Indonesia’s Feminist Islamic Schools
IslamOnline.net & Newspapers
Wed. Sep. 23, 2009
Many Islamic schools in Indonesia have become more female-friendly recently.
CAIRO — When her husband died, Nyai Yu Masriyah Amva did not think twice before stepping into the place of the respected Muslim scholar and run the Islamic madrasah of their village in Indonesia’s Java.
“Why do I have to find someone else to run it?” Nyai told Time magazine on Wednesday, September 23.
“I know that I can do it."
Nyai, who has been running the Islamic school, known locally as pesantren, for two years now, recalls how most people in the village expected her to close the school with the death of her husband or find a new male head.
But the 48-year-old, whose father was also a renowned Muslim scholar, decided that she would run the school and she has even won the villagers support.
"My grandfather and parents always hoped someday I'd become a respected scholar," she said.
"But since my husband died, people say I have become a superstar."
Nyai’s pesantren is one of many in Indonesia which have more female friendly recently.
While pesantrens in Indonesia face the dilemma of a much-stereotyped image that relates them to suicide bombers and extremists, the schools have seen a growing trend of more female kyais, teachers in Islamic schools.
In many schools, women scholars who teach religion and recitation of the Noble Qur’an are growing in numbers.
Indonesian feminist groups, male and female alike, have also worked with pesantrans to develop women-friendly interpretations of shari`ah.
There are some 14,000 Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation with a population of 220 million.
More than three million students are registered in these pesantrens which fill the vacuum of state schools in the poorest, remotest parts of the archipelago nation.
The growing female power in Islamic schools mirrors a wider phenomenon of feminism in the Asian Muslim nation.
“Feminism has found fertile soil in Indonesia,” says the Time.
The newspaper noted that the movement is fast growing due to Indonesia’s Islamic-based culture and indigenous traditions that favor gender equality.
Indonesia’s “traditional agricultural culture often had men and women working together in the fields.”
Social activists and Muslim leaders in Indonesia have further helped the trend.
Indonesia's two largest Muslim political parties — the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah — have intricate campaigns promoting women's rights.
In Northern Java, Indonesia's most prominent male scholar Kyai Husein Muhammad Marcoes-Natsir has joined hands with Jakarta-based feminist activist Lies Marcoes-Natsir to develop a course for teaching gender equality in Islam.
For Nyai, the pesantren woman head, it’s not only the role of feminist activists and politicians to enlighten the society on women rights.
Indonesian women also should have more faith in themselves and in their capabilities, she explains.
"If men can do it, then why can't I?"