Sang Penari: the female body as a sexualised site of masculine struggle

At the time of writing, I was experiencing the warmth of critical acclaim bestowed on an Indonesian film that had just finished its all-too-brief exhibition at cinemas in Jakarta. The film, Sang Penari (The Dancer), is described by film critics as the apogee of Indonesian cinema 20111. Arguably the “best film” of last year, and further evidenced by its winning the award for Best Film at the Jakarta Film Festival. Based on the novel ‘Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk’ by Ahmad Tohari once banned under Suharto’s authoritarian regime2, it tells the story of the struggle between tradition, modernity, political struggle, and how it takes place on the female body, both literally and metaphorically.

Set in an isolated agrarian village in 1963, only a few years before the militarist coup led by Suharto against communism in Indonesia in 1965, the film begins with a scene of lustful village men enthralled by the ronggeng dancer and a young girl, Srintil, who is destined to take the dancer’s place. When Srintil’s father is accused of poisoning members of the villege, including the ronggeng dancer – all of whom have eaten his tempe bongrek – both Srintil’s mother and himself take their own lives by eating their poisoned product to prove their innocence.

To recover the honour of her family’s name, Srintil decides to take on the role of the ronggeng dancer herself much to the dismay of her childhood sweetheart, Rasus. Unbeknowst to Srintil however is the ronggeng’s other social role of providing sexual services to the men of the village. Realising that Srintil’s sexuality now belongs to every men and not his alone, Rasus leaves the village to become a member of the army where he is trained to participate in the crackdown of communist activity in villages, of which Dukuh Paruk will eventually play host to with fatal consequences. Although the villagers of Dukuh Paruk are mobilised to take their own collective destiny into their hands by defying a feudalistic system that contributed to their impoverished state, expressed through the melding of agrarian-centric communist ideals and the ronggeng dancer’s mystical power to bless their revolutionary efforts, their agency is proven futile and eventually diminished in a massacre.

The superstitious beliefs that the villagers invest in the power of the ronggeng, though much to the physical expense of Srintil, underscore their ‘backward’ worldview and imminent failure in the face of encroaching modernity, as symbolised by organised military and media technology such as the radio, a tool to usher in the red revolution. More heartfelt and frustrating, however, is the use of the central figure – the dancer, her body and sexuality – as the battleground of ideals and struggle pursued and fought out to various degrees of force by the men in the film. Rasus is the figure torn between nation-building and the grip of tradition symbolised by his love for Srintil. The communist activist and mobiliser Bakar is the agent of change and conflict. The dalang of the roenggeng, who legitimises Srintil’s sacred/profane role is also complicit, alongside Bakar, in the downfall of Dukuh Paruk. Throughout the masculinised machinations that determine the village’s fate, Srintil is given little agency and is thrust into one violent tribulation to another while clinging to the desire to dance the ronggeng.

Similar to other films depicting prominent female characters situated in the throes of nation-scale upheavals such as Nia Dinata’s Cau Bau Kan (The Courtesan, 2002), the fictional women are often at the mercy of the men who oppress them through the use of sexual violence. Indirectly, they are at the mercy of the state. But somehow at the same time, they are held up as (suffering) symbols of the nation. In nationalistic discourse, the nation is usually portrayed as femininie, the state masculine. The iconography of the motherland has often been constructed as either a nurturing mother or sensuous female servant3 In Indonesian nationalist discourse meanwhile, the nation, at times regarded as ibu pertiwi (the motherland) is framed as an anguished and suffering female beauty4. But I would further argue that the feminised iconograpby of the motherland requires the guardianship from invading (male) forces. The nation as feminine is passive and helpless. ‘She’ is subject to the threat of masculinised violation. The idea of the nation violated by colonial/imperialist presence is translated in literature and indeed on screen into a central female figure, whose subjugation to unwelcome (male) violation is always a sexual one.

With Sang Penari, we witness a return of the suffering feminine body as site of cultural/national struggle. And now garlanded with accolades and acclaim, we witness something of a nostalgia for cultural/national struggle that takes place on a woman’s body. The film suffers from little protest and criticism of the misogyny central to the narrative because it privileges other aspects; the film’s artistry and the recovery of a repressed literary voice, while marginalising the major strides female film-makers and feminist critics are making in redressing the male-dominance of Indonesian film-making and discourse. The unproblematic sensibility that Sang Penari receives from audiences and critics alike is perhaps reflective of its time; a time when some semblance of feminism has made a mark in Indonesian public discourse, and with it a sensibility that gender equality has at least been established since.



1I n personal conversation with film critic and scholar Tito Imanda.

