A brief note on Islamic film-making in Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

Reference:

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

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

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

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

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).

On embracing choice and contraditions

No, I haven’t turned my back on feminism. But rather I want to invite discussion on the things we sometimes do to ourselves that appear contrary to the defining tenets of feminism. I couldn’t bring myself to write or blog about feminism lately because I found myself arriving at a state of crisis, both an internal one and a crisis that not many feminists have addressed. And it has to do with the mantra ‘Choice’ and the choices made that, not far beneath the surface of emancipation, lies agency that is inextricably linked with cultural limitations that we all cannot fully escape.

What do I mean by all of this? Well, firstly, I was afraid that Muslim feminists in the West are perhaps using the term ‘choice’ too loosely to defend the rights of women who the face veil. Yes, a Muslim woman has every right to choose what to wear, but simply arguing that it’s all about choice full stop may be not answering the questions many detractors of the hijab are interested.

Feminism is big about choice and emancipation, but what we’ve been accused of is the gradual decline in happiness since the women’s libbers in the West took centre stage. How many times have we heard about the rise of unhappiness in women and that maybe feminism has got to do with it? I think choice should be about happiness. But when we talk about emancipation and empowerment, I think feminism will be a losing battle if it concerns only individualist pursuits. I am strongly convinced that the fragmentation of feminism has plenty to with the idea that “It’s about MY choice and what empowers ME that matters”.

On the niqab: I think Muslim feminists need to have an honest discussion about what we feel uncomfortable about it. We all need to be honest about the gendered nature of women’s clothing in Islam and how that fits in with our feminism. Muslim feminists may be backing themselves into a corner if an argument of choice cannot explain for the sexualisation of women’s bodies and why certain societies cannot bear the sight of them.

How much is the choice of women in hijab influenced by these attitudes and cultural trends? I think it’s wonderful that women can have a choice to retreat from the world where women are judged by the way they look. But that choice is grounded on the basis that women are not respected enough as a complete person.

The crisis in Muslim feminism may be all in my overheated head from thinking too much. But I am nonetheless resigned to believe that sometimes choice can be irrational, just as happiness is. Choices can be contradictory and that should be okay as long as we’re honest about them. Empowerment can mean different things and can be just as contradictory as ‘free’ choice. As for emancipation, I don’t think there can be full emancipation of the self until emancipation of society as a whole is possible. I think feminist politics can do better by slowly moving away from pushing for simply ‘choice’ but an informed one. Just like in reproductive terms, an informed choice can genuinely empower women.

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.

Comments on comments

In the last year, I’ve been getting plenty of Islamophobic comments on my blog. Some of which are unpublished here for my own peace of mind, and some I went on to tackle personally with the commenters who wrote them. Granted, I do not have a policy on comments and perhaps that is a mistake on my part for flashing a green light to those who feel the need to vent their Islamophobic frustrations online, or anti-feminist or racist frustrations for that matter. But on the other hand, explicit guidelines on how to comment on pro-Islam, feminist, and anti-racist blogs are often ignored anyhow. I cannot put a stop to this but the most I can do is to remind readers who feel that they do not respect my faith and other faiths and my politics is to go elsewhere and reflect on humanity a little more. Readers who do not respect Islam or feminism or anti-racist politics on the discursive level but claim to hold nothing against some of its adherents also will not have anything useful to say here. Yeah, I’m tough on “enlightened” haters.

To make this clearer: in the future, what I don’t need is any of the following..

The allure of the foreign or “exotic” as outline in the chromosomes and you want to call it Racism?

when a man (or a women) is attracted to something different, seeks it out, this is looking for something to be created between two consenting adults. Consenting meaning it would be mutual.

So repelled by something different, it is racism.
Attracted to, it is racism.

yes its the same simple biology at work isn’t it? And your  solution is…?

In addiction medicine, addiction is defined by consequences. I’d like to know the harsh consequences of this racism….because i’m sure every lynched slave from American history is “rolling in their grave” at your posted disgust.

Sloppy pseudo-scientific analogies for examples of racism do not work. Difference is not just the issue here, but something that is more diffuse, invisible – power relations – is at work in various types of inter (and indeed intra) ethnic relationships. For better or for worse, we represent to the world more than our individualities or autonomous identities. There are cultural tags and history connected to our gender and race/ethnicity (other visible analytical categories add here) that we cannot wish away and work against us in different circumstances, and with that there is an imbalance of power differentials manifested in the way groups of people are treated or talked about. As for the anxiety of racism from being repelled or attracted to somebody different, cultural tags and history of an ethnic group (White people is an ethnic group too) need to be weighed up to understand why certain qualities of an ethnic group are considered desirable / repulsive, and most importantly why there are those set of qualities there in the first place. Biology has no part in this.

I also don’t want misogynist bile like this:

As long as you continue to regard the myth of Patriarchy as having substance then, “the source of female oppression” (which is females themselves), will never be addressed but  continue to act as an excuse for self oppression and the avoidance of real issues.

Like the unicorn and the gnome, a myth involves things that no one has seen in real life but is perpetuated in common everyday discourse. Patriarchy cannot be seen, too, but it endures in our collective systems of thought and discourse. It is also not just one thing, which is why many men handwave this as pure mythology. I don’t want to go further into the dry definition of patriarchy, but rather would like to say this: defeating the patriarchy is not about beating down individual men and expect men to hate themselves for simply being men. No. But let’s put it this way: people who think that few women get the best-paid jobs or elected to highest ranks in government is because they do not try hard enough or just don’t go for them, or believe that women are better at looking after babies are complicit in perpetuating the pervasive cultural norm called patriarchy. Men do it, and so do women. It exists. Deal with it.

And finally, none of this please:

Shariah law in Malaysia:
RM5000 fine and imprisonment of up to 3 years and 6 lashes for consuming alcohol
And RM4000 fine and imprisonment of up to 2 years and 6 lashes for forcing one’s wife to be a prostitute!
Is there any wonder why Islam is viewed with ridicule and contempt?

My view of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism is valid and not inane. I remain an unashamed islamophobe but I have nothing against you personally. I feel sorry for all victims of religious endoctrination and persecution, and I wish you well.

Incidentally, I have read the quran and the bible old and new testaments. If you are not afraid to challenge your faith, then I recommend that you read “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins.

Richard Dawkin wrote the sociobiological nonsense called The Selfish Gene. No further comments.

Muslim feminists have too much to worry about already to think about homophobia

Once a week I meet with people studying gender in the Middle East and we talk about the assigned articles we’ve read during the week. Last week, it was about sexuality and homophobia. Emerging from our discussion on homosexuality rights in the Middle East (particularly in Lebanon and Palestine) is the question why many Muslim feminists have failed to include sexuality rights on their agenda. Not one, but two people answered by saying that Muslim feminists have too many issues on their hands to fight for gay rights, which suggests that homosexuality rights is not really an Islamic feminist issue and that more pressing injustices – FGM, polygamy, personal status laws governed by the Sharia court – Muslim women’s issues essentially, should always take precedence.

There was for a moment a mental jawdrop, but then I realised that this state of affairs isn’t surprising at all; feminism has always been about picking and choosing issues that mattered most to its members who have experienced those issues first hand. White feminists are never really going to care about Black feminists, and perhaps mostly because it’s nearly impossible to place oneself in another’s shoes and understand what it’s like to endure life as a Black woman.

In the case of Muslim feminism, to say that all its members are straight, cis and able women is a bit of a stretch, but this certainly is reflected in their movement – that Muslim feminism is for straight, cis and able Muslim women. Compared to the widespread violence implicated on gay men in Iraq, female homosexuality in the Middle East in general is relatively sheltered from persecution. This is perhaps due to the practice of gender segregation in public and private spaces, restrictions on the movement of women and girls, and the fact that female sexuality and desire are very often devalued. And according to Iman al-Ghafari:

Erotic relations among women are devalued as a temporary substitute for the love of men, and are considered of no real threat to the dominant heterosexual system as long as they remain undercover, or in the closet.

