Fiesta Feminista 2011 is on 25 to 27th November in Kota Kinabalu

For those still not in the know, the second Fiesta Feminista is taking place on 25 to 27th November 2011 in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, in East Malaysia. From the website:

Fiesta Feminista is

  • an initiative by the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG)
  • a regular event that happens once every 3-4 years
  • a process of learning about and advocating for issues of feminism, human rights, and democracy in Malaysia
  • a platform for people of all classes, ages, ethnicities, beliefs, gender identities and sexual orientations, locations, and abilities
  • a safe space where thinking out loud is respected and where people can engage each other on fair, equal, and non-violent terms

FF 2011 begins on the International Day Against Violence Against Women which also marks the start of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence (November 25-December 10). For more information about this global campaign, including how you can take part, please visit the campaign site.

I will be returning to Malaysia in November to attend Fiesta Feminista and will be reporting the event for Kakak Killjoy. Can’t wait!

Does Ustazah Pilihan have the X-factor?

On 1st October, Islamic lifestyle Astro channel, Oasis, is launching the first episode of Ustazah Pilihan (Ideal Ustazah). Similar in format to the reality talent show Imam Muda (Young Imam), a woman will have to jump through various hoops to prove that she’s the most qualified religious teacher of the land. Each contestant will be faced with a barrage of tasks, trained and monitored by two mursyidah (mentors) in issues that concern Muslim women over the course of 8 weeks.

There’s little to know if this reality show is actually any good until it’s on of course. But that doesn’t stop anyone from making basic conjectures about the show from the little information available online and dividing them neatly into the good, the bad, and the whatevs.

The Good: the most obvious is that this is a competition where women are being competitive, hence making a point that they’re demonstrably good and highly capable, in religious matters. Also, it is a programme in which the production team consists entirely of women. So there’s a notch for women making a mark in the production level of the competitive world of television and media in general. The reality talent show formula shows yet again that Islam is not stuck in the past, but rather utilises elements of popular culture to make the concerns of Muslims fresh, relevant, and to some extent, trendy.

The Bad: The competition already limits itself to a narrow definition of what will make an ideal ustazah as only women who are young (applicants between 18 to 27 years of age only need apply) and cover their aurat (codeword for wearing the tudung/hijab) are allowed to participate. It is unlikely that lesbian and trans women are allowed to compete let alone make it through the auditions.

The Whatevs: the show already has got some flak from mainly male bloggers and commenters who are “concerned” that the programme will turn into a kind of meat market attracting lascivious men who are keen on ustazah-types. On top of this concern is the feeling that Ustazah Pilihan may make Muslim women too uppity for their own good and being excellent in an (public) arena dominated by Muslim men. So yeah, women can be serious about a career in religion, but not too serious or too good lest they outshine and topple men from their sacred pedestal.

Catch Ustazah pilihan on Astro Oasis, 1st October 2011.

On the NGOisation of feminism in Malaysia and how it may exclude many Malaysians

There was an article in the Star online today about pressuring the government into making sexual harassment a crime in Malaysia. 11 NGOs stressed the urgency since the rising numbers of incidences are making public spaces not only unbearable but increasingly dangerous for women and girls. But the language in which harassment or any gender-related issues for that matter is used is most often in sedate legal terms and in official statements that are supposed to engage equally sedate government officials.

It seems as if no one can really talk about feminist activism in Malaysia without mentioning various relevant NGOs in the country. This is mainly to do with how the dominant discourse on feminism in Malaysia works. But first, what is discourse? Discourse basically means the ways in which a particular topic is talked and discussed in the public and private arena. This includes the rules of what makes something “true” or “false”, important or not important. In the case of the discourse of feminism in Malaysia, a feminist or gender-related issue needs to be framed as an NGO issue to be regarded an important issue, at least important enough to get news space in the mainstream media.

Before anyone thinks that this post is a hate-on of NGOs, it’s not. Far from it. If anything, constant pressure on the government to make public spaces safer is of utmost importance all the time. As part of civil society, feminist NGOs form an integral aspect of building non-state and non-market interest in raising awareness to societal concerns, like everyday justice and discrimination. But the voice of the ordinary public is often missing from the picture; women and girls who fear walking the streets on broad daylight on their own are not figured in discussions on sexual harassment. Men have little to say about how harassment affects their lives and the lives of others.

The most detrimental effect of depending on the legitimacy of NGOs to make a feminist issue important is that it excludes many people outside NGOs; many other women and girls, and men in particular, from being part of a bigger movement. No one will feel that they have a stake in creating social change if they’re not being listened to. The ultimate danger is that feminist issues become exclusively women’s issues and nothing that concerns men. Even though men will walk in solidarity with women under the banner of anti-discrimination and violence, it is not a discourse that men can enter.

