The life and work of an Islamic teacher in Aceh shows that the struggle for gender equality is about much more than syariah.
Umi Rahimum at her dayah
In Aceh, a special formulation of Islamic law, the qanun, was implemented in 2003, and ever since, national and international media covering Aceh have been obsessed with it. Although this interest is perhaps understandable, it also results in distorted, incomplete, and sometimes false portrayals of local dynamics.
The issue of gender equality is a case in point. Media claiming to present a balanced view of current events in Aceh often concentrate on the public debate between fierce defenders of Islamic law on the one hand, and Aceh’s critical, visible and eloquent women’s rights movement on the other. While locating and portraying this debate is itself laudable (most media reports do not even reach this degree of sensitivity), what also happens is that the broader struggle for gender equality is equated with the debate about syariah. But in reality, this struggle takes multiple forms.
Umi Rahimun’s story
It is possible to illustrate this point by narrating, in very broad strokes, the life, work, and ideas of Umi Rahimun, a female religious teacher who lives in a rural area just outside the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. Umi Rahimun (the address umi, or umm, means ‘mother’ in Arabic) is the leader of a dayah – a traditional Islamic school – that she founded in 2001.
The vast majority of the boys and girls attending her school, of which there are well over 300, are of primary school age. They go to ‘ordinary’ (secular) school in the morning, and in the afternoon they go to Rahimun’s school. There they are taught elementary religious knowledge and skills, such as reading and reciting the Quran. In the evening a new group of around 60 older students arrives to study more advanced subjects, such as Quranic interpretation, Islamic jurisprudence, and mysticism.
Rahimun was born in 1968 in a well-to-do family in Banda Aceh. Her father, after a short military career, had been a prosperous textile trader. However, in the 1970s the family became impoverished, and her childhood was characterised by economic hardship, the divorce of her parents, and the death of her mother when she was 14 years old. While it had been Rahimun’s childhood dream to become a teacher, after she finished high school her family was too poor for her to enrol in teachers college. Instead, she decided to pursue her studies in a dayah. First she studied for two years in Samalanga in North Aceh. After that she moved to one of the largest and most prestigious dayah in Aceh, the Dayah Darussalam in South Aceh, where she spent six years.
Rahimun came back to Banda Aceh in 1996, immediately after the death of her father. Although by that time she was 27 years old, she decided that it was still too early to find a job or get married. Instead, she enrolled in the state Islamic university, a somewhat unusual move for an alumnus of a traditional dayah. By then, she was able to make a living teaching private religious lessons to children of wealthy families.
When she graduated in 2003, she had already established her own school in a village where her family owned some land. At the time, the armed conflict in Aceh between the Acehnese separatist movement and the Indonesian army had escalated, and Rahimun’s older sister especially objected to the idea of a woman going to live alone in a rural area at a time of civil war. But Rahimun pushed through, and assisted by a former classmate from the university, whom she married in 2004, she eventually made her school into the successful institution it is today.
Education and ambition
In recalling her life story, Umi Rahimun speaks proudly about the way she was able to combine ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ education, each with its particular virtues. At the same time, she criticises the division between secular and religious schools as unnatural, and a product of Dutch colonialism. Although she shares this view with many other ulama (religious scholars), she also explicitly acts on it.
While teaching a religious curriculum, she tries to avoid the normative, black and white (halal versus haram, or allowed versus forbidden) view of the world encountered in many dayah. In her view, a narrow focus on personal worship and rules of behaviour does not offer enough preparation to help solve today’s big problems, such as pollution, war, or corruption. She regards such issues equally as ‘moral’ problems, and actively discusses them in her lessons. In addition, she encourages her students to search for knowledge elsewhere. In fact, most of her evening students also study at the Islamic university or the (secular) Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh.
Learning the basics: day students study how to recite the Quran
Seeking knowledge beyond the dayah is crucial, she believes, because the centuries-old religious treatises making up the dayah curriculum ‘tell you nothing about climate change or the hole in the ozone layer’.
Umi Rahimun also urges her female students to learn about Islam while ‘becoming doctors and scientists’. She blames culturally defined patriarchal relations (not Islam) for the subordinate role of women in Acehnese society: ‘Islam does not forbid women to work outside the household, and women in Aceh have always done so. In fact, there is no difference between working on a rice field and working in an office, but there is still a lack of understanding in our culture, which makes some men claim that women cannot work as teachers or in offices. This needs to be changed.'
In this respect Umi Rahimun explicitly thinks of herself as part of the Acehnese women’s rights movement. But this does not mean she merely criticises ‘men’ or ‘culture’. She argues that Acehnese women should also raise their own expectations and ambitions. In engaging with her female students, she keeps repeating that they ‘should not be fearful, not let themselves be restricted, and become smart and eloquent’. This is especially important, says Umi Rahimun, if they want to help restore the existing imbalance in Aceh between men and women in important leadership positions. ‘According to Islam, the husband leads his wife. But this goes only for the household. Outside the household women are equal to men and may take up positions according to their capabilities. So why then, if I enter the Office for Religious Affairs in Banda Aceh, and I look at the leadership chart on the wall, do I only see the faces of men?’
