DeMISTYfied in Djogja: Turung and Women

The Turung and the early Melayu Muslim Sama women

…for my Inah, on her 79th birthday on April 14 2011.

My earliest and most vivid memories of my maternal great grand-aunts would be of three beloved matriarchs of Laminusa island of Sulu: Omboh Dindu’, Omboh Ua’, and Omboh Saning, who in the late 1960s upto early 1970s were then ushering into their ripe late mid-life age. These three sisters, my mother’s grand-aunts, would come to our home and spend some days with us as soon as my mother entered the onset of her last trimester of pregnancy. The great grand-aunts would be midwives and surrogate mothers to my three infant younger siblings until my mother had regained her health, gathered her strength and was back on her feet. While maintaining an embarrassed distance, I would always observe them in complete awe, these tiny dainty women like delicate china-dolls, who seldom raised their voices nor left their cloisters except for social functions and life-till-death ritual cycles that they would lead with confidence and dexterity, taking care to prescribe the right kind of food and the proper propitiations for both the living and the dead, satisfying the requirements in both the lair and batin worlds (i.e. seen and unseen worlds) in the specific rites and rituals of birthing, passage to pubescence, marriage and death. In the midst of their duties and social functions they were well disciplined and strong-willed and led the community firmly as a ship captain.

Before my young eyes, their elegance and nobility in the Chinese brocade silky loose pants knotted at the waist, called kantiyu, and the matching loose blouses made of Spanish lace or soft voile called sablay raised them above all esteem. Their tiny feet, that their mothers must have tried to impose into the pakkal , some sort of foot-binding sometime in their early age, were encased in delicate pairs of identical but different shades of sequined slippers still smelling of camphor and naphthalene, items that used to be supplied and carried by the junks that frequented our shores, journeying all the way from China, an endless odyssey and tales that my grandfather would love to tell us. These early Muslim women would often don a tube-like hand-woven silk cloth on top of their kantiyu and sablay, this piece of pakayan or walking garment was called ho’s tinahi-an, and was woven from silk thread imported from India. Otherwise, the ho’s would be of the highly-prized kain batik that, together with the particular brand of tea from Ceylon and the Lucky Strike and Dunhill filter-tipped cigarettes that my grandmother was famed to have fancied, and the air mata dhojong perfumes, a familiar scent that my mother wore to school, were smuggled in from Borneo and Indonesia. The Samarinda or Javanese batik, whose alleged tests of authenticity the women could  ascertain and I watched them literally ‘taste’ a genuine article by licking. The ho’s they wore as one would a shawl today, in such a fashionable way was called a saklay or salendang, it was casually draped over one shoulder, to the right, as both Omboh Dindu’ and Omboh Ua’ were once married and were now widowed while Omboh Saning would wear it on her left, announcing her then unmarried status.

On unusually warm and sunny days, while walking to the pasar (i.e. marketplace) or  strolling down the dirt roads after a visit to the ancestral tombs, the ho’s or tube cloth would be transformed from the shoulder sling into a bungkus, a body tent, spread-out with one end or upper seam of the cloth pulled higher and raised above the head like a canopy hoisted with the left arm slightly bent on the elbow, the cloth covered the arms, the head and hair, and left hanging loose over the right shoulder and arm that were left free and bare. The cloth thereby covered most of the women’s back and front, the pliant cloth hence let to fall over the bosom just above the knee. Thus was to be the earliest form of veiling or turong that these southeast Asian Melayu women would sport as part of the ensemble reserved for the formal public wear, mainly to ward off the bitter elements, rather than to discourage the male gaze as veiling is generally intended these days. When talking to distant acquaintances or strangers in the streets, married women would sometimes gather the left edge of the ho’s and gently pulled it across to graze the lower half of the face. Otherwise, when settled inside the house or within private spaces, the cloth was pulled back, wrapped around the waist or slipped under an armpit or slung to one shoulder as a shawl should go, and the women would freely socialize, with men and fellow women, their hair and face bright and lit – fully uncovered.

In the mid-70s I also got to meet more of my maternal grandaunts on the side of my Tausug grandfather. Omboh Assa and Omboh Ka’i, and the four cousins of my mother, Babuh Gim King, Babuh Gim Hong, Babuh Gim Sai, and Babuh Gim Hua. All these early Muslim women were ethnic Chinese and of mixed Sama-Tausug and Melayu descent from Bongao of Tawitawi, the farthest island southern tip of Sulu (i.e. ‘Moro’ was not yet popularly used as identity referent for Suluan ethnics then). They also wore the same kantiyu and sablay, but instead of the shoulder sash, Omboh Assa and her four daughters would wrap around their head, covering most of the hair and hugging a big bun tightly knotted at the nape but leaving both ears exposed, a long and narrow strip of transparent and soft lacy cloth, dyed a light patina or lungbus poteh, i.e. virginal white, sometimes embellished with tiny gems or gold dusts or sequins so much similar to present-day shawl, trailing from both ends were jazzed-up tussles, these were wound crosswise once or twice around the head just above the forehead and tucked in behind the ears. My curious queries were satisfied by my mother who informed me that Omboh Assa and one of her daughters had just came back from Makkah and were hadjas, hence, the cleverly made-up fashionable head-dresses. The hadja’s sulban (literally, head-scarf), as it was called, was worn all throughout the day whether in private or public spaces and was only shorn away on retirement to bed.

