All singing and dancing – Islamic pop music in Indonesia

First published on The State

Pop singers like Vidi Aldiano are nothing like the nasyid* groups, the more conventional all-male singers of Islamic ditties. Young, fresh-faced and nary a skullcap in sight, he dresses like any other young man in urban Indonesia in ubiquitous t-shirt and slim-fitting jeans. The music is like any other unoriginal minor hit song cryogenically preserved since the 1990s, the only dissonance being his lyrics. He sings about Keagungan Tuhan (The Greatness of God), urging his fellow young Muslims to pray and praise God while a group of young women and men stop a game of basketball to start dancing cheerfully to an unmistakeably teeny-bopper choreography.

The song was released during Ramadan of 2009; following the tradition in the Muslim world, people and consumables become more ‘Islamic’ during this period. Among other things, female media personalities would don the headscarf, television stations broadcast religious dramas and documentaries, and the latest Islamic film would be released to coincide with a period of penance and reflection. There has been some commentary on the rise of Islamic pop singers who combine aspects of hip hop, gospel, and generic pop to produce updated versions of nasyid. Yet recently a secularised image of Islamic pop culture has been gaining a foothold in mainstream Indonesian culture, one that is stripped of its obvious Islamic symbolisms—headscarves, skull caps, Quranic inscriptions in Arabic, and even the colour green.

Alongside their more conventional Islamic musical contemporaries, there are rock bands who, on the surface and musically, are like any other ‘secular’ rock band but sing about strengthening the Islamic faith. Similar to Christian rock bands, an Islamic rock band replaces the song’s object of love and desire from ‘you’ to ‘God’. For example Gigi, an influential mainstream Indonesian rock band, looks like any other pop and rock ensemble. Broody, long-haired, and sometimes menacing, the singer belts out a tune about the gates of Heaven and how one enters it come the Day of Reckoning. In another particularly upbeat song, set incongruously against a dark chamber lit only by floating lightbulbs, the lead singer calls upon the listener to worship. Gigi’s electric guitars and pulsating drums recall inoffensive and edgeless mainstream North American rock bands such as Nickleback and 3 Doors Down. And the song itself? It is catchy.

Some may wonder whether bands like Gigi follow a similar aesthetic and politics as Islamic punk and heavy metal groups like The Kominas and al-Thawra. There are immediate commonalities: both are unconventional musical expressions that foreground the Islamic image of its performers and appeal to a youthful audience disenchanted with values incompatible with Islam encased in Western music. But following the crackdown on punk subculture in Indonesia, other anarchic and culturally subversive groups may be not looked upon too kindly.

The mainstreaming of Islamic popular culture is further evidenced by shifts in its temporality. Previously, Islamic television programming, music, and films were only released during Ramadan. Islamic popular culture prior to the 1990s was considered a commercially risky venture and unprofitable in Indonesia. If people needed ‘religion,’ they turned to religious leaders, prayer and Quranic recitation groups, and their local mosques. Today, however, they are found throughout the year. There are now questions of whether Indonesia is becoming more Islamic, or whether Islam has become more secularised.

Rather than receding from the public sphere, religion in an increasingly secularised world has been experiencing waves of revivalism. One unintended byproduct of secularisation of society is that religion became decentralised rather than being a power wielded solely by a central religious authority. Shifting increasingly towards the peripheries of power, religion has entered the marketplace en masse. These trends and the merging of images of modernity and Islam that were once considered contradictory have created what many describe as ‘Islamic modernities’ in a landscape of multiple modernities. The Islamic modernity seen in Indonesia is a political and cultural sensibility whereby a commitment to Islam is embraced alongside approximations of western notions of modernity.

Indonesia may not be globally known outside Southeast Asia for its pop culture or a key figure of the Islamic world, but it offers interesting clues to the way the biggest population of Muslims in the world engage with the geopolitics of post-9/11. The explosion of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia parallels the development of Christian popular culture in the US, simply because it has similar basic ingredients: the liberalisation and mass marketisation of religion. For decades since the mid-1960s, Indonesia was regarded as a beacon of Islamic moderation. With communism held firmly under the lid (with the help of the US government, no less), the Suharto regime also ensured that Islam remained unpoliticised and ‘non-extreme.’ Unpolitical Islam was (and still is) a good thing for secular politicos and commentators who were wary of revivalist Islam’s power to inspire Muslims to rise, in myriad and often unpredictable ways, against western hegemonic dominance. But following the resignation of Suharto, public and political manifestations of Islam gained momentum and reclaimed the mediascape.

The big question is, then, who listens to Islamic pop music? Are they anything like the followers of Christian rock music? Do they belong to a parallel universe sequestered from mainstream culture? The 1990s witnessed the bourgeoisification of the Muslim middle classes who equated the Veblenian display of public piety with social status. Since then, the steady march of mass consumerism finds itself face to face with an increasingly conscientious set of consumers keen on making spiritual meaning of their consumption. Conditions were then ripe for the proliferation of all things Islamic: fashion, comic books, make-up, and even toothpaste could become Shari’a compliant and reassuringly halal.

