The Women of Indonesia’s Film Religi: Part II

Yesterday, we examined “the convert” and “the reformer,” two types of female characters in film religi. Today, we’ll examine three more:

The ideal

Image via Wikipedia.

Who: Aisha, the niqabi with beautiful eyes in Ayat-ayat cinta (2008) and Anna Althafunnisa, the studious Al-Azhar graduate in Ketika cinta bertasbih (When love is an act of devotion, 2009).

In most romantic dramas, we have the impossibly perfect female lead, which I will designate as “the ideal.” She is fresh in her twenties, conventionally beautiful, highly educated, adored by everyone, but rather boring. They are also the object of affection of equally religious and educated men. There is nothing to suggest that “the ideal” lacks in any way, although they briefly encounter conflict and anguish (polygamy in Ayat-ayat cinta, and AIDS in Ketika cinta bertasbih), which they will triumph over with the convenient help of their love interest.

The divorcee

Who: Anissa in Perempuan berkalung sorban (The woman in the headscarf, 2008) and Anna Althafunnisa in Ketika cinta bertasbih (2009)

Divorce is treated with sensitivity in film religi, but the implicit message that it is far from desirable, and only necessary under very extreme circumstances—like domestic abuse in Perempuan berkalung sorban, or a husband suffering from AIDS in Ketika cinta bertasbih. Although AIDS is treated as a marital disaster of gargantuan proportions, what is striking about the issue of divorce in film religi is it is initiated by the female lead, who successfully sets the terms in the relationship—particularly Anna in Ketika cinta bertasbih, who imposes a ban on her husband-to-be from taking another wife during their marriage.

The tease

Who: Dona Satelit in 3 Doa 3 Cinta (3 prayers 3 loves, 2008) and Eliana in Ketika cinta bertasbih (2009)

The “tease” in film religi does not serve much of a purpose, except as cinematic eye-candy or the object of temptation that the male lead uses to prove his religiosity and moral restraint. Prime examples of “the tease” appear in 3 doa 3 cinta and Ketika cinta bertasbih. They are never contenders in the competition for the male lead’s heart and are often sidelined when the “real” romance between the religious couple develops. Sometimes they “see the light” and don the jilbab, as in Ketika cinta bertasbih. Or, as in 3 Doa 3 cinta, “the tease” continues unreprimanded and bumps and grinds on stage to the hugely popular dangdut music.

Image via Wikipedia.

The recurring patterns of female roles in these films are unlikely to be scripted by accident. These films deliver specific messages about what counts as an idealistic representation of Islamic youth—Muslim women in particular. The women serve as markers of cultural boundaries of what is good and bad about Indonesian faith politics today. For example, Christian women are portrayed as a sympathetic bridge in Christian-Islamic relations: they can marry Muslim men without too much of a fuss, as long as they are pious and show a positive attitude towards Islam. “The tease” is the perfect foil for “the ideal” to demonstrate the contrast between what is acceptable femininity (and thus what is marriageable) from what is undesirable femininity (that somehow needs to be reformed). The heroic but sensitive tribulations of “the divorcee” personify Indonesian society’s changing attitudes toward divorce in that it is necessary and un-stigmatising. Though being divorced is seen as an unfavorable state of affairs, this is quickly ameliorated by a second, much happier marriage in film religi.

Indonesian cinema is an exciting discursive space that reflects and engages with the public’s current political and religious hopes and fears. What makes it particularly compelling and often daring is the artistic and political freedom that film-makers are given to tell stories about Islam in Indonesia today. Despite their “functionistic” roles in these films, the female characters effectively embody the dynamism of Muslim women who rarely feature in global discourses on Islam. My hope as a Southeast Asian Muslim woman is that we have a bigger space and better represented in this discourse, and I think film religi is a great medium for attaining this goal.

Friday Links | December 19, 2014
#SuitablyDressed: A hijab is perfectly suitable attire for a courtroom
Death, Grief and Womanhood
Rejected (Muslim) Princesses: awesomely offbeat women in history
  • henna

    Hi Alicia,

    While reading all the various facets and roles of women in these movies, society(through films) is asking women to do much more than she may like to become perfect. As you said “Ideal”, and we know in real life women have different choices. Women can be ideal as shown in these movies.
    they can be ideal as what there view of idealism is, or they may just flow with life.

    Also Indonesian films is stereotyping good Muslim woman as one who always wears Hijab. “Hijab” and “good” become Synonmyous.

    As a Muslim not practising Hijab I find it an additional burden, and sub conciously have feeling of being judged as bad muslim.

    Similarly as a Muslim practising Hijab, I get liberty of thinking of Non Hijabic women as not good Muslim women. And having a superiority complex.

    These two conditions I have given above make me think that one way or other we are just building stereotype of “Good Muslim women” or “bad muslim women”.

  • Alicia


    You’re right about the stereotype of the “good” Muslim woman = hijabi. And as someone like yourself, a Muslim who chooses to not wear the hijab, I have experienced for a long time not being the “right” kind of Muslim woman whether I’m amongst family, friend, and people I hardly know. But let’s look beyond the stereotype for a moment.

    We have the same situation for Muslim women in Indonesia. The country is undergoing an increase in Islamisation in the media and popular culture, and it is the kind of Islamisation that says that wearing the hijab/jilbab is more Islamic than going free-haired. My post here is not so much about reinforcing those stereotypes but rather pointing them out in religious cinema. The women portrayed in these films are more than just characters, more than stereotypes, but they also convey many implicit messages about what the “ideal” characteristics of a “good” Muslim woman are. But I have also pointed out that they are also more complex than just being “ideal” (i.e. wear the jilbab, soft-spoken, pious, two-dimensional etc.) but they’re also part of a narrative that wants the audience to think and talk about polygamy, divorce, and forgiveness for example.

  • Sumera

    Are these movies subtitled? If they have English subtitles I might watch a few.

  • W.B. Abdullah

    As-salaamu alaikum Alicia,

    Jazaki Allahu khair for a wonderful blog. I found Ayat-Ayat Cinta on You Tube with English subtitles from ComplexCity. Mash’Allah, what a wonderful movie. Pretty dramatic and over the top…they did all but break out into a dance! But your blog inspired me to watch it. I do agree about the idea of the ideal Muslim woman…though in the case of Ayat-Ayat Cinta, for me, Aisha is ideal because she is STRONG in regards to the obstacles she faces in marriage and how she chooses everyone’s happiness and health over her own…I don’t want to give the story away, because I was really surprised and shocked, but I believe that she showed what true unconditional love is about…mash’Allah. Terima kasih for letting us know what film religi is all about…never even know it existed and am now looking forward to seeing more Islamic-themed movies from Indonesia!

  • jin

    Hi Alicia

    I am from Indonesia. I recommend a movie with the title Laskar Pelangi.

    Laskar Pelangi The Movie – Official Trailer

  • henna

    @ Alicia, Yup there is sense in issues that are being raised. I have not seen any movie so far and will check with english subtitles.

    It is just that when we say building stereotype of muslim women by non muslim population, we also need to see within our Muslim society how women get stereotyped.