by Izza Khaleeda
Patriarchal Portrayal of Repentance
I’ve always found it strange that in the telling of contemporary Malay dramas and soap operas, how the role of the woman seems to only ever advance when the man allows it. How piety is glorified to a point where the good girl vs bad girl trope is clearly divided between who is covered and who is not, and specifically who is more likely to counter abuse with a tear-stricken face, as opposed to a punch in the gut – or who is more likely to accept abuse in the first place. How women seem to take a backseat and sway in and out of submission but only barely just, enough to make a meek stand that somehow functions to serve as a catalyst for men to realise their own wrongdoings.
About a decade ago, the film Ombak Rindu was released. At the time it was both lauded for being one of the ultimate romantic Malay films in the 2010s, alongside criticised heavily for its controversial scene that had alluded to two of the main Muslim characters having sex. That had prompted the media to condemn its brazenness, but also strangely dismissing the romanticised problematic depiction of their relationship. This is, among other things, a transparent reflection of the inherently patriarchal and problematic interpretation of religion that has been consistently upheld by religious leaders, politicians and trickling down to the ways in which many men and women view gender roles in Malaysia.
The story was of a pious woman named Izzah who was sold off by her own uncle to become a prostitute, where she was later taken by a rich businessman (Hariz), seemingly out of pity, but served specifically to be his property. Naturally, ‘property’ was laced with a multitude of meanings centring around her as a non-autonomous being. She was, as her role sees fit according to him, his plaything. Afterwards, out of perhaps convenience, he wedded her in secret. Tucked away in a mansion on a remote island, she was vulnerable to his short temper, resulting in, at first verbal, then later on, physical abuse.
By virtue of her character, Izzah remained true and subservient to God, while simultaneously absorbing the tortures Hariz put her through. Hariz sees this whole ordeal, falls in love with her, and gradually changed himself. At the end of the day, he repented, and developed into, what can only be assumed as, a good man. Having realised his life was meaningless without Izzah, and her realising her own feelings, perhaps by redha, (the act of being at peace with God’s decree towards his servant), decided to be by his side. They both lived happily ever after.
It was disturbing to say the least, after having watched it again and realising the extremely problematic depiction of their relationship – in which a woman, trapped within the confines of a house she can never deem a safe place, with a man she constantly fears but obliged to submit to, harrowingly romanticised in a way that being in her position was desired.
At the same time, the act of repentance of Hariz developing into a suami mithali (the model husband) by taking responsibility and realising his wrongdoings towards his wife was celebrated.
He was rewarded with a noble woman, a woman who — despite the horrors in which she was inflicted upon by him —remained loyal and submissive.
It was only apt to ask then – was this how a virtuous Malay Muslim woman should be? Is this romanticised notion of being capable to change a man by simply being a doormat, the role that I am expected to live? Was I (and the majority of the people watching this) supposed to excuse the fact that he had blatantly committed marital rape and domestic violence against his spouse? Does repentance to God justify his misdeeds and wrongdoings in the past? According to the film, yes.
But what about restitution towards Izzah herself?
In Islam, repentance is a virtue that is placed in high importance. It is an act of seeking forgiveness from God, and turning towards God, by realising your flaws as a human being and striving to be a better servant. Malay films and TV shows love to latch onto this lesson, and even though no media does didactic like Malay media does, the ways in which it portrays the process to achieve repentance leaves much to be questioned.
Humour me, if you will, by turning on to TV3 at 7pm on a weekday. Perhaps the likelihood of your encounter with the overly-cliched “promiscuous rich Malay man tamed by docile anak dara alim (pious virgin)” is high. Series such as Nur Kasih, Cinta Jannah, and Kekasih Paksa Rela to name a few, have implemented this narrative, placing women as the beacon—the ones that through all their patience and submission are utilised to guide men to the ‘right path’.
There is already a set category in which a model Malay Muslim woman is portrayed on commercialised films and TV shows. She is almost always stereotyped as good-hearted, demure, domesticated and willing to sacrifice everything, including herself, for her male counterpart.
Burden of the Malay Muslim woman
The largely hegemonic and patriarchal interpretation of Islam in Malaysia positions expectations of women’s morality and piety within the set context of conservative ‘Malayness’. It is akin to the Perempuan Melayu Terakhir (the last Malay woman) identity that, once upon a time, was a symbolic anchor to which men and women had latched onto to find authentic Malay representation in media during post-independence and modernisation but has since been essentialised to uphold the status quo (Ibrahim, 2004; Khoo, 2006).
Because of the identity shift of many women towards portraying their Islamic identity over their Malay identity in recent years, the expectations placed upon them have since been complicated to stricter, more rigid roles—perpetuated and reinforced by the media again and again. Malay women are expected to be the bearers of men’s own sense of displacement: she must be pious and submissive, accommodating to her male counterpart and be dutiful to him regardless of the consequences.
While it isn’t accurate to assume people are passive recipients of media content (as it has been proven that audiences do play active roles in media consumption), there is no denying the potential influences media has on the perceptions of the public.
I’m not here to comment on the dangers of how the media influences people. Rather, the lens that films and TV shows adopt, like Ombak Rindu, is so skewed towards not only reinforcing conservative gender roles, but also blatantly excusing the problematic behaviour of men and dismissing the actual problems that permeate our society. Specifically, the realities that which many Malay Muslim women face in the household.
There is a sense of duty for women to uphold the image of not only her husband, but also his family and her family as well. Talk shows like Wanita Hari Ini ceaselessly touch upon the topic of marriage, and how, for every mistake a man makes, the woman must be there to accept him wholeheartedly.
The responsibilities placed onto the Malay Muslim woman transcends beyond their private life. Many women live in fear when it comes to reporting cases of domestic abuse, and even marital rape. To this day, the concept remains divisive. Conflicts with religious beliefs and deeply ingrained expectations of gender roles leave survivors of domestic abuse and marital rape vulnerable.
According to a report by Sisters In Islam (SIS) on the public and personal rights of Malay Muslim women when it comes to the role of a wife, while 97% of women agree to the notion of being dutiful to their husbands, 57% of them reported that this responsibility poses many difficult challenges, especially when their need to obey their husbands “leads to limitations in carrying out a lot of things”.
Furthermore, it doesn’t help that this narrative is further perpetuated in our own realities. In early 2021, Minister of Women and Family Development Rina Harun issued a statement reaching out to women in reference to the spike of domestic violence faced during the Movement Control Order. One of the factors that has led to the increase in abuse, she says, is the stress that men were facing in losing their livelihood during the pandemic (Hashim, 2021), dismissing that women too were suffering the consequences just as much if not more. The assumptions that she, alongside many other politicians make on the severity of these cases is detrimental when many of the solutions presented revolve around the women either seeking guidance and counselling, or simply not allow themselves to be subjected to this behaviour. Such proposed solutions ignore the fact that this narrative of submission and obedience has been deeply ingrained within the realities of not just Malay Muslim women, but all women, placing the burden once again on the woman.
The general dissatisfaction that many Malay Muslim women feel towards these depictions shouldn’t be taken lightly. We must bring about change especially considering how powerful parasocial interactions can be when consuming media. Ombak Rindu, in all its romances and portrayal of a repented man living happily with the woman who changed him, reveals many problematic layers to how the media depicts the relationship and roles of Malay men and women. This, alongside the plethora of TV shows that portray Malay women as docile and submissive, while excusing the behaviours of their male counterparts, has no place in the modern context. Perhaps then, burdens that are placed upon Malay women for the sake of men’s character development should no longer be tolerated but instead vehemently contested.
Cheng, K. G., 2006. You've Come a Long Way, Baby. South East Asia Research, 14(2), pp. 179-209.
Ibrahim, Z., 2004. On Erma Fatima’s ‘The Last Malay Woman’ (Perempuan Melayu Terakhir): gendering discourses in reclaiming Malayness in the new Malaysian cinema’. Spectator. Special Issue: Screening Southeast Asia, 24(2), pp. 27-38.
Hashim, M. (2021, March 16). Comment: Where's the outrage when women are killed in domestic violence? Malaysiakini. Retrieved December 10, 2021, from https://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/566748.
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