Educating Ayu

By Liezel Longboan

JAKARTA — Depressed, lonely, sad: This was how Ayu Primasari used to feel during her first few months at one of Indonesia’s most modern boarding schools.  But that was almost two years ago, and now Ayu is all smiles when a visitor drops by at her school and asks how she is doing.

Chatty and speaking good English, Ayu, 16, is dressed in a white jilbab that covers her head down to her chest, a brown long-sleeved blouse, and a black skirt that reaches down to her ankles.  This is the prescribed attire inside the school for all the female students.  They can wear pants after their classes, but not tight-fitting ones, please.

Ayu, after all, is a student at Pondok Pesantren Darunnajah Darunnajah, which is not a regular school. It is a pesantren or an Islamic boarding school; apart from learning basic elementary or high school subjects prescribed by the Ministry of Education, its santris (students) have additional Islamic subjects, such as the Koran.  Pesantrens, being Islamic schools, are supervised by the Ministry of Religion.

Ayu says that she knew little about her faith when she was still enrolled in a public high school.  “Now that I’m here, I learned that I did many sinful things,” says the high school senior. “I want to change my attitude.  Islam will help me do it.”

Pesantrens have existed in Indonesia for centuries, spreading Islam and nurturing Islamic tradition and culture.  Lily Munir, a women’s-rights activist and head of the Centre for Pesantren and Democracy Studies (CPDS), says that pesantrens were “pioneers in the field of education in Indonesia.”  She also says that many Indonesian nationalists who fought for independence against the Dutch came from pesantrens.

At present, there are an estimated 13,000 pesantrens all over Indonesia, most of which are found in the rural areas.  Within these pesantrens are madrasahs, Islamic schools that provide elementary and high school education with additional religious instruction.  Several large pesantrens, including Darunnajah, also run Islamic colleges.

Pesantrens have never been more relevant than today as they educate a considerable segment of Indonesia’s youth.  According to an education ministry report, the country’s 38,500 madrasahs serve 5.7 million students, or 13 percent of its 44 million students.  Most of these students are children of farmers and labourers. Interestingly, just over half of madrasah students are girls.

Gaining notoriety

Yet although most of them are still seen as institutions that educate young Muslims in how to live pious lives, pesantrens gained global notoriety in the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist bombings in the United States.  This was because of reports that some Islamic boarding schools in the Middle East were training grounds for Muslim extremists.  In Indonesia, one pesantren, Pondok Ngruki in Solo, Central Java, has been tagged in particular as a centre of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an extremist group that allegedly has links to Al-Qaeda.  The Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), an independent government agency, also says that some of the country’s educational institutions, including pesantrens, are recruitment bases by conservative and Islamist groups.

Most of Indonesia’s pesantrens were established and are managed by kyais or ulamas (Islamic scholars and community leaders) who are affiliated with the traditional Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Islamic organisation with some 40 million members.  A good number of pesantrens are also managed by members of Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim group in Indonesia.

Last year, the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) granted Indonesia a $1.2-million technical assistance package to improve madrasah education.  The project was co-financed with the Australian government in an effort to “expand access to basic and senior secondary education among girls, hard-to-reach groups, and in rural areas,” ADB Education Specialist Wendy Duncan was quoted as saying.

Munir acknowledges that most pesantrens are run by moderate kyais or ulamas. But she also says that one of the problems of pesantrens is the “mindset of kyais.” She explains, “They are mostly patriarchal and read the Koran textually.” Thus, her organisation aims to promote a democratic culture in pesantrens and help santris think critically about social issues.

Ayu’s school, Darunnajah, is affiliated with neither the NU or Muhammadiyah. It is considered as a modern pesantren, due to its up-to-date curriculum, English and Arabic classes, and state-of-the-art facilities, among others.  But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t impose strict rules on its santris.

A santri’s typical day

The santris’ daily activities in the dormitories are supervised by a musyrif, a teacher-supervisor.  He or she is assisted by a senior student, explains Iwan Halwani, a secondary-school teacher. The santris begin their day at four a.m., when they pray subuh or the pre-dawn Muslim prayer, and end at 10 p.m.

There is no TV, radio, or mobile phone allowed on campus, says Halwani. This is to protect students from “warped values” being presented by the media, he says. He says, however, that the students can read magazines and newspapers.

