I feel pleased and humbled to announce the publication of my first book, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (2017 Palgrave Macmillan. Chapters can purchased separately here) based on my field research between 2011 and 2012 in Jakarta and Yogyakarta where I was privileged to interview film directors, film producers, festival organisers, film critics and enthusiasts in the Indonesian film industry. I have made many wonderful friends in the process who became colleagues in a rather niche and important field of Southeast Asian cinemas and cultural production. It was written up as my PhD thesis supervised by Dr. Ben Murtagh and examined by Dr. Felicia Hughes-Freeland and Dr. Yvonne Michalik.
I’ve written a commissioned article for The G-Blog on the present challenges of Muslim feminism in Malaysia and globally, linking it to wider structures of war, (post)-neoliberal economics, and the rise of alt-right political narratives.
Situating Muslim feminism in the bigger picture
Let’s face it, times are bad. Full-time and secure paid work are drying up, and real wages are not catching up with the rising prices of basic essentials. More adults in their 20s and 30s continue to live with their parents because it is too expensive to live on their own. Millennials have inherited a post-2008 global recession that never really recovered and an overpowering culture of debt. And now we welcome 2017 on a low note. We watch a car crash in slow motion as global superpowers and their leaders prove themselves to be devastatingly anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and anti-peace. It will take a long time to offset the damage of their politics.
So what is the role of Muslim feminism during this period of cruelty and despair? Feminist-identified Muslim women of all ages are faced with challenges that crisscross faith and the secular arenas of their lives. It is time to connect the dots between different types of gender-based oppressions with those of male-dominated interpretations of religion. But being female and Muslim is not isolated from the economic and political reality either. In fact, the poor economic situation and political corruption have an impact on feminist and faith-based belief. The spiritual meaning of patience (sabar as being a component of one’s iman) and moral right or haqq are not used and reclaimed in the public discourse to alleviate the daily humiliations of Muslim women and non-normative people. Instead, sabar is distorted to justify domestic and national suffering. What is morally right becomes manipulated to condone the discrimination of women and people of non-normative genders and sexualities from attaining their full potential in the public sphere.
What does it mean to be young, Muslim and feminist today? For many young women, it means a whole new life; a commitment that transforms their way of thinking about the world, a new set of friends, and re-orientation of priorities manifested in their ambitions and daily practices. This commitment is synonymous with what is understood as ‘feminist consciousness’, a process of seeing the world from a gendered perspective and about being re-born as a feminist. However, the backlash that awaits them for articulating their feminist commitment is often hostile and violent. Rather than an apparatus and ideological framework for social justice, the iconoclastic demands of feminism are frequently judged as un-Islamic and inimical to local culture. Muslim feminism is not the default feminism for people who identify as feminist women and Muslim. When I conducted a focus group last September on what it means to be a Muslim feminist today, the responses I got were eye-opening: Muslim feminists are not entirely enamoured by the limits of ‘Muslim feminism’. Perhaps there is an assumption that being a Muslim feminist means looking at every feminist issue from a religiously-informed lens when not everything that is important to being a person is religious or Islamic.
I’ve written a short essay for the Indonesian film journal, Cinema Poetica, ahead of my forthcoming book, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (2017), published by Palgrave Macmillan:
There is perhaps a queasiness on the part of filmmakers, critics, and audiences alike about the label ‘Islamic cinema’. Such feelings are understandable because the creation of a fence around ‘Islamic cinema’ means constructing a very artificial unity out of a corpus of diverse films which are as diverse as the expressions of Islam and what it means to be Muslim. Although it has been used without much qualification, the genre and category of ‘Islamic cinema’ requires some unpacking.
This short essay makes a case that ‘Islamic cinema’ produced in the Indonesian film industry can justifiably be called ‘Islamic’ while at the same proposing that the ‘Islamic’ in filmmaking and other cultural practices in general be expanded and inclusive. In my forthcoming monograph, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan), I endeavour to create a systematic definition of ‘Islamic cinema’ through a gendered lens. I found, through textual analysis, archival data, and interviews with filmmakers, that the ‘Islamic’ in film can often be elusive and ambiguous rather than fixed and conveys its religious message through an intersection of gender, class, and the nation.
