Keeping the faith

Updated: 2012-11-01 05:59

By Andrea Deng (HK Edition)

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 Keeping the faith

More than 1,000 Indonesian domestic helpers and devout Muslims pray on the first day of the Hajj month last Friday, with the permission from their Hong Kong employers. Photos by Andrea Deng / China Daily

 Keeping the faith

Muslim domestic helpers wear white costumes and veils, which cover the entire body except face and hands, during a weekend gathering.

Foreign domestic helpers from Indonesia now outnumber those from all other countries in HK. Most Indonesian workers are Islamic followers, but they find that keeping the faith in HK is not always easy, Andrea Deng reports.

As usual, Ngatinah was sitting, and chattering on a red-white-and-blue plastic carpet with a group of her friends. It was on a late Sunday morning. The entire area surrounding Victoria Park, where they sat, was crowded with thousands of other foreign domestic helpers, most of whom were sharing food, whose spicy aromas permeated the air.

Ngatinah wore a snow-white costume and a veil with a sequined edge.She does not wear the traditional muslim costume on working days, at her employer's house.

"Oh it's not comfortable to wear these clothes while working," said Ngatinah in accented Cantonese, while whisking her light and loose kaftan. "I have to buy fish, I have to buy meat, I have to cook and wash the bowls, it's so inconvenient," she added.

Ngatinah is 38-year-old. She considers herself a liberal muslim. Although she is from Indonesia, she has been working in Hong Kong as a domestic helper since 1996, and confesses she has grown accustomed to the lifestyle in the city.

As a Muslim, Ngatinah insists on praying five times a day during quiet periods of attending to her daily chores. Her employer, an 88-year-old woman who addresses Ngatinah as "Tinah" because she can not pronounce "Nga", is a Christian, but she raises no opposition to Ngatinah observing the rights of her own faith.

"When she first saw me praying, she seemed to be terrified by it. But when I told her what it was all about, she said, 'Please pray for my longevity and health.' And that was it," Ngatinah recalled.

Sometimes during religious holidays, Ngatinah visits a mosque in Yau Ma Tei, where she offers prayers, while her employer prays in the Christian church adjacent to the mosque. After that they go to yum cha together.

Ngatinah's relationship with her employer is apparently more harmonious than some of her compatriots, when it comes to religious beliefs.

Nonik, who is also a Muslim from Indonesia, said she has been sneaking away to pray in her own room because her employer has forbidden the observances in his home. Some of Nonik's previous employers told her, it was a waste of time to pray and that she was hired to work, not to pray.

Some employers, especially the elderly, are frightened by the Muslim costume and the manner in which the pray operates. That's because there is a resemblance to the way some Chinese people pray for their deceased family members - wear white clothes from head to toe, kneeling down as they pray - said Nonik.

To Nonik, praying five times daily is a ritual for which she describe an emotional attachment." I feel like crying when I pray, as I would think about my family back home, I would think about unhappy things. Praying is very important to me, and if I can't do it, I feel frustrated," she said.

For many Muslims, praying five times a day is mandatory set out as an Islamic requirement for followers. It is the moment when the human connects with the God. Believers "feel sin and are uncomfortable" if they don't pray as their faith requires.

Nonik is not the only one banned from praying in front of her employers. At least a dozen others among her circle of friends are experiencing the same. Some have to compromise a little with their daily religious rituals. Some, for example, pray only once a day for an hour at night after their work is done.

While some Muslim domestic helpers are more adaptable to maintain their contractual commitments to their employers, some who are more liberal don't reckon there is a problem if they are not completely faithful to ritual. Still others get annoyed and irritated and crave a change.

Eni Lestari, a member of the Asian Migrant Coordinating Bodies and one of the first Indonesian domestic helpers to come to work in Hong Kong, recalled that there was a lot of explanation needed for her employers to understand.

"When I first came to Hong Kong, my employer asked me, why didn't I eat pork, and not even drink pork soup. They asked why I prayed, why I kissed the floor when I prayed, why I wore the hijab and why I fasted at times?" said Lestari.

"My first employer said to me, 'Pork is good for your skin, my boy grew big and quickly because he eats pork.' The woman even said that my skin looks dark, just because I don't eat pork!" Lestari added.

