At the recent first-ever congress of female clerics in Cirebon, West Java, participants expressed different opinions on gender relations between husbands and wives.

While several interviewees said women and men were equal, some said wives should be totally submissive to their spouses to earn a place in heaven; as wives were akin to “Adam’s most crooked rib.”

However, survivors of child marriage and domestic abuse do not spread such messages – especially when they become religious leaders.

Ruqoyyah of Bondowoso, East Java, recited her experience of forced marriage at the age of 14.

After being divorced, she wed a man who would often hit her.

“I was told to be patient,” she said. He eventually became a lawmaker, and once, after she had confronted him with her suspicion that he had taken another wife, the man placed a sickle around her neck, threatening murder. Ruqoyyah was eventually sheltered by activists.

Ruqoyyah said such experiences had strengthened her commitment to help women. Today she is a nyai (a title for female religious leaders in Java), leads a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) and educates the surrounding community on ending domestic abuse and child marriage, which is prevalent in the area.

She dismissed the view that girls were ripe for marriage once they began menstruating.

“How can keluarga sakinah [a harmonious family] be achieved with child brides?”

Responding to a tearful woman who said she had been forced to prepare her own deaf niece to marry her rapist, who had impregnated her, Ruqoyyah said victims should not be forced to marry their rapists.

She recalled how she had accompanied a girl for an abortion following a rape by the girl’s own grandfather. She said the midwife had earlier refused the grandmother’s request for an abortion, fearing sin, but Ruqoyyah had convinced her that abortion of a pregnancy caused by rape was not sinful.

Extreme cases of objectification of women amounted to the “disappearance of true Islamic justice for women,” said lecturer Nur Rofi ah, one of the speakers at the congress. Dakwah, or religious propagation, by these female clerics was their main strategy to end the injustice.

And some nyai have their own ways to reach that goal. Nyai Shinto Nabilah Asrori of Magelang, Central Java, for instance, reaches out to students and community members through her composition of Javanese tembang songs.

One song about relations in marriage says: “A man of dignity/does not bark at his wife/ together they discuss/…”

The host of the international event, Nyai Masriyah Amva, 56, candidly shared her struggles to prove the worth of a female religious leader.

Following a divorce and the death of her second husband, the charismatic leader of the Kebon Jambu Al-Islamy Islamic boarding school said she had finally stopped “looking for a man to lean on.”

“I’ve found him — it is Allah,” she had told her students. Typically santri (students) leave when they feel the pesantren leaders leave — and Masriyah said she had been panicked.

But eventually she proved that a woman could do it “even better” with the Kebon Jambu Al Islamy school expanding both in size and student numbers under her leadership.

Masriyah has shared her stories in almost 20 books, one of which, titled Bangkit dari terpuruk (Rising after a fall), was sold out at the event. In her books, she comments on discrimination of female religious leaders.

“While kyai are expected to take many wives, a religious female leader must be angelic; thus the status of a divorced widow, and then a widow by death, is utterly painful,” she said.

Masriyah also shared how the credibility and integrity of herself and the boarding school were at risk when rumors were spread that she had a crush on a man around her son’s age.

Even though the role of female pesantren leaders is still debatable, speakers at the congress believed that female clerics were often more directly engaged with the grassroots than male clerics and intellectuals, making their voices the most valid against patriarchal views. However, there are too few of them, especially those with a solid educational background.

Neng Dara Affiah, for instance, is probably the only female pesantren leader that is also a former member of the National Commission of Violence against Women and a PhD graduate of political and social sciences at the University of Indonesia.

While a pesantren leader must solve all problems at the school and community level, the challenges for women are even greater, more so for those considered rebellious.

“Loneliness” is the greatest challenge of a nyai, Neng Dara believes.

 

Source: The Jakarta Post, June 16, 2017, Hal 8