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).

Reference:

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.

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

Despite Merdeka, we still show plenty of love for our colonial masters

Here’s some food for thought: Why did colonialism occur on our land for several hundred years? Why didn’t proto-Malaysians fight back the moment invasion was upon them? And here’s a tougher nougat for thought; despite everything, was colonialism a good thing for Malaysia?

Before answering those big questions without empirical certainty, perhaps we should ask how colonialism is framed and discussed in the Malaysian popular imagination. Thinking about colonialism at the time of national day celebrations can serve a variety of useful purposes. For the patriotic, it’s about commemorating the day we showed the penjajah (colonial/imperialist powers) the door and declared our political independence; for historians, it’s a reminder of how little we’ve decolonised ourselves. But for the ordinary Malaysian who are neither the chest-beating patriotic type nor learned historian*, colonialism is in the past and has no bearing on the present or future.

Cover of a guidebook to the Federated Malay states published in 1912. Source: Malaysia Design Archive

How do most Malaysians remember our colonial past? Or rather, how are we expected to remember our colonial past? What does colonialism mean in our popular imagination? The pages of our diluted, heavily edited and biased history textbooks do not burn with distaste and anger toward our European (particularly British) colonial masters. Instead, we remember them as relatively benevolent men who found economic potential in proto-Malaysia. They struck a deal with the sultans to settle and develop industries, our industries. They fought to keep the perils of communism and Japanese imperialism at bay. They helped us on our way to independence.

Their presence was therefore seen in many ways a boon to our imminent independence; our colonial masters helped build roads and other very useful public infrastructure, introduced an organised education system, and made us speak English among other things. With the history of indentured labour a mere footnote in Malaysian history books, we remembered our colonialism as less severe; we did not suffer colonial slavery of the scale that tore swaths of people and cultures apart in the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The cradle of our independence was not washed in blood like India and Pakistan. In comparison, the liberation of the federated Malay states and straits states (excluding Sabah and Sarawak) in 1957 was like a gift on a silver platter handed from one group of British colonial elites to a coterie of a mainly Malay elite. For our British colonial masters, the London-educated, steak-loving anglophile Tunku Abdul Rahman ticked the boxes of the ideal leader for the newly-born postcolonial states, not the anti-colonial Malay and Chinese communists who fought bitterly in vain to drive the British out. For Lim Kean Chye, merdeka has little to no meaning, as Malaysia is still a colonial state, furnished with a racist superiority complex that imbues our national psyche and legal system, a complex not far removed from the racist colonial one with the added manic flag-waving pretensions of a liberated and democratic nation.

There are several hypotheses for why the popular imagination of our relationship with colonialism is filtered through rosy pink lenses. First, the control of Malay and strait states was smoothly managed in that the states were relatively compact and geographically accessible, not needing extensive and punishing slave labour to build railroads across vast stretches of land to facilitate the colonial plundering of resources (such as in Canada and United States for example). Because of the presence of Islam and by implication a recognised element of ‘civilisation’, the everyday customs and religions of the common people were allowed to self-manage and not need the brutalising ‘civilising’ processes like in India and in the African countries through widespread missionary work and the denigration of local cultures.

Because African peoples were viewed as lacking a religion in the eyes of the colonial puritanical zealots, their dehumanisation and process to ‘civilisation’ were particularly brutal. Racist colonial scholarship that sought to redeem the savagery of non-white peoples, through the construction of racial hierarchy that posits a group of savages as less savage than others, was eclipsed by its inadvertent results; new forms of marginalisation, ethnic divide, and genocide. In Malaysia, the road to independence was punctuated by luck and circumstance with the ethnic divide smoothed-over by fragile diplomatic arrangements, and not defined by struggle and agency.

Colonialism in proto-Malaysia was seen as simply a benign project because the racism of our European invaders did not register in our Eurocentric collective memory. That is perhaps one of the many complex and inter-locking reasons why colonialism occurred for so long in proto-Malaysia. The spectacular retreat of the French that ended colonialism in Haiti in 1804 taught the post-colonial world, among other things, that independence can be won without the paternalistic hand-me-down of a used and abused nation and that colonialism was not an inevitable event in history to be taken for granted. In contrast, the story of Malaysian independence in history textbooks and popular imagination would have us believe that proto-Malaysians slept all throughout European expansion only to be awaken by the gentle nudge of the distant crumbling of Empire.

* Granted, the categories are not necessarily exclusive.

On sexual slavery and the question of what makes something ‘Islamic’

Salwa al-Mutairi, a Kuwaiti politican, gave a cold-blooded proposal for Muslim men to take female slaves, especially non-Muslim female prisoners of war, for sexual use (or rather rape). It has rather unpredictably come under fire.

Slavery is one of the most abhorrent forms of abuse of power in this modern age. But the basic principles of al-Mutairi’s views have validation in Islamic texts. Like it or not, the Qur’an does not make any mention about ending slavery per se. It does recommend the freeing of slaves, particularly those who convert to Islam. But it also spells out the status of the slave as a person a man can have legitimate sexual relations with and by implication is someone who is sexually available.

Notwithstanding the incongruence between modern sensibilities and what is spelled out in the Qur’an as a book of wisdom and guidance, the abolition of slavery is now the expected universal norm. Every country has declared an end to slavery within its borders by the twentieth century. In predominantly Muslim nation-states, motivations behind the end of slavery was not so much a religious calling, but rather a mix of socio-economic circumstances, diplomatic strategy, and European colonial influence. It is at this circumstantial juncture that the right decision to universally turn back against slavery was established.

This is not to say that slavery has been completely wiped out from the face of the earth; today, slavery continues to exist in sex trafficking and in domestic labor, which enslaves thousands of migrant female workers.

Any intellectual discussion about sexual slavery and gender in the modern age should not be about sex and desire, but about power and the human weakness to abuse it. To say that men have an insatiable sexual desire and therefore need to channel it in “legitimate” terms (i.e., through concubinage, slavery, and even marriage) is missing the point.

How so? First, it is an insult to even suggest that men are inherently powerless to the will of their penises. Second, the Qur’an mentions allowances to multiple female sex partners (where wives, concubines, and slaves are thrown into the mix) only in the context of economic power; only rich men can afford to have multiple sex partners, especially concubines and slaves.

What is perhaps more intriguing and sets more tongues wagging is the fact that a Muslim woman is championing the slavery of other women. This is an example of what academic Deniz Kandiyoti describes as the “patriarchal bargain.” The patriarchal bargain posits that women are just as capable of oppressing other women to maintain or to gain access to social advantage. It is without doubt that any person, woman or man, with political influence would always seek to maintain power and privilege by pandering to those with more power and privilege.

The more powerful and privileged in question are those in the Kuwaiti government, who already claim a litany of human rights abuses, such maintaining a legislation that strips domestic workers of basic rights and ignoring the extensive abuse of migrant workers. This adds an additional dimension – xenophobia – into the mix. Much of the abuses against migrant workers – many of whom are Muslims – in Kuwait rests on the xenophobic attitudes of employers who view the workers as less than human. The fact that al-Mutiari’s suggestion women from war-torn Chechnya be bought to suffer yet more human rights abuses in Kuwait underscores this fact even more.

So in the context of sexual slavery as supported by the clerics al-Mutairi mentions, the more troubling question arises: is sexual slavery “Islamic”? Just because it is not prohibited in the Book does not make it right in practice. Easy as that. Another relevant question will arise by implication: so what makes something Islamic? It has been proven time and time again that what makes something Islamic is not necessarily spelled out in holy texts, but embellished mainly through privileged interpretation and historical contexts. Furthermore, the fact that slavery was a common and acceptable pre-Islamic practice during the prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) time, and the fact that some slaves gained status and power over those lower in the pecking order does not mitigate the loathsomeness of slavery.

Slavery or the abuse of female prisoners of war, the brutal removal of their freedoms and agency, and through silencing them and dehumanizing them goes against the very essence embedded in the respect for human lives, be it un-free or non-Muslim.

It is becoming clear that the Islamic discourse on slavery sheds very little light on the experiences of those at the nastier end of practice and this needs to change. The masculinist approach to holy texts that privileges the views of men needs to change. Also, what needs to change is the recognition that our modern sensibilities are shaped by history and socio-economic circumstances; what feels right, moral, and ethical rests on multiple factors.

We learn from history and experiences just as much from the holy texts. Much has changed since the days when slavery was taken for granted: if there’s anything more unacceptable it is the reduction of a whole person into something that can be bought and sold against their will.

Why are we a nation who adores murderers, rapists, and violent men?


Nurul Dahyatul Fazlinda Mat Haizan, her mother, siblings, and cousins reunite with Nurul Dahyatul's father in prison. Source: The Star Online

Yesterday, I read with despair and bewilderment about 9-year old Nurul Dahyatul Fazlinda Mat Haizan who was first subjected to an acid attack by her father and would later meet him in prison with “tears of joy”. The reason why Nurul Dahyatul would weep for joy upon meeting her violent father as if reuniting with a long-lost loved one is bewildering and raises a lot of question marks.

Attacked while asleep by her father who “flew into a rage” during an argument with her mother, the disfigured girl has presumably forgiven her father’s violent deed and accepted his action as pure “accident”. Nurul Dahyatul is not the only one who sustained injuries; her mother and two other siblings also suffered from burns.

Yet despite the traumatic event, Nurul Dahyatul and her mother appear adamant that the man who kept chemical weapons in the family home, who would go as far as to disfigure his family and subject them to psychological distress, has reformed and is by nature gentle and worthy of their love and devotion. Nurul Dahyatul’s mother, Ku Huzaimah, also believes that because Nurul Dahyatul was his “favourite” child he had never meant to hurt her.

Nurul Dahyatul and her mother represent a part of similar cases in Malaysia that invite suggestions of delusional behaviour. In June, a Malay woman insisted on posting bail for her husband after he had raped their daughter three times. The woman explains to the incredulous court room that “As a wife, I know my husband is problematic”. In another case some time back whose details I cannot recall, a Malay woman defended her husband even after he had murdered their daughter. Her reason for standing by her man? Because they were still bound together by wedlock.

Why do some people defend their violent partners, fathers, and relatives?

It is common in abusive relationships to have the abused defending and returning to their abuser because of a number of reasons; mainly fear, emotional blackmail, and diminished self-esteem. Here we have three women and one girl who would tell the world that they resume with life post murder, rape, and disfigurement with the perpetrator almost as if nothing had happened. I can only hazard a guess that the fear of challenging a man at his weakest point – due to imprisonment, humiliation by the press – and domestic retribution can force a woman or girl into the role of defender of the man’s scarred ego.

Despite being a ubiquitous fact of life, divorce is still deeply stigmatising and even taboo in Malaysia. Perhaps it is not far-fetched to suggest that for some divorce is far worse than living with an abusive, murderous, and misogynistic man. Another familiar theme underlying the cases is the gentle man beneath the exterior of the beast who can do no wrong, the myth of the protective husband and father who had momentarily lost his head, the fantasy of the household that will perish without the presence of paterfamilias, and the myth of accommodating wives and daughters. Perhaps Nurul Dahyatul’s tears of joy are not so bewildering after all.

Sex reassignment surgery is “not allowed” in Islam because Muslims in Malaysia are easily confused

The re-instated word on the legal status of sex reassignment surgery (SRS) within Islam continues to stand as “not allowed” on all counts except for hermaphrodite people. The ban on SRS was first introduced in 1983 but occasionally a re-issue of the fatwa is necessary mainly as a reminder to Muslim Malaysians that they’re being policed.

International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) law lecturer Shamrahayu Abdul Aziz is incredibly confident that Islamic jurisprudence is very clear on the issue of transsexualism. She goes on to say that “Islam’s position on this is so clear it is not even debatable today. Islam does not permit sex changes to avoid any confusion and problems that would crop up later”.

According to the law lecturer, “it would be confusing for Muslims to conduct burial rites for those who undergo a sex change when they die, with questions raised about whether the body should be treated as a man or a woman”.

Yes, it is not news to Muslim Malaysians that we are an easily confused lot. Or at least this is what Malaysians politicians, religious leaders, and other pundits seem to assume. But Muslim Malaysians are especially (and dangerously) confused when it comes to religious matters says this enlightened bunch. Of course this assumption is not only deeply patronising but also very offensive. It is important to be wise to this condescending talk of confusion, because popular Islamic discourse is used in Malaysia to portray Muslims as unknowing, naïve, and intellectually dependent on clerics and Islamic teachers to conveniently close all debate on religious matters. So, because you are easily confused you must not question or criticise what is purportedly set in stone ‘by Islam’.

The truth is, this potential gender ‘confusion’ brought upon by SRS has nothing to do with Islam. If anything, it’s not confusion but transphobia. A person can only allow themselves to be ‘confused’ because they choose to be ignorant about the realities of being a Muslim transgender and transsexual person in Malaysia. Ignorance or “confusion” is not an excuse when it comes to SRS and therefore whatever reason to disallow SRS will not hold water.

Other clerics and key figures in Islam are more progressive about transsexualism and transgender people. It is common knowledge that Iran has long been an unlikely capital of SRS ever since Ayatollah Khomeini recognised its significance for humanitarian reasons in 1978. Early Islamic scholars Ibn Abd Al-Barr, Ibn Qudamah, and Ibn Abbas wrote about transwomen in neutral terms, describing their mahram status amongst cis Muslim women.

It is important to note that the Qur’an does not mention the terms khunsa (hermaphrodites), mukhannis (biological males who identify as women and want a change of their biological sex) or mukhannas (biological males who identify as women but do not consider changing their biological sex).

According to some scholars however the Qur’an does have a reference to people who are neither male or female, ‘aqim (translated into English as ‘ineffectual’) in verse 42: 49 and 50.

So what’s this then about Islam being clear on its position against SRS when we have opposing opinions that are backed by religious discourse? And why is gender confusion an excuse when gender diversity is explicitly described in Islamic texts in neutral terms? What is clear is that there are differing opinions that can be used to support the right to SRS. All one has to do is to carefully examine the texts of the Quran, hadith, sunnah, and other scholarly texts.

In sum, the refusal to engage with the wealth of Islamic texts on gender diversity, some of which are fascinating and surprisingly progressive, only exposes prejudices against the experiences of transgender and transsexual people. Instead, conservative scholars like Shamrahayu Abdul Aziz come up with blanket justifications that serves only to highlight the pettiness that encumber the gender privilege of people like herself.

What Malaysians can do to end rape

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Malaysia is fast becoming one of the rape capitals of the world. With an all-time high in cases of sexual assault last year, there is much finger-pointing toward law enforcers and the government who stand idle on the matter, but surprisingly little towards society itself that ultimately has the power to end rape.

Women and girls in Malaysia live with the knowledge that we are targets of sexual assault on a daily basis; we are never safe in the daytime nor at night, not on the streets, indoors, and certainly not in our own homes as reports suggest. There is more information foisted upon women and girls on how to prevent rape – from locking their car doors, not walking alone at night, never accepting an invitation to meet with a stranger, to never parking their cars in poorly-lit and isolated places – but little to no information on how to tell men – and women – to stop raping.

The issuing of preventive measures but not tough reminders to would-be rapists suggest that women and girls are responsible for our own safety. If we get raped it becomes mainly our fault for getting ourselves in compromising situations. Rapists may or may not get their legal comeuppances, but the damage has been done for both sides of the assault. Before we become a brutalised society baying for the blood of retribution, we should at least place heavier responsibilities on members of society who have greater access to committing violence – those with capital, social, and physical power.

Many people often assume that rape will continue to happen no matter what; there is an assumption that rape is committed by one lone violent person who is not normal, not one of us, is mad or whatever psycho-pathological characteristic one cares to describe. But this is not true. Most people will never commit rape in their entire lifetime, but are complicit in the prevalence of rape in Malaysia by not taking rape seriously enough. Some may even commit rape without even recognising it as such.

The following are 10 steps Malaysians can take to stop rape. Since women and girls make the majority of rape victims and survivors, at times I will address certain steps as male privilege issues. In such cases, the steps are directed at men, but women and girls are encouraged to be supportive of said measures.

1. Stop trivialising rape.
Do not joke or laugh about rape. Do not consider some forms of sexual violence as less serious than others. Do not threaten someone with rape when you are angry, even if you think you won’t go as far as to rape that person.

2. Speak up against daily injustices
Rape emerges out of a continuum of violence in society, it is not an isolated act of violence. It occurs because there are other social injustices and other forms of violence – such as sexual harassment, physical and emotional abuse, poverty, homophobia, transphobia, classism, racism, and xenophobia (especially against domestic helpers), that contribute to the aggression, hate, and dehumanisation of people.

3. Express and promote a healthy attitude towards sex
Because sex education in Malaysia is inadequate, people learn about sex from pornography, abstinence is promoted, and hardly anyone talks openly about the naturalness of sexual desire but instead frame sex in the context of shame and deviance, Malaysians in general have an unhealthy attitude towards sex. The myth that male sexual desires cannot be controlled must end and replaced with the idea of mutual respect and informed sexual practice.

4. Stop the vilification against sex workers
When sex workers are raped because of their profession, ALL women and girls are implicated in this act of violence. How? Sex workers are assaulted and abused because they are viewed as ‘damaged goods’ or sex objects who do not deserve society’s respect. This means that all women and girls have to be careful about how they behave and dress, because the line between ‘pure’ and ‘slutty’ blurs and changes beyond our control and exposes us to a similar abuse perpetrated against sex workers.

5. Trust survivors of rape.
One of the major setbacks in rape convictions is the lack of trust in a survivor’s account. But no matter what she wears or has done, it is never a woman or girl’s fault they are sexually assaulted. Men and boys who do become survivors of rape often find it more difficult to come forward about their assault for fear of insult, humiliation, and even disbelief. Only when survivors of rape are taken seriously and supported, society can understand the severity of the crime.

6. As men, challenge other men
This is a step that men have to be responsible for, and that is to speak up against the misogynistic and chauvinistic things other men – primarily their family members, friends, religious leaders, and work colleagues say or do.

7. Listen to women and girls
Listen and do not talk over what women and girls have to say, because a male perspective on rape that has never been deeply informed by the experiences of women is doomed to be narrow, arrogant, and ignorant.

8. Respect what women and girls have to say
We live in a society where what women and girls say are not taken seriously. Men dominate conversations, take charge, make decisions, and lead both women and men. The indirect effect of this discursive imbalance is the assumption that women and girls are emotional, scatterbrained or less capable enough to engage in serious issues.

When the words of women and girls are not respected, we find ourselves silenced and sometimes end up silencing ourselves. Valuable perspectives are lost and we end up drafting paternalistic measures that ignore input that arise from the concerns and anxieties of women and girls.

9. Contribute your time and money to rape crisis centres or any women’s organisations that have an interest in ending sexual violence.
Donate or volunteer at women’s shelters or at helpline centres such as the Telenita at AWAM and WAO in Petaling Jaya, Tenaganita for migrant workers in Petaling Jaya, Shelter for refugees and children at risk in Petaling Jaya, PT Foundation for transwomen, sex workers, and drug users in Kuala Lumpur, the WCC in Penang, and Pusat Kebajikan Good Sheperd in Perak. Volunteering can emotionally taxing for many people, but it will offer an insight into the kind of care provided for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. Unfortunately, crisis centres are concentrated in bigger cities in Malaysia, but that does not suggest that rape only occurs in urban areas.

10. And finally, do not have sex with someone without their consent.
When someone says ‘no’ to your sexual advances, they really mean ‘no’. You do not have sex or sexually violate someone in their sleep or when they’re unconscious.