The Veiled Butterfly – Islamic Values in Selubung (part 1)


In the first of a two-parter, Putri Tasnim Mohd Arif takes a closer look ‘Selubung’ and its position in the context of Malaysia and its cinema in 1992.

Malaysia comprises of 60% of Muslims, implementing Islam as part of its culture that aided the general outlook of its country. Culture mainly governs social behavior and norms, and is considered as something that is alive, negotiable and interchangeable following a change of time. Islam also acts as an agent of change, a religion that requires its believers to adapt to each situation, from being able to stand relevant to being avant-Garde in its own field. In ‘Muslims Today: Changes within, Challenges without’, Chandra Muzaffar stated that “Islam is a religion of reform, not stagnation”. He quoted Dr. Muhammad Iqbal in his work titled ‘The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’:

Nor can the concepts of theological systems draped in the terminology of practically dead metaphysics be of any help to those who happen to possess a different intellectual background. The task before the modern Muslim is, therefore, immense. He has to rethink the whole system of Islam without completely breaking with the past.

From the above description, Islam, a religion of unity, plurality and ever-changing and –adaptable character, can always be renegotiated and it can never be separable from any creative, intellectual processes. Therefore, the common take on just simply categorising certain films as ‘Islamic’ and ‘spiritual’ merely for the on-the-surface look and the stagnant idea on the image of Islam and Muslims as stigmatised by the media, is old news and should be revisited.

According to Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid in his paper ‘The Formative Years of the Dakwah Movement’, changes did take place in Malaysia tremendously, especially in its economy and religion-scape during the Islamic Resurgence in the early 1970s and stretched to the mid-1990s. These changes naturally inspired filmmakers in injecting stories into their films, as filmmakers functioned to present their audiences stories with believability within its contemporary demand.

Islam teaches a concept of ad-din (lifestyle), which explains the universality of the religion in itself that entails everything that humankind does in everyday life. Every thought process is considered a ritual (an ibadah) to the Creator. Therefore, making films can be considered as an ibadah as long as the intentions are done for the Creator alone. Feisal Tehrani affirms the same idea as mentioned in his book, ‘Sinema Spiritual’: “performing ibadah is the highest form of submission to our Creator.” Based from the Holy Qur’an, not only is creating narrative welcome in Islam, people are encouraged to make one that enlightens mankind.

Therefore, it can be argued that if a film director puts his intention of submitting to his Creator by promoting Islamic values in his films, it can be considered Islamic. A sudden change took place in Iran during its revolution in 1979, which created a massive shift in its cinematic landscape. Majid Majidi, a well-known film director with many international awards and recognitions, has created an Islamic cinema landscape for Iran. His film, ‘Children of Heaven’, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1998. It is known to film critics and scholars that Majidi instilled Islamic spiritual elements into his films.

Taking the same framework, I can see the same branding happened in Malaysia, though it is less recognisable compared to the success of Majidi and his contemporaries. During this decade, Malaysia, too, witnessed a wave of change in its own way that somehow had affected the output of its cinema landscape. Muzaffar wrote in his article claiming that the influx of Islamic resurgence happened due to the massive amount of students from rural demographic sent out to study Islam in Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is a response to the Malaysian political scenario in the 1980s of Look East policy.

As mentioned previously, culture keeps on changing to fit with the demand of currency, to stay relevant, to be avant-garde and true to its moment. The fact is the process of change naturally takes time to materialise and to be transcendent to another level. Cinema also witnessed such a period before it starts to show its reality within its landscape. It definitely has seen a few films that contain Islamic influences since the 1950s, when P. Ramlee made the well-known ‘Semerah Padi’ that captured the Hudud law and its punishment. Of course, it was argued that during this time there was only a handful of local films placed under the Islamic theme because of the way ‘Islamic’ films are viewed.

Prior to the 1980s, generally Muslims in Malaysia looked at Islam as something deemed to be very sacred, distanced and holy, that the culture of discussing the content of Quran to the everyday life is considered as a threat to the religion itself. Only Muslim clerics are allowed to talk about Islam, and other Muslims are better off following without offering any opinions on Islam. The skewed perceptions are still evidenced until today, and the pivotal outbreak on this culture, according to Hamid, is believed to be rooted in the emergence of the Islamic Resurgence in the early 1980s.

Based from some informal conversations, it is gathered that some government offices prior to the resurgence witnessed an environment of Western influences, whereby Malay Muslim ladies were wearing short skirts to work, while drinking alcohol before coming to work was considered a norm. This statement is supported by previous research conducted by the likes of Hamid, Muhammad Monutty and Fadzillah Jamil stating that in the 1960s the typical Malay youth was widely described as one engrossed in a Western-imported sensual and hedonistic culture, popularised by the entertainment media. In January 2015, Malaysians welcomed a K-Pop band, B1A4, to perform a concert in Kuala Lumpur. An incident of hugging and kissing between the band members from Korea and covered Malay-Muslim girls hit the local news.