2 The novel ‘tie-in’, Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, enjoyed a prominent place in the best-seller’s corner in bookshops in Jakarta towards the end of 2011, re-emerging in print after decades of censorship.

3 ‘Virgin territories and motherlands: colonial and nationalist representations of Africa and Ireland’ by C.L. Innes (1994), Feminist Review No. 47, pp. 3-4.

4′ When the earth is female, and the nation is mother; Gender, the armed forces, and nationalism in Indonesia’, by Saraswati Sunindyo (1998), Feminist Review No. 58, pp.1-21.

Lecture notes: Trans identities and queer acceptance in Indonesian cinema?

The following are notes from my final lecture for Sex and the City: Gender and Sexuality in Southeast Asia on trans identities in Indonesian cinema.

Disclaimer on the use of ‘definitions’

Since I am teaching this class in English, to students in a British institution with a largely unproblematised epistemological culture that privileges western ways of knowing about the world with a penchant for derivatising non-western epistemologies as ‘critiques’ at best, adjuncts at worst, I will need to introduce my lecture on trans identities with terms we already know or at least recognise in our nomenclature for variant gendered subjectivities.

That said, does anyone in class know the differences between transgender, transsexual, queer, transvestite, cross-dressers, drag kings and drag queens?

Transgender is a broad term to describe people whose gender identities do not match their biological sex. Gender and sex are different. Gender denotes social characteristics that are usually used to differentiate between women from men. But this is a limiting, binaristic term that has a risk of becoming quite essentialist.

Cross-dressers and tranvestites tend to be used inter-changibly to describe people who simply have just have a preference, sometimes involving sexual arousal when they wear clothes worn usually by the opposite sex.

Queer is an umbrella term to denote sexual minorities and gender variant people. The term was reclaimed from the derogative term to mean homosexual individuals, and now it is used as a political position against heterosexist and transphobic ideologies and discourse.

Drag king is a female performance artists who dress and act like a caricuture man often performing stereotypes of men, incorporating singing and dancing at times. Drag Kings also do impersonations of famous male personalities like Elvis Presley, which is a drag king favourite – I believe both Annie Lennox and Sharleen Spiteri of the band texas have done Elvis impersonations, and very well, too. I’m sure you’re more familiar with drag queens, particularly now that we have Priscilla Queen of the Desert the musical on Shaftesbusy Avenue. Yes, what’s wrong with a bit singing and dancing men in drag and conflate trangender and transsexual people into the mix? Hm.

So, transsexuality is a person’s identification with a gender identity that is not consistent with biological sex. Transsexuality comes with a desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by a sense of discomfort with, or inappropriateness of, one’s anatomic sex, and a wish to have surgery and hormonal treatment to make one’s body as congruent as possible with one’s preferred sex.


Because I am using the terms transsexual women and men quite a lot in this lecture, I will use the terms cis-gender or cis-sexual women and men to describe people who are not transsexual. Mainly because if I said just ‘woman’ to describe cis-sexual woman, it seems as if the default woman is only those who are born with the biological sex and gender match. To use to term cis-sexual/cis-gender also destabilises the dominance and normality of cis-gender identities. It draws attention to the fact that we cannot take for granted that only cis-gender women are in fact ‘women’. Transsexual women are women, too. They identify as women, feel that they’re women inside, and most definitely prefer the pronoun ‘she’. It is very offensive for many transsexual women to be described as a ‘he’.

Representations of transsexuality – cliches and bad stereotypes

For the sake of the film, we will focus on transsexuality as characters in cinema more generally as opposed to simply transgender identities. And then I will focus on representations of characters assumed to be transsexual, transvestite, and just transgender in Indonesian film. Representations of transsexual identities in film tend to fall into a very limited, often very negative spectrum of freak-show exploitation that occur in documentaries, fictional film, and pornography.

In film-making of the Anglosphere, that includes Hollywood, independent American, British, and Australian cinema, transsexual characters are usually played by cis-sexual male actors and exhibit flamboyance, campness, tawdriness, and tragicomedy with great frequency. We have depictions of transsexuals as a joke: these characters tend to inhabit tragic and comedic roles often at their own expense. They’re often conflated with drag queens and cross-dressers who find themselves in outrageous situations where they are the source of the joke or object of derision. Transwoman actor and model Calpernia Addams who has written about representations of transsexual people in film, says that transsexuals in film can be summed in 4 P’s: Prostitutes, Psychos, Punchlines, and Poor Thing! Who are the “noble victim” of society’s intolerance.

