May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Standing up for morals

Standing up for morals
Published: Jan 14, 2011

Claudia Nef

   The Islamic campus: The Gadjah Mada University Mosque in Yogyakarta
   Claudia Nef

At around eight o’clock one morning in September 2009 about 60 young Muslim women started arriving at Gadjah Mada University Mosque in Yogyakarta. Most of them drove motorbikes, which they parked in the spacious parking-lot in front of the mosque. Some women arrived alone, but most came in pairs. They made their way to the yard of the mosque to attend a conference entitled ‘Prepare Yourself to Become a National Leader: A Critical Study on the Permissive Sexual Behavior of the Young Generation’.

The participants’ attire lacked variety. Most women dressed in ankle-length skirts, long blouses or long-sleeved, one-piece dresses with headscarves extending over the torso. The colours were muted and subtle, such as shades of blue, green, cream, purple or rose. Most donned flesh-coloured socks to avoid exposing their feet, and many wore wristbands, known as manset, to ensure their arms were well covered by the sleeves of their garments. The majority of the participants did not wear makeup. These women consider this clothing to be prescribed by the syariah, Islamic law, and as such, to be the correct way for a Muslim woman to dress.

The struggle for sexual morality

The students were gathering to express concern about what they regard as a decline in Islamic morality among Muslim youth. In their view, an increasing number of young Muslims are misguided by what they call a ‘permissive and hedonistic western pop-culture’ that encourages them to have premarital sex and disrespect Islamic law. For these women, Islamic morality is a pressing matter of public and political concern, and is central to all considerations of Indonesian social order. Moral reform is, for them, a struggle in which female sexual behavior forms an important and highly visible front. In this thinking, sexual morality is framed as a step toward the creation of a prosperous, happy, civilised society. They do not regard the sexual behaviour of young Muslims as a matter of personal choice or preference.

For these women, Islamic morality is a pressing matter of public and political concern, and is central to all considerations of Indonesian social order

Islamic women activists frequently organise similar conferences and discussions on and around campuses, not only in Yogyakarta, but all over Indonesia. The conference at Gadjah Mada was typical of a grassroots struggle by women affiliated with various Islamist organisations to create a different Islamic society. In their utopian vision of society, all citizens should uphold Islamic morality and live in accordance with the syariah.

Guardians of Islamic civilisation

The conference participants considered disrespect for Islamic values by university students to be particularly harmful for the whole of society. Students of the best national universities such as Gadjah Mada, they argue, will in the future become national leaders. These Muslim students are not only ruining their own lives with this disrespect but, even more distressing, are jeopardising the future of the nation. The success of Islam in what they refer to as the ‘relay race’ (estafet) against secularism lies in their hands. Students must take up the baton to preserve Islamic civilisation, a task for which both male and female students must prepare themselves from a young age. The task consists of internalising an all-encompassing Islamic life style determined by the syariah.

The conference was organised by female activists of the local branches of five student organisations: the Indonesian Muslim Student Action Unit (KAMMI); the Muslim Students’ Association/Assembly of the Protectors of the Organisation (HMI/MPO); the Muhammadiyah Student Association (IMM); the official university dakwah (proselytisation) organisation of Gadjah Mada University named Jamaah Shalahuddin; and the Community of Muslim Students for a Healthy Indonesia (KOMMIT). A non-student organisation was also involved, namely the female section of the Gadjah Mada University branch of the transnational organisation Hizbut Tahrir (Party of Liberation). Female students representing each organisation delivered a speech, stressing the necessity to counter the perceived trend of moral decline.

   Do not associate privately with another! It is forbidden to be in the company of a marriageable person
   Claudia Nef

The culmination of the conference was the declaration of a pledge encompassing nine concerns and demands. The most important demand was for Muslim students themselves to oppose western lifestyle models that are seen as incompatible with the syariah. They should work to improve their Islamic knowledge, and realise that engaging in premarital relationships, not to mention sexual relationships, is forbidden by Islamic law. Muslims must thus start the struggle to become ‘good, pious Muslims’. This process demands learning and self-discipline.

