Five Muslim groups on Friday (28 May) have urged the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) to consider reassessing the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS) Certification for those with a history of sexist and misogynistic behaviour based on detailed background checks.
This call to action was made in a joint statement by Beyond the Hijab, Crit Talk, End FGC Singapore, Lepak Conversations and Penawar in the wake of news regarding an online poll that ranked female asatizah (Muslim religious teachers) in a degrading manner.
The groups expressed their alarm at the “vulgar sexualisation of women” by over 1,000 individuals who had taken part in answering the poll, which was posted on social media platform MeWe.
The majority of the respondents are men.
Noting that some of the men who voted on the poll are allegedly students of Islamic knowledge, the groups said that such predatory behaviour poses dangers not only to the safety of their female asatizah colleagues, but also “the moral and social development of their male asatizah colleagues”.
The wider Muslim community “who will rely on their future religious knowledge and guidance”, they added, will be greatly impacted by such predatory actions.
The five groups also noted that the poll is not the only case of its kind within the community.
“Since the poll was exposed, female asatizah have shared personal anecdotes about the sexual harassment and assault they suffered at the hands of their men peers and how their attempts at seeking redress were in vain.
“This shows the persistence of sexism in the workplace, where victims are constantly met with a lack of institutional support when seeking justice,” said the groups.
The episode also dispels the myth that sexual harassment and violence are caused by a victim’s purported lack of ‘modesty’ — rather, such acts are symptomatic of “a patriarchal culture that encourages female objectification with little consequence for the perpetrators and little care for victims”.
“All victims deserve justice and support, not only the ‘modest’ or ‘innocent’ ones,” the groups stressed.
Other than the suggestion on reassessing ARS Certification, the five groups also urged MUIS and Muslim leaders to put in place the following measures:
- Require all asatizah, madrasah students, and students attending overseas Islamic universities to attend Sexual Assault First Responder training by Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC), and gender sensitivity training by The T Project Singapore;
- Provide comprehensive sexuality education in local madrasah, comprising in-depth discussions of consent, gender-based violence, power dynamics and gender inequality; and
- Include compulsory gender sensitivity training and Sexual Assault First Responder training under the Asatizah Reintegration Programme (ARP) for asatizah involved in sexual misconduct such as misogynist behaviour or sexual harassment. The public must be informed of the previous misconduct and what training was undertaken before the individual is reintegrated, said the groups.
The groups added that they and “many other individuals” have addressed the issue at hand “far too many times”.
“We want our Muslim leaders in power to take concrete action in addressing the systemic rot,” they said.
Background on the online poll controversy
The issue was thrust into the public spotlight after popular Singaporean religious teacher Ustaz Muhammad Zahid Mohd Zin on Wednesday shared a screenshot of the poll, which ranked at least 12 women, with their names and faces censored.
Ustaz Zahid said that he was shocked to receive a “distress call” from a female asatizah regarding the poll.
“Who did this must be held accountable,” he wrote.
According to The Straits Times, around 20 to 30 asatizah were ranked in the poll.
Social and community impact consultant Noor Mastura, the individual behind Being Bravely Woman (BBW) highlighted that she and many others have previously strived to highlight the issue for at least seven months via the #MuslimMeToo movement prior to this.
BBW is a page dedicated to tackling sexual and domestic violence in Muslim and Brown communities in Singapore.
In a string of Instagram Stories posted on BBW’s page on Thursday, Ms Noor said that both those who run the account and those who voted on the poll “are not just random boys and men”.
“They are undergrads of prestigious Islamic universities and local Madrasahs, graduates of these universities and madrasahs, some of them hold ARS certification, some of them have a social media platform, some of them are very connected ie siblings/relatives of famous ustads/ustazahs you love and follow,” she said.
Sharing a post by BBW from Dec last year, Ms Noor said that she had been collecting data from sexual assault survivors on the perpetrators and the events that had transpired.
Such data includes their education and employment history and their networks or circles.
Politicians and authorities’ response to the online poll
President Halimah Yacob heavily condemned the poll, stating in a Facebook post that it is “not just the worst kind of harassment that’s against our law, but amounts to an open invitation to commit sexual violence against women”.
“If indeed it’s true that some are students studying the religion (of which I stand corrected), then we have to seriously consider whether they are fit to preach in the community once they complete their studies,” she added.
Mdm Halimah urged MUIS and the police to fully investigate the matter, stating: “We must not allow the anonymity of the web to embolden those who wish to abuse, denigrate and violate women.”
Minister-in-charge for Muslim Affairs, Masagos Zulkifli said that the “irresponsible people or parties behind this abhorrent poll must be held accountable with the full force of the law”.
He added that if it is true that some of those involved in the poll are Islamic studies undergraduates, “these perpetrators must be dealt with to the full extent of the law for demonstrating such deplorable behaviour”.
Several Members of Parliament (MPs) such as Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Communications and Information Rahayu Mahzam, Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Nadia Ahmad Samdin, Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim, and Workers’ Party MP Raeesah Khan have also publicly criticised the poll.
Ms Khan, an MP of Sengkang GRC, said that ‘when over a thousand men could find it in themselves to dehumanise our asatizahs in that way, surely we must conclude that this is but a symptom of a deeper wound in our society”.
MUIS branded the poll “demeaning and insulting the modesty of some female religious teachers” and said that it has caused immense distress to those who were listed, CNA reported.
The council added that it has “reached out to speak to the victims of the post and will be providing support and counselling to help them through this traumatic time”.
MUIS also said that it has filed a police report over the poll, saying that it will not tolerate any form of sexual harassment.
Such conduct, it said, is “an abomination in our religion” and “a disgrace to the Muslim community”.
“Our faith calls for mutual respect at all times, and emphasises with utmost importance, the need to safeguard the honour and modesty of all members of society,” the council said.
The Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (PERGAS) similarly stressed that all “sexual harassment, abuse and objectification” is haram or religiously forbidden.
PERGAS acting chief executive Dr Mohamed Qusairy Thaha said that the association aims to “provide as much assistance as possible” to victims.
The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) said on Friday that the poll on female asatizah “promotes sexual violence or sexual activity involving coercion or non-consent”.
“Such content is unacceptable and has no place in Singapore. IMDA has assessed it constitutes prohibited content under Singapore’s Internet Code of Practice,” said the authority.
IMDA said that it has contacted MeWe to remove the offending poll if it still remains on its platform, in addition to contacting other social media platforms to ensure that the post does not surface on their platforms.
The Singapore Police Force, in response to CNA’s queries, earlier confirmed on Thursday that they have received a report regarding the poll and are carrying out investigations into the matter.