Thinking intersectionally about Malay women and the tudung

I have been thinking a lot about intersectionality and women who do not wear the tudung lately and it is not so much because the concept is de rigueur right now as I have been accused of not being intersectional enough in my viral article, Asal-usul obsesi Melayu dengan tudung (The origins of the Malay obsession with the tudung) published in my column in the Malay Mail Online on 15 October 2015.

Within days of the article’s publication, comments on Twitter and emails began to trickle in, then tweets condemning my piece and expressing some distaste towards me flooded my timeline. When feminist countering views to my article began to emerge, they sang a similar tune: that my critique of a culture pressuring Malay women to wear the tudung elided two important elements in the debate; choice and agency.

Fair enough, choice and agency are abstract notions nearly every woman are thought to have, in addition to our ability to reason, rationalise and make decisions. But it is important to note their significance and currency in this debate. Choice and agency in themselves have a talismanic quality; that their very utterance would be enough to end a feminist conversation – her choice, her empowerment, end of story. Women’s choice and agency are a defiant win in the face of a deeply patriarchal culture.

It would be a little bit patronising to suggest that I don’t know the means through which choice, agency, and the patriarchy operate. But having been schooled by said countering views nonetheless, I was still left with an unanswered issue; what about women who do not wear the tudung? Why are they subjected to so much abuse? And more crucially, what makes their abuse different from other women? Will the pressure and public abuse of women who do not wear the tudung illuminate some uncomfortable truths about modern Muslim Malaysia?

To say that all women – whether they wear the tudung or not – suffer patriarchal abuse is to sweep under the carpet the specificities of being a woman who does not wear the tudung and her specific challenges in Malaysia. Because there are differences between Malay women, whether if it is because of their regional and class background, linguistic abilities, academic credentials, and yes if they wear the headscarf or not, we will be impacted very differentially by patriarchy.

A middle class Malay woman in the city who wears the tudung is going to experience sexism very differently from a working class Malay who doesn’t wear the tudung in small towns outside the Klang Valley. Although women’s attire in general is policed in Malaysia, we are policed differently because of our respective social differences. If you wear the headscarf, every strand of hair needs to be tucked away and other arbitrary notions of sartorial modesty may be acquiesced accordingly. Women who do not wear the tudung present a different kind of challenge. Tudung-less non-Malay women move more freely in shorter skirts and short shorts. Tudung-less bodies interpellated as ‘Malay’ will be disciplined differently or diminished altogether.

In Kimberlé Crenshaw’s seminal article, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Women of Color’, the political specificities of Black women’s activism were either ignored or erased because they were too similar to white women in their subjection to patriarchal sexism, and yet too different because their black identity and experiences of racism. Due to their intersecting position between racism and sexism, their experiences were dismissed or erased entirely in both anti-sexist and anti-racist political action:

The need to split one’s political energies between two sometimes opposing groups is a dimension of intersectional disempowerment [my emphasis] that men of color and white women seldom confront. Indeed, their specific raced and gendered experiences, although intersectional, often define as well as confine the interests of the entire group. For example, racism as experienced by people of color who are of a particular gender – male – tends to determine the parameters of antiracist struggles, just as sexism as experienced by women of a particular race – white – tends to ground the women’s movement (Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins’ 1991: 1252)

In almost similar ways, Malay women who do not wear the tudung and their specific experiences are being erased by the deleteriously non-intersecting view that ALL women are subjected by sexism and misogyny. Malay women who do not wear the tudung are similar to women who wear the tudung because of sexist gender policing they experience. But women who do not wear the tudung are significantly different because of their visibility as women who deviate from normative interpretations of Islam and contemporary Malay culture.

I would like to argue that the experiential specificity of Malay women who do not wear the tudung be addressed along two strands; their gendered subjectivity and Muslim identity. I would argue that unless and until these two strands are addressed as separate spheres of cultural pressures, Malay women who do not wear the tudung will continue to be erased from feminist debates on their bodies, sexuality, and very being.

Malay women who do not wear the tudung may face the same patriarchal policing of their gendered subjectivity as women who wear the tudung in a multitude of contexts; as inferior to men’s inherent ability to lead and dominate the public sphere and discourse. But as Muslims, Malay women who do not wear the tudung face a different kind of policing and subordination. Their very visibility as women who do not cover themselves sufficiently mark them out as Other to the normative articulation of Malay femininity.

