WOMEN CHARACTERS IN THE HANDS OF MEN
Bv: sm IISib Murad
SITI AISAH MURAD was born in Batu Pahat, Johor. She
began working in Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 1977 and
continued with her studies in Universiti Malaya until she
received her Bachelor of Arts in 1988. She had resumed
her duties in Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka before once
again continuing with her studies at the same university
and receiving her Masters in 1998. Siti Aisah began her
writing career in critical essays. She then went on to creative writing such as writing
poems , short stories and novels. She won the 1987 and 1988 Utusan-Public Bank
Literary Awards for short stories, the 1989 Sastera Yayasan Pelajaran Islam-DBP
Award , the 1999 Darul Takzim II Literary Award and the 2001 Darul Takzim III Literary
Award . Siti Aisah has also carried out research on literatur~ and women . She was the
Language Planning Officer in Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and is currently the Division
Chief of Modern Literature.
When developing their characters in Malay literary work, writers often
portray negative and positive images. There are those of the opinion
that women are often one-sidedly portrayed, especially in works by men
writers . Siti Hawa Salleh, a literary researcher, mentioned in her essay
that men writers often depict women characters as being most pathetic
(Dewan Masyarakat, 1969:41). This matter was also acknowledged by
Elaine Showalter when she gave the female qualities written by male
writers in a theory which she had put forth.
Elaine Showalter wrote that work produced by men writers about
women in criticism of feminist fall under what is known as feminist
critique . Feminist critique is said to be when women are stereotypically
portrayed and do not in the least reflect the complexities of their true
nature. Apart from that, the essay also revealed the defence mechanism
of the male race (Elaine Showalter, 1979, in her essay "Towards A
What do the mentioned qualities really mean? Boring and common
qualities, when stereotyped as often found in works, are made more so
when coupled with the male defence mechanism. Is it true that women
are portrayed as such by men writers in Malay literary work? Upon
examination, it was found that there was a novel which is considered
to be the first Malay literary work that had depicted a positive and
progressive female character. Faridah Hanum in Hikayat Setia Ashik
kepada Makshoknya or Hikayat Faridah Hanum (1925/26) was introduced
by Syed Sheikh al-Hadi as a progressive woman who was pretty and
knowledgeable, and was willing to fight for the fate of her people. The
feminist critique popularised by Elaine Showalter was certainly reversed
here, that women were no longer being stereotyped and there was also
the absence of the male defence mechanism.
Syed Sheikh al-Hadi succeeded in developing the female character
by overstepping the cultural norms of his time, by which women
must obey their elders in whatsoever, as for example in the matter
of education. Faridah Hanum was portrayed as an educated woman,
who was sophisticated in the art of verbal sparring with her substantial
and profound arguments. She was also said to be a brave woman who
thought critically. What was obvious was that the character of Faridah
Hanum was no more a stereotypical character, which as stated by
Mohd. Taib Osman, a prominent cultural figure, that a woman could
not go against her husband's orders and that men governed as that
of a leader to his people. Furthermore, it was seen that there was an
absence of the male defence mechanism in the development of this
novel. It is therefore clear that not all female characters are portrayed
as being pathetic in literary work by men.
Later, came another piece of work, a novel by Ahmad Rashid Talu
entitled lakah Salmah (1928) whose female character, Salmah, also had
qualities which went against the qualities of the stereotypical women
characters in work by men, as expounded by Elaine Showalter. Salmah
was a progressive woman who was willing to fight for her people and
her race. Furthermore, she was written as a woman ahead her time
who was good at giving speeches which mostly iterated for the people
of her race to develop, that lack of knowledge and experience along
with placing importance on traditions had caused the Malays to be left
behind. Salmah was unlike any woman of her time.
