Friday, November 30
However, as Allah wills it, I was bareheaded for less than a week. I had put on a shawl as planned but it kept falling off my head, much to my frustration. A few days later, as I was fastening a brooch to hold my shawl in place in front of the mirror, a strange thought came into my mind.
I thought to myself, why was I wearing a shawl? What was the purpose of covering my head when strands of hair could still be seen above my forehead? Wouldn’t it be better if I had covered my head properly? I would be following Allah’s instructions if I did so. It would please Him, and pleasing my Lord is the ultimate goal of every Muslim. Therefore I decided there and then to cover my head each time I show myself in public. It was a quick and final decision. I surprised even myself by stepping out of my room with only my face and palms exposed. I learnt that by twisting and turning the shawl around my neck, I would be able cover my chest and hair properly. Alhamdulillah.
During that weekend, I bought a few 40 inches square tudung bawal and learnt to put them on. Nobody actually taught me how to wear one. I had watched friends putting them on. I thought to myself, ahhh a piece of cake, no problem la. I was so wrong! My first attempt was an almost failure. After 20 minutes of fumbling with the flimsy piece of material I had to ask for help as my hands had started to ache. The first week of tudung-wearing took about 15 minutes of trial and error each time. I would be late for classes, hurrying into lecture halls with a half-crumbled tudung.
Naturally my decision to be tudung-clad was greeted with showers of questions and sarcastic comments from family and friends.
“Why must you wear a tudung when other Malays women don’t?
Does anyone force you to wear?
Don’t you feel hot?
Do you get headaches?
Why must you look like one of them Malays?
You look years older when you wear a tudung.
So kolot, take it off.
Why must you cover your beautiful hair?”
My friends Muslims and non-Muslims, who had been shocked to discover my conversion to Islam had a tough time adjusting. They couldn’t recognise me. They had to get used to seeing my face without seeing my hair. My experiments of tying the tudung and shawl in several different fashions were not helpful. Some people started to avoid me because they didn’t know how to deal with me. A few Malay ladies who had worn tudung a year before because it was the dresscode for Muslim women at our previous institution, had taken it off when we entered the university freezone. They had decided to be tudung-free with their rebounded hair, so my unexpected decision to wear a tudung a week after being a Muslim, could be a slap in the face for them. Indeed others had begun to compare me with the former group, but I kept my silence. When non-Muslims ask why I chose to wear one, I would state that it is compulsory for Muslim women to cover their heads because Allah swt instructs in the holy Quran, and as to why some Malays are exposing their hair…well, the questioner would have to ask those women themselves.
I faced a problem two weeks after my first tudung. I have sensitive skin that reacts negatively to nickel and silver. After two weeks, the nickel brooches that I fastened below my chin to hold my tudung and shawls in order had caused a skin eruption. It itched like crazy and I got worried. I worried because I wish to wear tudung till my last breath. I didn’t want to take it off just because of sensitivity to nickel. I consulted my ustazah who suggested that I stitch all my tudung instead of fastening with a brooch. Desperate for a solution, I prayed to Allah swt for help. Alhamdulillah, the skin sensitivity vanished. Until today, I can wear tudung with a brooch fastened under my chin without any skin problem. Strangely enough, only the chin is nickel-tolerant. Wear a pasar-malam watch on my wrist, and I would be scratching away at the spot within hours.
The fact that not all Muslim women wear tudung had not helped mualafs like me. I found myself becoming a spokesperson for the tudung, making non-Muslim friends understand why Muslimahs need to wear one. The more I learned about Islam, the more I realised that it is not just the tudung that makes a Muslimah. Wearing the tudung is not just about covering the head, as some Muslim women in Malaysia seem to believe or want to believe. The al-Qur'an has clearly stated that Allah commands all Muslim women to cover their bodies except their face and the palms of their hands. That means even the arms should be covered till the wrist, and the shape of the breast covered with the tudung. The shape of the body should be concealed with loose and thick clothing. To forgo one characteristic means to be imperfectly clothed for a Muslimah, a sin and frowned upon by God.
Western fashion has influenced Muslimahs to have a relaxed attitude about their dressings. To some, beauty comes first before regilious obligation. My outlook has changed tremendously after my conversion to Islam. I notice that Blouses have 3/4 length sleeves and t-shirts seem to have shrunk in sizes. Even the shirts sold in Busana Muslim boutiques are actually transparent because they show the body shape of the wearer. Therefore, my own experience of
shopping for a suitable blouse or T-shirt that adhere to the Muslim dresscode is almost like looking for a needle in the haystack. Wear a baju kurung but the wider sleeves sewn according to the latest fashion actually expose the arm when it is raised. That is the reasons why we see some Muslims women, having laid-back attitude, go about their business in less than complete coverage of their aurat. Who is to be blamed-the women, their guardians or the fashion-designers?
