Take your pick, science or religion: My review of Nerdstock – 9 lessons and carols for godless people

The word is out: if you’re religious you cannot possibly appreciate genetics in all its glory, a glory that is inseparable from the Darwinian theory of evolution. I was watching Nerdstock, a Christmas programme for non-religious people on BBC4 last night with at first some curiosity, later with quiet amazement at the burgeoning audacity of the atheist movement, and at last with a scratchy head. The latter reaction may be due to dandruff, but I feel it was more from the unresolved knotted thoughts on the irreconcilability of religion and science. Nerdstock was a love-in for self-proclaimed nerds of the scientific endeavour, who were falling over themselves praising some hazified concepts of evolutionary genetics.

It occurred to me that the atheist movement in Britain wants us to know that in lieu of religion, there is science; Darwinian science and physics to be exact. Science – for the enlightened – is now the antithesis of religion, or some may argue a neo-religion for intellectuals and those who fancy adopting the image. The device for last night’s programme was comedy, taking off the sting and heat of the controversy raised by the atheist bus campaign and the “Please don’t label me” campaign against faith cattle-branding on children. The device, I have to admit, was effective (I was at times amused) but purposefully deployed in smug contrast against humour-less religious folk. Comedienne Shappi Khorsandi gave the best stand-up, though her material was funniest when it was about the groundlessness of the term “mixed-race”. Yes, the beauty of genetics is that it can prove racists and political constructionists wrong.

But genetics is not something simply to be gushed at, something host Robin Ince felt he needed to demonstrate in his quasi-hallelujah moment about him and his son (“Whenever I look at my son, I see genetics. Genetics made him so special!, etc. etc.”). Being in ecstatic awe of the world in pseudo-scientific terms veers spookily into the realm of religious fanaticism, except with science in place of God as the figure to worship, I think. So okay, genetics is amazing, but so are social-conditioning and environmental impingement on the development of people. Biological determinism is not amazing and not 100% valid, and therefore genetics is not all that.

Where does this leave the religiously-disaffected with no interest in Darwinian theory let alone science, and those like me, who does not feel challenged by the idea of being connected to other lifeforms (genetics has made that an undeniable fact) and praises the Almighty for making the genius of nature possible? Well, not in this small exclusive club for both the scientific and scientistically-inclined it seems, which leaves much of the rest of the world to us. Yes, the rest of us live in an irrational mess with a disinterest in how we came to be; the corporeal beings at the mercy of the switchboard of genes. Nerdstock is an amusing interrogation of the non-existence of God, in which the godless install nature as the surrogate transcendental being greater than humankind, an entity we struggle to fathom completely. Sounds familiar?

Why is it important to rethink masculinities in the Middle East?

I cannot help but post my essay up on its due day. It’s my baby, warts and all:


Compared to the wealth of studies on women in the Middle East, men and masculinities of the region have, surprisingly, received less attention. Greater focus and interest in the Muslim woman and not the Muslim man in the Middle East may be indicative of the unremitting fascination with the ongoing oppression and the “private” world of women in a society largely known for the seclusion of women and girls. The tropes of inquiry – the hijab, the subjugation of women, female genital mutilation – emerge from a blend of genuine academic interest, feminist activism, and perhaps the “need to save brown women from brown men” mindset through research with a political agenda (Cooke 2002:468). It is then remiss of the academic world for assuming that men can be sufficiently understood if women in their social contexts are studied in depth. While such research have revealed much of the realities beyond the undifferentiated stereotype of the submissive Middle Eastern woman, more is to be done to deconstruct the image of the domineering Islamist male and the Orientalist imaginings of the desert sheikh.

There is a glaring lacunae in an understanding of masculinity that has been affected by the major strides that women in the Middle East have been making throughout the last century in terms of education, employment, sexuality, political representation, and general public presence. Indeed, what is not studied more rigorously are the changing dynamics of gender relations resulting from the increasing independence of women from the home and male members of the family, studies in which men are placed as the central analytical subject. Recent literature that have charted these changes reflect what can be understood as men’s anxieties and fears emerging from “notions still deeply imprinted on their inherited memory which have not adjusted accordingly” to the explosive gendered transformations of the public arena (Ghoussoub 2006:230). Women’s increased emancipation is then perhaps one source of a threat to the grip of a dominant masculinity, but other threats can exist externally for the male collective. Ghoussoub (2006:233) also counts the devastating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel which incurred a lingering dent on the pride of the Arab and Muslim world1, in addition to the unremitting European imperialist presence throughout the history of the Middle East – all of which represents a “symbolic castration in which men’s virility and hopes of progeny are threatened”.