Another male writer who, too, lifted the status of women by portraying
them as being progressive is Ahmad Lutfi, through his novel Ustazah
(1950). Ustazah, as the main character in this novel, was depicted as
one who had religious knowledge, had risen to become a female leader
of the society and had put to right the ways of socializing which had
been influenced by the West. Ustazah Zainab championed the fate of
women which had literally been lost in the Western-influenced way of
life, with their revealing clothes, their being carried away by parties and
their forgetting the teachings and demands of the religion. Though the
writer did not make her as successful as she had aspired to be in the
earlier part of the story, but from her character it was seen that she
was determined and interested in advancing the people of her race
Keris Mas, in his novel Korban Kesuciannya (1949), had developed
the characters of Cikgu Aini and Ustazah Aminah and gradually distanced
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them from the stereotypical qualities. It was as though this novel was
Keris' subtle way of channelling the idea that women did have a role
and task in the struggle for independence. Through the two female
characters, Keris Mas tried to transform the conventions and tradition
of the Malay society so that its women did not only play domestic roles
but instead struggled and were actively involved in associations or
bodies in the clamour for independence. Hence the factor of tradition,
as the restraints that provided the backdrop during which the novel was
written were such, Keris Mas delicately injected the struggles of both
women alongside the rest, for independence. The decade in which the
novel was written was a decade when people had yet to permit their
womenfolk to move freely, for them to attain education to the university
level, even to the point of terminating their daughters' education once
they became "adults". Nevertheless, Keris subtly tried to open up the
minds of the kampong people, through the two female characters, to
the idea that education ought to be attained not only by the males of
A point which was interesting in the female character by this National
Laureate is that in the end she carried on with her life while the male
character was killed off. This could be interpreted as the writer wanting
her struggle to be carried on by the later generations. Therefore, the
assumption that men writers only write about deplorable and objectionable
female characters, is not completely correct.
As soon as Malay literary buffs mention Siti Salina, the character
in Salina (1961) written by National Laureate A. Samad Said, they
automatically see a woman of loose morals, as created by the writer.
This novel, which was originally named "Gerhana", placed the character
as a woman with loose morals who cohabited. Even though there was
not a single trace anywhere which stated outright that Siti Salina was
a "whore" but the allusions given to her job were enough for readers to
draw the conclusion that she was selling her body. It was not as though
Siti Salina was uneducated, it was just that she did not complete her
studies due to the war and that was the job she had chosen to do; it
was inevitable that she be damned as a woman with loose morals.
Upon closer examination, the novel Salina with characters such as
Nahida, Zarina, Abd. Fakar, Wak Karman and Hilmi, gave the impression
that A. Samad Said had his own reasons for portraying Siti Salina as
such and as if he sympathized this character. Even though she sold her
body and cohabited but, yet, Siti Salina was a well-mannered person.
She was liked by her neighbours; she tirelessly encouraged Hilmi to
study and, at times, helped people out financially.
Her neighbours' love for Salina was proven when they sympathized
with her at the time when she quarrelled with Abd. Fakar and they were
sad to see the state she was in. In turn, they hated and were disgusted
with Abd. Fakar. In the development of the Siti Salina character in this
novel, there was an absence of the male defence mechanism as seen
when the despicable Abd. Fakar was viewed with outright contempt.
Siti Salina was written to have had dreams of building a good life, of
being a w·lfe and mother in a harmonious home. Even though they were
only her dreams and ideals, but her longing to be better proved that Siti
Salina herself did not wish to live the way she did.
Arena Wati, a writer who had been enthroned as a National Laureate,
has brought forth many female characters and gave them the lead
characters in several of his novels. His novels cover various themes
such as politics, social and economy. Sandera (1971), a novel with a
wide range of characters, extensive backdrops which includes Malaysia,
Singapore and Indonesia, portrayed a female character which was
stoic and not stereotyped. All of the writer's characters are complex
beings, who deal with misery, cruelty and luxurious lives, with the main
purpose of attaining self satisfaction and independence. From the many
characters, rose the character of Sariyah as an important character in
this novel. She was Busad's mother and the daughter of a trader who
was an Islamic scholar and the leader of Syarikat Islam.
Her character's appearance in the novel was limited but still, it
projected an image of a progressive woman who was struggling not only
for womenfolk but also for her race in fighting against the colonials. Sariyah
was a Macassar princess whose husband was from the Malay States.
