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?

References

  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.

Cute big bodies: Fashion for plus-size Muslim women in a Malaysian magazine

Malaysia is a fat-phobic country, and so it’s welcoming to see pockets of fat acceptance in the media. In this case, a rare fashion spread for “plus-sized” women in a local Muslim women’s lifestyle magazine, Nur.

"XXL: Still stylish and sweet"

Reading the text above, the use of the word “comel” (cute) to mean larger body is interesting; while it is certainly a euphemism, it’s almost certainly used to mean a larger female body. Does the word make fatness more positive by associating it with cuddliness and other possible endearing qualities related to cuteness? “Comel” is an ideal concept of youthful Malay femininity – it connotes a woman or girl who is ultra-feminine and non-threatening, and so to include different body shapes under the umbrella of “comel” is probably positive. Just as an aside note: we may find plus size-friendly fashion spreads/advice in the mainstream media in Malaysia, but signs of fat acceptance is still marginalised and consumer-oriented. A consumer-oriented form of fat acceptance (through the selling of products for a ‘niche’ consumer group) may actually be insincere. Thoughts?

More from Nur:

The gender politics of conversion narratives in film religi

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

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

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

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

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

On sexual slavery and the question of what makes something ‘Islamic’

Salwa al-Mutairi, a Kuwaiti politican, gave a cold-blooded proposal for Muslim men to take female slaves, especially non-Muslim female prisoners of war, for sexual use (or rather rape). It has rather unpredictably come under fire.

Slavery is one of the most abhorrent forms of abuse of power in this modern age. But the basic principles of al-Mutairi’s views have validation in Islamic texts. Like it or not, the Qur’an does not make any mention about ending slavery per se. It does recommend the freeing of slaves, particularly those who convert to Islam. But it also spells out the status of the slave as a person a man can have legitimate sexual relations with and by implication is someone who is sexually available.

Notwithstanding the incongruence between modern sensibilities and what is spelled out in the Qur’an as a book of wisdom and guidance, the abolition of slavery is now the expected universal norm. Every country has declared an end to slavery within its borders by the twentieth century. In predominantly Muslim nation-states, motivations behind the end of slavery was not so much a religious calling, but rather a mix of socio-economic circumstances, diplomatic strategy, and European colonial influence. It is at this circumstantial juncture that the right decision to universally turn back against slavery was established.

This is not to say that slavery has been completely wiped out from the face of the earth; today, slavery continues to exist in sex trafficking and in domestic labor, which enslaves thousands of migrant female workers.

Any intellectual discussion about sexual slavery and gender in the modern age should not be about sex and desire, but about power and the human weakness to abuse it. To say that men have an insatiable sexual desire and therefore need to channel it in “legitimate” terms (i.e., through concubinage, slavery, and even marriage) is missing the point.

How so? First, it is an insult to even suggest that men are inherently powerless to the will of their penises. Second, the Qur’an mentions allowances to multiple female sex partners (where wives, concubines, and slaves are thrown into the mix) only in the context of economic power; only rich men can afford to have multiple sex partners, especially concubines and slaves.

What is perhaps more intriguing and sets more tongues wagging is the fact that a Muslim woman is championing the slavery of other women. This is an example of what academic Deniz Kandiyoti describes as the “patriarchal bargain.” The patriarchal bargain posits that women are just as capable of oppressing other women to maintain or to gain access to social advantage. It is without doubt that any person, woman or man, with political influence would always seek to maintain power and privilege by pandering to those with more power and privilege.

The more powerful and privileged in question are those in the Kuwaiti government, who already claim a litany of human rights abuses, such maintaining a legislation that strips domestic workers of basic rights and ignoring the extensive abuse of migrant workers. This adds an additional dimension – xenophobia – into the mix. Much of the abuses against migrant workers – many of whom are Muslims – in Kuwait rests on the xenophobic attitudes of employers who view the workers as less than human. The fact that al-Mutiari’s suggestion women from war-torn Chechnya be bought to suffer yet more human rights abuses in Kuwait underscores this fact even more.

So in the context of sexual slavery as supported by the clerics al-Mutairi mentions, the more troubling question arises: is sexual slavery “Islamic”? Just because it is not prohibited in the Book does not make it right in practice. Easy as that. Another relevant question will arise by implication: so what makes something Islamic? It has been proven time and time again that what makes something Islamic is not necessarily spelled out in holy texts, but embellished mainly through privileged interpretation and historical contexts. Furthermore, the fact that slavery was a common and acceptable pre-Islamic practice during the prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) time, and the fact that some slaves gained status and power over those lower in the pecking order does not mitigate the loathsomeness of slavery.

Slavery or the abuse of female prisoners of war, the brutal removal of their freedoms and agency, and through silencing them and dehumanizing them goes against the very essence embedded in the respect for human lives, be it un-free or non-Muslim.

It is becoming clear that the Islamic discourse on slavery sheds very little light on the experiences of those at the nastier end of practice and this needs to change. The masculinist approach to holy texts that privileges the views of men needs to change. Also, what needs to change is the recognition that our modern sensibilities are shaped by history and socio-economic circumstances; what feels right, moral, and ethical rests on multiple factors.

We learn from history and experiences just as much from the holy texts. Much has changed since the days when slavery was taken for granted: if there’s anything more unacceptable it is the reduction of a whole person into something that can be bought and sold against their will.

Is Muslim feminism more than just a hijab defense?

There may be 1,001 Muslim feminist critiques on the European burqa ban and its attendant jokes and jibes, insults, and ridiculousness. But what should remain clear is that we Muslim feminists are not just about the hijab. The recent discussion on LGBT acceptance on MMW revealed the cracks in the Muslim “sisterhood” and it began with a post on gay Muslim women in Indonesia.

Homosexuality and Islam has always been a divisive topic, a topic that leaves many in breathless contempt for the LGBT community, Muslim or not. Is this a discursive space Muslim feminism should step in? I’m not advocating for a single stand on homosexuality that Muslim feminists should take, but I am simply suggesting that we broaden our horizons.

If we take a minute to consider the current trajectory of contemporary feminism, yes, the one that’s dominated by mostly White, middle-class, straight women; we find that their activism has moved beyond Woman-centric navel-gazing and has taken into account other intersecting elements that define a woman’s identity: race, sexuality, class. Other than gender, a woman may be a mother, disabled, transgender, Asian, and yes, Muslim. Is Muslim feminism really inclusive of the concerns of a Muslim woman who may also be White, lesbian, or working class?

This question may be a little far removed from what is expected of Muslim feminism. As Muslim feminists, we are concerned about what empowers us as Muslim women. The obvious place where many of us find strength is in our faith, and many more turn to sacred scripture for self-affirmation. This is perhaps where the lines between Muslim feminism and Islamic feminism blur.

Islamic feminism is often regarded the preserve of the scholarly elite who analyze scripture in microscopic detail. There is much to be learned from Islamic feminists and at many points Muslim feminists will find their activism converging with academics on matters that need to be certified “halal.” There are difficult issues that many Muslims do not see eye-to-eye with in which knee-jerk unchecked prejudices often bring discussions into a standstill (because on a moderated Muslim feminist website, offensive comments are deleted). A lot of religious people are afraid of being critical about certain things that are taught to them by those deemed more knowledgeable, pious, and respected in their communities.

Being critical may be akin to being anti-Islam, challenging the very core of the faith. Systems of oppression rely on unchecked prejudices, rumors, and assumptions. Without statistical data, there would be little proof that women are under-represented in government and in the boardroom for example, and hence proof that women still have little power in decision-making public roles. This enough debunks the assumption that women are already equal to men in society. When it comes to Muslim feminism, we are left with scripture, data, and the voices of Muslim women themselves.

I feel incredibly blessed to be part of MMW, which is one of the most recognizable Muslim feminist groups on the web, cited by “mainstream” feminists in their books—albeit as a fleeting, “oh, by the way” reference to the diversity of the global feminist movement. At the moment, the Muslim feminist agenda (even if there was a hazy idea of one) is limited both by the media’s obsessive preoccupation with the hijab and small scope of issues we can tackle from a Muslim feminist perspective. Do we take our Muslim feminist hat off to put another one on when we talk about reproductive justice? How would a Muslim feminist feel about capitalism and unethical consumerism? These may be issues that may be beyond the remit of Islamic feminists who turn to strictly theological sources for answers, but is definitely within the purview of Muslim feminism.