For some, it is frustratingly difficult to equate Islamic consumption with actual piety. Consumption of media has become widespread rather than specialised (and sacralised) to particular space and time, and too convenient. Spiritual respite is only a click or button away, rather than being a ritualised series of practices. Savvy marketers of Islamic pop culture sell their wares not only for Muslims but for everybody, as the products are imbued with good universal values rather than those exclusive to Muslims.

Although there have been plenty of debates decrying the commercialisation of Islam, one can never really draw a clear line distinguishing between what is sacred and profane, religious and secular, worship and entertainment. It is not seen as good enough to assume that consumers of Islamic popular culture are passive recipients of God’s message, pure and transparent. The answer may lie in the media theories of Katz and McQuail who propose that consumers of media are better understood through examining why they consume certain media products, and how they gratify certain desires and pleasures. Thus the need to appear pious may be too straightforward for the huge swaths of discerning and increasingly sophisticated Muslim consumer of media in Indonesia.

The growth of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia matters a great deal when we think about the global impact of hegemonic media representations of Muslims. Since the attacks on 9/11, the Bali bombings of 2002, and the release of Islamophobic films Submission in 2004 and Fitna in 2008 by Dutch filmmaker and far-right politician Theo van Gogh and Geert Wilders respectively, producers of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia have become emboldened by a new kind of urgency, one that is characterised by the need to produce new, progressive, and thoroughly modern images of Muslims and their cherished values. The rise of Islamic popular culture in Indonesia joins the ranks of successful nasyid groups in neighbouring Malaysia and to a lesser extent, the Arabic-singing rock bands of Thailand, who are embraced by a subset of the Muslim middle-class and working class.

The production of Islamic music and other forms of popular culture such as Muslim youth-oriented novels and cinema can be seen as a concerted effort of ‘writing back’ against dangerous Muslim stereotypes, and are probably directed to an imagined West itself. But Islamic media is as much an internal circuit of representations for producers and consumer who engage with issues related to cleavages within Islam, gender and sexuality, and capitalism as it is a dialogue with the West.

*Nasyid is derived from the Arabic nashid (plural: anashid) for ‘song’ or ‘hymn.’

Women’s exodus from the work force: Not a simply matter of brain drain

An article I wrote with Clarissa Lee, Dahlia Martin and Fiona Lee, published on The Malaysian Insider, The B-Side, and Loyar Burok.

A recent BFM podcast episode, “The New Brain Drain,” discussed the relatively low rate of women’s participation in the Malaysian workforce, focusing specifically on the challenges faced by mothers working outside the home. The government is showing an interest in women’s contribution to the national economy: Prime Minister Najib Razak recently commented that women’s participation in the workforce should be improved to aid growth.

However, the discussion in the episode is underscored by several problematic assumptions and generalisations about gender roles in parenting, as well as other work equity issues, that need to be corrected. Foundational inequities must be addressed with the aim of empowering women and challenging societal views of gender norms; otherwise, discussions on revamping the workforce and on measuring productivity and contributions by women would only lead to cosmetic changes.

The podcast began by highlighting the low level of women in the workforce – 46 per cent compared to 70 per cent in Thailand and 60 per cent in Singapore– before noting that one challenge for several women in the workforce was that they also had to juggle roles as mothers or carers. It also noted the decreasing number of women in higher job positions, and discussed some methods to increase the number of women in the professional workforce. Co-sponsored by the Economic Transformation Program, the podcast highlighted flexible working arrangements as a solution, as advocated by TalentCorp Malaysia under its Talent Wanita programme.

Johan Merican, TalentCorp’s CEO, provocatively described the exodus of women from the white-collar workforce to stay at home to care for the family in terms of a “brain drain.” Conventionally, “brain drain” is used to describe the phenomenon of highly trained workers leaving their home countries (often in so-called developing economies) to seek employment opportunities elsewhere (“developed” countries) that provide not just higher earnings, but greater potential for professional growth. The growing numbers of Malaysians leaving the country or remaining abroad to work upon finishing their studies is widely viewed as an obstacle to the nation’s goal of achieving a “high-status income” economy, an issue TalentCorp was founded precisely to address. As such, Merican’s framing of the low retention rates of women in the white-collar workforce suggests that TalentCorp is taking the issue of women’s participation in the professional workforce seriously.

At first glance, it appears that TalentCorp, as indicated by its efforts to increase women retention rates in the workforce, has a progressive stance on gender equality. However, a closer look at its initiatives, primarily on creating flexible work arrangements targeted at women, suggests otherwise. While such arrangements may benefit TalentCorp and other companies that implement them, they do not necessarily benefit women in the same way because the double burden of working and caring for the family remains on women. In other words, while it seem as if the reason for creating flexibility is to ensure that women might have time for work and family, the underlying implication is that women are still expected to fulfil double responsibilities, now both possibly from the home, while no mention is made of the role of men in the household.  Similarly, while the government’s introduction of a 90-day maternity leave policy is welcome, it nonetheless excludes fathers’ or partners’ parenting role. Why not paternity/partner leave, too?

