The redefinition of Malay womanhood in Yasmin Ahmad’s films

By Mohani Niza (originally written for a blog in 2009)

In 2005, the late Yasmin Ahmad, famous for her Petronas advertisements which depicted multi-racial Malaysia released the movie Sepet to much controversy and praise. It won a string of foreign film awards, a legion of fans local and abroad but was also lambasted by certain quarters who felt that the movie threatened the moral fabric of Malay/Muslim life in Malaysia by showing its Malay female protagonist “betray” her bangsa (race) by falling in love with a “kafir” (infidel) [1].

Sepet centers on the relationship between Orked (Sharifah Amani), a teenage Malay girl who has just graduated from secondary school and Jason (Choo Seong Ng), a peddler of pirated VCDs.  This was followed up with Gubra in 2006, which tells the life of an older Orked who is now married, and in 2007, Mukhsin, the prequel which depicts Orked’s childhood in a sleepy Kuala Selangor kampung (village). All these 3 movies make up the “Orked trilogy.”

As Khoo Gaik Cheng notes in her book Reclaiming Adat: Contemporary Malaysian Film and Literature:

“Socio-economic forces, state-initiated, and the cultural development of the NEP years (National Economic Policy 1971-90) had produced a burgeoning discourse about subjectivity among the children of the NEP themselves: what is it like for urban Malay women and men to be both modern and Muslim?”.

And in his review of Mukhsin, Michael Sicinski writes:

“… transnational feminist theorists would do well to examine Ahmad’s work, since like them, Mukhsin is about complexifying the world, deepening interconnections, delving into the messiness of the conundrums that women face, and moving outward, forging even more connections.” [2]

In Sepet, we are introduced to Orked, who is around 17 years old, living in the mining town of Ipoh, patiently waiting for her SPM results (end of secondary school examinations). She spends her free time indulging in her obsession of Japanese movie star Takeshi Kaneshiro, her love for movies by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai and literature of various intellectual works. She goes out with friends and does what girls her age usually enjoy.

Orked is independent, free-spirited and unapologetically opinionated.  In one scene with her best friend, she argues passionately about the racist legacy of colonialism, whereby people still fall in love with white people thinking that they are superior, yet as she quips, “You like what you like lah!”

Though still subjected to curfew and the occasional concern from her parents, Orked is largely let to be who she is. In fact, Orked’s parents themselves do not present themselves as “typical Malays”. They enjoy a very sexual life together, unabashed about their affections. In one endearing scene, clad in just sarongs, they dance together in their house to Thai music, while feeding each other fruits. Perhaps their “liberal” attitudes explain Orked’s personality.

We see this further in Mukhsin. In one scene, a neighborhood girl teases young Orked about her father doing domestic chores, causing Orked to snap, “My dad helps in the kitchen because he loves my mother!”

Young Orked refuses to play with dolls and make-pretend weddings, and instead cocoons herself in her room reading books or being out in the field asserting her right to play with the village boys. Thus, Yasmin Ahmad presented gender roles as unimportant, the absence of which allows true love and strong character to flourish. She also shows the importance of one’s upbringing in shaping one’s worldview.

A still from ‘Mukhsin’ (2006). Picture from: Moving Image Source

Furthermore, Yasmin Ahmad was unapologetic about showing the variety of ways Islam is practiced. Instead of portraying Orked’s liberal attitude as conflicting with Islam, Yasmin Ahmad portrayed Islam as co-existing with so-called “non-Malay” lifestyles. In other words, there’s no singular way of being a Muslim.  After all, Islam is not static and devoid of external influences.

As Khoo notes that:

“Islam participates in modernity as a globalizing force as well” [3].

Orked gleefully indulges in her pop star obsession as much as she willingly reads the Qur’an after Maghrib (evening) prayers.  There is no dichotomy of good Malay woman/bad Malay woman which is usually portrayed in Malaysian cinema and television, whereby typically the female protagonist after indulging in “bad Western activities” – e.g. smoking, clubbing, fooling around sexually, dressing very “scantily” – ultimately repents on the prayer mat or gets punished by society – or both.

Yasmin Ahmad’s Orked is powerful. She defines for herself how her identity should be. She enters into a relationship with Jason, with all the passion and innocence of a 17-year-old girl.  A fellow Malay guy friend makes fun of their relationship, denouncing her as a traitor to her race, yet she boldly fights back by saying that: “For generations, Malay men have been marrying outside their race,” hence asserting her sexual right as a Malay woman to do the same.

Ironically, she is almost raped by the guy’s best friend, an outwardly respectable young Malay man adored by Orked’s parents. Later in Gubra, we see Orked now married, not to Jason but to a Malay man who ultimately cheats on her. Orked’s husband, upon being discovered of his extramarital affair, tries to soothe Orked by saying that the other woman is “stupid”, and not worth bothering over as she means nothing to him. Orked retorts, “That’s the problem with you Malay men, you think women are stupid!.” This is both a powerful female assertion of her sexual rights and a scathing critique of Malay-Muslim patriarchy. Grief-stricken, Orked leaves her marriage.

But despite the conflicts Orked faces, she also has an abundant of class privilege. Her parents speak fluent English and they employ a maid. Perhaps most strikingly, Orked has Malay/Bumiputra (native) privilege. As Sepet unfolds, we see that Orked gets only 5 A’s for her examinations yet she is awarded a scholarship to study in the UK, yet Jason scores 7 A’s but fails to get a scholarship, having to work instead illegally by selling pirated VCDs. Thus, Yasmin Ahmad showed the contradiction Malay women in Malaysia face: on one hand, they have to battle gender roles imposed on them, but yet Bumiputra privileges mean that in some ways, they are able to sail through life. Thus, it is crucial to examine the factors of class and ethnicity further when examining the topic of Malay womanhood.

All in all, through her “Orked trilogy” Yasmin Ahmad provided an interesting glimpse into the multi-faceted nature of Malay womanhood. Unlike the typical representation of women in Malaysian cinema and television, Yasmin Ahmad managed to construct a different way of seeing young Malay women in Malaysia.  She showed that Malay women face multiple contradictions yet manage to deal with them with intelligence and resilience.


[1] Al Amin, FAM 2008, ‘Controversies surrounding Malaysian independent female director Yasmin Ahmad’s first film Sepet’ in Proceedings of the 17th Biennial Conference of the ASAA, Melbourne, Australia, Monash University, pp. 1-12

[2] Sicinski, M 2008, Reviews of new releases seen, August 2008, The Academic Hack, viewed 10th April 2009.

[3] Khoo, GC 2005, Reclaiming Adat: Contemporary Malaysian Film and Literature, UBC Press, Vancouver.

About Mohani Niza

Mohani Niza is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Culture Review Mag.


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