Women, film, and social critics
Being assistant and one among few Asians in the university awards me with opportunities to have thoughtful, challenging, cultural, discussion with some professors. One professor who has curious nature from time to time would knock at my door and gave me a print out news, report, or document about Indonesia. Ranging from historial account of East Timor, Indonesian military violence in West Papua, the 1965 massacre, the deforestation in Borneo, competition between Indonesian restaurers in New York, to the increasingly highlighted debate on polygamy in Indonesia.
That afternoon, he came with a copy of english speaking media on Berbagi Suami, a new movie from Nia Dinata. The movie is special not because it wins some awards, but mostly because of its theme, polygamy reality in Indonesian society!
Dear oh dear, I complained silently. Should I go to that shameful discussion again about Islam and men’s justification on polygamy?
(I have to endure this kind of discussion at least once per year with another professor (Mr.) who cannot accept the idea as civilised nor just. At that very moment, I always found it hard to be proud of my religion. We always ended the discussion with a declaration that I do not and will not accept polygamy for whatever reason and that my husband knows that perfectly. A declaration that invited a nod from him.)
To go back to the article, I then read it quickly as my professor gave me few minutes to read while looking at me with a look saying “what do you think?”
“So, what do you think?” he asked
“It’s very interesting. I didn’t know about this movie before. Thank you, sir.”
It was indeed interesting, as the article explained how the movie was taken as critic that was hard to swallow by important men supporting actively, meaning doing it, polygamy.
The movie is a critic as it shows a ‘side’ of the polygamy that has been swept under the carpet of religous right or, dear God, duty. Mark you, I have not yet watched the movie. But if the movie is really about the polygamy life seeing through the eyes of women who have had to agree on the practice due to the social, economic, or ideologial pressure, no wonder those polygamists were reacting like their house was on fire!
The later discussion with the professor reminded me of another discussion I had long time ago with my fellow high school friends. A discussion in which I claimed that a willingness to accept polygamy can be a no-choice type of willingness. When a housewife with three little children without source of income knows perfectly that she will have to raise her children by herself if she refused to have her husband re-marry again and then accepts the husband’s decision, can we really say that she is willingly and unconditionally accept (rela in Indonesian) her husband decision?
Thus, I argue, one way for woman to shield herself from polygamy is to avoid dependent-on-man societal trap. To love and appreciate a man does not mean that a woman has to be dependent on him and cannot, literally, cannot live without him. Being able to stand on her own feet, a woman CAN refuse to receive the ‘first wife’ title instead of accepting it for the sake of the children’s stomach and education. An independent woman can also escape from the persuasion of marry-him-to-help-your-family or marry-him-to-have-a-better-life despite of his already-married status.
In the article, Nia Dinata also implies that in Indonesia some women have to endure polygamy because it is better than getting a divorce.
It is perceived that a family with complete parents (no matter how many the mothers are) is better for the children than single parent. Who cares if one of the mother cries inside, the most important thing is that the children will be brought up well, suppossedly, and that none will have to gain the (perceived) worst title a woman can have: widow.
If the fear of being widow makes a woman accept another woman in the household, can we regard this acceptance as an unconditional acceptance?
It is about time a society open its eyes and see how its custom, norms, and structure have prisoned and condemned women. It is, thus, not surprising to have women, who have been wronged, to voice and lift the normality veil.
Speaking about widow, another woman from completely different society has raised her voice and challenged a Hindu old traditional practice that assigned widow to live in penitence and casted away from the society. Deepa Mehta and her movie, Water.
Water depicts an old reality in India that regarded woman, especially widow, as a burden. Widows were then punished for being widows and had to live the rest of their life contemplating for their sin.
The movie shows the harsh reality of old tradition and challenges the logic behind the long-life torture of widow. Living their wasted life in poor residence, without money, food, support, and means to support themselves, the widows’ faith helps them to accept their destiny. They beg forgiveness for their sin in their non-stop pray, but yet sacrifice one among them to prostitute herself to feed the whole house.
The picture is colorful, the play is superb, the dialogue is simple yet deep and rich, and most of all the story is striking. It is about strong and painful faith, self-sacrifice, societal injustice, religious and class manipulation, and embedded women degradation.
To see women thrown away to live a living hell and still able to praise those who sacrificed them, made me shiver. The hypocracy of those who arbitrarily interpret religion and faith for their own advantage, a reality can still be found in daily life, filled me with anger. A bitter pray from Shakuntala for her dead friend, “Let her be re-born as a man,” stroke me.
I was breathless when Shakuntala, the devout widow, asked her priest, “when one’s heart contradicts one’s faith, what should one do?” It was not answered.
A question that, I think, our world still cannot answer.