Entrenched ideas about parenting and gender roles have direct and real implications on who, in a heterosexual partnered family unit, will take long periods of time-out from full-time work; the responsibility, unfairly, almost always falls on women. The podcast unquestioningly adopts this view, focusing on mothering rather than parenting, omitting the often overlooked role of fathers.  Interviews with women mentioned the difficulty of time management in balancing work and home responsibilities, as well as the lack of good childcare support options, as reasons for “opting out.” However, there was little discussion on how societal views of gender norms and work equity issues affected their decisions to stay at home. Did the women have a higher salary than their husbands, or is it the reverse? What does the “support” of the husband consist of: working harder and / or just giving his blessing? Does he help out with the household chores?

Moreover, the idea that women leaving the workforce to raise families is equivalent to a “brain drain” and not good for national “economic growth” is problematic because it assumes that the unpaid work of domestic management and childcare  has no economic value; it also does not mean that mothers are not properly utilizing their skills. In 2005, UNICEF estimated about 75 per cent of women, as opposed to 24 per cent of men, are involved in “care” work that are unpaid; if we were to measure that monetarily, that would be equivalent to a loss of RM76 billion, or 12 per cent of Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP). This persistence of views that allow for unpaid work to not have economic value borrow on an understanding of motherhood as being exclusive with womanhood and families. This in turn perpetuates long-held beliefs about gender roles, and also contributes to attempts to depict ideal womanhood. There must be more emphasis on shared parenting duties to help improve workforce participation rates and career opportunities for women.

Indeed, while flexible work arrangements benefit the companies, the question remains: will they equally benefit working mothers? What are the effects of flexible work arrangements on women’s careers in the long term? For example, are flexible workers viewed in the same way as their full-time colleagues or would they be considered merely as part-timers? Is there job security in flexible work arrangements? Moreover, although presented as a convenience, flexible work arrangements also require setting up home offices. Who is responsible for these overhead expenses? And, since work and home spaces are no longer separate in such arrangements, how do flexible workers draw boundaries on how much time is spent at work? Telecommunication technologies such as email and mobile phones have had the notorious effect of prolonging the work day, seeing as the worker is expected to be on call or reachable at all times even when outside the office. Given that flexible work is highly reliant on such technologies, do such arrangements necessarily deliver the work-life balance they promise?

The podcast also pointed out that women mainly occupy entry-level positions as opposed to middle-management and board positions. This issue cannot be seen as separate from women’s labour participation; for instance, although the podcast noted that Singapore has a higher female workforce participation rate, it didn’t mention that the rates of women in the boardroom there are similar to here. Discussing participation rates alone is problematic; there should also be a discussion of what jobs women have (this podcast did touch on that) to properly give it context. The underlying issue, then, is not that there are not enough capable women, but that the way companies are structured often prevent women from climbing up the career ladder. Within this context, quotas become an urgent form of action: they have been implemented in many companies and for many government boards too, and work well in that they acknowledge structural inequalities and help lay the ground for definitive mechanisms to tackle them.

Finally, the episode appeared to concentrate on a specific working class of women characterized as using their “brains” in very specific job functions (as high-earning “cognitariats”). The women interviewed, for instance, appear to be partnered. Women without partners or in lower-paid work have children too and probably cannot afford childcare. How do they do it?  If the professional working woman is forced to choose between staying at home or working, the working class woman, or even a single mother, usually does not get to choose. If the latter does not work, her children cannot eat. Also excluded from the picture are cases of foreign (mostly female) domestic workers having to leave children to work abroad–nobody calls that a “brain drain,” pointing to how bourgeois the term is–often to support other families and households.

Although we applaud the attention to a consistent and unabating problem, the conversation on addressing women’s challenges in the workplace should not only concern a professional class of women workers. The reasoning behind the policies implemented need to account for the gendered and class politics involved in the workforce. Furthermore, it is in the best interests of Malaysian women that policies, whether implemented by the government or private sector, take into consideration the demographics, labor, and cultural conditions of all women. The need for greater equity for all regardless of gender in Malaysia should not play second fiddle to an uncritical drive towards a “high-income” society without careful consideration of the consequences.

Rape, media coverage and our bloodstained hypocrisy

First published on the 30th of December 2012 on Loyarburok

Early yesterday morning, an Indian woman died from severe internal injuries after being raped by six men in New Delhi. The global reportage of an unnamed rape victim is an unprecedented event for a crime that is depressingly commonplace and downplayed or sensationalised in the media.

