Indonesia: Feminist's memoir resonates with youth

The rise of religious fundamentalism and the prevalence of conservative values, such as a belief in the primacy of men over women, have led many people to hold a negative perception of Islam in Indonesia.
Yet the situation is not as bleak as commonly believed; the fiercest critics to fundamentalism and conservatism are sometimes the very people who have been long exposed to these values. Neng Dara Affiah is one of those critics. Born into a society in which sons bear high parental hopes for their future and daughters are not expected to be persons of social importance, Neng Dara grew up to become one of Indonesian's most well-known women's rights activists.
While she received her early education in a conservative pesantren (religious boarding school), today Neng Dara is a commissioner with the National Commission on Violence Against Women and a prominent proponent of progressive Islam in the country, championing pluralism, inclusivity and tolerance in religion.

Neng Dara's exploration of different aspects of her identity – as a native of Banten (a region in the westernmost part of Java island), a Muslim, a woman and an Indonesian – is documented in her new memoir, A Muslim Feminist: An Exploration of Multiple Identities. The book details the challenges she faced from a young age, and provides a snapshot of the struggles of a young Muslim woman in contemporary Indonesian society.

The book shows that, like many Muslims in Indonesia, Neng Dara was exposed to different views on Islam. During her early teenage years, she flirted with a conservative Islamic ideology after being taught that religion should be the organising framework of society, a secular state was governed by the devil and religious doctrines were to be obeyed, not discussed.

During her university years, however, she rejected those earlier ideas in favour of a more tolerant and inclusive Islam. Neng Dara attended the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, an institution that has produced numerous progressive Muslim thinkers in the country. There, she was exposed to the humanities and social sciences, participated in reading and discussion groups that addressed a wide range of topics including Islam, learned about other religions and came to accept diversity in religious thought.

As suggested by the label she gives herself – a Muslim feminist – Neng Dara's memoir documents her personal and professional struggle to bring together the seemingly incompatible traditions of Islam and feminism. Unlike some feminists who reject religion on the basis of the belief that it privileges men over women, she operates within a framework of Islam that believes it can advocate a better life for women.

Neng Dara draws on traditions within Islam that protect and promote women's rights and criticise misogynistic practices, including those found in her own family who believed that a young woman should marry a man of her parents' choice, implying that women could not be trusted to make their own decisions. With much difficulty, Neng Dara won over her parents and chose her own life partner.

Neng Dara's approach is a strategic way of disseminating ideas on women's emancipation in Indonesia. In a society where people still hold strongly to religious traditions, an approach based on the wholesale repudiation of religion seems likely to fail.

Neng Dara poignantly describes how her feminist stance is influenced by her grandmother, a Banten native who built schools and dedicated her life to teaching and protecting the rights of both men and women. Her grandmother was an independent woman committed to her students, confident in her communication with men and unafraid to assert her rights in front of government officials. Using her grandmother's example, Neng Dara argues that ideas of emancipation can be found locally, and aren't necessarily imported, as is often assumed with feminism.

Certainly, Neng Dara's account is a celebration of what she has achieved, but it is also a testament that the diverse values of all Indonesians are worth standing up for. Her experience is common among young people who are still searching for their own identity. Indonesian leaders, activists and intellectuals should look to Neng Dara's experience to help expose those who come from a similar tradition of fundamentalism to a more tolerant and inclusive Islam.

16 June 2009

By Nur Amali Ibrahim (a PhD candidate in anthropology at New York University, currently conducting research on activism among Muslim youth in Indonesia.)

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews).