Reader response criticism and sacred texts

Question: how useful is reader response criticism in understanding a community’s relationship with its ‘sacred texts’? In what ways does reader response criticism challenge the meaningfulness of the term ‘sacred’?

A book does not read itself. Meaning does not happen when there is no one there to make it.

Reader response (RR) criticism or theories can demonstrate that the text does not have inherent meaning of its own, but rather created by the reader and shared between individuals and communities. An accepted interpretation of a particular text is very much a reflection of the community’s context and motivated by what the community wants to see or at least thinks it sees in the text. What RR theories can also show is the instability of meaning of the text, and that interpretation of the text can evolve, be accepted and rejected, or completely disappear over time. And thus with regard to ‘sacred’ texts, the sacredness is to a certain extent created and maintained by religious communities. Outside such communities, the meaning of sacredness in the text is understood differently, perhaps not as ‘sacred’ at all. RR criticisms challenge the ‘sacredness’ of a text when they highlight the constructed nature of interpretation that exists, inter alia, in the mind of the individual reader or as a group interpretation of the text (influenced by compromise, politicking, and other biases because we’re all human with interests to protect) instead of something that is received in a supernatural and decontextualised manner. By implicating the reader in the meaning-making process that bestows upon the text its ‘sacredness’, this means that the ‘sacredness’ of the text is not autonomous nor it is pre-formed and waiting to be found. RR criticism calls into question the ‘sacredness’ of the physical book that sits on the shelf or the desk unread. Instead it considers the ‘sacred’ nature of the book that only ‘materialises’ when reading it is tantamount to a religious experience. In other words, ‘sacredness’ is an event that occurs in a particular time and place rather than something that just is.

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.

Derrida, the life of the philosopher, and the ‘biopic’

‘He was born. He thought. He died’

                                                                                        Heidegger on the ‘life’ of Aristotle

A review of Derrida’s biography by Benoît Peeters in The Guardian today made me think about whether or not the biography is crucial or incidental to understanding a philosopher’s thought. Does knowing (or not knowing) about Derrida’s life enable us to understand what is at stake in the process of deconstruction? What role does the biography, and in particular the 2002 ‘biopic’ by Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick, play? And since we’re talking about Derrida here, how is the biography deconstructed?

An image representing Jacques Derrida in his later years.

In a way, the biography does matter. Because it strives to capture the humanistic accounts of the philosopher’s life as noteworthy and supportive of her/his work. It also plugs into our obsession and voyeurism of the minutiae of a person’s life, to find out what makes them tick, and what of ourselves we can find in them. The thoughts, if one wishes to practice/follow them, can only be made tangible when it is embodied in the physical realm; in locational/corporeal context. There is a reason why certain hadiths attributed to the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) are so resonant for Muslims, particularly for some men who would dress, eat, and grow a beard in a certain way that the prophet himself might have done in order to become ‘closer’ to the memory and morality of the prophet. With regard to the philosopher, it becomes a question of destabilising the division between mind and body, speech and writing, the philosopher in person and the philosopher in representations.

Depending on how Derrida’s life is represented, it will not be entirely possible to understand the circumstances from which he had arrived to explaining the process of deconstruction. If told from the point of view of the biographer with an intention to record Derrida’s intellectual upbringing, his personal life, likes and dislikes, but without interrogating the place certain significant events in Derrida’s life that can be turning points in the way he thought, we as consumers of a philosopher’s biography may not gain much insight into his thought processes.

Biography in the film assumes the role of the recording tape that records and plays back the thoughts and bits of life events that emerge yet enmeshed in their place of enunciation. But once deconstructed, elements in Derrida’s biopic which include the authority of the biography’s authorship, the unity of the text, and the neutrality of representation will all be called into question. These include the status of Derrida as the great philosopher (possibly) undermined by the banality of his life such as looking for his house keys, eating breakfast, crossing the street, etc.

A deconstructed biography is often at variance with conventional narrativising of a person’s life that invariably include ‘true’ information about the philosopher’s life (i.e. details about his birth, education, opus, (eventual) death, the “What of Derrida” as opposed to the “Who of Derrida” as exemplified in his walking, talking, eating, laughing). Most importantly, the film raises questions about the status of the biography’s author: is it a film about Derrida or merely an autobiography of the film-makers and their experiences with the great philosopher? Their names are placed on the film as author/producers; who are they in relation to the subject they film? The film-makers record and cite Derrida’s words, select and edit them to create a kind of snapshot that only has traces of Derrida taken from a specific moment in time. But we do not get the ‘real’, unitary Derrida, the person.

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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‘Love’ mail I get

In this day and age, when you’re an academic it is always good to have information about your research interests published online. Who knows, you’ll get asked by the media to give your expert opinion on topics you know intimately about, prospective students become inspired by similar research and seek your consult, and then there’s the general and ever curious public who wonder what it’s like in the ivory tower and at times do things to topple you from that tower. A few days ago, I received a short email that contained many searching questions:

Dear Alicia,

I come across your profile on SOAS and I’d be interested to your views on Islam, gender and politics? Why do you think, as you mentioned, there is a gender inequality in Muslim society? Do you not think there is inequality in the UK society? How film is going to help in this?


Very patiently and interestedly I answered:

Dear MN,

Thanks for your email and query. Gender inequality is a social problem that cannot be reduced as a problem with religion, and particularly not Islam. There are great many factors that contribute to gender inequality (which is rarely separated from other forms of social inequalities such as classism, racism, etc.) in Muslim societies – laws that are not enforced to protect the interests of women and girls, traditional gender roles which are enforced on women and male chauvinism that devalues women and femininity, war and conflict (women and girls tend to be the most vulnerable during these times, especially during the post-conflict period), and poverty. And as you can see, these factors are not unique to Muslim societies, but can and continues to occur in ‘Western’ societies (that also have Muslim communities).

Yes, there is a serious problem with inequality in UK society. Namely in terms of class, and it starts from the acts of classist injustice at the highest rungs of society and politics and seeps into other forms of inequalities. The Con-Dem government has exacerbated poverty levels by taking away public funding in places that need them most. If we’re talking about gender, class, ethnic, and immigration-related inequality rolled into one, take the example of funding cuts on ESOL classes for migrants to the UK. Most migrants who enter the UK with lower levels of education, lower employability status, and as adjuncts of better qualified migrants are female spouses and family members of male migrants. Inability to speak English will mean fewer work opportunities, lower self-esteem, and heightened racist panic.

About film, particularly fiction film; It doesn’t “help” in ending social inequalities in a direct way since films are things produced through a compromise of multiple factors (marketability, creative (and sometimes political) vision, and censorship constraints) but it holds up a kind of mirror reflecting the way society works. How we talk about gender (and our messages about gender inequality, whether implicit or not) comes to life on screen. I hope not to overstate this, but I believe that film is but a social barometer that gives us an understanding on how and what kind of images of women and men are being imagined, accepted, loved, and rejected. The more we see images of gender in a particular way (namely stereotypical images of women as sexual objects characterised by narrow standards of beauty, housewives who do the washing up and childcare, and mere adjuncts to important characters in film) the better we understand how women and men are expected to be seen in society. Hope this helps.

Best regards,

Perhaps I hit a raw nerve somewhere with my carefully thought-out reply, because the reply I got from MN was terse, accusatory, and frankly ridiculous:

Dear Alicia,

Thanks for taking the time to reply to my email. I appreciate what you voiced in your email. But allow me to enquire further what is your responsibility when Muslim women are labelled as victim? And when France and Britain use familiar language towards Afghanis and Iranian women and yet humiliate them in public places? Would you voice against the current French regime’s decision to humiliate Muslim women who wears Hijab – daily? Or would you stop at “the ways film as ideology and social practice work toward maintaining and subverting domination and gender inequality in Muslim societies?” Will you merely focus on the Muslim societies and not domestic violence and issues women face in the UK? Should you not talk about the humiliation towards to the Palestinian women and girls in the name of the state Israel? And wouldn’t you care about the voiceless women and young females of Gypsy background in Europe and North America who are displaced by the states? And would you talk about and join protests against treatments towards women who cannot enter in the Westminster because of their gender? And finally, what is the meaning of your thesis title “”Construction of ‘new’ Muslim femininities and masculinities in post-New Order cinema “” and how would it help people?

ask all of these questions merely to mention the academic dishonest which only applies to some people and not to others. Because I care about humans and honest scholarships.


To which I replied:

Dear MN,

Thanks for your reply. I get similar things said to me by people like yourself. If I was a scientist in the biological sciences, you would be asking me, “What am I going to do about climate change?!!”. Or perhaps not, because anything in the sciences would be considered worthy for study.

For film and media studies, people are quicker to dismiss, discredit and invalidate our scholarship as petty, insignificant, fluff. That’s because people are quite ignorant, Malcolm. And I sincerely hope you’re not one of them.

You may be pleased to know that I’m also a feminist activist and probably know more about and have done more for Palestinian and Roma women than yourself, but I also happen to believe in scholarship for the sake of intellectual growth which cannot be quantified as easily as world peace. But does it matter to you that I’m a feminist activist in my neighborhood, because you’d be asking me to sort the injustices that occur on the other side of the world.

If you’re frustrated about gender inequality in France, Palestine, Iran, and wherever else, perhaps you should go out there yourself and do something about it rather than telling me that I should be focused on X, Y, and Z instead.

If I can offer one valuable advice for you that will answer your enquiries and future ones, it’s this: if you care so much, YOU do something about it. It’s not just a Muslim woman’s “responsibility” to care about Muslim women and the injustices we face around the world, but also for people like yourself to care by stop labeling us all as mere “victims” and speak up yourself against injustice rather than piling on the “responsibility” on others and blaming them for apparently doing nothing. Volunteer at a women’s crisis centre, stop expecting women to “fix” gender inequality on their own, stop telling Muslims to “get ourselves in order” and not checking your prejudices, read more about gender, feminist politics, and Islam, and educate yourself rather than taking an anti-intellectual stand. Hope this helps.


Masculinity and sexual humiliation in Quickie Express

The following is a lecture about Indonesian masculinities and male sex work to accompany the film screening of Quickie Express by Dimas Djayadinigrat that I delivered for my class Sex and the City in Southeast Asian Cinema. Reading it through once again, I found to be rather scrappy and also, please pardon the occasional chatty style – this was meant to be delivered verbally rather than read. Despite the rough edges, there are some themes of male sexual humiliation in physical comedy that remains unstudied and therefore stands as a large uncharted landscape few scholars of gender in film studies choose to venture:

Talking about Quickie Express brings us to various discursive directions; masculinities in recent Indonesian cinema, the notion of masculinity in crisis, representations of male sex workers or gigolos in films, and masculinity as spectacle.

Quickie Express plays on a parody of both traditional masculinity and sexuality. It suggests that working in the sex industry is quite humiliating for a man as it involves being subjected to sexual servitude for an array of female clientele made up of overweight women, bondage fetishist, elderly women who are made to look not only comedic and physically unattractive but more crucially to personify grotesque forms of female sexuality. Or rather female sexuality as grotesque. But what Quickie Express also shows is that male prostitution also generates unexpected benefits – a high end lifestyle and romance.

This brings us to a discussion about representations of the male sex worker, the comedic element that mitigates against the anxiety and potential humiliation of masculinity, and the construction of men as objects of erotic desire – all of which I will discuss in great detail.

What is interesting about Quickie Express is that it adds an unusual dimension to the portrayals of masculinities in the post-Suharto era. It presents men as sex objects who struggle as seducers of women. It seems to feature the failure of men and sexual humiliation in a situation where gender roles are reversed: women are the ones who are financially independent and powerful, they are also the active agents of their sexuality, they call the shots because they can.

The three men – Piktor, Marley, and Jojo (shown above) are not even adequate as heterosexual masculine men – that they need instructions on how to be sexually literate through their very camp male instructor who exhibits multiple paradoxes of masculinity – being middle-aged and having a paunch, the string vest, the awkward rather than graceful movement around the pole, but being an expert of female sexuality, dance, and high brow social etiquette.

If you have seen The Full Monty, you will remember the scene in which the men are made to watch Flashdance to learn how to dance. Flashdance is of course an important film that combines the masculine profession of the central female character who is a welder at a steel mill and the predominantly feminine world of dance. So we have two films that uses women/feminine men who serve as instructors in sexual masculine performance whether on stage, or in bed.

A display of non-traditional, non-normative, inadequate, or buffoon masculinities will guide us into a better understanding that masculinity is not a stable or homogeneous category of gender. In the work of Raewyn Connell, masculinity is broken up into four forms: hegemonic, complicit, marginalised, and subordinated masculinities. Today we’ll be focusing on marginalised and subordinated masculinity which we see plenty of in Quickie Express in contrast to hegemonic or dominant masculinity.

Throughout the New Order period, the dominant paradigm of masculinity was defined in familial terms; the man as father and leader of the household, and by extension the nation. Hence, the ideal Indonesian man was defined through heterosexual, monogamous marriage and having a family, preferably with biological children.

But changes in the socio-political and religious mood occurring during Reformasi – the period shortly after Suharto’s resignation – meant that men and masculinities were shifting as well. During this period hegemonic or idealised masculinity becomes increasingly Islamicised. The ability to display or perform their Muslim masculinity through dress, speech, consumption, who they marry, how many women they marry is played out in the public arena as an exemplary form of masculinity. But there is another side of masculinity played out in Indonesian film that we should be more interested in – the disempowered masculinity, the crisis of masculinity.

Masculinity in crisis
Masculinity in crisis is defined as a situation in which heterosexual men experience a sense of frustration, loss, and tension in the face of female empowerment in the public sphere, a loss in a sense of a traditional masculinity, and the threat posed by male homosexuality who are able to look and be just as masculine as straight men.

The crisis therefore rests on the popular question of “What does it take to be a “real” man?” particularly if for most people “real” means cissexual as opposed to transsexual or transgender and straight as opposed to gay man, gainfully employed as opposed to jobless or poor. In Indonesia, Marshal Clark describes the masculinity in crisis which occurs during the Asian economic crisis of 1997, in which many men experienced the double humiliation of losing their jobs and roles as breadwinner of the household.

For Marshal Clark, the Indonesian crisis of masculinity is enacted in post-Suharto films in which gangsters and various other versions of violent men populate the screen, where they overpower the authorities and other weaker members of society. On a more alarming note, he also says that there are more misandrist portrayals of men during this period, as defined as weak, abusive, and socially alienated young men in many films by both female and male film directors. Of course, the weakness and negativity of these portrayals are debatable, as we shall discuss later in our tutorial using Quickie Express as our talking point.

Buffoon men, gigolos, marginalised / subordinated masculinities at the centre

Quckie Express joins the few comedy films and television series about gigolos or men in the sex industry like Deuce Bigelow, The Full Monty, and the American comedy drama Hung. Central to the representation of men in these films and television series is the non-traditional, less than adequate men who face the threat of economic poverty, shame and stigmatisation, the clandestine double life they lead due to the nature of their profession.

If we were to describe a type of masculinity in Quickie Express based on the continuum of masculinities introduced by Raewyn Connell, these men would be categorised in the marginalised and subordinated masculinities. Marginalised because of he portrayal of men such as the Arab pimp and the Dutch Jan Pieter Gunarto.

But they are also examples of subordinated masculinity because of their effeminacy and homosexuality. The gigolos on the other hand traverse across the various forms of masculinities but never quite make it to hegemonic masculinity. They are definitely buffoon men.

Interestingly, at multiple points of the film we find several sequences that threaten the masculinity of an already disempowered masculinity even more; for example, the three men talk about boosting their virility using a tonic from Saudi Arabia and express an implicit fear of impotence, Marley’s small penis that eventually becomes bitten off by a fish and eaten by a hospital personnel.

Key to depictions of men as sex objects is the comedic element to neutralise the anxiety of the male gaze. Now, the male gaze was developed by as a psychoanalytic term by Jacques Lacan to describe the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed. In feminist film theory, the gaze was further developed by Laura Mulvey in her seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema in which she says that the audience is put into the perspective of a heterosexual man. How the camera lingers on the women’s body more than it does on a man’s body in an erotically-charged way suggests this.

I’d like to add on Mulvey’s point that the male gaze occurs also he production of images in television and more particularly in magazine covers, advertising, and fashion photography. Women’s bodies are generally shown as passive objects of desire to be visually consumed by the audience who is presumed to be heterosexual and male. The male gaze suggests that there is a power asymmetry coded in how we look at images of women in film. The male gaze holds water if we know for certain most film directors are indeed straight and male, as for most members of the film industry, and the fact that when sex sells, it means women’s bodies sell.

