Emancipating the Struggle – Wanita Bertudung Hitam

Putri Bunk uncovers more about the film Wanita Bertudung Hitam by Mahadi J. Murat.

A film directed and written by Mahadi J. Murat visualises Ahmad Idris’ original story in 1992, ‘Wanita Bertudung Hitam’. It collaborates the performing skills of Ramona Rahman (Maya/Tiara) with Jalil Hamid (Husin), Zami Ismail (Ayah Soh) and Kartina Aziz (Ewah/Auntie). The story entails a journey of a village lady named Maya, who lives in Malaysia, Southeast Asia in the 1980s, and discovers her relationship with God by challenging the female status-quo of fulfilling her dreams to work in the city of Kuala Lumpur as a model after being given a forced blessing by her father Ayah Soh.

Spotted by Maya’s family’s neighbor Ewah, she found not only beauty through Maya’s look and soft-persona, but also talent through her traditional dancing skill, so much so that Ewah believes Maya can be a successful celebrity in Kuala Lumpur. Ayah Soh is not too happy with the situation, but knowing her daughter and through her persistence, he gives in.

Maya starts her life as a model in Kuala Lumpur through Ewah. She starts to be noticed by the owner of the modeling agency, played by Yalal Chin as Che Mat Ahmad Tabra. He lavishes Maya with luxurious treatments, including expensive dresses and beauty products, gold, diamond, and an apartment. Ewah and her friend Ros/Rosli played by Romzie Johari, do not like the changes that are happening to Maya. They have a conflict in the house that causes an incident on Maya. Ros accidentally splashes hot water towards Maya while he is walking away at the same time Maya tries to leave the house. The left side of her face is burned.

From that point onwards, the film’s direction takes a different turn, as the audience begin to see the gloomy, self-reflective side of Maya. During her glamorous time, her name was suggested as Tiara by Ahmad Tabra. Once the incident happened, she turns back to being Maya. She leaves out her past as a sexy, glamorous, grandeur life as a celebrity; instead the new Maya prefers to live on her own in order to reflect upon herself and towards her relationships with her Creator, Allah s.w.t.

This film pulls in several issues, such as the issue of living between in the city and in the village, the dire negative impact of working as an artist in an entertainment world (especially as a violinist), and issues of the derailing of morals in a big city, as well as gender role and the patriarchy traditions.’Wanita Bertudung Hitam’ opens a discussion on the female’s role, as its protagonist Maya learns her role, first as a human being and with its relations as a daughter, as a woman and as a Malay Muslim living in a village with the mindset of a pre-modern era. Perhaps it was a reality during the production of this film, and this film functions as a document to look into the history.

In ‘Wanita Bertudung Hitam’, Maya plays a character that lives in both of these worlds in a short amount of time. Naturally, the norm of the role of women in society is formed directly by its society collectively, and from viewing the film, we can feel the pressure that Maya goes through, by way of the negative responses from most of the elderly characters, especially Ayah Soh, Ewah, and Ros. But more inwardly than the opposite, Maya fights the concept of woman emancipation with her understanding of Islam, which is the standard form of practice for that very milieu.

The fight that Maya soldiers through lands the idea that she is aligning herself with the traditions, by recluding herself from the world and focusing herself on God. This is supposedly good behaviorism that is acknowledged by society. But in her being reclusive, she also rejects a marriage proposal from Husin. The rejection, however, is not looked at as a major sin, as her decision is to finesse her relationship with the Higher Power, which is more supreme than its commandments.

The belief system here is that one needs to have a good relationship with God in order for one to follow its commandments. We can see this through a scene when Husin visits Maya at her house, asking her hand in marriage, and Husin leaves the house without further arguments when Maya told him she is not interested and would rather focus on herself and her understanding of Islam. If this scene cannot be accepted by society, people will start talking, and the media will start condemning the director as well as the storyline, of being unethical and unaligned with the codes and conducts of Islamic law. We have seen these practices during film careers of other auteur and unique filmmakers such as Yasmin Ahmad and Amir Muhammad, to name a few that received controversial negative treatments due to their ‘insensitive’ narratives and visuals in their films towards society’s moral outlook.

‘Wanita Bertudung Hitam’ segmented three sections in the film to capture the living experience of Maya. The first segment is her innocent age, uninterrupted from the outside world. The second part captures her glorious time as a celebrity, rising to be a superstar in the city of Kuala Lumpur, while the third segment focuses on her adult, mature, brooding-in-darkness-reflecting-upon-God part of life.