There is then the assumption that the male sphere in the Middle East has been neatly divided into the ahistorical male who is at once authoritative and anti-women, and the “enlightened” male of modernist and moderate Islamic politics. While a culture of male dominance that emanates Middle Eastern societies at different levels and magnitude does incur the overstated notion of women’s oppression, it is pertinent to take into account how men participate in the practice of male dominance, and locate the different points of resistances men perform to diminish certain forms of dominance. In the case of men’s acceptance of women’s changing roles, Kandiyoti (1994:197) has pointed out some explanations which range from 1) exposure to Western and / or colonial ideals (Ahmed 1992:153) 2) new social classes arisen from these contexts and (Cole 1981:401) and 3) the rhetorically-inclusive nature of modernist-nationalist projects (Jayawardena 1988:8).

This essay attempts to reveal the complex nature of masculinity that cannot be taken for granted in relation to in-depth studies on Middle Eastern women. As Kandiyoti (1994:212) succinctly puts it: “behind the facade of male privilege lie ambiguities which may give rise to defensive masculinist discourse and genuine desire and contestation for change”. Therefore I will not dwell too much on the anachronistic yet popular representations of the hypermasculine Middle Eastern man, but aim to shed more light on the dynamic yet fragile characteristics of contesting masculinities that are contextualised against the backdrop of the reformation of women’s roles, the legacy of post-colonial struggle, and more importantly, the internal contradictions within the male collective in relation to the larger socio-political milieu.

I will explore these issues with reference to the influence of raï music on the construction of the politically-transgressive masculine identity in Algeria, and the musical genre’s ambivalent associations with Islam, politics, and women. This is will followed by looking at the formation of the ‘melancholite’ masculinity in the wake of Bourgiba’s dictatorship through Tunisian cinema. It is not an overstatement to say that popular culture represents to a certain symbolic or realist extent the hopes, aspirations, and the realities of society’s despair. I am confident that the medium of raï music and contemporary Tunisian film provides an alternative avenue for publicly articulating the “subtleties, nuances, and contradictions” of contemporary masculinities that sociological studies often cannot capture (Stollery 2001:50).

The masculinisation of raï music and the rise of the transgressive Algerian male identity

A number of theorists have suggested that within the Middle East and North African region (MENA), there exists, on a general level, a homology of patriarchal norms within both the private and public spheres (Stollery 2001:50). Arguably, the region shares a conceptualisation of a state that is, according to As’ad Abu Khalil, “a reflection of male supremacy within the family” in which “the leader is the father figure with the privileges of the use of force and social control” (1997:100). It can be argued further that the political situation in the Middle East is largely repressive at various levels. However, arguing from a Foucauldian standpoint, individuals are still able to find spaces for resistance in a variety of expressions, even in the most oppressive of circumstances (Foucault 1978:96). With that said, I will discuss the role of raï as an “explosive site for Magrebi identity” (DeAngelis 2003:276) and political resistance taken up by male raï singers and the largely male following of the musical genre.

Originated from Oran, Algeria, raï began as a folk musical genre that became popularised in cabarets and clubs frequented by the social elite during the colonial period where it had gained a reputation for being decadent and un-Islamic (ibid. 2003:276). Then in 1999, raï gained global attention with the release of the hit single Desert Rose featuring Cheb Mami and the British singer Sting. The musical genre is typically associated with youth and immigrant subcultures, and often described as risqué or vulgar (ibid. 2003:277). The question of whether raï is vulgar, however, is complicated by the nationalist and Islamist notion of the musical genre’s former associations with French colonial culture and resulting from such an opinion, the genre became labelled “inauthentic” by official Algerian cultural standards (ibid. 2003:281-82). But what was at the heart of the two political factions’ concern was really to do with raï as a form of social critique amongst young Algerians. Moreover, the cause of concern was implicated by the fact that raï became, as DeAngelis (2003:283) argues, “a subculture, [that] disrupts the hegemonic discourse of the nation, and allows for another way of imagining society and identity that does not necessarily fit with that proposed by the government or the Islamists”.

In spite of this, raï music continues to be performed at weddings and male circumcision ceremonies but outside these circumscribed spaces, raï retains a forbidden and a particularly masculine aspect which are evident in the lyrics of some songs on illicit love affairs and the dwindling numbers of female raï singer since the 1970’s (ibid 2003:286). By the mid-1980’s, raï became an implicit youth protest against the stifling morality and moribund economic policies of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) regime. While in France, it formed a mark of solidarity for Algerian migrants against the intensifying White racism (McMurray and Swedenburg 1991:42). The crackdown on raï by the successor Islamist party, Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), led to the assassination of the popular singer Cheb Hasni in 1994, and the subsequent exiles of fellow singers (Cheb) Khaled and Cheb Mami in the following years. In light of these events, raï singers developed a more overt political stance in their lyrics and a strong following among younger men who embraced the newly transgressive nature of the musical genre. Raï also became a marker in the hierarchicalisation among men that determined who could listen to it in whose presence. This is illustrated in the way only a few men would listen to raï in the presence of a male of superior status, whether a father, uncles, or older brothers (DeAngelis 2003:290).

Since the 1990’s onwards, raï has established an image of counter-hegemonic rebellion culture headed by the “fathers” of the folk genre, namely Cheb Mami and (Cheb) Khaled, and strong legion of male listeners who make up raï’s greatest fans, however, at the same time, raï retains some residual hegemonic elements as it is received by many critics as ambivalent towards women, reflecting the general conservatism of Algerian society (ibid 2003:289). Schade-Poulsen’s interviews with male listeners reveal their critical and negative attitude towards women portrayed in the songs, as well as towards women who frequent cabarets where raï is usually performed (Schade-Poulsen 1999:143). In contrast, the lyrics in a few of (Cheb) Khaled’s songs feature messages of women’ emancipation as exemplified in “Hada raykoum” (It’s your opinion 1985) (Rosen 1990:22) :

The young girl wants to be married
The divorced woman wants to break loose
The married woman wants a divorce
The married woman wants to break loose
The married woman wants to go wild

You’ve done what you wanted
You’ve done what you decided
My God, my God, the husband’s asleep

Gender egalitarianism is the central theme in Khaled’s 1996 international hit “Aïcha”. In the lyrics, a man laments that his love for a woman, Aïcha, is not returned as she wants only equal rights and genuine love:

She said, keep your treasures
I’m worth more than all that
Cages are still cages even though made of gold
I want the same rights as you
And respect for each day
I don’t want anything but love1

Analyses on the political nature of raï lyrics and in particular those more in favour of women’s emancipation are yet to be found in scholarly writings. Questions as to whether these be may be encouraging signs for female fans of raï, and if such lyrics cultivate a shift toward progressive attitudes towards women are waiting to be answered. These would be interesting sites for further investigation but in the meanwhile, raï is understood to be intertwined in a complex interaction between the political, personal, aesthetic, and religious, that simultaneously raises questions about its role as the voice of disaffected masculinity and Arab cultural authenticity (McMurray and Swedenburg 1991:42).

The melancholite cinematic masculinities of Bourgiba’s legacy

Modern Tunisian cinema is, alongside its literature (which will not be discussed herein), intensely expressive of the post-colonial state’s discontents (Gana 2010:111). What is particularly salient in the numerous critically-acclaimed films by both female and male directors is the representation of male angst against the backdrop of Habib Bourgiba’s autocratic legacy. The number of films made under the helm of male directors in the last three decades have been critical of the post-colonial Tunisian patriarchal order, calling for the advancement of gender-equal politics. The films that interrogated the conflicted post-colonial male identity range from Nouri Bouzid’s Rih al-sadd (or L’homme de cendres, or Man of Ashes 1986), Ferid Boughedir’s Halfaouine: l’enfant des terraces (Halfaouine: boy of the terraces 1990) and Un été à la Goulette (A Summer at La Goulette 1995), Jilani Saadi’s Khorma, la bêtise (Khorma, Stupidity 2002) and Ors el-dhīb (Tender is the wolf 2006), to Abdellatif Kechiche’s La faute à Voltaire (Blame it on Voltaire 2000) and La graine et le mulet (The secret of the grain 2007). In contrast to the Tunisian female film directors in whose films (not mentioned here) undertook a feminist cinematic endeavour to undo the normative construction of masculinity, male directors in the films mentioned above delved simply into the masculine experience by deploying a male protagonist as the film’s central subject whilst examining the transformations of the male homosocial space (ibid. 2010:112).

Herein, I shall devote my attention to Nouri Bouzid’s Rih al-sadd (Man of ashes 1986) as an exemplar of the father-son relationship symbolic of the conflictual inter-generational relationships between men in post-Bourgiba Tunisia. The popular and award-winning film is also a fine study of generational transitions involving the perpetuation, modification, and overt contestation of established masculinity (Stollery 2001:49). Rid al-sadd tells the story of the male protagonist Hechim whose memories of sexual assault as a boy torment him on the eve of his wedding. Told through these flashbacks, a jarring incongruency is depicted of Hechim between his younger and present self. On the one hand, he is the respectable man of the community, and on the other, the subordinated, humiliated masculinity at the hands of his abuser, Ameur, a carpenter with whom Hechim apprenticed. His subordinated masculine past also haunts him in his adult years cinematically as he is shown on the margins of the film frame during scenes showing the preparations for his marriage.

Hechim has three father figures in the film: his biological father, the carpenter Ameur, and Mr Levy, the father of his childhood friend whom Hechim regards with great respect and affection compared to the other two. The representation of the close relationship between the two was ground-breaking and controversial at the time Rih al-sadd was released as Mr Levy’s character belongs to a Jewish community in Sfax, where the film is set. Homosocial tenderness is depicted between Hechim and Farfat, a childhood friend who was also abused by Ameur. The idyll of intimacy from shared victimisation between the two, however, is later shattered by Farfat, who fatally stabs Ameur in the groin – an all too obvious attack on an older, more abusive order of masculinity.

Rih al-sadd interrogates the father-son relationship in which bad fathers are challenged while ideal ones are held in high esteem. This freedom to choose fathers is, according to Stollery (2001:62), harks back to a utopic past of cultural syncretism and inter-religious harmony rather than the divided ethnic and religious present. The shifts between fatherly nurturance and violence are perhaps suggestive of the psyche of the modern Tunisian men, torn between the demands of authority and self-actualisation, and thus representing what Nouri Gana (2010:112) calls melancholite masculinity. Gana reserves the term ‘melancholite’ to describe the neuroticism and anxieties embodied in the masculinity inherited from Bourgiba’s autocracy, that at the same time is preserved jealously against the challenges of feminist rhetoric and the rise of awareness of non-heteronormative sexualities. The greater presence of male homosexuality in the public discourse and the internationalisation of gay culture intensified homophobic disquietudes, and as a result eroded to an extent the forms of intimate male-to-male homosocial behaviour characterised by hand-holding, hugging, and kissing, casting a grim shadow on “traditional” Algerian masculinity (ibid. 2010:121).

The post-Bourgiba masculinity described by Gana as “suspended in a state of mutability that is simultaneously cultivated and frustrated” by the challenges faced in the gendered transformations of the public sphere can be captured in modern Tunisian film-making. The cinematic medium depicts the undoing of masculinity and manhood that is both arrested by the pull of nostalgia of an authoritarian and ahistorical patriarchy and the defiance to break out of the mould of rigid notions of post-colonial masculinity. As seen in the masculinisation of raï music in Algeria, there is again the tug of war between the calls for “authentic” cultural identity as glorified by contesting political discourses of the FIS and FLN, and the gravitational pull towards transgressive, “inauthentic” masculinity.

Fossiled masculinity, transforming masculinities: some concluding remarks

The prominent themes discussed above are the contradictions, contestations, and complexification within masculinities in relation to hegemonic masculinities. Hegemonic masculinities implied here are masculine-identified traits sanctioned institutionally as more powerful, more influential, often codified as controlling of women and subordinate men (Connell 1994:77). These are evident in the repressive institutions of the opposing Algerian political parties FLN and FIS, and those embodied by the older generation of men in Nouri Bouzid’s Rih al-sadd (Man of ashes) – of which both instances garner moral ascedancy over other men by virtue of an alignment with politicised Islam and age, respectively. These themes also track the historicisation of masculinity, capturing the “breaks” in the national gender narrative, just as the history of femininity in the Middle East witnessed a well-documented social evolution in the 20th century.

According to Connell, the very concept of masculinity and the norms of male embodiment is largely abstract and subject to change. More importantly, a set of expected norms is historically contingent, and therefore come into existence in specific circumstances both spatially and temporally. In light of this, Connell argues that there would be a struggle for hegemony in which older forms of hegemonic masculinity may be replaced by new ones (ibid. 1994:78). Connell suggests three other types of masculinities: complicit, subordinate, and protest masculinity – all of which contribute to the hierarchicalisation of masculine behaviour and attributes. However, as clear these distinguishing categories are, they are fluid and therefore ‘membership’ is sometimes difficult to identify (Connell 1994:73).

It is probably due to these conceptual ambiguities that I personally cannot confidently place a definition of the masculinities described in the examples discussed above. Hence, placing the raï-listening young men of Algeria in either the categories of subordinate masculinity or a kind of complicit masculinity may not be sufficient. The narrative in Rih al-sadd, on other hand, relies on the in-between position that Hechim assumes that can come to signify the unsettledness of masculine identities in modern day Tunisia. Yet such situational masculinities are for most times under the umbrella of hegemonic masculinity, attaining what Connell (1994:116) calls the ‘patriarchal dividend’ from which men may contribute to supporting hegemonic masculinity by exerting some power, however diluted, in certain circumstances such as through interactions with women and other more marginalised men.

The spaces of resistance that the masculinities assumed by fans of raï and the male protagonist Hechim in Rih al-sadd also depend on the porosity of the institutionalised hegemonic masculinity that is upheld by the state, itself an entity subject to fierce contestations. This view concurs with the suggestions of anthropologists Andrea Cornwall and Nancy Lindisfarne that the control of any type of masculinity is “never totally comprehensive” nor does it “ever completely control subordinates” (Cornwall and Lindisfarne 1994:5). One therefore cannot come to a definite conclusion if the participants of this gender matrix can benefit from their position in the hierarchy of masculinities, however porous each category may be, or whether all men pay the price for male dominance in some way. One must also be mindful not to de-emphasise the role of power relations in the relationships between masculinities. By focusing on the aspect of power invested within these relationships, there would be less of a need to undertake the more difficult task to labelling a man on the individual level as belonging to a particular masculinity type. Hence, the study of masculinity is not about head-counts, but rather a “question of relations of cultural domination” (Connell 1993:610).

My focus on contemporary Algerian and Tunisian masculinities – both North African yet on the margins of the Middle East – offers at best a few pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that will form a picture of Middle Eastern masculinity that is in many ways diverse, evolving, yet rooted to certain similar cultural and religious particularities. This is perhaps then a good opportunity to say that Islam as an analytical category is not monolithic but nonetheless affects the construction of masculinity in a significant way for better or for worse. It is then best to avoid the essentialisation of Islam that is perceived to be applied uniformly by all men in the Middle East and the way it often “obscures the dramatic changes that have occurred in the body of its values and even rituals throughout history when Islam was being constantly blended local customs and cultures” (Abu Khalil 1997:3). If Islam is indeed an important component in the formation of masculinity, then what is less understood are the multiple interpretational trajectories of Islam’s religious texts that lead to how idealised manhood or masculinity are constructed in a more nuanced, socially-specific way, how the different forms of power over women and other men are legitimated, and how these powers are perpetuated and maintained. And indeed, these processes of the ‘Islamisation’ of masculinity and power cannot exist in a vacuum, but subject to and affected by other sociological factors. Alongside the state, which has been identified above as constituting both abstract and material manifestation of hegemonic masculinity, the music (Whiteley 1999:219) and film industry (Mayne 1985:83) have been traditionally dominated by men and thus the products emerging from these cultural factories cannot be dismissed as entirely innocent of male bias, both at the level of production and reception .

Finally, I would like to raise questions for future reflections concerning the routes by which men of the Middle East make towards creating spaces for resistance, which can contribute to illuminating the ways masculinities transform and adapt to the changing landscape of power characterised by economic and social inequalities, the impact of globalisation, and the assent of women. Consequences of masculine resistance can thus be anticipated in various ways, and are not necessarily in favour of gender equality, but nonetheless may shed light on how they are transported or obstructed across different spaces (keeping in mind the context-specific nature of masculine identity). It is my hope that out of this patchwork of ambiguities emerge a better understanding of the means whereby the greater scheme of patriarchy is reproduced both between and within genders.

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Feminist, Malaysian, and Proud of It!

I’ve started a Facebook group as a forum for Malaysians who (or do not entirely) identify as feminists, or at least support the cause against social injustice – I think some looseness in labels is fair. I also think that it’s important that the few people who are like-minded get connected in some way, because blogs can be a little isolated and if you have blog names like mine, chances are you’d hardly get noticed (unless you’re looked up by botanists). So please join!!

Feminist, Malaysian, and Proud of it!

Comments on comments

In the last year, I’ve been getting plenty of Islamophobic comments on my blog. Some of which are unpublished here for my own peace of mind, and some I went on to tackle personally with the commenters who wrote them. Granted, I do not have a policy on comments and perhaps that is a mistake on my part for flashing a green light to those who feel the need to vent their Islamophobic frustrations online, or anti-feminist or racist frustrations for that matter. But on the other hand, explicit guidelines on how to comment on pro-Islam, feminist, and anti-racist blogs are often ignored anyhow. I cannot put a stop to this but the most I can do is to remind readers who feel that they do not respect my faith and other faiths and my politics is to go elsewhere and reflect on humanity a little more. Readers who do not respect Islam or feminism or anti-racist politics on the discursive level but claim to hold nothing against some of its adherents also will not have anything useful to say here. Yeah, I’m tough on “enlightened” haters.

To make this clearer: in the future, what I don’t need is any of the following..

The allure of the foreign or “exotic” as outline in the chromosomes and you want to call it Racism?

when a man (or a women) is attracted to something different, seeks it out, this is looking for something to be created between two consenting adults. Consenting meaning it would be mutual.

So repelled by something different, it is racism.
Attracted to, it is racism.

yes its the same simple biology at work isn’t it? And your  solution is…?

In addiction medicine, addiction is defined by consequences. I’d like to know the harsh consequences of this racism….because i’m sure every lynched slave from American history is “rolling in their grave” at your posted disgust.

Sloppy pseudo-scientific analogies for examples of racism do not work. Difference is not just the issue here, but something that is more diffuse, invisible – power relations – is at work in various types of inter (and indeed intra) ethnic relationships. For better or for worse, we represent to the world more than our individualities or autonomous identities. There are cultural tags and history connected to our gender and race/ethnicity (other visible analytical categories add here) that we cannot wish away and work against us in different circumstances, and with that there is an imbalance of power differentials manifested in the way groups of people are treated or talked about. As for the anxiety of racism from being repelled or attracted to somebody different, cultural tags and history of an ethnic group (White people is an ethnic group too) need to be weighed up to understand why certain qualities of an ethnic group are considered desirable / repulsive, and most importantly why there are those set of qualities there in the first place. Biology has no part in this.

I also don’t want misogynist bile like this:

As long as you continue to regard the myth of Patriarchy as having substance then, “the source of female oppression” (which is females themselves), will never be addressed but  continue to act as an excuse for self oppression and the avoidance of real issues.

Like the unicorn and the gnome, a myth involves things that no one has seen in real life but is perpetuated in common everyday discourse. Patriarchy cannot be seen, too, but it endures in our collective systems of thought and discourse. It is also not just one thing, which is why many men handwave this as pure mythology. I don’t want to go further into the dry definition of patriarchy, but rather would like to say this: defeating the patriarchy is not about beating down individual men and expect men to hate themselves for simply being men. No. But let’s put it this way: people who think that few women get the best-paid jobs or elected to highest ranks in government is because they do not try hard enough or just don’t go for them, or believe that women are better at looking after babies are complicit in perpetuating the pervasive cultural norm called patriarchy. Men do it, and so do women. It exists. Deal with it.

And finally, none of this please:

Shariah law in Malaysia:
RM5000 fine and imprisonment of up to 3 years and 6 lashes for consuming alcohol
And RM4000 fine and imprisonment of up to 2 years and 6 lashes for forcing one’s wife to be a prostitute!
Is there any wonder why Islam is viewed with ridicule and contempt?

My view of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism is valid and not inane. I remain an unashamed islamophobe but I have nothing against you personally. I feel sorry for all victims of religious endoctrination and persecution, and I wish you well.

Incidentally, I have read the quran and the bible old and new testaments. If you are not afraid to challenge your faith, then I recommend that you read “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins.

Richard Dawkin wrote the sociobiological nonsense called The Selfish Gene. No further comments.

Contesting narratives of the divine: Film religi and Islamic discourses in post-Soeharto Indonesia

Uploading more of my junk here. The following is my research proposal:

Hanung Bramantyo's Perempuan Berkalung Sorban (2008)

The recent upsurge in Islamically-themed films, or film religi, in Indonesia can be viewed as a reflection of the increasing prominence of Islam discernible in the media and consumption patterns (Widodo, 2008). Following the commercial success of Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) in 2008, a love story with polygamy at the heart of its narrative, as many as nine films with religious overtones have been produced with varied success. Ayat-ayat Cinta’s phenomenal success could be owed to its youthful and good-looking cast, stunning production value, and melodramatic rendering of sensitive issues such as polygamous relationships and Christian-Muslim relations. Subsequent films, however, have diverged from the romance to tackle a range of other issues from a strictly Islamic perspective. Moreover, what is significant in religious films since Ayat-ayat Cinta is the critical engagement with contesting Islamic discourses reflective of the climate in current Indonesian socio-politics. Thus, these films as an instrument of ideology and spiritual aspirations provide an important site of study in the case of Indonesia after 1998.

Despite cinema’s ambivalent relationship with the more conservative expressions of Islam, the Islamic film genre is by no means unique to predominantly Muslim Indonesia, and has enjoyed considerable popularity in Turkey, Iran, and Egypt in past decades (Dönmez-Colin, 2004; Siavoshi, 1997; Schohat, 1983). Films with overt religious themes earned attention in Turkey as ‘white cinema’ in the 1990’s when Islamist parties gained political dominance (Dönmez-Colin, 2004). A distinctively Islamist cinema that adhered to fiqh-based ideology (Islamic jurisprudence) was promoted in Iran during the First Republic following the 1979 revolution lasted until the mid 1980’s (Dönmez-Colin, 2004). It is worth noting here, however, that research on the role of Islam, and faith itself, in film has been at best limited to being part of nationalist cinematic discourse and in the emerging theological analysis on visual media. At present, film religi as a tenable genre in its own right remains a void in scholarly writings on the recent history of Indonesian film-making.

The emergence of Islamic films after 1998 – in the wake of Soeharto’s fallen New Order – is significantly momentous as far as Indonesian cinema is concerned. Many restrictive regulations formulated under Soeharto’s government relating to film production and screening were dissolved. A democratisation of the media was witnessed under the presidency of B.J. Habibi (1998-1999), while during during Abdurrahman Wahid’s presidency (1999-2001) saw the Ministry of Information abolished and the Lembaga Sensor Film’s (Film Censor Council) authority questioned. These events heralded a freer cinematic expression and posed a challenge to religious authorities and the more conservative public in general. The rise in Islamic films in recent years is seen as borne as a reaction to the liberated mediascape often assumed as a westernisation of popular culture, while at the same time reflective of the increasingly divergent discourse on Islam in Indonesia generally (Widido, 2008). Interestingly, the films are also part of a wider phenomenon of commercial Islam found in its appropriation in popular brand names, print media, and cultural products (Fealy, 2008).

Methodology and purpose of study

What I am interested in is performing a textual analysis to shed light on where the film religi fits in its social, cultural, and political environment. Due to the different nature of several Islamic films in style and representation of Muslim identities, a better understanding of the changing content, distribution, exhibition, and discourse of Indonesian cinema at large against the backdrop of evolving socio-politics in post-Soeharto Indonesia would represent an important aspect of my research. Furthermore, by building on Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagining and “re-presenting” elements of what constitutes a nation via textual means, a question as to whether the film religi identifies with and imagines certain Muslim communities/audiences and can harmoniously incorporate within Indonesian nationalist cinema is also a matter of analytical concern. In addition to a “top-down” relationship of film-makers/religious leaders construction of Muslim identities in films is the audience reception, which can be viewed as a “bottom-up” relationship that determines a film’s commercial (and possibly, ideological) success. For Muslims cinema-goers, watching films, particularly film religi, is part of their meaning-making. This can be perceived through how so-called “real” or “ordinary” film-watchers, rather than critics and academics, are reacting and responding to certain films.

Adding to the elements that constitute identities of an imagined nation are class and gender as demarcators of cultural and ideological boundaries. This is particularly important given that class-based and gender-sensitive representations of characters in recent Islamic films can be considered as an embodiment of changing attitudes and aspirations in Indonesian cinema today. As part of this research I intend to combine the analytical training in Gender Studies developed through my MA programme at SOAS, fluency in spoken and written Indonesian, experience in Muslim women’s activism, and as a film reviewer and critic to build on the study of Indonesian cinema, considering the scant scholarly writings on religious films in Indonesia at present. I believe that my proposed research project will be enhanced by the sensitivity and experience of not only as a Muslim scholar and cinema enthusiast but also by being a socially aware academic that I am. Based on my developing expertise as a film critic and academic, these are the justifications for my suitability for this particular research subject.

