WHEN moral policing in Malaysia makes the headlines, it’s often for the wrong reasons. Take the Federal Territories Islamic Department’s raid on Zouk nightclub, Kuala Lumpur, in 2005, which created an international uproar. Or in 2007, when Amnesty International appealed on behalf of Ayu, a transsexual woman assaulted by Malacca’s Islamic law enforcers.
More recently, in April 2010, a young man fell to his death while attempting to escape from Selangor’s Islamic religious enforcers. The Selangor Islamic Affairs Department, however, denies involvement.
Moral policing has its defenders and detractors. But what exactly happens during a raid, or an operation, from the perspective of the person getting caught? How is it possible to nab someone for a “moral crime” – such as sex before marriage or transvestism – as opposed to crimes stipulated under the Penal Code?
To answer these questions, The Nut Graph will run a series of interviews with individuals who have been affected by moral policing. These testimonies are by no means representative of the entire moral policing spectrum in Malaysia, but they nevertheless offer a perspective for the public to deliberate on.
Our first interviewee had her encounter in Perak. Mona Abu Bakar, 35, says she can now laugh about the time when religious enforcers “busted” her and her husband for suspected khalwat. A columnist for English daily theSun and a recruiter at a Malaysian company, Mona tells The Nut Graph about her experiences in this exclusive phone interview on 31 May 2010.
The Nut Graph: What happened in the moments leading up to the raid?
Mona Abu Bakar: I got married in December 2002. In January 2003, my grandfather passed away. So my husband and I drove from KL back to Penang for the funeral. However, our car broke down on the highway near Taiping, so we had to leave it at a workshop there and make our way to Penang by public transport.
About a month later, my husband and I went back to Taiping to get our repaired car. Since we took public transport, we were quite tired and wanted to spend the night there before driving back the next day. The hotel we checked into was a small-town, cheap hotel.
It was the weekend, and we were casually dressed. But at that time, we still hadn’t gotten our kad kahwin yet. Yes, you have to pay RM20 for a crappy, laminated marriage licence in Selangor, which I think I could’ve made myself.
It was around midnight that night, and I was already asleep. My husband was up watching English Premier League football on TV. Then there was a knock on the door. There were men’s voices saying they were from Jabatan Agama Islam Perak (Jaip). They demanded to come into the room. I wasn’t properly dressed – I was in bed and asleep up until then. They came in and asked if we were married.
Did they ask nicely or were they abusive in any way?
They weren’t abusive, but they did ask to see our ICs and everything. The group consisted of three or four men. They wouldn’t leave the room, though, and that made me quite uncomfortable.
They kept insisting on seeing our kad kahwin, even though I was groggy from just having woken up. We told them we hadn’t been issued one yet. They weren’t satisfied, and we had to call my father to speak to them on the phone. They still wouldn’t believe him. They went on to ask my husband what he was doing, and when he said he was watching football, they asked him the score. I think their reasoning was that if my husband was really watching football, he’d know the score and therefore we probably weren’t up to anything. They left us alone after that.
What led the enforcers to investigate you, though?
I don’t know. The next day, we learnt that they had tried to raid our room only. It wasn’t an operasi on the entire hotel. So we figured somebody might have tipped them off.
Why do you say that?
I’ve heard rumours that in the hotel industry, some hotel staff receive cash incentives from the jabatan agama if they provide tip-offs. I don’t know how far this is true. But then, how do you explain the fact that the Jaip officers singled out our room and not anyone else’s?
“I’ve heard rumours that in the hotel industry, some hotel staff
receive cash incentives from the jabatan agama
if they provide tip-offs. I don’t know how far this is true.”
Did you try to lodge a complaint with them afterwards, or try to dig for more information?
No, we just couldn’t be bothered because it would be a waste of time.
I need to put things in context here. My parents are cool but pretty conservative. As for me, I’m not that conservative, but I do observe some things strictly; for example I don’t drink, I only eat halal meat, I don’t agree with sex before marriage. My parents were also really strict about who I went out with. My dates would consist of my boyfriend – my husband now – coming to the house and playing Monopoly with me in the living room.
Nevertheless, I find dealing with religious authorities unpleasant. I mean, I have my own religious teachers – ustazs and ustazahs and so on – and I get along with them well. But they are not state-appointed authorities.
Do you disagree with the mixing of state and religion then?
Actually, I like the fact that the Malaysian government makes it easy for Muslims to practise the religion. I like that we can find surau in shopping malls, and that it’s very easy for Muslims to find and identify halal food. But prying into people’s private lives? I think it’s kind of sick, actually, and it creates an unhealthy culture.
I mean, even for something like the tudung (headscarf) for Muslim women – I think women should be able to choose on their own whether to wear it without being pressured. I choose not to.
Have you had any other unpleasant experiences with the state religious authorities?
This is the thing. When I wanted to get married, it was just so unpleasant dealing with frontline officers and staff at the jabatan agama. They had so many prying questions and judgmental comments. However, when we finally met the kadi who was going to marry us, he was such a sweetheart. He even asked me very nicely, “Are you sure you are marrying this man because you love him, and not because you are being pressured into doing it?”
So some of these employees of religious departments – they are mere functionaries and can actually behave really badly. But the truly religious people are quite nice and more accepting than many people assume.
Do you carry your marriage licence around now?
No, because I don’t think it’s something I need to constantly carry around to justify myself to society. I’ve got nothing to be afraid of.
Do you still get harassed, though?
Yes. For example when I used to work around Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC), I would jog at the park after work. My husband would then come and get me after I was done and we’d walk together, holding hands. The KLCC security guards would come and ask, “Why are you holding hands? Are you married?” I’d be like, “Why is it your business?” I mean, I’m not going to carry my marriage certificate while I’m out jogging.
“When the authorities try to police people’s morals,
there are probably many factors at play. It could be class …
It’s probably also age … It could also be an education issue”
It could be because my husband and I looked quite young when we first got married, and still do. So when the authorities try to police people’s morals, there are probably many factors at play. It could be class – people who drive big cars hardly get harassed, I’ll bet. It’s probably also age – a young couple is more likely to get harassed than an older couple. It could also be an education issue – the higher educated you are, the less likely you’re going to be harassed.
Has the experience affected you in any way to this day?
My husband and I can laugh it off now. But can you imagine getting busted for khalwat right after getting married?
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