In Hollywood film-making from the 1970s onwards, transsexual characters became psychopathic serial killers in the B-film Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde in 1971, Brian de Palma’s 1980’s Dressed to Kill, and the characterisation of Buffalo Bill in the Silence of the lambs, made in 1991. In both Dressed to Kill and Silence of the lambs, the serial killers were denied sex-reassignment surgery and because of this denial, murder people out of revenge for society’s lack of acceptance towards trans people, otherwise known as transphobia. The two films suggest that their murderous tendencies are all down to their lack of access to a sex reassignment surgery.

Then there are the films based true or actual documentaries depicting real-life transsexuals. Among them include the highly acclaimed Paris is Burning, an excellent film about the Black gay and transsexual ball in New York City. There is Southern Comfort about the female to male transsexual, and there is Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hilary Swank a cis-sexual woman who won an Oscar for her role in the film.

There will always been close-ups on transsexual women and men dressing up, putting on make-up, painting their nails, their wigs, bounding their breasts to make their chests flat. Such close-ups fetishise the bodies of transsexual people, and sexualise their body parts, objectifying them, turning them into objects of our prurient and voyeuristic interests. This is also typical in images that eroticise cis-women’s body parts, close-ups that focus on exposed or exposing body parts for the viewer’s pleasure. The use of close-ups here are certainly different; close-ups of transsexual bodies are meant to shock yet titillate, while close-ups of cis-women’s bodies are just titillating. These shots are problematic because they reduce ideas about femininity in very crude ways, through make-up, high heels, stockings, and clothes.

Clichés and stereotypes serve as a kind of shorthand that people use to categorise others into comfortable “types” without having to do much work, and even when someone seems to fit a cliché, there are always deeper levels. Outside of the easy clichés, there are so many other interesting realities that transsexual people experience.

The trends and stereotypes we’ve seen is largely part and parcel of how transphobic film industries tend to be, with little awareness of trans issues and rights, and most importantly the fact that there are always so few to no trans people working in the film industry. As one transsexual activist Calpernia Addams has observed, transsexual people very rarely are featured in film as themselves or as transsexual people. What is much rare still are transsexual people playing non-transsexual people. There are some similarities in the representations of transsexual people in Indonesian cinema.

Representations of transsexuality in Indonesian cinema

There are not many depictions of trans characters in Indonesian films. But when they are, transsexuality in New Order Indonesian cinema is mixed with cross-dressing and real transsexual characters. Depictions of trans people tend to be similar to some of the stereotypes in Anglo-American and Australian films of impoverished street sex workers and in newer post New Order Indonesian films, drag queens. In Indonesian films of the late 1970s, such as Betty Bencong Slebor, transgender women are featured as comedic relief. Oftentimes, they are ridiculed and denigrated in public. As shown in this clip from Betty Bencong Slebor, who is a domestic servant in an Indonesian household. Here, she is invited to sing in a village fair. But it becomes clear that people do not like her for some reason. Interestingly, we have a white woman from out of nowhere who is most vociferous in attacking Betty:

One film that stands out as a true-to-life depiction of life as a transsexual in Indonesia is Akulah Vivian (I am Vivian), also made in the late 1970s, about a woman who undergoes a sex reassignment surgery to transition from male to female. Vivian faces prejudice and transphobia, and eventually finds a cis-sexual man who loves her.

In the film we have watched today (Realita Cinta dan Rock n Roll, 2006) we have Mariana who challenges all previous stereotypes of the poor, desperate, and marginalised transsexual woman. We have a transsexual character who is a parent, wealthy, and a quirky combination of masculinity and femininity. In constrast to the maternal waria is the reflexive caricuture of Madame X, trans super hero and avenger of fellow waria who are victimised by a religious cult group. But how does this portrayal fare against the realities of being a trans person in Indonesia?

The reality of life as a waria in Indonesia

In Indonesia, there isn’t one term that best translates as “transsexual”. There is the waria, which is the combination of the Indonesian words for wanita to mean women and pria to mean men. In different parts of Indonesia, the cultural terms are different; in Bali and Sulawesi, they’re sometimes called Kedi. In Makkasar, they’re kawe-kawe. Among the Bugis and in Kalimantan, Borneo, they’re called the cultural term, calabai and calalai.

But the generic term waria has come to mean mainly transgender women who are born biologically male but feel that they have the ‘soul’ of a woman. Because sex reassignment surgery is very expensive and not available in hospitals, the sex reassignment surgeries are very rare, and so post-operation transsexuals in Indonesia are rare.

Waria tend to be confused with gay men a lot in Indonesia. The term that blurs trans people and gay men is banci, a broad pejorative term to describe any effeminate man, a man who does feminine work, a playground insult, a transgender or transsexual woman. The widespread use of a derogatory term that collapses multiple gender and sexual identities make it quite hard to get more neutral terms like waria and gay (the Indonesian version of gay) to come into wider use.

