Tuesday, 13 October 2009

‘Khalwat’ on Singapore’s Subway

It started just like any other journey on the MRT. I boarded the train and sat on the nearest available empty seat.
A pretty young woman was sitting on my left. She was tired and dozed off intermittently. As she nodded to sleep, her head kept slumping to her right until she jerked herself awake.

Subway, 1934. Oil on canvas by Lily Furedi

The routine continued for a few stations until she finally feel asleep with her head resting on my shoulder. I evaluated my options:
1.   Wake her up and suggest that my bed might be a more comfortable place for her to nap if she would just like to accompany me there!
2.   Wake her up and ask for her telephone number.
3.   Ignore her and pretend nothing unusual was happening (the correct answer is always the most boring).
Being a shy type I took little time in deciding that doing nothing until she wakes up is the best course of action. I had several more stations to travel anyway.
The incident is an innocent tale of 'business as usual' in a normal social setting. Yet, in some societies interaction between the sexes is severely curtailed and civil rights are often infringed by religious zealots.
Consider the law of 'khalwat' in Malaysia. The law is not atypical in the Islamic world and similar versions can be found on the statute books of many Islamic nations. However, the level of enforcement varies considerably within different jurisdictions.
Malaysia's Shariah Criminal Provisions Act (Federal Territories), Section 27, states: "Any man who is found together with one or more women, not being his wife or mahram [family member or close relative]; or any woman who is found together with one or more men, not being her husband or mahram, in any secluded place or in a house or room under circumstances which may give rise to suspicion that they were engaged in immoral acts shall be guilty for an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding three thousand ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both."
It may be surprising to note that even the otherwise liberal metropolis of Kuala Lumpur has its fair share of khalwat cases, including instances of dating couples holding hands or kissing in the gardens of the Petronas Twin Towers. (Some will suggest that the police seem to be more interested in such cases around Hari Raya when household expenses increase due to exchanging of gifts.)
As one will expect, khalwat is most actively enforced in the states controlled by Malaysia's Islamist party, PAS. In Terengganu the PAS Youth wing has reportedly mobilized members of the Youth Welfare Association to create vigilante squads to 'discourage' the spread of khalwat.
In many other nations the legal framework is not as relevant as social practices. The existence of an organization like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) does little to change the ground reality for women in most parts of the country, despite the assertions of equality under Afghanistan's post-Taliban Constitution.
The battle lines are drawn within mainstream Islam.

The niqab, or the full veil is most commonly found in Arab societies

The extreme right is represented by clerics who want to make the niqab (the full veil) 'one eyed.' The Saudi cleric, Sheikh Muhammad al-Habadan, suggested that revealing both eyes encourages the use eye make-up to make females look seductive.
The progressive strand of Islam is personified by the spiritual leader of the world's Sunni Muslims, the Grand Mufti of al-Azhar University, Egypt. He recently suggested that trousers are acceptable dress for Muslim women and there is no requirement for a Muslim woman to cover her face via a full face veil.
To be sure, a subway carriage is not a secluded place and my circumstances were hardly suspicious. Still, enforcing a legal system based on imprecise and controversial religious moralities is a recipe for social disaster.
The right to eat freely during Ramadan should be available to all 1.57 billion Muslims. Whether any Muslim chooses to exercise that right is a personal choice – not an obligation enforceable by the state.


  1. Does anyone remember Savonarola, the Dominican priest (he of the Bonfire of the Vanities fame?) and his roving gangs of youth (or thugs, as I see them) who took it upon themselves to discipline the good citizens of Florence according to the strictest interpretations of Christianity? Is it just me or does this sound eerily like the PAS and its Youth Wing mentioned in your blog? Fra Savonarola came to a sticky end, being burned at the stake at the very site of the great bonfire. I'm just sayin', is all.

  2. The so-called Islamic “hijab” is one of those topics that receives far more attention from the Western media than is justified, and consequently the Islamic fundamentalists use said media to air their own biased views on the subject, subsequently whipping the whole thing up into a frenzy that would have been comical if it didn’t have the extremely serious, and unacceptable, consequence of making the Quran so misunderstood. Contributing to the whole mess is the ignorance of Muslims themselves about Quranic injunctions and either the imposition or interpretation of cultural beliefs as “Islamic Law”, either deliberately or out of total ignorance.

