A brief note on Islamic film-making in Indonesia

The ways in which cinema and religion are intertwined are not unique to Indonesia nor to Islam. The rise of Pentecostal “video-films” in Ghana, the Hollywood mainstreaming of ‘Ben Hur’ and Mel Gibson’s ‘The passion of Christ’, and the popular reception of ‘Karunamayudu’, a Telegu retelling of the story of Jesus, watched by over 100 million in South India are but a few examples testament to the significantly popular(ised) presence of religion in the media. Turkey, Iran, and Egypt have been producing their own brand of religious cinema in the past decades (Dönmez-Colin 2004:31; Siavoshi 1997:11). Films with overt religious themes earned attention in Turkey as ‘white cinema’ in the 1990’s when Islamist parties gained political dominance (Dönmez-Colin, 2004). A distinctively Islamist cinema that adhered to fiqh-based ideology (Islamic jurisprudence) was promoted in Iran during the First Republic following the 1979 revolution lasted until the mid 1980’s (Dönmez-Colin 2004:40). It is worth noting here, however, that research on the role of Islam, and faith itself, in film has been at best limited to being part of nationalist cinematic discourse and in the emerging theological analysis on visual media.

The popularity of Islamic films (or film Islami) after 1998 – in the wake of Suharto’s resignation – is significantly momentous as far as Indonesian cinema is concerned. Many restrictive regulations formulated under Suharto’s government relating to film production and screening were dissolved. A democratisation of the media was witnessed under the presidency of B.J. Habibie (1998-1999), while during Abdurrahman Wahid’s presidency (1999-2001) saw the Ministry of Information abolished and the Lembaga Sensor Film’s (Film Censor Council) authority questioned. These events heralded a freer media and cinematic expression subsequently posing a challenge to religious authorities and the more conservative public in general. During the New Order, the views of Muslim clerics’ were at odds with cinema-going and films produced during the period. In early 1980s, most ulamas (clerics) disapproved of cinema-going as the darkened ambience of the cinema would encourage illicit sexual behaviour. They suggested instead that films should be used for Islamic preaching (dakwah) and not soon after the first Islamic ‘mission’ film was produced, Sembilan wali (Nine holy men, 1985, dir. Djun Saptohadi), a film about the earliest Islamic preachers in Java (van Heeren, 2007: 82).

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

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

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

Reference:

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

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

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

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

The gender politics of conversion narratives in film religi

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

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

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

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

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

Some notes on sluttiness in Jalang

The best part about being a researcher in film and media is the joy of discovering half-forgotten ‘gems’, like the Malaysian film called Jalang (2009). Jalang (Malay for slut, whore, wayward butterfly, you get the idea) is the ground-breaking cinematic masterpiece by Nazir Jamaluddin about a high-flying young woman Maria who apparently sleeps her way to getting business deals and eventually gets her fatal comeuppance for her indiscreet love for sex.

Just so audiences don’t get their moral wires mixed up, the film begins with a handy prologue about the loathsomeness of the jalang and that good Muslims should steer clear away from them. But it’s likely that most people won’t come across the jalang, because they’re usually killed off, on screen and sadly sometimes off screen as well. Since our film of interest aims to be didactic in character, let’s see one can be learned from Maria’s slutty ways:

INTERIOR SHOT: Protagonist of the movie, driving a sportscar. Background is blurred due to motion of car. Protagonist is a dressed in white blouse with black cravat, wearing makeup, sunglasses and expensive jewelry.
Flashy cars, stylish clothes; the material perks of a jalang are pretty good.
  • Sluts are successful businesswomen who drive expensive cars with their top down on a bright sunny day in Malaysia.
  • Sluts have Mariah Carey-inspired butterfly tattoos
That's the business meeting etiquette out the window
  • Sluts are touchy feely and affectionate to a point of excess with every male sleaze-bag in the boardroom during a business meeting.
  • Sluts care a lot about other women, especially if other women are their struggling younger sisters.
  • Sluts are made into sex objects to be passed around between ugly, middle-aged men.
  • Sluts are fine as non-committal sex partners, but are an unthinkable no-no’s as daughter-in-laws, especially if they’ve slept with you.
  • Sluts are despised by other women who want to tie them up and blow their slutty bodies into a million slutty pieces.
As if being mad isn't enough, there is also the unflattering tank top to contend with
  • Sluts turn men into psychotic and violent stalkers.
  • Sluts also make men bad at lying about their extra-marital affairs.
  • Sluts somehow deserve to be sexually harassed at work because of their exceedingly relaxed office etiquette with their male employers.
  • Sluts can be desirable to nice men but they must repent, cover up and start praying again.
  • Sluts are actually not entitled to a fresh start in life. When they’re honest about their sexual past they will be shamed for it. Worse, they will be beaten for their honesty.
An obligatory visit to the village as part of one's soul-searching expedition
  • Sluts remove their butterfly tattoos, wear the baju kurung, and experience life in the village in an attempt to ‘cleanse’ their body and spirit.
  • Sluts are made to be subjected to violent assault by men
  • Sluts die a horrible death in front of a mosque, Mastika-style.