Maya is an only daughter, raised alone by her father Ayah Soh. She is portrayed in the film as a gentle lady, the one that is taken by local society as a perfect future-wife role, and a perfect daughter-in-law. Ayah Soh works as a fisherman who befriended other young fishermen. One of them is Husin, who has shown interest towards Maya through the few conversations he has had with Ayah Soh. A common local culture would suggest that it is a safe bet to start getting the relationship further, due to certain consents given by Ayah Soh towards Husin. Ayah Soh would entertain Husin’s presence by letting him play the violin at his house. We can see a few occurrences that suggest Ayah Soh approves Husin as a friend to Maya.

It may not be that obvious, but it is worth discussing here Maya’s perspective at this point in terms of women’s stance: she has no voice. She has been so far a dutiful daughter who brings out tea for Husin as the guest and for her dad. As an audience, we start to think, is this what she wants? Perhaps it reflects on the women in Malaysia, at about Maya’s age, the young adult between 18-20 years of age; do they know what they want? Are they aware of what is happening in the world, or are women only taught to be like Maya, protected without knowledge of the outside world, to be prepped for marriage and start a family with someone that her dad chose for her?

During my seven years teaching at a local university in Kuala Lumpur, having to interact with university students between the ages of 18 to 22, more than half of the female students shared their informal thoughts during class breaks, on how they look forward to marriages and settle themselves as a housewife. Another lecturer in the same institution have said a few times on the growth and development of the students in his class was pretty shocking, for it was as if he is talking to 15 years-old students. A professor from Canada who had a few years teaching in the same institution had commented about the same thing in a more diplomatic way. In a nutshell, the mental development and emotional growth of younger people in society at this point reflect the characterisation of Maya in ‘Wanita Bertudung Hitam’. Of course, Maya does not just stay and get married. She receives a recognition from Ewah, and with her support, begins to be educated about the outside world.

Maya never portrays herself as someone who has the desire to rebel and push her boundaries. It is only after receiving a push from a mentor character, Ewah, that Maya’s route to success is shaped. Maya begins to get excited over the idea of success away from home. She asks Ewah to help her get permission from Ayah Soh to be able to move to the city. This scene proves the power of patriarchy over a woman’s desire and wish. Maya knows her stand as a daughter who has been with her father for her entire childhood; she does not stand a chance of winning her father’s permission, so she had to ask an outsider’s help.

Ayah Soh, upon his first meeting with Ewah, has already given a negative response, due to Ewah’s urban attire, but immediately lightens up once he finds out that Ewah is a daughter of his long-lost friend. However, that excitement does not last long as he learns further the purpose of Ewah’s visit. Maya stands firm in her wish to move out to the city.

The next scene shows the progress of how Maya tries to gain her independence and make her voice heard. She explains that her wish and dream is aligned with Ayah Soh’s dream of fighting for the arts industry. Instead of receiving a positive response, Ayah Soh warns Maya that the world of entertainment and arts can bring people to hell, as a means to instill fear in Maya. However, Maya fights back by saying that she is adult enough to know whats right from wrong.

Eventually, the back-and-forth exchange sees Maya giving in, as she did not want to see her father sad. This is exactly what is projected in the scene by Ayah Soh, when he sobs, and with that, she decides to let go of her dream. Another person that she consults in her decision to leave for the city is Husin. Again, here we see the same patriarchal guilt trip speech through the script spoken by Husin when he also threatens Maya’s decision to leave the village by asking Maya to reconsider Ayah Soh’s feeling.

But Maya, as well as the audience, understand that Husin is using Ayah Soh as a bait for not wanting her to leave. In an actual fact, Husin himself also prefers Maya to stay. When nothing works to stop Maya, Husin plays again another guilt-trip-self-pity speech by saying that he is nobody in Maya’s life and that he is crippled. At this point, we are asking to ourselves, who is going to fight for Maya’s dream and wish, if she needs to consider other people, in this case, the father and also the lover’s hopes, wishes and dreams?

Maya learns a lot about the city life through Ewah. Ewah gives her a room to stay while grooming her to be an actress. Ewah is portrayed as a successful, independent and emancipated woman, someone we can identify with as a mentor to Maya. She works in a production house that produces films under Che Mat Ahmad Tabra. Ahmad Tabra begins to show interest in Maya. He pushes his patriarchal influence on Maya by suggesting she change her name to Tiara. From here onwards, Maya is called as Tiara. This scene shows that from one world to another, Maya is still clasped within the force of patriarchy. She has submissively accepted the name change, and with the help of Ahmad Tabra, Maya begins to be shaped as a superstar.

