Gendered Expectations in Facebook Cartoons

I have noticed a trend on Facebook of pages created and maintained by male religious teachers in the Malay-speaking communities of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. CahayaIslam (“Light of Islam”) and Lukisan Dakwah Islam (“Islamic Drawings for Da’wah”) are two pages most intriguing to me for two reasons: because they create and share cartoons that are drawn in the style of manga, which is popularly associated with comic books cheaply available to children and youth; and because they circumvent the rule in many forms of orthodox Islam against representations of the human form in art.

It seems that this abovementioned rule can be suspended if the images have noble purposes, such as spreading messages about Islam or being a good Muslim. The popularity of these pages suggests that this interpretation is acceptable. These pages have a large following; the “likes” total in the tens of thousands. Many of the cartoons posted on the site receive many positive comments and are shared thousands of times. Thus, it seems to be a fair representation of the dominant ideas about what is considered “Islamic” by a large portion of the Malay-speaking community.

Image via the CahayaIslam Facebook group.

The main differences I noticed were in the implicit messages for the young Muslim woman and the young Muslim man. Looking over the various CahayaIslam cartoons depicting a young man, I could conclude that a young Muslim man should love God and love the Prophet Muhammadprayrepentseek spiritual success, and help those around him. In other words, he should embody the main tenets of Islam and many of the virtues that the Quran teaches us to strive towards. Lukisan Dakwah Islam also focuses on prayer (even linking it to being a macho man!), brotherly love and knowledge of Allah as our Creator. Noble da’wah work, right?

However, young women get a different message. As a little girl, being good means to pray-fast-and-obey-God-and-her-parents-and-later-her-husband. When she is older, she is shy and modest, because it is part of a woman’s attractiveness. She never forgets to follow the four rules of covering her aurat: don’t show your skin colour, don’t show the shape of your body, don’t attract attention, don’t use perfume (I guess there wasn’t enough space to include intellect and personality).

An image from the Lukisan Dakwah Islam group, on how women should dress.

A good Muslim woman should love God and do good deeds! But piety is only to be a source of happiness to someone else (insert any male authority figure here), and her status is at par with other pleasant things such as a large house, good neighbours, and a comfortable vehicle (which of these material possessions do not belong?). Being a pious wife should be her lifelong ambition. Clearly, the scope of a woman’s ambition is woeful compared to what men can be. Likewise, cartoons from Lukisan Dakwah Islam focus on her dress code (hereherehere, the list goes on!) and acts of worship as a wife (horrifyingly also reminding women that they’ll easily end up in Hell.)

Another well-shared photo from this page includes tips on how to raise boy and girl children, differentiating between their potentials. Besides the expected gendered differences on how boys should learn “masculine” skills like fixing engines and electrical items while girls should learn “feminine” skills such as housework, I was appalled to read that boys should do volunteer work and obtain passports to travel for their studies or just “for the experience,” while girls should know only what is related to reproduction and every sort of bleeding that they could possibly have in their lifetime.

Wherever these ideas are coming from, they are definitely being absorbed into the consciousness of today’s Muslims.

I found these cartoons worth highlighting because, as mentioned before on MMWcartoons make it easier to transmit certain messages. CahayaIslam and Lukisan Dakwah Islam have a following of mostly young adults, this is reflected by their method of da’wah (Facebook) and content (visual, colourful, manga-style). I find most of the gendered messages to be highly unrealistic, because of the historically more egalitarian gender relations in this geographical region even after the coming of Islam. Before the regional Islamic revival of the 1980s, Muslims did not make a big deal about women working, travelling, or covering their hair. Perhaps these cartoons are indicating a growing trend towards a more conservative brand of Islam.

The original image, showing the girl’s uncovered feet, via the CahayaIslam Facebook group.

An updated image, where the girl’s feet have been covered, via the CahayaIslam Facebook group.