Lesson: It doesn’t matter what you wear, what your sexual history is, how pure and golden your heart is, or your sincerity to “change your ways”, if you’ve had plenty of enjoyable pre-marital sex you will be punished for it. Above all, you are a slut or jalang in spite of all the above.

You will be punished even more when you have a desire to get married to a man. Sexual morality dictates that many men will hate to marry women who have had an illustrious history of relationships, because men will insist on being the first and the only one who’s been to a woman’s sweet spot. Being the second or the fifty-third man isn’t going to cut it.

As a woman in a male-dominated environment, one is expected to kow-tow to the sexist assumption that a woman is successful because she uses her sexual capital – her body, not her talent or intelligence. The success a woman enjoys in a high-powered job is linked to her moral inadequacies; when Maria falls for the man who accepts her for who she is Maria gives up her job to be “a woman in love” i.e. a woman who would rather be dependent on a man.

Most damning of all, there is no way for a woman to be free from shame and insult no matter what she says and does. Meanwhile, men can get away unscathed from whatever sexual improprieties while women suffer, are silenced, and chastised. Worse, men often get away with committing sexual assault scot-free.

Why is a discussion on this film even necessary when we can all predict the brutal end that awaits Maria? First, a Malay film-maker must be audacious enough to make a film about a so-called jalang to want to send some kind of message on how story about a jalang should be told. That message as we all now learn is unfair and irredeemably simplistic.

Second, being a jalang is supposedly the lowest of the low for Malay women. Without an examination what jalang means, the clouded nature of the insult can have power over all Malay women. When we rethink and re-examine our assumptions about what makes a jalang, particularly when we see how a jalang is represented for us, we will discover many loopholes that mitigate and even subvert what jalang means.

For instance, Jalang could be read as a story about a kind-hearted and caring woman who has sexual agency, but then is played out by evil men who abuse her good nature, talent, and relaxed attitudes to sex. Reading the film this way does not mitigate against how her character is punished in the end, but proposes that being a jalang is not a ticket to earthly damnation and that the problem are the men in the film.

I strongly believe that a continuous reassessment on what a jalang means, how much a woman is entitled to her sexuality, and the expression of jalang-ness that is free from violence, abuse, and shame can subvert and neutralise the toxic power of gendered insults and the laws of sexual morality. Perhaps this is one of the many ways we can reclaim the liberated, considerate, business savvy, and talented jalang.

The women of Indonesia's Film Religi

Film religi is an Indonesian cultural phenomenon quite unlike any other in Southeast Asia. It is a film genre that is focused on religion (mainly Islam) and its attendant hot issues like polygamy, deviant prophets, interfaith relations, and global ‘terrorism’. Riding on the popularity of the hugely successful Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love, 2008), a string of copycats followed. Mainly love stories, these films work on variations of the single, but winning formula: boy meets girl, a conflict that potentially drives them apart, conflict resolved, and the boy and girl live happily ever after.

However, the love story in film religi do have differences from the typical Hollywood romantic narrative; the couple do not hold hands on screen, nor do they kiss, and the female romantic lead who ends up with the guy is the one who wears the jilbab.

After spending the last few months watching many films back to back for my Ph.D. research, certain female stock characters that seem to reappear in different films became difficult to ignore. As stock characters in film religi, it appeared that their role involves more than being instruments of hetero-normativity—their purpose is to define the genre itself. Today and tomorrow, I’ll examine the women of Indonesia’s film religi.