    If all of us would read the Quran for ourselves, instead of relying on rabid dogs (and I refer to two distinct groups here; anyone care to guess which?) to tell us what it says, the world would be a better place in which to live.

    So I’m going to do just that. I’m going to quote the relevant Quranic verse (in translation by the honourable Mohd Asad, whom I greatly admire) so that all your readers can make up their own minds about what the “hijab” really is. I will also rely on Mohd. Asad’s commentary on the verse for explanation of Arabic phrases or terms. This may get a little long, but please bear with me, as I believe that those who want to know and learn and understand will find this interesting.

    Watch this space ......

  3. Chapter 7, verse 31 issues a detailed injunction to women about covering up. It says:
    “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms beyond what may (decently) be apparent; hence, let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms. And let them not display their charms to any but their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, or their brothers' sons or their sisters' sons, or their women or those whom they rightfully possess, or male attendants as are beyond sexual desire, or children that are as yet unaware of women’s nakedness.”

    Mohd Asad says that his inclusion of the word “decently” into the phrase “what may (decently) be apparent” is based on the interpretation of the actual Quranic phrase “illaa maa zahara minhaa” by the earliest Islamic scholars who interpreted it as “that which a human being may openly show in accordance with prevailing custom”. He adds that while “traditional exponents of Islamic Law have for centuries been restricting the definition of “what may (decently) be apparent” to a woman’s face, hands and feet – and sometimes even less – we may safely assume that the meaning of “illaa maa zahara minhaa” is much wider and that the deliberate vagueness of the phrase is meant to allow for all the time-bound changes that are necessary for man’s moral and social growth”. The pivotal clause in this verse is that women “lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity” and that “this determines the extent of what may legitimately, and in accordance with Quranic principles, be considered “decent.”

    It constantly amazes me, although it shouldn’t, and also delights me, how far-sighted the Quran is; to know that different cultures at different times may call for changing customs, and to allow for those changes, for “prevailing customs”, in its injunctions, that is truly the miracle that is the Quran.

    An interesting thing to note about this verse is that the word used for “head-covering” is “khimaar”. This was an item worn traditionally by Arab women in pre-Islamic and Islamic times, and its role was more or less ornamental. It did not cover a woman’s chest, only the head. Therefore the injunction to “draw the khimaar over the bosom” does not necessarily relate to the use of the khimaar as a head-covering but is rather meant to make it clear that a woman’s breasts are not things that “may (decently) be apparent”, no matter what the prevailing custom.

    One more significant thing: Given that the verse begins with the injunction to women to “lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity”, it is important to know that the preceding verse, verse 30, begins: “Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity” – aha, surprised anyone? – and that what it says literally in the Arabic, in both verses, is: “to restrain their gaze and guard their private parts”. According to Mohd. Asad, the latter expression is to be understood both in the literal sense of “covering one’s private parts” and in the sense of “restraining one’s sexual urges”.

    So men are bound by EXACTLY the same injunction as women. The only reason women are given further instructions about “drawing their head-covering over the bosoms” is because women have boobs and men don’t, and that exposure of boobs is restricted by principles of decency. I personally believe that this is absolutely proper and justified. I can’t argue against it at all. No amount of “freedom of expression” arguments will convince me that it is okay for women to let their ta-tas hang out of their dresses for all the world to ogle. I bet 100% of fathers and brothers agree with me.

  4. Terribly sorry about an error above, it should be Chapter 24, Verse 31, not Chapter 7. Everything else is correct

  5. Hi Saadia,

    Thank you for taking the time not only to share your opinion but also to provide some highly respected commentary (Asad) on the Koran and, hence, Islamic law.

    The hijab is a personal matter and maybe the Western media makes too much of it. However, my authoritarian 'Kemalist' instincts have me (blindly) supporting the Turkish model of making the headscarf illegal wherever the state meets society.

    It gives me a distinct feeling of pleasure to note that law enforcement officials force women to remove their headscarves each time they enter a government office or, more controversially, a university in Turkey. (Many students have taken to wearing wigs in Turkey to 'sidestep' the ban on the hijab.)

    The Turkish PM and President's wife cannot attend state functions because they cover their heads. I will suggest they choose not to attend state functions because they do not wish to remove their headscarves.