Umi Rahimum argues that Acehnese women should also raise their own expectations and ambitions. In engaging with her female students, she keeps repeating that they ‘should not be fearful, not let themselves be restricted, and become smart and eloquent’
While the school is Rahimun’s most important platform, another activity into which she weaves her activist agenda is teaching Islam to adult women at weekly classes in various locations. She told me that, at first, she became anxious if her students’ questions strayed far from the topics which are central to the centuries-old texts that are the foundation of teaching and discussion in a dayah. Such topics might include proper practices of worship, marriage, or inheritance. However, over the course of years she has become more confident about discussing contemporary issues and problems. Nowadays, she discusses topics such as divorce, domestic violence, sexuality and reproductive health or sexually transmitted diseases (like HIV/AIDS), if possible relating solutions to examples drawn from the old texts.
Doing so is sometimes difficult. The treatises normally used in the dayah are notoriously patriarchal and male-centred. At the same time, she is not confined to them either. When her adult students ask her whether Islam allows them to demand help from their husbands in the household, she uses the well known story of the Prophet Muhammad sewing his own clothes to show that it is perfectly right to ask for help, or even obligatory. As for more fraught subjects, such as domestic violence and the right to divorce, it is sometimes necessary to move straight to the Quran. Thus, she urges women to read the phrases in the Quran about the rights of women, asking them rhetorically, ‘how can men be able to lead their families when they cannot act morally themselves?’
Thinking about gender
Umi Rahimun traces her ideas about gender relations and the education of women to several influences. She mentions both her parents: her father who, employing the vocabulary of an army veteran, had always encouraged her to be ‘strong and brave’, to ‘struggle’, and even to become a ‘patriot’ and a ‘hero’; and her mother, who, even though working as a housewife, was always busy teaching other women in her neighbourhood how to cook, sew, and manage a household.
Umi Rahimum and her staff
Another important influence was her teacher in Labuhan Haji, the dayah where she spent six years (including three as a teacher). Her teacher had been ‘less narrow-minded’ than most ulama, often telling his students to pursue knowledge outside the confines of the dayah. Today, her main influence is an altogether different source, namely the connections she forges with various women’s organisations and activists in Banda Aceh, which help her to increase her vocabulary about women’s rights and stiffen her determination to improve the position of women. Finally, in conversations she always stresses her own personal struggle to overcome hardships as a crucial inspiration.
Of course, all of this does not necessarily mean that Umi Rahimun is morally less conservative than many of her male colleagues. For example, when talking to her students about sexuality, she will just as readily discuss the necessity to cover their body as she will the issue of women’s rights. And while she disseminates knowledge about HIV, she also connects the spread of the virus to what she thinks of as morally reprehensible acts like adultery and prostitution, emphasising the necessity of an ‘ethical life’ and ‘control of desire’. She is against abortion, even in the case of rape, because it is ‘prohibited by Islam’. But at the same time she underlines that young boys especially should be educated about such matters, arguing that, in the case of rape, it is men – not women – who act immorally.
Syariah is not the point
Coming back again to the issue of syariah, it may not be surprising that Umi Rahimun supports its implementation in Aceh. However, her support does not mean that she is not critical of its application. Like many other Acehnese, she complains that the way Islamic law is now implemented punishes the behaviour of women rather than men, and ordinary people rather than the elite. Thus she questions politicians’ and administrators’ zealousness in patrolling headscarves and tight pants, ‘while not doing anything about the drunks and gangsters harassing women and men in bus terminals’. Their one-sided view, she suspects, probably has more to do with increasing their own power and visibility than with the moral uplifting of Acehnese society.
But this is not really the point I want to make here. In fact, Umi Rahimun’s story has little to do with syariah. Yet it has everything to do with changing gender relations and the practices that evolve from them. In her lessons she discusses the importance of moral behaviour, but also the lack of women in leadership structures, and how to remedy this situation. Her mission is for Acehnese women to become trained, disciplined, knowledgeable, and therefore ready to be amongst Aceh’s future leaders.
It is true that most leaders and students of the Acehnese dayah, including women, are supporters of the new syariah laws. However, this does not automatically mean that these women cannot also be agents in the female struggle for gender equality. Umi Rahimun’s story shows that to understand the struggle for women’s rights in Aceh one must look beyond the division between conservative patriarchal male leaders on the one hand, and urban, progressive, middle-class female activists on the other. The picture that results may be more ambivalent, but it is also more realistic.
David Kloos (email@example.com) is a PhD candidate at the History department of the VU University, Amsterdam (The Netherlands). He is currently conducting research on Islamic education and everyday Islam in Aceh.