ROJAK – Mahnoor Ali
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
By: Mahnoor Ali
Edited by: Jesie Randhawa
This article is part of ROJAK, a series inspired by the famous Southeast Asian dish, literally meaning ‘eclectic mix of ingredients’. It aims to collate the lived experiences of mixed-identity women who have interacted with both Singapore's society and the wider world, allowing for an exploration of the nitty-gritty hardships of intersectionality while simultaneously showcasing the beautiful diversity in our midst.
Mahnoor Ali is your average first generation immigrant/third culture kid trying to navigate life through a society plagued by the patriarchy. She is a political researcher and unapologetic feminist, ready to protest for the rights of those marginalized in this world. When not advocating for women’s rights you will normally find her trying to learn a new language or running marathons.
Growing up there was a certain ambiguity over what identity meant to me and which box I was supposed to fit into.
For the longest time I didn’t even need to fit into any box because it was never officially asked of me. That is until I moved back to Singapore to finish secondary school where I was met with the recurring task to ‘tick the race box: Chinese, Indian, Malay, or Other’. It is nothing new that anyone who doesn’t fall under the Chinese, Indian or Malay category is automatically a minority and will more often than not have their “Singaporean-ness” questioned.
What could be more othering than labelling a person as ‘Other’? I quickly realized my individual identity wasn’t necessarily important within the public sphere. All that was highlighted was that I am not a part of the majority. Grouping us all together under this umbrella term of ‘other’, there is an inference that people not part of the majority are all basically the same. To some extent that undermines individual identities and teaches that no matter what, ‘aliens’ will be treated in a certain way from the get-go. Minority experiences are just as valid as anyone else's. At the end of the day we all love to head down to our favourite cai fan for supper with our friends, we sing along to the cheesy NDP songs every year and we all understand the importance of a packet of tissue on a table has (respect the chope).
Another major part of my identity, and something that is immediately recognized when I enter a space, is that I am a woman. My version of presenting and identifying as a woman is a culmination of what the world asks of me (society, family, friends, relationships) and what I expect from myself. My interpretations of what it means to be a woman is rooted in this constructed definition of womanhood which states: Womanhood is a diverse identity rooted in embodied experiences, imposed expectations, institutional governance, social presentation, and internal reality [ 1].
Being a first-generation immigrant woman, I’ve developed through common tribulations such as body-image, sexuality and self-identity, but these have been made even more pronounced as I’ve had to figure it all out through the realms of my own family culture and in Singapore. Opposing behavioural norms, beauty standards and expectations have shaped my unique identity as a woman. Society is constantly telling us how to dress, how to sit, how to speak. ‘No cursing, it’s not ladylike’, I’ve been told to control myself and not be so open and now my openness is something I love about myself. All these rules create an exclusion, which breeds anxiety. Part of my identity was learning that walking down the street would mean I would be accosted by random men, have to work twice as hard to be heard in professional settings and always be primarily judged on appearance. Having lived on my own for 5 years now, worked so many different and unpleasant jobs pubs for survival, I have built a independence and capability to hold my own, stand up to big scary men and confidently wear the skin I’m in. Though I do have a constantly changing relationship with my body: trying to figure out if my looks fit into the latest fad, being judged for fitting in too well or not well enough, learning it’s okay to be “boyish” but also enjoy putting on makeup and dressing up whilst dealing with a never ending assault of hormones.
On top of being singled out as an obvious minority within official capacities, society then decides to highlight and focus on how we are NOT part of the norm. I understand that when people use the word “exotic” to describe me or someone else that is “foreign” they’re trying to be complimentary. However, this does not only hint to tones of fetishization but also reduces a person to nothing other than an object that is unusual or alien to your perceived “societal norm”. The word ‘exotic’ is defined as unusual and exciting because of coming (or seeming to come) from far away, especially a tropical country. I’m not a plant or a piece of fruit. This is exclusion and what feels like dehumanization to me is a brutal reminder that I fail to meet the beauty standards that favour certain features over mine. I am less “normal” than most people. I accredit this largely to the major lack of representation within the media, government and a lot of other areas of public life. I rarely, if ever, saw women who looked like me on TV, especially not in Singapore. I guess the closest example would be watching Aladdin, but even there this make-believe land in the Middle East is described in the beginning as “barbaric but hey, it’s home.”
I feel as though people like me, minority ethnic women, are almost constantly forgotten in mainstream discourse as society has a hard time placing them into a particular box and are therefore unaware of what to do with them. It’s easy for people to put you in a box that THEY are more familiar with. And to the world it’s easiest to classify me as a brown Muslim girl, and therefore automatically I have an entire community of people watching and judging my every move. My family, though religious, is relatively liberal compared to your stereotypical Muslim household. We have pet dogs, I work in bars, I don’t cover up as much as a “good Muslim girl should”, so this makes it harder for people to accept. The rhetoric surrounding Muslims, especially Muslim women, inadvertently leads to the terms “oppressed”, “docile”, “lacking in freedom”, etc. These words don’t even come close to describing me, or any Muslim woman I know. Yes we do have to go through certain tribulations within some old school environments such as being ignored in public spaces especially by brown men, random aunties constantly bombarding you with relationship and marriage questions or judging everything you do in the public eye and gossiping about it to the whole community . But this has only helped me develop a thicker skin and stronger desire to challenge the status quo when it came to certain outdated cultural expectations.
The struggle of navigating life as a woman doesn’t stop there. Secondary school wasn’t a picnic either. I had to deal with my physicality being constantly judged for being different and a far cry from the beauty standards young people in Singapore have established. Not like being a teen girl going through puberty is dramatic and hostile enough. The desirable form: being petite, slim, fair, long straight silky hair, virtually zero body hair. And then there was me. A good 20cm taller than all the other girls, my big Jat build, thick curly mop on my head, my Arab nose noticeable from a mile away, big eyebrows and my body hair. Yes, I am brown, I am hairy, it is what it is. The running joke through my entire secondary school life was that I had hair like Hagrid, or Chewbacca, or that it was just SO BIG and fluffy that everyone felt the need to play with/touch it. Additionally, a lot of the boys would call me “manly”, “beast/monster”, or “not really a girl”. All things that not only created anxieties but also dysmorphic traits within myself.
However, what I was made fun of in school was celebrated in university. I’ve grown to understand that each woman is uniquely different and there is no real need to conform to any socially constructed rules of how we need to behave and exist. I’ve learnt to love my frizzy curls, my thick eyebrows that have suddenly become a “fad”. My identity is not just composed of my own ethnic background, but a combination of the cultures I’ve been exposed to, the various countries I’ve lived in and the plethora of different views I’ve developed over the years. My identity is an esoteric experience that no one else will be able to fully understand or experience. It is uniquely me and I am blessed to have it, so I will OWN it.