A few responses from the public arose immediately, especially in the social media. Some were positive, telling others “to stop being too harsh on those Muslim girls because they were just like them too when they were young”, while the rest were negative, with statements like “’we were ignorant before, but with the amount of ‘Islamic’ inputs by the clerics, this shameful incident shouldn’t have taken place.” This further confirms the 1970s landscape in Malaysia, in that it used to see the ‘darkness’ of non-civilisation, on how we were in the ‘non-civilised’ era back then (based on the age of the respondents, it is gathered as much that they were either in their teens or in their 20s during 1970s to 1980s). However, things have now changed. Change, in this context, is directed to the idea of how Islamic Resurgence and the New Economic Policy (NEP) helped to shape culture to be more Islamic. The same Malay-Muslim ladies who use to wear short skirts to work were suddenly transformed into wearing covered clothing such as the hijab.

There are a few films concerned with the Islamic influences, either in terms of its visuals or through its narrative. Films that are in questions such as ‘Selubung’ (1992), ‘Abang’ (1981), ‘Tsu-Feh Sofia’ (1986), ‘Pertentangan’ (1983), ‘Kabus Tengahari’ (1982), ‘Iman…Alone’ (1998) and ‘Perempuan Melayu Terakhir’ (1999). The blossoming of ‘Islamic’ films in its amount is definitely not a coincidence. Even though the numbers are not something that surmountable to make a concrete theory, we can begin looking at how Islam was perceived in that era. Some questions should be looked at in the next analysis in some of these films mentioned, such as:

1) what sort of issues were deemed wrong in the perspective of Islam at that moment
2) how Islam is projected to the world (e.g. the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the rise of terror attacks in the Arab world affecting Malaysian Muslims, especially those who are staying abroad)
3) the concept of pluralism in Islam and tolerance, and
4) how to balance the understanding of Islam inwardly while projecting it outwardly.

‘Selubung’ (1992) directed by Shuhaimi Baba is one of the outstanding films in this context, as it centrally questioned the above concerns through the existence of the Islamic Resurgence. The title itself means covered, which can be looked at in two different ways. One is as a woman that is covered, and another as something that impedes with blurred vision. Vision can be broken down into two as well, which is through our eyes, or through our mind. Perhaps this is what Shuhaimi Baba is trying to disclose, that the society at that moment is introduced with something that is not fully understood by them; they just took it literally, and sometimes did it for a wrong reason. For instance, the idea that covering up the head alone is enough to consider one as ‘Islamic’ and pious.

In the film, the first thing the character EJ (Ida Nerina) did is immediately to cover her head with her scarf that was on her shoulder. The second she mentions Brother Musa’s (Harith Iskander) name, she hurries up and tells Mas (Deanna Yusoff) and the rest of her colleagues that she is late to see him for the ‘Islamic class’. Mas shows concern by reminding EJ not to miss her class again, which is the class that she is officially assigned to with the university. EJ’s abrupt attitude to leave her colleagues in the middle of their recess, just after Halim (Jit Murad) showed the newspaper front page about a mosque burned down in the Sydney suburb, is also questionable and will be discussed later.

There are two dominant settings in this film as both are geographically and culturally challenged. One in Terengganu, Malaysia (500km north east of Kuala Lumpur), and the other in Perth, Australia, a city which predominantly carries a Western ideology. Mas, EJ, Brother Musa and the rest of Malaysian students in this film are studying at the University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth. The year is 1969 – perfectly placed, aligning it to the historical timeline during the rise of the resurgence. There are a lot of issues that the director is trying to instill in her film, other than just what has been discussed before.

For instance, Shuhaimi creates EJ as someone who received a scholarship from the Malaysian government. This is the reflection of the reality of what has taken place during the emergence of the NEP in 1971. Christopher Rodney Yeoh noted most of the students given scholarships during this time were sent to Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, to name a few, came from rural areas with a preset notion in their minds that they are less ‘fortunate’ than the ones from the city. The people from the rural areas at that moment experienced the uneven development in terms of its social and economic stance compared to the ones who moved to Kuala Lumpur to work and had adjusted nicely to the new environment, according to Chandra Muzaffar.

That scenario has created the sense of isolation, the sense of not belonging to the country. In order to preserve the sense of belonging, one has to come up with something that assumed a larger power, more dominant entity, resulting in the Islamic Resurgence. Having this preset notion of “not belonging” in their minds, they were sent out to the Middle East to further their studies, which later helped to create even larger disparity and gap between these two groups. This issue is also documented in few scenes in this film that will be discussed later.

Originally presented as ‘Malaysian Cinema in the 1990s: The Representation of Islamic Values through its Visualisations in Selubung (1992)’ at the International Journal of Arts and Sciences 2015 in Paris, France. Part two will be published soon. Norman Yusoff talked about Islamic cinema in the 24th episode of Thoughts on Films.

 Featured image credit: The Telegraph

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