The reformer

Who: Aisyah in Syahadat Cinta (The shahadah of love, 2008) and Sarah in Kiamat sudah dekat (Judgment Day is nigh, 2003)

Both films, Syahadat cinta and Kiamat sudah dekat share many similarities: both deal with a born-again Muslim man who falls for a religious young woman. The main female lead plays the role of reformer, someone who persuades the wayward male lead into following a more Islamic way of life and who in the end doubles up as the love interest. In other words, she is the “reward” for the pious man, whose heart he wins at the film’s climax.

The reformer is usually the daughter of an kyai (religious teacher) or the principal of an Islamic school (pesantren) and herself the ultimate model of Islamic femininity: soft-spoken, impossibly polite and proper. The romantic male leads tend to be wealthy, out of control, and obnoxious (such as in Syahadat cinta) or a rock-and-roll musician who is in serious need of de-Westernization (Kiamat sudah dekat).

The convert

Who: Pricilia in Syahadat cinta (2008) and Maria in Ayat-ayat cinta (2008)

Sometimes a love triangle is included in a romantic film religi. And, to spice things up, a Christian love interest sometimes shows a substantial interest in the Muslim male lead. Apart from being beautiful, she is an exemplar of her faith, as she is often seen throughout the film in prayer, reciting something from the Bible, or making favorable comparisons between Christianity and Islam. Despite having embraced Islam, however, the convert never becomes the love interest who lives happily ever after with the male lead; she either dies, as in Ayat-ayat cinta, or is politely rejected by the man she loves in Syahadat cinta.

The ideal

Who: Aisha, the niqabi with beautiful eyes in Ayat-ayat cinta (2008) and Anna Althafunnisa, the studious Al-Azhar graduate in Ketika cinta bertasbih (When love is an act of devotion, 2009).

In most romantic dramas, we have the impossibly perfect female lead, which I will designate as “the ideal.” She is fresh in her twenties, conventionally beautiful, highly educated, adored by everyone, but rather boring. They are also the object of affection of equally religious and educated men. There is nothing to suggest that “the ideal” lacks in any way, although they briefly encounter conflict and anguish (polygamy in Ayat-ayat cinta, and AIDS in Ketika cinta bertasbih), which they will triumph over with the convenient help of their love interest.

The divorcee

Who: Anissa in Perempuan berkalung sorban (The woman in the headscarf, 2008) and Anna Althafunnisa in Ketika cinta bertasbih (2009)

Divorce is treated with sensitivity in film religi, but the implicit message that it is far from desirable, and only necessary under very extreme circumstances—like domestic abuse in Perempuan berkalung sorban, or a husband suffering from AIDS in Ketika cinta bertasbih. Although AIDS is treated as a marital disaster of gargantuan proportions, what is striking about the issue of divorce in film religi is it is initiated by the female lead, who successfully sets the terms in the relationship—particularly Anna in Ketika cinta bertasbih, who imposes a ban on her husband-to-be from taking another wife during their marriage.

The tease

Who: Dona Satelit in 3 Doa 3 Cinta (3 prayers 3 loves, 2008) and Eliana in Ketika cinta bertasbih (2009)

The “tease” in film religi does not serve much of a purpose, except as cinematic eye-candy or the object of temptation that the male lead uses to prove his religiosity and moral restraint. Prime examples of “the tease” appear in 3 doa 3 cinta and Ketika cinta bertasbih. They are never contenders in the competition for the male lead’s heart and are often sidelined when the “real” romance between the religious couple develops. Sometimes they “see the light” and don the jilbab, as in Ketika cinta bertasbih. Or, as in 3 Doa 3 cinta, “the tease” continues unreprimanded and bumps and grinds on stage to the hugely popular dangdut music.

The recurring patterns of female roles in these films are unlikely to be scripted by accident. These films deliver specific messages about what counts as an idealistic representation of Islamic youth—Muslim women in particular. The women serve as markers of cultural boundaries of what is good and bad about Indonesian faith politics today. For example, Christian women are portrayed as a sympathetic bridge in Christian-Islamic relations: they can marry Muslim men without too much of a fuss, as long as they are pious and show a positive attitude towards Islam. “The tease” is the perfect foil for “the ideal” to demonstrate the contrast between what is acceptable femininity (and thus what is marriageable) from what is undesirable femininity (that somehow needs to be reformed). The heroic but sensitive tribulations of “the divorcee” personify Indonesian society’s changing attitudes toward divorce in that it is necessary and un-stigmatising. Though being divorced is seen as an unfavorable state of affairs, this is quickly ameliorated by a second, much happier marriage in film religi.