For the activists gathering at the conference, submitting oneself to God demands the cultivation of virtues they regard as authentically Islamic, such as modesty, shyness and patience. Muslim women (Muslimah) must learn to walk, talk, behave and dress in certain ways exemplified by the activists organising the conference. Ideally, a Muslimah should not only restrain from premarital sex, but amongst other things should lower her gaze when talking to a non-related man, avoid shaking hands with such men, not engage in any kind of close relationship with a man, and restrain from laughing loudly, gossiping, extensive consumption and smoking.

Freedom to struggle

However, they do not believe that women should be politically passive. On the contrary, in the view of those at the conference, the Muslim woman should also be publically active and struggle to make society more Islamic. She should, therefore, diligently study Islamic texts, strive for excellent academic performance, defend her opinion and aspirations in public, teach fellow Muslims, and spread her thoughts through writing. All these are seen as necessary skills to become a future leader. In this line of thinking, Islamic female agency lies not in freedom to do whatever one wants, but rather in doing what one has learnt to distinguish as right.

Unsurprisingly, a substantial number of Islamic female activists do not find this understanding of Islamic piety desirable, nor do they view it as something prescribed by Islamic law. Similarly, they do not support the other demands made by the female activists gathering at the conference, for example their demand that the Indonesian government stop its education program for adolescent reproduction health. This program is based on a contract signed by the Indonesian government in 1994 at the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development. Its aim is to educate adolescents about hazards related to sexual intercourse, with the primary aim of reducing the increasing rates of HIV infections, but also of reducing unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. In the eyes of the Yogyakarta activists, such information campaigns, including the promotion of condoms, encourage adolescents to have premarital sex. In their view, what is at stake here is not individual health or individual welfare, but rather the well-being of Islamic society as a whole.

   Moral integrity at stake: women activists from KAMMI, the Muslim Student Action Unit
   Claudia Nef

The activists accuse the Indonesian media of spreading messages they consider destructive of moral education because they stimulate ‘permissive and hedonistic sexual behaviour’. This critique is not only directed at media organisations, whom they perceive as lacking personal morality, but also at those who consume their media products. Because they regard the problem as a matter of public interest, they also criticise the government for not responsibly regulating the media system. In their view, the state should revise its laissez-faire policy, in which the law of supply and demand is dominant, and regulate the media according to moral values. The state should intervene and prohibit content considered to be pornographic, and moreover, should implement the anti-pornography bill that was passed in October 2008.

Moral integrity as civic duty

Despite important ideological differences between the different organisations gathering at the conference, they all agree with the basic assumption that sexual morality is a foundation for the formation of an Islamic civilisation. Their shared goal of creating an Islamic society enabled them to collaborate, despite them having different visions about how such a society should be established, and diverging perspectives about how it should be governed. All agreed that the entire Islamic community should contribute by guiding the younger generations to become future Islamic leaders, and assisting them in developing a ‘firm Islamic morality’. They thus present guarding ‘moral integrity’ as a public duty for all, as nothing less than public well-being is at stake.

At Gadjah Mada University, as well as in other parts of the Muslim world, moral issues such as the modesty of one’s dress, proximity of unrelated men and women, and consumption patterns often become sites of negotiation that challenge intra-Islamic tolerance. Not all Muslim women, and not all Islamic female activists consider these issues to be of prime importance in the project of making Islam ‘a blessing for all’ (rahmatan lil-alamin). Many believe that such matters belong to the private sphere, and bear on a believer’s personal relationship with God. They do not consider the virtues cultivated by the Yogyakarta activists as fundamental for the persistence and prosperity of the Islamic community, and instead take up the ‘struggle’ by promoting human rights, gender equality or interfaith tolerance. The resulting debates reveal different ideals and aspirations concerning women’s personal freedom and collective obligation.

Claudia Nef ( is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology as well as a fellow of the Research Program Asia and Europe of the University of Zurich. She is the editor of the book ‘Dynamics of Islamic Student Movements’.

This article is part of the Women and Islam feature edition.

Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011

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