Page 2 of 2 SPEAKING FREELY Indonesia: Among the happiest people
By Zeyneb Temnenko
Allie has been wearing a hijab since she was in high school. Her mother
is highly active in Yogyanese religious life. She would like her daughter to
follow her path. Allie at the same time thinks that she does not belong to
Indonesia. She wants to go to Canada, to do anything, just for the sake of
being in Canada.
She has applied a few times for a Canadian visa, always unsuccessfully. She
sincerely does not understand why she was denied a Canadian visa. She thinks in
the future she will get unveiled. She already did not wear hijab when
she was in Bali. The first reason was because she wanted to try to exist
without a headscarf. The second reason was that she again was afraid of
public judgment in Bali - women wearing hijab are seldom found in Bali.
Lea, a young law school graduate, is wearing a hijab as a part of her
experiment to see how women dressed in hijab feel. She doesn't wear hijab
to some job interviews because the employers can be prejudiced. In Indonesia
some hotel and beauty salon owners prefer hiring unveiled women, or if a girl
is veiled, she has to take off the headscarf at work.
Lea feels that her life became more restricted because there are only certain
things she can do with a hijab. Obviously, she cannot go to a club or
bar. Her mother also wears a hijab. Lea said that in Java some people
would question your religiosity if you do not wear certain religious symbols.
She wears it on and off, but people judge her because of that.
Not all Indonesian women with a hijab feel restricted to do certain
things. Asya, a sophomore in international relations, has been wearing a
headscarf since she was in junior high school. But this does not hamper her
business endeavors. At nineteen she already owns a store that sells cell-phones
and other electronics. She considers herself being rather liberal, but at the
same time, she does not want to join an English club at her school because
"most of the guys there are gay". In the future, she wants to go to the United
States for studying.
Recently, one of my Indonesian friends, a Religious Studies graduate student,
made a post on Facebook concerning a contemporary meaning of a hijab.
The meaning of his post was that "in the past wearing a jilbab [that's
how generally hijab is referred to in Indonesia] was a religious
obligation, but today a new concept of wearing a jilbab developed.
Muslim women wear it to build their image and stay up-to-date with fashion."
Such a post immediately received a lot of comments from young Indonesian women
wearing a jilbab. Yuli, a student in American Studies, commented that "a jilbab
and being up-to-date" is quite compatible. "Women naturally love to be
beautiful and gorgeous. Wearing a jilbab doesn't mean that women should
disregard fashion. Indonesian men should be proud of their Muslim women who are
so creative in developing beautiful jilbab styles."
Islamic organizations and politics
Although Islamic parties do not get a considerable electoral support, a lot of
Indonesians living in Jogja (that's a common name for Yogyakarta) are members
of one of the two most popular Islamic movements in Indonesia - Nahdlatul Ulama
(NU) being the largest Muslim organization and Muhammadiyah being the second
Islamic parties are not extremely popular, but NU and Muhammadiyah are
respected and quite influential. The politicians running for office usually
seek Muhammadiyah's and NU's support. Endorsement by these two organizations
gives them a significant amount of votes. The affiliation with these
organizations generally comes from families. If your family is the member of
NU, you are likely to be a member of the same organization.
NU was founded by the father of Indonesia's fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid
who before his presidency headed NU. Before NU was mostly associated with lower
uneducated class, and peasants, but Muhammadiyah was considered to be an
organization for an educated middle and upper class.
Now these two organizations differ mostly in ideology. NU welcomes blending in
Javanese culture and religion into Islam, while Muhammadiyah strongly opposes
it fighting for pure Islam. Some experts thus consider Muhammadiyah somewhat
orthodox. Dicky Sofjan, professor at Gadjah Mada University, argues that
Muhammadiyah is a proponent of a more radical orthodox Islam, and it might even
receive support from outside of Indonesia.
Indonesia is indeed a diverse country, while the state is secular, Indonesian
special region of Aceh, adopted sharia law. Indonesian people call this
region "Serambi Mecca" (the Yard of Mecca) because of the sharia law and
the fact that Acehnese people are culturally closer to Arabs than other
Indonesian ethnic groups are.
Initially, the Acehnese government sought secession from Indonesia. After it
was granted the right to adopt Islamic law, it remained part of Indonesia. Sri
Margono, professor of history at Gadjah Mada University, contends that Aceh
needs a symbol of opposition to Indonesia, and sharia symbolizes that
It is rather easy to adopt sharia to indicate that difference, and
create a common identity for the Acehnese people. According to the professor,
Aceh with the introduction of the Islamic law is unlikely to bring fundamental
Islam into Indonesia, because "Acehnese Islam is more orthodox than
Indonesia: Back in time
When I came to Indonesia, I felt as if I traveled back in time. Indonesia
reminded me of post-Soviet Ukraine where I grew up.
Perhaps not post-Soviet Ukraine, rather Muslim Crimean Tatar ethnic group that
I belong to. Being in Indonesia, watching Indonesian people, interacting with
them brings back the childhood memories of my family, friends, Crimea and
Ukraine of the mid 1990s.
Squat toilets, water in the buckets for the shower, a highly communal society,
a fear of being individualistic and unexpected show-ups of friends and family.
Time was not an important factor. You would feel as if life is eternal and you
have so much time to accomplish everything.
Nothing was planned, things happened unexpectedly. Relatives could drop by
without invitation and spend hours talking. Especially when the power was out
you had no other option but gossip at a tea table. At the same time people
seemed happier, more relaxed and content with their life.
Family used to be very important. Now it has changed. When I talk to some of my
Indonesian friends I recognize myself in them - that is exactly how I used to
be, that is exactly how I used to think, that's exactly how I used to feel. I
look at them, and ask myself a question, whether this society will change,
whether they will lose their communal culture, close family bonds, and become
more stressed out about their lives, but at the same time more aware of the
fact that life goes by and it should not be wasted.
Indonesia is a developing country, but the Indonesian people I have met are
perhaps among the happiest people in the world. Once I met an Indonesian man
who I thought was the happiest person I have ever seen. The next day I found
out from our mutual friend that this man was left homeless a month ago.
Zeyneb Temnenko is a graduate student in Islamic Studies at Temple
University, Philadelphia. She is also a Fulbright scholar.
(Copyright 2011 Zeyneb Temnenko.)
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to
have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles
submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do
not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's