As a young child, I had never doubted the women in my life loved their partners, children or even responsibilities. Not to say that my father and uncles did not love, it’s just it was more apparent to me that when a woman does something, there will always be that element of selflessness and affection. That is when I begin to wonder if love was exclusively, if not inherently, feminine. The earliest civilisations depicted love as sacred in the form of goddesses. Aphrodite, Isis and Parvati had devotees who begged for blessings when they needed it for courtship or romantic affairs.
Growing up Malay and female, it was hard for me to ignore that when women love, they succumb. They would compromise their filial pieties or positions in the monarchy all in the name of being with someone. Layla succumbed when her father told off Qays for asking her hand, all because the village called him Majnun (madman), insane from just pining for her. Tun Teja was the Bendahara of Pahang’s daughter and was betrothed to the Sultan. She was also besotted when she succumbed to the magic that Tuah made Dang Ratna cast upon her.
Does love always mean succumbing? Must it always involve submitting, involve being docile and passive? Or allowing some other circumstances to decide for them and not their own free will?
Centuries have passed since these stories were first told. These fables definitely reflected the observations, attitudes and behaviors of the society surrounding it. It is very clear now that when women get involved with love in this current time and age, they are no longer passive.
More women wave the same amount of autonomy as their partners in making important decisions such as marriage and having children. Being stay-at-home mums or housewives are no longer expected of them to meet the demands of sustaining certain responsibilities that were established out of love.
However, the contrary is shown in current popular media. We still see these sentiments being reflected in TV shows and movies. In Osman Ali’s Ombak Rindu, the docile Izzah had to plead to and beg the troubled Hafiz to ‘legalise’ their relationship. He agrees but she wasn’t able to claim any rights as a wife from him, a condition that he laid out to her. This meant he maintains the power imbalance that he previously had when he kept her as a mistress, even after democratising the relationship through marriage.
Similarly, to fulfill her father’s dying wish Nur Amina of Nur Kasih had to relegate her dreams of furthering her studies to the backseat when she unwillingly marries Adam, someone who is the polar opposite of her. Not only that, she passively accepts her fate when her husband became emotionally abusive and continues his hedonistic life abroad- of course with another woman.
To me, constantly being fed with these female characters is quite disparaging because it’s not only inaccurate but also harmful. They perpetuate the ideas of the ideal lover – one who is unconditionally complacent, docile and submissive.
It seems unrealistic to me, to expect the woman remain compliant to a husband that is blatantly disregarding her as a person and a partner. And yet, when these characters are presented to us, female audience members stil root for the heroes who tries to redeem themselves after hurting our heroines emotionally and even violating them physically. They would also swoon when they forgive and accept those abusive partners, painting the whole situation as a romantic gesture, regardless if their partner is also their rapist. And this is worrying to me.
When we only see women love this way, it’s hard to break the mentality of succumbing to a man’s every whim is equivalent to love.
While such portrayals may seem abundant, there are also strong female lovers that I as a woman, can draw examples from. Orked was refreshing to me. She stood out most in Gubra especially in the confrontation scene with Ariff. When caught cheating, her husband pleads for her to stay and comparing his mistress to a piece of meat, stupid and worth nothing to him. She challenges him by laying out the terms for her to stay; he has to say those exact same remarks to her too. In the end, she leaves him and goes back to her family home and ties certain loose ends that needed some closure.
The arts and media should allow more room to diversify love stories so people can see the reality of female lovers.
Yasmin Ahmad’s films are well known to feature strong women. Nevertheless, I decided that Orked was who I wanted to emulate when I become a lover. She portrayed the right amount of selflessness and affection that keeps a relationship going but also still stands firm on her ground when she is done dirty by someone she should trust the most, her husband.
The women in my life has been nothing short of brave and powerful. They have always stressed on not allowing anyone I trust or love overrule my own self-worth. And I can bet that you have encountered many women that will hold themselves up, even on their own if they have to.
Our often one-dimensional showcase of women lovers in popular media indicates a deep-rooted sense of misplaced priorities. In a society that prides itself for being democratic, romantic unions are often not. Men are heralded as the leader. Unfortunately many see this as a tool for power rather than a responsibility. This makes women like Izzah and Amina to ‘tolerate’ or normalise their partners’ more unsettling behaviours.
Women can love in many ways. Denying the power for a husband to further push her is also love, only it’s towards her own self or even her children. The arts and media should allow more room to diversify love stories so people can see the reality of female lovers.
I wonder what would happen if characters like Orked be in Ombak Rindu? Would she tolerate the abuse and remain complacent? Or give him an ultimatum that would finally slap some form of respect into the male lover? The fact remains that when women love, they can succumb, they can tolerate and they sure as hell can rise.
All in the name of love.