The two huge obstacles to pursuing gay rights activism within the Islamic feminism framework are perhaps the apparent prohibition of same-sex relations in Islam and the deeply homophobic attitude that prevails many Muslim communities. With only the story of the prophet Lut (AS) and the morally corrupt citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah that is hyper-reduced to a story of sodomites (but not their other sins and the dubious doings of Lut (AS) himself) as legally/socially-binding final word on homosexuality, self-identified gay Muslims have very little to defend themselves with from the systematic condemnation often reserved for criminals.

What is being attacked in homophobic societies here are not actually the identities “gay”, “lesbian”, or “homosexual” the way we understand them but really the ‘feminisation’ of men and the ‘masculinisation’ of women. Notions of masculinity/femininity and sexual identities in the Middle East are not commensurable with those constituted within Eurocentric psychological/ psychiatric/ feminist jargon. To be a man and have sex with another man, as long as he stays ‘on top’, does not necessarily make him gay. In fact, in some Muslim communities, to be the penetrator in whatever form of sexual relations often equates with a kind of hypermasculinity. Those who do identify themselves as “gay” however gain the validation of their identities through the internet, media, and social circles. Arguably, most who do call themselves gay belong to the middle class.

It should matter a great deal to Muslim feminists to take on board other ‘non-traditional’ issues like sexuality, not to mention transgender and disability. These non-traditional issues can benefit greatly from the activism work and academic rigour that Muslim feminism is particularly strong at. Perhaps then Muslim feminism is not only about Muslim women; which is not a bad thing, but an ever-broadening movement that rises to the challenge whenever oppression and Islam intersect.

Looking at religion through white-tinted glasses

Source: Wikipedia

Looking back, I knew that I never wanted to be a student in religious studies, but oddly enough, here I am digging into it and taking apart the psyche of believers (and non-). If the case is still true in today’s terms, being a scholar in religious matters in Malaysia would really mean studying Islam, wearing the pre-requisite tudung labuh, and doomed with career prospects as expansive as the opinions of the cow-head protesters on non-Muslim places of worship. Because as a woman, that would invariably mean teaching pendidikan Islam (Islamic education) at primary and secondary school level, and not at the helm of any of the many Islamic learning and research institutions around the country.

But mind you, it’s not the theological aspect of religious studies that appeals to me, but rather the strictly secular and emotionally uninvolved analysis of world religions; its historical, sociological, psychological, and philosophical dimensions of faith, from a so-called “objective” point of view, and most importantly how religious teachings have impinged on gender relations in the postcolonial context (and just as importantly, outside of that context). Being at the School of Oriental and African Studies in theory should be a good place to study religions given its wary stance towards Eurocentric academic culture and well, hippie outlook to the cultures of Africa and Asia.

But imagine my groans of disappointment when I realised that I had to immerse neck deep into the world of 20th century French intellectualism personified by Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, to understand the mystical and practical mechanisms of religion. My disappointment can be summed up in, ironically, Foucauldian terms, in which the study of religions as a discourse (specific to SOAS) is governed by principles, statements, and analytic approaches dominated almost entirely by the theses of dead White European male philosophers (with Claude Levi-Strauss who’s just joined in). And as a result of these governing structures, how we produce academic analyses or “truths” about world religions are done pretty much by the guiding hands of these men. And according to Foucault, how these structures arise are determined by who wins the competition of discourses. Emerging victor in the power struggle of discourses are the notoriously difficult post-existentialist French thinkers. Hurray!

It would be fair to assume that the most useful analytic tools are also the latest ones, those that have yet to be proven obsolete and irrelevant. The same way scientific analysis today relies on the latest research and the latest lab techniques and equipment. But is this really true for the study of religion? The search for the origins of spiritual worship became the main agenda of anthropologists in the 19th century, dominating the discourse on religion at the time. Emerging from the discourse were terms like “primitive cultures” and “totemism”. And yes, this led many anthropologists to “backward” communities in Africa and Latin America that were thought to be at the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder. The anthropology of religion later took a different course when more and more researchers found that there was no basis in their racist assumptions, and developed other critical outlooks. Then feminist approaches to religion arrived, which I will talk about soon.

So, what can we say about the implications of Western thinking on the study of world religions? If put in other words, what can institutions in economically-developing nations learn from this discourse which obtains its authority from mainly White male academics? Anything useful, or nothing at all? How useful are the thoughts of philosophers, hailed as experts at explaining the mysteries of faith, particularly when some are not afraid to be personally (rather than empirically) biased against one religion from another? I’m talking about Levi-Strauss here, and his ill-informed Orientalist comments about Islam which he had conveniently constructed as Buddhism’s opposite:

Symbolic of Moslem culture … [is the accumulation of] the most subtle refinements – palaces made of precious stones, fountains of rose-water, dishes of food coated with gold leaf and tobacco mixed with pounded pearls – and uses them as a veneer to conceal rustic customs and the bigotry permeating Islamic moral and religious thought… This great religion [Islam] is based not so much on revealed truth as on an inability to establish links with the outside world…Moslem intolerance takes an unconscious form among those who are guilty of it; although they do not always seek to make others share their truth by brutal coercion, they are nevertheless (and this is more serious) incapable of tolerating the existence of others as others (Levi-Strauss, 1992).

Returning to the structure of the study of religion in Malaysia, where the primacy of Islam permeates all levels of public education, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, can a secular study of faith be possible and not maligned as something with an evil agenda? Like inter-faith dialogue, all religions in question are viewed as equals as are the participants in the dialogue. For the case of the study of religions as an academic discourse, this means an open arena for teachers, students, and teaching material, regardless of the participant’s religious backgrounds. Those involved in the study of religions can develop an appreciation of other cultures and systems of worship, and from a structuralist’s point of view, discover deeply connected links and similarities that we all in this global village share. Perhaps these are just some things many Muslims in Malaysia can learn to appreciate.

Whose revolution? Critiquing Seyran Ates and her Islamic sexual revolution

The calls of lawyer, activist, and writer Seyran Ates for a sexual revolution in the heterogeneous Muslim world may surprise many, particularly when the movement is commonly associated with free love, hippies, and public nudity. In a recent interview with German magazine Spiegel, Ates begins with discussing what she means by this and her experiences that inspired her new book, Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution.

Things went downhill immediately, when Ates said that she based the term “sexual revolution” on

…Wilhelm Reich and his book about the sexual revolution. I believe that the Islamic world must grapple with the consequences of rigid sexual morals, not unlike the way, as he describes, the Soviet Union dealt with its own circumstances.

Naming Wilhelm Reich as an inspiration for her cause is to me quite problematic. A disciple of Freud, and a serial wife-cheater, Reich is known for his view that sexual repression is the cause of authoritative family and societal structures, and his study was borne out of his criticism against the fascist movement during his time in Germany, otherwise known as the Nazi party. I don’t know about you, but seeing similarities between conservatism in Muslim communities and Hitler’s regime strikes me as a little essentialist and far-fetched on Ates’ part–and that’s putting it kindly.

As much as I welcome a more permissive attitude towards sexuality in Muslim communities, I doubt that a revolution can occur out of thin air. In the West, the impetus for the sexual revolution came as a reaction from multiple directions: scientific (the birth control pill), political (the social paranoia of the Cold War), social (the rise of the women’s liberation movement), and economic (more on this below). This is where I have problems with what Ates means by a sexual revolution. It is an ethnocentric construct that the Western world had a monopoly over. And if we use the Western sexual revolution as a model, then simply place an Islamic label on it, we play by rules that were hardly faith-based to begin with.

