Indonesia: Sharing women's rights in Islamic schools

Christian Science Monitor
In her boarding schools, Lily Munir teaches women and children that their religion supports gender equality.
"Lily Munir asks the 50 young mothers in her classroom to use their imaginations. What would it be like, she says, if your husband supported your right to work and helped with housework?
The women in their seats look surprised at the question. Some of them laugh.

What begins as jokes about bad husbands grows into a serious discussion about gender roles and women's rights. Islam supports women's empowerment, Ms. Munir tells her students, so men should, too.

It's a simple but important way Munir, who since 2002 has run the Center for Pesantren and Democracy Studies in Jakarta, is challenging traditional views on gender in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country.

In so doing, she is reclaiming what she sees as the Koran's intended but lost message.

Where many in the West see a book of intolerance, Munir sees a text whose basic demand is harmony among all faiths. Where radical Islamists see a call to arms, she sees a blueprint for peace.

And instead of looking at Koranic verses that justify gender disparities, Munir sees a mandate for all men to work for the empowerment of women.

To put her ideas into practice, she opened a training center in 2002 to reach out to traditional religious boarding schools called pesantren. There are as many as 18,000 such schools throughout Indonesia, instructing up to 3 million students, according to one estimate. That's a fraction of Indonesia's education system, which also includes 40,000 religious schools called madrassahs. But pesantrens play a significant role in preparing Indonesia's future generations.

They have also sometimes been seen as incubators of violence. Several men charged in the 2002 Bali bombings, in which members of the militant organization Jemaah Islamiyah killed more than 200 people, had worked at a pesantren in East Java.

A suicide bomber who later struck the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta was also said to be a student of a pesantren. As a result, the schools – and religious education through Indonesia – have been viewed with greater alarm. "Unfortunately, if you Google 'pesantren,' the definition you come up with is a place that teaches terrorists in Indonesia," says Ron Lukens-Bull, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, who has written extensively about pesantrens.

But he disagrees with that negative characterization. "There are maybe 100 to 150 pesantrens that are Islamist radical leaning. That's not very many," he says, adding that "the pesantrens have always been very open and culturally accommodating."

Munir also sees radical pesantrens as the exception that must be checked.

Having been raised herself in a pesantren in Jombang, East Java, which her parents founded in the 1950s, Munir knew firsthand that there is much to respect about their traditions.

"[My parents] were very progressive, and very gender-sensitive," she says. "My mother was the first woman judge in Indonesia. That was thanks to my father, who practiced the teaching of the Koran: that men should ... be empowering women."

But she also saw that her parents' values were not shared by all pesantrens, and that women's rights are often neglected in religious schools.

"Our center started with issues relating to women. That's the most pressing problem – that we promote gender equality, gender equity, and women's rights," says Munir.

Statistics support her view. The literacy rate for women in Indonesia is 86 percent, compared with 94 percent for men, and employment opportunities for women have declined in recent years compared with those for men. To help address the imbalance, Munir's organization runs three schools, instructing about 500 children and, in many cases, their mothers. Classic Islamic instruction is combined with seminars on women's health and gender equality. And through outreach training sessions in about 10 districts of East Java, she reaches hundreds of teachers, working to make gender equality a part of their instruction. That can mean holding anything from a reading of the Koran's views on women to a seminar on sexual abuse, a taboo subject.

"She's doing things that are new and innovative. She's pushing the pesantren community further than the traditional perspective," says Professor Lukens-Bull.

Sometimes that's as simple as pushing the women to read more. Standing in front of the class, Munir asks if many of the women have noticed the library downstairs. Many say yes.

But when she asks if many of them have actually picked up one of those books, many say no – prompting a friendly admonishment to read more.

Alongside issues of gender, Munir's organization also helps pesantrens incorporate discussion of pluralism, democracy, and tolerance into religious curricula.

Her approach is novel not only for what she teaches, but because she eschews the rote learning often employed in religious schools.

"I tell my students: Don't just memorize. Let's discuss. Why do you think it is important? And that's how the Koran suggests you should invite people to Islam, not by force, not by threatening," she says, quoting in Arabic, "Invite people into the way of God, with wisdom."

Lukens-Bill says that, through efforts like Munir's, pesantrens can be strengthened as an effective bulwark against radical tendencies. "There's a very thoughtful and significant segment of the pesantrens that are completely against radicalism," he says.

And that tolerance starts with empowered mothers educating their children, says Yonita Lydia, a mother of three who attended Munir's workshop.

"We have to raise a good generation. In the Koran it talks about tolerance. Islam is tolerance," she says, pointing to a verse in a Koran cradled in her lap: "Here, it says: 'Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.' "

28 October 2008

By: David Montero, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor