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?
- 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.
- Belford, A., Film spurs debate over women’s role, Jakarta Globe, 1 March 2009
- Clark, M. (2010) Maskulinitas: Culture, gender, and politics in Indonesia, Monash University Press: Caulfield.
- 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.
- Sen, K. (1994) Indonesian cinema: Framing the New Order, Zed Books.
- 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.
- van Doorn-Harder, P. (2006) Women shaping Islam: Indonesian women reading the Qu’ran, University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago.