Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 29, May 2012
Rachmah Ida

Imaging Muslim Women in Indonesian Ramadan Soap Operas

Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN),
Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2009
ISBN 978-974-9511-07-7 (pbk), pp 74

reviewed by Petra Mahy

  1. This slim volume is one in a series of studies published by Thailand-based Silkworm Books on the theme of 'Islam in Southeast Asia: Views from Within'. This series has arisen from a number of small research grants and publishing opportunities offered to younger scholars in Southeast Asia via the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN) with funding assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation. As per the foreword to this book, this series is intended to present fresh 'insider' perspectives aimed at promoting wider understanding of various issues faced by Muslims in contemporary Southeast Asian societies.
  2. Rachmah Ida introduces the reader to the phenomenon of Muslim-themed soap operas (sinetron, short for sinema elektronik) which have become a prominent feature of Indonesian television during the fasting month of Ramadan. Since the fall of President Suharto in 1998 and the general lifting of restrictions on Islamic expression, private television stations have sensed the ratings and advertising potential of special Ramadan sinetron. These sinetron are broadcast throughout Ramadan and are very popular with viewers.
  3. Ida provides descriptive outlines of two Ramadan sinetron with a focus on the lead female roles and analyses them in the context of Islamic and state ideals of the roles that Indonesian women should play within marriage, the extended family and in society more generally. She finds that lead female characters are often portrayed as polar opposites in the sinetron—firstly there is the good Muslim woman who is submissive and patiently suffers for her beliefs and secondly the selfish, impious woman who mistreats the good one. The characters may change during the series often with the latter type of character undergoing a transformation and adopting a more pious Muslim identity. A change from modern Western to Muslim dress and wearing the headscarf or jilbab may be used to symbolise this transformation.
  4. The last section of this book presents the perspectives of a number of young lower-class women from a kampung in Surabaya to demonstrate that audience members do not necessarily internalise the gendered ideals being portrayed in the Ramadan sinetron. Viewers may question the female roles in the sinetron, particularly those that may be overdrawn such as a particularly sadistic mother-in-law. A short segment at the end of the book also presents some comments on the views and motives of three sinetron writers and producers and their reactions to the critique that Ramadan sinetron are too simplistic or not properly informed by Islamic teaching.
  5. Overall, this is a nicely written introductory study that identifies relevant context and fulfils its stated aim of expanding on previous studies of the representation of Indonesian women in the media. It does, however, leave the reader wanting more in-depth exploration of some of the topics touched on in the book, particularly around the 'insider perspective' that this series aims to present. Firstly, the book gives little clue as to the author's own subjectivity and reactions to the sinetron that she watched with her research participants and does not explain how this might have influenced the participants' responses. Further, unfortunately the section on sinetron producers was very short and this means that the discussion of the link between the profit motive and the ideological content of Ramadan sinetron was rather sparse. The reader is left wondering about a number of points: What are the social backgrounds of Ramadan sinetron writers and producers? Do they also work on non-Ramadan sinetron? How do they go about the production process—do they consult with Islamic authorities about content? Are they influenced by network executives and their expectations? Who exactly is critiquing Ramadan sinetron as being too simplistic in their messages? How do writers try to maximise audience numbers? The processes behind sinetron content and characterisation would be an important and interesting area for further research.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 26 April 2012 1059