. In many Muslim countries, Malaysia included, the right for a woman to improve and advance her socio-economic position is either crawling at a snail’s pace, stunted or in some cases, stifled.
In the realm of politics and decision-making, women remain dismally underrepresented in Malaysia’s political institutions. But cautious steps have been taken to broaden women’s parliamentary participation; Datuk Seri Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail made history when she became the first female Deputy Prime Minister in 2018, although the achievement was short-lived.4
Moving forward, it is hoped that with the aid of civil society organisations and women’s rights groups, a better understanding of gender equality can permeate Malaysia’s society. Albeit, this would heavily rely on how effectively these groups exert their influence at all levels of government, in championing pertinent causes and in raising funds for local women’s organisations.
The New Muslimah report shows that nearly all (94%) of respondents surveyed felt that there are now more opportunities for women, although many identified a great need for a stronger voice in their community and in government (93%).5
As more and more young Muslim women navigate the cultural challenges of being Muslim and female, they have equally recognised that their struggles can also inform change. Education leads to empowerment; Malala Yousafzai exemplifies this. Be that as it may, there are many who are being left behind, socio-economically and politically. It is they that need empowering.
5 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0951274042000233350? scroll=top&needAccess=true
Noorhasyilah is living her life freely and spends a large portion of her time eating. She'll do the same in the next life.