Guest post: Redefining Malay womanhood in Yasmin Ahmad's films

The following was written by guest contributor and fellow Malaysian feminist, Mohani Niza. Writing on the “New Malaysian Femininity’ in the films of Yasmin Ahmad, she presents a Malay womanhood that contrasts squarely with the misogyny and whore/virgin stereotypes typically found in Malaysian cinema.

Image: pratonton.com

Image: pratonton.com

In 2004, Yasmin Ahmad, famed for her Petronas advertisements depicting multi-racial Malaysia released the movie Sepet, to much controversy and praise. It won a string of foreign film awards, a legion of fans local and abroad but was also lambasted by certain quarters who felt that the movie threatened the moral fabric of Malay/Muslim life in Malaysia by showing its Malay female protagonist “betray” her bangsa (race) by falling in love with a “kafir” (infidel) [1].

Sepet centers on the relationship between Orked (Sharifah Amani), a teenage Malay girl who has just graduated from secondary school and Jason (Choo Seong Ng), a pirated VCD peddler.  This is followed up with Gubra in 2006, which tells the life of an older Orked, now married; and in 2007, Mukhsin, the prequel in the Orked trilogy which depicts Orked’s childhood in a sleepy Kuala Selangor kampung (village).

The character of Orked marks a departure from the typical heroines we see in Malay films. Unlike most Malay women we see on screen, Orked represents a refreshing take on what it means to be a young Malay woman in Malaysia, a rapidly modernizing country which has to delicately deal with globalization and also the paradox of a multi-racial society, still raw from the May 13th 1969 racial riots. As Khoo Gaik Cheng notes in her book Reclaiming Adat: Contemporary Malaysian Film and Literature, “Socio-economic forces, state-initiated, and the cultural development of the NEP years (National Economic Policy 1971-90) had produced a burgeoning discourse about subjectivity among the children of the NEP themselves: what is it like for urban Malay women and men to be both modern and Muslim?”. in his review of ‘Mukhsin’ Michael Sicinski writes that “… transnational feminist theorists would do well to examine Ahmad’s work, since like them, Mukhsin is about complexifying the world, deepening interconnections, delving into the messiness of the conundrums that women face, and moving outward, forging even more connections.”[2]

In Sepet, we are introduced to Orked, around 17 years old, living in the mining town of Ipoh, patiently waiting for her Malaysian Certificate of Education results (end of secondary school examinations). She spends her free time indulging in her obsession of Japanese movie star Takeshi Kaneshiro, her love for movies by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai and reads up on a variety of intellectual works. She goes out with friends and does what girls her age usually enjoy. She is independent, free-spirited and unapologetically opinionated.  In one scene with her best friend, she argues passionately about the racist legacy of colonialism, whereby people still fall in love with white people thinking that they are superior, yet as she quips “You like what you like lah!”

Image: Yasmin Ahmads blog, yasmine thestoryteller.blogspot.com

Image: Yasmin Ahmad's blog, yasminthestoryteller .blogspot.com

While still subjected to curfew and the occasional concern from her parents, Orked is largely let to be who she is. In fact, Orked’s parents themselves do not present themselves as “typical Malays”. They enjoy a very sexual life together, unabashed about their affections. In one endearing scene, clad in just sarongs, they dance together in their house to Thai music, while feeding each other fruits. Perhaps their “liberal” attitudes explain Orked’s personality. We see this further in Mukhsin (2007). In one scene, a neighborhood girl teases young Orked about her father doing domestic chores, causing Orked to snap, “My dad helps in the kitchen because he loves my mother!.”  Young Orked refuses to play dolls and weddings, instead cocoons herself in her room reading books or asserting her right to play in the field with the village boys. Thus, in her films Yasmin Ahmad presents gender roles as unimportant, where even in the absence of which thrive true love and strong character. She also shows the importance of one’s upbringing in shaping one’s worldviews.