Nevertheless, there was one cartoon that definitely reflected reality – if not in its message, then in the reactions to it, which even prompted the creation of a new version. Just like in real life, even the bodies of cartoon Muslimahs are policed if she does not cover her aurat properly. The following photo was uploaded in the CahayaIslam group as part of a colouring contest about discouraging Valentine’s Day, but other Facebook users soon pointed out the irrelevant fact that her (cartoon) feet were also a private part (according to the Shafi’i school of thought, which is predominant in the region) and should have been covered with socks!

Even though these cartoons are a new way of reaching out to Muslim youth, the messages they send are definitely not revolutionary, but instead, conventional and highly gendered. As Malay society evolves and absorbs norms and customs from other cultures (especially from the Middle East, as these are deemed superior), the common denominator seems to be conservatism and a rigid differentiation between women and men.

I find this worrying because of how easily these messages could be absorbed by today’s young Muslim women and men. They are living in secular, developing countries where women study, work, and appear in public alongside men and will probably to continue to do so for economic reasons. But in the name of religion, young women are receiving messages that limit their potentials, while young men are receiving messages that reinforce their privileges.

What is the future of Malay Muslim society going to look like?

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  • Maria P.

    I’ve noticed these same pictures in the Patani Malay youth social media realm, with the text often translated into Thai. Of course, the same kids are also often posting duckface Instagrams (in their school uniform mini telekungs, of course), love notes to their favorite Korean pop stars, and announcements that they are engaged to their BFF. Yes, it’s almost /always/ girls posting them. Do you see similar heterogeneity and gendered preferences in the wider Malay world, or might it be a ‘border/margin’ thing?

  • Maria P.

    Oh, and a lot of the time, there’s no text at all, which seems to shift the meaning from ‘behave like this!’ to ‘my halal fairytale romance with my future husband OMG’.

  • Abdulah Sydney

    Im pretty sure the bombardment of modern day media, and advertising images are incredibly more damaging on the self esteem of young Muslim boys, and girls. And perhaps detracts from their faith a lot more in secular nations.

    Having people point out factors of the shafia mathab

  • Izzie

    The whole idea of a woman’s faith has been reduced for helping your father,son or husband. (Not even mothers and daughters included). I recently attended a sermon from a supposedly liberal ustad say, if a woman wears a perfume she is a prostitute .not to mention that hë used the pro word around fifteen times in front of an audiencë which had as young kids as small as five year olds. All for women, who may bë wearing a tight burkha, perfume or anklets. Seems islam has been reduced to a what not to wear rules section.
    And the socks thing, baffling! That too in a cartoon

  • Sya

    Maria P: I’ve seen the same phenomenon among the young girls (mostly) that share these cartoons. I don’t know what would exactly be the reason behind the apparent contradiction between the cartoon content and their actions. But I imagine it could be due to some peer pressure to prove how Islamic they are even while being kids? :) Perhaps they’re still enjoying the cartoons at a superficial level (cute drawings and fun Islamic messages!) and haven’t understood the full gravity of the gendered messages in the cartoons.

    Abdullah Sydney: Facebook cartoons are also “modern day media”. Perhaps you meant mainstream media like MTV, or fashion magazines that shows half-naked girls in their videos and spreads? I agree that they have their own set of gendered expectations. However, I would hesitate to say that choosing between the lesser of two evils is a good thing.

    Izzie: I agree wholeheartedly with your comment! :) So what shall we do? Stop going to lectures? Do our own lectures? :D


    These pics remind me of these other anime-style drawings depicting Muslims, done by someone who post his work on DeviantArt, that are also occasionally featured on Facebook posts. When I went to check out more of his artwork, I found that he used his drawings to also give Da’wah to others, by providing little tidbits of information about Islam along with their visual representations to viewers, which I found to be quite interesting. As for the drawings mentioned above, while I personally have no qualms about what they focus on, I do think it would be helpful if they also discussed about things that both sexes can relate to, such as how to be good citizens, how to engage in civil discourse, how to contribute to society through one’s work (and that should include all types of work, from menial jobs to professional positions), etc.