Indonesian cinema is an exciting discursive space that reflects and engages with the public’s current political and religious hopes and fears. What makes it particularly compelling and often daring is the artistic and political freedom that film-makers are given to tell stories about Islam in Indonesia today. Despite their “functionistic” roles in these films, the female characters effectively embody the dynamism of Muslim women who rarely feature in global discourses on Islam. My hope as a Southeast Asian Muslim woman is that we have a bigger space and better represented in this discourse, and I think film religi is a great medium for attaining this goal.

Contesting narratives of the divine: Film religi and Islamic discourses in post-Soeharto Indonesia

Uploading more of my junk here. The following is my research proposal:

Hanung Bramantyo's Perempuan Berkalung Sorban (2008)

The recent upsurge in Islamically-themed films, or film religi, in Indonesia can be viewed as a reflection of the increasing prominence of Islam discernible in the media and consumption patterns (Widodo, 2008). Following the commercial success of Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) in 2008, a love story with polygamy at the heart of its narrative, as many as nine films with religious overtones have been produced with varied success. Ayat-ayat Cinta’s phenomenal success could be owed to its youthful and good-looking cast, stunning production value, and melodramatic rendering of sensitive issues such as polygamous relationships and Christian-Muslim relations. Subsequent films, however, have diverged from the romance to tackle a range of other issues from a strictly Islamic perspective. Moreover, what is significant in religious films since Ayat-ayat Cinta is the critical engagement with contesting Islamic discourses reflective of the climate in current Indonesian socio-politics. Thus, these films as an instrument of ideology and spiritual aspirations provide an important site of study in the case of Indonesia after 1998.

Despite cinema’s ambivalent relationship with the more conservative expressions of Islam, the Islamic film genre is by no means unique to predominantly Muslim Indonesia, and has enjoyed considerable popularity in Turkey, Iran, and Egypt in past decades (Dönmez-Colin, 2004; Siavoshi, 1997; Schohat, 1983). Films with overt religious themes earned attention in Turkey as ‘white cinema’ in the 1990’s when Islamist parties gained political dominance (Dönmez-Colin, 2004). A distinctively Islamist cinema that adhered to fiqh-based ideology (Islamic jurisprudence) was promoted in Iran during the First Republic following the 1979 revolution lasted until the mid 1980’s (Dönmez-Colin, 2004). It is worth noting here, however, that research on the role of Islam, and faith itself, in film has been at best limited to being part of nationalist cinematic discourse and in the emerging theological analysis on visual media. At present, film religi as a tenable genre in its own right remains a void in scholarly writings on the recent history of Indonesian film-making.

The emergence of Islamic films after 1998 – in the wake of Soeharto’s fallen New Order – is significantly momentous as far as Indonesian cinema is concerned. Many restrictive regulations formulated under Soeharto’s government relating to film production and screening were dissolved. A democratisation of the media was witnessed under the presidency of B.J. Habibi (1998-1999), while during during Abdurrahman Wahid’s presidency (1999-2001) saw the Ministry of Information abolished and the Lembaga Sensor Film’s (Film Censor Council) authority questioned. These events heralded a freer cinematic expression and posed a challenge to religious authorities and the more conservative public in general. The rise in Islamic films in recent years is seen as borne as a reaction to the liberated mediascape often assumed as a westernisation of popular culture, while at the same time reflective of the increasingly divergent discourse on Islam in Indonesia generally (Widido, 2008). Interestingly, the films are also part of a wider phenomenon of commercial Islam found in its appropriation in popular brand names, print media, and cultural products (Fealy, 2008).

