The process of reading this novel was put on halt for several times due to other focuses such as school workloads and my doctoral degree research proposal. At last, I’ve managed to finish reading the Indonesian Islamic fiction novel entitled “Perempuan Berkalung Sorban” or loosely translated as The Woman With The Keffiyeh Turban. I was first intrigued by it when I watched the movie version and was spellbound by the sociological messages encrypted in the plot. And when I Googled for academic journals, I also found a few papers discussing about this novel from the point of view of Islamic feminism and that triggered my interest even more; – this novel must be a unique one!
The film poster and the cover of my novel. Simple but very deep. I LOVE this. There are so many meanings you can decipher from this. You see all of the white-robed women are facing to the front as they are “taklid” (blindly follow) the tradition and customs whereas Annisa, wearing a keffiyeh turban and black-clad, facing the back with bold face, defiant and demand her right! Splendid!
The writer is Abidah el Khalieqy and according to her, the novel was her gift to the oppressed women under the patriarchal customs of South East Asian’s Muslim Malay society, particularly those who are of the religious schools environments (in Indonesian, these schools are called “Pesantren” whereas in Malaysia they are called “Sekolah Pondok”). This novel also is a satire embroidered in a fictionalized plot defying the old-age traditions where Asian women are to be meek and demure, enslaved by the customs in favour for the men.
The writer, Abidah el Khalieqy.
The protagonist of the novel is Annissa, a daughter of Kiai (religious school leader) whose life was all about being a submissive, good Muslimah. She was taught that as a good Muslimah, her ambition was supposed to be a good wife and to dutifully serve her husband (sexually and materially) as well as to be an efficient housewife. The question of whether she has the right to further her study or to become vocal on her needs as a woman in the house must never be arisen, at all. Her religious teachers kept quoting the Hadiths and the supposed Quranic verses that are in favour of the men in order to defy Annissa’s bold remarks on the antiquated demure position of Muslimah. When she came of age, Annissa was forced to marry a son of another renowned Kiai, Shamsuddin who was actually a sadistic, irresponsible husband. Shamsuddin was a playboy and had preferences on bizarre sexual acts. He took a second wife, an elderly widow named Kalsum and even engaged in sexual liaison with Kalsum in an open space – in their living room. Annisa’s life was tormented. Nevertheless, her life soon turned into a new leaf when her distant cousin, Khudori who went abroad to study came back.
Life at Pesantren, cooped with rigid Malay Muslims culture and taboos.
Annisa couldn’t confine her emotion telling Khudori her oppressive life with Shamsudin.
On whole, this novel is very poignant and gallant, I would say. It touches on taboos that are rarely discussed such as women’s roles in household affairs – not to be merely the submissive courtesan but to be equally treated. Abidah also glossed on the ideas of women initiating the sexual engagements which is a taboo as women are usually portrayed as the shy ones and should not be the first ones to initiate sexual liaison but only to wait for the husband’s needs. Apart from that, the rights for the mothers to breastfeeding her infants were also touched – Abidah is of opinion that a mother has the right to whether she wants to breastfeed her baby or the otherwise; nonetheless, the bond between mother and infant during the 9 months of pregnancy would definitely make the mother adamantly wants to breastfeed her young, out of love.
Shamsuddin, Annisa’s first ruthless husband.
Besides that, this novel also highlights on the issue of infertility. It was touched during the conversation between Annissa and her second husband, Khudori when she expressed her fear for not be able to produce an offspring. Khudori explained that Islam has no issue on IVF method, as long as both gamettes (ovum and sperm) are from the legally married man and woman – if one of the gamettes are not from the legally married couple, it could be dubbed as adultery although the physical contact does not happen. On top of that, the novel also touches on the plights of a widow. Usually in Asian society particularly Malay and Indonesian, a widow is perceived negatively. Men harass widows as sexual preys whereas women would gossip and paint widows as homewreckers. Abidah glossed this scenario during the hiatus between Annisa’s first marriage to Shamsuddin and to her second marriage to Khudori. She had to endure people’s bad words and couldn’t even lead her life freely if she remains at the Pesantren. It is also illuminating to see how the character Annisa seeks knowledge and sharpen her personality by reading books and going to the university. Very empowering indeed.
Initially she was accused for being barren by Shamsuddin but in the end, she had Mahboob, a son with Khudori who eventually died, leaving Annisa to be the bold woman with spirit of a man with a keffiyeh turban.
But of course, I have to say that this novel ain’t perfect. There maybe some parts that are deemed too “liberal” in the eyes of average Muslims and quite bold, I would say. First, I disagree with the parts where Khudori as this learned courteous Muslim scholar to have body-contact with Annisa at the Pesantren when at that time Annisa was still Shamsuddin’s wife; and second, to metaphorically describing the intimacy between Annisa and Khudori’s first night was somewhat an “eye-rolling” for me. Sure I know this novel is meant for female readers (hence, the romantic wording and all) but I still cannot digest the idea of reading a Halal “Islamic sexual metaphor” – as per “Ayat-Ayat Cinta” (REFER to my entry at https://undomiel84.wordpress.com/2017/09/12/a-musslimahss-romance-fantasy-or-a-contemporary-conduit-of-dakwah-the-verses-of-love-ayat-ayat-cinta-by-habiburahman-el-hirazy/)! Haha! Still, this novel is a bold attempt as the voice of contemporary Muslimah from literature point of view. Thumbs up to Abidah el Khalieqy and seriously, I salute Indonesian writers for producing remarkable masterpieces and indeed, the character Annissa is what a Muslimah of these days should be; a bold and brave one, like a man wearing a keffiyeh turban.
Riding horses as one of Prophet Muhammad’s Sunnah. Beautiful Islamic masterpieces.
Siti Nurhaliza sang the theme song “Ketika Cinta” (When Love) for the film.