Woman With A Turban: Heartbeat Of Islam In All Of Us

by Helmy Sa'at

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Are we capable of determining our own paths in life? The answer is complex and nuanced at best. At no moment, would the clouds high above in the blue skies part, and a guiding hand would descend and show us the right path to traverse. That is exactly what Anisa, an independent-minded young Muslim woman, experiences while growing up and living in a community dictated by conservative Islamic tradition, in East Java, Indonesia.

In Woman With A Turban (Perempuan Berkalung Sorban), a community seems to remain unassailable by the rapid pounding winds of change brought about by modernity. That remains so, until Anisa starts to boldly continue questioning the status quo.

Heartbeat Of Islam Belongs To Us All

Being the only daughter of a respected religious teacher (kyai) and founder of Al-Huda Islamic Religious School (Pondok Pesantren Al-Huda) comes with a whole slew of expectations and responsibilities. Besides the rudimentary obligation to memorise the Quran and behaving modestly at all times, she is also not to ever cross the line in questioning, much less oppose, the thoughts, opinions, views and decisions of adults, especially men.

A still from  Woman With A Turban, which is available to stream on Qalbox.

Since an early age, she learns about rampant sexism and politicised gender roles shaped by the values of a patriarchal society propped up by conservative Islamic principles. From forbidden to keep her hobby and love of horse riding, her rightful win in school after been democratically elected by her classmates to be the class representative snatched away based on her gender to determining her future spouse.

One more crucial contextual detail. It is about lived realities on the ground.

It points to the confluence of a multitude of identities; not just simply as a Muslim and a woman. Anisa like millions of others in Indonesia and all over the world is the living embodiment of a multiplicity of, or multi-hyphenated, identities (a young-middle class-rural-Indonesian-Muslim woman) in a climate whereby faith pervades every facet of her life.

In other words, she is not living in a community practising the ‘purest’ form of Islam, instead a syncretic climate – a combination and overlapping – of conflicting and opposing values and principles all rolled into one! Thus, such intersectionality of identities would almost always produce friction. On a macro level, this minute yet key details exemplify the very volatile nature and contestations of Indonesian state philosophy known as Pancasila.

A still from Woman With A Turban, which is available to stream on Qalbox.

In essence, Anisa is and remains a piece of Islamic narrative, encompassing her perceived shortcomings by the men in her life. The heartbeat of Islam is not just the purview of men, or some elite groups in society. It is, in fact, in all of us as Muslims. Women have a right to their opinions and Anisa has never been afraid to question her perceived value in life and not letting anyone else dictate her worth as a devout human being to Allah.

Partnership, Not Ownership

It is fundamental to understand that marriage is first and foremost not about serving a skewed arrangement that largely benefits the husband. Though Anisa’s first marriage had been blessed by families and the immediate community, they did not form a support system in times of her greatest need. Promises of marital bliss instead paved the way to a road filled with broken promises, including the opportunity to further her tertiary education in Yogyakarta.

You would be able to relate to the frustrations of restrained ambitions compounded by, at times, foolish decisions (in hindsight!) during moments of stress and desperation, such as not knowing when to walk away, especially in toxic relationships. Anisa decided then to continue with her first marriage although she went on to experience marital abuse in every possible fashion. Societal, familial and religious pressures unfortunately contributed to her deepening traumas. As you might clench your fist then thump the table while muttering unsavoury words under your breath, all hope is not lost for Anisa.

Other than Allah, she has to embrace the painful reality that men are not saviours, always. Men are also flawed with many shortcomings. This realisation sets in as she seeks answers from her childhood love interest, Khudari, for not marrying her:

Allah pasti menunjukkan jalan yang terbaik buat kamu, Nisa.” (“Allah will definitely show the best way for you, Nisa.”)

Jauh-jauh ke Cairo belajar Islam cuma untuk bilang Allah pasti nunjuki jalan buat aku?!” (“You studied in distant Cairo just to say that Allah will definitely show me the way?!”)

As she turns to leave, Anisa tearfully and defiantly declares: “Allah sebenarnya sudah nunjuki jalan yang terbaik buat aku … [Khudari], tapi jalan itu terputus sejak kamu pergi.” (“Actually, Allah has shown the best way for me … [Khudari], but it was destroyed since you left.”)

Freedom Comes With A Price Tag

As Anisa’s friend remarks: “Bebas itu enak.” (“Freedom is sweet.”) However, at what cost? After her divorce and her subsequent move to the city, these shifts in her life further opens her eyes to the complex realities of life. Everything is not black and white, or existing in a dichotomy. Many fall into the grey area. And, that is life.

A faithful could make choices to compromise on certain Islamic principles without forsaking everything else. Anisa’s friend, for instance, justifies her fornication through her filial piety to her parents and by still dressing modestly, especially the hijab.

In other words, without indulging in shallow moralising, her friend’s paper-thin piety is expressed in outward fashion, tangible forms of piety through clothing. A clear engagement in hypocritical religious piety. Yet, just as important is how they choose to treat those around them. Do they pass judgment? Or, suffer from self-aggrandising thoughts that seek to put others down? Therefore, is Anisa’s friend any less a Muslim than other Muslims, such as Anisa herself?

A still from Woman With A Turban, which is available to stream on Qalbox.

Riding into the sunset does not always spell a happy ever after. It is a continuation in the fight to be heard and to be seen. Women’s autonomy, empowerment, freedom and rights are still contested in Islamic communities. When Khudari witnesses Anisa’s impatience for change, he consoled and encouraged her: “Perubahan itu kan bertahap. Roma juga bukan dibangun sehari.” (“Change happens in stages. Rome was not built in a day.”)