Methodology and purpose of study

What I am interested in is performing a textual analysis to shed light on where the film religi fits in its social, cultural, and political environment. Due to the different nature of several Islamic films in style and representation of Muslim identities, a better understanding of the changing content, distribution, exhibition, and discourse of Indonesian cinema at large against the backdrop of evolving socio-politics in post-Soeharto Indonesia would represent an important aspect of my research. Furthermore, by building on Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagining and “re-presenting” elements of what constitutes a nation via textual means, a question as to whether the film religi identifies with and imagines certain Muslim communities/audiences and can harmoniously incorporate within Indonesian nationalist cinema is also a matter of analytical concern. In addition to a “top-down” relationship of film-makers/religious leaders construction of Muslim identities in films is the audience reception, which can be viewed as a “bottom-up” relationship that determines a film’s commercial (and possibly, ideological) success. For Muslims cinema-goers, watching films, particularly film religi, is part of their meaning-making. This can be perceived through how so-called “real” or “ordinary” film-watchers, rather than critics and academics, are reacting and responding to certain films.

Adding to the elements that constitute identities of an imagined nation are class and gender as demarcators of cultural and ideological boundaries. This is particularly important given that class-based and gender-sensitive representations of characters in recent Islamic films can be considered as an embodiment of changing attitudes and aspirations in Indonesian cinema today. As part of this research I intend to combine the analytical training in Gender Studies developed through my MA programme at SOAS, fluency in spoken and written Indonesian, experience in Muslim women’s activism, and as a film reviewer and critic to build on the study of Indonesian cinema, considering the scant scholarly writings on religious films in Indonesia at present. I believe that my proposed research project will be enhanced by the sensitivity and experience of not only as a Muslim scholar and cinema enthusiast but also by being a socially aware academic that I am. Based on my developing expertise as a film critic and academic, these are the justifications for my suitability for this particular research subject.

Bibliography:
1.Widodo, Amrih, 2008. Writing for god: piety and consumption in popular Islam. Inside Indonesia, 93, http://www.insideindonesia.org/content/view/1121/47/
2.Fealy, Greg (2008) Consuming Islam: Commodified religion and aspirational pietism in contemporary Indonesia, from Expressing Islam – religious life and politics in Indonesia. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.
3.Dönmez-Colin, Gönül (2004) Women, Islam, and Cinema, Reaktion Books.
4.Schochat, Ella (1983) Critical Arts, Volume 2, No. 4.
5.Siavoshi, Sussan (1997) International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, No. 29.

The hidden penis: on censorship, the female gaze and the queer eye

Memory can sometimes be a strange beast. While thinking about this piece, I suddenly remembered an article that Cath Elliot wrote on the Bad Sex in Literature award two years ago under the title, Flaccid prose and the first comment the article provoked:

flaccid is an unnecessary man-hating word to use in the title. I’m all for feminism, but not man-hating.

It struck me as odd why anyone, the commenter in particular, whom I assume to be a man, would find the word – just the word – offensive. For me, describing the unerotic depiction of literary sex, written mostly by men, as “flaccid” is an example of Elliot employing the English language at both her creative and acid best. But oozing from the depths of a corrupt imagination, the word “flaccid” is a probably used as an accusation of something else, something accused as man-hating and deeply un-feminist. Somehow a flaccid penis = an inactive, disappointing, poor-performing male-associated sexuality. Did the commenter think the word implied those things, too?

I’ve been thinking for some time about the neglect of the penis as an object of visual pleasure, and the censorship that deems the male genitalia as “overtly sexual”. My thoughts come from the frustration with the hypersexualisation of women’s breasts in the media, whatever shape and size they might be, as acceptable and even harmless. Representations of the penis, especially when erect however, have been treated with more sensitivity, perhaps more nervously, and have an aura of taboo. Though I have to admit it’s not fair to equate the erotic symbolisms invested within the representation of women’s breasts with the penis and say ‘heck, yeah’ to equal opportunity objectification, I think it’s more important to explore examples in film and media that prefer to maintain the double standard in the treatment of sexualised and dehumanised anatomies.

There are clearly double standards in the practice of objectification of bodies. Female nudity – full frontal or partial – has long been a tool to beautify and sex-up commodities, homes and gardens, film narratives, calendars, book covers, just about everything that it has become banal. The banalisation of women’s naked bodies makes the images of naked breasts on British TV after 9 pm no big deal, because female breasts are not considered pornographic. Erect penises, however, are. The censored video of Girls’ ‘Lust for Life’ on the American MTV channel is a case in point. The original video, termed the “hardcore XXX gay porn” version, depicts the singer singing into another man’s penis and naked women frolicking about. In the edited, “clean” version, the offending penis went out while the breasts stayed.

