When old men write ‘open letters’

JANUARY 7 — Writing “open letters” seems to be the hobby du jour — but perhaps particularly among old men of religious backgrounds.

Most recently, Federal Territories mufti Zulkifli Mohamad wrote one to invite transgender cosmetics queen Safiey Ilias to “mengeteh” — slang among the Javanese community for a casual tea session, usually involving long chats or gossiping.

“I don’t know whether this opportunity is suitable or not. But I humbly invite you to the mufti office for us to exchange views, share feelings, and maybe there is a perspective that I can help for our common good,” he wrote, in the letter published on his website.

If you think that sounds familiar, then you must have remembered a similar open letter on Facebook last year, to another cosmetics queen, Nur Sajat Kamaruzzaman.

Mohd Izwan Md Yusof, an officer from the federal Islamic authority Jakim whose name is synonymous with LGBT rehabilitation, had asked to meet Sajat in a bid to “know her better” amid public speculation over her gender.

We all know what happened next.

Sajat returned the goodwill by meeting Izwan with her family. But in turn, Izwan announced that Jakim will undertake a lengthy process to “determine” her gender.

The process, he insisted, would take around one month as it involved a Shariah research expert panel.

The damage was done. Sajat’s gender identity remains a hot topic.

When she appeared in court last month over failure to pay GST, reporters from Malay newspapers gleefully chased her birth identity in court documents and later reported her “deadname” as if they had done the public a service by “unmasking the truth.”

After Sajat later stated that her official name now is just Sajat Kamaruzzaman, those same Malay reporters became defensive as if their journalistic ethics had been questioned — when in truth they were the ones who lacked gender sensitivity, and displayed behaviour bordering on transphobia.

Having had enough of the hate in the country, Sajat has since left to further her studies in Dubai.

This was also not the first time that Mufti Zulkifli had written such an open letter.

Last year, he wrote one to actress and model-turned-celebrity entrepreneur Neelofa, after the latter launched her turban and headscarf range in popular nightlife spot Zouk KL.

He reminded her to follow Islamic tenets as the “ends do not make the means halal”, and told her to refrain from creating opportunities that would raise slander and false accusations.

Neelofa was forced to apologise, even though she had not committed any wrongdoing.

Finally, perhaps the most popular open letter last year — leading to merciless mockeries and countless memes — was by Minister of Religious Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa to PKR’s “Reformasi Princess” Nurul Izzah, asking her to reconsider her decision to quit her party and government posts.

At first Izzah had merely ignored it; earlier she had berated PPBM’s Rais Hussin for speaking on her behalf. But she broke her silence after Mujahid defended himself in a New Straits Times report.

“Good intentions notwithstanding, I have actually informed [Mujahid] the public letter was inappropriate and condescending,” she clarified on Twitter.

All these open letters have one more thing in common besides the kind of men who write them: they were directed towards young women, who appeared to be bucking the trend, and most important of all, display inspiring independence — perhaps traits that the writers find hard to swallow.

Besides the obvious misogyny, the letters were also dreadfully condescending.

In his letter to Safiey, Zulkifli had used the male Malay pronoun “saudara”, a mark of utter disrespect towards someone who identifies as a woman rather than as a man.

And this was a mufti who had last year called religious authorities to revisit a fatwa, or edict, declaring transgenderism as un-Islamic, but only after meeting a transgender activist group. Clearly, the meeting did nothing to erase the transphobia.

To illustrate the ridiculousness of this misgendering, I shall be referring to Zulkifli with female pronouns for the rest of this column.

She had also used the title “Hajah” for Neelofa, referring to the entrepreneur’s status as someone who had performed the haj, as a way to guilt-trip the recipient for what she deemed as not adhering to “religious norms.”

Similarly, Mujahid had also used the pronouns “kakanda” and “adinda” to refer to himself and Izzah, archaic and poetic terms that mean “older brother” and “little sister”, but now more commonly used in love letters.

Even literally, the pronouns are mighty condescending. Izzah has been involved in politics since 1998, for more than two decades, and she is still regarded as someone’s “little sister” just because she is not a man. 

These open letters also reeked of hypocrisy.

Zulkifli had quickly penned the letter to Safiey after her office was sent “sexy” photos of Safiey, including those of her in a two-piece bikini recently.

But where were her open letters when it came to the biggest financial scandal in the country? Or when certain parties were running that beloved Islamic institution, the pilgrim fund Tabung Haji, to the ground? Where were such letters when the rakyat were oppressed under the previous regime?

Her office had no problems talking down to women, but would only dare speak against Putrajaya after the regime change — with an open letter to “all leaders and citizens of Malaysia” last month.

Suffice to say, that letter did not pinpoint any specific targets. Nor did it condescendingly call the male leaders by their “Haji” titles, or misgender them.

A sickening attitude runs through all of these open letters: the ego that a man is responsible for “fixing” a broken woman, that it is his duty to intrude into her personal life, seeing her as merely a little girl when compared to them — grown, educated, responsible, morally-upright men.

And the ego, to think that one open letter from them — a set of words with misguided intentions — could magically change those women’s lives.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.