There is also a tendency to class warias as a “third gender”, which is now being challenged by scholars in Indonesian studies. I know that a number of authors on Indonesian studies such as Leonard and Barbara Andaya like this term, while Tom Boellstorff is more reluctant to use this term. Instead, he classes them as “male tranvestites” and “male transgenders.”

In some ways, I can understand why a lack of agreement on terms occurs; it’s mainly because people like to put categories on people’s gender usually without referring to gender variant individuals themselves what terms or pronouns would suit them best. Most of the people who make such categories are rarely ever trans people themselves and place labels as they please without causing much harm or identity crisis on people like themselves. It’s called cis-gender privilege.

Also ,we live in a gender-obsessed society. So we MUST know how to address a person: are they male or female. There’s a fascination, obsession, and insistence that we know one’s gender. Which is why many trans people are faced with the completely unsolicited question by total strangers, “Are you a bird or a bloke”?

When babies are born, is it a girl or a boy? When people do not fit our rather rigid gender binary, then we think we’re coming across a problem, an abnormality, and very often what we think as problems cause more complications on the lives of transgenderism and transsexual people.

For the sake of this class and some 101 guide to trans identities in Indonesia, it’s safe enough to categorise the waria under transgender or transsexual. Most seem to prefer to identify as women, so they are trans women. Unless many are versed in gender theory and fully embrace the notion that there’s a seperation between biological sex and gender which is socially constructed, many of which may belong to educated, middle-class economic bracket, we need to keep the gender categories loose due to difference in culture and class within cultures.

This includes the terms like gay, which is not really used as an identity marker in Indonesia very much unless you happen to identify with global, more western gay culture. Which is why David Cameron’s proposal to cut aid in non-western countries that do not have provisions that protect gay people is ignorant, classist, and Eurocentric. A country or cultures are not necessarily homophobic because many do not identify as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, sometimes the terms, practices, and sexual norms which we may consider as homosexual or non-normative just happen to have different systems of classifications, names, or none at all.

To a certain extent, warias are generally considered acceptable for a variety of reasons, warias, just like the trans women in Malaysia and Singapore who called the Mak Nyah, are stereotypically known to be good as hair-dressers and make-up artists. Considered as experts of feminine beauty, they are usually hired as bridal make-up artists during weddings, and they’re called Mak Andam.

There’s also the local court tradition in southern Sulawesi of the bissu, who are holy individuals who are blessed with special powers. The bissu, although displaying both feminine and masculiine characteristics, mainly through attire, are not according to authors on Indonesian studies, waria. They are, as Tom Boellstorff rather clunkily coines them, the “ethnolocalised homosexualities and transvestite subject positions” or rather charmingly, ETPs.

But this does not mean that the waria do not experience discrimination, oppression, and violence on a regular basis in Indonesia. They do. As we recall in various scenes in Realita Cinta, the trans women in the beginning of the film are depicted as far from desirable and almost always as sex workers. Mariana, not matter hard she tries to be a good parent, Nugi’s idea of a ‘real’ family is a male father and female mother. Very heteronormative.

For the best accounts on the life of waria and gay men in Indonesia, I suggest you read the works of the Indonesian LGBT activist Dede Oetomo. According to Oetomo, although many warias wish to identify as women, and become real women through superficial appearances, many display characteristics that make them quite unique from other cis-gender women, such as greater physical strength to fight off other men, the boldness in attracting a cis-man’s attention, through groping and grabbing a man’s crotch that one perhaps never will see in Indonesian cis-gender women.

In sum, I would stress that it is important to consider gender categories as fluid. Although we may assume that biological sex is binaristic between male and female genitalia, new evidence is showing that even biological sex, based on our primary and secondary sexual characteristics – which are our primary being are sexual reproductive organs – our gonads, and sex organs. And secondary sexual characterisatics – hormones, things like facial hair, shape of face, growth or lack of growth in breasts – these things are shown to exist on spectrum. The fluidity of our biological sex and gender challenges some rigid ideas about makes a ‘real’ woman or ‘real’ man. These ideas are social and cultural. In the case of transsexual people in Indonesia, or the waria, some may identify with the globalised western framework of gender that seperates gender from biological sex. Other may not. Film currently may not or may not be the best forum to discuss the variances of gender. But we will find out in our tutorial. But now, we’ll take a 10 minute break.

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.

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.

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).


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.

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

Between worlds: the jilbab and being transgender in Indonesia

It is a scene that wouldn’t be unfamiliar in France or Belgium: a woman’s hijab is snatched away by strangers on the street from her head despite her protest. She is told she shouldn’t wear it, or rather, she has no right to because her wearing it mocks other women and femininity itself. But it is not an episode of Islamophobic rage that is recounted by Shuniyya Rumaha Haiibalah, but an incident in her native Indonesia that would later become the title of her best-selling memoir, Jangan lepas jilbabku! (Please do not remove my jilbab!)