    Maybe it is taking the matter too far but, frankly, I don't mind. In fact, I like it.

    For the record, I don't disagree with you at all about having women bare all. It is against all norms of society and decency. (I guess I should do some research on 'naturalists' and what drives them to believe so strongly in the natural state of the human body.)

    I am sure that many enjoy reading your comments and I hope that you will keep enlightening this forum with your opinions.

    Kind regards,


  6. You're absolutely right. Whether to wear the hijab or not is a totally personal choice that every woman ought to be able to make for herself, just like people should be able to choose whether they pray, fast or drink alcohol or not. And so, based on that strong personal belief and conviction, I must absolutely denounce the Turkish (and the French, by the way) governemnt's ban on the head scarf; there cannot be and must not be any support for such government interference in an individual's personal choice. One cannot logically and rationally argue that it is ok for the Turks to ban the head scarf but not ok for the Malaysians to punish alcohol consumption. They are the same thing. They are both restrictions placed on an individual's personal choice by Big Brother. One instance cannot be supported and the other denounced just because one happens to like the Big Brother involved or because it agrees with our personal view!

    And I'll tell you what the consequence of banning the head scarf will be; the moderate progressive Muslim women who want to wear the head scarf, and their men, and those that support them, will start to fight for their right to practice their Islamic beliefs. Threatened, they will begin to hold on to their beliefs more tightly and become more extreme in their views. The fundamentalist elements within Turkish society, the very ones this is an attempt to keep at bay, will start to exploit the situation to their own ends; it will become their jihad, and legitimately so according to Quranic injunctions, to take up arms to defend their right to practice their Islamic beliefs. And so it will start, small at first, with the hijab, and it will escalate into the ugliness that is religious fundamentalism. It will tear Turkey apart, and with it the last bastion of moderate modern Islam.

    The above scenario is neither complex to foresee nor hard to comprehend; it is Psychology 101. And it is scary.

    By the way, the Turksih PM and his wife were in the US for the G-20 summit recently and I must tell you that his wife looked elegant and very beautiful in her creamy white outfit topped off by a matching head scarf. I admire her for the courage to wear it, and I will fight for her right to do so with my last breath.

    I will now go and exercise my personal choice to have a glass of wine. :)

  7. It also occurs to me that it may not be too much longer before Turkish law enforcement agencies take a page from the combined works of Fra Savonarola, the Malaysian PAS and the German Nazis and start sending out bands of young thugs to tear womens' head scarves off and force alcohol down the throats of abstaining Muslims.

    I'm going to need more wine to deal with the stress this causes me.

  8. Hi Saadia,

    You make a compelling argument against the rigid Turkish version of secularism. However, the analogy between Malaysian caning and Turkish law and 'big brother'may be somewhat misplaced if only for one fact - the Turkish law ONLY precludes the headscarf in public buildings and does not interfere with the civil rights of citizens when going about their daily business.

    If I knew Turkish I would certainly pull out the Turkish Constitutional Court argument for and against the headscarf because, as you know, the current AKP government tried to roll back the measure and the matter finally went before the Turkish Constitutional Court where the AKP law was set aside as being against the principles of the Republic.

    As an aside, you may note that the AKP ruled districts of Istanbul are slowly becoming 'dry.' They are apparently making all sorts of excuses to stop renewing liquor licenses and have essentially implemented a blanked ban on new licenses. This is often griped about by Turkish columnists in the media.

    In my opinion, it is an unfortunate fact of life that within the Islamic world the 'grey area' disappeared long ago. One is either on the 'black' or 'white' side - there is no in between. That Pakistan has to implement a military shoot to kill to reopen girls schools is telling. My fear is that, as in prewar Germany, the moderates will be squeezed into submission by the extremists - so there is a need for counter-extremists (like moi)!!

    The good news is that, in the final anaysis, our positions are not diametrically opposed ... the wine supply chain must not be broken.

    Kind regards,


    PS - Fyi, in Dubai women wearing headscarves are not allowed into (night) clubs by law. As in Malaysia, it is technically illegal for Muslims to drink in the UAE. Hence, the headscarf is considered a clear sign that the person is Muslim and so cannot be served. Such are the vagaries of not having clear, hard and fast rules in defense of secularism.