by Amy Heidi
I remember reading an opinion piece in the Chronicle a couple of years ago on “Why I couldn’t care less about feminism”. While the author and I share the same faith, we do not share the same background; she was “a brown skinned British Muslim with Indian parents”, I am an international student who hails from Brunei, a tiny kingdom located on an island in the middle of Southeast Asia. I have a mixed and diverse Asian ancestry that I do not identify as being wholly either South or East Asian.
Unlike Ateka, who faced greater discrimination over her faith and the colour of her skin than being a woman, I have never felt that way, I have never felt that I was discriminated at all due to my faith nor the colour of my skin nor my gender. Maybe it was because, until four years ago, I lived in a Muslim majority country for my whole life. Upon arriving in Cambridge, I did not feel like a minority and have never felt discriminated against due to being in a very international environment – Lucy boasts students from 63 different countries. The MPhil and PhD students that I met in my first year at the Faculty of Education hailed from every part of the world that you can think of, to a point that the Home students are the minority among a sea of international students. I once mentioned to my supervisor that when I move between the two Faculty buildings (the Donald McIntyre Building where all Masters classes were held and the Science Education Centre where the Postgraduate Certificate of Education students have their classes), I move from an area with a lot of international students to a space which seems populated entirely by Home students. Hence, due to the international make-up of the Masters and PhD students, I have never felt like a minority. Undergraduate international friends from Southeast Asia in other Colleges, however, say otherwise.
Maybe that was because, prior to going into the PhD, I was a Biology undergraduate. Biology is notorious for having more women than men; I was also a teacher, where, again, I was in an environment that has more women than men. Not only that, back in 2015, Brunei ranked on the seventh place in the world when it comes to the highest ratio of female to male in higher education (x), and although Brunei is very much a patriarchal society on the outset with top management position is still mostly held by men (although the Sultan did appoint two women as deputy ministers in the recent cabinet reshuffle), there is some subtle matriarchal power play going on in certain areas in the Bruneian society.
For example, I recently posed this question to a nineteen year old Bruneian undergrad who just arrived in Cambridge last term, “You’d like to go out with your friends. Who do you ask permission from, and who gets the last say whether you can go out?”, at first she answered, her parents, and then, said “my mum, although my dad also put in his two cents”. The very fact that she said her mum first before adding her dad as an afterthought speaks volume on Brunei’s matriarchal power. I experienced the same thing when I was still a teenager living in my parents’ home, where my mum would usually be the one to have the last say on whether or not I could go out to the cinema with my boyfriend at that time. And, unlike in South Asian communities where the wife leaves her parents’ home to move in with her husband’s home, it is the other way around in Brunei: the husband would be the one who moves in with the wife’s family, or they divide their time between the two houses if they’ve not yet got a place of their own.
Thus, four years ago, I did not self-identify as a feminist, because I believed that Brunei had given me every opportunity possible to succeed in terms of my education, and being a Muslim woman, I have also learned from Islamic history where the oldest library on Earth was started by a woman (x), that the Messenger’s wife was a successful businesswoman in her own right (x) and that women fighting sexism in Islam are frequently supported by men (x). Feminism is already interlaced within Islam, despite what certain elements of the press would have us believe.
However, four years after moving to Cambridge, I now self-identify as a feminist. I have met Muslims that came from different cultural backgrounds. Ryan Riordan, the current president of Cambridge University Islamic Society, is White; he reports receiving weird looks from people when he was the one manning the Islamic Society booth during Freshers’ Fair. I have spent time with Muslims from South Asia, Africa, the Middle East and China, and each of them have a different experience and different cultural context than what I am used to. I have started to realise that what Islam says about women and what Muslims actually do with women depends a lot on the cultural context. I have also had the misfortune to meet Muslim men from some of these other cultural backgrounds on Muslim dating apps (yes, Muslim dating apps exist!), who appeared so bigoted and sexist that I have stopped using the apps completely.
I have also noted how blessed I am to be a middle-class educated woman in modern Brunei. My great-grandmother refused to let my grandmother go to school, but she did not stop my grand-uncles from teaching her daughters at home; the women in my family have valued education ever since. I am a third-generation teacher, and soon to be (if God wills), a second-generation teacher educator. I did not realise before coming here that in the outside world, beyond the bubble that is Brunei, there were still girls being denied an education and an equal pay.
I do acknowledge, however, that even living at the intersections of being a Muslim, a woman, and Southeast Asian, my experiences may not be the same as those of others. Suhaymah Manzoor-Khan, for example, a Cambridge alum who identifies herself as a Muslim Feminist, a British Muslim and a third generation British Pakistani, records her very different thoughts on moving through the world in these identities at https://thebrownhijabi.com.Equally, my experiences may not chime with those of the student who wrote “Why I couldn’t care less about feminism” in the Chronicle two years ago.
I am Amy Hamizah Haidi. I am a Muslim woman from Southeast Asia in my early thirties, and I am a Muslim feminist.