“Why can’t you be a Christian?” Mum called up a week after she found out about my change of faith and demanded an answer.
“Because I no longer believe in Christianity.” ( talking sensitive issues on the phone was easier than looking at her face, for which I was thankful)
“Why do you HAVE TO CHOOSE ISLAM? Why not other religion?” she nagged again.
“Why can’t I choose Islam?” I asked her back, knowing better than to mention Allah or Muhammad in any of our conversation, which might cause her to yell even louder into my ear.
“Haiyahhh… You are one stubborn girl ( I admit that, it’s true) Why must you choose THAT religion? And you have to pray five times a day, you know.”
“So..? That’s the problem? I’m praying five times a day, there’s no problem.” (quite true, although I still fumbled over my recitations, but then why should I tell her that?)
“There must be someone… who is he?” she changed the topic.
“There’s no man…Is it necessary for me to have a man in order to be a Muslim? If you want, I can go find one if that’d make you happy,” I replied, knowing very well how she’d react.
“No need, no need… no need marry at all. Malay men are not dependable.”(ouch! Sorry Malay readers, that’s Mum’s stereotyping)
“Mum, Malays are not the only Muslims in the world. There are about 50 thousand Chinese Muslims in Malaysia, and millions in China. What makes you think I’d end up marrying a Malay man? I might end up married to a rich Arab.” ( to Mum, a Muslim is a Malay)
“You don’t be the second or third or fourth wife and bring me shame. I will not tolerate that.”
I just smiled. “Can’t promise you that, Mum. I don’t even know who I’ll marry yet.” (marrying was almost the last thing on my mind then, I was trying to survive on my own)
“You don’t wear tudung ahh. If you wear tudung, you don’t come back, I won’t let you in.”
(sigh) “Why can’t I wear tudung? Anyway the Quran instructs Muslim women to wear tudung.”
“No, why must you cover up? You got nice hair, stupid to cover it up. Malay women themselves don’t wear tudung, so why must you wear?”
“Sorry, but I’m wearing.”
“Then you don’t come back! I will not have you enter the house in a tudung. What will the neighbours say…? (Additional words left unsaid: .. if they find out you are a Muslim now? Where can I hide my face?)
A few days later, another call.
“You sure you want to be a Muslim?”
“ I am a Muslim now.” (huh? What was she trying to imply?)
“ You’ve gone to the office? You know, if you haven’t you can still change your mind.”
“I’ve done everything officially. I’m happy as a Muslim. What’s the problem now?’
“ You know once you become a Muslim, you can’t turn back. You can no longer change your religion.” (Mum’s not stupid, Malaysia syariah laws allows Muslim murtad to be imprisoned)
“ I know. I have no intention to change. I want to die as a Muslim, ok? Are you all right?”
“I’m going to change my will. You’re no going to get anything.” (oohh now I get it)
“It’s ok, your money and jewellery anyway, you can do as you like. I respect your decision.”
“Ok fine. I’m just want to make sure you know.”
That’s my mother. Kampung-bred, lived among Muslim Malays for the first twenty years of her life and knows more about the lifestyle of the Malays than her own mualaf daughter. Problem is, she cannot differentiate between Malays and Islamic teachings. She has watched how Malay women changed from carefree lifestyle of the 60s, their tight-kebaya clad attire and permed hair, to a more subdued lifestyle, loose baju kurung and tudung of all colours and find the changes horrifying, ugly and unreasonable. And when her only daughter decided to be a Muslim herself, she did everything to prevent it, and she almost succeeded, for ten years. Then this disobedient daughter (me!) went ahead embracing Islam as her religion, and Mum got mad with anger and frustration.
I know what her feelings were. Shame, frustration and embarrassment. Shame because the relatives blame her for my conversion into Islam. They scolded her when they couldn’t scold me (not my fault, nobody bothered to ask for my phone number when I was a Buddhist) saying that she had made the ancestors turn over in their graves. Shame because they claim that she has failed as a mother to bring up her children properly. Worse still, her own husband, my often-absent father turned around and shifted all the blame onto her as well, for she had supported me while he had vehemently opposed my divorce.
Frustration because she had not touched an al-Quran all her life and the little knowledge she has about Islam, correct or misguided, is learnt from observation and her friendships with the Muslim Malays. She sees bad examples of Muslims and thinks that is Islam. She doesn’t understand the true Islamic concepts and she can’t see why I find Islam to be so unique. Frustration because she couldn’t barge into my university and stop me, because by the time she found out, I was officially a Muslim.
Embarrassment because the Chinese community still looks down on families whose children reverts to Islam. Muslim Chinese have little or no social standing in the Chinese community in Malaysia. We are considered outsiders, outcasts even because we no longer pray the same way, think the same thoughts, eat the same food, and drink the same drink. That’s why my mother prefers me to be a Christian than a Muslim, because half the Chinese community are indeed Christians. She also doesn’t want me to wear a tudung because it is a sure sign that I am a Muslim, and she doesn’t want to have to deal with neighbours’ gossips, and their demands to know if it is true that her daughter has discarded ancestral worship.
And how is my mother taking it more than a year after my conversion to Islam? Well, she’s slightly mellowed. She has finally accepted that she can't change the fact that I am now a Muslimah but she still nags about the tudung, and refuses to sit in the same car with me. It’s amazing how much controversy a 40’ X 40’ square piece of cloth can do. Of course, if she finds out whom I’m married to, she’d most probably kill me.