Jakarta: Islam and Women in Indonesia

Published in Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan, in its Friday Magazine, 13 December 1996.

The first thing that strikes you when you land in Jakarta is its airport. The glass-covered pavilions and ramp ways are flanked on both sides by lush foliage and tall trees. You feel as if you are walking through a garden. A perfect blend of traditional Javanese structure and modern technology, the simple, graceful building of Sukarno-Hatta International Airport, opened in 1985–the recipient of the Aga Khan Architecture Award–is a window to the rich and unique cultural identity of Indonesian archipelago.

The outskirts of Jakarta are still sparkling green, the air pure and the sky clear blue. But soon the nature is superseded by tall buildings, glass towers, vehicle-packed roads, expressways and flyovers. Once you get down at the Gambir Station, next to the central Mardeka Square, you experience the big-city syndrome — a slight sickening of the stomach and a feeling of disorientation at the noise and the air pollution, the traffic congestion and the sight of the mass of humanity.

Jalan Jaksa, where we stay, turns out to be a small, busy street, centrally located, lined with medium-to-cheap accommodations, post office, travel agents, small book shops, cafes, pubs, restaurants and warungs  (roadside food stalls). The road has ample footpaths on both sides.  At times you come across men hauling up bags full of foul sewage. Jakarta is a city without integrated sewerage system so the drains and pits have to be cleaned regularly.

What gives Jalan Jaksa a vibrant, friendly ambience is its many homesteads, called losmen, run by Indonesian families, in its narrow, winding alleys. The alleys are clean and concretised, and lined with open drains — which stink at places — and the potted plants placed on top of slabs that cover the drains after every yard or so. You get a feeling that somehow people are trying their best to make their environs lively. Children are playing and men and women in sarongs  are relaxing in front of the doors. Our big-city syndrome slowly subsides and we start liking Jakarta, where, if you close your eyes, the noise of the rickshaws, the chimes of Walls ice-cream wallahs and the call of the muezzin would make you feel as if you are in Karachi!

But the resemblance ends there. Though a military state under the garb of presidential system, with a questionable record of human rights violations, repression and censorship, Indonesian society seems to be civilised, peaceful and efficient, with no outward manifestations of being a police state — no bayonet-sticking rangers on the streets, no checking and harassing of civilians, no everyday killings in custody. My pre-travel apprehensions — after the news of the July 27 riots in Jakarta which had left 5 people dead and 23 missing — vanish, almost.

Jakarta, sprawling over some 650 sq. km, is a city of contradictions. There are glass-panelled skyscrapers, shopping malls and plazas full of classy, western, designers’ items. There are numerous traditional  markets with crampy wooden stalls selling cheap local products. You would come across spacious bungalows hidden behind luxurious gardens, modern multi-storeyed apartment buildings and you would not miss shantytowns–kampungs–either, particularly on the sides of canals and railway tracks. Well-planned wide streets with walkways, acres of open space and parks amidst bustling commercial areas are a contrast to many narrow, congested streets and labyrinthine alleys.  Young women with head scarf–jilbab–and loose pants, or sarongs,  glide with ease on Honda motorbikes while women in shorts and tight jeans, or skirts, with stylish haircuts are a common sight.

It’s in Taman Mini Indonesia Indah, or Mini Indonesia Park, that I find an overwhelming number of the jilbab-covered female children–students of pasentren  (Islamic schools)–thronging the place, among the bus-loads of romping children.

Jilbab  is nothing new in Indonesia”, 27-year-old Siti Darojatul Aliah, affectionately called Dete by the colleagues and friends, tells me about the head scarf she is donning, “It’s being practised since older times. You must have come across middle-aged, older women in another form of head cover. That is traditional kerundung,  a form similar to your dupatta. Many women in rural areas cover their head with scarf, or topi. Jilbab  is the modern form — you can say — worn by young women.” Dete, petite, dusky and bespectacled, is very much familiar with dupatta and shalwar-qameez, as she has spent two years in Nepal where she worked for the UNDP.

Dete works in a non-governmental organisation, International NGO Forum on Indonesia Development (INFID), one of the 10,000 NGOs in Indonesia involved with development–education, health, housing, labour–and human rights issues. I meet her in her office in Jalan Duren Tiga,  a middle-class residential area in Jakarta.

