Gender segregation and the campus

This article first appeared in the Australian newspaper, Wednesday 7. August 2013Image

I am currently revising an article about my work in Malaysia with what can be described as fundamentalist and secular Muslims. One of the debates I am engaging is what role the researcher, in this case an ethnographer, plays in describing, analysing and writing about confrontations between universalisms and worldviews. Last Wednesday I took some time off from revising this paper to attend an iftar (breaking of fast) event I had been invited to by a student of mine.

The university’s Muslim Student Association had organized a big event and invited non-Muslims to share in the experience of breaking fast together in a park on the university’s campus. Mats were laid out on the grass to allow people to sit down. The event included the breaking of the fast (with water and a date or snack), a prayer and the communal dinner.

Upon arrival I was directed to sit down on the left-hand side of two clearly separated seating areas and told that this was the men’s section, whilst women had to be seated in the corresponding women’s section. As a staff member at a function of a university union affiliated club I was aware of my position in what would come next. If I quietly sat down in the designated male section, I could be seen (as could the university) to be condoning gender segregation. If I began questioning the practice and decided to leave or sit elsewhere I could be causing offence.

In my fieldwork in Malaysia I often came across gender segregated events and as part of my research work I would often question the reasons behind certain practices and document the reasons people gave for them. More importantly, during Ramadan the breaking of fast and communal meal was generally a communal experience in which families came together and men and women were not segregated. The prayers, especially if held at a mosque would be separated, but most people break their fast at home or in public places with only a short prayer.

Here, I was not in my field; rather, I was there as both a participant and member of an Australian university with my own views about the position of religion on the campus, so I engaged the first and second and third person who directed me to sit in the men’s section by asking them who had decided upon the seating arrangements (the organizing committee) and on what basis gender segregation was practiced here. A few students engaged me as I sat down on the sidelines of the event. I valued the interaction and discussion I had with these students as it afforded me an opportunity to question and respond with my views on Islamic traditions and the history of gender segregation.

The event raises important issues beyond the immediate seating arrangement relating to both gender equity and religious tolerance and discrimination. Some of these issues have been raised by a similar incident at Melbourne University in April, but universities have not responded resolutely in addressing them. More importantly, though, I want to raise this issue to elicit a debate about the role of religious organizations on campus, whether Muslim, Christian or any other, and the role of the university as a place that can accommodate difference, whilst safeguarding universals. I see the university as a progressive space in Australian society that should engage separate views in its community and debate openly motivations for and against gender segregation derived from religious commitment. The pointy end of this issue is whether Australian universities are prepared to accommodate religious practices in public areas of the campus which contradict policies regarding student and staff behaviour.

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My book cover

My first book Modern Muslim identities has a book cover made up of two layered photographs. For a while now I have been thinking that it may be confusing, or at least I should explain my thinking behind it to better illustrate its meaning.

The first picture is of the wayang kulit (shadow play) figures, featuring characters from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as well as a Western tourist (in the middle in case you were wondering). This picture comes from a dalang’s (puppet master) workshop near Kota Bharu in the Northeast of peninsula Malaysia and he used a range of alternative figures to update his stories. This, then, was a juxtaposition of a pre-Islamic past and post-colonial present, especially as Kelantan is often considered ‘very Islamic’ as it is administered by the Islamist party PAS. The picture also relates to a chapter in the book in which I discuss the arts policies and the contestations between state and federal as well as within Malaysian society about what is or should be ‘Islamic’. This dalang made fun of and amused his audience by drawing attention to his resistance to the state ordered Islamisation of the Hindu epics, for instance. Inherent in this debate is also the tension for Malaysia and Malaysians between being modern (and Western, although these are obviously two different things) and culturally different based on historical heritage (whatever that may be – and the current fights with Indonesia over cultural identity are instructive here). This is especially contentious for Malays, as their cultural heritage is under most scrutiny in terms of its non-Islamic attributes as society at large continues to be further Islamised. This is visually represented by the superimposed lattice, a picture taken at the Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Mosque in Shah Alam. The use of geometric shapes became fashionable in Islamic art to avoid the depiction of the Prophet, later people and/or animals in general. Thus it is a symbol for the changing aesthetics as influenced by a world religion upon other cultures and the arts.

There you go, and if you want to order a copy (international), just click here.

In Malaysia? just click here.

On Interfaith dialogue in Malaysia

Interfaith dialogue in Malaysia is important, if not a prerequisite step to ameliorating societal tensions in Malaysia. However, I would argue that interfaith dialogue is itself problematic on two counts. The first difficulty is that only people of faith (usually narrowly defined as adherents of an Abrahamic faith plus a few major other traditions/religions) are invited. The other is that those invited are often from the moderate wings of religions and are thus more likely to be able to find common ground and be open to the discussion of interfaith issues. This, however, means that these meetings are largely marginal and, in the Malaysian context, not representative of wider society.

Crucial aid to freedom in Indonesia

Australians have been generous abroad in times of need, and now, the Opposition Leader claims, it’s time to be generous at home.

The biggest cut he put forward was in the aid budget for Indonesia, in particular the education partnership aimed at providing better access to schools and improving the quality of the teaching at both government-run and Islamic schools.

This program is clearly crucial in the light of recent outbreaks of violence against religious minorities, both Islamic and non-Muslim, in Indonesia.

Whose afraid of Sharia?

Islamic financial laws are readily accepted in the marketplace, but not its justice

A spectre haunts the West and it is Islam. And nothing says Islam like sharia, that legal framework that conjures up images of women being caned for drinking, stoned for adultery and men having their hands chopped off for stealing.

But sharia also means Islamic finance and, with a market worth an estimated $A1.65 trillion by 2012, every bank and banking hub is trying to get in on the action.