The only other time when women were required to cover their hair and face were during the five prayers, where they would wrap themselves in the white luku, a biased-cut piece of round cloth like a parachute with a hole at the pointed tip, just big enough for the face to pop out. The luku is worn as an outer garment on top of traditional clothing, it reached upto the calf or ankles covering the designated woman’s cleavages there as hidden parts or ‘aurat’ which were not supposed to be displayed during prayer. The white veil was a sign of purity and reflective of the cleanliness of our hearts and intention as we faced and communioned with the Great One, said my godmother, Inah Ka’ching – mother’s elder sister, who was also my guru or tutor in Qur’an and religious initiation. She never mentioned to me though that the luku or similar female veiling where to hide an atrocious and offensive sexuality that was lurking inside and within my body. I spent most of my childhood fetching water from the well or from a common tap; watching the earthen stove and making sure that the roasting fish or a dish in progress would not get burnt; tending her small shop or, practically the handy girl-Friday, running other petty errands for my guru from five to seven in the morning and from three to five in the afternoon for more than five years while I was at the same time multiple-tasking and doubling time inching to finish my basic public education, that is, in between fleeing from wars and living in evacuations. My guru released me when she decided that I was good enough and have mastered, meaning, read the entire 30 juz of the Holy Book without her coaching, whence she publicly confirmed me a ‘tammat’ (i.e. graduated); and that had been when I reached the age of puberty when I could now be qualified to publicly recite some verses during the tahalilan; adult and woman enough to properly mourn and honor the dead. My aunt who was my guru, then and until now in her old age, wore no head scarves except during her prayer yet she has never been regarded as less religious or diminished in faith and piety by the island youth who have graduated under her tutelage and prospered, as they continued to pay their respect to her.

My mother, named after the Trojan queen Helen, was in her mid-30s then, and as public school teacher, she wore her hair short and spent quite some time teasing it with a long narrow comb and sprayed it stiff with hairspray. Most of the lady teachers in the island who were her contemporary also wore their hair that way or sported longer permed cut that was the latest of hair-do and came to school in their cheerful balloon and pleated skirt that skimmed their calves, paired wit three-fourth sleeved and sport-collared eyelet cotton blouses, that they either tucked into the wide band of the skirt or sometimes knotted at the mid-rib; or smartly dressed in their mini-skirted one piece, an A-line that was called a ‘straight-cut’, that my mother herself cut and sewed for herself and her sister, that was popular among young professionals during the time. On special community gathering and ritual occasion, these educated ladies brought out their best sablay and kantiyu or donned the gleaming silk blouse called badjuh sigpit with matching ho’s bat-tik or tinahi-an or tinen-nun and the sequined slippers.

Those were the days when Muslim women were not questioned about their intentions or suspected of immodest motives in pampering themselves and spending time to take care of themselves or engaged in beauty rituals to improve their looks and increased their self-esteem. These young Muslim women, who had high level of education, were gainfully employed and equally bore the family burden with their husbands and brothers, in case they were single, and were treated with the same respect and honor by their peer, both men and women.

Those days, too, women in my village equally shared with men the langgal – our village prayer hall – literally meaning ‘a meeting place’ where people discussed things of communal importance – that was open to everyone seven days of the week, in all of five daily prayers, and especially during the Jama’at or Friday congregations and during special occasions of Eid that were the sambahayang Hari raya Puasa and Hari raya Hadji. Taking their places behind a thin white lace curtain separating them from men, women entered through a common entrance with men. On Ramadhan nights, after the Tarawi prayers I fondly remember planked by my mother and my father on either sides and guided on both hands, we joined in the merriment, as with the rest of the evenings around the year, women and men folk used to linger around after magribh and waited for ‘isha to be performed, and took that brief evening break as occasion to socialize. The women formed an outer circle to the men’s inner circle in the tahalil and dhikr before or after congregational prayers, and seated, we gently danced and swayed to the rhythm of a dabbana, a drum, while reciting the shahada, i.e. declaration of faith. Then, later after ‘isha was said, we, young children, kissed the perfumed hands of every adult that we could catch, that we always exclaimed and swore ‘smelt of Makkah!’ or some argued it was the ‘smell of paradise!’ and freely mingled with them to share in the light snacks and refreshments that village men and women who were not able to join in the prayers would prepare and offer to the langgal.