Cynical film critics in Indonesia argue that a film becomes Islamic when the Islamic veil is a significant feature of its main characters, setting the tone, mood and expectations for the unfolding narrative. Although the Islamic veil has become the synecdoche of Islam in the public sphere, it is too superficial a sign to signify the ‘Islamic’ film. Other critics take a more effects-oriented approach namely that Islamic cinema has the power to transform its audiences. For the Muslim audience, films with a wholesome Islamic message are thought to have a didactic effect and turn viewers into better Muslims.
On the other hand, non-Muslim audiences, especially in the post 9/11 world, are supposed to learn that Muslims are a peaceful and democratic people. While serviceable, these arguments about what Islamic cinema are inadequate when one begins to consider the range of subjects and opposing ideological and political views featured in Indonesian films with Islamic themes. Furthermore, ‘Islamic cinema’ as pure didactism and propaganda assumes the passivity of its intended audiences. ‘Islamic cinema’ may indeed have a transformative effect on its audience but not always those intended by its producers.
Scenes from ‘Islamic cinema’ Indonesia comprises of non-judgmental representations of apostasy from the Islamic faith to an unabashed celebration of prosperity Islam (and the critique thereof). In some films Muslim women valiantly challenge the patriarchal biases of Muslim men while other films portray polygamy in a romantic light. How do we make sense of a religious preoccupation in films while maintaining that these films are in some way ‘Islamic’?
To attend to this question, I take a roundabout way and find possible answers in What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, in which the late Shahab Ahmed argues for a reclamation of the Islamic within the non-legal and cultural aspect of Muslim life. For too long, the legalistic dimension of Islam remained the pinnacle of what is properly considered ‘Islamic’ in the lives of Muslims. His approach is idiosyncratic as he advances his arguments with latent texts about the Islamic virtues of wine-drinking and visualization of animals and humans. There are many contradictions within Islamic practice across history and cultures that span the globe. We must embrace those inconsistencies in a “constitutional coherent manner, because this is the only way that we can map the human and historical reality of the internal contradictions of Islam”.
Like Jewish films, ‘Islamic’ cinema stands apart from other films with religious messages like The Passion of the Christ or Ben Hur, both incidentally not called ‘Christian films’ or part of a ‘Christian filmmaking’ tradition. All films in Indonesia are subject to production regulations to protect citizens from consuming material deemed blasphemous under Islamic law. Because of the restriction in Islam against the visual depictions of God, the prophet Muhammad, his family members, and other prophets, Indonesian films with Islamic elements are rarely ever about divine beings, prophets or even stories from the Quranic texts. For these reasons, film critic Eric Sasono argues that Indonesian films about the lives of Muslim individuals and communities are not commensurable with the typologies of Indian Hindu and Hollywood Christian films which bring into focus gods, prophets and tales from sacred texts.
The use of film as a medium for propagating religious messages goes back to the earliest days of cinema. Indeed, the apparent ‘Catholicism’ of early cinema is captured in Andre Bazin’s famous quote: ‘cinema was always interested in God’. Seventy films with biblical themes were made in the US and Europe before the First World War.
For the film scholar Conrad Ostwald, traditional cinema itself was a kind of secular religion: “The movie theater has acted like a secular religion, complete with the sacred space and rituals that mediate an experience of otherness”. This is because the film theater had been treated as a place of worship during the screening of biblical films. In 1908, the showing of The Life and Passion of the Christ was condemned by New York priest for taking place in a place of entertainment rather than in a church. Critics of the ‘secular’ screening suggested soothing organ music and incense burning to heighten spirituality of the film.
Biblical epics of early cinema became the wellspring for films made with other faiths in mind. The ‘Father of Indian cinema’, Dadasaheb Phalke was inspired by the life of Christ flickering across the silver screen:
While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the gods Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya… Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?
The fruit of Phalke’s inspiration was the first Indian feature film, Raja Harischandra (1913), based on the Hindu Mahabharata.