Like the tudung, my decision to fully cover my aurat had been spontaneous. I started to don hand-socks a month after the tudung. I had followed my heart. It had not been easy, wearing hand-socks in Malaysian hot and humid weather. It is especially warm in the afternoons under the blazing sun. I continue to wear them because after wearing the first pair, it is hard to go out bare-armed. I’d feel exposed, naked if I were to leave home incompletely covered. I’d feel guilty if my wrist is exposed. It is true that I look out-of-place among my born Muslim classmates because I’d be the only one with the tudung at chest level and hand-socks covering my arms. But I don’t care and I try my best not to judge them.
They have reasons that only Allah knows. My ankle-socks, which complete the package, were added to my collection a few months later. My friends got used to my ‘fashion statement’ and thought somebody had influenced me. Yes, in a way they were right. Allah put the thought into my head, the realization into my heart, and moved me into action. I had prayed for His guidance and syukur alhamdulillah for everything.
Allah swt took the matter from my hands. My lecturer asked me during the last class, the day after my conversion, why I was covering my head with a shawl. I told the truth; that I was a mualaf. It sent shock-waveS across the hall as classmates and friends found out the meaning of the word ‘mualaf’. Within hourS, I was bombarded with questions, frowned at, and even a few actually scolded me as people recovered from the shocking news of my divorce and conversion to Islam.
“Why of all religion, Islam?
What is so special about Islam anyway?
Why choose Islam? Why not Christianity?
So are you a Malay or a Chinese now?
Who chose your Islamic name for you?
So who is your Malay boyfriend?
Have you told your family? What did they say?
So you have to pray 5 times a day la. Wow, once a day is hard enough for me.
Have you learned to doa?
Gosh, now you have to puasa la.
Won’t you miss eating pork?
Haiyahh too bad, now you cannot join us for makan-makan.
So have you gone for cutting? What’s that word, ohh.. khatan (hehehe).
Are you crazy? Have you gone out of your mind?
What is the real reason for converting to Islam?
You have disgraced yourself and your parents.
People are laughing at you. They said you are having an affair”
I answered as best as I could. I became the eye of the hurricane, remaining calm and collected while all around was confusion and gossips. Somebody actually took the trouble to inform my father and the next thing I knew, my mother called to inform that I was barred from going home. In other words, I’ve been thrown out of my family house. I had foreseen their reaction, so prior to that, I had taken most of my important possessions to the hostel. Being banned from the family home and unable to go back to my own because my ex-husband still resides there made me a hostel dweller for a year, shifting from block to block. However, I supposed I was better-off than most mualafs who had no friends, no job, and no place to stay.
Those were challenging days. My Malay friends tried to help but they didn’t know how because they had never dealt with a mualaf before. They too were afraid of asking too much, afraid of intruding. I myself didn’t know how to ask, and what to ask. Being alone and surviving on my own after my broken marriage had made me tough and independent, but also too proud to ask for help. I was the only mualaf undergraduate who was enlisted at Pusat Islam so I had nobody to share my inner thoughts with. Being born Muslims, they couldn’t understand the problems I was facing as I struggled to take wuduk, perform prayers and practise the Muslim way of life. I tried to remember the long doa makan, etc but often than not, I forgot because they’re just too long and too many to memorise in a short time. So I took shortcuts, remembering to say ‘Bismillah’ and ‘Alhamdulillah’ for the most common actions. I was also busy with my studies so I could not attend special courses for converts at Perkim. If I were absent from Pusat Islam, the staff there would not find me. Their jobs at the building did not require them to teach me to be a good Muslim. So I realised that if I want things done, I’d have to ask. I asked for Iqra lessons and was taught informally by the staff. I asked and was shown how to perform the prayer. I asked to learn to recite simple surahs and was taught al-Ikhlas and an-Nas. I learned within a month what took a born-Muslim more than a decade to master.
But basically I was alone. Being alone is dangerous for a newly converted Muslim. There are many temptations and a tendency to give up. I had ten years of knowledge about Islam but knowledge from books alone is not sufficient to help me perform the rites. Fasting is easier than performing the solat. Standing at the tap and taking the wuduk was not easy when born Muslims waited in turn for me to finish. I felt as if I was being assessed by pairs of eyes. Though I knew the steps, I was afraid of making mistakes. Also the telekong and kain were strange garments. The kain which my friends helped me to buy was just like a piece of sarong without strings nor bands, only longer and wider. I didn’t know how to wear the kain properly because my younger roommate couldn’t tell me either. Hers had a drawstring. Astaghfirullaahal adziim. I tied the kain like a sarong around my waist but it kept falling off until one day, a kind sister showed me the correct way of tying one before the terawih prayer at the mosque.
Memorising the whole surah al-fatihah and the tahiyat that are needed for solat took me about two weeks. It was painfully tedious because I couldn’t understand a word I was saying in Arabic. I would do the solat alone in my room when I couldn’t join my roommate for jemaah prayer. Armed with a piece of paper with the al-fatihah and the tahiyat in romanized writing, I would begin the slow uncertain steps. I didn’t want to wait to be able to recite both from memory before I perform my first solat on my own. I believed that Allah looks at a devotee’s sincerity rather than the ability to recite all the surahs in the Quran. I did the most basic, trying to remember every steps of solat each time. Alhamdulillah it became easier and easier as time passed.
If performing the solat in my room was tough, it was worse when I had classes before and after zohor. I would rush back to my room,did an express prayer and rush to the next class. Otherwise I would hike up the hill to my favourite surau which offers the most privacy. Even then, as I stepped onto the sejadah, I would say a silent prayer that I would not forget any of the verses during my solat nor recite them wrongly, for I would have to do pray without my trusted piece of paper. I was too embarassed to hold it during prayer, and I wanted to avoid being bombarded with questions when other sisters realized that I was a mualaf. Besides some Muslims, like an religious officer I knew, would consider my paper-holding action during solat as makrur and prevents one from being kyusyuk. But logically, they were in my shoes, what would they do?
Not everybody underwent the process the same way as I did. Some were lucky because they had adopted families to turn to. I don’t have an adopted family. Well, I just don’t. So I had to learn everything on my own; going through each step repeatedly until I mastered it. It was really tiring. I felt as if I was on a bullet-train, trying to make-up for my lost years by studying all I could, as fast as I could, as much as I could. With little support however, I almost gave up and had begun to sink into depression. Praise to Allah, I managed to control my feelings and got rid of the dark clouds. After two exhausting months of coping with academic work and religious studies, I learned to relax. By then I could answer almost all the basic questions about Islam, and could even explain to non-Muslims about the Hereafter (kiamat).
Thursday, November 29
Previously I had thought that it would be easy for me to be a Muslimah. Just recite the syahadah and automatically my marriage would be dissolved. The truth is, it is very difficult. Malaysian law stipulates that as soon as a spouse converts into Islam, he or she is no longer under the civil court. If I were to go ahead with my decision to convert without first divorcing my then-husband D, I would lose my right to divorce my him as I would be placed under the Syariah court. He would be the spouse with the right to divorce me, and only if he wants to. Otherwise, I would be bound to him by the civil law, and would have no right for another marriage, even through the Syariah court.
I was at a loss. I was studying fulltime, I didn’t have much time, I didn’t know any lawyer, and I didn’t have enough money to go to court. Besides, D might not agree to divorce me. My greatest fear was that I might end up in the grave as a non-Muslim, before I end up in the magistrate’s chamber. I needed help and fast. I said a silent prayer to Allah for his guidance and left to meet my friend, Z. Alhamdulillah, I met the right person. Z recommended me her own lawyer’s office in town. Within an hour, based on the address given, I stepped into the office. I told the clerk what I wanted to do, got a lawyer and an estimated amount of payment for the divorce proceeding to take place.
I had the will but I didn’t have the money. RM2500 may seem little but I was surviving on half-pay of RM500 a month. However, I managed to secure a loan from my mother and when my government loan arrived, I returned her the amount. In order to get D’s signature, I agreed not to ask for anything from our broken 9-year marriage. Besides, I was worried that should he found out about my intention to convert to Islam, he would not put down his signature on the documents. I didn't want to wait for another 5 years if he decided to challenge me in court. Material possessions were not as important as Islam.
Finally it was settled. The documents were completed. The lawyer told me that usually it would take about 3 months for the documents to reach the court, but mine took only 2 months. The waiting inside the magistrate court was 2 hours but it took only 10 minutes for the interview and for the magistrate to approve our divorce. But then we would had to wait 3 months for the marriage to be legally dissolved.
I couldn’t wait 3 months. I had waited long enough so I took my chances. A day after my university registration, I went straight to Pusat Islam which is in the campus ground itself. Unfortunately I was late and everyone else had gone home, except for a clerk. I told her my intention and she told me to call the next day. However as Allah wills it, earlier that day I had approached my tutor a Malay lady, and she recommended me another lecturer, who is also a convert. I had met this lecturer only once before but being the class representative, I had his phone number, so I messaged him and he told me to be at his office the next morning. So I met him at his office. The first question he asked was, when I wanted to recite the syahadah. I said I had waited for a long time and that I was ready. Immediately Dr.K made a phone call to Pusat Islam to fix an appointment. We were joined by another lecturer, and after 10 minutes at Pusat Islam, I emerged from the building as a Muslim. Alhamdulillah. I was later told that usually people who converted there took days to prepare for the big event but mine was simple and quick, witnessed by seven people.
Frankly, I wasn’t prepared to recite the syahadah that day. I had on a long-sleeved blouse and long pants, hardly the ideal garments one would wear on the day she is to be a Muslimah. In fact, I was still contemplating a suitable Islamic name for myself. I had wanted it to be my own, my own choice. The problem was, I had a few good choices. But when Dr.K asked me if I had chosen one, I spontaneously replied, “Yes, Aliya.” And Aliya it would be. Nur Aliya Yeoh binti Abdullah.
I had chosen Aliya because it has a nice ring to it, has a good meaning, and is easy to remember. Later I found out that it is a form of al‘Aliyy, one among the Asmaa-ullaah al-Husna. Syukur Alhamdulillah.
Two weeks after that, when my civil marriage had been legally dissolved, I went to the Islam Religious Office and officially declared myself a Muslim.
During my probation years between wanting and actually reverting to Islam, these verses would haunt me in my dreams. They would automatically be recited in my heart when I had nightmares of ghosts and spiritual disturbances. Why only these few verses, one might ask. Well, they were the ones I had actually memorized from a small doa book which I had secretly bought when I got interested in Islam. I had forgotten the rest but always, after reciting the verses I would wake up in cold sweat. Conscious, I would also recite them silently during difficult times.
I knew that Islam was still within me, but my fear of the unknown was stronger than the need to follow my heart. I didn’t tell anybody about my recurrent dreams. I outwardly became a free-thinker while my then-husband remained a staunch Tao-Buddhist who maintained a family altar in our house. During religious festivals, I would put all the food offerings onto the plates for him (my wifely duty) and made a disappearing act. When obligations required me to pray, I’d hold the joss-sticks, gave a few shakes and pushed them into the holder. I lived the life of a hypocrite for ten years, hoping for a solution to end my predicament. The solution came in an unexpected way. I applied for government scholarship to continue my studies fulltime and was successful. Throwing all caution to the wind, I left home despite my then-husband’s disapproval.
It was the right time, the right place and the right condition. Alhamdulillah I shared a room with a good Muslimah for the first 14 weeks. I observed the way she did her prayers, what time she did her prayers, and how she conducted herself. The following year, I shared a hostel room with an Indian lady. Despite her own devotion to her goddess which she kept in our little bedroom, she was a good friend and still is. In fact, she would be the first non-Muslim to support my conversion to Islam.
I even recited the 2-khalimah syahadah on my own on one emotionally-tensed day. I knew the verses by heart. There was no witness, and I didn’t inform anybody except for a close friend who told me to plan my steps carefully. However from that day onward, I had started to change. My friends commented on the changes; they said that I had become gentler and friendlier. I didn’t tell them the reason for the physical changes because spiritually I was undergoing changes too. I had started to read books about Islam, taking great care that my friends and roommate didn’t see them in my possession.
Two months afterwards, I had a strange dream. I dreamt that I was walking alone along a quiet road and there was somebody waiting for me. The person was holding a beautiful white tudung with flowery side embroidery, the soft material spread out in his hands. He was somebody I knew. We didn’t say a word to each other, but I reached out and wore it on my head. The next thing I knew, he was sitting and I was standing behind him. And I realized that I was still wearing the tudung but it has become a part of myself. I took the dream as a positive sign because I had never felt as peaceful as in that dream.
Later I shifted to another block. I had another strange dream. This time, I was opening a book. Strangely the pages were empty until I saw a word printed boldly across the two pages. It was not an Arabic word. It was a name but it was not His name. It was the name of a man. Ghazali. There staring at me across the pages, was Ghazali. Then I woke up.
I pondered for a long time about the meaning of those dreams. My Malay close friends believed that the dreams were good omens, that I would soon be their sister. But why Ghazali? I didn’t know anybody by that name. I couldn’t see the significance nor could my friends, so I asked Him for a sign.
Alhamdulillah, Allah revealed the meaning of Ghazali to me majestically. Soon after, I was walking towards by hostel alone. It was a beautiful evening, the sky was golden and a gentle breeze was blowing. Then the azan came. Maghrib time. Somehow the azan sounded very clear that day, and I looked up. It had just occurred to me that I was standing in front of the mosque. I stared straight at the name of the mosque. Allah akhbar. It was the al-Ghazali Mosque. I had passed by that building every day but didn’t notice its name till that moment. Ghazali is the name of the mosque that called out to me to pray to the Creator. It’s also the name of a great Islamic scholar. Subhanallah. Alhamdulillah. Allah akhbar.
It was a good sign. A sign that it was the right time and right condition. Allah will help me in my quest. I asked for divine guidance and strength to do whatever I needed to do in order to be a true Muslimah. It would not be easy but Allah had answered my silent plea. He made the difficult task of divorce and conversion quick and easy.
Wednesday, November 28
It's all right if indeed the concepts that they want to convey actually adheres to the teachings of our beloved Prophet Muhammad. However, when the so-called Islamic dressing as as shown on tv or printed in the newspapers and magazines are not covering the wearer's aurat as they should, it is very frustrating indeed.
How would you explain the real teachings of Islam which only allows the woman's face and palms to be shown in public view when left and right, fesyen designers (mostly Malay Muslims) promote clothings that show off the body shape, that clearly exhibits her naked neck for all to see? The mere covering of the hair and a long loose dress is not Islamic dressing. It's fashion. Today's fashion seem to dictate that as long as the hair is covered, it's Islamic dressing. Hence a Malay woman may wear a colourful scarf, shows off her slender neck and shapely body in a tight kebaya and still thinks she is covering her aurat. In the name of Allah the Most Mercifu, their way of dressing is not helping Muslim sisters, especially reverts like me, who faithfully wears the tudung and covers aurat the proper way. We often have to deal with confused family members who'd point out the other Muslim women who are either bare-headed or kebaya-claded and demanded that we do the same.
Same goes for Islamic car which Proton plans to launch. It is disheartening when Muslims themselves become unelected spokepersons and take liberty to talk about their own concepts of Islam. Just because a car has certain criteria such as a compass and compartment for storing the al-Quran and prayer mat doesn't make it an Islamic car. It is easy to say so, in order to encourage Muslims to purchase one. However, if the car is poorly manufactured and breaks down, who will be the first to laugh their heads off at an 'Islamic' car?
Islam is a religion. Islam is the only true religion in the world. It is not for sale. It should not be linked to any worldly item and used to promote sales. May Allah forgive the naive and forgetful Muslims for misusing the name of Islam. May the learned Islamic scholars and respected muftis do their jobs and help clear the clouds of confusion that are growing among our Muslim brothers and sisters about the true teachings and concept of Islam.
I rest my case.
Tuesday, November 27
I was about five, and the terrace-house next door to mine was rented by three young Malay ladies. They were very friendly and they always welcomed me to their home. On that particular afternoon, only Auntie N was in the house. The door was unlocked, so I stepped into the familiar living room, wondering where she could be. The first bedroom door was ajar, and there was my first glimpse of a different type of prayer performed by a woman.
On my black-and-white tv screen (those days there was no coloured screen) I had always associated the Malays praying at only the mosque. And only the men would prostrate in unison to the ‘sing-song chantings’ that to my ears, seemed so good to hear. I had never seen a woman performing solat before, as there was hardly any shown on tv, the only connection to the world for a five-year-old. I thought the Malay women prayed like I did, putting two palms together towards the sky and bending the tips of the fingers up and down three times. And there stood Auntie N all dressed in white facing the wall, looking so much at peace with herself. I didn’t know what she was doing then, but I had the sense that she mustn’t be disturbed. So I stood at the door and watched in silence as she performed her prayers. I watched as she bend, prostrated and then sat down. I observed the way she turned her head to the right and then to the left. Then she looked up and saw me.
Auntie N took off her outer garment and there stood the young lady friend as I had always known her. Even at that young age, I understood that Auntie N was different, that she prayed to a different god. And I as a Chinese pray to another god. The gods that my family pray to have human shapes but they couldn’t move. They were statues and wooden palates that we had to pay homage to, bribed with joss-sticks and food. I didn’t understand why we must pray to statues and wood carvings but because everyone else in my family did, and I was told that I would be struck by lightning if I disrespect the gods, I had to be a good obedient girl and pray to the gods too. And so I did.
I learnt that the Malays were different. They only pray when they hear the sing-song call on tv, that shows pictures of buildings with onion-shaped roofs. And their religious writings were different, like ‘taugeh’ or bean-sprouts. There was no ABC at all. When a very important man died ( it was Tun Abd Razak, but I was too young to know who he was then) both the tv stations available showed only words and words of ‘taugeh’ writings with a pencil as a pointer. It was indeed a sad day for me because I couldn’t watch all my favourite shows that day.
I was fortunate because my earliest dealings with Muslim Malays were good. I was always welcomed in their homes and a majority of my school friends were Malay airs, daughters of teachers and soldiers. I understood more about Islam and their ways of living through observation. Interestingly I wasn’t at all interested in Islam at that time. I even paid my last respects to my friend’s father and my Malay teacher when they passed away unexpectedly due to heart attacks. It was all part and parcel of life, and I didn’t feel odd being the only Chinese girl among the Malays. We were more open minded and carefree in those days, and I suppose being dressed like everyone else (only one among 40 wore a tudung in mid 80s) helped to forge better friendships among us.
Little would I know that I am destined to be a Muslimah like all of them. If I had know, I would had asked more questions about their beliefs etc. But then the will of Allah swt works in strange ways.
Sunday, November 25
My great-grandfather’s mother was a Penang Nyonya who used to wear a baju panjang and batik sarong, tying her hair up in a tight bun. I supposed being a Nyonya had certain privileges at her time; she had servants to serve her, jade, gold and silver jewellery to wear, and a big household to command. Nyonyas and Babas were different from the normal Chinese because their sons were mostly English-educated. Great-grandfather himself was given an English education. He became a British court-interpreter, being able to speak, read and write in Chinese, English, Malay and Jawi. It seems that he was so successful and influential in town that the British gave him a house near the court for him to live in with his growing family. The house still stands today and in it was great-grandfather’s portrait; he wore a suit and sported a moustache that curls up at both ends. He actually looked very distinguished and fierce. No wonder youngest grand-uncle used to tell me that the Malays in town were in awe of him because his translated words in court would decide the outcome of their cases.
Grandfather was the firstborn son, a handsome scholar who was en-route for China University when the war broke out between China and Japan. He then became a very strict and respectable headmaster of a Chinese school. That was when he met grandmother who was a village girl at the place he was teaching. It was a matched-made wedding based on the compatibility of their Chinese horoscopes. There must have been a lot of persuading and compromises made because contrary to the normal tradition of the bride moving into the groom’s house, grandfather made himself comfortable at grandmother’s family house, becoming the favourite son-in-law. During the Japanese occupation, grandfather became a newspaper reporter. Grandfather had three sons with grandmother. Unfortunately, his life was short. He died in his sleep a week after youngest uncle was born.
Dad, a salesman, is the eldest son with two younger brothers. Therefore as the first grandchild with no aunts before me, I was the pet of the family. Second uncle was a civil-servant while youngest uncle flew for the Singapore Airlines. We were luckier than most families; our larder was always full, we had good reputation among relatives, and we performed better in our studies compared to other cousins. In a way, we were proud of our achievements.
Nobody from my family had been other than Taoists or Buddhists. Grandmother was a staunch believer of the Tao gods and Buddha. She still believes in them, and that they have helped her to survive all the hardships she had since grandfather’s death. Although grandmother no longer wears the kebaya, she still dons special cotton corsets that flatten her chest instead of brassieres. And boy, grandmother is steep in traditions.
Despite being a governess for the children of several British families, grandmother has not forgotten her roots. She still prays to her gods and faithfully observes all the festivals. She would give special preference to the men in the family and insists on red garments for Chinese New Year. The only difference is, she acquired the ability to speak English, and a taste for Western food. She is better with a fork and knife than I am when we eat chicken chop. So being raised by grandmother who stayed with us for the first nine years of my life, I learned about how to be a good girl according to grandmother’s standard, how to dress modestly, how to pray to the gods, the proper way to show respect to the elders, how to cook pork and Nyonya dishes, and how to be a good wife according to grandmother’s standard. All the things she learned from her own mother, who was a typical pampered Nyonya with a faithful servant-girl. Grandmother used to tell me that when they ran into the woods to hide during the Japanese occupation, the poor servant had to carry a heavy mattress because she could not sleep soundly without her comfortable mattress.