The dry and staid language used in the discourse of feminism in Malaysia also exclude many younger feminists in Malaysia who are inspired by the creativity, irreverence, and upbeat spirit of new feminism. An example of new forms of feminist expression in combating violence, harassment, and victim-blaming is Slutwalk. To delegitimise Slutwalk as irrelevant, offensive, and self-defeating is to miss the bigger picture; that younger women are serious about rape and slut-shaming. Do we all need to funnel our anger and disaffection down the narrow and dry language of statistics, referendums, statement letters, and petitions to be taken seriously?

To diminish the legitimacy of younger feminists who do not use the language of NGOs and the insistence that feminist issues must be a point of engagement with the government will marginalise many who do not have class and power-based access to creating change. Malaysia is mired by a culture of deference to the hype of status that will never help status-less young and so-called unqualified people from being heard. In sum, the challenge of addressing harassment and victim-blaming lies little in the hands of the government and a small coterie of NGO activists, but the entire public. And it is important that as many people as possible have access to and legitimacy in discussing the gender-related fears and anxieties that affect their everyday experiences.

A brief note on Islamic film-making in Indonesia

The ways in which cinema and religion are intertwined are not unique to Indonesia nor to Islam. The rise of Pentecostal “video-films” in Ghana, the Hollywood mainstreaming of ‘Ben Hur’ and Mel Gibson’s ‘The passion of Christ’, and the popular reception of ‘Karunamayudu’, a Telegu retelling of the story of Jesus, watched by over 100 million in South India are but a few examples testament to the significantly popular(ised) presence of religion in the media. Turkey, Iran, and Egypt have been producing their own brand of religious cinema in the past decades (Dönmez-Colin 2004:31; Siavoshi 1997:11). 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 2004:40). 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.

The popularity of Islamic films (or film Islami) after 1998 – in the wake of Suharto’s resignation – is significantly momentous as far as Indonesian cinema is concerned. Many restrictive regulations formulated under Suharto’s government relating to film production and screening were dissolved. A democratisation of the media was witnessed under the presidency of B.J. Habibie (1998-1999), while 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 media and cinematic expression subsequently posing a challenge to religious authorities and the more conservative public in general. During the New Order, the views of Muslim clerics’ were at odds with cinema-going and films produced during the period. In early 1980s, most ulamas (clerics) disapproved of cinema-going as the darkened ambience of the cinema would encourage illicit sexual behaviour. They suggested instead that films should be used for Islamic preaching (dakwah) and not soon after the first Islamic ‘mission’ film was produced, Sembilan wali (Nine holy men, 1985, dir. Djun Saptohadi), a film about the earliest Islamic preachers in Java (van Heeren, 2007: 82).

Before the massive success of Ayat-ayat cinta, respected film-makers Chaerul Umam and Deddy Mizwar have made a number of films with deeply religious (and indeed political) themes. Among the films by Chaerul Umam that would be categorised as pre-Reformasi film religi include Al-Kautsar (1977), Titian serambut dibelah tujuh (1982), Nada dan dakwah (1991) starring Rhoma Irama, and Fatahillah (1997), while Deddy Mizwar directed the light-hearted romantic comedy Kiamat sudah dekat (Judgement day is nigh, 2003). Indonesian films which were popular before the success of film religi that did contain religious elements were to be found in the horror and supernatural, whereby Islam is personified by the kyai-cum-exorcist who defeats evil and restores the moral order (van Heeren, 2008: 20). In 2004, sinetron religi (religious soap opera) had arrived. Adopting the combination of religion and the supernatural like its celluloid counterpart, religious soap operas were concerned mainly with stories of divine retribution and redemption, or siksaan kubur (lit.: judgement in the grave) (van Heeren, 2008: 21).

I will be careful to not subsume all film religi, here described as both individual films and genre highlighted in this study, simply as “entertainment.” Questions can be raised as to whether Islamically-themed films are really “films” in the cultural, artistic sense, while perhaps serving as an extension and tool for religious purposes. The limits of religious representation is brought into sharp relief here, as films made in the “style of film religi” (this itself is an topic to be further explored in detail) are also made by ‘mainstream’ film-makers with no public allegiances to particular Islamic organisations or conventional appearance as pious personalities. Islamic film religi are starred by actors who neither don the jilbab in their public / private life nor even Muslims themselves. Indeed, some films have proselytising overtones (Kun Fayakun and Mengaku Rasul for example) with plenty of dramatic elements to engage audiences. At times films with overt Islamic themes have been labelled by audiences and Muslim clerics as having nothing to do with Islam at all (for instance the debate on whether Ayat-ayat cinta is a vehicle for Islamic preaching, see Heryanto, 2011).