But when men’s bodies project erotic visual cues, such as a bare chest, a come hither look at the audience, they are countered by traditional masculine signifiers usually through engaging in some form of activity, holding a prop that will reinforce their masculinity. In the case of visual close-ups on men, their faces should express fear, anger, or aggression. Or look away, to not make eye contact with the presumably straight male audience and incite homoerotic passion. The male gaze is implicitly suggests that visual-making is largely homophobic and fears the potential sexy images of men will unsettle the male gaze.

There are exceptions of course, but the exceptions tend to generate discomfort, criticisms, and anger from many people. For example, Sylvester Stallone paying homage to Rodin’s The Thinker on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1999, or the silliness / obscenity of Sacha Baron-Cohen on the cover of GQ, the absurdity of men in pin-up poses.

One the biggest flaws of Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze is the assumption that female viewers also have the male gaze in that they look through a heterosexual and masculinsed lens. This anticipated the concept of the female gaze that proposed that women as viewers have the agency to identify in a non-sexist way, in a way that does not objectify women. Also, the psychoanalytic paradigm in much of film theory has been challenged as severely limited; mainly because of its ahistorical approaches to desire and fear, its silence on the issue of race, class, and cultures of the audiences.

I think Quickie Express problematises the concept of the gaze through the portrayal of straight men as male prostitutes hence sex objects and its use of comedy.

The most common stereotype of the male prostitute is as a sexy but tragic figure. This stereotype reveals both a fascination with the male prostitute as a sexual object and sadness or disdain with his situation and life style. This stereotyped male hustler is often an under-aged or teen-age “street kid” or “runaway” forced to leave home because of his sexual orientation or because of sexual abuse. He is often portrayed as a drug addict or thief. The plotline frequently focuses on the crisis of leaving the trade or the street (“one last trick”), or on making enough money for an important use (a medical treatment, a gift). The climax often has one of two possible outcomes: the hustler either abandons the trade and re-integrates society, or he meets a tragic end.

While less frequent in cinema and novels, the male prostitute with exclusively female clients (the “gigolo” or “escort”) is generally depicted in a less tragic manner than the gay hustler (the gigolo is portrayed as older, athletic, well-dressed, etc.), and films like American Gigolo have done much to paint the character as a sophisticated seducer. This portrayal has also lead to cinematic satire

The element of comedy in Quickie Express alleviates the anxiety male audiences, again we’re still using the male gaze as a useful concept, may have about allusions to emasculation, feminisation of men, castration, and the construction of men as sex objects. Comedy allows viewers to accept and laugh characters as simply caricatures, reassuring that they are hyperboles and extreme and absurd representations of men in desperation. Comedy also dislocates the anxiety that straight male audiences may have with depictions of men as sex objects. Should the film be a serious investigation into the life of a male prostitute with many lingering shots of male bodies, we may have greater apprehension with the image.

Quickie Express joins a loosely termed genre in recent Indonesian cinema of the sex comedy, and more specifically joins a sub-genre of sex comedy that focuses on the men’s sexual insecurity, namely the focus on the penis. Other penis-oriented comedies include Namaku Dick (or my name is Dick) about a talking penis that turns a man’s life upside down, and XL about a man who is worried that small penis will disappoint a future wife.

More thoughts on femininities in Indonesian Islamically-themed cinema

Empowered femininities?

It is worth exploring the relationship between women and film religi in which female characters assume the role of boundary markers of nation and religion. The reference to women as markers of the boundaries of national ideology is a common theme in post-colonial nations-states, serving as symbolic representations in the rhetoric of inclusion and exclusion. During the New Order, women were assigned as not only procreators of the state but also as an index of what defines the state, as demonstrated in the marginalised manner in which women are portrayed in Indonesian cinema (Sen 1995: 94). Furthermore, women’s images in film are often used for either sensationalistic purposes or as symbolic marker of the nation’s moral order. Should that moral order be challenged by liberated female sexuality and non-heteronormative behaviour, it is usually restored by the end of the film through the punishment of female characters who over-stepped their gender roles (Sen, 1994: 138).

Aripurnami (2000) comments on the way women have been portrayed in Indonesian cinema as domineering, unreasonable, and prone to wild emotional outbursts in stark contrast to their often stoic male counterparts who stand victorious when struggle over dominance, independence, and self-actualisation end in their favour (2000: 55-57). Although there is a wealth of data on the diversity of women’s lives, Aripurnami argues that they are reduced to one-dimensional images. The richness of Indonesian women’s lives is said to be “buried under the ‘impressions’ created and captured by film-makers, scenario writers, directors, directors, actors, and by the audience” (2000: 60). Now in the post-authoritarian period we find the image of the woman appropriated for other political and religious narratives in a climate in which multiple political voices struggle for legitimacy, and it remains to be seen whether Muslim femininity in film religi is also woven in these new political imaginaries.

Women who wear the hijab in the Western media have long attracted attention as a commonly-used marker for Islam and in many cases, religious ‘oppression’. As in the Western media, women in the jilbab in film religi represent some element of Islam but often instead appear as visual symbols of modern social narratives grounded in Islamic principles. Ayat-ayat cinta was particularly groundbreaking in that one of the film’s main love interest is woman in a niqab or face veil revealing only the eyes. If Western Europe is preoccupied with the negative symbolism surrounding the full-face veil and aims to effectively ban it, more positive depictions of the full-face veil in film religi can only be understood as subversive. To explore the greater complexities in representations of pious women in film religi, one must do away with the binary (and indeed Orientalist) logic of the ‘veil’. The film Ayat-ayat cinta is a case in point here: the films follows the life of an Indonesian male graduate student, Fahri, in Egypt, his pursuit for marriage and the apparent challenge of selecting between two women – Aisha, a young woman of Turkish-German descent in a niqab, and Maria, an Egyptian Christian-Copt who does not cover her hair.