Like the biblical epics of early cinema, dakwah or Islamic preaching is widely regarded to be central to the function of Islamic cinema and media. Derived from the Arabic term da’wa to mean call or invitation, dakwah in the Indonesian context is a general term to denote efforts to propagate Islam in society. Although dakwah is used to convert non-Muslims to Islam, the term is more commonly invoked for the strengthening of the Islamic faith and guiding Muslims to live by Islamic principles.
The use of cinema for dakwah, however, is vaguer in its execution. Nevertheless, it was embraced by Indonesia’s pioneering filmmakers such as Asrul Sani, Djamaluddin Malik, and Misbach Yusa Biran who made films for the purpose of dakwah. Clerics and religious commentators have often tended to define the dakwah film in terms of what it is not, in that it does not have the ‘immoral’ elements of Hollywood cinema and the preoccupation of Indonesian cinema with horror, the supernatural, and eroticized display of women.
In his 1965 essay entitled ‘Film sebagai dakwah’ (Film as dakwah), distinguished filmmaker Usmar Ismail urgued other filmmakers to ‘make films a media of (national) struggle and a media for Islamic proselytizing’. Dakwah films, he asserts, need not to be religious or commercial akin to the 1956 Hollywood blockbuster The Ten Commandments but should affirm Muslims as subjects of God.
A fellow contemporary of Usmar Ismail, Asrul Sani, however, held a more critical view. Sani argued that all dakwah films made during the New Order and the period after were misguided in their approach. For Sani, Indonesian dakwah films are preoccupied with ritualistic and dogmatic Islam with the intention of substituting the role of the Kyai or religious leader. He even rejects the term ‘Islamic film’, arguing instead that “all films that go beyond the surface of life are [actually] religious films”.
The cinematic visualization of religious stories made with the very intent of moral didactism goes to the heart of the belief that films can be educational, spiritual, and above all, a source of moral good to be absorbed by ‘the masses’. Films with religious messages routinely begin with excerpts from sacred texts, sermon, an image of a holy structure, all of which allude to that something highly moral is to be learned from watching the film. Defying all classical theories of secularization and the retreat of religion to the private sphere, religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, now repackaged in a more popular format than ever (some say commodified) has found its way into public consciousness in brighter, glossier, and more mobile iterations.
To what extent will cinema remain a ritual in the 21st century? Cinema-going numbers have been dwindling since the rise of home-viewing video cassette tapes, television, and the internet. The cinema is no longer the only place where one can gaze upon images of the spectacular and receive tales of moral heroism. Like stragglers of a long party, faith, and cinema alike stick around promising an experience quite profound and mysterious. In its yoking of everyday jihad with global mission of terrorism, chaste love with the seductive yet soul-destructive power of money, ‘Islamic cinema’ may provide its viewers answers for spiritual conundrums both quotidian and world-transforming. Like other genres, there is a suspension of time and space, and an immediate connection is made between the viewer and the glowing purveyor of moral truths.
Are you between ages 18 to 29 and identify as a woman, Muslim, and feminist? Do you have thoughts about the burkini ban and the treatment of Muslim women who wear the hijab in France and Europe more generally?
I am coordinating a focus group of 10 participants to discuss what it means to be a Muslim feminist today and how as Malaysians, we engage with global discourses on feminism, religion, secularism, ethnicity, and gender. The focus group will be conducted as an open space conversation, audio-recorded and participants can request anonymity.
If you are interested in participating in the focus group, do contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop me a Whatsapp message at 012-63121-54. You can also drop me a message in the comments section of this post.
The date (in September), time (after 8 pm), and place (most likely in the PJ area) for the focus group will be finalised and announced once at least five participants have confirmed to attend.
I’ve been asked to write a blog post for The G-Blog on women who do not wear the hijab as a ‘counter’ opinion to other pieces on women who wear it. During the editorial process of the blog post, I was reminded again how sensitive the topic of the hijab is and that ‘strong’ views against the dominant current of opinions such as mine will face opposition. At the same time, I am reminded how the priorities of my views on Muslim women and veiling have shifted of the years; from defending women’s decision to wear all iterations of the hijab to being critical of social pressures on women to wear it. At face value, this isn’t much of a shift. In fact, they are usually part of the same argument. However, I have made it a point to emphasise in my own work the real pressures women face to wear the hijab, the lifeworlds of women who do not want to wear it but have to, and women who face abuse because they do not wear it. I feel that the foregoing side of the ‘same’ argument is given less air time in the contemporary discourse on the hijab. Perhaps because of this neglect, my criticism of social pressures is often seen as a critique of the hijab tout court. With all that taken into consideration, the following article I’ve written for The G-Blog is my modest attempt to reconfigure the terms of the contemporary discourse on the hijab:
I have always been interested in how the social influences the individual. My research project on the hijab helps me understand the relationship between society and the self. Of course, articles about Muslim women’s choice to wear the hijab have been written and dissected ad nauseam – and here I am writing about it again – so, what makes this piece different from the many others? Perhaps by proposing that both wearing the hijab and the rejection of the hijab cannot be reduced to choice.
In fact, I am forgoing the notion of ‘choice’ by illuminating the narrowing dimensions of Malay-Muslim women’s lives under the aggressive processes of Islamisation and how such limitations inform their decisions to wear or reject the hijab. These narrowing dimensions are experienced in the moral micro-management of Malay-Muslim women’s social landscape. My research assistant Zena and myself have been very privileged to listen and record the oral histories of women who have an ambivalent relationship with the hijab and capture elements of their social landscape.
This is an edited version of a conference and seminar paper presented at the National University of Singapore in March 2016 and Australian National University in April 2016:
Women who decide to remain un-veiled or ‘free hair’ (colloquial, noun) are a significant minority within predominantly Muslim societies. Their sartorial decisions are often couched in a type of ethics that contrasts with the hegemonic interpretation of Islam particular to their society and community. We need to listen to women’s stories so that we can better understand the impact of Islamisation on women and their sense of self. Early findings of my UM-funded research project, “Silence and Consent: The Modern Social History of Non-veiling in Malaysia” constitute a praxis in listening to these women’s stories.
In countries other than Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and provinces like Aceh where veiling and strict dress codes in public spaces are state imposed on women, Muslim women navigate a complex and frequently treacherous religious and social terrain in which the veil carries a multitude of potent meanings. Their negotiation with veiling suggests the dynamic push and pull factors of coercion and ‘free’ choice that reside within the limits of Muslim women’s agency. For Muslim women who do not wear the hijab in the context of Islamisation, their non-veiled status is held together by daily social tension and pressure as they very visibly deviate from the normative identification of Muslim femininity.
Women who do not veil in Malaysia, especially those outside the public limelight, are invisible in the literature and in the discursive landscape concerning women and Islam. All Muslim-Malay women and girls in Malaysia face varying levels of social and religious-based pressure to wear the tudung (hijab). Many have been subjected to public abuse for not wearing the hijab. Nonetheless, there are Muslim women who remain unveiled and those who have removed their hijab in recent years. Unlike the abundance of research on motivations behind veiling, the lived experiences and reasons why Muslim women do not veil and those who un-veil remain scarce. Reasons for the scarcity of research on Muslim women reflect the attention given to studies on the rise of Islamic symbols in the public sphere. Muslim women who veil have become the embodiment of such socio-political and cultural changes that disturb the gendered boundaries that separate the private from the public. The veil has become a sign that religion has not gone away from the public sphere and that secularism has not defeated public religious expression.
By contrast, Muslim women who remain unveiled are marked as ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ Muslims, antithetical to Islamic revivalism. In societies where Muslims are a minority population, Muslim women who do not veil are regarded as having been assimilated and integrated into secular society. Fadil (2011) remarks that rather than passive and indifferent to the significance of Islamic symbols, women who do not veil perform ethical and affective labour. Affective and ethical labour is called upon in the feeling of insecurity, and when rationalising a new spiritual ethics that occurs “in the supplanting of certain fully ingrained truth-claims (headscarf as essential for Muslim piety) by another set of truth-claims (not-veiling as essential to one’s liberal ethical agency)” (Fadil 2011: 23). To put it more simply, not wearing the hijab is not an easy decision for women.