She played an important role in the stand by the women's movement
which was anti-colonialist. At the time when she was captured by soldiers,
Sariyah fearlessly voiced her willingness to fight for independence
and to fill such independence with well-mannered people. Such was
the strength given by the writer that the character was seen not as it
was written but instead as it was embellished, as being ardent-spirited
and progressive. In the same novel, the writer had also written about
the character Sapiah, which hated the colonials, held a high post in
Independent Malays (Melayu Merdeka) that tirelessly demanded for
independence. She intensely disliked the British colonials to the extent
of stipulating that whoever wished to marry her, must present her with
the head of a British as a dowry. Such were the female characters by
Arena Wati in this novel which, by the way, was totally void of the male
Arena Wati's trilogy, with the backdrops of America, Holland and
Japan, also portrayed women characters which tried to defend themselves
in their search for justice. Even though Arena Wati is a man but he is
sensitive to the fate of women who live battered lives. Nagai Michiko,
the lead female character in Sakura Mengorak Ke/opak (1987), lived
with an adulterous husband. She sought to give women a valid status
in the home and in the society. Upon finding out that her husband had
SITI AISAH MURAD
committed suicide along with his pregnant girlfriend; Michiko refused
to accept his remains even though she knew that it would become an
issue in Japanese society.
Arena Wati placed Michiko as a woman who did not just give in to her
husband's treatment in the husband-wife relationship. Closer inspection
of this novel, which the writer must have made prior research, found
that traditional Japanese women allow their husbands to bed whoever
they desired. Wives, in turn, must obey and be loyal to their husbands;
however the character developed by Arena Wati wanted her husband's
loyalty if loyalty were to be demanded of her. That was Michiko's
deed which was considered to be extremely despicable and an insult
to Japanese men. When tler deed was revealed in the newspapers,
Japanese society condemned it and many snubbed their noses when
they crossed paths with her. Nevertheless, Arena Wati staunchly upheld
Michiko's action and allowed her to go on by not making her mourn the
death of her husband. There was, however, a slight presence of the
male defence mechanism, which is considered a feminist critique quality
as mentioned by Elaine Showalter, when Michiko was forced to resign
herself to share a husband with Saira. And that too, was unintentional
because Atan had thought that his wife, Saira, had perished in the
burning hotel, however, she had escaped and met up with Atan after
he had remarried Michiko.
Reading and examining the novels of Arena Wati, it was found that
many women characters were placed as important characters and were
also considered as heroines in these novels. For the beach trilogy, as
in Pantai Harapan (1990), Arena Wati had developed the character of
Noreza as an important character which had done much for the fishermen
of her kampong. Noreza, with an economic qualification, wanted to
defend and advance the fishermen in her kampong so that they did not
continue to live in poverty and backwardness. Even though the people of
the kampong were of the "Duano" tribe (orang kuala) but Noreza never
once differentiated herself from them. Noreza was a kampong girl whom
the writer had from the beginning shown her capabilities, her bravery,
her being a highly articulate speaker and her giving proof to whatever
she said. Arena Wati had brought the character's bravery to the fore
by the admittance from the other characters in the novel such as Haji
Nayan, Haji Taib and Noreza's uncle who all saw her seriousness in
helping the kampong people. Noreza successfully set up a fisherman's
co-operative for the people. Another matter which, as if, asserted the
writer's wish for acclaim for the character was when Noreza was willing
to be the wife of a "Duano" tribe member by the name of Budin, who
incidentally was going to be elected as the tribal chief of the kampong.
Noreza represented a character to be reckoned with and an exemplary
one as well. She had a constructive character and did not only depend
on men. She became the talk of the kampong where the people heaped
praises on her and she also handled all sorts of work at the company
which should not, by right, have a been women's work.
Noreza, in this Pantai Harapan novel, had partly fulfilled the
characteristics of feminist literary work as listed by Cheri Ragister,
among which are: woman as a role model, the constant mentioning
of the woman's capabilities and woman as a symbol of goodness.
Regrettably, the writer killed off this character tragically when she was
shot by an unknown assailant. Her husband was also shot when he
tried to save her.
