The Women of Indonesia’s Film Religi: Part I

Film religi is an Indonesian cultural phenomenon quite unlike any other in Southeast Asia. It is a film genre that is focused on religion (mainly Islam) and its attendant hot issues like polygamy, deviant prophets, interfaith relations, and global ‘terrorism’. Riding on the popularity of the hugely successful Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love, 2008), a string of copycats followed. Mainly love stories, these films work on variations of the single, but winning formula: boy meets girl, a conflict that potentially drives them apart, conflict resolved, and the boy and girl live happily ever after.

However, the love story in film religi do have differences from the typical Hollywood romantic narrative; the couple do not hold hands on screen, nor do they kiss, and the female romantic who ends up with the guy is the one who wears the jilbab.

After spending the last few months watching many films back to back for my Ph.D. research, certain female stock characters that seem to reappear in different films became difficult to ignore. As stock characters in film religi, it appeared that their role involves more than being instruments of hetero-normativity—their purpose is to define the genre itself. Today and tomorrow, I’ll examine the women of Indonesia’s film religi.

The reformer

Image via Wikipedia.

Who: Aisyah in Syahadat Cinta (The shahadah of love, 2008) and Sarah in Kiamat sudah dekat (Judgment Day is nigh, 2003)

Both films, Syahadat cinta and Kiamat sudah dekat share many similarities: both deal with a born-again Muslim man who falls for a religious young woman. The main female lead plays the role of reformer, someone who persuades the wayward male lead into following a more Islamic way of life and who in the end doubles up as the love interest. In other words, she is the “reward” for the pious man, whose heart he wins at the film’s climax.

The reformer is usually the daughter of an kyai (religious teacher) or the principal of an Islamic school (pesantren) and herself the ultimate model of Islamic femininity: soft-spoken, impossibly polite and proper. The romantic male leads tend to be wealthy, out of control, and obnoxious (such as in Syahadat cinta) or a rock-and-roll musician who is in serious need of de-Westernization (Kiamat sudah dekat).

The convert

Who: Pricilia in Syahadat cinta (2008) and Maria in Ayat-ayat cinta (2008)

Sometimes a love triangle is included in a romantic film religi. And, to spice things up, a Christian love interest sometimes shows a substantial interest in the Muslim male lead. Apart from being beautiful, she is an exemplar of her faith, as she is often seen throughout the film in prayer, reciting something from the Bible, or making favorable comparisons between Christianity and Islam. Despite having embraced Islam, however, the convert never becomes the love interest who lives happily ever after with the male lead; she either dies, as in Ayat-ayat cinta, or is politely rejected by the man she loves in Syahadat cinta.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s continuation of the women of film religi, including “the ideal” and “the divorcee!”

  • Sara

    I have never learned about this before, but it is incredibly interesting.

    Alicia, I look up to you :)


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