Talking about religion in Indonesia isn’t the easiest thing to do.
By Eric Kampherbeek
04 Oct 2012
Indonesia is the biggest Muslim country in the world. Of the more than the 240 million inhabitants, 86% is Islamic, wikipedia says. I noticed that some people are surprised when I tell them these numbers. Maybe they have the feeling with so many Muslims there probably will be many terrorists as well. To be honest it’s not that surprising people looking at big groups of Muslims with a certain amount of suspicion. Influenced by politicians and mass-media people are given an image about religion and culture. And that image is not always positive. Many have negative thoughts about Muslim culture, although many can’t speak out of their own experiences.
“Veiled women are oppressed within Islam”, I once heard somebody say. I am not a Muslim myself, but many of my family members in Indonesia are. The women wear a headscarf and are committed to the Islamic rules. And with reasonable certainty I can say they’re not oppressed. But how it exactly works with headscarfs and women’s position within Islam I didn’t know.
With this question in mind I wanted to interview women in Yogyakarta (Java). About their headscarf and their alleged suppression. But how to get this to work? Obviously religion is a private matter and you can’t just go outside and ask random people about their religion. So that didn’t seem to be a good approach.
My uncle lives at the Jalan Kauman. Besides that’s a famous street in Yogyakarta (it’s very close to the Sultan’s palace), it’s also the most fanatic Muslim street in Yogyakarta, or so I’ve been told by people not living there. Five times a day my uncle and aunt pray at the Masjid Gede (the big mosque). Once I went with them to the mosque. It's very beautifull and very, very old. The perfect spot to start my documentary, I thought. I went to my uncle and asked him if that would be possible. "Yeah, sure, no problem", he said. Well... there was a bit of a problem, turn out later.
I was taking a nap when my nephew enters. “Maybe it’s better you're not making a documentary here in the Jalan Kauman.”, he says. “I know you don’t have any harmful meanings with this, but chances are big we get a lot of trouble as a family. People here are very suspicious when a western non-Muslim wants to interview people. They’re kind of fanatic.” Ok, I didn’t see this one coming. I thought people like to talk about Islam. Just like my uncle, who explains a lot about his religion. And he said it's ok himself, right? Later my uncle explains to me it’s not common for him telling me it’s not possible to film in the Jalan Kauman. That’s why he agreed in the first place and then send over my nephew. “He is more of your age”, he said.
Ok, time for another plan, now filming in the Jalan Kauman didn’t seem possible. Together with my nephew I came up with the idea to look for Muslim women at universities. A nice plan, I thought. Normally spoken students are used to discussions and taking distance from the subject.
Next day. Wearing fine clothes. Together with my nephew I went by motorcycle to several universities. Yogyakarta has around 20. The goal was to find women who are willing to talk about their headscarf and religion. He was going to do the talking. The format was something like this: First we looked for a man whose position was high enough within the mosque at the university terrain. Next, they had to search for women willing to talk to me. If she was willing to be interviewed we could come back. Not exactly what I was used to, but hey, I’m in another culture, so I better listen to what people tell me.
At the last university we went to, we ended up in sort of a club. Dedicated to study Islam. Within no-time there were like 20 male students standing around us. I kind of liked the attention, but I saw my nephew getting smaller and smaller. “Why do you, as a western non-muslim man, want to make a documentary about Indonesian Muslim women?”, was the question the men had. Kind of an obvious question, I thought, since I wanted to ask women all kinds of questions myself. I started my standard talk about how a lot of westerners look at Muslim women and I wanted to know how it works in the real world. My nephew quickly added he was from the Jalan Kauman. In a way he was trying to gain some respect with this addition. And it kind of worked. The men already looked less suspicious and nodded approvingly. "If you’re from the Jalan Kauman you can’t be harmful to us", they seemed to think.
All good and well, we didn’t came for this big group of men. But luckily, in this group there was one woman, still looking a bit suspicious. Again, I did my standard talk and tried to be even more convincing. But she didn’t trust me and didn’t want to talk on camera. "Just come back later", the men said.
The next day I received a sms from one of the men from the clubhouse. He found two women. I had to come by in the afternoon. My nephew obviously didn’t want to come along anymore and he warned me that this could go wrong. I would probably say stupid things, because I’m not a Muslim. Maybe he was right, but what’s the worst that could happen? If things would get nasty we just go. But my nephew wasn’t able to come along anyway, because he had to work. He said...
The university building is approximately 12 kilometers from the place I was staying at the Jalan Kauman. A taxi would practical, but as a Dutchy I thought it would be a good idea to take the bicycle I borrowed from the neighbours. That’s free while a taxi will cost me around Rp50.000 (€ 4,80). Although the bicycle seemed to origin from the period the Dutch still ruled over Indonesia, it still did his job. So: camera on my back, sound in my belly-pack, taking a bottle of water and off I go. After more than an hour I arrived at the clubhouse, sweating like I never did before.
Kurang ajar - Rude
The interview with the two women went smoothly. On forehand my nephew warned me for my language habits. I speak Indonesian, but with the same rudeness the Dutch have. ‘Kurang ajar’ they say in Indonesia. Knowing this, I apologised to the women on forehand. And it actually resulted in me being able to ask anything. The women were talking like crazy.
At the end my nephew didn’t have to be scared at all. But maybe that’s different for him. As a non-Moslim I can make mistakes about Islam. He can not, because he is a Muslim himself.
It took quite some effort making this 11 minutes long documentary (there were other universities as well) and the big question is if the women I interviewed really telling the whole story. In the west that’s kind of important. For me personally it’s important the Muslim women I spoke to had the chance to talk without being interrupted. And they talked. A lot. Somewhere I hope that people watching this documentary get a less negative image of Islam. Probably the women (and one man) in the documentary say things that will be controversial in the west, but maybe they just have another way of looking at life. The veiled women I met didn't seem to be oppressed. Don’t get me wrong, in this world still a lot of women are oppressed, but saying that veiled women are oppressed in general is just a wrong way of thinking and is actually obstructing their freedom in return.
Wrapped up - 11 minutes - English and Dutch subtitles - 1080p
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