After Noreza, Arena Wati introduced the character of Toya, a
brave and firm woman. She was Noreza's aunt and was a significant
opponent to the sale of coastal land/earth/sand to Singapore. In the
move of opposing the sale, Mak Toya became the leader. Arena Wati
may have purposely built Mak Toya's character as being determined
and brave, as a result of her anger for husband's death at the hands
of the Communist Party. Mak Toya was with Noreza when she and her
husband were shot dead and Mak Toya had resolved that the couple's
struggles would continue. Being progressive was clearly apparent in
this female character which was in total opposite of Elaine Showalter's
feminist critique quality; that female characters written by male writers
Arena Wati then developed the character Sari Bulan in his novel,
Citra (1991). Sari Bulan was written as a woman who was conscientious
and sincere to others especially to those who needed help. The Malays
of the "Duano" tribe (orang Melayu kuala) in this novel lived in an exiled
condition and hardship, having been chased from their land by the sand
traders. Among them was the family of Pak Lato. Sari Bulan became
this family's saviour by bringing them to Serkat, providing them with
jobs and considering them as part of her own family. The Sari Bulan
character seemed to be a manifestation of the writer himself, who had
had several ideas to help save the mistreated Malays of the "Duano"
tribe. The writer's desire to unite the Malays was communicated through
the character of Sari Bulan. She was depicted as having come from
a good background, educated and was not only contained to doing
domestic work, that as said to be a quality of feminist critique.
Sari Bulan was said to be good at handling prawn-breeding work
as in managing, breeding prawns and taking care of them. Her looks
were obviously embellished by the writer to be of that of a beautiful
woman, her chin, lips, nose and cheeks were suitable, beautiful and
perfect for her light skin tone. In her research on the Citra novel, Siti
Hajar Che Man stated that Sari Bulan epitomized Malay women who
are steady, strong, charismatic and aware of their roots. In turn, Arena
Wati was said to have chosen a female character that was matured,
SITI AISAH MURAD
wise, competent and trustworthy, experienced, educated and was brave
to voice her ideas along with leading her people. Not unlike Noreza,
Sari Bulan was willing to marry Bachok, who was far younger than she
was. Sari Bulan was the youngest granddaughter of Sultan Sumbawa,
she was born and bred in the palace and was a degree holder. Her
husband's death due to a bullet led her to escape by being a pineapple
plantation worker and she also worked at a prawn-breeding farm. All of
the events which took place added to her life's experience and made
her more mature. It was as though Arena Wati purposely chose Sari
Bulan as the heroine in Citra.
It is without doubt that Arena Wati on a number of times wrote
on women as significant characters in his novels and by doing so,
he wrote in the exact opposite of Elaine Showalter's qualities of the
feminist critique. Ida in the Sarida (1992) novelette was depicted as a
fighter although this novelette was in the form of a letter but it clearly
showed the character as being progressive and was willing to fight for
independence. Kondu in Royan (1980) had been depicted as a woman
with strength, while Flora in Bunga dari Kuburan (1987) was portrayed as
being strong after her husband had died in the Korean War and her son
had gone missing in Vietnam. In the same novel, Molly was portrayed
as a decisive, daring and ambitious woman. Sunarti in Panrita (1993)
was depicted as a woman who was brave and loyal to her husband.
Natalia in Gami (1993) was said to be a stoic person who was willing to
fight and struggled alongside her mates at the camp. Numerous female
characters created by Arena Wati had been given roles which entirely
went against the grain of the feminist critique theory.
A novel that cannot possibly be left out when discussing female
roles created by men is Wajah Seorang Wanita (1990). The title itself
invites the readers to interpret that the story was written by a writer
similar to that who had written Salina. Written by National Laureate S.
Othman Kelantan, this novel was about a woman's perseverance that
at the beginning had fulfilled the stereotyped qualities of the feminist
critique theory; that of which is loyalty to the edicts of one's parents in
all matters including the choosing of a life partner, schooling and the
husband's choosing of place of abode. Not a word of defiance came
through the lips of this woman known as Siti Musalamah. Even the work
she did involved only the domestic front as in managing her siblings,
child, husband and taking care of the home.
Siti Musalamah achieved autonomy after her husband left her. She
did not depend on men any more. When her husband fell sick, she had
begun to involve herself in business and her husband had encouraged
her. She began to take an interest in t:1er husband's industrial sawmill.
Throughout her husband's absence, not once did it cross her mind to look
for someone to replace him. Siti Musalamah was also a brave person
and her bravery was proven when a Japanese trooper had pointed
a bayonet to her stomach because the Japanese were suspicious of
the head-shaving feast that she was holding for her grandchild. Siti
Musalamah continued to go forward by claiming her innocence. She
was also good at managing her life while being involved in the business
world. She went through the British rule and the Japanese occupation,
and her good business timing. Siti Musalarnah expanded her business
to other things and did not only focus on sawmill. When the situation
and time did not permit her to sell rice she carried out other businesses.
