Between comedic ghost movies and action-packed gangster films, the Malay film industry sometimes decides to churn out romantic flicks. A close friend of mine told me how her successful corporate sister goes to these movies just to find out what the whole hype is about. Every time she comes back home, she sighs and laments the very patriarchal messages portrayed in Malay media under the context of a Muslim environment.

Malay movies, television series, novels and stories are always circling around the same patriarchal theme albeit in different settings. The damsels are always in distress and waiting for the same bad boy who torments them to turn over a new leaf and become their saviour. Yes: it seems that Malay women enjoy Stockholm Syndrome romance. Try to pick a story that you’ve seen or read and see if you can identify how the women are portrayed as weak and men are portrayed as the ultimate saviour. In the meantime, I’d very much appreciate it if you can point to some stories that celebrate the strength of intelligent women.

Is there really any denying that the Malay culture has always been patriarchal? No. The Sultanate and all those history and legends point to the strong affinity toward male-rulers in the Malay culture and society. However, confusion happens when this patriarchal theme starts to be “preached” as part of a Muslim way of life.

A Muslim’s way of life is based on two things – the Quran (holy revelation) and the Sunnah (the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings and practices). I’m not going to start giving a long-winding Islamic revelation lecture here but it is not easy to ignore the existence of a chapter called “Woman” in the Quran which is filled with guidelines to being a good Muslim. Among the Prophet Muhammad’s wives were two strong-willed and intelligent women – the beloved Siti Khadijah, his first wife, was a business woman and respected by the very patriarchal Arab community while Siti Aisyah was loved for her witty nature and her intelligence which surpassed the scholars of that time.

Therefore, it is a terrible thing to hear such stories that show how little respect men have for women, be they strangers, friends or even their own family members. Like Asmah, an ex-colleague of mine who is expected to change her lifestyle after marriage – staying at home and usually not allowed to go hang out with friends – while her husband continues his lepak-sessions with his friends at a mamak. When asked if this worries her, she answered docilely that at least he isn’t out with some other woman.

Or Hanisah, a distant cousin who received an offer to pursue her post-graduate studies overseas but was forced to turn in down because her husband didn’t want to have to move from the country for a few years. Or a friend’s sister-in-law, Jannah, who had to support her unemployed husband as well as her children throughout her six years of marriage while her mother-in-law put all the blame of Jannah’s husband’s laziness and failure on to her shoulders.

All those wives, unfortunately, are either unaware of how restrained and inhibited their lives are or are letting their husbands get away with robbing them of their rights. Perhaps it is entirely a cultural thing: even some mothers tend to be more lenient toward their sons while grooming their daughters to be ready to drop everything, including their dignity, for their husbands. We all heard and read about the Obedient Wives Club last year. Some of us were devastated by the pride those women put in calling themselves “prostitutes for their husbands” but there are some voices that agree whole-heartedly to such patriarchal views.

Unfortunately, this one-sided respect is also practised beyond the family. A friend, Ibrahim, told me of how his years of studying in a local university did not prepare him to work for a female boss once he got into the industry. University projects and assignments were always led by a male student rather than a female classmate and it seemed to be the unspoken rule for all the students. Nobody questioned the gender bias, even if there happened to be a better leader amidst the female students. The idea of answering to a lady-boss was so alien to him at first that he was near to quitting his job.

The topic of Malay patriarchy against feminism in Islam perhaps can trigger all sorts of debate from all kinds of perspectives. As a Malay-Muslim woman living in an urban community, my views and opinions on this topic might not fit those from different race, religion, backgrounds and gender. I would like to invite the readers to share their opinions or experience, to create a discussion and to illustrate for others the truth of the matter from where you stand.

Illustration by Xeem Noor

Cek Mek Molek enjoys making observations on love and relationships via her Muslim eyes and heart. She believes that life is like her namesake; crusty and hard on the surface but overflowing with sweetness once you bite the bullet-shaped kuih.

Please note views expressed here are the personal opinions of the columnist and not of Poskod.my.