1.Widodo, Amrih, 2008. Writing for god: piety and consumption in popular Islam. Inside Indonesia, 93, http://www.insideindonesia.org/content/view/1121/47/
2.Fealy, Greg (2008) Consuming Islam: Commodified religion and aspirational pietism in contemporary Indonesia, from Expressing Islam – religious life and politics in Indonesia. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.
3.Dönmez-Colin, Gönül (2004) Women, Islam, and Cinema, Reaktion Books.
4.Schochat, Ella (1983) Critical Arts, Volume 2, No. 4.
5.Siavoshi, Sussan (1997) International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, No. 29.

The boy who cried "Witch!": Saudis investigate domestic workers for witchcraft

First published at Muslimah Media Watch

Something decidedly medieval is in the air in Saudi Arabia. Fears of black magic and curses cast by Indonesian domestic helpers have spread across the country, and  Saudi employers increasingly feel the need to hire private investigators to check their domestic workers for suspicious behavior and evidence for witchcraft.

Investigators, mostly foreign women from neighboring countries, are paid to search for photographs, hair, or clothes belonging to the employers before the domestic helpers are repatriated, reports Arab News. The employers do not do this themselves because they feel it is immoral and something Islam prevents them to do.

This is a strange story, worthy of trashy tabloids and supernatural fiction. But clearly, superstition is a habit that dies hard, often with dire consequences. There is no mention in the report about the rampant abuse of migrant domestic workers by Saudi employers, but I assume that that is the long running back story that needs no introduction. Abuse of domestic workers ranges from emotional and physical abuse to rape, slavery, and even murder. There is very little sense or a trace of rationality to fear domestic workers for practicing black magic unless one’s judgment is clouded by xenophobia and the normalization of the dehumanization of working-class foreigners. Even the Saudi religious police, the mutawa, have become self-styled witch-hunters, lacking only a burning stake in the middle of a city square to complete the image in a country where witchcraft is illegal and punishable by death.

But stories of black magic do not just arise out of thin air. They are a byproduct of a larger economic and political structure that renders migrant workers vulnerable to xenophobic and racist attacks. The U.N. research institute for social development has identified three aspects attributable to the heightened xenophobia in the Middle East. First, a preference for a temporary contract labor. Second, discriminatory employment practices and the special “allocation” for menial jobs for migrant workers; and finally, a culture of disdain towards those who are visibly different.

Abuse of every despicable kind is by no means limited to Saudi households, but is also widespread in where I come from, Malaysia. High-profile cases involving horrific abuse of domestic helpers grabbing international attention in the last ten years have hardly left a dent on the conscience of many Malaysians. Having been brought up for a number of years with a domestic helper at home while both my parents went to work, it is an accepted way of life for a significant proportion of Malaysians. Domestic helpers provide huge relief for double income families, and many became part of the family, joining in on holidays and included in family portraits. Muslim Indonesian maids are preferred in most Muslim households for a variety of reasons, food preparation and religious sensitivity among them, but they are also some of the most badly treated.

Filipino workers, who majority are Christians on the other hand, suffer lower rates of abuse because arguably, they are better protected: thanks to government lobbying, Filipino migrant workers are paid better than their Indonesian counterparts, and in places like Jordan, bans have been imposed on potential employers to receive Filipino domestic helpers due to reports of abuse. They are also a smaller group compared to Indonesian female migrant workers. Most Filipino maids are older than Indonesian workers, better educated and skilled. But this is not about numbers–cases of abuse no matter how high or isolated deserves the attention and effective action.

It’s difficult to piece together the macro structures such as the economy, world poverty, and immigration policies with attitudes of ordinary families toward domestic helpers to fully understand what brings people to commit inhuman acts on other human beings. I often wonder if whether having a person contracted to live under one’s roof has anything to do with it. Bringing in someone to cook, clean your clothes, look after the children and/or elderly relatives must involve a tricky negotiation over privacy and other practical matters included in having another person under the same roof.

Perhaps there’s very little in terms of a middle way between welcoming a domestic helper as a new member of the family or simply as a stranger in the home. If the case is the latter, then life at home must be uncomfortable not just for the employers and their family, but particularly for the domestic workers who’ve travelled far from home to find a better life. Is this an effect of our changing values vis-a-vis a rapidly changing urban landscape where increased contact with “the outside world” through immigration and migration has become inevitable and unsettling for many?