Dete herself took to jilbab  in 1983 when she was a 14-year-old senior high school student. She saw many girls wearing jilbab. They were students of pasentrens , the Indonesian equivalent of our traditional madressas. “I was really impressed with them. They work so hard in pasentrens.  They study for long hours. And they are so knowledgeable, not just about Islam but about modern concepts too,” says Dete, who was inspired to follow the same path. But how could she go and live in Nepal on her own? “My mother is a modern woman. She allowed me to go. Also, Islam doesn’t restrict women’s mobility,” Dete says simply.

And of course. Though still out-numbered by women without head scarves,  you come across women in jilbab  almost everywhere — in offices, on the streets, driving cars, riding motorbikes, on board public transport — sitting knee-to-knee in bemos  (mini-buses) with male and female passengers, in the markets selling goods, in the mosques offering prayers side-by-side with Muslim men, walking with boyfriends in university campuses and in the parks.

In the 1980s Suharto’s government tried to curb the use of jilbab. “Many teachers in public schools attempted to impose the restriction but the students defied them and took the matter to the court,” tells Dete. Eventually the government, through a decree, relaxed restrictions on the use of jilbab.

But Islamic revival in Indonesia, of which jilbab  is one of the manifestations, appears to be of a different kind than in Pakistan where women’s mobility is the number one casualty among the sections where women must hide behind head-to-toe burqah;  and are not supposed to be moving around without the escort of a mahram.

“Women are now in a much better position in Indonesia than before. They have been working for long to improve their condition. Things have changed gradually and the change has become faster in the 1990s. There are a lot more job openings and opportunities for women than for men,” Dete tells me. “One of my male cousins who is looking for a job, recently said ‘I wish I were you, Dete, I would have gone anywhere; I would have done anything I wanted’,” she laughs, proud of herself, of her being a woman in Indonesia.

Indeed. Muslim women in Indonesia are faring much better than their counterparts in South Asia:  literacy among women is 88 per cent (1992); enrollment of girls in primary school 97 percent (1990); and women’s participation in paid labour force 37 percent (1994). Above all, on gender empowerment measure (GEM) indicator, that concentrates on economic, political and professional participation of women, Indonesia ranks 56th among 116 countries: a definitely better rank than Pakistan which stands at 114 (Human Development Report 1995).

Prior to our journey, we heard something amazing about Indonesia women from Aamir Hussein–the English short story writer from London– “Once I was outside a mosque I heard a woman’s voice. She was talking non-stop, through loudspeaker. I asked ‘What’s going on inside?’ And I was told a woman was leading the Friday prayer and giving khutba  on the merit of family planning….”

Women have played a crucial role, since the last 30 years, in lowering the country’s population growth rate to an enviable 1.8. Though the decisive factor was a political will that over rode initial religious opposition from some quarters, it was massive mobilisation of women through Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga  (Family Welfare Movement), initiated by the government and supported by NGOs and women’s groups, that the message reached to more than 66,000 villages through PKK’s two million voluntary workers.

The support of religious quarters to family planning programmes indicates a hold of modernist and neo-modernist Islamic scholars who also advocate political democracy and social egalitarianism. Perhaps an important factor which has kept the Islamic revival safe from ‘fundamentalist’ overtones is the state indoctrination of the concept of tolerance and its repressive measures against deviation from the middle path (the massacre of the ‘communists’ in 1965).

“Fundamentalism has not really bitten the majority of Muslims in Indonesia”, says Mochtar Lubis, one of Indonesia’s best-known journalists, and writer of several books of fiction and non-fiction. “I think fundamentalism has influenced some small pockets of Muslims but in general Indonesians are not like that. Indonesians are very faithful Muslims but not in the sense of being extremists. So its unlikely that this section gets the support of the majority. And neither, I think there is tension, in general, between the fundamentalist and moderate forces. There have been isolated cases of conflicts. But in general, we are used to the freedom of religions, used to live together peacefully. For instance I come from West Sumatra where there are pockets of Muslims and Christians and other religions as well. Sometimes even in one family there are Muslim and Christian members.” Mochtar Lubis– whom we meet in Singapore on our way back home–lives in Jakarta.