Grandmother didn’t approve of the way I was married off without the huge presence of my large number of relatives, claiming that I was married off like a servant-girl. True to her Nyonya tradition of the groom presenting the bride’s family with a roasted pig on the day of the wedding, she even demanded for one from D, my baffled husband when he came to take me home. She believes that a marriage is for life, the belief that she lived by for she had never remarried after grandfather’s death.
So I knew I had a tough fight ahead when I decided to convert to Islam. Grandmother would never understand and allow it to happen if she could prevent it. For years she had been looking down on people who have children who married Malays, and warning that she would never accept such behaviour from her own brood. And being a filial son, father would do and think the same way. He would roar, threaten and use force, whatever to stop me from ‘disgracing’ the family. Even being a Christian is frowned upon, and not a single person in my large family of relatives has been other than Taoists and Buddhists who pray to the ancestors and keep an altar at home. I am to be the first to turn my back on a long line of traditional believers. It would be tough. Perhaps that is one reason why I had to wait 10 years to be a Muslim. Perhaps being a Muslimah in my 30s is more acceptable because I would be considered more matured in thinking than a 20+ young woman in the prime of her life. Only Allah swt knows best.
I guarded my secret wish to be a Muslim from my family, most of all, my grandmother who loved me in her own way. Even my problems with my husband mustn’t reach her ears or she would create more trouble by enlisting help from so and so in the family. On top of her list would be to save face at whatever cost, another Nyonya belief. Face-saving and ‘what will people say’ have often prevented my family from doing what they wanted to do. Therefore, my decision to divorce was met with disapproval from both father and grandmother. I was accused of being selfish and never thought of the effect on my father’s good name. Nevertheless, I went ahead with my decision and as a result, have never spoken another word to neither father nor grandmother since.
It’s not that I have no intention to speak to them but to do so, I know for sure that I would be greeted with curses in Hokkien, my mother tongue. Another trait of my family is to have a huge vocabulary of crude words, which we hurl like machine-guns, at people who have made us cross. Grandmother is the most skilful among us, so I really do not want to spoil my day listening to her abusive words. I myself have learnt to keep my tongue in check, being so polite that to incidentally say one bad word aloud is usually greeted with laugher among my naughtier family members. Still I am considered a good debater in school, so it must have been passed down to me too.
Really, it’s tough being a Nyonya with a proud family background. It’s difficult to convince family members who see converting to Islam as a betrayal of the family and the Chinese community. It’s not easy to let go of the family connections, wanting to preserve it but knowing that they will not accept me back so readily. Things will not be the same. I now look different, think differently and behave differently. Now, I am first and foremost a Muslim woman. I may even walk past them on the streets and they may not recognise me in my tudung.
Therefore, I have not met any relatives from my father’s side of the family after being a Muslim. I have not entered my grandmother’s house since. My heart is still with them but only time will heal the rift. I pray for the day I can sit together at table with them again and not have them turn away from me in anger and disgust.
It is a small sacrifice I have to make to be Muslim but I don’t regret. I have gained a lot more and Allah has given me the grace and the strength to continue with my life without my family by my side… alhamdulillah for that.
Thursday, November 22
I mean, hello… how can you be sure she even has a boyfriend?
This normal thinking among our Malaysian community actually doesn’t help people to convert to Islam. It’s already bad among the non-Muslims who naturally think that the lady is influenced to leave her own religion for a Malay chap, but when the Muslim-Malay community seems to say “aye” to that thought, what would the poor lady do if she has no Muslim boyfriend waiting for her at the aisle?
Why can’t people accept that there are normal men and women who want to embrace Islam for Islam’s sake because they believe in the truth of Islam, not because they want to marry a Muslim woman or man?
That it’s perfectly all right for a woman, albeit a married one, to want to convert to Islam and not because she wants to leave her ‘kafir’ husband for a Muslim man?
While it is true that there are people who convert to Islam in order to be able to marry their Muslim loved ones, please accept that there are some who do so alone.
A woman who converts for marriage has an easier time compared to one who is alone. Yet I always believe that those who really go for Islam will emerge the stronger in faith, because they bear witness for Islam everyday through their difficulties as mualafs. I’ve witnessed a few sisters in their early twenties who were kicked out of their homes because of Islam. Like me, they had no place to go and were forced to squat with friends or at the Transit Home for new converts, a building so far away from town and entertainment that some girls, due to boredom, had actually ran away from the place. Furthermore, single ladies had more difficulty concealing their new religion from family members especially when they have to pray at home in their telekong. The men had an easier time because they don’t look any different and prayer times can be done at the nearest mosque.
I myself had a very difficult time ten years ago when my colleagues found out that I wanted to be a Muslim. Rumours claimed that I was having an affair with another married Muslim man. Nobody asked me for the truth or for my own version of the story. They just boycotted me at school, thanks for the fact that the wife of my so-called boyfriend happened to be the Penolong kanan.
The community just didn’t know what to do about a married woman who was willing to leave everything behind for Islam. I suppose that a juicy gossip about so-and-so breaking up to be with so-and-so would be so much better to talk about than the plain fact that the lady in question finds Islam good enough to compensate for her worldly loses. And sad to say, these gossipers were also our Muslim brothers and sisters.
So when I decided to go ahead with my plans to convert to Islam the second time around in 2005, I kept quiet. I didn’t dare breathe a word about my plans to anyone but a few close friends did find out, eventually. I didn’t even tell anyone about my plans to divorce my then-husband D, until I actually signed the divorce forms. I was very, very careful because I didn’t want to be the target of another round of gossips. My past experience has taught me not to trust anyone fully, especially about something as sensitive a divorce and religion. Also, I didn’t want to drag any innocent man down the drain with me when the gossips start to fly again.
So did I get the questions from people as to why I convert to Islam?
Of course I did. In fact, I got the same questions too many times that I’ve lost count.
I knew many tongues were wagging behind my back, that I left my husband for a Malay boyfriend
But I’m happy to say that I did all for the sake of Islam, and I got the strength to undergo all the trials and tribulations upon becoming a Muslimah from Islam and Allah swt.
I first became interested in Islam in 1995, at the age of 24. At that time, I was already a young teacher who has just got registered in marriage to another teacher, D. We rented a singe-storey terraced house and life was simple. However, my relationship with D was rocky. He had talked little about his hobby – rearing birds in cages and fish in aquariums - and had only revealed them when I became his lawfully-wedded wife. I was angry because I have sensitive skin that would breakout in rashes when it comes into contact with bird feathers, but it was too late to do anything. He refused to let go of his hobby.
Being miserable and left alone in the house most nights when D went out for tea-drinking sessions with his buddies, I started to read more and more. That was when I learned about Islam. I secretly learned to say the syahadah using the romanized version, but I was too scared to tell anyone about my interest. D, being a staunch Buddhist, would never go for Islam. My parents would be livid, so I kept the growing interest a secret. It was easy because D was seldom at home. My books about Islam were secretly kept in a box in the store-room.
However, I made a mistake that would cause me to wait 10 years before I get to recite the syahadah. I told my school teachers, Malay ladies whom I thought would help. I was wrong. I didn’t get the support I needed. Maybe it was because I was a married woman and they know D, maybe it was something else but I was disappointed to say the least.
After weeks of uncertainty, I decided to do it myself. I donned a baju kurung and with a scarf to cover my hair, I went to the Islamic religious office in town after school ends at 1.30pm. I stepped into the building and saw three Malay men in their 40s at the entrance. One of them at the table asked me what I wanted. I told him I wanted to know how to convert to Islam. He looked at me for some time, then told me that I would have to go to Perkim. Not sure where it is, I asked him again where the Perkim is, and he mentioned a place which is at the outskirts of town, and that it was usually opened at night. He did not give me any address or contact number, and as I looked around for advices, I realised that the men were not going to help me. Disappointed, I walked out of the building alone.
Perhaps it was too early for me to be a Muslim, perhaps it was a preparation of the type of welcome I was to expect from the community towards a single lady, so many perhaps. But their negative attitude and my school teachers’ gossips somehow put me off from going ahead with my plans to be an Islam convert. In my mind at that time, they were not ready to welcome me. If I were not able to get the support I’d need as a new convert from these people, then my conversion would be even more difficult. I might not survive mentally and spiritually on my own. Hence, I decided to postpone my plans for Islam for the time being.
I always believe that if God wants me to be a Muslim, He’d give me another chance at another time, with better support. I held on to that belief, and kept it a secret from my family and D,with whom I eventually reconciled but our marriage continued to be rocky until it was dissolved. What I didn’t know was, it would take me ten long years before the right time came for me to venture forward into the world of Islam.
I got interested in Islam in 1995 but couldn’t go forward.
I got my chance again in 2005 and learned more about Islam and my interest was renewed.
This time around, it was the right time… I finally recited the two-kalimah syahadah in 2006.