Aisha and Fahri meet during a kerfuffle on a tram involving the harassment of two white non-Muslim tourists by the locals, an event that demonstrates the pluralist attitudes of both Aisha and Fahri contrasted against the intolerant, xenophobic views of lay Egyptians. Fahri is represented as a hardworking student who takes his religious obligations seriously. Fahri later marries Aisha, disappointing Maria who later falls into a coma, and two other women; a fellow Indonesian student at Al-Azhar university where they both study, and an Egyptian neighbour and victim of domestic abuse who later accuses Fahri of rape when he rejects her advances. Thrown into jail and sentenced to death by hanging, Maria poses as the only witness to Fahri’s innocence. When Fahri is acquitted, he fulfils the request of the ailing Maria by taking her as his second wife on her deathbed, upon which Maria converts to Islam.

Not long after a brief polygamous arrangement, Maria dies leaving Fahri and Aisha together at last. Ayat-ayat cinta generated a great deal of academic interest within Indonesia and the nature of popular films depicting Islamic piety as demonstrated in the scholarly writings by Indonesian scholars (Hakim, 2009). Ayat-ayat Cinta was not the first widely acclaimed Indonesian film to engage with the topic of polygamy. Berbagi suami (Love for share), written and directed by Nia Dinata, is strikingly different from Ayat-ayat cinta; the film takes a critical stance against polygamy and focuses on the distress and suffering of its female characters who are hard done by polygamous marriage. Berbagi Suami does however share a few similarities with Ayat-ayat Cinta in that both are in agreement that polygamous marriage is not only allowed according to Islamic scripture, but suggest that polygamy can be a difficult and stressful arrangement for those directly involved. But that is where similarities end; Berbagi suami is situated in the vast urban sprawl of Jakarta, characters of various class backgrounds and class populate the screen, and most importantly, the film captures the gritty reality of the inequalities suffered by women in polygamous arrangements. In contrast to Ayat-ayat cinta, Berbagi suami was far less successful in the domestic market and gained the ire of conservative clerics (Hatley, 2009: 56).

Ayat-ayat cinta depicts central female characters who wear the face-covering niqab, a hijab, and who no headscarf at all. Most notably, Maria the Copt-Christian who does not cover her hair is portrayed as morally-upstanding as Aisha who covers her face. In fact, it is Noura, the veiled neighbour who has betrayed Fahri and accuses him of sexual assault. Thus, on a superficial level, the women in Ayat-ayat cinta challenge the moral binary of the headscarfed woman versus the unveiled woman, a binary that is popular in religious television dramas in Indonesia (Nef-Saluz, 2007: 41-42). As the conventional trope in Indonesian soap opera dictates, characters in the jilbab often play the righteous and exceedingly well-mannered women in contrast to the carefree nightclub-going jilbab-free women of dubious moral standing. However, jilbab-free Christian women in film religi (Ayat-ayat cinta and Syahadat cinta) are virtuous, pious, and eventually convert to Islam for the Muslim man they love.

A few Indonesian films with female characters at the centre of the narrative in the last decade dealt explicitly with ‘women’s issues’, issues pertaining to motherhood and abortion (Perempuan punya cerita, Women’s stories, 2007), polygamy (Berbagi suami, Love for share, 2006) and Pasir berbisik (Motherhood, 2001). Perempuan berkalung sorban (Woman with the sorban necklace, 2008, dir. Hanung Bramantyo) is one such example; and like the other preceding films of similar themes, Perempuan berkalung sorban courted controversy particularly from the head imam of Jakarta’s Istiqlal Grand Mosque, Ali Mustafa Yaqub, who objected to the negative depiction of abusive pious men. The film received received praise, however, from Meutia Hatta, Indonesia’s women’s issues minister for challenging retrogressive socio-religious norms (Belford, 2009). Based on the novel of the same title by Abidah El Khaleiqy, Perempuan berkalung sorban is centred on the trials and tribulations of strong-willed Annisa, a daughter of a kyai, the head of the pesantren (Islamic boarding school) and community. Annisa is intent on challenging the norms of her conservative Islamic upbringing by insisting on studying far from home in Yogyakarta, much to the disapproval of her parents. To quell her independent spirit, Annisa is made to marry a son of another kyai but soon suffers from physical domestic abuse, marital rape, and the humiliation of being in a polygamous marriage without her consent. After a difficult divorce, Annisa reinvents herself as a women’s refuge counsellor then religious school teacher in her father’s pesantren where she distributes non-religious novels to her students despite criticisms from her father as un-Islamic.

Annisa’s tribulations and ideals bear some semblance to the politics of Muslim women’s rights in Indonesia. In her book on Indonesian women’s leadership in Islamic organisations, van Doorn-Harder (2006) revealed the significant role and socio-religious influence Muslim women have in challenging the patriarchal reading of Islamic scripture. The major cause of concern after Suharto stepped down from power was the emerging public presence of extremist Islam such as Laskar Jihad1 in which women were marginalised. When extremists assume political power and influence, women are often become the first victims, rendered invisible and voiceless. In August 2006 the Majles Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) held a congress in Yogyakarta at which women were not even admitted into the building of the venue (van Doorn-Harder, 2006: 38). Regardless of these concerns, Muslim women in Indonesia have access to the thousands of institutions where women are trained to become specialists of Islam, allowing them to learn the holy texts and interpreting them (van Doorn-Harder, 2006: 1-2).