Islamic revival in Indonesia is explained by many as young Indonesians’ search to find in Islam a solid foundation of faith in times of rapid social change and shifting values. In your talk to the people on this issue, nobody would refer to the revolution in Iran as a causative factor for the increasing growth of pesantrens  and the use of head scarf. The history of modern pesantrens  that combine Islamic and secular studies, goes back to late 19th century. However it was in 1926 when a mass organisation called Nahdlatul Ulama, meaning Revival of Religious Scholars, was formed by the conservative section, creating a network of schools and training centres. Today NU,  is the largest  Muslim organisation in Indonesia with political clout and claiming a membership of some 30 million, based mostly in Central and East Java. In the early twentieth century there had been several Muslim organisations. After the occupation of Indonesia, the Japanese forced the Muslim organisation to work under one umbrella in 1943. Though a repressive measure, it united the Muslims and worked against the fissiparous tendencies!

Why Islam, and consequently women’s status in Indonesia is different from other Muslim countries, can perhaps be linked with how Islam arrived in Indonesia. It came through traders peacefully — not by conquest — from India and the Middle East, seven hundred years ago. Peaceful conversion meant core cultural values were not changed, rather they were assimilated with the dominating beliefs.

Indonesian women have a strong sense of their Muslim identity and through the prism of this identity, they respond to socio-economic forces in their own way. “I am a Muslim. I wanted my husband to bring in an honest income. I didn’t want him to be corrupt. So I started working”, says 60-year-old Tini Hasan Porbu, wife of a retired professor of the Institute of Technology Bandung (ITB), in her fluent English, in their cozy, comfortable home with a beautiful tiny courtyard. A fruitful career in a state university in Indonesia means respect in, and a solid contribution to, society but a moderate income.

Modern and educated, Tini took to estate brokerage–one of the many enterprises (jewellery, costly batiks, meal catering) popular with women of upper-middle strata. “I wanted to give a small piece of land to build a home to each of my three sons and a daughter”.  Tini quit brokerage after achieving her dream and involved herself in voluntary social work. “For ten years I worked in school for blind students and in a special hospital for cleft pallet patients. And now I am a full-time housewife and a nurse to my ailing husband”, her laughter has a ring of contentment and pride.

Though the number of highly educated women in professions is still low compared to the developed countries — “the ratio of male-female teachers is 4:1”, a professor at the Surabaya Institute of Technology tell us — it is in the market trade and services that women dominate in Indonesian economy, more so in rural and semi-rural areas, where women from a very early age, while still single, start contributing towards the family income. The range of economic activities open to women is very wide. A woman can set a small shop and trade in garments, batiks, crafts, grocery; she can take agricultural produce in the market and sell it; she may run a cafe or a guest house.

Made (pronounced maa-dee) is one such enterprising woman that we come across in Bali. Made comes from a farmer’s family. Her father died when she was five, the second eldest of 3 sisters and 4 brothers. Her mother worked in a rice field. After finishing primary schooling, she took to economic activity, like her older siblings, and helped her sister in running a small shop, selling sarongs. After her marriage at 20, she worked in a food shop, chipping in the money to her new household in Ubud where she lives with her in-laws. Her husband is contractor and her father-in-law works on his rice field.

“I got the idea of starting a guest house in our premises from my friends. I borrowed Rp. 10 million from the bank, sold whatever jewellery I had and constructed four cottages–each unit with a room with attached bath and a covered verandah,” tells 36-year-old plump, energetic woman with short kinky hair, in broken English. She opened Lestari House — named after her 14-year-old daughter — in June 1995. Supported in her venture by her in-laws, she again took a Rp 5 million loan from the bank and constructed two more cottages in 1996. Her responsibilities have increased — getting up at 5 in the morning, fetching fruits and grocery from the market, preparing breakfast for the guests, cleaning the rooms, doing the laundry, but “I am happy,” she says.

Though Indonesia, like many other societies, is a patriarchal society and the state ideology emphasizes the domestic role of woman as mother and wife, yet women in Indonesia have achieved remarkable progress during the last three decades. They have better access to labour markets, education and health facilities — when compared to their Muslim counterparts in South Asia — and they are confident of their future. It’s time we should look to our South East Asian counterparts for sharing of experiences and cultural exchange.

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