There may be Muslim women who would prefer to distance themselves from identifying with “Western” White feminism, but take on the keywords that are cornerstone of the same feminism they reject. “Choice” and “empowerment” can easily be appropriated like empty semantic vessels to fill according to one woman’s liking. But as Muslim feminists, must we take “choice” and “empowerment” so trivially? Choice and empowerment should not be about individualism; it’s not just about you, but also about other women who are like us in many ways. All of this wraps up the reason why this article wanted to be written. Besides dispelling myths about what goes on “under the veil,” issues that capture the political/personal concerns of Muslim women should be on the agenda.

Aquila: A new kind of Muslim woman?

First published in Muslimah Media Watch

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For those familiar with women’s “lifestyle” magazines, the call to be “sexy” in some way or another is not new. We women need to have “sexy” everything: attitude, legs, skin, armpits, you name it. So pervasive is this message that I’m surprised that no one has spontaneously combusted from sexual arousal at the sight of a women’s magazine devotee.

And then we have the new Aquila magazine, whose key buzzwords are modesty and fabulousness.

As the “world’s first English fashion and lifestyle magazine for cosmopolitan Muslim women in Asia” that is based in Singapore, Aquila serves up the standard menu of any glossy: tips on make-up, shopping, book and film reviews, and some lightweight advice on career-building.

Aimed at readers from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, modesty and fabulousness are far from alien concepts: Muslim women of all ages, hijabis in particular, in Southeast Asia are intensely responsive to new faith-based sartorial trends, perhaps more so than women who do not cover their hair.

That said, Islamic consumerism, as cynical as it sounds, is a fairly new phenomenon in which women in the region form an active role. Aquila is an obvious byproduct of the purchasing power of Muslim women in Southeast Asia, but whether or not it aims to be representative of its target audience is quite another matter. So let us explore this issue by breaking it down to three parts, based on how well it’s doing for its intended readers thus far:

The good: The one thing I can generously say about Aquila is that there seems to be an intention that it offers something for everybody: from articles on face creams to an as yet developed page on “science,” which I hope will be a more informative take on scientific breakthroughs, instead of the science of eye creams and hair serum.

The bad: The beating heart of any self-respecting popular publication is the opinion piece. Often brief and pseudo-philosophical, the op-ed is, for me, what makes fashion magazines human and less banal. But that was what I thought before I came across the first opinion piece on Aquila. Entitled “Leap of Faith,” it reveals the thoughts of a Muslim man whose moral dilemma about his daughter dating a non-Muslim seems to completely eclipse his social drinking habits, at his favorite drinking hole no less! The piece ended on a cryptic note that suggested a sense hypocrisy that plagues the urban, middle-class and the selectively liberal Muslim communities in Southeast Asia, but lacked any insight or depth in what is a serious issue that very much concerns the intended reader.

The could-be-better: Though brand-spanking-new with the impressive accolade of being a kind of landmark magazine for Southeast Asian Muslim women, Aquila looks more like a half-built project with little pizzazz.  The graphics leave plenty to be desired, but then that wouldn’t be such an issue if it had more substantial content. I get the feeling that Aquila isn’t really targeted at parents, as it lists “kids” as a “lifestyle” issue that sits at the bottom of the drop down list. But I shouldn’t really be asking for the moon here, as most fashion and beauty magazines rarely figure parenthood as a particularly “trendy” subject.

In sum, Aquila is far from divinely inspired. It is a bland derivative of many beaten dead horses called women’s fashion magazines, except with less exposed flesh. It reminds me why I’ve stopped reading such things for good. I’m also not entirely convinced that it is trying hard to be representative of the young, upwardly mobile Muslim women who are taking Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia by storm. If the magazine’s not so modest vision of being “the world’s most trusted authority on the intelligence of affluent Muslims” is anything to go by, I would suggest Asian Muslim women to read elsewhere for fabulous inspiration.



Of sartorial choices and oppression

First published over at the F-Word blog.

The ban on the full-face veil in Belgium seems like the easiest thing to mete out as far as unconstitutional legislations are concerned. Out of about 215 women who wear either the niqab or burqa in the country, many belong to immigrant communities, many are hard done by multiple forms of discrimination already in addition to being economically disadvantaged and politically under-represented. Penalising them is like flicking away ants or beating someone when they’re already down.

It appears that a woman’s sartorial choices have confirmed the highest place in the pyramid of oppression in the eyes of the Belgian and French powers that be; high above xenophobia, Islamophobia, classism, and sexism. Removing the offending piece of cloth worn by over 200 women is tantamount to restoring not only female dignity but the fragile values of an entire nation.

The discomfort about the burqa in particular can be felt on both sides of the ban. Those who are quick to say that, “I do not support the ban but…” have the made the same over-emphasis on a piece of cloth but little attention to the continuum of oppression that the majority of Muslim women face in Europe. If anything, the superficial concerns levelled against the way Muslim women wear have almost always been made by those who are neither Muslim nor wear the hijab, much less the burqa.

The unanimous decision to ban the full-face veil in Belgium speaks volumes of the symbolic unity against visible Islam in a country where Muslims make up only 3 percent of the population. It is also a patronising push towards a kind of women’s liberation that is measured against what European women wear. But before we even consider that the burqa is self-effacing in its most literal form, should we think about how punitive such a ban will be on a woman who might wear it under duress or otherwise? Before we make judgements and decisions about the sartorial choices that certain groups of women make, have we spared the time to ask these women themselves if they are complicit in their own oppression?

The heavy-handed penalty against the niqab and burqa is just another way to punish women without having to address the systemic racism and Islamophobia plaguing right-leaning countries like Belgium and France. This ban is not an emancipatory cause to celebrate or one that is steeped in so-called European values. It is not about emancipation if the law can decide that you are free. It is not about European values if Muslims make a sizeable number of Europeans in the continent. One should remember that many do not claim that the wearing of the hijab to such extremes is a religious obligation but rather an anachronistic cultural practice or simply a protective cloak from the male gaze. However, the hubris of the Belgian and French brand of secularism is such that in the case of Muslim women, those distinctions do not matter.

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.

Marketing Muslim lifestyles and redefining modesty

This post was first published on Muslimah Media Watch

If a hijab in Pucci-designed print could speak, what would it say?

I attended a seminar presented by Professor Reina Lewis on Muslim women’s lifestyle magazines last night and was faced with this bizarre question. It all started with the actual seminar itself, which showcased the latest research adventures of the fashion and design professor. Weaving together previous work that included alternative Orientalist narratives in the 19th century and queer lifestyle magazines, Lewis’ paper focused on the Muslim women’s magazines that emerged at a crucial time (post-9/11) when more positive representations of Muslims were needed in a Western public discourse that had  none. And the so usual suspects were mentioned: emel, Sisters, Muslim Girl, Azizah, and an anomaly, Alef–being the only one that didn’t try hard to get a particularly Muslim lifestyle look.

Having the enviable position of fashion professor, Lewis was more interested in how women/the human form were presented the magazines, what Islamic fashion is really all about, and the advertising contained within the magazines than the content. For her, visual representation in print media of women who were getting more covered up than their mothers, grandmothers, and their non-Muslim peers was striking and counter-cultural.

The same way Nylon and Harper’s Bazaar are different from each other in presentation and content, Muslim lifestyle magazines set themselves apart in these ways too, but addition to that the magazines self-define or defined by others as either “Muslim” or “Islamic”. emel, Lewis said, is a “Muslim” magazine in that it reaches out to an audience of diverse backgrounds and levels of religiosity, while Azizah is more “Islamic” because it caters to a more conservative readership. It’s hard to not find these labels contentious as they could lead to a series of polemical questions, like, is emel less Islamic than say, Azizah or can a lifestyle magazine as a guide help a reader gain a more Islamic look?

Of course the latter is a silly question, but having read fashion and lifestyle magazines myself before I’d say that there is a level of self-identification in (a few of) the models and the “I am what I buy” ethos that is much invested in brand advertising today. And so for attaining the trendy or at least up-to-date Muslimah look, one only need to look at what other people are wearing, and simply flick through magazines for reference.

During the Q & A session, someone from Saudi Arabia had asked a thought-provoking question about the real purpose of fashion in faith-based women’s magazines. It was a question that I had pondered over a long time ago when I decided on two things: to not be a follower of fashion and not to wear the hijab. The question goes something like this, “If fashion is about self-expression and to a large extent ‘being noticed’, how does Islamic dressing and the fickle world of fashion reconcile with the concept of modesty and inconspicuousness?” I remember the days when I had to wear the hijab in college and becoming the object of male attention which made me uncomfortable. Without the hijab, I found to my relief that the unwanted attention seemed to have lessened, but this had nothing to do with how much skin I was showing with or without the hijab, rather the headscarf became a marker of what good young Muslim men found attractive. This was when I learned that the hijab had more complex meanings.