Despite the unstable label of ‘Islamic film’, films continue to made in the most ‘Islamic’ way possible; auditions for actors sometimes include Quranic recitation and Islamic values ‘test’ that demonstrate the spiritual suitability of the actors for the cinematic roles (Imanjaya, 2009). Muslim movements such as the Muhammadiyah have established Islamic film production houses and broadcasting companies to empower young Muslims in audio-visual media and to ensure that media production and consumption are organised around religious principles (van Heeren, 2007: 83-84). Examples of such production houses and broadcasting companies include M-Screen Indonesia (Muslim Screen Indonesia), Muslim Movie Education (MME), Fu:n Community (based on the Arabic word al funnuun, which means art), and the Salman Film-maker Club, a film community connected to the Salman Mosque, which is part of the Technical University of Bandung. In 2003, the collaboration of film companies and religious institutions (such as the pesantren (Islamic boarding school)) gave birth to the Morality Audio Visual Network (MAV-Net), whose main objective is to challenge the dominance of foreign films and strengthen the role of Islamic ‘visual ethics’ in film-making (van Heeren, 2007: 83). Islamic film organisations or ‘communities’ flourished during the climate of Reformasi because increasing numbers of Islamic institutions began to approve of the training of young Muslims in film and media production and saw the benefit of media as a medium for preaching (van Heeren, 2007: 84).


Dönmez-Colin, G. (2004) Women, Islam and cinema, Reaktion Books: London.

Imanjaya, E. (2009) When love glorifies God: Islamic film is emerging as a new genre in the Indonesian film world, Inside Indonesia 97.

Siavoshi, S. (1997) Cultural policies and the Islamic republic: Cinema and book publication, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 29: 509-530.

Van Heeren, K. (2007) Contemporary Indonesian film: Spirits of reform and ghosts from the past, PhD thesis.

Man sues LSE for “anti-male” Gender Studies agenda

First published on The F-Word

Once upon a time, the hallowed halls of academia were only opened to men. Within, men consumed and produced scholarship about other men. The presence of women in university was thought to contaminate, ridicule, and degrade the sacred pursuit of learning. Learning was even thought to be bad for women, making them infertile among other things. When the doors were finally burst open to women, there was no turning back; women were everywhere, accomplishing in male-dominated disciplines, outnumbering and out-performing the male of the species, and dominating the humanities and social sciences. Then came the rise of Gender Studies that served to redress the historical silencing of queer and female voices, and administer a small dose of balance into the male-centred world of learning. So far, so good for woman-kind.

Tom Martin shows the offending propagandist material he was made to read. Source: London Evening Standard.

But recently, the London School of Economics (LSE) has been threatened to floor the reverse pedal on the latter. The man at the centre of this tea-cup sized furore is former student of LSE, Tom Martin, who claimed that the Gender Studies masters programme he was following was “sexist” for focusing on women’s issues rather than men’s issues. Martin’s spectacularly ineffectual allegations is presumably meant to expose the hidden anti-male agenda and the evil feminine take-over that were unfolding before his very eyes. But little does he realise the irony of his own sexist claims.

Gender Studies has traditionally been the preserve of women because it is one of the very few scholarly retreats from the male-dominated world of academia. By scholarly retreats I mean it is interested in questioning (issues not limited to) sexism and power imbalances in society. There are of course a number of class and race-related problems in Gender Studies that concern women but that is for another post. The study of masculinities or “men’s issues” takes a back-seat in Gender Studies because women and femininity have traditionally been viewed as “problematic” categories in both good and bad ways, while masculinity and men have long been default, invisible, and unproblematic categories.

The study of men is gaining ground in Gender Studies but Martin’s grievances about its “secondary” place in the discipline is typical of some men who want their issues to dominate, to be first and take importance. This has been the case for centuries. And so the predominance of women and their issues strike men who are consumed by their male privilege as an oddity, a takeover by women, an outrage best described as “sexism”.

Access to academic publications online is a feminist issue albeit a hypocritical one for feminist academia

Access to academic publication is the hidden dark heart of academia. Those within ivory towers often forget what it’s like to be outside and far below, without the institutional login to the very stuff of learning. Recent articles by George Monbiot and Ben Goldacre on the highly protective academic publishing cartel have raised attention to how lack of access the general non-academically affiliated public have to scholarship. This is not news to students and those working in academia.

For those without institutional login or access to selected journal publications, purchasing a single academic article can cost between £8.67 on JSTOR to £30 per article on Springer in PDF format. Aaron Schwartz, a fellow at Harvard’s Centre for Ethics and digital activist, has been accused of intellectual property theft for downloading millions of academic articles for widespread dissemination. The punishment for spreading articles that were downloaded legally (without additional fee) through institutional access may be far greater than the cost of all the articles siphoned out by Schwartz.

The highly protected nature of academic publishing bars many without the financial means from access. Mind you, getting having access to journal articles is not like browsing through books in a book shop, leafing through pages of a physical book before deciding whether or not to purchase it. Access is restricted from the get-go, with only a glimpse into the first page of the article or just an abstract and nothing more.