Although Maya persistently tells Ahmad Tabra that what she really wants is to be a dancer, Ahmad Tabra rejects the idea by persuading Maya to be the greater celebrity, as an actress. She conforms, and starts to spend more time with Ahmad Tabra as his influence on her begins to take control. She decides to leave Ewah, and creates her own life with Ahmad Tabra’s help. At this juncture, Ewah becomes nervous and begins to assert her power as someone responsible for Maya. Even at this point where the protagonist supposedly achieves her grandest independence, free from the pre-modern world, she is still being pulled back with by the patriarchal voice, this time enforced by Ewah herself, the presumingly emancipated woman. And Ewah succeeds.

On the one hand, we have Ahmad Tabra, and on the other, we have Ewah, who put voices in Maya’s action. Ahmad Tabra offers a more interesting proposal to Maya by giving Maya an apartment. When Maya decides to leave Ewah’s house for the second time and to move into the new apartment, again Ewah (and this time with the support from Ros) throws patriarchal stigma unto Maya, by relaying Ayah Soh’s reasonings and refusal to grant a permission at the first place. Ewah threatens Maya by saying that she understands now why Ayah Soh does not want to give permission to Maya because now Maya has turned ‘wild’. Ewah at this point has also surrendered her role as the emancipated woman by giving the guilt trip and dropping Ayah Soh’s name into the conversation. During this scene, an accident happens where Ros accidentally splashes hot water onto Maya’s left cheek. This accident marks the end of Maya’s golden opportunity as a superstar. On a larger scale, this scenes also marks the success of the power of patriarchy, suggesting that blessings from parents are the foundation of success.

During the dark gloomy days of Maya, where she covers her head and the left side of her burned face with a black scarf, we see that she is ‘successful’ as how the society would want to see her, which is as a good woman, who wears a scarf, stays in her room, reading the Qur’an and obeying her elders. However, we also see her torment through her paintings. She is back to square one, only this time becoming more negative and reclusive. She has lost her confidence and decides to stay alone in her own world, contemplating and reflecting the life that pleases God rather than what pleases human beings.

What is the point of looking back at a 90s film today in the supposedly modern era if it is not to reflect and renegotiate the status quo? Women’s rights in the Muslim world has always received negative stigmas from inside and outside its circle. Due to these stereotypical stigmas, women stepped up to defend and guard their role, as these stigmas impacted them culturally, especially in the understanding of their individual identity.

According to Rose Ismail in a 2004 piece written for Kyoto Review of South East Asia, in Malaysia today the definitions of good Muslim women are defined with words such as “submissive,” “selfless,” and “obedient”: “[…] Muslim women are being taught that they are inferior to men.” The phenomenon explains it clearly, that although we know women in Islam itself is being protected. In reality, we focus more of the rules from the Qur’an in its form rather that its substance, just as it is documented in ‘Wanita Bertudung Hitam’. Through the study of the character of Maya in ‘Wanita Bertudung Hitam’, we can see that at the end, Maya is not content with her position. She is still struggling inwardly as well as outwardly. Her dream to be a dancer is toppled, due to her weak position as a woman who comes from a village, allowing herself to be controlled by the patriarchal voice that circumferences the milieu.

Her position as the superstar was also weak, as she waits for people with power to help her carry her dream. It is therefore unfortunate that this conundrum is deeply ingrained in the Malay Muslim society. This film not only function as a documentation of the past as a form of entertainment, it also helps us to reconnect with Islam and its interpretation based on the Qur’an and the Hadith. This is to move the Muslim community, especially in Malaysia, into a better scenario, allowing them to practise clearly not only through texts and oral citations, but also in the actions, mentality and behaviour of people.

Read Hassan Muthalib’s review of Mahadi J. Murat’s career thus far, and our interview with the man himself. Mahadi’s latest film, ‘LuQman’, is released today (Thursday 28th September 2017). It is his first film for over 20 years, and features Wan Hanafi Su, Raja Ilya and Josiah Hogan. Find out more about the film on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or click on the film’s website for more information. 

Featured image credit: ‘Wanita Bertudung Hitam’

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