I met Afifah Mohd Salehan during a 7 month Young Women Leadership Program in 2010 and I was immediately captivated by her enthusiasm, generosity, sense of humour, and the inner beauty that shone through. ‘Siti’ is the oldest (and shortest) of 6 siblings – 5 girls and 2 boys.
Siti’s Father is Javanese (from Jawa Island, located in Indonesia) and her Mother is Malay. She describes herself as ‘half Malay, half Indo’, a fact of which she only just found out this year after going back to Malaysia to visit some of her family. She had not been aware that her Father was Javanese, and that he could speak Jawa – a native Indonesian language. This initially made Siti feel lost, and made her question what else she did not know about her family. Today, it makes her want to explore her heritage even further – she just doesn’t know where to start!
Siti and her family came to Australia in 1994 when she was 3. At the time Siti could not speak a word of English. She recalls at the time wondering why people didn’t wear head scarves, and it wasn’t until she grew older (around year 5-6 years old) that she became conscious of people having different faiths, etc. Her mind was still in the progress of processing and understanding how the world worked.
Siti recalls certain ‘memorable moments’ when she was young where she was perceived as ‘different’. At the age of 7, she was in the super market and a little boy – about her age – just kept looking at her. She also remembers overhearing a little girl asking her Mum why ‘she had that thing on her head’. It was nice to hear the Mum explain to the daughter that Siti was Muslim, and that she wore the head scarf because of her faith. Unfortunately, even in the present day, she still gets stared at for what she wears.
Siti believes the most beautiful thing about Islam is that as long as they posses a sound relationship with Allah (God), then everything is okay. Siti explains that without him she would be lost. He plays an important role in her life – like a councillor in a way:
If there is no one to turn to, there is always prayer, and by the end of the day I get my answers – be it from other people, or from inside myself (the ‘unconscious process’ in psychology terms).
To Siti, the biggest misconception about her culture is regarding arranged marriages. Some people actually believe that within her culture parents arrange marriages for their children. Siti explains that within Islam, it is actually recognised that you DO have the right to choose who your partner is – as long as he is a Muslim and has faith in God.
Another misconception is that of the headscarf. Siti explains that rules are provided by Allah as to the where and how a woman is to wear a scarf, and for her – in a way – the scarf is protection. By wearing the headscarf, people understand that she doesn’t drink alcohol, do drugs, and it also protects her from sexual harassment. It also provides Siti with a feeling of security. As to where she should wear a head scar, she explains that it needs to be worn in the presence of someone she could marry (i.e. a man). She actually doesn’t have to wear it in her own backyard or around her family, or in the presence of other females.
The other cultural misconception is that all Muslims are terrorists. Siti has had the experience of being approached by a man at a train station, cursing and accusing her of bombing various places. This was, to Siti, scary and intimidating. It made her sad, and she cried a lot. (Note from author: This actually happened to my partner, who is Anglo-Indian – he is a tall, 40 something year old man. Siti is tiny, and doesn’t look like she could hurt a fly.)
I am asking everyone I interview to share some of their ‘words of wisdom’ as I believe quotes hold such power. This is one Siti shared with me:
A girls dream is to be perfect and to feel beautiful all of the time. A guys dream is to prove to himself and to the world that he is a true leader and that he is a leading man.
To Siti, this quote expresses the importance to a girl in feeling beautiful and special. It is a shame that a lot of people forget about that, with many girls starving themselves to attain what is perceived as the ‘perfect’ image as is portrayed in many magazines and on the cat walk.
Siti displays so many characteristics I adore – along with her youth and exuberance, she displays such wisdom and humour. I wanted to know what it was that she wanted others to be aware of, and here is what she shared with me:
Just because I’m covered, it doesn’t mean that I am always warm. I do have my moments in winter when I shiver and am freezing…And just because I wear a scarf all of the time doesnt mean my head is always warm – it does get cold!
And with that, I will leave you to ponder Siti’s final words:
When communicating with people, don’t judge them. Treat people how you want to be treated. Prophet Muhammed says a true Muslim is one who loves people because of the way they want to be loved, the way they want to be treated.