Much of the criticism that cashes on the currency of agency and choice adopt the politicised stance of covered Muslim women in countries hostile to the hijab and Islam generally. The position of these women becomes a feminist act because their decision to wear the hijab is expressed as a symbolic resistance to a culture that demand their ‘exposure’ to the secular gaze. Muslim women who wear the hijab in Europe are confronted by the patronising white saviour complex of the militant activist group Femen keen on participating in the enduring crusade of ‘saving brown women from brown men’.

But in Malaysia, the pressure on women is quite the opposite. The cultural and institutional pressure on women to cover may well be a subliminal rejection of the secular gaze and its imperialistic definitions of democracy and human rights. And here I might make a provocative suggestion: the politicised articulation of women who cover for ‘feminist’ reasons, citing agency and informed choice, may collude with the Islamic sphere of action that subordinate Malay women who do not wear the tudung.

So long as the majority group of women – women who wear the tudung (and their being the majority have greater leverage to navigate spaces because of their success in fulfilling normative expectations of Malay femininity) – ignore the differential impact of the patriarchal mode of gendered and religious policing, they will continue to be complicit in the specific subordination of Malay women who do not wear the tudung.

To conclude, I would quote Crenshaw on the political implications of ignoring the intersectional oppression of women at the margins:

Because women of color experience racism in ways not always the same as those experienced by men of color experience racism and sexism in ways not always parallel to experiences of white women, antiracism and feminism are limited, even on their own terms. (Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins’ 1991: 1252)

To think within the parameters of political intersectionality is to argue that gender and religious-based struggles in Malaysia will be limited so long as it does not address the specificities of women who reside within the margins of normative femininity in Malaysia. I would not deny that normative femininity itself is diverse and within it consists of contradictions. However, the same normative femininity – because of its normativitiy and majority status – allows it to be more privileged, more representable, and vocal enough to drown out the differences between women.

Reference:

Kimberle Crenshaw. 1991. ‘Mapping the margins: intersectionality, identity politics, and women of color’ Stanford Law Review Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 1241-1299.

Guest blog: Why can’t women wear short skirts?

Source: detail from photo by Rosea Lake
Source: detail from photo by Rosea Lake

Today we have a guest blog by Kaberi Dutta. Kaberi who is a nineteen year old Malaysian studying Social Anthropology and Law at SOAS, and hoping to alert people to the importance of feminism, one argument at a time.

*****

Having grown up as a Malaysian Indian girl, who studied at an International school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I have been exposed to many different cultures and perspectives, which I am grateful for. However, as a result of various exposures, I have come to find certain faults in Malaysian society that, although I do my best to understand and respect, urge me to question these ‘rules’. Before I explain, I’m not biased against my own culture- Western culture too has many faults, some of which are more extreme (in different ways) than our own, but as a Malaysian, I feel more passionate and justified discussing my own culture.

There’s no avoiding the recent surge in the policing of women’s attires, from the woman who was required to cover her legs with a towel to visit a relative in hospital to the two women who were made to wear sarongs to cover the skirt that was barely above their knees. As a teenage-cum-woman, I was already disgraced at the attitudes of these institutions that forced these women to cover up their bodies, thus humiliating them, but it wasn’t until my own experience with body policing that I felt the need to speak up. Earlier this morning, I went to the Damansara Public Library to study for my exams- dressed in a long shirt and a short skirt (admittedly, well above my knees). After sitting down at a table for a brief ten minutes, I was handed a notice highlighting the dress code for the library and although I wasn’t instructed to leave, my embarrassment caused me to quietly pack my things and return home. I have multiple issues with this including the double standard that is in place when enforcing such rules as well as the reasoning itself behind dress codes for women. Before I elaborate, I’d like to highlight my reason for wearing the short skirt that was at the brunt of this issue.