Haiibalah is Muslim and transgender. The hostile reactions from other women and men towards her decision to wear the jilbab (hijab) in public was based on the belief of the irreconcilability of being waria* (transgender) and expressing religiosity in the gender of choice.

While other waria do not mix gender identity with religious identity (as the video above shows, some transwomen dress as men in places of worship), women like Haiibalah attend prayers at the mosque alongside other cis-gender women much to disapproval of some, particularly those who argue that physical contact with Haiibalah’s biologically male body can render another woman’s prayers annulled.

Jangan lepas jilbabku! begins in 1997 when Haiibalah turns 16. The writer describes her gradual transition from male to female as eventful as the moment Indonesia regains its democracy at the end of Suharto’s dictatorial regime in 1998. She describes the kind of woman she wants to be: an ordinary woman, good-looking even without make-up, someone who wears the jilbab, independent, headstrong, and accepted. In school, Haiibalah is an active editor of the school’s Islamic magazine, and a popular student. Using her popularity and religious image as a social buffer, Haiibalah began experimenting with her appearance. She plucked her eyebrows into a pair of thin, arching crescents; suffice it to say, this led to other arched eyebrows. After being told that her eyebrows were seen as “inappropriate” for young men, Haiibalah went on to tackle what ostensibly is taboo: she, a transwoman, wearing a jilbab.

Haiibalah is one of many transgender Indonesians who are religious and adopt the jilbab, but how the transgender community see themselves is diverse. Some, like Haiibalah, identify as women—within them lies a woman’s soul (jiwa) in a man’s body. Others, on the other hand, view themselves as both male and female, and there are waria who identify as the third sex. Unlike Haiibalah, some transwomen who wear the jilbab attend prayers in male attire but revert to women’s clothing and feminine demeanor the rest of the time.

The waria community has long been stereotyped as hairdressers, make-up artists, and sex workers in Indonesia. In film, they are doomed to dehumanizing comedic roles. But transgender Indonesians, particularly the male-to-female waria, have witnessed the rise of high-profile media personalities, such as Dorce Gamalama, cited by many as Indonesia’s answer to Oprah Winfrey. Her success is a significant step towards more positive representation of the waria.

More recently, the well-received film, Realita Cinta dan Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reality, Love, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, 2006), foregrounds the relationship between a transwoman and her son. The film is a startling departure from older cinematic stereotypes of the waria, as it features a good-looking, affluent, judo-wrestling and salsa-dancing trans-mother. Jangan Lepas Jilbabku is not the first book by a transperson to make it to the best-sellers list. Both Jangan Lihat Kelaminku (Do Not Look At My Genitals) and Perempuan Tanpa V (Woman Without a Vagina) by Merlyn Sopjan are tales of personal triumph over transphobia, winning Sopjan fame and fortune as writer, later as beauty queen, AIDS activist, and mayoral candidate.

Although much of their media presence is highly sensationalized, the rising number of transgender Indonesians entering the public sphere in the face of increasing Islamization may be a strategy for acceptance. But as Haiibalah’s experiences attest, even religious expression is a gendered privilege. The hostility against transwomen like Haiibalah who adopt the jilbab as part their identity raises new questions about the hijab and femininity.

In this case, the jilbab becomes more than just a head covering, as it is perceived as a kind of privilege accorded to cis-gendered Muslim women. Also, it throws the issue of transphobia within sacred spaces into sharp relief. Denying a transwoman’s right to wear the jilbab highlights the fundamental notion that being a woman is reduced to a vagina attained at birth. Like public toilets, not only do places of worship pose as no-go zones for transwomen, but they undermine the assertion that transwomen are women.

Haiibalah sets a precedent for a public discussion on gender privilege and religious expression in Indonesia, and indeed, the discussion goes beyond the jilbab and praying next to other women, as it is fundamentally about power and privilege in religious communities.

*Waria is a combination of the words for woman (wanita) and man (pria).

