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Vision is not enough

Vision is not enough
Published: Oct 04, 2010


   A group discussion in sociology class

One afternoon, right after the afternoon prayer, students, their teachers and members of the surrounding community gather at Pesantren Darussalam in Yogyakarta to join the monthly communal supplication led by Kyai Tariq. Men wear sarongs and white Muslim shirts with white caps on their heads and women wear modest Muslim dress. They sit in two single-sex groups divided by a curtain. Together they recite prayers, thanking God for His blessings on the community.

As the kyai explains, this monthly gathering is part of the pesantren's efforts to produce santris (as pious Muslims are known) who can respect and work for humanity, an objective he believes has not been achieved by the current education system. He goes on to say there is a need to reorient pesantren education to equip children to participate in conversations with people of diverse backgrounds, and to approach them respectfully. The kyai really wants to foster an education process where each of the elements in the school moves together towards the development of students who will respect differences and contribute positively to society. This whole-school notion of multicultural education encompasses the development of school programs and the creation of a school ethos that together provide invaluable lessons of living to learn and learning to live together within the boarding school.

Programs for a diverse reality

When she began as an undergraduate at Gadjah Mada University, Zaitun, a graduate of a pesantren and now a teacher, had been shocked to meet many Chinese students and people of different faith in her classroom. She had not experienced these kinds of encounters during her time at the pesantren. This story, and other similar stories, inspired the kyai and teachers at Pesantren Darussalam to develop a one-week workshop in the last two years of senior high school to help foster an understanding of diversity. This workshop is held after the national examination, when the final year students are waiting for their exam results. Male and female santris study, engage in discussions and do activities together to prepare for another chapter of life. At the end, they go into the community to undertake social work activities. The workshop represents a breakthrough: it explicitly seeks to educate santris to respect differences in society and develop the skills alumni need to play active roles in society. Nevertheless, it has its problems. Despite its importance, the program is brief and not very comprehensive. As a result, it cannot eradicate mono-cultural perspectives that santris have learned not only at home but also from teachers who do not share the kyai's multicultural understanding.

The pesantren teaches several subjects whose content is supposedly related to multiculturalism and its values. These include civic education, sociology, religion and morality. From studying these subjects, students are expected to develop the personal and social skills needed to live within Indonesia's diverse society. However, the teaching of multiculturalism in these subjects is precarious, as it depends largely on the attitudes of the teachers, whose personal beliefs, concerns and abilities are influential in shaping classroom teaching practices and orientation. Many do not believe that multicultural education is important, preferring to focus on improving students' knowledge about and piety within Islam.

Social inequality

In educating about multiculturalism, the school's ethos and culture are just as important as formal programs. As students live in the pesantren for several years, they actually inhabit a religiously homogeneous, but socio-economically heterogeneous, miniature society. Rich students receive more money from parents, so they can afford additional or fancier meals. Some very poor students do not have to pay tuition fees and are provided with pocket money, but they have to work for the pesantren at assigned times. This policy has discriminatory effects: scholarship students, known as 'santri mandiri' or 'saman', cannot join in extra-curricular activities or afternoon religion classes, and so feel different from regular santris. However, as many of them also say, it is a real privilege for them to be able to study 'for free' at this pesantren.

   While other santris are still learning in the classroom, 'saman' are
   busy preparing meals

Saman have a unique position in the pesantren, serving as cooking assistants, cleaners, meal servers and general assistants. They are no more or less than unpaid student labourers, but their labour is referred to as 'service'. When they finish secondary school, many of them are asked to continue in these roles. Some of them are 'promoted' to become dormitory supervisors or teachers, depending on their academic performance and the kyai's personal assessment. But during their student days, the class disparity between them and the rest of the students cannot be hidden. In the male dormitory, they even have to sleep in a separate room.

The existence of these class inequalities in the pesantren could be seen as helping students learn to understand, respect and cope with class differences. Although too often the opposite is true, there are some policies and regulations that aim to reduce the effects of class disparity. For instance, students have to wear uniforms supplied by the pesantren, and clothes which do not reflect an individual's economic status. Also, the pesantren, which disburses weekly pocket money collected from the parents, has set a maximum. But none of these policies solves the problem of differentiation between regular students and saman.

Intentionally or not, other inequalities are constructed in the pesantren. In the pesantren tradition, particularly in Java, santris must pay respect not only to the kyai but also to his family and property, and particularly to his children. According to one widely used book, respect for the kyai and his children is necessary if one is to receive blessings from God. Affirming this belief, santris and other community members generally use specific titles to address these 'royal' children. At this pesantren, the kyai prohibits the use of titles and other kinds of special treatment, but some teachers' practices contradict the policy. One santri, for example, told of a case in which two students broke the same rule; the 'royal child' was told to write a story, while the regular student had to clean toilets.

The gender and cultural divides

Attending to gender differences can also be a way to teach multiculturalism, depending on how the differences are perceived and acted upon. As is generally the case, male and female santris are segregated in Pesantren Darussalam. The male and female complexes are separated by a distance of only about fifty metres, with a fence around the female complex that suggests that they are more protected than males. Many santris accept this segregation as the way of life, but some fantasise about how life would be if they were mixed. In the kyai's view, the reason for segregating male and female santris is to avoid practices such as dating, which are considered to be against Islamic teaching. Some years ago the pesantren was more lenient about male and female relationships, but then a santri was found to be pregnant, bringing disgrace upon the pesantren.

There are still times when male and female santris can communicate or at least see each other. For instance, one afternoon a group of female santris in the Red Cross Youth was undertaking training in the boys' complex. Several male santris watched them, and some exchanged messages. Santris cannot use mobile phones to communicate with one another, because phones are strictly prohibited. But there is a deliberate, yet implicit, policy to open up some space for mixed sex communication and socialising, which is acknowledged by some teachers. For instance, santris who are involved in the Indonesian Santri Organisation have chances to interact with santris of the opposite sex. Unlike many other Islamic boarding schools, Pesantren Darussalam allows it male and female teachers to mix at both primary and secondary levels, and they interact with one another, talking and joking. Both levels have female principals.

   Female santris involved in Youth Red Cross activities at the boys' complex

Cultural and ethnic differences matter in the pesantren community. Majority and ethnic minority santris and teachers negotiate their identity on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes they maintain their own culture, but at other times they have to assimilate to the unique culture of the pesantren. For instance, several words from the Ngapak dialect, spoken by minority santris who come from north coastal Java, have been appropriated by the pesantren community. Some words that are offensive in the Javanese language are polite in that dialect, and vice versa. Acculturation and assimilation occur by nature, not by design. In general, students are happy to encounter ethnic differences; some even wish to get married later to someone from a different culture. At the same time, many cling to stereotypes - such as labelling high Javanese culture as more polite, gentle and refined - like those they use to understand and describe other cultures.

Openness to difference

The kyai opens the pesantren gate to visitors in order to enable his students to be more exposed to social and cultural differences. Guests from different backgrounds are welcomed with respect. The US Ambassador to Indonesia made this pesantren one of the Islamic schools he visited in an effort to establish better mutual understanding between America and Islam. On another occasion, university students from interfaith dialogue programs came to engage in discussion with santris and teachers in order to learn about Islam and the pesantren. A group of Catholic priests stayed for a few nights to understand firsthand how Islam is lived on a daily basis within this institution. There have been countless other guests from the Islamic community, from both Indonesia and overseas, and there are volunteer English teachers of different nationalities and faiths.

The warm reception of guests from different backgrounds has a dual effect. Guests come to understand more about Islam in general and pesantren in particular. Islam, Muslims and Islamic boarding schools have been frequent targets of the world's media and are often pictured negatively. The kyai hopes that this kind of cultural interaction between guests and the pesantren community will lead to a reconsideration of Islam and of this traditional educational institution.

Perhaps more importantly, the presence of people from different religions in the pesantren gives a strong message to students that Islam is open to conversation with different faiths, and that they have to learn to live with it. Many santris are excited to see different people and have developed an understanding of other religions through these encounters. Others, however, have questions like: 'What's the point? Why do we have to receive and welcome such guests so often?' These questions often remain unanswered. But, as santris indicated in one discussion, they believe that being respectful to guests is one of the Islamic virtues, and that obedience to one's faith outweighs other considerations.

To the kyai, Islam is 'rahmatan lil 'alamin' or a mercy upon all, and this mercy should be manifested in Muslims' practice of everyday life. Through activities like these, he encourages teachers and students to practise a peaceful 'Islam'. Although his attempts to promote this understanding in his students are not always entirely successful, he does have a vision of a tolerant and open Islam in communication with other cultures and religions, and this is a good start.

Raihani (raihani@uwa.edu.au) is an Australian Postdoctoral Fellow at The University of Western Australia, where he researches Indonesian education.

This article is part of the Learning to Belong feature edition.

Inside Indonesia 102: Oct-Dec 2010

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