As many are aware, growing up as a teenage girl is widely known to be filled with pressures from peers and society itself. Society places pressures on girls to conform to a certain image: in Western cultures, it’s always shifting but the current pressure is to look quite similar to Kim Kardashian- curvy with a full bum and breasts. In Malaysian society, it’s more of the opposite- girls are expected to dress modestly and not show off excess skin by wearing revealing clothing. What with all the external influences we are exposed to, being comfortable in one’s own skin has become increasing hard to do. The statistics alone for eating disorders represents this- since the 1960’s, the number of emergence of eating disorders has doubled. Shockingly, the age at which one becomes vulnerable to these pressures is continuously getting lower- reports have shown that an increasing number of children have fallen in to eating disorders at ages as young as six. This article, however, is not to do with the pressures of image as a girl, however (not to say that men and boys don’t suffer from eating disorders) I am just explaining that given all these pressures, I am proud of the fact that, to the most extent, I am comfortable with my body, and this reflects in the way I choose to present myself, and dress. I wear short skirts because I feel comfortable in them, the exact same reason that on other days, I wear jeans. My choice of clothing is a reflection of what I feel comfortable in, nothing more. I don’t wear short skirts to grab the attention of men and neither do a lot of girls. Why is that not okay?

Relating this to the incident that occurred this morning, women aren’t allowed to wear short skirts because they are deemed provocative. My biggest question is why are they deemed provocative? The word ‘provocative’ is defined as being ‘intended or intending to arouse sexual desire or interest’ and as I have stated, that was not my intention. And if provocativeness arises from intent, then doesn’t it deem that I am the only person who can define my clothing as being provocative, since I am the only person who could accurately know my intentions? For anyone else to define clothing as being provocative, would merely be making an assumption. However, taking the definition of the word loosely and agreeing that I didn’t intend for my clothing to lead to ‘sexual desire or interest’, let’s assume that people were effected in a sexual sense by my clothing. Is that my fault for wearing what I feel comfortable in, or the fault of the men who objectify women and see them merely as sexual beings? In a culture where victim blaming has risen, what with women being told not to dress a certain way to avoid being raped (in extreme cases), I think we’re tackling this problem all wrong. Instead of demanding that women dress a certain way so as not to make men sexually aroused or uncomfortable, shouldn’t we actually teach men to respect women irregardless of what they are wearing?

That issue aside, I was also angered regarding the huge double standard in place when it came to enforcing the dress code of the library. Having studied there for nearly a week, I had witnessed men in flip flops and shorts, to no comment by the librarian, but the moment a women breaks the rules- she has to change? I understand why in certain areas one must dress a certain way- I would never wear a short skirt to a temple or church out of respect for the religion- but if you believe that an area needs to have a dress code, then it should be enforced without gender bias. I’m not going to be defiant and try to return to the library in a short skirt, but at least make sure that the men are following the rules too. I see no reason why they should be exempt.

New essay on The New Inquiry

The New Inquiry has kindly published an essay I’ve written on Islamic astronomy, ritual, and outer space in their January issue on ‘Stars’. Here is an excerpt:

Astrological and cosmological inquiry by medieval Muslim and Arabian scholars (that is, they wrote in Arabic) were concerned with the link that connected the earth and the night sky, and humankind’s place in it. The religious impulse to make sense of this “place” would animate scientific debates about the stars in the ninth to 14th centuries—the “golden age of Islam.” In turn, the legacy of Muslim scientists or natural philosophers of this period would inspire Islamic practice in outer space in the 21st century, with dubious results.

For centuries, the stars out in outer space provided humanity with a sense of wonder, mystery, and the divine. Through gazing upon the stars and stripping away their distant secret, a mastery of extraterrestrial worlds and dreams of conquest became inevitable. Thus in the present century, Islamic science and space exploration would together at last arrive at a spectacular conclusion: an achievement of greater proximity to the stars to better understand humankind’s place and space in the universe. Not only would Muslims arrive in outer space, but through techno-theological discourse, they would able to make space for Islam among the stars.

Read the rest here.

What is teh tarik enlightenment?

This is my first column on The Malay Mail, published 3rd December 2013

Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani was something of a charismatic maverick and crusader of anti-colonial ideas in late nineteenth century Egypt. His informal engagement with the public evokes a scene not dissimilar to a small forum led by Socrates. Surrounded by earnest disciples in cafes, Al-Afghani would hold court on ancient Islamic science and Western philosophy, appealing to the dispossessed lower and working class who would feel out of place in the hallowed halls of Al-Azhar University.

The ultimate goal of Al-Afghani’s thought was to avenge the degradation that European imperialism had brought to the Islamic world. But he did not reject all things Western or European in toto. By shrewdly adopting Western tools of modernity such as the printing press, Al-Afghani wrote articles and published pamphlets to disseminate his exhortations against the West. So influential was Al-Afghani that he was attributed as the architect of the politicisation of Egypt’s public sphere in the 1870s. Within a few years of his arrival in Egypt, nearly all of Egypt’s newspapers were run by his devotees. His most notable disciples would later become leaders of postcolonial Egypt and later, Iran, his homeland.

More than a 100 years later, something similar is afoot in urban peninsula Malaysia. Groups of Malay men meet at 24-hour restaurants rattling off names of white men both dead and living: Spinoza, Kant, Mill, Hayek, Habermas. To make applicable and complimentary to the local context, iconoclastic Muslim thinkers such as Ali Shariati are invoked. Is this some kind of intellectual renaissance unseen since, well, who knows? Perhaps. But what is certain is that it is what Clarissa Lee calls the birth of our salon culture.

This loose collective of individuals organise book discussions, lectures, and produce books translated into Malay, the language of its audience targeted for intellectual and Islamic reform. IKD has recently published Immanuel Kant’s foundational text What is the Enlightenment? in Malay, signalling an attempt to herald a Malay kind of Enlightenment. Now is as good a time as any to investigate the rise of this community.

These names and ideas bandied about during the Enlightenment have a talismanic quality. They appeal to idealists. The Kantian man stands apart from the rest of society thanks to his superior faculty to reason and freedom from the shackles of fear and dogma. He and his ilk form the public sphere, a potent site for contesting against the state. With the right conditions, Islamic reform and Islamic secularism may be imminent. These grandiose ideals may be the seeds of an intellectual framework for a new Malaysia.

There are, however, detractors who are cynical of this fledgling intellectual trend and quick to denounce earnest verbiage as “pseudo-intellectualism.” Such criticisms should be disabused from the short-sighted ignorance of the power that ideas have in the bigger picture of history. Ideas alone, often slow in its path towards eventual action, have resulted in social transformations and political revolutions. Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet on imperialism and capitalism inspired revolts against colonial subjugators in Asia and the Middle East.

There is a naivety like the rush of first love in this intellectual movement. Their often uncritical adoration of Western philosophy is attributed to a lack of awareness of the vast corpus that challenges its androcentric Eurocentrism. But like Al-Afghani, we should not throw Western theory out with the bath water. After all, Malaysia as a country was founded on Western ideas; the nation-state was a created as a European political project, the rule of law, Parliament, and our education system are all imported without us resisting against its foreignness. And yet, other concepts — female emancipation, freedom of speech, civil liberty, gay rights — are attacked as being alien to our “culture.”

What is more interesting to observe is how pockets of this intellectual community are inspired by Indonesian civil society made up of key contemporary feminist, literary and socio-political figures. Women make a significant presence in Indonesian intellectual circles. But the urban Malaysian salon culture, which is keen on attracting the working class Malay, remains stubbornly Malay male-dominated. This gendered intellectual exclusion can also be witnessed in Singapore where an emerging intellectual book culture is dominated by young Singaporean Malay men.

There are certainly parallels between our local burgeoning intellectual community with that it aspires to mirror. Women were excluded from participating in world-changing philosophical debates in 18th century France. Their views were thought to lack weight and while their very presence amongst male thinkers (wannabe or otherwise) were inhibiting the freedom of intellectual homosociality these men enjoyed. Women opt out from late night discussions in 24-hour restaurants because being female in public at night is risky in Malaysia. Who knows what other reasons that account for their absence?

What are the other dynamics of exclusion at work in this emerging intellectual culture? Why do the chattering classes unproblematically choose to meet at 24-hour restaurants? Should they question the political and economic conditions that allowed them to discuss “liberty” and “rights” on cheap teh tarik while migrant labourers do the 3D jobs (dangerous, dirty, and difficult) that Malaysians won’t do? Liberty and rights for whom exactly? In the society where 9-to-5 jobs are privileged as the ideal, who is there to challenge the ethics of 24-hour sit-down restaurants if not the enlightened ones?

Perhaps one shouldn’t expect too much from an emerging intellectual class that is still learning the lessons of what a truly democratic society means. What took Europe several hundred years, two world wars and numerous fatal lessons from feeling superior to the rest of the world, Malaysia is only beginning to jump off the coat tails of empire since only the last century. Globalisation and super fast media may speed up the intellectual awakening of the elites in developing societies while the rest of humanity waits patiently for their turn.

Why did the independent Islamic film community fail in Indonesia?

Last year when I lived in Jakarta, I chased down people of the Indonesian film community – producers, directors, critics, scholars, festival organisers – to talk about the boom years of ‘Islamic cinema’ following the success of Ayat-ayat Cinta (2008, dir. Hanung Bramantyo). In the following interview, I spoke with the film scholar Katinka van Heeren on why the independent Islamic film community consisting of film producers devoted to Islamic visual ethics and oppositional cinema failed to make a mark commercially since their inception in the mid 1990s.

Some context behind the interview, particularly when Katinka mentions the Muhammadiyah organisation who were behind the fledgling community:

Concerted attempts to create Islamic film-making communities were first established in 1996 by the mass Islamic organisation, the Muhammadiyah. Compelled by the newly gifted freedom to found media broadcasting companies on the basis of faith, the organisation along with others facilitated the training, screening of, and discussion on films for budding Muslim filmmakers. Previously, there had been no official guideline for making films that would later be marketed as ‘Islamic’.

In 2003, film companies and Islamic boarding schools worked in collaboration to produce the (now defunct) 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. MAV-Net’s view of ‘Islamic’ films departs from the Ramadan offerings on television. Their initial view of ‘Islamic visual ethics’ were found in the fringes of the mainstream media industry in the form of pirated VCDs of dubious documentaries about warfare and the military training from abroad. However, amid fears of associations with terrorism, this initial view has been retracted.

Islamic film organisations or ‘communities’ flourished during the climate of Reformasi because of the increasing numbers of Islamic institutions that 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, 2012: 84). However, despite the rise of Islamic film communities during this period, only one film was made by these Islamic film communities and with little financial success.

According to van Heeren (2012 :121), MAV-Net’s manifesto of an Islamic cinema mirrors the tenets of oppositional Third Cinema in its aims of countering and rejecting the hegemony of Hollywood cinema and its undesirable copy-cat elements in Indonesian films. By the late 1990s, conspiracy theories of the influence of Zionist domination of imported media representations became another incentive to produce images that inspired Islamic and anti-Zionist fervour in Indonesia.

MAV-Net’s manifesto stressed their responsibility towards the global Muslim community in battling Zionist-dominated media emanating in the west believed to produce misrepresentations of Muslims and weaken the Islamic faith of Muslims who consume western media. MAV-Net eventually disbanded when regulations for what was allowable on screen became too complicated, in particular regulating what female and male actors can and cannot do in a film such as holding hands and the portrayal of romance or married couples by actors who were not married to each other.

Furthermore, MAV-Net was more interested in producing independent films but when with the success of commercial big-budgeted films such as Ayat-ayat Cinta dominated the public sphere, film-makers under the auspices of MAV-Net felt they could no longer compete with the impending juggernaut of the commercial ‘Islamic’ cinema.

——-
Reference
van Heeren, Katinka (2012) Contemporary Indonesian Film: Spirits of Reform and Ghosts from the Past, KITVL, Leiden.

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.’

Direct address in Asrul Sani’s Para Perintis Kemerdekaan

In my doctoral research on the poetics of Islam and gender in Indonesian cinema, I found a few inventive cinematic devices and techniques used in the Islamic film genre to achieve various desired effects. In the case of the Indonesian Islamic film, the main desired effect is the use of film as a medium for religious teaching.

One of my favourite cinematic devices is the direct address, the moment when a character looks and/or speaks directly towards the camera, and by implication, the spectator, breaking the fourth wall. KCL’s Tom Brown has recently published a book on direct address in which he identifies seven meanings of the direct address: intimacy, agency, epistemic superior positioning within the world, honesty, instantiation, alienation, and stillness (see more on Brown’s direct address in a video interview with Film Studies for Free’s Catherine Grant here).

In the still taken from Asrul Sani’s Para Perintis Kemerdekaan (The Pioneers of Freedom, 1980), the progressive Islamic scholar Haji Wali (played by Asrul Sani himself) reminds his disciples of Islam’s openness towards religious diversity. It is one of several scenes in the film where Haji Wali dispenses progressive words of wisdom of which some are unmistakeably feminist.

paraperintis

The camera moves towards Haji Wali until we get a tight shot of him looking back at us, reciting a line from Al-Kafirun, ‘Your faith is yours/your answer and my faith is mine/Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion’. This is the only time when we get the direct address from Haji Wali which suggests the gravity of his statement.

