ONE thing is really clear about Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarnor in the video Mencari Kartika, produced and directed by Norhayati Kaprawi: Kartika, who was sentenced to be whipped, fined and imprisoned for drinking beer because she was a Muslim, was angry at the syariah system that had sentenced her. It is a startling revelation, because nowhere in media reports does the public ever have a sense of how angry she was.
But in the documentary, it is clear that when Kartika finally announced that she was willing to be whipped for the sin of drinking alcohol, it was a moment of defiance. “It was her protest,” Norhayati observed after a screening of the 40-minute documentary in Petaling Jaya on 26 May 2010.
Indeed, listening to Kartika and her father tell their stories in the documentary, it is evident that neither Kartika nor her family agreed that Muslims should be treated so harshly by the state in the name of Islam. Kartika’s father, Shukarnor Abdul Mutalib, even tells a story about questionable advice he was given on how to appeal his daughter’s sentence through the syariah court system.
This, then, is one of the values of Mencari Kartika: it reveals a truth about what made international headlines by letting us in on the private and the political in a way that media reports failed to.
Trailer for Mencari Kartika
The documentary was self-funded by Norhayati, a Muslim woman’s activist, artist and filmmaker, using income she’d earned from her art- and translation work. She says it took her an intense one-and-a-half months, earlier in 2010, to produce the documentary, even though Norhayati interviewed Kartika and recorded video footage last year.
So far, a briefer 30-minute version of the video, directed by Ucu Agustin and Norhayati, has also been screened in the V Women Film Festival in Indonesia. To date, no other public screenings in Malaysia have been scheduled.
In an e-mail interview on 4 June 2010, Norhayati tells The Nut Graph what motivated her to make the documentary, and the surprises she discovered along the way.
TNG: You said you were motivated to do this documentary after two Merdeka Center surveys found that the majority of Malay Muslims supported the caning sentence against Kartika. What kind of responses did you get when you were interviewing people on the streets about the issue? Were there different responses based on gender, race, locality and age?
Norhayati Kaprawi: [Similar to the] Merdeka Center survey, I found that the majority of people I interviewed supported the caning, including young Muslims. Very few said they didn’t support [the caning]. Non-Muslims either declined to comment, or stated that they did not support [the caning].
What is your observation of how the politicians you interviewed or featured responded to the issue? What do you think that says about political Islam in Malaysia?
I find there is a great conflict between their rhetorical speech [calling for] justice and compassion, and their actual positions in response to the Kartika issue. It is quite obvious to me that their political agenda is more important than promoting what Islam actually teaches. Islam, the ideology, and political Islam are far more important to many Muslim leaders than Islam the religion.
The obsession about this issue is that whipping is Islamic and thus cannot be questioned, and must be carried out. The debate was also sidetracked to whether whipping the Islamic way is painful or not.
What was not extensively debated by politicians and Muslim leaders who supported the caning was whether it is just to impose the maximum sentence on a first-time offender whose action did not cause harm to others.
Kartika was fined the maximum RM5,000, sentenced to the maximum six lashes, and sentenced to a seven-day imprisonment. Whatever name they wish to call it, detention or confinement, if a person is detained and cannot be with his or her family during that duration, it is imprisonment to me.
Beyond public sentiment about the caning of Kartika for drinking alcohol, what other questions were you trying to answer through this documentary?
The Kartika issue for me is only a representation of one of the many problems we have in Malaysia. My main concern is, what has happened to the Malaysian public? Why does a large majority support the caning without giving much consideration to justice and compassion? Is it because they just follow Muslim leaders, especially religious leaders, from government, the opposition parties, or Muslim non-governmental organisations?
If with the Kartika issue there is a great lack of justice and compassion being displayed, what then is the future of Malaysia? What kind of Islam are we going to have?
Non-Muslims in Malaysia should also [realise] that an exclusivist, uncompromising and punitive kind of Islam will have some impact on them. In fact, it can already be seen in some of the cases in Malaysia, such as the “Allah” issue and “body-snatching” cases.
How did you manage to get Kartika and her family to speak to you so frankly?
I believe Kartika and her family spoke frankly to other journalists as well. Probably I had a longer interview with them, with a whole long list of prepared questions! I wish to take the opportunity to express my appreciation to Kartika and her family who were very cooperative and patient in answering my questions.
The views of Kartika and her father in your documentary were quite startling in that their position – of anger and protest at the syariah system that was penalising Kartika unjustly – was hardly, if ever, portrayed by the media. Were you surprised that their position was quite different from what the media had portrayed?
I felt disappointed, but somehow not surprised. I find that sometimes the media is a bit reluctant to put forward what they deem as controversial or against the mainstream Muslim opinion.
That made me more determined to produce this documentary because I think the public needs to know the context of Kartika’s statements. And for those who supported her caning, for all of us to reflect on what justice and compassion means.
What was the most significant or surprising discovery or observation you made while doing this documentary?
It was a surprise to me initially to hear young and modern Muslims, who even looked quite hip, supporting the caning just because they think that it is syariah and that is the Islamic way. Their simplistic and uncritical answers disturbed me because it is a reflection of our education system and the quality of public religious sermons.
I was also pleasantly surprised when a few older Muslim women, who were in their 60s, whom I interviewed in Kelantan and Terengganu, did not support the caning because they thought it was not necessary and it was unkind.
Having done the research for this documentary and spending time with journalists who were also writing this story, what did you notice about the Malaysian media and how it was covering the issue?
I was baffled by my limited experience at press conferences because I found that journalists seem reluctant to ask critical questions, especially if it’s related to Islamic issues. I also found that a few Muslim journalists that I talked to actually supported the caning because they think that’s what syariah is about. Were they then censoring Kartika’s voice themselves? Or if they were not censoring consciously, did their own belief stop them from asking more critical questions?
I’m surprised to find that most of the people who watched my documentary, including some from the media, said it was the first time they got to hear what Kartika had to say. [They also said] the documentary managed to give them a better understanding and perception of the whole episode.
I then wonder, what happened? I believe there were many journalists who met and interviewed Kartika, who even followed and interviewed [her] much earlier or more times than I did. Is [their reporting because of] editorial issues, or is it possible that journalists are not comfortable to explore in depth what they regard as controversial Islamic issues?
What do you hope this documentary will achieve?
I hope we can discuss about the concept of justice and compassion, particularly in Islam. Most ulama and religious leaders love to preach about how beautiful, just and compassionate Islam is. In my opinion, however, in some instances, they have not managed to deal with the big challenge of translating this into actions, especially when faced with real-life issues. Issues that our contemporary, multiracial, multireligious and modern country is facing.
Will you be making any more documentaries? What will they be about? Why are you choosing these topics?
Insyaallah I will. I would like to explore issues that Muslims face in Malaysia. My next documentary will explore the issue of the wearing of tudung in Malaysia. It’s scheduled to be released by the end of the year.
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