For once, rape is not just a statistical data or a small news item but magnified to global proportions, thanks to the women and men who revolted in the streets of New Delhi against the complicity of their police force, government, and society in perpetuating sexual violence. Outside of India, men and women who do not normally sit up and express outrage about sexual violence suddenly are jolted into concerted protest.

A few hours after we hear the news, the details of the injuries the victim sustained begin to trickle in. Mourners worldwide absorb every detail to make sense of their anger and in some cases, to be perversely titillated. Many will wonder; first, how bad were her injuries that she died from them? Second, will the perpetrators be punished? The six men have now been charged with murder, but will they walk free later? In India, only 25% cases of sexual violence  end in conviction.

The fact that she was a middle class medical student with a bright future cut brutally short should not be a factor why we – as a world – should care and why the horrific attack became newsworthy. We should care because rape must be taken seriously as a crime used to humiliate, avenge, and degrade an individual and whole communities. Rape is not sex or something she ‘deserved’ because of the way she dressed or behaved.

We must scrutinise how exceptional the media attention on this particular case is. Every month, India is mired by a slew of brutal sexual assault and rape cases. Extreme caste and gender inequalities contribute to a culture of misogyny and violence. This year, India has even been described as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. But all these have failed to move us until now.

Do we really think that because women are treated much worse in India, we have forgotten that rape occurs in Malaysia, too? Call me cynical if I point out that our collective attention and reaction are animated by media-assisted events. In other words, the reason behind our partiality to this one case in India lies in the high level of media coverage by major news providers. A similar argument can be made for how our attention span on an issue is significantly shaped by the speed and ephemerality of social media feeds.

We may not have cared at all, if not for the epic newsworthiness of the event. In fact, pick up any random local newspaper today and it is likely you will come across a similarly horrific case of sexual violence in the country, in your home state, or just around the corner from where you live. The media-manufactured nature of our outrage may be veiling our own hypocrisy about sexual violence against women and its roots in society: gender inequality. In 2007, Nurul Jazlin died from similar intestinal injuries  as the unnamed woman but we did not march out in protest.

Just over a month ago, young Malay women and men of a similar age to the rape victim in New Delhi posted mocking tweets about why women get raped. Below are screenshots of their tweets:

                                                “Amik kau …”

The tweets above may be even more sickening now in light of the nameless woman’s death. Our collective sin of hypocrisy is dwarfed by the banality of evil above. Can we still blame a woman for how she dressed and behaved now that a casualty of rape is mourned on a global scale? If we think media manipulations have nothing to do with our sorrow and anger, why do we mourn this one time? One woman cannot be a sacrificial lamb to stand in for all the thousands of named and unnamed women and girls who have fallen victim to sexual violence.

In the meantime, we should laud every act and gesture that underlines how unacceptable sexism and misogyny is in Malaysia. We are witnessing the germ of this change from the top with the proposed banning of sexist language in Parliament. How is this connected to rape? Rape occurs because we live in a rape culture and a continuum of violence made up of ‘small’ things like harassment, threats of rape, sexual objectification of women, and Ombak Rindu. Every small act and word that shifts the blame on a woman for the unwanted attention and abuse she attracts adds to the impunity of sex offenders. Rapists rape because they believe they can get away with it.

Rape is not more egregious in another country. Protesters in India carried a banner with a message that is both chilling but all too true anywhere in the world: ‘Today is it was her, tomorrow it could be you’.

On the viability of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ as categories in Malaysia

The first thing that would be useful when thinking about genders and sexualities in Malaysia is that the categories of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are far from native and natural in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. What is meant by ‘native’ and ‘natural’ refers to the fact that gender and sexuality are relatively recent loanwords. And as loanwords, they have a history and serve particular functions. Does the fact that ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are loanwords from the English language and emerge from a Western medical, sociological and philosophical tradition mean that their meaning in the Malaysian context is foreign and out of place?

When ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ and their different linguistic incarnations reflective of the country’s multilingual fabric appear at all, they are sporadic, infrequent, and usually enmeshed in the discourse of academia, feminism, and human rights. ‘Gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are words and currency of those privileged by education and class background. Having rigorous knowledge and interest in gender and queer theory is often the preserve of liberal, queer, activist and/or intellectuals. So there is a spectrum rather than a discrete know/don’t know in the level of knowledge and use of the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia.

The entry of new terms into a language and the development of those terms are governed by multiple factors beyond the will of one individual. Although the viability of terms in a language will require the consensus of collective acceptance and use, the fate of the terms’s cultural connotations are harder to predict. We can have the words ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in public usage, but how would people react to these terms? What are the assumptions, misconceptions, prejudices, and the kind of curiosities these words invite? But above all, why does an interrogation into the genealogies of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia matter at all? The answer to these questions has huge political implications with regard to the state of queer and feminist activism in Malaysia. Because language matters.

The banning of the LGBT rights festival, Seksualiti Merdeka, in 2011 precipitated the circulation of false descriptions and connotations of the festival in the Malaysian media as a ‘free sex’ event. With ‘merdeka’ to mean ‘independence’ or ‘liberation’ but with ‘seksualiti’ not gaining much linguistic traction in Malay, the very name of the festival became subject to misunderstanding. However, machinations leading to such a misunderstanding was far from innocent.

News reports and opinion editorials about transgender, gay, and lesbian individuals in Malaysia in the local mainstream media activate and reproduce transphobic and homophobic sentiments in a moralising tenor. Outside the manipulation of emotive issues and moral panics that serve partisan politics lies a broken linguistic and cultural landscape that seems, at first sight, inhospitable to the development of a local gender and sexuality discourse.

First and foremost, let us consider the westernness of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’. In the present situation, the words ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are already in usage and in circulation in Malaysia. There’s not much we can do about that. Of course words do become obsolete and ‘die out’, but I’m not convinced that the terms used in one of the most influential discourses in recent times will become obsolete anytime soon. In opposition to Francis Fukuyama’s eurocentric assertions of the ‘end of history’, our history of gender and sexuality in Malaysia is only beginning to be told.

In their current usage, we have to pick up and analyse the perceived and ‘real’ cultural connotations of the terms, i.e. as concepts, they are ‘western’. Of course this accusation is true, as concepts ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ emerge out of western philosophy (which was once upon a time, an amalgamation of medicine, politics, mathematics, among other pre-specialised disciplines).

Even the discourse of biological sex did not begin with the oppositional or complimentary notion of sexual dichotomy. In Greek philosophy (and throughout much of western thought), women were considered lesser men or simply ‘incomplete’ as people. For instance, morphologically, the naming of women’s sexual anatomy (vagina, or the invagination of the women’s ‘penis’) was once part and parcel of the discourse that justified women’s inferiority. It would take hundreds of years for feminist theory to pick up on misogynist philosophical texts of a bygone era to develop what we can recognise today as gender theory. There are certainly differences in female and male anatomy, but the way they are talked about have changed during the course of history.

But what of the idea of ‘concepts’ themselves? The methods in the development of an idea are perhaps western in origin, too. Concepts are frameworks for systematic thinking and analysis. They are the vessels in which discourse reside, but they are permeable to other elements – the cultural and historical. Take for instance the differences we see in women and men; how people talk about women and men, and why they dress the way they do. In systematic thinking and analysis, what groups women and men together in how we describe them is gender. How we systematically think and analyse the erotics and legal history of desire is conveniently described through the concept of ‘sexuality’.

Remember, the term ‘gender’ or ‘sexuality’ had not come into popular existence until the last century. This means that gender is a cultural and historical construction as much as it a social construct. Gender is also an analytical construction in that we now have a framework to understand how femininity and masculinity exist as ‘effects’ of political and religious culture. More recently, people have begun to talk about how even sexuality is constructed. The idea and discourses pertaining to homosexuality had only come into existence in the late nineteenth century. Before, what is considered same-sex practices did not have a name. Now, not only does the term ‘homosexuality’ exist, but so does the identity and personhood of the ‘homosexual’.

Accused as more western than ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are perhaps ‘homosexuality’, gay, and lesbian identities. Again, the westernness of gay and lesbian identities cannot be disputed as the origins of the discourse of homosexuality did emerge from the medical annals of European doctors and the reclamation of the discourse by gay communities did take place in the west. More belatedly, heterosexuality is now understood as a construct.

To ignore for a moment those who are still obsessed with the Kipling-esque binaries of east and west, globalisation is now the order of the day and changed how we think about world geopolitics. Globalisation of media and the internet assisted in the travel of ideas and concepts. Among them are the concept and connotations of gay and lesbian identities that were adopted by communities in their quest for belonging, identification, and legitimacy. Those with access to knowledge about gay and lesbian culture are those with class and educational privilege. The greater the privilege, the more savvy one becomes with the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’.

In a way, Malaysian public discourse picks up the terms gender and sexuality halfway in the narrative history of gender and queer theory, when the discourses regarding the two have developed in highly sophisticated ways in the west. By comparison, our own versions of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ remain remotely peripheral to the ways gender and sexuality are discussed in the west and neighboring Southeast Asian countries. As discourses, our ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are non-existent. Only until we develop our own discursive ‘centre’ of gender and sexuality can we begin to talk about decentering western ones.

Currently, we rely on the anthropological data of mainly western academics to piece together a puzzle that is the history of gender and sexuality in Malaysia. But will using the frameworks of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ to look into the past when such ideas may have been non-existent risks being anachronistic? A reflexive historian never forgets that we can only look through the prism of the present and construct a historical narrative using the modern conveniences of theories that help us ‘see’ gender and sexuality of the past.

Thanks to the accommodating nature of the Malay language in its absorption of foreign words, we have the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in the national Malay language dictionary. But surely this is not enough. Behind the definitions of terms lies a lack of depth. We are beset by a number of factors exacerbating the isolation and negative connotations of the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia. First, they are not used enough in the mass media and everyday parlance. Second, there is not enough interest in the studying of gender and sexuality. Third, our academic culture is stifled by rigid institutional barriers against ‘controversial’ and ‘liberal’ topics like gender and sexuality.

As concepts or theories, ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ needn’t be western if we can develop our own concepts and theories for even the notion of concepts and theories can be de-westernised. And with the critical mass of talk, writing, and visualising to develop a local discourse, the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ can be reclaimed from the clutches of negative connotations to become viable, positive, and culturally robust. In the mass of inconsequential commentary, there are gems to be had. During the age of globalisation where nation and local cultures are safeguarded from the ‘outside’, locality and indigenous concepts have greater legitimacy to withstand critique from within.

Mainstreaming Islam in the Indonesian public sphere: Ummi Aminah as a case study

The film premiere of Aditya Gumay’s newest film, Ummi Aminah (Mother Aminah) in Jakarta last January 2012 was situated at the crossroads of events in Indonesian film industry. Prior to the screening of the film, the film director’s address to the audience expressed a plea to the public to consume locally-made films. As I write this, the Indonesian film industry is experiencing a decline in cinema audience numbers. From a respectful 1 million viewers in 2010, now film-makers and producers can expect a modest half a million. Production values of current and future films, and the distribution and packaging of original DVDs will reflect the slump as well. Gumay’s latest offering, Ummi Aminah, to woo audiences is at once shrewd and chimes with the Indonesian socio-political zeitgeist.

The film is promoted as a ‘family film’ about a popular female preacher and the dramatic entanglements that befall her large family and her reputation as a religious leader. Ummi Aminah is mother to five children and grandmother of one. In her role as preacher, she is also ‘mother’ to her all-female congregation who pray with her and listen to her sermons. However, indiscretions within her family; rumours surrounding her oldest daughter Zarika’s involvement with a married man and her son Zainal’s arrest for drug trafficking move in tandem to threaten to not only tear her family apart but also tarnish her reputation as a credible leader both on the public and domestic front.

Via Wikipedia

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Notes on power and the difficulties of theorising gender in Indonesian film-making

Talking about gender in Indonesian cinema is actually quite hard when you get down to establishing a sort of link between gender as an analytical construct and gender as understood in public discourse.

What was always frustrating, was that when one began to talk about gender in film, the conversation turns into a discussion about women in film; whether they are representations of or in terms of women’s roles in film production. Even though I make it a point to bring up masculinity in film-making, the discussion continued to be steered towards what my informants thought about the role of women in film. It seems as if gender was about women, and not about men. Thus it then became inevitable that my discussion about gender in Indonesian cinema, which takes into account both femininity and masculinity, is going against the natural current of discourse requiring, by implication, greater soul-searching and reading against the grain.

This is much like in the spirit of Richard Dyer’s description of male sexuality, that it is difficult to see it and talk about it, as it is like “air – you breathe it in all the time, but you aren’t not aware of it much” [1]. But this may have to do with the fact that historically, most Indonesian films throughout the New Order have been about men and when they do feature films with prominent female roles, they speak about men’s concerns or “spheres of action” while women fulfill merely a subsidiary role [2].

While I would agree that women in New Order cinema do play a secondary tole, I am inclined however to question the essentialising of what those spheres of action are. But this is how discourse and power relations and their intimate proximity to knowledge work; by highlighting, examining, scrutinising in microscopic detail the object we wish gain control of, through knowledge – by knowing more about them so we can control (if we wanted to) various aspect of our object of study/interest. And so how gender is taken to be seen as simply about women is a manifestation of a Foucaldian way of knowing; to know more about women and to gaze an object of study/scrutiny is to have further power over women (and indeed provide the resources for resistance).

The fixation of gender as women simultaneously elides the focus on the powerful and privileged of course. In the case of looking at gender in film, much has been discussed about women, queers, non-white (Asian, Black) characterisation in cinema. Only recently do we find the tables turned on the other, more powerful half of the power equation – masculinity and whiteness in film – discussed and therefore ‘exposed’ and losing its power as the epistemological voyeur in cinema.

To not ‘notice’ masculinity demonstrates how deeply impacted we are as film viewers by the dominant discourses of gender. We can argue that examining masculinity is more than just studying the men in films, but recognise the tropes or conventions male characters habitually exhibit and how the particular concerns expressed by the male characters drive the narrative of the film.

The next step in analysing gender in Indonesian film or any film for that matter is not to look specifically at femininity or masculinity at work on screen, but the gender dynamic, how the genders play against each other on screen. What I hope this can demonstrate is some semblance of gendered power differential played out between characters. Perhaps this analytical angle may provide an avenue for better understanding the ways in which representations of misogyny & propagation of certain gendered tropes are privileged and marginalised in film.

Besides masculinity, there is another taken-for-granted power relations at work in Indonesian film: Javanese cultural dominance.