Further, it’s about re-asserting economic privileges that few (in 1960s America/Europe) had. Translate that to the Muslim world (in the East and West) today, even fewer people will reap the joys of the revolution. Why? Having a fulfilling sex life takes time and money–raising children, hire nannies, afford contraceptives or divorces–some things many in the middle class can enjoy. It should not be just about access to sexual activity that Ates purports as a revolution, but about making economic sense out of sex. The main reason why young people are less interested in marriage is because it’s expensive.

Then Ates mentions prophets as role models:

SPIEGEL: Muhammad had a dozen wives. Is he a role model?

Ates: When an Arab man needs a justification for having several wives, he says: It was the same with Muhammad.

SPIEGEL: Christian men don’t have that excuse.

Ates: No, but it’s a shame that Christians worship such an asexual man. Muslims are in a better position, in that respect, but this need of the man to have several women, legitimized by Muhammad, has led to a hidden and extreme sexualizing of Islam.

Saying that Jesus is less of a role model than Muhammad because he was seen as asexual is quite offensive. Being a single prophet does not necessarily qualify as being asexual. But most importantly, sexual freedoms include being both sexual and asexual (celibate). Sex is often overrated, while asexuality (or lacking sexual desire) is viewed as being less human–utter nonsense, in my opinion.

Ates asserts that the Muslim world to a large extent is monolithic, that Muslims the world over can relate to each other in all matters sexual. And, yes, liberalism is not our best known trait. Some live under extremely repressive regimes and others endure conservative laws and attitudes to a less extreme degree.

But within many Muslim communities, class disparity can mean a difference in sexual mores as different as night and day. This goes back to the works of Reich, who saw that people from a working class background were the most sexually repressed and were most likely to obey authoritative regimes. By overlapping Ates and Reich’s arguments, one must assume that all Muslims are economically oppressed for a sexual revolution to happen which in my opinion is an unfair assumption.

I don’t believe that a revolution can take place overnight, or through massive protests that Ates envisions. A sexual revolution in a religious context cannot happen without first planting some seeds of change. These seeds can come in the form of faith-based dialogue and rights-based legislation. Also, better economic conditions mean that people can make better marital choices. It seems clear that Seyran Ates takes her cause very personally, but in the interview she does not acknowledge enough the social and moral impact of sexual permissiveness that she is promoting, which is really the main concern of everyone involved in a “sexual revolution”. This remains a big question mark for me, and I will watch carefully in the future for a sexual revolution spearheaded by Ates.

Muslimah Media Watch thanks Mohani Niza for the tip.

No country for Muslim women

First published at Muslimah Media Watch

I am not an Islamic scholar, therefore my opinions on Islam do not count. Worse still,  I’m told that it’s not my place to have an opinion on Islam at all.

This is the general climate of thought in Malaysia put forth in the recent proposal by the country’s main Islamic party, PAS, to investigate the Muslim feminist non-governmental organization Sisters In Islam (SIS) for un-Islamic activities and to “rehabilitate” its members to “the right path”. The announcement has sent shock waves across the country.

The feminist organization has long been the thorn on many Muslim Malaysians’ sides, of both conservative and moderate persuasions, mainly for their outspoken critique of book-banning, polygamy, and state-imposed concepts of modesty. The latest in the string of attacks against SIS is by far the most extreme and is said by many to be a major political misstep for PAS, which once vowed to be “modern” and “democratic”.

But PAS has yet to retract their demands amidst growing pressure from many quarters, including criticisms from within party lines. But more importantly, it has yet to disclose further details of their charges against SIS. In the meantime, their contempt for Sisters In Islam touches on more personal issues that raises questions as to whether accusations against them are really from a theological standpoint; from the members’ choice of dress (many do not wear the hijab) and marital status (many are also unmarried). These claims to discredit SIS have been reactionary at best, intolerant and anti-women at worst.

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Thoughtful quote of the day

“When talking about aerospace, you ask somebody from NASA, not someone in Somalia,”

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party’s (PAS) president, Abdul Hadi Awang, on the party’s democratic right to ban the Muslim Feminist NGO Sisters In Islam for ‘unqualified’ involvement in Islamic law. [Source]