Among these institutions is the pesantren, where female and male students spend much of their formative years studying Islamic texts. These schools have produced female intellectuals, preachers, and feminist activists who actively engage in religious debates equipped with substantial knowledge of holy scriptures (van Doorn-Harder, 2006: 2). Women’s active participation in public discourse and leadership does not mean Indonesia is a feminist utopia. Women in Indonesia, as in the rest of Southeast Asia, wield a relative amount of freedom to move and resist repressive force and have greater economic autonomy and physical mobility than many women elsewhere in the Muslim world. But not far beneath the veneer of economic and social egalitarianism, there are intersecting inequalities that underlie specific contexts. Even when religious institutions promote women’s education, greater participation, and even leadership, hierarchical organisational structures of the home and faith-based groups deny women direct leadership. For example, the women’s branch of the Muhammadiyah movement continues to be subservient to the men’s despite exhibiting strong and capable leadership (van Doorn-Harder, 2006: 43).

The image of the apparently “empowered” woman in Perempuan berkalung sorban joins the coterie of male writers and film-makers of the post-New Order generation interested in the struggles of being female in Indonesia, namely Riri Riza and Hanny Saputra who gained critical acclaim for their films Eliana Eliana (2002) and Virgin (2005) respectively (Clark, 2010: 95). In light of this Clark (2010) suggests that this is an example of young and privileged Indonesian men’s pro-feminist attempts at challenging the normative gender dynamics and constructing non-patriarchal models of subjectivities and practices (Clark, 2010: 95). In this respect, predominantly male film-makers of film religi are chiefly involved in constructing the performative discourse of Muslim femininities. How sincere and politically motivated such male-constructed images of strong Muslim women are remains to be seen. Which brings me to an important caveat; depictions of “empowered” or strong female characters in Indonesian film need to be carefully examined and not taken simply at face value. Krishna Sen (1994: 135) stresses that when analysing images of strong women, one must ask to what effect and in whose interest is this strength mobilised in the film? And so at this juncture, it would be instructive to bring forward a set of questions related to the contexts in which images of women (strong or otherwise) are produced in film religi; such as what influence do feminist critiques of representations of women have on religious film-making in Indonesia? How much influence and agency do Muslim women have in the film industry, especially in the production of religious films?


  1. Aripurnami, S. (2000) Whiny, finicky, bitchy, stupid, and ‘revealing’: The image of women in Indonesian films, in Indonesian women: The journey continues by M. Oey-Gardiner and C. Bianpoen (eds.), Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, the Australian National University: Canberra.
  2. Belford, A., Film spurs debate over women’s role, Jakarta Globe, 1 March 2009
  3. Clark, M. (2010) Maskulinitas: Culture, gender, and politics in Indonesia, Monash University Press: Caulfield.
  4. Hatley, B. (2009) Love, religion, and social difference: Two films about polygamy and Indonesian society, in Yvonne Michalik and Laura Coppens’ Asian hot shots: Indonesian cinema, Schüren.
  5. Sen, K. (1994) Indonesian cinema: Framing the New Order, Zed Books.
  6. Sen, K. (1995) Repression and resistance: Interpretations of the feminine in Indonesian cinema, in Culture and society in New Order Indonesia: 1965-1990 by V. Hooker (ed.), Oxford University Press: Kuala Lumpur.
  7. van Doorn-Harder, P. (2006) Women shaping Islam: Indonesian women reading the Qu’ran, University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago.

Why I chose the path of academia despite sexist microaggressions and my own demons

First published on Kakak Killjoy

If you’re a woman or girl and you have plenty of facts, ideas, and thoughts in your head it’s easier to keep them there. Once they come out, be prepared to be shot down in flames by people who think you’re showing off and trying to being pseudo-intellectual. Even comments by people who say that you’re being “academic” marks you out as a kind of anomaly, because women in general are not really meant to be very clever or intellectual. “Clever enough” is a nice and attractive attribute. *Very* clever is not. Those who are very clever are actually pretty scary, ball-busting types that men usually admire from afar but up close men realise that they’re not girlfriend or marriage material. For that reason, many clever women play down their intelligence.

For a long time I chose to stay silent and kept my head full of thoughts to a point that it distressed me. After all, my thoughts do not matter. Who did I think I was anyway? And what might people think I was up to and trying to be? I’m not qualified enough to comment let alone say something about anything under the sun with authority and be taken seriously for it. My thoughts are not important, etc etc. These are the common put-downs that I self-sabotage myself with.

Slowly I came to the realisation that it was not that I thought I knew something, whether it was enzymatic pathways or kinship in Malay communities, but that I KNEW something and I shouldn’t pretend that I didn’t. After all, it is too easy to be labelled vacuous and ignorant. Being a terrible student all throughout my school years damaged a great deal of self-confidence in my ability to learn and presenting my knowledge. Being (near) the bottom of the class several times somehow sealed my fate – I was never really going to amount to anything. I was not clever.

Yes, I had (and still have) serious insecurity issues and self-confidence has never been my strongest suit, but confidence is something I had to work on for many years. At a young age surrounded by family, friends, and strangers who valued extroverted, easy-going, good-looking, fair-skinned, straight-haired, and academically successful girls and me being the absolute opposite did not help. I was softly-spoken, reserved, introverted, loved books, had big and wild unruly hair, a gangly body, and an awkward disposition like a stray jigsaw piece that will not fit anywhere. I was not only not clever but I was actually ugly by Malaysian standards too.

Fast-forward to 10 or so years you have me overcoming the deep-set insecurities that kept me silent and imprisoned by my shyness. You could say that me being a confident academic now is a kind of Revenge of the Nerds, except for me it’s the Social Misfit 2: Back with a Vengeance. It’s the nerds and social misfits who bloomed late, bumbled throughout their formative years with the few friends who were similar in looks and general awkwardness who would later become happy and “cool” people who were comfortable in their own skin.