In Indonesian cinema, we find other instances of power relations still under-examined, alongside masculinity vis a vis femininity in film, such as the Javanese cultural/linguistic dominance and the regionalisation of other Indonesian film set and made outside of Java. Karl Heider in Indonesian Cinema, National Culture on Screen, argues that Indonesian cinema has never really been regionalised, but rather nationalised due to lingua franca of Bahasa Indonesia in (all?) films during the New Order. The nationalisation of film was also an expression of Javanese cultural dominance imposed by Suharto’s regime on all modes of public communication, particularly cinema. But then, Heider’s book was written in 1991.

State control over the linguistic standardisation in Indonesian films explains why films made during the New Order, which are not only made in the standardised Bahasa Indonesia, but also more easily understood by Malay-speaking Malaysians. Whereas years following Suharto’s political demise, the cinematic articulation of Indonesian cinema was reclaimed by regionalisation. Indonesian films became more difficult for Malaysians to understand.

A case in point that signalled a cultural-linguistic dissonance between the two nations was when the film Ada Apa Dengan Cinta was broadcast on Malaysian television in 2003, with Malay subtitles. The much-talked about event perplexed local audiences who had assumed they would be able to largely understand the dialogue. Before then, working class Malaysians consumed plenty of Indonesian horror films VCDs and video tapes without Malay subtitles with enough comprehension of the dialogue and narrative.

Regionalisation meant that dialogue for films set in Jakarta for example would be heavily peppered with Jakarta slang and occasional Javanese (which would then come with subtitles in Bahasa Indonesia). Regionalisation of Indonesian cinema further underscores the vivid diversity of Indonesian peoples who do not necessarily understand each other linguistically but somehow remains largely silent, as a “national cinema”, who it largely represents.

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[1] Pg. 28 from Richard Dyer’s essay Male sexuality in the media, in The Sexuality of Men edited by Andy Metcalf, 1985, Pluto Press.

[2] Pg. 116 from Krishna Sen’s essay Repression and resistance: Interpretations of the feminine in Indonesian cinema, in Culture and society in New Order Indonesia: 1965-1990 edited by V. Hooker, 1995, Oxford University Press.

Orang Afrika di Malaysia: Antara stereotaip dengan kenyataan

First published on Merdeka Review, 13th May 2012. plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Terdapat pelbagai teori media yang mengatakan bahawa saluran media mempunyai kuasa untuk mempengaruhi pendapat awam, terutamanya kuasa untuk mengeruhkan lagi sentimen perkauman terhadap pekerja dan penuntut asing yang sudah lama berakar umbi di minda dan jiwa rakyat kebanyakan. Sentimen perkauman terhadap lelaki Afrika di Malaysia didapati lebih parah daripada wanita. Tanggapan buruk ini banyak disumbang melalui stereotaip lelaki Afrika sebagai kaki lawan dan penjenayah yang memporak-perandakan keamanan dan budaya kita. Stereotaip ini muncul di kaca televisyen, di internet, dan di muka akhbar. Seringkali orang berkulit hitam disamakan dengan orang Afrika seolah-seolah Afrika itu satu negara yang monolitik, tanpa kepelbagaian budaya, bahasa, dan rupa. Realitinya, ramai yang meneruskan pelajaran atau datang mencari rezeki di Malaysia datang daripada latar belakang sosial, kelas, agama, bahasa, dan keadaan geopolitik yang berbeza.

Kini, kita sering mendengar di wahana media tentang “kebanjiran” pekerja dan penuntut Afrika pada tahap yang membimbangkan di seluruh pelusuk Malaysia, dari Kota Kinabalu hingga ke Alor Setar. Kita menggarapi migrasi sebagai satu masalah “baru” yang melanda negara, yang menyerupai gejala jenayah, hakisan budaya tempatan, dan meningkatkan satu iklim yang menakutkan dan penuh bahaya. Kehadiran populasi Afrika dianggap sebagai sesuatu yang baru, seolah-olah tidak wujudnya sejarah migrasi dan penempatan orang-orang dari benua Afrika.

“Gelombang” pertama pergerakan orang Afrika (atau “Negrito”) ke Asia bermula lebih kurang 100,000 tahun dahulu, dan kemudiannya berkembang di Pakistan selatan, dan kepulauan Polynesian dan Melanisia. Golongan ini berpecah kepada etnik Khyeng di Pakistan, Jawawa di Teluk Benggala, dan Agta di Filipina. Sejak 1970-an, kedatangan warga asing ke tanahair dimangkinkan oleh situasi ekonomi dan globalisasi. Tahap penghijrahan yang meninggi jelas menunjukkan kemakmuran ekonomi Malaysia dan gawatnya ekonomi negara-negara penghantar para penghijrah. Malangnya, tahap kesedaran sosial tidak setimpal dan jauh kebelakang; lain kata, kemakmuran dan pembangunan tidak pernah menjamin perikemanusiaan dan keadilan.

Pada 31 Mac, seorang pelajar IPTS berusia 35 tahun yang bernama Onochie Martins Nwankwo telah dipukul sehingga mati di Hulu Langat di tangan lima anggota RELA. Onochie dipercayai mencabul seorang pencuci wanita di tempat tinggalnya. Wanita tersebut melapor bahawa beliau melarikan diri daripada Onochie dan meminta tolong kepada kumpulan suspek-suspek yang kemudiannya bertindak dengan membelasah Onochie. Di sebuah negara yang mempunyai sistem perundangan yang dicipta untuk menjamin keamanan dan menghukum pesalah dengan saksama, anggota RELA tidak berhak untuk menjatuhkan “hukuman” mereka ke atas mendiang Onochie. Motif di sebalik pembunuhan beliau berbaur perkauman terhadap orang-orang berkulit hitam.

Disebabkan layanan kelas kedua yang terpaksa dipikul oleh warga Afrika amnya, kesahihan kes cabul yang dibayar oleh Onochie dengan nyawanya mungkin tidak dipersoalkan lagi, seperti kesahihan kes-kes jenayah lain yang melibatkan warga Afrika yang lain. Tragedi seperti beberapa penuntut IPTS dari negara Botswana pernah dilaporkan membunuh diri disebabkan tekanan yang dicetus oleh perkauman dan layanan buruk warga Malaysia. Ekoran kejadian tersebut, kematian seorang warganegara Nigeria bulan lalu di tangan pengganas RELA, yang kemudiannya mencetus pertunjukan perasaan oleh kumpulan sewarganegara di Ulu Langat kini menunjukkan betapa parahnya keadaan perkauman yang mengganas dan berdarah di Malaysia dewasa ini.

Terdapat beberapa faktor yang menjadikan Malaysia sebagai destinasi tarikan ramai penuntut Afrika. Pertama sekali, kerana kos pembiayaan untuk pendidikan tertiari adalah lebih rendah daripada di Eropah, Amerika Syarikat, atau di Australia. Kemudahan dan kualiti pendidikan juga dianggap setanding dengan IPT di negara-negara tersebut. Sesetengah IPT memperuntukkan RM25,000 bagi penuntut pasca-siswazah antarabangsa. Kedua, ramai penuntut yang beragama Islam dari benua Afrika yakin bahawa gaya hidup di negara yang majoriti Islam seperti Malaysia membantu memelihara akidah mereka. Ketiga, visa untuk belajar di Malaysia lebih muda diperolehi berbanding negara-negara barat yang kini mengetatkan polisi imigresen negeri masing-masing. Dan keempat, ramai akan mengambil peluang untuk meninggalkan negara masing-masing untuk kehidupan di luar negara kerana nilai prestij mereka akan meraih daripada pengalaman merantau dan gaji yang dijangka lebih lumayan di sini. Faktor-faktor diatas begitu logikal, tetapi mampukah kesemuanya menangkis prejudis terhadap warga asing Afrika yang menular?

Terdapat lebih kurang 22,000 penuntut di IPT dari benua Afrika; yang terjebak dalam gejala jenayah dan sosial adalah sangat minima mengikut Menteri Pengajian Tinggi Mohamed Khaled Nordin – terdapat hanya 66 kes dilaporkan membabitkan orang Afrika lewat tahun lepas. Menurut Abiodun Musa Aibinu, wakil Diaspora Nigeria dan Profesor Madya kejuruteraan mekatronik di Universiti Islam Malaysia (UIA) pula, hanya 5% daripada 5,000 warga Nigeria yang berada di Malaysia terlibat dalam pengedaran dadah dan penipuan (“black money”). Hakikatnya wujud hierarki manusia di mana layanan yang diberikan kepada mereka di lapisan bawah pekerja, penuntut IPT asing, dan golongan pelarian secara automatis jauh lebih teruk. Tetapi kesemua warganegara Afrika yang berkulit hitam digolongkan sebagai “pariah” di mata rakyat Malaysia: walaupun sebagai seorang pensyarah, Abiodoun juga sering menjadi mangsa penghinaan orang-orang tempatan.

Sebagai rakyat Malaysia, kita merayakan imej negara kita yang berbilang kaum – itulah satu-satunya “keistimewaan” yang diwarisi daripada sejarah kolonial kita. Tetapi sayangnya, kepelbagaian bangsa dan budaya yang dibanggakan hanya dikhaskan untuk mereka yang berwarganegara Malaysia, walaupun mereka yang bukan banyak menyumbang kepada pembangunan dan melancarkan kehidupan seharian kita. Kepelbagaian bangsa dan budaya Malaysia senantiasa berubah dan kita seharusnya menerima bahawa migrasi adalah hakikat masakini di era globalisasi dan geopolitik dan ekonomi dunia ketiga yang tidak pernah lelah goyah.