No one could exactly date it, but I believe, it was only in the late 1980s or the nineteen nineties when the male population in most Muslim societies, seeming to have awoken from a bad dream, started taking a backglance and spent longer and hard second doubtfilled looks and saw with different eyes their female counterpart and, apparently alarmed by what they saw, or rather, at how they ‘felt’ about what they saw, hastened their wives, mothers and sisters to cover themselves up in veils and to lurk behind dark and drab Arabian cloaks and oversized dresses. At about this time, too, the mass exodus of skilled labor to the Middle East have peaked so that pilgrimage to Makkah to perform the hajj was no longer the exclusive privilege of the elite and the rich. At this time, the conflict between government and Moro nationalists would have heightened, forcing many young men into the hills and jungles to join the insurgents or go into self-exile and to migrate to less troubled cities or seek education abroad, usually in Egypt or Saudi. Upon their return, these young men who have turned into Allah’s soldiers or trained to become moral policemen would introduce a new theology that put much emphasis on the recitation and memorization of the revealed texts and less and less value given to the embodied celebrations of faith and the acted and ritualized devotion and remembrances of Allah [i.e. dhikr] that the Sufi teachers taught the folk Muslims. Banning altogether indigenous ceremonies as bida’a (i.e. innovation), they declared the rituals in reverence of ancestors as idolatrous. The modern Muslim religious leaders then privileged the literate and the well-travelled. The old imams and fakirs whose unarticulated and non-scriptural discipline of mysticism and indigenised Arabic incantations that the new religious men would find faulty were forced to retire and, relegated to the margins, retreated to old chores and devoted full time to their crafts – the fish-traps and bush gardens. Later, even the old langgal, would not be spared by the ruthlessness of the new-found religious authority and self-righteousness. Uprooted and demolished, in the langgal’s takas (i.e. shadow) was constructed a newish religious architecture of Arabian inspired masjid, complete with the big minaret, the Madinese posts and the upraised mimbal (pulpit).  To a sleepy island, the new mosque that rose up literally over night came sneaking almost like a new conqueror in the dark cloak of night that folk called this monument of modernity as having ‘dropped from heavens’ or masjid jatu .

In the meantime, in most big prayer houses and grand mosques in the migrant lands and big cities, one would seldom find thin curtain that used to mark where women should sit behind the men and performed their prayers in full sight of everyone, as in the old village langgal, in its stead, a mezzanine or loft was built into the structure, or a wall was erected as division, where women would now have to face a solid wall there or a blank space, to keep them out of sight and to restrain these supposedly dangerous species who were now considered seductive and overpowering devils themselves, preying upon helpless and innocent pious men.

In the modern cities, where Qur’an and the hadith books were hungrily read and  its tafsir (i.e. meaning and interpretations) discussed, transmitted and shared around among the modern Muslim religious men, new regulations and ‘teachings’ spread and were imposed saying that it was better for women to stay at home and performed their prayers in the closed quarters of their rooms. Sayings and traditions [i.e. hadith wal sunnah] allegedly attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, the beloved messenger who was also known as lover of women, of perfumes and of horses, and whom his young wife A’isha lovingly remembered his gentle moments swapping jokes and laughing with the women and thoughtfully advising them on sensitive issues such as taking care of their health, on their feminine hygiene and their fertility is alleged to have made a very chauvinistic and macho remark demeaning women, namely, that women were lacking in intellect and religion and would be the interns of hell. Others would say that the Prophet was heard uttering that Muslim community who entrusts its affairs to women were doomed to fail; and that woman, however faithful and pious, would not be able to fulfill her religious duties and gain the mercy of Allah and enter paradise unless she has fulfilled her ‘ta-at’ (i.e. obeisance) to her husband, whose satisfaction of his physical needs, if she refused or failed to deliver, she would be cursed by all the angels in heaven all through the night; and whose duties to her husband would not in fact be fulfilled by her even if she licked all his wounds oozing with pus, and that therefore she should immediately come to his bidding and satisfy his demands for intimacy even on the back of a camel. And so on and so forth.