Muslim women’s capacity to challenge the authority of masculinsed interpretations of Islam is relatively new in Malaysian history. The Muslim feminist organisation, Sisters in Islam, was established in the early 1990s during a period of Islamisation and had pioneered the feminist challenge to the authority of ulamas through their non-patriarchal readings of the Quran and hadith. The state project of Islamisation in Malaysia was characterised as an aggressive promotion of ‘moderate Islam’, an Islamic mode of institutionalised practices that serve a capitalist ethno-religious agenda. The introduction of moderate Islam by the state had, intentionally and less so, created “public conditions of possibility for women’s status to be problematised” (Ong 2006: 33). These conditions befit Anderson and Eickelmann’s definition of the Muslim public sphere in which religious authority is decentralised and members of the ‘rational’ public engage towards shared end goals.
Ong argues that this particular moment in Malaysian history had not been an accident but part of a wider process of the defeudalising of Islam in Malaysia (Ong 2006: 48) in that the Malaysian state sought to standardise the interpretation and implementation of Islamic law across several private and public-funded entities such as Islamic banks, Islamic universities, and several Islamic centres under the prime minister’s purview to better align Malaysians with knowledges and skills suited to the Malaysian Islamic modernity. The formation of the ‘Muslim public’ in Malaysia is, however, an incomplete one. Although there is some physical and discursive space to question orthodox Islamic practices, the mantle of ‘moderate Islam’ in Malaysia today is likely to be under threat under the new wave of Islamisation and state acquiescence to Islamist militant ideas.
This study was conducted after receiving a significant amount of public attention for my Malay Mail Online article on the social pressures to veil in Malaysia. A few women called in and written to thank me for speaking up about what had long been an under-discussed issue, repressed by the fear of being accused of questioning Islam itself. Later, formal interviews were conducted in person and via email. Face to face interviews were transcribed and followed-up with email conversations. More than half of the 40 interviews were with respondents who have answered my online invitation to participate in my research project. Some of their responses, first names and age are reproduced below with their consent and minimal grammatical edits.
Non-veiled women as resistant bodies
Through their dis-articulation with biopolitical production of Islam in Malaysia, ‘free hair’ women become by definition resistant bodies. As resistant bodies, they are open-ended processes articulations of performativity of Malay femininity constituted by the vicissitudes of new Islamisation and continuing struggles for women’s autonomy and religio-political legitimacy. They perform the affective labour of daily negotiations and rationalising their subjectivities against a religious-ethnic norm. So long as they live under the discursive regimes of Islamisation, their relationship with the hijab and reconciliation with not veiling remain open-ended. Zanariah, aged 35, embodies the open-ended quality of Butlerian performativity faced by Malay women who do not wear the hijab:
At first, I felt great wearing it but eventually didn’t like it because I felt like I was losing myself, not being true to myself and constantly needed to behave in certain ways expected by others […] Hijab can also be very uncomfortable in humid weather, leaving me questioning the practicability of it. I felt trapped and wasn’t happy.
I went through a breakdown when the family lost a lot of money & materials in business. Being more religious was my way to cope with the difficult situation. I went through a spiritual journey – attended religious classes & read many religious books as well as history of religions […] Studying the Quran gradually shifted my view towards Islam significantly to wider context, breaking away from shackles of society. Islam is far beyond the hijab.
Slowly hijab is seen as [a] cultural practice and one of many tools used by men to oppress women. Feeling liberated […] I found my courage to make conscious decision to remove my hijab in 2014. […] I feel closer to Allah, the Creator
I started taking care of my hair again. [The] judgmental behaviour I had when I was in hijab faded away. I become more open especially towards other races and religions. I feel at ease to mingle across religions without hijab. I found a new confidence to speak out & feel happier.
