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For an extra treat this week, we have a second new writer to introduce! You might recognise Sya from her past MMW guest posts on Ramadan in Singapore and on the Save Maryam campaign, and we are happy to welcome her as a more regular contributor to MMW.
Last week I was in London, moonlighting as a cheerleader. My sister, Nurulasyiqah, represented Singapore in boccia for the first time ever, and I was absolutely excited to see her play in the Paralympics.
In between matches, a friend remarked:
“You know, your sister looks like such a good Muslim.”
In Islamic discourses, disabled people are generally portrayed as being “special” or closer to God, but also “imperfect.” In the Malay archipelago, there are several du’a related to children that couples are taught to recite. The supplication from Quran 3:38 in particular stands out – Prophet Zakaria’s du’a asking God for offspring that is tayyib (Arabic, meaning “good” or “righteous”) is often translated and explained in Malay as sempurna or tidak cacat (Malay, meaning “perfect” or “complete,” i.e. having no disability of any kind). In parallel, we are also taught a du’a asking God for protection from Shaitan harming one’s baby. Following this logic, it’s not surprising that Malay society sometimes views disabled or deformed newborns as being a trial or burden from God, or the result of Shaitan’s influence.
Mental illnesses in particular are the most susceptible to being viewed as possession by jinn. I once had a niece who had schizophrenia and many relatives would speak of her as being possessed, before she was given medication to control it (it seems these chemical jinn in the brain respond well to drugs!) Since in mainstream jurisprudence, akal (Malay for rational state of mind) is a requirement for the validity of acts of worship such as fasting or prayer, those with mental illnesses growing up in Muslim families are often exempted from these ibadah.
The physically-disabled are not discouraged from taking part in communal Muslim life, but physical barriers often stop them from doing so. In Singapore, mosques (as any other building) built after 1990 have to be accessible, and older ones are slowly upgrading to include lifts and ramps. However, there are still a number of mosques in older or historic neighbourhoods that remain inaccessible. This mosque for example, recently provided a tent-like, fully-curtained space outside the male main prayer space for women who are too weak to climb two flights of stairs to the women’s space. But Muslims who cannot even climb stairs have no way of entering the mosque.
When my sister and I went to Sunday school in our younger days, the mosque was not wheelchair-accessible. We had to round up two or three young men each week to carry her wheelchair down three big steps to where the classrooms were, before rearranging the wall panels to let her into the classroom. This process was repeated after class. Many thanks to these young men, but sometimes I wished that we didn’t have to make such a grand entrance into class every Sunday.
Recently, a Facebook friend highlighted the work of a disabled volunteer for a Ramadhan activity. Other volunteers were surprised to see this istimewa (Malay, meaning “special”) young boy on crutches come to help out with activities at the mosque. While older volunteers are already happy to see youth serving their community, this young boy was not singled out for his age, but for his disability.
Another example of how disability trumps Muslim identity is the portrayal Muslim athletes in the Paralympic Games – which is, to put it briefly, non-existent. Reams of articles were written on Ramadhan (here, here and here) and Muslim presence in the Olympics, but the universal fascination with Muslim women’s bodies and freedoms put a special focus on Muslim women competing in hijab (here, there, everywhere), while pregnant, or competing despite their conservative countries. Invariably, these would be accompanied with photos of how they covered up (sometimes to show a stark contrast with their non-Muslim counterparts).
Without getting into a discussion of hijab as a marker of piety, a quick Google image search reveals heaps of hijabi Olympians, but nothing at all for the Paralympics. Surely there were Muslim athletes at the Paralympics – my sister is one, and I definitely saw a few hijabis from Iran zipping around in their wheelchairs in the Paralympic Village. Or are Muslim athletes only interesting when they wear hijabs and have lithe bodies?
The Paralympics has always received less coverage than the Olympics, so it makes sense that Muslim Paralympians receive proportionally less coverage than Muslim Olympians. (The Olympics coinciding with Ramadhan was probably another factor.) But what I find fascinating is that the coverage of Muslim Olympians has been almost exclusively oriented towards hijabis, whereas coverage of Muslim Paralympians is practically non-existent (with the exemption of the Jordanian team sexual assault charges and the Bosnian sitting volleyball team). Muslimah Paralympians, situated in the intersection of gender, religion and disability, represent a slice of society that are celebrities only for disabled Muslims (or Orientalists that view being Muslim/a woman/disabled as triple oppressions), and are barely covered in mainstream media.
Where were the celebrations for female and male athletes from Iran, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt who won gold medals in powerlifting, javelin, athletics, and archery? Zahra Nemati is the first of Iran’s female Paralympians to win a gold medal in archery, Egypt’s Fatma Omar won her fourth consecutive gold in powerlifting, and Maroua Ibrahmi’s gold in the club throw was picked up by MMW last week. And silver medals? There were Algeria’s Mounia Gasmi in club throw and Safia Djelal in javelin, and Egypt’s Heba Ahmed and Iraq’s Randa Mahmoud in powerlifting.
It seems that no one wants to aspire to be a Paralympian. At best, young disabled Muslims look to them as role models, but for most of the general able-bodied population, they are either our source of inspiration or an outlet for our charity and pity.
And how did my sister fare? She almost made it to the semi-finals, but narrowly lost a tie-breaker with Korea. But she’s happy. Success is not always a gold medal, because inshallah she represents possibilities for all boccia athletes in Singapore, and especially Malay Muslim para-athletes.