Finding Indonesian Tolerance

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The rise of religious fundamentalism and widespread publicity given to conservative values has led many people to hold a negative perception of Islam in Indonesia and elsewhere. Yet in traditionally tolerant and multicultural Indonesia, the situation is not so bleak; the fiercest critics of intolerance 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 carry the family’s hope for their future and daughters are not expected to have much social importance, Neng Dara grew up to become one of Indonesian's best-known women's rights activists. While she received her early education in a conservative pesantren (religious boarding school), today she is a commissioner with the National Commission on Violence Against Women and a prominent proponent of progressive Islam, championing pluralism, inclusivity and tolerance in religion.

Neng Dara's exploration of different aspects of her identity – as a native of Banten in western Java, a Muslim, a woman and an Indonesian – is documented in her new memoir, A Muslim Feminist: An Exploration of Multiple Identities. The book provides a snapshot of the struggles of a young Muslim woman in contemporary Indonesian society.

Like many Muslims in Indonesia, Neng Dara was exposed to widely divergent views of Islam as she was growing up. During her early teenage years, she flirted with conservative Islamic ideology after being taught that religion should be the organizing framework of society. It was a view that saw the secular state – Indonesia has always had a proudly non-religious government ‑ as governed by the devil and taught that religious doctrine was an absolute whose dictates were to be obeyed, not discussed.

During her university years, however, she rejected those earlier ideas in favor of a more tolerant and inclusive vision of Islam. She attended the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, an institution that has produced numerous progressive Muslim thinkers. 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 most religions on the basis that they promote a world where men overpower women, she believes that Islam can – and should ‑ advocate a better life for women.

Neng Dara draws on traditions within Islam that protect and promote women's rights and criticize misogynistic practices. In doing so, she has contended with traditional practices in her own family, including the belief that a young woman should marry a man of her parents' choice, implying that women could not be trusted to make their own life 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 to the diverse values of Indonesians. Moderation an tolerance are worth standing up for, she believes, and they set the country apart from others in the Muslim world, even in nearby Malaysia where religious identity for Muslims can be much harsher by law.

What is heartening is that Neng Dara’s experience is not unique. Tens of millions of young Indonesians routinely find their way to the path of moderation as they search 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.

Nur Amali Ibrahim is a PhD candidate in anthropology at New York University, currently conducting research on activism among Muslim youth in Indonesia. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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