Inter-religious Romance as Patina of Pluralist Harmony in Indonesian Cinema (an abstract)

I will be presenting a paper (titled above) taken from my doctoral research as part of the International Gender Studies Centre Trinity Term Seminar Series at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, on 16th May 2013. The theme of the seminar series is ‘Gender and Propaganda’ and I’ve somehow managed to design my paper in such a way to fit the theme.

The narrative of inter-religious romance and marriage in film, usually between a Muslim and a non-Muslim, is typically employed as a superficial statement of tolerance, pluralism, and acceptance of perceived irreconcillable differences. This is because love between two people from different social groups can sometimes be seen as a seal over group divisions and as a way to incorporate one member from a different social group to another. Depending on the historical and political context of the film and the motivations and background of the filmmaker, such representations of inter-faith romance may however tell a different story. Indonesia is a hugely diverse country but beset by bloody inter-faith conflict between Christians and Muslims since the 1990s. A few films with Islamic themes from 2008 onward transcode the discourse of inter-faith discord and subvert it into a feel-good narrative of heteronormative love and romance. However, such narratives play out a specific gendered arrangement of faith and religious conversion: female love interests are Christian while their male paramours are Muslim. Christian female characters convert to Islam for their love of the faith and the man they love but Muslim male characters do not convert to Christianity or other faiths. Such narratives may be informed by several Islamic interpretations and cultural specificities pertaining to religious conversion in Islam in Indonesia. But ultimately, what the films say about inter-faith relations through romance reveal faith-based hegemony and propaganda.

My talk: ‘Dakwah at the Cinema: Identifying Indonesia’s ‘Islamic’ film as a genre’

On Tuesday, 19th February 2012, I will be presenting a seminar on my PhD research as part of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies Seminar Series (abstract below). Religion in film is a relatively new and under-explored branch of (principally) film, cultural and area studies. Currently, the study of religious representations in cinema goes down two broad paths: a theology-based (and therefore mostly Christian) analysis and the other approaches national cinema as industry and cultural product and interested in how representations of religion in cinema are embedded in a country’s culture and history. With regard to scholarship in the English language, religion in non-Western films tends to be studied in the latter approach and lacking the inclination of going down the route of Grand Theory. A theological approach to religion in film not only looks at ‘obvious’ depictions of Jesus and biblical epics, but also the theological and spiritual significance in non-religious Hollywood/European films. My research is about Indonesian cinema and its religious representations as a product of an industry and specific historical and socioeconomic events. There is some theory of course, but paradoxically a broad Bordwellian meta theory that small theories can be cobbled together in a ‘piecemeal’, coherent way.

Dakwah at the Cinema: Identifying Indonesia’s ‘Islamic’ film as a genre

Alicia Izharuddin, Centre for Gender Studies, SOAS

Date: 19th February 2012, Time: 5.45-7pm

Venue: B102, Brunei Gallery

Films with Islamic themes became de rigueur in post-1998 Indonesia and particularly after the success of the pro-polygamy film Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) in 2008. Many of such films are noted to be more than just fodder for entertainment and profit but a soapbox for film-makers. Since Ayat-ayat Cinta, films about religious pluralism, terrorism, and female emancipation have become part of the circuit of intense debates about the freedoms of artistic and religious expression in Indonesia. This talk examines the characteristics of the genre, its political and economic context and its transcoded themes. It will also discuss the role of dakwah or Islamic preaching in popular culture. Although an important concept in the making and promotion of ‘Islamic’ films in Indonesia, dakwah appears subordinate to the poetics of the local cinematic marketplace and ‘pop Islam’. On a much broader level, the talk will contribute to debates about what is considered sacred and the profane, worship and entertainment, and the meaning of ‘religion’ itself.

My interview with film director Nia Dinata

Nia Dinata is one of Indonesia’s most important film-makers. Known for tackling subject matters such as abortion, polygamy, and sexualities in a profoundly refreshing way, the films of teh Nia have received worldwide acclaim outside the geographically parochial national film industry of Indonesia. I had the valuable opportunity to ask teh Nia about her views on gender in Indonesian cinema and the current trend of religiously themed films. This interview is one of my many interviews with members of Indonesia’s film community, its producers, directors, critics, and scholars.

The formidable film director and producer Nia Dinata. Source: The New York Times.

Length of interview: 24 minutes
Location: Kalyana Shira Films, South Jakarta, February 2012.