An excerpt from my dissertation on ‘traditional’ same-sex eroticisms in Indonesian fiction – Part 2

First in the series of excerpts from my MA dissertation I looked at the tolerant attitudes toward homoerotic relations in Indonesian religious boarding schools as depicted in the novel Mairil. Below I explore the way the Indonesian tradition of the gemblak and warok relationship is framed in a novel by Enang Rokajat Asura. Unlike Mairil, however, homoerotic relationships in Gemblak are portrayed as problematic and in tension with the demands of “modern” codes of sexual norms:


One of the most enduring figures in Indonesian non-normative sexual traditions is the warok-gemblak relationship. The warok is part master of ceremonies and leader of the reyog, a theatrical performance unique to the rural East Javanese province of Ponorogo, and part power broker (Wilson 1999 – web article). Intimate same-sex relationships between men were condoned and accepted as normal for unmarried men in Ponorogo up until recently, while extra-marital heterosexual relationships were seen as morally and spiritually corrupting. According to one warok, “association with women will cause brittle bones, a soft stomach and a loss of spiritual strength,” adding “that’s why I’ve grown to be a man who harbours a hatred of women (ibid). The basis of the warok’s homoerotic relations with his gemblak lies in the polluting nature of heterosexual intercourse with women. The warok forfeits sexual relations with the opposite sex to preserve his spiritual power. As believed in the Tantrayana Buddhist tradition from which warok/gemblak practices originate, sperm is considered a central source of power which can be converted into a higher level of consciousness. Thus, it serves as an ascetic ritual that promotes sexual abstinence and transforms erotic desire into spiritual attainment. In place of a wife or female partner the warok has a gemblak, or a young boy who acts as companion and intimate partner, as well as jatilan dancer in his reyog troupe (ibid).

The gemblak is normally chosen for his poise and physical appearance, characterised typically as androgynous and light in facial complexion which is sometimes enhanced with face powder (Wilson 1999: web article). A beautiful gemblak is a matter of immense pride for the warok whom he would dress in the finest of clothes. Youth is a determining factor to becoming a gemblak as well, as the gemblak is usually between the ages of eight and sixteen years. During performances, the gemblak is sometimes known to dress in feminine attire, such as the kebaya blouse, a wrap-around skirt (jarik batik), and a scarf (sampur or selendang; Kartomi 1976: 87). In selecting a gemblak, the warok would send a delegation to the home of the boy’s parents to “propose” (lamar), similar in ritualised speech used in traditional heterosexual weddings. For the boy’s “hand”, his parents would be paid in the form of livestock, one for each year of the boy’s time as the warok‘s gemblak (Wilson 1999: web article).

During one’s time as gemblak, he is supplied with food, clothing, and even formal education, thus such an arrangement poses economic benefits for many poor villagers in addition to attaining considerable social prestige and protection of the warok. Mirroring the heteronormative set-up at home, the gemblakperforms the domestic chores for the waroksuch as washing and cooking, besides being his constant companion. Being a gemblakis accepted as a certain stage in one’s path to manhood for many young boys, and go on to stay with their warok until their late teens. The warok played an active role in choosing the gemblak‘s wife and in many cases performed the religious rites at the wedding. On marriage, the gemblak‘s attractiveness to men is said to diminish (ibid). It is worthwhile to note that it may be imprecise to classify the warok-gemblak relationship as homosexual, as being a warok is part of a profession that involves sexual asceticism, and does not necessarily denote a selfhood organised around sexual desire (Boellstorff 2005:45).

Published in 2008, Gemblak: Tragedi Cinta Budak Homoseks (Gemblak: The Tragic Love of a Homosexual Slave) tells the story of Sapto Linggo, a young man who escapes the reyog to marry his sweetheart. As a gemblak, Sapto was barred from forming intimate relationships with women and other men. The warok, Hardo Wiseso, is respected by villagers as a wealthy benefactor of young boys who become his gemblak but is greatly feared for his spiritual powers and the use of his whip (usus-usus), which no one dares challenge. By eloping, Sapto turns his back on a tradition he feels immoral and un-Islamic. His wife, Lastri, however, is the warok’s daughter and their union is wrought with guilt and doubt about its legitimacy. Without the blessing of Lastri’s father, their marriage is feared by Sapto to be susceptible to doom. Upon learning the news of his younger brother, Prapto’s proposal to become his former warok’s gemblak. Sapto returns to his village and his desire to end the warok-gemblak practice is ignited. Like Sapto, Prapto is very handsome and is poised, like his older brother, to become the warok’s favourite gemblak.

The efforts of Sapto to end an “abominable” tradition (perbuatan terkutuk) of the warok-gemblak relationship is framed as a heroic feat. Prapto is eventually rescued but this elicits the anger of the warok who assaults the physically fragile Sapto with his whip. But Sapto’s beating is interrupted by the presence of his friend, the shaman Legong Kamplok, who challenges Hardo Wiseso in a keris1 fight. Hardo Wiseso is killed during the struggle and Sapto’s mission is ostensibly accomplished. However, all does not end happily for Sapto and his wife when their first child is born with congenital defects. The baby, Toeggoel, has an oversized head with bulging eyes, suspected to have polio, has “black” skin, and is covered in hair (tubuh anaknya dipenuhi bulu yang lebat). Sapto is convinced that the birth of such an unusual child is somehow connected to his past as a gemblak, eloping with his employer’s daughter, and getting married without a wali2, which goes on to implicitly suggest that the child may be illegitimate. The novel ends on a sombre note: several years later, Sapto gains employment as a teacher, and is a farmer on the side to make ends meet. He has also written a novel based on the life of his child, Toenggoel. However, his earnings are not enough to fund Toenggoel’s medical treatment and he is barred from inheriting Hardo Wiseso’s wealth. His struggles to end the warok-gemblak tradition had come with a heavy price. The “dark” days of his past as a gemblak are “imprinted” on his son’s physical disabilities; they form a reminder of a tradition that will not cease to cause the suffering of many young men. In the end, Sapto descends into deep depression and is haunted by the menacing voices of his warokfrom beyond the grave.


Sapto’s tale is told against the transformation of a sleepy rural life into a village marked with different tell-tale signs of modernity. Homes previously made from bamboo are replaced with concrete walls. Villagers begin to have access to television, many have satellite dishes planted on their rooftops. Before, there were no means of personal transportation, now the villagers own cars and pick-up lorries. These transformations are a welcoming sight for Sapto. The changes sweeping Sapto’s village appear to reflect his opinions with regard to traditional practices of the reyog and other homoerotic traditions. Religious concerns about homosexuality surface following Sapto’s exposure to Islamic reading material and discussions with those he deems more knowledgeable:

Sebahagian pengetahuan tentang agama yang diperolehinya dari hasil membaca dan diskusi dengan orang yang lebih pinter tentang itu, menjadikan Sapto semakin gelisah. Persekutuan antara lelaki dengan lelaki menurut pemahaman agamanya adalah perbuatan sia-sia dan dibenci Tuhan. (p. 39)

(My translation):

Being informed about religion obtained from reading and discussions with those more learned in religious matters caused Sapto to worry. Intimacy between men according to his faith is frivolous and an abomination.

Without the access to higher education, books, and like-minded people, Sapto would not have known about the modern society at large that disapproves of same-sex relations. For him, young men and their parents should not have to submit to the demands of the warok given the financial opportunity. Villagers have long been tied to the reyog tradition because of the economic returns and protection the warok provides. But the arrival of modernity to the village should bring new ambitions and opportunities that were previously denied to them and the impetus for breaking with oppressive traditions. In time, new values will replace old ones, and homoerotic traditions may eventually become extinct. But the future is an ambivalent place, muses Sapto, as traditions can survive by adapting different ways to cling to the present and even hybridise into new forms:

[…] tiba-tiba saja Sapto ingin jadi tua, memutar cepat jarun hidupnya agar bisa mengetahui apakah kebiasaan itu akan terus berlanjut atau akan dengan sendirinya mati seiring perkembangan rasionalisasi dari pelakunya. Sapto seperti ingin hidup dalam sepuluh tahun ke depan, agar bisa memastikan tanggapan orang pada tradisi penggemblakan itu. Sapto pernah membaca artikel, bahwa sebenarnya pikiran-pikiran ortodok, primitif tidak semuanya mati dan terkubur masa tapi kini hadir dalam modifikasi zaman. Ia pun jadi khawatir perlakuan gemblak itu akan menemukan tempat yang baru dalam sebuah modifikasi, maka semakin panjanglah penderitaan itu. (pp. 35-36)

(My translation):

Suddenly Sapto wishes to become older, and to turn the clock forward to learn if the (reyog) tradition will last or will perish on its own as its practitioners become more rational. Sapto wishes to live ten years in the future to discover society’s attitudes towards the gemblak tradition. Sapto had once read an article which said that not all orthodox and primitive ideas die and become forgotten but continue to survive through modifications to suit the times. He fears the gemblak tradition will serve a new purpose by adapting contemporary norms, thereby prolonging the gemblak’s suffering.

Sapto’s anxieties exhibit a markedly melancholic portrait of manhood. The challenges of modernity have cast a grim shadow on traditional dimensions of masculinity and male (hetero)sexuality. Melancholy manhood is born when a loss or crisis of old conceptions of manhood has taken place but has not been accompanied with the adequate psychosocial and hermeneutic readjustment necessary for its resolution (Butler 1995:27-28). In the case of Sapto, an awareness of “modern” homosexuality raises a crisis of masculinity and his sense of self that are deeply intertwined with “traditional” male homoeroticism. As he leaves tradition he is thrust into unfamiliar psychosocial territory where a new form of masculinity must somehow be constructed, a form of masculinity that is perceived to be under threat by male homosexuality. His uniquely masculine anxiety with regard to homosexuality in Indonesia as an element of modernisation embodies the political homophobia pervading the country in recent years (Boellstorff 2004:480). Coded as masculine, political homophobia is enacted on non-normative male sexualities as a reaction to the socio-political uncertainties that are imagined to threaten the “manhood” of the nation (ibid:481-482).