Could the heterosexual male’s fear of being aroused by the sight of an erect penis be an issue here? Because surely, erect penises have hardly made a mark in the cinematic world dominated by male moguls and directors. Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane was apparently ground-breaking in the controversial sense when it became the first film to show an erect penis in a love scene. But to pass with an 18 certificate by the BBFC in 1976, Jarman altered the aspect ratio of the bottom half of the film to shrink the offending appendage to its erm, flaccid(?) state for the censors’ viewing. Things have changed little now, but the film nonetheless enjoys an uncensored version on British TV today, an artistically-rendered display of homoerotic affection on film, and 2 seconds worth of historical hullabaloo.

Chippendales in Las Vegas (source: Wikipedia)

The two examples above have been material made by and for gay men. Images made for a heterosexual audience however have often been stereotypically cheeky and comical (think Chippendales and The Full Monty) and not necessarily masturbation material. With that in mind, it’s interesting to note the similarities in the ways the male nude is represented for the straight female gaze – tanned, muscular, and exceedingly fit – with those usually made for the gay men’s gaze.

The nervous uncovering of men’s bodies for viewing pleasure has a lot to do with the psychoanalytic and consuming power of the gaze: when men expose their bodies (read: penis), their masculinity is put under intense scrutiny. Just as many women are insecure about their bodies, men are too. The insecurity that men feel about the size/shape of their penises and their sexual performance are perennial issues as old as the hills, but it has found its way to self-censorship in public discourse and the media unlike the insecurities many women have felt about their bodies in general – women’s insecurities attached to their notions of femininity and bodies have been exploited mercilessly.

An example of female exploitation reinforced by the hidden male sexuality/penis is particularly evident in Dennis O’Rourke’s ‘The Good Woman of Bangkok‘, a cinematic sex diary of a man’s sexual adventures with Thai sex workers. Although O’Rourke readily admits to the camera to being a client of one the sex workers, images of himself having sex with the sex workers are deliberately self-censored, keeping his sexuality and performance a secret. Here in the most exploitative of situations the power of the gaze is linked with the hidden penis; to watch is to exploit, being watched is to be exploited.

The penis is considered the “proof” of masculinity. But beyond that, across different cultures, it is valued as a symbol of mythic power and even seen as sacred. Exposing it for everyone to see, women and gay men alike, the penis risks devaluation not just of itself, but a man’s very notion of masculinity. It takes a man with a fragile identity to view himself this way of course, but it doesn’t help that we live in a homophobic society and in one that limits female arousal to six-packs and tight asses. So what now you ask? More naked men’s penises to empower the female gaze, and to deconstruct heterosexual masculinities and the meaning of the erect penis? I’m not exactly sure, but by pointing out the hidden-ness of the penis in our increasingly pornified media and popular culture is one way to start.

Film review: Diagnosing Difference

This review also appears on Bitch Magazine’s latest issue No. 45, codenamed Art/See.

As an undergraduate in genetics, I learned about “abnormal gender” from medical texts, which taught me that the line between what was female and what was male was clear; anything in between was a chromosomal disorder and an aberration in nature. The message in such books–still used as reference material, however arcane–encourages stereotypes about and elides the complex reality of the transgender experience.

In Diagnosing Difference, director Annalise Ophelian has made what is generally an excellent 101 guide to transgender issues told through a number of interviews with activists, performing artists, and academics who all identify as transgender or queer and express their gender in ways that has been medically defined as pathological. (Even today, a trans person in the US is allowed access to hormones and sex reassignment surgery only after seeking therapy for what is known as Gender Identity Disorder.)

Without the device of voice-over narration, Diagnosing Difference lets the subject matter take the limelight and tell its own story. The documentary tears apart some common misconceptions : that transgender identity is about sexual preference, for instance, and that trans people need sex-reassignment operations to complete the experience. The concerns of the interviewees are the stuff many take for granted: going to public toilets, access to medications to look physically male/female, and finding health care providers interested in more than one’s gender performance.

