Indonesia's Islamic Schools: More Female Friendly

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Dwi Oblo / Reuters / Landov

Indonesian Muslim students listen to their teacher during a class at an Islamic boarding school in Yogyakarta on Aug. 3, 2007

When she was widowed two years ago, most people in the Javanese village of Babakan Ciwaringin expected Nyai Yu Masriyah Amva to marry again. They also assumed that the local pesantran, or traditional Indonesian Islamic boarding school, would close with the death of her husband, its head Islamic scholar. Neither happened. Bucking tradition, Amva decided that she would run the school. "If men can do it, then why can't I?" the 48-year-old recalls praying. "If you, Allah, are the source of all power, then why do I have to find someone else to run it? Just give me the power. I know that I can do it." After all, she reasoned Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indonesia's ex-president, was a woman, joining the ranks of "Benazir [Bhutto], and Elizabeth, and the woman Madonna played in that movie" — Evita Peron.

Straight-backed, in red lipstick and maroon-and-white polka dots, a sheer black veil slipping off her hair, Amva strides around the campus of Pesantran Kebon Jambu, which takes its name from the guava orchards that stood there before the school's mint-and-white mosque and tile-roofed dormitories. Born in the village to a family of respected kyais, or Islamic teachers, she learned her Arabic and the study of the Quran and the Islamic traditions at her father's pesantran. "My grandfather and parents always hoped someday I'd become a respected scholar," she smiles, pouring tea in her airy her on-campus house. "But since my husband died, people say I have become a superstar." She recalls addressing a nervous student body the week she took over: "You don't have to be afraid because the kyai has passed away," she says she told the 700-odd teenagers. "You still have the greatest thing in this world: Allah. He is with us, and you will be guided by his light."

This July's bombings at two five-star hotels in Jakarta and the 2002 bombings in Bali raised fears among counterterrorism experts that Indonesia's 12,000 pesantran were potential breeding grounds for radicalism. And while suicide bombers and radicals have been traced to a few schools notorious for their extremist teachings, others have been incubators for a more benign trend in the world's most populous Muslim nation: the development of feminist readings of the Quran and Islamic traditions. Indonesia's two largest Muslim political parties — the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah — have intricate campaigns promoting women's rights. Indonesian feminists, male and female alike, have worked with progressive pesantran to develop women-friendly interpretations of shari'a — a radical break with the conservative notions of shari'a across the Muslim world, which tend to be heavily reliant on the world views of medieval — and male — jurists.

Feminism has found fertile soil in Indonesia, whose Islamic traditions are relatively porous, and whose traditional agricultural culture often had men and women working together in the fields , in contrast, say, to the segregated tribal customs of Arabia. It's not that these ideas don't find resistence: There's a strong tradition of male authority in Indonesia, as well as a more recent trend towards fundamentalism, so feminists have to be careful to pick kyais who will be open to their teachings. Jakarta-based feminist activist Lies Marcoes-Natsir says much of her work is protecting indigenous Indonesian Islamic culture from the spread of stricter, Saudi-style Wahhabi interpretations of Islam. "The good thing is that [Indonesia's religious scholars] are also worried about Wahhabism, so we can work hand-in-hand with them," she says. Tellingly, Marcoes-Natsir finds that traditional scholars are easier to get through to than many middle-class urbanites. Where classically trained scholars know of the diversity of interpretations of Islamic law, those less versed tend to insist that it's far stricter than it really is.

Together with Indonesia's most prominent male feminist cleric, Kyai Husein Muhammad, Marcoes-Natsir has developed a course for teaching gender equality in Islam. On a hot summer morning in Cirebon, Northern Java, she taught a workshop on reproductive health, which had her gamely sketching fallopian tubes on a white-board, and parsing Quranic verses on reproductive rights. From the young men and women students, there were nods, furious scribblings, and the odd giggle. And then there was the group of young women, all majoring in gender studies at the local Islamic college, who were snapping pictures to post on their feminist blog. "The patriarchy is very strong," concedes one blogger, Asih Baet, in John Lennon specs and a black hijab. But across Indonesia, in mosques, on blogs, and in former guava orchards, there are rebellions against it.