The context of Islamisation necessitates the Malay female subjectivity to cultivate a continuum of (non)-veiling; as decisions for veiling practices are always open-ended and subject to rupture i.e. re-veiling. But it is a futurity full of negotiations. Non-veiling allowed Zanariah to be an active participant in the construction of an ethics and authenticity. Arriving at her current ethical standpoint required heavy affective labour to negotiate and replace a one set of truth claims (the veil as obligatory in Islam) with another set of truth claims (the veil is not required in Islam, happiness is paramount).
‘Free hair’ as critical subjectivity
Narratives of ‘free hair’ Muslim women fully illuminate the definition of the subject and what Foucault calls the ‘modes of subjectivation’ defined as the “limits of a historically specific set of formative practices and moral injunctions that are delimited in advance” (Mahmood 2005: 28). In the context of a predominantly Muslim society, such modes of subjectivation include the daily discipline of modest dress and the spatially and temporally-defined cultural mores that women must contend with every day. A critical subjectivity is formed from the intensified tension created between the subject and the modes of subjectivation causing deep introspection, questioning and opposition. Anonymous, aged 23, represents this particular type of critical subjectivity:
I would say the moment when I decided to not wear hijab anymore is when I lost hope in it. It makes no difference whether you wear it or not. Hijab, instead of becoming an identity, it has become an excuse, a tool, and have been politicized by people. Of course, this is a dangerous statement, as wearing hijab is a requirement in being a Muslim. But for now, my faith in whatever message conveyed by wearing or not wearing hijab is still wavering.
Siti Hajar, 33
After a lot of soul searching, with a lot of world events as a catalyst, I stopped wearing my tudung. I stopped wearing it initially for one reason, continued not wearing it for other reasons as I kept learning/ rethinking my beliefs.
Honestly I never felt so weird when I remove my hijab once I’m back home because that’s when I feel like I am being honest to myself. I never liked wearing the hijab. It feels like I’m bound to a set of rules and practice. It feels like I have to act in a certain ways like I can’t shake hands or give/receive hugs from anyone.
Copious amount of feminist research and commentary on the hijab focus on the role of women’s agency operating within decisions to wear the hijab. However, few have tended to focus on motivations behind women who choose to live without the hijab and removing it after a period of wearing it. As I have explained elsewhere, I am less interested in the construction of agency if it is understood as similar for all Muslim women living in a socially pressurised environment. What is more interesting to me is the orientation of the ‘free hair’ as a critical subject in relation to local mores, family relations, personal ambitions, and world geopolitics. It is a critical subjectivity with oppositional values and world-making practices while at the same under-articulated in the Muslim public sphere. The next phase of my research focuses on the critical subjectivity of non-veiling in smaller towns to examine other voicings, articulations, and world-making practices that rationalise non-veiling.
Non-veiling is a powerful, if invisible indicator of the effect of Islamisation on women. As the early findings above suggest, the decision to remove the veil is more than about changes in one’s religious belief but is part of a wider patchwork of life experiences and relations. Non-veiling complicates the boundaries that separate the religious from the secular, self and others, past, present and future.
Women are still approaching me to talk about their relationship with the hijab and how they have parted ways with it. But such conversations are sensitive because the topic of non-veiling and un-veiling is taboo. Based on my early observations, I’d like to argue that the silences and absences of experiences in the context of Islamisation tell us much more about the operations of agency and the “modes of subjectivation.”Although moderate Islam has created public conditions for feminist scrutiny of patriarchal bias within religious authority, new Islamisation is narrowing avenues for agency and ethical practices of being for women.
Fadil, Nadia. 2011. Non-veiling as ethical practice. Feminist Review. 98: 83-109.
Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton University Press.
Ong, Aihwa. 2006. Neoliberalism As Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke University Press.
My dear followers and readers of this blog,
I will be presenting my early findings of my new research project on non-veiling in Malaysia in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS) on Wednesday 23rd March 2016. This is going quite exciting for me as it’s the debut of my first post-PhD project. Those residing in Singapore and in the neighbourhood, do drop by and say hi!