Soon, the same virulent fever would catch up in the island villages as well, where, worse than the poison of rumor and fitna, less educated and illiterate folk, most vulnerable and prone to be struck with fear of the unknown and of the ambiguous, would bow in blind submission. The tahalil and dhikr were considered to be optional, if not, completely written off and so were the late evening ‘rabbana’ sing-and-dance rituals with its lively drum accompaniment. Henceforth there was no longer socialization or unnecessary lingering or public meetings of men and women to be allowed after evening prayers, to avoid falling to temptuous zina. Such that the mosque and everything religious it symbolized have now virtually turned into exclusively male property. Children no longer find the prayers as exciting and playful occasions as we used to look forward to in the past, of the dancing and singing of dhikr , of the warm family bonding and especially of the snacks and refreshments. And since grandmothers, mothers and sisters no longer walked to the masjid, the children, too, stayed home and stopped tailing adults and left them and their prayers alone. Soon, new idols and baby-sitters took on where the swirling rabbana dancing and singing and communal merriment have left, television and video games, like the pied pipers, have come to lure and enchant the children.

By the late 1990’s especially when the local social movement led by the Moro nationalists have forged peace with the State and were given the chance to run ‘our own’ form of autonomous governance, more and more women of my generation became active part of civil society, of public life and of politics. Now having replaced our mothers as community adults, most of us have been educated and moved into up-class and affluent villages in the cities and, there, started taking to the hijab as official attire for the elite, educated and the cultured and, mostly following the dresscode of women of Iran, Pakistan or Malaysian, we favored the shawwal ghamis and long dressy gowns and folded away our mothers’ kantiyu, badjuh sigpit and sablay. Many of the modern women would have never distinguished an imported batik cloth from the locally loamed hinablun or tinen-nun and tinahi-an and having lost the classic aesthetic sense, would not know on which side of the hip should the sarong’s punsa’ be oriented, nor would they even care a sliver. And still many would boast with pride of this ignorance of the past and of having rid off of cumbersome tradition as a fact of imbibing modern virtue and a sign of having moved up-stairs into civilization and having been ‘fully islamized’. Instead, as modern women we would invest on the new and foreign wardrobe, not a few of us wore the new dresses under a black ‘abaya’, with dark globes and black socks, drew the veils closer over the face, letting out only an eye or both eyes through a hole or a slit, as though to drown it in the dark shroud was to kill and annihilate the flesh and body that was so much dreaded and hated for its sinful beauty and sensuality.

But the older women in my village, mostly of my mother’s generation, who by now have become the octogenarians, continued to let out and left drying in the breeze their long cocomilk-groomed hair that had thinned but not grayed, and in public gatherings wore only the loose conventional turong of ho’s or sulban, as prescribed for the hadja, the way Omboh Dindu’, Omboh Saning and Omboh Ua’ and the rest of the grannies from the islands used to do.

On auspicious dates and social occasion, we took the opportunity to visit and renew ties with the folk, but with the prohibitive cost of journeying to the islands and the risk of being caught on the road in the raging conflict, less elaborate ceremonies have been mostly preferred and conveniently conducted in ‘instant and quickie’ rituals in private homes in migrant communities called ‘subdivision’ in the cities. Seated around cushioned sofa and cozy living rooms where a large LCD flatscreen TV took most of the space, we sometimes listened with half an ear to the droning sound of a duwa’a dryly mumbled by an imam,  while one ear and eyes are transfixed to the television noontime show. Thereafter, McDonald crispy fried chicken and bland cold sandwiches were drowned with Coca Cola. Such poor replacements, I declare, to the sumptuous panya’m , baulu and  ja’, and the scalding native black brew, kahawa. Where memories of these happy reunions were now recorded in compact disks and spun around the globe faster than the speed of sound through the internet, instantly made available to share with relatives abroad while still sitting in the convenience of your living room; the fancy bakery killer confections and inflated cakes laden with poisonous bromate and artificial sugar have arrogantly substituted the mounds of medicinal yet delicious turmeric coconut steamed rice or buwas kuning perfectly molded into a sampul or the sticky wajit naturally sweetened with honey that was manually extracted from sugarcane and laced in thick coconut milk – such loving preparations concocted by the same women now cheerfully chatting by the dirty kitchen.

Nonetheless, the solemnity and sacredness of these rare occasions seemed to have remained extant and hoping to linger on for as long as there were still daughters who pledged to a’ngentan [i.e. hold on]. In one such occasion, I and my sisters, who had come home for a vacation from their employment in the Middle East, would instinctively and self-consciously remove our tarha or hijab following the older women’s cue in an almost silent tableau of re-initiation, re-admission and re-unification with the mother coven. To insist on wearing the veil would have made us stand out like sore thumbs and made us feel like outsiders, for we were in supposed intimate spaces where, as once missing pieces of jigzaw among our folk and now back among our women, it was the same homing instinct that confirmed to us once again that we belonged to that almost forgotten village, was nurtured in its rustic traditions and had sprung from to the loving wombs of the matriarchs.  [14April2010 for Inah, on her 78th birthday]


About Mucha Q. Arquiza
Supports the preservation and promotion of indigenous knowledge systems

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