Fundamentalist Islam Falls Behind in Indonesia

In five years the number of women riding motorbikes in Indonesia has risen from 11 to 15 percent of the entire population of about 250 million people. But a Muslim preacher in East Java, Tohari Muslim, has announced that women cannot charge for giving lifts on motorcycles and therefore cannot drive ojeks (motorbike taxis).

This is in a country where 25 percent of women are in the labor force and half of them go to work on a motorbike, not counting the huge number of students who go to school and college on motorbikes. Nonetheless, Mohammad Nabiel Haroen, spokesman for a forum of 250 leaders of Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) in East Java and Madura confirmed recently that the Ulema forum had banned women from working as motorbike taxi drivers.

"Just imagine if a female ojek driver carried a male passenger who was not her muhrim, or close relative who was forbidden to marry but allowed to associate with her, Tohari Muslim explained.

Women are not allowed to become ojek drivers because it would be hard for them to avoid sinful acts".

Muhammad also explained that apart from being banned from becoming ojek drivers, women are also banned from using ojek motorcycle services, especially on routes that pass through deserted areas.

But transport expert Ofyar Tamin told local media that people need cheap fast transport in areas with severe traffic jams "People need ojek as an efficient form of transport. If riding an ojek is forbidden, it will hamper the mobility of people."

What is behind this?

Debnath Guharoy, writing in The Jakarta Post recently, pointed out that Indonesian women are the boss in 90 percent of Indonesian households in terms of the household budget. In a nation whose Gross Domestic Product is 60 percent consumer driven, it is women who control family economic decisions, from buying toothpaste to motorbikes.

The fact is that conservative Ulema of East Java and their mosques and Islamic boarding schools face the erosion of their economic base and traditional influence through rapid urbanization as well as economic and social change in rural areas. More than 3.8 million Indonesians are moving into the cities every year.

If motorcyclists sell lifts in the rush hours and at lunchtime they can make two or three dollars a day, not far short of the minimum wage. If they charge for lifts to work or school they can cover all their petrol and half their monthly loans for the bikes. No cleric can tell women not to do this, when 37.5 million Indonesian women already ride motorbikes every day, and female ownership of motorbikes is rocketing.

The political economy of traditional rural Islam is threatened, whilst young women are racing ahead and women dominate 90 percent of households on budget decisions. Islamic boarding schools are drawing too much negative attention to themselves through attempts at conservative edicts against Facebook, gossip TV shows and now motorbikes, while their networks have no authority to make binding fatwas.

A minority of the boarding schools previously have been recruiting grounds for militias in inter-communal conflicts or for support for terrorism. What is needed is more modern education and training for Ulemas and leaders of pesantren and to help regenerate the deteriorating revenue base for rural Islam, for example through modern waste management and clean energy.

Support for the Islamic parties is falling in Indonesia. People are voting for economic and social solutions, and against corruption, and not for minority puritanical positions on personal conduct. Attempts at enforcing unpopular puritanical rules would produce collisions between conservatives and majority modernizers on human rights and constitutional grounds.

There are already some signs of this in Aceh province. The pluralistic state of Indonesia is bound by its constitution to defend the rights of its citizens. The provincial government has decided to take control of the East Java pesantren by taking responsibility for the health care of the clerics who run them, while putting their schools into a unified administration with the secular state education system. This is a sign of the times and that rural Islam is falling behind the speed of modernization and needs to catch up.

Terry Lacey is a development economist who writes from Jakarta on modernization in the Muslim world.