One Indonesian Shares Women's Rights in Islamic Schools

Article excerpt

Lily Munir asks the 50 young mothers in her classroom to use their imaginations. What would it be like, she says, if your husband supported your right to work and helped with housework?

The women in their seats look surprised at the question. Some of them laugh.

What begins as jokes about bad husbands grows into a serious discussion about gender roles and women's rights. Islam supports women's empowerment, Ms. Munir tells her students, so men should, too.

It's a simple but important way Munir, who since 2002 has run the Center for Pesantren and Democracy Studies in Jakarta, is challenging traditional views on gender in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country.

In so doing, she is reclaiming what she sees as the Koran's intended but lost message.

Where many in the West see a book of intolerance, Munir sees a text whose basic demand is harmony among all faiths. Where radical Islamists see a call to arms, she sees a blueprint for peace.

And instead of looking at Koranic verses that justify gender disparities, Munir sees a mandate for all men to work for the empowerment of women.

To put her ideas into practice, she opened a training center in 2002 to reach out to traditional religious boarding schools called pesantren. There are as many as 18,000 such schools throughout Indonesia, instructing up to 3 million students, according to one estimate. That's a fraction of Indonesia's education system, which also includes 40,000 religious schools called madrassahs. But pesantrens play a significant role in preparing Indonesia's future generations.

They have also sometimes been seen as incubators of violence. Several men charged in the 2002 Bali bombings, in which members of the militant organization Jemaah Islamiyah killed more than 200 people, had worked at a pesantren in East Java.

A suicide bomber who later struck the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta was also said to be a student of a pesantren. As a result, the schools - and religious education through Indonesia - have been viewed with greater alarm.

"Unfortunately, if you Google 'pesantren,' the definition you come up with is a place that teaches terrorists in Indonesia," says Ron Lukens-Bull, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, who has written extensively about pesantrens.

But he disagrees with that negative characterization. "There are maybe 100 to 150 pesantrens that are Islamist radical leaning. That's not very many," he says, adding that "the pesantrens have always been very open and culturally accommodating."

Munir also sees radical pesantrens as the exception that must be checked.

Having been raised herself in a pesantren in Jombang, East Java, which her parents founded in the 1950s, Munir knew firsthand that there is much to respect about their traditions.

"[My parents] were very progressive, and very gender-sensitive," she says. "My mother was the first woman judge in Indonesia. …