On Portrayals of Indonesian Muslim Women: In Search of the Missing Pictures

On Portrayals of Indonesian Muslim Women: In Search of the Missing Pictures August 26, 2013

There are a number of reasons why I decided to contribute to this blog. One of them was because sometimes I find myself in a no-(wo)man’s land when it comes to media portrayals of Indonesian Muslim women in general.

Years ago, I came across this meme about hijabs. The image on the bottom left struck me as a familiar stereotype of Indonesian women, one that is most especially notable in the Middle East: that of the lowly-educated housemaids. My mother, who travels to Saudi Arabia on a regular basis, comes across this stereotyping every now and then when shop assistants ignore her inquiry and serve another Arab-looking customer instead. The “Indonesian maid” image is also prevalent in Malaysia and Singapore. Basically, if you’re Malay-looking and wears a plain-looking hijab, there is a fair chance that you will be mistaken for a housemaid at some point in your life (yes, I’m saying this based on my personal experience).

It also struck me that when I read the news about my country in English, the reports about Indonesian Muslim women-related issues tend to portray us as unfortunate creatures repressed by unfair, misogynist – and of course, Islamic-based – laws. Let me give you an example. A quick Google search for terms like “Indonesian Muslim women” easily returns a slew of discussions on a ban on straddling motorbikes for women in the remote Aceh province and even the fictional ban on female flatulence.  However, my search for English-language reports on the victory of Fatin Shidqia at X-Factor Indonesia, which was broadcast nationwide and generated tons of local media reports, only resulted in these mere few lines. I find it curious, because I think the world has a lot to glean about Indonesia and Indonesian Muslim women from the winning of a 16-year-old hijabi in a western-imported singing contest. At least, I have never seen something like this happen in other parts of the world.

Even though there is plenty of coverage on Fatin’s victory in the local media, I still find the discussions on issues related to Muslim women in this country are quite limited. Other than hijab fashion, more hijab fashion, domestic issues and ritual how-tos (have I mentioned hijab fashion?), there is little else discussed in most Muslim women’s magazines in this country.

So that left me scratching my head. Even in the world’s largest Muslim-populated country, the media doesn’t do a better job of painting the real, varied pictures of Muslim women than anywhere else in the world. Where is the place to discuss difficult issues that confront Muslim women? Is there any media outlet where someone like me – an ‘in-between’ who occasionally enjoys looking at hijab fashion pictures, but not too much; whose hijab style is so simple that several people have mistaken her for a housemaid; who deeply cares about her religion and her country – can rant about the media injustices that she has seen?

And that is one of the reasons why I landed on this blog and started to tell stories from this part of the world.

I’m pretty confident I will never run out of material.

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