May 20, 2024 Last Updated 5:01 AM, May 8, 2024

Indonesia’s woman to watch

Yenny Wahid readjusts her headscarf fabric.
Published: Jun 19, 2017

Yenny Wahid is the new face of moderate Islam


Yenny Wahid is the new face of moderate Islam


Yenny Wahid knows her place. It’s everywhere.

With the collapse of other contenders the second daughter of the late Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), the fourth president of Indonesia, has become the face of struggling religious harmony in the nation with the largest population of Muslims in the world.

It’s a role she seems to enjoy despite it ravaging her personal life. ‘Maybe not my fate but an obligation,’ she said while running late between public engagements. ‘I also need to work smarter and manage time better.’ This last hope lacked conviction.

In late April Wahid spoke to 1000 women splendidly dressed in batik sarongs and tight lace kebaya blouses at the Jakarta headquarters of the Japanese Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai.

Followers had gathered to honour Indonesia’s nineteenth century women’s rights advocate Raden Adjeng Kartini under the slogan ‘The World is Yours to Change’. Wahid was the keynote speaker. Although lionized she never looked prideful, wandering off the red carpet to chat to bystanders.

In her speech Wahid suggested deletion of the ‘Y’ in the slogan, though her smile diluted organisers’ embarrassment.

Her next stop was at a distant hotel to moderate a discussion. Here the gender imbalance was flipped. At the Kongres Ekonomi Umat (Muslim Economic Congress) elderly men ruled ten to one.

A speaker who complained of having insufficient cash to open a university because he had two wives drew titters of laughter. Wahid didn’t react. She preaches equality and respect but her approach to feminism avoids slapping down a misogynist among their mates.

The smile never subsides because everyone is the paparazzi ready to record a slip, but up close her hard brown eyes tell another story: controlled determination. 

Wahid comes across as bright and polite, but she’s also firm and a little wary; she’s accompanied by an ‘adjutant’ who carries police ID but keeps his distance.

During his two five-year terms, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono wore the moderate Muslim crown. He was welcomed in the West and sought after on the speaking circuit after his retirement in 2014.

SBY lost some of his lustre late last year when he waded into the political sewer in a failed attempt to get his oldest son Agus elected governor of Jakarta. He denied allegations of funding mobs to bully voters – but the stench stuck.

Another past claimant to the moderate-Islam coronet is Jakarta’s governor-elect Dr Anies Baswedan, former university rector and education minister celebrated for his Indonesia Mengajar project, which puts volunteer teachers into remote schools. Descriptors included ‘intellectual’ and ‘moderate’. The latter is now seldom heard.

The US-educated academic lost his aura this year when he teamed up with some of the more dubious players in the power game. Their goal was to defeat the ethnic Chinese Protestant governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja (Ahok) Purnama at whatever cost; it seems Baswedan didn’t care that his side was using xenophobia and vile threats such as denying burial rites to Ahok voters.

His supporters included the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI) who many see as a gang of vigilantes masquerading as pious Muslims, and failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto who helped bankroll Baswedan’s successful bid for the capital’s top job.

The departures of these men with feet of clay has left Zannuba Ariffah Chafsoh Rahman (Yenny) Wahid as the standout voice; her task is to explain that the national motto ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ (Unity in Diversity) applies to all Indonesians – even kafir (unbelievers).


Wahid has been spearheading Wahid Institute's mission of 'seeding plural and peaceful Islam'. (Duncan Graham)


She’s no neophyte – as director of the Wahid Institute she’s been spearheading the organisation’s mission of ‘seeding plural and peaceful Islam’ since her father died in 2009.

Gus Dur and his wife Sinta Nuriyah had four daughters, but Wahid says she was closest to her dad, sharing his interest in politics. Her mum, who has used a wheelchair since a car crash in 1992, is also active in reconciliation.

Wahid reported for Fairfax Press when the Indonesian Army trashed East Timor after locals broke free of Indonesian rule in the UN-supervised 1999 referendum. The team Wahid was part of won a Walkley Award, Australia’s highest prize in journalism.

She got a master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard, and returned home as an advisor to SBY. While lobbying as secretary general for the Muslim Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (National Awakening Party) Wahid met her future husband Dhohir Farisi. Now a businessman, he used to be a member of Subianto’s Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) party.

Wahid’s reputation is rising. She talked to US vice-president Mike Pence during his visit to Jakarta and will meet the Pope at the Vatican. She’s also ambitious and won’t discount a future role in the UN.

‘I’d like a cabinet position, maybe Foreign Affairs, but would worry about being away from my family,’ she said. In Indonesia ministers can be appointed from outside the Parliament.

‘We need to link Indonesian Islam to the world, to bring enlightenment and influence to other countries; to show that there’s another way of Islam.

‘I get my values and spirit from my dad. He said “be brave, don’t hate and don’t lie”.

He followed the Javanese principle of sumeleh which means love of God and acceptance when all things that can be done have been done. It’s not fatalism.’

‘It might be easier if I was a man in this macho society, but then the pressures could be physical rather than mental.’ 

As in many cultures, the way women dress and behave is minutely scrutinised for signs of unorthodoxy; pragmatic Wahid, 42, comes across as an Ibu, a safe, homely matron.

She mentions her spouse more than her qualifications and sometimes brings her children to events, which helps to soften the image of activist as joyless agitator. One daughter went with her to the Soka Gakkai; she skipped, charmed and stayed with her grandma after Wahid left. All very domestic.

She’s made the pilgrimage to Mecca but won’t use the honorific ‘Hajja’ because, she says, ‘I don’t want to make it an issue’.

She wears a half headscarf, frustrating accusers hinting of Western values, but appeasing those who see the jilbab as a mark of oppression.

‘This is the way I express my right to wear what I want,’ she said. ‘My grandmother covered like this – it’s my symbol of struggle. I sleep well.’ 

Duncan Graham ( an Australian journalist in Surabaya.


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Inside Indonesia 128: Apr-Jun 2017{jcomments on}

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