This brings me back to the rhetorical Pucci headscarf and what modesty means to different Muslim women. In addition to being a symbol of devotion, modesty, and cultural identity, the hijab today has taken an extra meaning, one that fits nicely with the global consumer culture and current trends. The hijab as represented even in the most conservative Islamic women’s magazines often doubles up as a fashion accessory.

Not to sound overly fussy, but isn’t being fashionable attention-grabbing and hence immodest? I need to mention again that I am not into lifestyle magazines, fashion, and do not wear the headscarf, so I’m perhaps the least equipped person to explain whether Islamic fashion is modest or not. At the same time I think my assumptions that modesty clashes with fashion is probably unfounded, too.

What are your thoughts?

Big Love: Appropriating feminism in advocating polygamy

Originally posted at Muslimah Media Watch

Members of the Ikhwan Polygamy Club in Malaysia. Source: Utusan Melayu

Stories about polygamy tend to surge and ebb in the media, but they never fail to intrigue people. Recently in South Africa, a Zulu man married four women–all at once–making the most popular story on the BBC news website (you can watch the clip here). In the video, a male wedding guest gives a thumbs-up to the marriage(s), claiming that the “world” suffers from monogamous marriage breakdowns as a result of adultery. Later, the narrator serves up a classic: with all those wives, what man will have time to cheat? So, yes, it seems to be all about sex and keeping the man carnally satiated as to not go astray. But what do the wives have to say?

From one Muslim wife’s perspective, there is Hatijah Aam, founder of the Ikhwan Polygamy Club in Malaysia. Running what sounds like a matchmaking service, Hatijah herself introduced her husband to a future co-wife, a mother of seven. The club has been successful at marrying men and women from neighboring Thailand and Indonesia, and even as far as Australia. The virtues of polygamy, according to her, echo the stuff in religious texts I’ve become so accustomed to: it helps single mothers, “old maids”, and former sex workers (a new addition!) out of what is ostensibly abject misery.

Looking at the social context in Malaysia, it’s understandable how polygynous relationships can thrive: women are chronically at an economic disadvantage, a female-initiated divorce is a difficult, laborious process, and if it is successful, women shoulder the stigma and burden of being fair game to any Malay-Muslim man. Pinning on former sex workers, single mothers, and divorcees the label “unwanted goods” says a lot about the precarious status women have in society; women are not only defined by their marital (and sexual) status, but also seem to lack agency to better themselves.

For a while I’ve been interested in what women in polygamous marriages have to say about their relationship with their husband, co-wives, and with their faith, particularly when feminist buzz words like “choice”, “rights”, and “consent” are used. Take for instance this argument: in a monogamous marriage, a woman has the right to choose her spouse, and so in principle a woman should also have the same kind of rights to allow her husband to marry another. It will be interesting when the role of rights and agency are raised in response to legislation against polygamy in numerous countries across the globe. There’s also an argument that “feminist” polygyny allows women “to have it all”: work hard and have a great arrangement with co-wives who will look after their kids (providing of course that the co-wives aren’t so career-minded).

Like polyamory and open marriages, polygamy is not common for obvious reasons, jealousy being the main one. And while for the few women whose rights are respected and protected (in some countries), how do their choices impact on all other women in general? Will a concept of polygamy that is truly women-centric subvert a system in which some women see sharing a husband the only way out of economic or social hardship? Will every wife have a happy sex life? Tightening conditions on such marriages may appear as posing restrictions on a woman who wants to express her rights, but at the same restricts men from marrying women for exploitative reasons often disguised as noble ones. In Indonesia, laws are made increasingly lax to accommodate men who wish to tie the knot multiple times, even if they lack the financial means (or the guts) to tell their first wives.

Polygyny, alongside housewifery and pornography, is just one of the few issues women have been grappling with distinguishing between whether it’s feminist or not. And so a belief in ending oppression in all its many guises should be the compass of every feminist if one finds themselves lost. To end, I leave you with Hatijah Aam saying that polygamy should be something beautiful, rather than something disgusting. I say, fair enough–keeping in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.