Lestari said she felt Hong Kong employers set out the rules according to their own perspectives and culture, while there is no one to explain to employers about the culture and the religious background their Muslim employees bring with them.

"We are trying to understand the needs of the employers and not vice versa. The employers should also understand us. You don't import some Sony to your home and just press the button when you like. You import a human being who comes with a different religion and tradition," said Lestari.

Umi Sudarto, chairwoman of the Indonesian Migrant Muslim Alliance, said there is no serious conflict between the Indonesian migrant workers - 95 percent of them Muslims - and their employers, regarding religious beliefs. She never heard of any Hong Kong employers forcing an Indonesian domestic worker to practice other religions. But the lack of knowledge about the backgrounds of the workers is rather common, Sudarto noted.

While Hong Kong shows a growing awareness of Islam since Indonesia has been exporting labor for a few decades, she would like to see even greater understanding among the Hong Kong employers. Nowadays, it's not uncommon to see an Indonesian woman in either a white or colored hijab walking along a street.

During Eid al-Adha, an important Islamic religious holiday last Friday, only a few thousand Indonesian domestic workers were able to attend prayer rituals, from among the tens of thousands who work in the city.

Domestic helpers who talked to China Daily said some of their friends were not able to join the collective prayer, because their employers do not allow them to abandon their child care duties on a typical Hong Kong working day.

Sudarto's own experience, however, included even deeper friction. Her previous employer, a Buddhist, told her that if she practiced Islam in his house, it would ruin his religion. While her current employer, a Christian, asks her not to practice her religious beliefs openly at the home in front of her employer's six-year-old son and the eight-year-old daughter.

Joseph Law Kwan-din, chairman of the Hong Kong Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers Association, said foreign domestic helpers cannot go too far when asking their employers to understand their religion.

"Indeed, some of the employers are not used to seeing Islamic ritual, but that does not necessarily mean the Hong Kong employers do not respect the domestic helpers' religion," said Law.

"If the employer is not a religious person, or he is not a devout religious practitioner, he may not object to the domestic helper's practicing Islamic rituals at home. The association advises that if the employer is hiring an Indonesian domestic helper, he should expect that the worker may well be a Muslim. The employer should respect their customs, otherwise he should consider not hiring them," said Law.

"As such, Indonesian migrant workers should also expect to understand and respect the society of Hong Kong, and to recognize that different employers are in different situations. They should expect that there are few Hong Kong Muslim employers, while quite a number are Buddhist or Christian. They should also understand that pork is an important ingredient in ordinary Cantonese food, how can you work if you don't touch it?" Law added.

The chairman said that Indonesian migrant workers should get ready and know about the place they are going to work at, before coming to Hong Kong.

Ho Wai-yip, a sociologist focusing on Islamic studies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, argued that the employers' knowledge on the religious background of the Indonesian migrant workers is a blind spot when they have to live under the same roof, but it is not only the workers' religious rights that are involved, Ho said.

On the basis that the Indonesian migrant workers' religion should be respected, it cannot be assumed that all the Chinese have no religion. Ho said if the employer is a devout Buddhist or a Christian, it does affect them emotionally if the domestic worker practices a different religion.

There is no straightforward formula for the employer or the employee to sort out the mutual frustrations, Ho remarked, because there is a wide spectrum of how devout and compromising the employee is, and how accommodating the employer is. Different combination elicit different results and reactions from both sides.

The domestic helpers can't really blame their employers, who may not expect that the domestic helper he hires will do this and that in his home, because the agency has not informed him in advance, neither is religious belief mentioned in the contract.

"In fact, Hong Kong's knowledge of Islam has increased over the years. We cannot rule out that there are some really bad employers, but they're not the mainstream ones," Ho said.

 Keeping the faith

Sringatin (left) and Eni Lestari are both unionists representing the migrant workers in Hong Kong. They said some Hong Kong employers do not quite understand the religious culture of Indonesian migrant workers, of whom 95 percent are Muslims.

 Keeping the faith

An Indonesian domestic worker takes care of her employer while attending a collective pray during an Islamic holiday.

(HK Edition 11/01/2012 page4)