Alicia Izharuddin: Do you think there’s been a change in representations of women in Indonesian film?

Nia Dinata: Little change. Not as significant as people expected just because there are more women behind the scene does not mean it translates immediately to just portrayals of women on the screen. I don’t think it happens directly. But I see little changes here and there. It’s not as significant as the number of women who are now behind the cameras and behind film-making. I think we still need to work on that.

AI: What are we looking for? What kind of images of women that are not being shown enough in film right now?

ND: I feel that it’s still very rare for women to be heroes, as the major protagonist in a film. Not Or other minority characters, not just women – gay men, lesbian women. Mostly the heroes are still men. The kind of portrayal of women if they are female heroes like the films I watched last year, they are mostly women who are religious. If they are heroes, they should be religious. Have you done that research?

AI: Yes, I am doing that research.

ND: Most of the heroines have to be healthy, very religious, very conservative in their choice of lifestyles. So there’s still not enough room for women who are not religious. Or religious but they do not want to show it, they think religion is a private matter.

AI: So they don’t wear the jilbab.

ND: Yes. Women who are less ‘white’. Maybe a bit ‘grey’. Because we have a lot of films where we have the hero or heroine who have ‘grey’ characters – not black or white.

AI: Grey, as in ambiguous?

ND: Yes, ambiguous. I think it’s very rare to have that kind of characters. Ambiguous characters. I think Indonesian people are afraid of ambiguity. They are still afraid to admit that actually human beings can be a saint and evil. We are complex.

AI: But is that one of the problems with film-maker is that they’re too scared that audiences cannot accept complex characters.

ND: I don’t think it’s a matter of fear. It’s more a matter of ignorance. They didn’t even realise that ambiguity exists, that there are different gender portrayals or characteristics. Because there are not many women film makers who are also aware of gender issues.

AI: You’ve been known to make films about women that have been discussed before, like abortion, polygamy. What do you think is your approach to portraying men and masculinities?

ND: Oh I don’t know what my approach is. I’m not an expert in masculinity! If you like this world is already very masculine. The earth, I believe, is very feminine in the beginning. But in time, it became more masculine. Maybe there’s no relation to film at all. But in general, femininity is still considered a threat, a weakness. I have no approach to portraying masculinity.

AI: Because one of the films you produced, Quickie Express, was used in my class to study masculinities. The reason why I found it interesting is because …

ND: They’re not masculine at all.

AI: Even though they’re not masculine, they try to be. But in their efforts to be masculine, it becomes comedic. What is also interesting in the film is that you find many examples where you find the male sexuality is humiliated, being undone. Did you have to anything to say there about men in that film?

ND: Actually, the film was a parody. I love doing satire. And the film was a satire of society. And the reason why it’s so successful in terms of box office [sales] is because the public was mistaken. The film was mistaken for a very masculine film. People who have power and decide what films to watch are generally men – the masculine force. Of course it’s fun for me to see that actually they’re being put into this strategy and they eat it all up. And most of them still find it fun to watch. A small group [of male audiences] find it the opposite. Even the Om Rudi character who is very masculine and turn out to be gay. It’s an expression of while we can make films, we might as well use it to express our beliefs.

AI: Unfortunately the film was never really rigorously analysed. But when I watched it, I thought, so many things that could be unpacked. In your opinion, do you think it is possible for male film-makers to make representations of women that are very meaningful?

ND: I do. But we’re lacking is consciousness, mindfullness. Especially when we’re making films. Most of the male film-makers I believe they’re capable of making films about women in a very inspiring light, not necessarily positive. However, when they do it, they do it unconsciously. And when they don’t do it, they [also] do it unconsciously. We’re not brought up to do critical thinking of trying to analyse, criticise the society, and the imbalanced portrayals of men and women in the media. Unless it’s people like you or me who’ve taken classes on gender, women’s psychology or stuff like that in college. Most people are not trained especially in Asia to see with critical eyes about those things. I believe that male film-makers are not also not trained in those things. And when I point out, ‘oh I like that portrayal of women in this film or several others’. But I believe a man did that portrayals unconsciously, but not without real intention but because the story flow very well, it looks very artistic, the characters, not the women look stronger but not with mindfullness that it is important [to portray women in a meaningful way].

Film poster for Berbagi Suami (Love for Share, 2006) directed by Nia Dinata

AI: When I ask that question, I keep thinking about Perempuan berkalung sorban as an example of a male film-maker who is trying to say so many things about a woman’s experiences in a difficult and conservative environment. I just wondered why more women were not involved in a project like that?

ND: I cannot stand watching Perempuan berkalung sorban because there’s a lot of pretentiousness in it so I don’t know.

AI: Did you think it was too preachy?

ND: Yes, too preachy and that’s why I thought it was pretentious.

AI: Another thing I was wondering, back to women behind the camera. Why do you think there are not as many women behind the scenes? There is definitely a rise in the number of women producers. But the one who is calling the shots, the director, women in that role are still so few. Is there are reason why?

ND: It’s generally like all over the world right?

AI: Yes, of course. But is there a specific reason here in Indonesia? Because I’m comparing Malaysia. In Malaysia, we don’t have many women film-makers. We don’t have a very big population, but that’s not a good enough reason. But I wondered if there’s about the culture in film industry that is probably macho, not just male-dominated. Does it make more difficult for women in any way?

ND: I don’t think so. The environment is making it difficult but it has to come from the woman herself. Because I think this kind of progress that we’ve been through, the environment is very friendly at least the one that I’ve been through to both women and men. I think it has to come from the women herself to have the need and longing to call the shots. Because if they don’t try it they don’t know how exciting and invigorating for anybody to be able to visualise their thoughts.

AI: Do you think it’s something to do with power and leadership, and maybe women are not as willing to take up that role?

ND: Yes, I think it has something to do leadership, and something to do with the belief that women are better at organising and managing so they become very good producers. Which is true. So most people, they end up falling into that belief and decide for themselves, ‘I want to be a producer, instead of I want to be a director.’

AI: My last question; pertaining to films that feature a lot of Islamic elements in them. In the last few years, there have been a number of films about Islam and Muslim people. It was like a trend, however, they were not many women were who responsible for these films. Is there a reason maybe that Islam as a topic that may be too sensitive for women film-makers to take up?

ND: But for me, it’s all about trends. It’s all about big waves in Indonesia that have been for the past 4,5 years. It’s very trendy to even wear the jilbab, to be a born-again Muslim, to belong to a certain group of pengajian, another form of arisan. All my friends, say ‘Let’s join this pengjian. The ustaz is very nice. Let’s meet once or twice a week’. For them, it makes them happy because it is very trendy. It is trendy to launch your fashion, and after fashion it is movie and music. Which is why men love to do something based on their brain, not their heart. Their brain says Islam will make a lot of profit. But if you look deeper, the men are not even Muslims. So it’s just making a commodity out of Islam.

AI: But there are also a number of film-makers who get questioned about their qualifications to make films like that. Hanung Bramantyo gets questioned a lot about the kind representations of Islam and Muslims in his films, because they are more you could say ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’. He is questioned about how good a Muslim he is, his actors are for example. To me, I find it interesting because the personal side of the film-maker is also being put in the spot.

ND: Well, it depends. When Hanung made Tanda Tanya, he has every right to make it because he has questions about Islam [in Indonesia] himself. Somebody whose name I don’t want to mention, who are Catholics who make religious films I don’t think it is fair. Because for me, it is fair for business. But content-wise, it is not. Everybody can make any film for the sake of business but I won’t watch that film because I get to choose what I want to watch. But it depends, if somebody makes a film that has questions about religion criticising religion, that’s fine, anybody can make. Anybody in their stage in life will have questions like that. It would be nice to have those questions up on the big screen. But if you’re making films that are very, very conservative, very black and white, without any critical thinking at all in your film where you are not even a Muslim. It’s kind of strange to me. It’s like putting business as your religion. I think people who are criticising film-makers who make films about religion are very shallow people because anybody can question about their religion, or question the existence of God.

AI: In Malaysia, we’re very conservative and we can’t just make films that question Islam. But in Indonesia, I also notice that those who are conservative share that same view.

ND: But that’s the risk of being a film-maker. If you want to tackle those issues you have to be prepared. But the difference between Malaysia and Indonesia is that you can actually do anything in Indonesia, it’s just a matter of whether you’re ready to be criticiesd or not. But in Malaysia, even when you have the intention it doesn’t mean you can materialise that intention.

AI: [Laughs] Yes, it’s tragic like that.

ND: Move to Indonesia to make films. [Laughs]

AI: [Laughs] OK, I think that’s all we have for today. Thank you, Teh Nia.