A number of Bandung’s popular male preachers have developed ways of
performing specifically for women audiences.
Groups of women similarly clad in distinctly Islamic clothing are a frequent sight in traffic on the bustling streets of Bandung, the capital city of West Java. Such women are often travelling to or from religious study gatherings or discussions, which they refer to as pengajian or majlis taklim. They are often seen moving purposefully across the city by various means: by foot, public minibus, private car, or sometimes even by motor-cycle.
Like women in many cities in Indonesia, Bandung’s Muslim women have a wide range of religious self-improvement possibilities to choose from, and for many of them, the time commitment is a significant one: it is common for women in Bandung’s urban villages to attend between four and six sessions per week.
The women usually dress in similar outfits: a flowing, shapeless dress, always in white or other light shade, with a head-covering or scarf revealing the entire face. Some women combine these elements into a uniform worn specifically by members of their own group. But despite the modesty of this dress, some individual expression is permissible. Fashionable shoes and handbags are welcome, and tastefully applied make-up is also not out of place.
A broad range of activities are performed at the women’s gatherings. Qur’anic skills such as recitation and interpretation are the most popular subjects studied by women, who place importance on acquiring other useful skills such as Arabic supplications that can be later used in the home and taught to children. Some women like to study sermonising. Other events involve no learning activity, but consist of discussions about religion and social life. Sometimes, the groups engage in highly social philanthropic projects.
But one would have to search very hard to find a group of males travelling in Bandung’s traffic for the same purpose. Although women’s study opportunities have increased over recent decades, the same cannot be said for men’s. In fact, many Bandung males regard the Friday congregational sermon, an event women never attend, as sufficient religious participation for the whole week.
Piety and the life-cycle
The contrasts between the worship habits of Bandung’s male and female Muslims can partly be explained by the way their respective life-cycles allow different opportunities at different stages of life. The women who attend study events most frequently are those whose children no longer require them to be at home at all times. For younger women, domestic demands on their time do not allow them to attend many pengajian.
Women who have sufficient time make plans in advance to attend this or that event with friends, family-members and neighbours. They typically travel together in groups to the programs, which are mostly held at mosques or private homes in their own neighbourhoods. Sometimes women travel further afield to, for example, the municipal (kota) mosques where celebrity preachers are frequently engaged. An added attraction at these mosques is the pasar kagetan, markets that suddenly spring up when a larger event takes place. Although women are required to seek their husband’s permission before making such trips, they nevertheless enjoy significant mobility and are free to select their destinations from a range of possibilities.
Competition adds to the interest and enjoyment of study programs, and women frequently compete with each other in diverse skills, becoming known within the group for their competence in this or that branch of learning. Women with high ability may compete in contests at municipal level.
Not all events are dedicated to acquiring skills. Some are attractive because of the skilful mediations provided by male and female preachers. A number of Bandung’s popular male preachers have developed specific ways of performing before women audiences. One preacher, frequently invited to preach at celebratory events such as weddings and circumcisions, assumes a female character during his sermons. This character is a caricature of a beleaguered Bandung housewife, constantly complaining about her difficult life. Women identify with his/her overblown melodrama, and find the performance hilarious.
Attendance at these programs competes with other events for the women’s time, and there is one demand that will frequently be given precedence. When a grandmother is contacted by a child asking her to do childminding duties, this demand is given priority by many women, especially in contemporary times when families are often separated because of children’s work obligations in different parts of the city or province. For some women, the opportunity to care for a grandchild is a special pleasure.
Once a week is enough for males
The life-cycle of Bandung’s men is different. Work prevents many of them from attending study sessions during work hours, and many are too fatigued to attend after work. For many men in West Java, retirement from work never arrives, and they continue to work for their families until prevented from doing so by illness or death. In the harsh economy of contemporary Indonesia, even public servants continue to work for additional income after their retirement from government service. For these men, the Friday congregational prayer and sermon provide sufficient religious engagement for a week.
At the same time, both men and women often criticise men for being lazy in their worship and self-improvement habits. This is partly because men have more social options than women. Men are free to watch football on television while sitting and chatting with friends in a roadside stall, but social rules deny these kinds of activities to women. Religious programs compete for men’s time with other socially attractive pursuits, but everyone agrees that religious activities are more beneficial than those other activities, so when men choose the latter, they appear lazy.
Like women in many cities in Indonesia, Bandung’s Muslim women have a wide range of religious self-improvement possibilities to choose from
Apart from the frequency of attendance, male and female Muslims in Bandung do not approach religious programs with the same motivations and understandings. Women take seriously their role in passing religious knowledge to their children. West Javanese men see things differently. Many of them are involved in the management of local mosques, a duty which requires them to give up time and money. In West Java, it is rare for a woman to become a member of a mosque management committee. For men, the duty is a serious one, for the mosques in local villages were usually built by their ancestors. The resulting feeling of responsibility encourages men to be involved in mosque maintenance and management, but not necessarily in the acquisition of religious knowledge.
What motivates women to such levels of pious practice? A simple answer is faith. Many women wish to shape themselves according to the models provided by the Prophet, his family and followers, and to embody the teachings of the Qur’an. This is a goal shared to varying degrees by the majority of Bandung’s residents. But concern about the changes taking place in Indonesia also plays a role. Many women, worried about issues such as corruption, rising education costs, environmental change, the disappearance of traditional culture, drug abuse and rising crime, hold a conviction that the acquisition of religious skills and knowledge will lead to the formation of a better Indonesia, one in which their children and grandchildren will be strong enough to resist the temptations and difficulties put in their way. Because of this, women take their roles as exemplars and teachers very seriously.
At the same time, the travelling women are clearly following routines of pious practice that are enjoyable. The fact that their goal is a religious one does not mean that their joint undertakings are not pleasing, highly social events. The acquisition of Islamic knowledge by Bandung’s women is not an arduous, solitary process. Rather, it combines similarly-motivated women in rewarding, collective activity.
Julian Millie (Julian.Millie@monash.edu) is a researcher and lecturer in the Anthropology section of the Faculty of Arts, Monash University. The research out of which this article was written was sponsored by the Australian Research Council.
This article is part of the Women and Islam feature edition.