Malaysian Dramas: Put A Ring On It

By Ham

It’s barely ten minutes past seven and I’ve already lost my appetite. It’s taking all of my willpower not to throw my dinner plate at the screen. My mother is seated across from me, passively taking in the sight.

The female lead argues in a half-assed manner, “If you can’t respect me as a woman, then respect me as your fiancée.”

I stab my piece of chicken. I want the leading lady to stand up for herself. Tell the man that if he can’t respect her opinions and trust her judgment, he can always leave. I want her to know that respect should be given to all, regardless of marital status.

“I’m going to be your husband so if I say we’re going for a honeymoon, we are going.”

I’ve murdered my chicken. My mother says nothing but the annoyance flickering in her eyes is evident. It’s a scene we know too well, both on and off screen. How many times have we heard that excuse used to normalise coercing a woman into submission, even if she had very valid reasons for protesting in the first place? The belief that the husband’s word is law is often taken literally and in isolation, forgetting that Islam also decrees compassion, respect and mercy towards the wife as well.

The local channel imports Malaysian dramas with suspiciously gooey titles like ‘Rindu Awak 200%’ and ‘Dia Semanis Honey’. The shows are given close to half of the prime time slots from 7pm onwards. Such shows espouse marriage as the solution for a variety of problems ranging from the fear of tarnishing a family’s reputation to preventing pre-marital sex between young couples. This is justified with religious quotes on how marriage is noble in the eyes of God. Marriage becomes the endgame, ignoring the fact that a ring on the fourth finger doesn’t work like a fairy godmother’s wand. You cannot just slip on a wedding ring and expect to be instantly swept up in some earth-shattering love that solves any crisis while gaining absolute understanding of not just your spouse but his/her family as well. If that’s the case, we can easily attain world peace just by wearing rings.

There are only so many times a person can roll their eyes. Instead of merely doing eye exercises during dinner time, I’ve also created a list to count how many common tropes a show can squeeze in before I massacre my dinner:

  • Is it based on a novel aimed at young readers? Check.
  • Does it have a title that revolves around love or defines a woman based on her relationship with a man? Yes, check.
  • Does it strictly involve heterosexual romance? Check. God forbid anything else.
  • Are good, chaste girls represented by their tudungs matched with nude or pale makeup while their scheming female counterparts are dressed in tight dresses with bold lip colours? Check because good girls shouldn’t stand out and fashionable women were simply asking for all the bad things that happen to them.
  • Is there a fair-skinned heroine who prays regularly? Check. There’s no such thing as a dark-skinned heroine because only fairness is beautiful and virtuous.
  • Does the girl give up her dreams to stay home and take care of the family? Check again.
  • Is the heroine forced, due to circumstances or by the people around her, to marry someone she barely knows? Definitely check.
  • Is her husband the son of a datuk or a rich businessman? Check. There’s no fantasy greater than money.
  • Does the show remind the audience that the husband is practically god-like in a marriage and his word is law? Do I need to say more? Check!

A typical Malaysian drama would have more than half of the items on the list. It’s a bonus if the show actually checks off everything.

It’s dangerous to think that these are just harmless entertainment. They are being widely disseminated during prime time on a free-to-air channel. Not only do they have a wide-reach, but the devastating and misogynistic messages they send out have very real life consequences.

I’m not accusing the shows of lacking anything praiseworthy. On the contrary, it’s heartening to see more females represented as aiming for or already achieving tertiary education and building careers. Increasingly, female characters are more certain of what they want in life and a future partner (even though they always succumb to marrying the guy in the end). They are also less afraid to voice their opinions.

However, the fact that such shows tend to present themselves as family-friendly stories that extol positive virtues aligned with Islamic teachings disturbs me. These characters are presented as the ideal: beautiful, rich, pious and a whole lot of drama. However, there’s absolutely nothing friendly or Islamic about coerced marriages or the way the wives are treated. To promote love blossoming after marriage to someone you just met isn’t just naïve, it is potentially dangerous. After all, in most cases, the woman has to move out of her house where she is separated from her family or immediate support system while being subjected to the whims and fancy of her new husband and unfamiliar in-laws. What if her husband is abusive? In the popular ‘Hati Perempuan’, a husband publicly admonishes his wife for wanting to take morning-after pills (note: she hasn’t taken any yet). He refuses to listen to her reasons while calling her dishonest and branding her as a disappointment. To add salt to the wound, he uses religious quotes to justify this emotional blackmail. In the end, the wife accepts the blame, going so far as to apologise to her in-laws. There is nothing romantic about emotional abuse. More often than not, in real life, this can lead to other kinds of abuses and the victim is trapped in a vicious cycle. Victim-blaming is dangerous and helps no one.

Many years ago, I watched a show where the new bride stayed up for three consecutive nights to avoid consummating her marriage to a stranger. By the fourth night, she collapses from exhaustion and her husband rapes her. Yes, rape. Any sex with an unwilling individual or one who is unable to consent is rape regardless of the context. Yet this is presented as acceptable, even kind on the part of the husband because he is gentle when he tells her in the morning that she needs to shower.  To have sex with his unwilling wife is regarded as his right. Despite having been violated, the bride is supposed to willingly accept that they are now officially husband and wife. It is worrisome to know that these shows are endorsing such abuse and normalising violence against women.

For real-life victims, such scenes don’t just trigger fear, they re-inflict trauma. It is unbearable to watch flippant depictions of assault because such portrayals trivialise their experiences. Worse, this can be damaging to their well-being as women are implicitly taught to accept the abuse in silence.

Throw in as many tudung wearing characters or prayer scenes as you want. Such visual symbols do not and cannot hide the fact that such stories are reprehensible on many levels. Women shouldn’t be emotionally blackmailed into marriage. It is no fault of theirs if a groom has cold feet on his wedding day. It is unjust to expect a woman to bear the burden of the man’s cowardice or find a solution. Neither is marriage a solution to anything. Why do we keep equating marriage with ultimate happiness in life? Why are we constantly taught to blame women? More importantly, why are wives portrayed as less than human without control over their lives or bodies? Why do we teach men that it is romantic to take charge by dismissing and belittling their wives? That they can make up for all the abuse with a bouquet of roses? A wife is a partner who has rights, not a slave chained to the kitchen stove. Prophet Muhammad encouraged manumission of slaves and his first wife, Khaddijah, was a successful businesswoman. He respected his wives and even consulted his second wife, Umm Salama, in the treaty of Hudaybiyya.

I get it. Many Malaysian dramas are selling a fantasy. The whole idea of stumbling into the arms of a handsome stranger on the street who turns out to be a rich Datuk keen on marrying you is the equivalent of a modern fairytale. But what if that fairytale discriminates against women under the guise of Islam? I’d rather wear a magic ring on my finger.

Photo credit: Indra Gunawan