This documentary should be required viewing for people who have either no clue about what being transgender entails, or know only a little bit. And the timing seems perfect: The recent media spotlight on South African athlete Caster Semenya reveals a society still obsessed with the rigid notions of the gender binary and, like the medical textbooks that delineate normal from “abnormal” gender, not sure what to do with those of us who fall somewhere in between.

File under: transgender, healthcare, United States. Other films worth checking out include Southern Comfort (2001), Transparent (2005), and the recent Iranian documentary, Be Like Others (2008).

Film Review: The Mosque in Morgantown

First published at Feminist Review. Muslimah Media Watch has also the goods.


Reading the official synopsis of The Mosque in Morgantown, I quickly got the impression that it was a documentary film that revolved around the battle between journalist-activist Asra Nomani and “the extremists” in her hometown Morgantown, West Virginia. It is the kind of image that feeds into the Islamophobia that often conflates pious and conservative Muslims with the violent and deeply intolerant—this appeared to be the picture Nomani intended to paint.

If I could summarise a fairer synopsis, it would sound more like this: Asra Nomani fights a personal battle with an established mosque community in her hometown for the right to pray alongside men at congregations. But Nomani’s anti-extremist impetus for change is best described as misguided. Driven by the trauma of her friend Daniel Pearl’s death at the hands of Islamic extremists, Nomani takes it upon herself to expose the mosque as an anti-women and a potentially dangerous institution.

Far from embodying extremist fervour, the Morgantown mosque community is actually reflective of what Islam looks like in America—complex, pluralistic, conservative, liberal, and everything in between. There are individuals in the film who wouldn’t look out of place in a madrasa in Lahore, and there are also those whose images and stories remain under the mainstream media’s radar. Stories like Christine Arja’s conversion to Islam, and her going from Nomani’s critic to ally is one such example.

By the conclusion of the film, I ended up siding and cheering for the so-called “extremists” rather than Muslim feminist Nomani. Despite Nomani’s uncompromising ways, the Morgantown’s mosque community loosened their conservative grip as far as community events are concerned. Men and women freely mingle rather than coerced to segregate, and a male mosque-goer expressed regret over his sexist comments he made earlier in the film. Nomani’s refusal to properly engage with the members of the mosque is a case of a clash of personalities, and not because of intolerance and extremism. Further, she makes a mistake that many do: she throws labels like “extremist” around to suit her definition of Islam, which doesn’t agree with her code of liberalism and freedom.

The Mosque in Morgantown is an important film for our troubled times. As a Muslim feminist who supports her cause, but not her method, I would like to see this film making it across the world. Its narrative has a place in America’s message of change and in the feminist movement that is gaining momentum in many predominantly Muslim countries.

Race and sexuality in film workshop at Ladyfest Oxford (2009)

Hello all, I’m organising a workshop for Oxford’s Ladyfest where we’ll be discussing race and sexuality in film and media. If you happen to be in the area, please come!

Ever wondered why images of ethnic minority women in film and media are often reduced to stereotypes or simply pushed into the background to the point of invisibility? Find out why by joining a lively discussion on race, sexuality, and representation with feminist cinema enthusiasts and film studies tutors to understand better how racism and marginalisation operate and how they impact women today. Join or visit the Facebook group for information on other Ladyfest events.

Time and date: Tuesday, 19th May 2009, 17:00-19:00

Venue: St. John’s College, University of Oxford

Free refreshments will be provided.

Review: He Likes Guys

My review of the gay short film collection, He Likes Guys, is now out on Feminist Review:

As a member of my college cinema club, I would show a film a couple of nights every month. Usually, the featured movie would be preceded by a surprise short film—nothing too long, but always something entertaining. Recently, I showed Laundromat (2007, 13 mins) by Edward Gunawan from a collection of acclaimed gay short films, He Likes Guys, to my unsuspecting audience. Little did I know that the DVD’s menu page featuring a buff torso would draw a variety of gasps—some amused, some more ambivalent, and even a rather repulsed, “Whaaat?!”

Fortunately, Laundromat promised nothing loaded with hackneyed gay stereotypes. In this smile-inducing drama, newly-cohabiting couple Lawrence and Joey bicker over their differences when doing the laundry. Their squabble later gets the attention of an elderly man who teaches them a small but profound lesson in the value of love, life and relationships. So far, so Zen-like.

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