It was obvious that she was clever at going with the flow. She was
good at managing her business and taking care of those around her,
accordingly when she was on in her years, the writer portrayed her as
having a peaceful life and one which was full of the love of her children
Examining this positively-portrayed female character, one ought to
keep in mind that male writers do also write about female characters
which comply with the feminist critique qualities. Stereotyped women,
who cry easily, are dependent on men and are wretched when they
are left by their men. Touching on this matter brings us to the character
of Jeha in Rantau Sepanjang Jalan (1966). A female character, which
most literary researchers know almost by heart, which was portrayed
as being extremely dependent on men to the extent that she went
insane when her husband, Lahuma, left her. The character of Lin in
Rumah Itu Dunia Aku (1950) is also not easily forgotten as she was in
anguish after the deaths of her parents. Siti Salina was actually similarly
portrayed in Salina. Her anguish and poverty began when she lost
those she loved.
Women with questionable morals are also the subject of men writers
as in the character of Mak Pah in Rumal7 Itu Dunia Aku. Mak Pah
hated Lin but pretended to love her in front Mak Pah's husband. She
was vindictive and did not provide her children with proper education;
as a result her children did not turn out too well. In Salina, Zarina, who
forced Nahida to work as a waitress, was well depicted by the writer
to be a woman with loose morals. The novel Lingkaran (1965) also
portrayed a character of the same morals by the name of Timah, which
contributed to her husband's imprisonment due to corruption. A work
written by Ruhi Hayat, Kembang di TafTJan Layu di Tangan (1996), was
about Rajimah who was an unfaithful wife. She was not only depicted as
being unfaithful but was also money-grubbing, snobbish, arrogant and
pretentious. In the novel Sutinal7 (1995), A. Samad Ismai! portrayed a
female character, Sutinah, which became the cause of the break-up of
a marriage. She seduced Rastam until he did not care about his wife
It is unquestionable that men writers are capable of creating anything
SITI AISAH MURAD
in their literary work. Nonetheless, upon examination, they too have
positive perception of women and not view all women in a negative
manner or as stereotypes.
A. Samad Ismail, 1995. Sutinah. Kuala Lumpur: Creative Enterprise Sdn.
A. Samad Said, 1961. Salina. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Ahmad Lufti, 1950. Ustazah. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbitan Qalam.
Ahmad Rashid Talu, 1975. lakah Salmah. First Print,1928. Petaling Jaya:
Penerbit Fajar Bakti.
Arena Wati, 1965. Lingkaran. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Arena Wati, 1971. Sandera. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Arena Wati, 1987. Sakura Mengorak Kelopak. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa
Arena Wati, 1987. Bunga dari Kuburan. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan
Arena Wati, 1990. Pantai Harapan. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan
Arena Wati, 1991. Citra. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Arena Wati, 1992. Sarida. Shah Alam: K' Publishing.
Arena Wati, 1993. Gami. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Pustaka Antara.
Elaine Showalter, 1979. ''Towards A Feminist Poetics" in Mary Jacobus
(ed.), Women Writing and Writing about Women. London: Croom Helm,
Hamzah, 1951. Rumah Itu Duniaku. Singapura: Geliga Limited.
Keris Mas, 1949. Korban Kesuciannya. Singapura: Utusan Melayu Press
Rosnah Baharuddin, 1996. "Mencari Jati Diri Feminisme dalam Novelis
Tempatan". Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Ruhi Hayat, 1996. KemiJang di Tangan Layu di Tangan. Melaka: Abass
Shah non Ahmad, 1966. Ranjau Sepanjang Ja/an. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan
Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Siti Aisah Murad, 1998. "Citra Wanita dalam Novel-novel Arena Watt. Tesis
Sarjana Sastera, Universiti Malaya.
Siti Hawa Salleh. "Watak Wanita Melayu dalam Kesusasteraan" in Dewan
Masyarakat 7: 12, him. 41, Disember 1969.
S. Othman Kelantan, 1990. Wajah Seorang Wanita. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan
Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Syed Sheikh al Hadi, 1964. Hikayat Faridah Hanum. Kuala Lumpur: Pustaka
(Translated by Nor 'Ashikin Abdullah)