Halwani says that students deposit their mobile phones with their supervisor.  It is only during “very important” occasions that they use their phones, and when they do, it must be in front of their supervisor.  Students can call their families in the wartels (telephone booths) within the campus, he says.

At Darunnajah, male and female students have separate buildings for their classes and dormitories.  There are a total of 1,600 santris who live in Darunnajah’s several large dormitories.

“They (male and female students) cannot cross that invisible line, ” says Halwani, pointing to the middle of the quadrangle, equidistant from the male and female junior high school students’ buildings that face each other.

Halwani believes it is but proper for male and female students to have separate classes. “Boys have their own activities, the same with girls,” he says. “Sometimes, when the classes are mixed, students do something forbidden in our religion, such as touching and talking.” Practising what he teaches, Halwani had brought his hands together to his chest when this writer offered her hand prior to the interview.

While Darunnajah caters to children of families from the middle to upper classes, charging roughly $1,500 a year, including monthly fees, most pesantrens in the provinces charge an average of $250 a year. But regardless of where they are located, pesantrens impose rigid rules for their santris, particularly the female ones.

The country’s oldest pesantren

Pondok Pesantren Al-Munawwir, built between 1910 and 1911, is the oldest pesantren in Indonesia for studying the Koran. Located in Yogyakarta, which is 12 hours by bus from Jakarta and known as the country’s academic and cultural centre, Al-Munawwir is a small village by itself.  Two-storey school buildings are surrounded by residences of the kyai and his relatives, as well as homes of the teachers, while a large mosque occupies the centre of the compound.  One of the school’s famous alumni is former Indonesian President Abdurahman Wahid, current chair of NU.

Just like Darunnajah, male and female students have separate classes at Al-Munawwir. And, says Yahya Waheb, a male teacher there, female santris are not allowed to leave the compound after the six p.m. prayer called mahrib.  But male santris can do so if they need to buy something. For all students, Fridays and holidays are free days.

The pesantren runs a dormitory for male and female college students enrolled in various universities in Yogyakarta.  While these students obtain secular education outside Al-Munawwir, they also get formal classes of the Koran in the pesantren. According to Irma Dwi Murtyastuti, the 23-year-old coordinator of the women’s section at Al-Munawwir, female santris are forbidden to go out with male companions who are not muhrim (legitimate male relatives).  A female student who takes a ride on a motorcycle with a male classmate is punished by making her pay the local equivalent of a little more than $2, which is not a small amount in Yogyakarta.

But Yahya Waheb says the rules are different for male college santris.  They don’t get penalised at all. Asked why this is so, Waheb only smiles. Also, while 10 to 16 female santris have to share one room in their dormitory, the male santris are three in a room.

Ayu’s possible future

Years from now, Ayu may end up just like Athia Tajjudin, a graduate of Darussalam Modern Islamic Boarding School in Gontor, which is about 12 hours by bus from Jakarta.  More than a decade after graduating from the pesantren, Athia now teaches at the SD Attaqwa (elementary school) and Attaqwa Boarding School for females both in Bekasi, north of Jakarta.

Athia recalls that santris are given the same lessons but there’s an additional subject for girls called anisah iya or kaputrian, which her female friend roughly translated as “women affairs.”  According to Athia, it’s about how to be a good woman, mother, and wife.

A female teacher discusses with them Islamic rules about relating with men, she says.  These include “no touching, no kissing, no free sex,” says Athia. “Sex must be within marriage…be obedient to your husband.”

Asked if she has a boyfriend, Atthia says, “I don’t want a boyfriend, only a husband.”  In Islam, women are forbidden to go out with men who are not family members.  Thus, arranged marriages are common in Indonesia.

Athia says she places great importance to Islam in her life.  “My religion influences everything about my life,” she says.

Looking back at her santri days, she says, “Gontor taught me the spirit of sincerity.  To do something because of Allah, just for Allah.  To sacrifice as a Moslem for ummah (the community of Muslims), and exert every effort to be better.”

At nearly noontime, the heat in Jakarta is sweltering. But Athia looks fresh and cool in her jilbab, long-sleeved cream blouse, and black embroidered skirt, the spirit of a santri alive and well within her.

Liezel Longboan is a freelance writer from the Philippines. She contributes to the Women’s Feature Service.