Furthermore, Yasmin Ahmad is unapologetic about showing variety of ways Islam is practiced. Instead of portraying Orked’s liberal attitudes as in direct conflict to Islam, Yasmin Ahmad portrays how Islam can exist side by side with so-called “non-Malay” lifestyles. In other words, there’s no singular way of being a Muslim.  After all, Islam is not static and devoid of external influences.  Khoo notes that “‘Islam participates in modernity as a globalizing force as well” [3]. Orked gleefully indulges in her pop star obsessions as much as she willingly reads the Qur’an after Maghrib (evening) prayers.  There is no dichotomy of good Malay woman/bad Malay woman usually portrayed in Malaysian cinema and television, whereby typically the female protagonist after indulging in “bad Western activities” (e.g. smoking, clubbing, fooling around sexually, dressing very scantily) ultimately repents on the prayer mat, or gets punished by society – or both.

Yasmin Ahmad’s Orked is powerful. She defines for herself what her identity should be. She enters into a relationship with Jason, with all the passion and innocence of a 17 year old girl.  A fellow Malay guy friend makes fun of their relationship, denouncing her as a traitor to her race, yet she boldly fights back by saying that “For generations, Malay men have been marrying outside their race”, thus asserting her sexual right as a Malay woman to do the same. Ironically, she is almost raped by the guy’s best friend, an outwardly respectable young Malay man adored by Orked’s parents. In Gubra (2006), we see Orked now married not to Jason but a Malay man who ultimately cheats on her.  Orked’s husband, upon being discovered of his extramarital affair, tries to soothe Orked by saying that the other woman is stupid, and not worth bothering over as she means nothing to him. Orked retorts, “That’s the problem with you Malay men, you think women are stupid!”. This is both a powerful female assertion of her sexual rights and a scathing critique of Malay/Muslim patriarchy. Grief-stricken, Orked leaves her marriage.

But despite the conflicts Orked faces, she is also very much tied to class privilege. Her parents speak fluent English and they employ a maid. Perhaps most strikingly, Orked is tied to Malay/Bumiputra privilege. As Sepet unfolds, we see that Orked gets 5 A’s for her examinations yet she is awarded a scholarship to study in the United Kingdom, yet Jason scores 7 A’s and fails to get a scholarship, having to work instead illegally by selling pirated VCDs. Thus, Yasmin Ahmad shows the contradiction Malay women in Malaysia face. On one hand, they have to battle gender-roles imposed on them, and yet Bumiputra privileges mean that in some ways, they are able to sail through life. Thus, it is be crucial to examine the factors of class and ethnicity further when examining Malay womanhood.

All in all, through her “Orked trilogy”, Yasmin Ahmad has provided an interesting glimpse of the multi-faceted nature of Malay womanhood. Unlike typical representations of women in Malaysian cinema and television, Yasmin Ahmad has managed to construct a different way of seeing young Malay women in Malaysia. Via her protagonist Orked, Yasmin Ahmad has managed to show us that the contradictory challenges faced by young Malay women and yet how they are wise in facing these contradictions, handling them with both intelligence and resilience.

Reference

[1] Al Amin, FAM 2008, ‘Controversies surrounding Malaysian independent female director Yasmin Ahmad’s first film Sepet’ in Proceedings of the 17th Biennial Conference of the ASAA, Melbourne, Australia, Monash University, pp. 1-12

[2] Sicinski, M 2008, Reviews of new releases seen, August 2008, The Academic Hack, viewed 10th April 2009.

[3] Khoo, GC 2005, Reclaiming Adat: Contemporary Malaysian Film and Literature, UBC Press, Vancouver.

3 thoughts on “Guest post: Redefining Malay womanhood in Yasmin Ahmad's films

  1. Please..review ur movies and scrutinize them….we are doing some of ur movies at school bnt we cant find opinions on why u decided to cum up with ur movies..please write in English please

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