Sun, 22 Oct 2000

Women's struggles in the realm of religion

Pengalaman Perempuan: Pergulatan Lintas Agama (Women's Experience: Interfaith Inner Struggle) Edited by Yanti Mochtar KaPal Perempuan in cooperation with the Ford Foundation 2000 xix and 155 pp

JAKARTA (JP): Numerous books on subjects previously seen as taboo have been published since Soeharto's downfall in 1998 but seldom does a book have such an impact as this one.

Pengalaman Perempuan: Pergulatan Lintas Agama (Women Experience: Interfaith Inner Struggle) talks about the inner conflict of five women activists. It is a protest against what they perceive as flaws in their respective cultural and religious upbringings.

It is essentially the condensation of years of fathomless agony suffered by the writers. It is the kind of agony arising from living with an open heart in a society dogged by suffocating cultural and religious restrictions.

The writers' frankness in putting their innermost struggle in the 170-page book is a sign of courage. They are iconoclasts with critical souls and the book's subject matter still sounds sensitive even during today's so-called reformasi (political reform) era.

To most Indonesians who lived during the repressive Soeharto years the subject violates SARA, the local acronym for any expression considered to border on racism, ethnicity and religion. It is still shocking, for example, to read the confession of a descendant of Prophet Muhammad about her religious doubts.

"When I was 14 years old I began to doubt the existence of God," Farha Ciciek, an Indonesian Muslim of Arab descent who hails from Ambon, disclosed.

A rebel in her family, she managed to escape the tight grip of her aristocratic Arab community. She went to Yogyakarta and became totally enthralled as soon as she enrolled in university, her first encounter with the outside world.

She married a commoner, defying her father's insistence that she wed a fellow Arab descendant of Prophet Muhammad.

Another activist, Viany Yuanita Prihindraningsih, a former Catholic nun, recalled when she fought against the temptation of loneliness when she was in the convent.

"I was often confused and cried when I realized that my body demanded what I should have gone through in my adulthood. Although I studied how to overcome this torment by praying and spiritual exercises, it simply did not work. I was very lonely."

At about the same time, she said, her eyes were opened to the illicit sexual relationships between priests and nuns, or between members of the clergy and laymen or laywomen.

She believes celibacy should be on a voluntary basis, giving the option to those who are truly committed to the practice. Otherwise, more women and fatherless children will suffer.

She said there was often a double standard, with nuns leaving the convent to take care of their offspring but the priests who fathered the children retaining their status.

Viany unraveled the gender bias in her religion and pondered why it was always men who were extolled in the Catholic priesthood's hierarchy.

The child of a Chinese Catholic father and a Javanese Muslim mother, Viany told how she often returned home in tears as a child after being showered with the slur "Chinese child" by her playmates.

"Can't we look different? Why should everyone look the same?" kept on in her mind throughout her childhood.

The life experiences of the other women in the book are no less unique.

Neng Dara Affiah is a Muslim with a strong pesantren (Islamic boarding school) upbringing who hails from the West Java town of Banten.

The title of her work in the book -- "Unraveling the footsteps of a santri (Muslim scholar): Diary of a rebel" -- refers to her fight against what she perceives as the absence of critical discussion in the pesantren .

Judith Liem is a Chinese Indonesian who was born in Central Java. She studied Christian theology and became a women's activist. She tells about how she managed to come out of pecinan (Chinatown) to embrace life in a pluralistic cultural setting.

Iswanti is a Javanese Catholic, a minority in terms of religion since most Javanese profess Islam. Iswanti rebelled against the lower status of woman in her Javanese community; her interest later expanded to the fight against the Catholic hierarchical tradition and the battle to protect the poor.

The fact that the writers are all women -- who traditionally are relegated to the second sex in Indonesia's thickly feudal and patriarchal society -- only enhances the value of the book. Underpinning the five activists' exposition is a clear rejection of a male dominated world.

The public may have forgotten that women activists, increasingly sidelined in the reform movement since 1998, were among the first who start the ball of the movement rolling.

The writers do not have any pretense to accept things on face value but tirelessly question matters they perceive as incompatible. They believe that churches, mosques as well as tradition are antidemocracy and that democracy will never exist if gender inequality persists.

Readers will feel personally acquainted with the writers since what they read is essentially their most intimate feelings and thoughts.

But the poor book cover design belies the good editing.

The book, a collection of sharing of the faithful, is a must for those who dream of a pluralistic but peaceful Indonesia. It is not only helpful for women's movement activists, but an eye- opener to anyone about how difficult it is to appreciate and embrace pluralistic values in Indonesian society.

Going beyond one's cultural boundaries is a life experience not everyone can choose to have, let alone appreciating other cultures. To some the practice is frowned upon, while others are simply indifferent to other cultures.

Tradition, parental outlook and education partly constitute the obstacles to crossing one's cultural boundaries. It is an irony in a nation endowed with such rich cultural variety that, as it stands now, cultural communities appear to be merely cohabitants. There is little, if any, substantial interaction going on among them.

The book's greatest contribution is that the discussion of sensitive issues, usually confined to whispers or closed-door meetings, has been brought into the open, thus inviting further discourse which is healthy in a democracy.

Had a frank discussion on culture and religion been here 30 years ago, the sectarian conflicts we are now experiencing may not be as bloody and the threat of disintegration less resolute.

Nevertheless, it is better late than never. The five activists are clearly opinion leaders in a new Indonesia, and a heavy workload lies in waiting for them.

One of them is to publish a follow-up book recording their parents' agony as they themselves went through the torment of the enlightenment period. Another one of value is to help non- governmental organizations become less vulnerable to fracture from internal bickering.

-- Harry Bhaskara

The book is available from KaPal Perempuan (Tel. 797-4181).