Restricted access to academic publication is an ethical issue that goes deep into the question of power and knowledge and who has them. Feminist academia and its attack against unequal institutionalised power and knowledge are directly implicated in this latest ‘expose’ in contradictory ways. On the one hand, feminist academics, who are typically part of the gender studies set, argue that economically-marginalised groups have long been denied access to institutionalised feminist knowledge through the increasing use of jargons and esoteric writing.

Feminist academics also question the ways such groups are excluded from producing ‘legitimate’ forms of knowledge (i.e. formal, academic, and jargon-heavy) that are taken seriously in the academy. But on the other hand, access to feminist knowledge is so jealously guarded by academic publishers and online journal databases there is no way of entering and experiencing the closed world of academic writing without being already part of academia.

What financial interests do academics need to protect from the siphoning out of academic publications from online databases for free dissemination? Pretty much nothing. Academics do not receive royalties for each time their articles are downloaded. If anything, an academic publication alone for academics is, to varying degrees, like gold dust. Like Goldacre says, it is difficult to reconcile easy access to academic publications with the needs of the distributors who provide them for profit. But those within the academy have a duty to disseminate and share their work in a variety of ways through blogging, vlogging, public lectures, and media appearances.

The gender politics of conversion narratives in film religi

Ayat-ayat cinta (Verses of love, 2008, dir. Hanung Bramantyo) and Syahadat cinta (Shahada of love, 2008, dir. Gunawan Panggaru) portray the religious conversion of two Christian female characters, Maria and Pricilia respectively, to Islam after developing an intimate relationship with the Muslim male protagonists. The women convert to Islam for different reasons. For Maria, it is to marry Fahri while Pricilia becomes a Muslim after becoming enlightened by Islamic teaching. In the two films, both Maria and Pricilia develop an interest in Islam during their close friendship with the Muslim male characters and both are depicted as morally-upstanding and chaste young women. Thus far, there has not been a film about male characters who convert to Islam for the Muslim woman they love. Why this particular version of conversion narrative in Ayat-ayat cinta and Syahadat cinta should re-occur at all is fascinating for two main reasons; it underscores the public fascination of Christian women who convert to Islam, and attempts to develop a pro-interfaith subplot through a male-female relationship.

In Europe and the United States, conversion toward Islam accelerated significantly after the events of September 11 2001, raising suspicion and hostility among Western Christians and the agnostic population toward the converts (van Nieuwkerk, 2006: ix). Moreover, women make the majority of Muslim converts. Conversion to Islam is often seen as a political expression, whether the convert intended it or not (van Nieuwkerk, 2006: ix). Furthermore, debates on whether Islam is an ‘oppressive’ religion for women increases the tension against and fascination toward women convert to Islam by choice. The level of fascination with (mainly white Western) women who convert to Islam is exemplified in numerous research and news articles published mainly in the West. However, I am not aware if the same type of fascination and tensions exist in Indonesia, but I believe that this phenomenon deserves much attention. Ayat-ayat cinta and Syahadat cinta attempt to portray Islam as an attractive religion for young and educated women but not without the guidance of the Muslim man they have fallen for. Interestingly, devout Pricilia chooses to leave her Catholic faith and embrace Islam, which suggests that Islam trumps Catholicism in terms of its spiritual benefits for women.

Multi-faith relations in Indonesia has long been a fragile and explosive affair. During and after Suharto’s rule, bloody sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians erupted across multiple Indonesian islands (Abuza, 2007). Syahadat cinta is diplomatic in its portrayal of Pricilia as equally religious and virtuous as the other Muslim characters, i.e. the students at the pesantren where the leading male character, Iqbal, is studying. She is shown praying at the altar and cites the virgin Mary as an important figure to her beliefs. Fahri and Iqbal meanwhile are shown to be respectful toward the beliefs of the two women. The romantic subplot between Fahri and Maria, and Pricilia and Iqbal can be understood as an attempt to frame inter-faith relations through a soft-focus lens, romanticising the ideal relationship and mutual respect between individuals of different faiths.

Why a heart-warming and romantic inter-faith subplot should end with the Christian woman converting to Islam elicits an array of potential explanations. Although Muslim men can marry Jewish and Christian women without the women converting to Islam, it is common practice for women ‘to follow the man’ and convert to Islam (van Nieuwkerk, 2006: x). Muslim women, on the other hand, can only marry men who are Muslim. While non-Muslim men can convert to Islam in order to marry Muslim women, this version of the conversion narrative is not shown in any Islamically-themed Indonesian film. Characters who are male and Muslim make a particularly potent combination for notions of leadership, dominance, and moral exemplar for others, in this case non-Muslim women who in the end follow his lead and faith.

van Nieuwkerk, K. (2006) Women embracing Islam: gender and conversion in the West, University of Texas Press.