Ironically, I discovered that education would be my saviour. Despite being the root of my self-erasure, I sought education to reinvent myself. So I had to excel in university to be taken seriously. If that’s not enough, I had to be first both in class and department to be taken seriously. It’s been said that a woman has be twice as good as a man to be considered as good as a man.

So you could say that now is the springtime for nerds and social misfits, taking “revenge” on our more popular, good-looking, and successful “tormentors”. Except not really – overcoming shyness can only get you so far, because insecurity and self-doubt continue to linger when people still won’t take you seriously because you’re a woman. That said however I’m not worried about not ever combating my shyness and introverted nature. Because after all, like Julia Kristeva says, we’re all in the process of becoming, a sujet-en-proces; always on a journey into developing ourselves. It’s how intelligent women and girls are belittled that I am more upset about, because it means we will continue to have a culture in which women’s brains are not appreciated and there are only a handful of intellectually powerful and confident female role models to look up to. A handful rather than none at all is not equality but tokenism. Even though there are more women in university than men, we have the case of “You have a degree? That’s nice, dear. Now make me a sandwich”.

I chose to become an academic because I am passionate about teaching and I love learning. Being an academic will give me the legitimacy to help others succeed in education and in life, and guide them to see the world differently. I’ve been told many times by many people that Malaysian university students in local higher education are doomed to herd mentality and the tempurung complex (i.e. close-mindedness). But me being naïve and idealistic me, I believe that everyone with whatever learning ability have the potential to self-actualisation, including public university students in Malaysia.

Because I am easily triggered by self-doubt, being an academic allows me to take *myself* seriously. But I won’t be fooled by illusions; the eventual doctorate will never be enough to be an authority on anything because people will still dismiss academic qualifications on the basis that it’s just a book, academic speak is mutual masturbation, or that I’m just book-smarts but not smart smart. Never mind the status-conscious Malaysian culture that insists on publishing one’s academic or honorary titles at any opportunity, as someone young and female with a PhD probably wouldn’t get you very far. Or at least that was what I was told.

I will have to stop here otherwise this post will start to sound like a melodramatic cover letter – we don’t want to play into the over-emotional hysterical female stereotypes, do we? (*takes a minute to eyeroll*). All I want to say is there are many challenges for women and girls out there in their efforts to be leaders, intellectuals, and qualified experts of their own lives. These challenges are incredibly subtle, like the scourge of mansplaining, being told that we need “ qualified experts” to tell us how to run our lives, the idea that men make better leaders because they are not easily emotional, or the majority of male Nobel Prize winners confirm men’s intellectual superiority.

Women who argue with facts and use long, “big” words to disagree or state a well-argued case with a man are accused as overly sensitive, emotion-led, pretentious. When we use “big” words, we’re told that there are shorter easier words to use – which is coded language for don’t be elitist and show off your slightly extensive vocabulary. Women can never really win. Men who do the same are amazing. Yes, there are still many subtle intellectual double standards that pervade our culture, that we cannot help but internalise.

Is there an emergence of new masculinities in Indonesia’s Islamic cinema?

Indonesian singer and composer Opick.

When new femininities are introduced in the new wave of religious film-making, different strands of masculinities also emerge albeit in more implicit ways. Like heterosexuality, non-disability, and whiteness, masculinity is often referred to as ‘unmarked’ social category in which male dominance has been historically treated as the ‘norm’ while ‘gender’ is often taken to be a shorthand for women’s issues (Clark 2008:37). Changing gender dynamics resulting from women’s increasing (and empowering) presence in the public sphere inadvertently transforms men’s relationship with women. In Indonesia, what is little noted in contrast to women’s gradual emancipation is that socio-political upheaval and fragmentation of central powers coupled with the Asian economic downturn in 1997 have resulted in feelings of male disempowerment that has driven many men to seek solace in Islam and sometimes violent paths (Clark 2008:38). The concept of masculinities is employed in my study as it takes into account the multiplicity and fluidity of masculine gender performance.

Nilan (2009) has identified three distinct forms of “youthful” masculinities in contemporary Indonesia arising from the tensions between the “familial and pedagogic discourses that call them towards the role of the steady worker and reliable provider” and the “compelling discourses of heroism and macho bravado deriving from both local and global sources create pressure to construct their identity in terms of quite different kinds of masculine cultural practice (Nilan, 2009: 328). The three images of masculinities Nilan has delineated: the bearded male evangelists and all-male nasyid music groups, the hip but sensitive young man, and the belligerent preman (thug) with criminal tendencies all make prominent appearances in current Indonesia film and media. For Nilan, all three images are coded hypermasculine as they form prevailing and persuasive re-iterative performances that connote social influence, aspiration, power, dominance, and the antithesis to femininity (2009: 329).

Marshall Clark (2004, 2008) has explored the ways in men and masculinities in post-Suharto film-making reflect socio-economic trends in films such as Kuldesak (Cul-de-sac) (1998), and two film by Rudy Soedjarwo; Mengejar matahari (Chasing the sun) (2004), and 9 Naga (9 dragons) (2006) where grittier, more violent representations of men accentuated by their grimy, poverty-stricken surroundings take centre stage. Through these different instances of masculinity Nilan and Clark suggest that the construction of hegemonic masculinities has taken place in post-authoritarian Indonesian film and public discourse. Representations of hegemonic masculinities are not fixed states but the “configuration of gender practices” which are implicated in struggle for dominance and /or contingent on context (Connell 1995: 77). The contingent aspect of masculinities will play a significant part in my analysis of ‘new’ Muslim masculinities in film religi.

