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.

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