SEPTEMBER 4 — In a news report last Friday, young actor Raja Afiq revealed he has been criticised by some fans for uploading Instagram photos of himself working out.
The reason? He had played the role of an ustaz, or a religious teacher, in TV drama Sayangku Kapten Mukhriz. Fans thought he was giving a contradicting image of himself.
Raja Afiq’s photos were not even revealing, although some might find them titillating.
Do the fans feel that it is uncharacteristic for an ustaz to work out? Or is working out seen as an immoral thing to do, unworthy of an ustaz?
Such are the perils Malay artistes have to navigate through in the Malaysian entertainment industry where the audience themselves play the role of moral police.
Indubitably, the burden is worse for women in the industry.
Actress Uqasha Senrose experienced the righteous anger of her Malay-Muslim fans last week after courageously going public with her decision to discard her tudung, or headscarf, after three years wearing it.
The reaction was not unexpected since Uqasha was already shamed by the Malay entertainment media that revealed she had appeared sans hijab while on vacation in Koh Lipe, Thailand.
This practice, of course, is far from strange. Many Muslim women choose to let their hair free off work, outside schools, and sometimes on holidays abroad — where they feel less pressure to conform to societal norm, and where they feel more like themselves.
Uqasha was different as she decided to stop pretending for good.
“It was as if I was afraid about what others say and think. But I don’t want to live based on what others think anymore. Let this decision be between me and God,” Uqasha said in her second exclusive interview on the decision with Malay daily Berita Harian.
After going public, Uqasha knew she would receive more than just flak. But she was undeterred, uploading new photos of herself and her two celebrity sisters Nelydia Senrose and Raysha Rizrose.
In the photos, three of them are smiling. All of them not hiding their hair. And not hiding themselves.
And that daring act had incensed righteous Muslim fans, who bombarded her social media accounts with derogatory and vulgar reminders of impending death, and of hell that awaits her for choosing not to wear the hijab. Fans were disappointed, angry, claiming that Uqasha had desecrated Islam with her action.
Why did some Muslims go berserk? It might have to do with Uqasha’s standing, and her attractiveness. Having a famous celebrity — and a pretty one to boot — accepting the tudung validates their belief that adherence to Islam is a desirable trait present in the best of humans.
Now that their illusion has been shattered, they have resorted to the strongest forces that have kept most religious adherents, especially Muslims, in line: coercion and public shaming.
Uqasha’s rezeki, or livelihood, has not been dented by her decision so far, despite some fans’ insistence on boycotting her. In fact, she was awarded a contract by production house Metrowealth MiG, signalling her return to the limelight.
In contrast, actress Mia Ahmad complained last week that she has not been given more diverse roles, especially the role of antagonists, because she wears the tudung.
This is absolutely mind-boggling, surely there are evil characters in real life who happen to wear tudungs? Not so when you see the stereotypical casting in most Malay dramas: the good girls almost always wear tudungs, the evil ones do not, their hair at times are in ravishing colours.
A much more bizarre story is that of child actress Mia Sara who made the abrupt decision to wear the tudung after a pilgrimage to Mecca. Mia admitted as a result, she was no longer bullied in school and on social media. She is 11.
But in February, Mia lamented her lack of acting jobs since she covered her head. She said she was forced to sell tudungs online as her livelihood.
Just like Mia Sara, selling celebrity-branded tudungs has become the crutch for many actresses and celebrities after they bowed to public pressure and covered themselves, usually after marriage.
It is an example of these Malay celebrities trying to find the silver lining, a compromise within an increasingly Islamised society, and in turn the increasing religiosity that has crept inside the industry as a response to Malay society’s changing tastes.
Another way to respond is of course to not give a hoot. And these celebrities who refuse to succumb to public pressure are a rare breed indeed.
An example is actresses and models Izara Aishah and Kilafairy who attended the recent KL Fashion Week in matching peach and electric blue lace dresses designed by Xema Sue. The lingerie-inspired dresses more than accentuated their curves.
Naturally Izara was slammed by some of her Malay-Muslim fans. She acknowledged the controversy briefly and moved on with no regrets. Kilafairy, already known for her sexy image, somehow was left alone.
A heartbreaking anecdote went viral recently on Twitter. An 8-year-old kid had spent her days being miserable, only to burst in tears when her sister and parents confronted her.
The reason became apparent: the little girl had been mocked by a classmate for not wearing the tudung. She was called a “kafir”, an infidel with no religion.
The sad thing? The classmate was only aping what his or her father had said.
That is the depressing state of our reality now. Kids are born without prejudice but their parents change this, and so we see today religiously judgmental children as young as eight.
Both the teasing and teased girls inevitably grow up to be the women that see wearing tudung as the only way to fit in and not because they see it as obedience to their faith.
If these women make the decision to liberate themselves from shame and insincerity, let them not face further bile and hatred from society. Just like with Uqasha, we should stand by them and their newfound freedom.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.