While Clark has demonstrated a turn for more violent, melancholic, and conflicting representations of masculinities in newer, mainstream Indonesian films, I propose that film religi may offer equally conflicting but ‘softer’ and more diverse portrayals of ‘new’ Muslim masculinities. Two films that befit our genre of interest, Mengaku rasul (Self-proclaimed prophet) (2008) and Emak ingin naik haji (Mother wants to go perform the hajj) (2009), demonstrate images of masculinities that are enmeshed in discourses of Muslimness. Rather than the portrayal of overt, physical violence as a shorthand for conventional masculinity, the two films showcase aspects of masculinity that are coded through a religious lens as emasculated, deviant, and/or disempowered. Like most portrayals of femininities in film and other forms of media, representations of dominant masculinities (or hypermasculinities) in particular offer clues to the conception of gender in society. Images that represent gender in mass media tend to be more simplified, exaggerated, and stylised than gender as practised in ‘reality’ (Connell 1987: 12). Much of New Order Indonesian cinema has been defined by Krishna Sen as “about men and what the films define as men’s sphere of action” while female characters play only “subsidiary roles so that women’s images and actions have a small and/or unimportant function in the narrative (Sen 1995: 116-133). However, the dominance of men in (particularly post New Order) Indonesian cinema is an ambiguous one.

A legacy of disempowered masulinities appears salient in the two films discussed here. In Emak ingin naik haji, the roles of the three main male characters are positioned in relation to the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Zein is an impoverished artist who intends to fund his elderly mother’s trip to the holy land; successful businessman Haji Sa’un is planning his sixth pilgrimage in an effort to ‘improve’ his piety but still feels inadequate in religious matters; while Pak Joko is convinced that going to Mecca will improve his political image and boost his mayoral campaign. All three men are driven by different desires, some more noble than others but their relation to the pilgrimage becomes a yardstick to how ‘good’ a Muslim they are. Pak Joko’s well-publicised pilgrimage echoes Suharto’s visit to a number of holy sites in the Arabian peninsular in 1991 at the peak of his regime’s Islamisation programme. Their masculinities are also performed through their intimate relations to power and money, of lack of both. When Zein fails to fulfil his duty as the breadwinner and he submits to robbing Haji Sa’un’s house, the sight of the qur’an stops him in his tracks. Pak Joko takes advantage of his influence to cheat on his wife, while Haji Sa’un, as the head of the household, is overcome by his materialistic children and has little religious influence to educate them the value of money.

Mengaku Rasul (Self-proclaiming prophet) is a critique of ‘deviant’ religious teachings dressed as exploitative of women and unscrupulous politicking. Guru Samir is the charismatic leader of a new Islamic sect and self-styled latter-day prophet. Told in flashbacks, the film begins with a young woman, Rianti, who is admitted into hospital following an arson attack on a ‘cult’ meeting with Guru Samir in a village hall. Previously, Rianti followed the ‘cult’ led by Samir after leaving her drum-playing, tattoo-covered boyfriend, Aji. Aji goes after her and discovers that Samir is not the man his followers believe he is – adulterous, deceitful of his ability to perform miracles. In order to win Rianti back, Aji has to prove that Samir is a fraud but he is also determined to end the cult’s deviant practices, which include praying for Samir to absolve his follower’s sins, paying for an ‘exclusive’ course that will guarantee a place in paradise, and having faith in Samir’s status as prophet, a messenger of God. Aji and Samir are portrayed as unlikely opposites of Muslim men, ‘good’ Muslim against ‘bad’, respectively. On the one hand, Aji is not the conventional Muslim hero typical of other film religi; we do not know if he has had a rigorous religious education or if he even prays or knows how to read and speak Arabic. But on the other hand, Samir is in elaborate Muslim gear, in a turban, beard, and flowing one-piece garment. When Aji and Samir’s stepson burns a meeting hall down, they uncover the mystery behind Samir’s many miracles. But before Aji can warn Rianti of Samir’s extraordinary duplicity, she had all along planned to murder him.

In Mengaku Rasul, deviant Muslim practices are accentuated by unprincipled and lascivious passions. The portrayal of Guru Samir as the religious fraud who takes advantage of his influence ends with his death, occurring during the throes of passion with his new wife, Rianti. Samir personifies a Muslim masculinity that has gone astray not only from the righteous path of Islam, but from the normative image of man as trusted head of the home and community. Mengaku rasul joins other Indonesian films that engage with the contested topic of polygamy, but is firmly critical of it. Van Wichelen (2010) locates the newly reconfigured Muslim masculinity within the revival of debates on polygamy in Indonesia after the end of the New Order regime, with particular interest in the publicised endorsements of polygamy by male media personalities and popular preachers. Like the differences of views on polygamy evident in the three films discussed above, the polygamy debate is a lively and contested ground, mainly coming from enthusiastic proponents within upper middle class socio-economic groups, book publishers, and even women, in contrast to the relatively silent critics of the practice (van Wichelen, 2010: 76-78).

Clark, M. (2008) Men, masculinities and symbolic violence in recent Indonesian cinema, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 3(1): 113-131.
Clark, M. (2010) Maskulinitas: Culture, gender, and politics in Indonesia, Monash University Press: Caulfield.
Connell, R. (1995) Masculinities, Allen and Unwin: Sydney.
Sen, K. (1995) Repression and resistance: Interpretations of the feminine in Indonesian cinema, in Culture and society in New Order Indonesia: 1965-1990 by V. Hooker (ed.), Oxford University Press: Kuala Lumpur.
Van Wichelen, S. (2010) Religion, politics and gender in Indonesia: Disputing the Muslim body, Routledge Research on Gender in Asia Series Routledge: Oxford.

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

First published on The F-Word

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

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

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

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

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