Threat to ban yoga tests boundary of tolerance

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 November, 2008, 12:00am

Norien Hassan is used to pushing the limits in her yoga studio. What she did not expect was to test religious as well as physical boundaries.

The 37-year-old began practising yoga in Kuala Lumpur after she heard it could help women conceive.

Three years later, she is a proud married mother of two who now practises yoga up to six days a week as she trains to become an instructor.

Ms Norien, a devout Muslim, never imagined the exercise could conflict with her Islamic beliefs.

'Yoga is a form of exercise. There's many benefits to it,' she said. 'I don't see it as being religious. I don't see how it would interfere.'

Others disagree. Malaysia's National Fatwa Council, one of the country's highest Islamic bodies, is considering banning yoga for Muslims after a university lecturer advised people to stop practising it for fear that it could deviate from the teachings of Islam.

The proposal follows a number of fatwas, or decrees, that have sparked the ire of women's groups, who argue that the fatwas unfairly discriminate against Muslim women.

Sisters in Islam, which promotes the rights of Muslim women, has become increasingly concerned by the Malaysian authorities' 'continuing sexist approach'.

In June, the Kota Bharu Municipal Council in the country's northeast issued a directive asking Muslim women not to wear heavy lipstick or high heels.

In recent years, the National Fatwa Council has issued rulings forbidding Muslims from using botox and women from entering beauty pageants.

Last month it banned women from exhibiting tomboy behaviour, which it defined as behaving or dressing like men or taking part in lesbian sex.

Council chairman Abdul Shukor Husin told the Bernama news agency that many young women admired the way men dressed, behaved and socialised, which violated human nature and denied their femininity.

'It is unacceptable to see women who love the male lifestyle, including dressing in the clothes men wear,' he said.

'It becomes clearer when they start to have sex with someone of the same gender, that is woman and woman.

'In view of this, the National Fatwa Council has ... taken the stand that such acts are forbidden and banned.'

Norhayati Kaprawi of Sisters in Islam said the regulations that dictated women's behaviour were part of a regressive trend towards wanting to control women's lives and define identity and lifestyle within a narrow perspective.

She believes any rulings which discriminate against particular groups damage religious and racial harmony, and 'gender justice'.

'Sisters in Islam wishes that our National Fatwa Council focuses its effort on upholding justice, equality, civil liberty and democracy in Malaysia. These are all intrinsic values in Islam,' she said.

'We have serious national issues that need special attention by our political and religious leaders, such as money politics in political parties, draconian laws like the Internal Security Act, a high crime rate, domestic violence and cases of non-payment of child maintenance by errant fathers. These should be the main focus.'

Last week, a protest in Kuala Lumpur denounced the council's fatwa on tomboys.

The protesters claimed that Muslim women should have the right to express themselves and dress the way they wanted, the Star newspaper reported.

Ms Norhayati said the fatwa could lead to arbitrary arrests and undue harassment.

She questioned how the authorities would define a tomboy.

'Many Malaysian women sport short hair, wear pants, shirts and don't wear makeup. It is culturally normal for Malaysian women to be body-comfortable with each other - many women hold hands, hug their friends or kiss their friends on the cheek,' she said.

'How does one define 'manly' behaviour? Not gentle and demure enough?

'Talking too loudly? Who would and how could one define and determine whether a woman is a tomboy or a lesbian?'

Ms Norhayati said the fatwas unfairly targeted women. She said in 2000, a female singer was charged with 'insulting Islam' after performing while alcohol was served, while the male members of the band were not charged.

Islamic legal expert Ruzman Mohammad Noor said rulings issued by the National Fatwa Council had to be accepted and gazetted by individual states.

The laws were then enforced by the states' Islamic affairs departments. Dr Ruzman, of the University of Malaya's Academy of Islamic Studies, said the maximum penalty for breaking a religious ruling was three years' imprisonment, a M$5,000 (HK$10,800) fine and six strokes of the rotan, or cane.

About 60 per cent of Malaysia's 27 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims. The fatwa council's rulings do not affect non-Muslims.

The council was due to deliver its verdict on yoga earlier this month but the decision has been postponed. Manisekaran, founder of the Malaysian Yoga Society, is hopeful that the postponement is a sign the council may change its mind.

The yoga master, who said the ancient practice had become increasingly popular among women, believes the council has misunderstood the concept of yoga. 'Through dialogue they should be able to get a clearer picture of the whole issue,' he said, adding that he had written to the council. What I've told them is that yoga is not a religious concern. It's purely a mind-body exercise which has very sound techniques of developing people's health and awareness.'

A spokesman for the Department of Islamic Development said the council would discuss the issue next month.

He said the council was investigating whether yoga included elements of Hindu worship.

'From the Islamic perspective, we have to be very careful of what we are doing, including exercises,' he said. 'If the exercise that we do contradicts Islamic principles then they have to come up with suitable solutions from an Islamic perspective.'

In the meantime, Ms Norien will complete her instructor's test in the hope she will be able to teach the technique.

'I've been telling a lot of people that it helps health-wise and I believe that if it's something good, we should practise it,' she said. Despite her disappointment over the decision to investigate yoga, Ms Norien still believes the council has an important role. 'They are there for a good reason,' she said. 'Sometimes we tend to deviate from the teachings of Islam so they are there to remind us but I do hope that they will be more open and look at the benefits of yoga.'