In contemporary Indonesia, as in much of Southeast Asia, many variants of transgendering and same-sex relations have been redefined as contaminating rather than sacred mediators and as a result subjected to processes of secularisation and stigmatisation. The condemnation of non-normative gender and sexual behaviour reflects the changing moral standards brought about by the perceived demands of modernisation (modernisasi) and development (pembangunan) (Peletz 2009:216). The official opinion held by the local government with regard to the warok-gemblak relationship is that it is immoral and in conflict with the ‘national personality’ (kepribadian bangsa), mainly because it is viewed as nothing more than “socialised homosexuality” and thus a risk to the social order (Wibowo 1996:3). These views are echoed by modern reformist groups such as Muhammadiyah and prominent kyai from the well-known pesantren Pondok Modern Darussalam who have pressured the Ponorogo local government to suppress the reyog tradition to accommodate their brand of religious ideals (Wilson 1999: web article). Today, the reyog is a dying art due to the influence of state run education systems that dissuade young boys from participating, and the emphasis on the construction of the heterosexual nuclear family as the foundation of the nation (ibid).

Despite these developments, queer Indonesians (mainly men) find tradition a space to establish a sense of belonging and footing in culture and history (Boellstorff 2004:470). References to tradition are often accompanied with invocations of the past, both real and imagined. In her work on the traditional cross-dressing practices of the bissu in Southern Sulawesi, Sharyn Graham Davies highlights the ways present day bissu evoke a more tolerant past in which their cultural forebears played key roles in royal courts and guarding the sacred regalia (Davies 2010:76-84). Recounting the past acts as an empowering strategy through which the bissu confirm not merely their existence in society but also allows them to stake a claim in national history, a discourse of belonging. It is important, however, to note that not all gay Indonesians find any meaningful connection with traditional homosexual practices, past or present. Instead of legitimating their sexualities through history, some homosexual Indonesians claim belonging and authenticity by the performance of good deeds (prestasi) in the present (Boellstorff 2005:35). Others may be more interested in distancing themselves from what are considered old-fashioned ideas of homosexuality, particularly those that refer to cross-gendering as a characteristic. For instance, men who identify themselves as gay will sometimes vehemently distinguish themselves from banci or waria (terms that, besides signifying transgender identities, also describe effeminate men, and, occasionally, masculine women) (Oetomo 1996:260-261). Those who do turn to tradition can vicariously enjoy the legitimacy certain same-sex practices can sometimes bring, particularly when such traditions, as in the case of homosexuality in the pesantren, are tied with Islam and respectability.

But such claims for authenticity are not without problems. While compelling, they are anthropologically problematic as it often refashions Western, twentieth century identity categories such as “homosexual” into local discourse in anachronistic ways, rendering such claims analytically and factually dubious (Stychin 2004:958). The pitfalls of seeking an authentic gay utopian past looms large, as “’traditional culture’ is increasingly recognised to be more an invention constructed for contemporary purposes than a stable heritage handed on from the past” (Hanson 1989:899). Recuperating “traditional” homoeroticisms risks the Western romanticism of a tolerant and accepting non-Western society, masking the reality of persecution, discrimination, and violence that may have occurred in the past and continue to do so on a daily basis for many sexual minorities today. Not only does conventional understanding of tradition posits a false dichotomy between tradition and modernity as fixed and mutually exclusive states, but it also reproduces the conception that the West is the source of liberated gay and lesbian identities while traditional (often read as non-Western) remains in the clutches of backwardness (Grewal and Kaplan 2001:665).

Tradition, however, is not a static body of practices and beliefs passed down from one generation to another. Rather, it is an on-going interpretation of the past that reflects contemporary concerns. As Jocelyn Linnekin asserts, “the selection of what constitutes tradition is always made in the present; the content of the past is modified and redefined according to a modern significance” (1983:241). Only certain elements of the past are selected in the creation of tradition. These chosen elements can be situated in different contexts where they gain new meanings for those involved in the process (Handler and Linnekin 1984:280). In response, one can argue that historical accuracy is not particularly the point, because as a political rhetoric it commands the rewriting and re-imagination of a nation’s history in more inclusive terms. And from a Foucauldian standpoint, such discourses can be mobilised into a political reality.


1A traditional dagger

2A male witness at an Islamic wedding ceremony, usually the bride’s father.

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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.