Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one of Indonesia’s largest and most influential Islamic organizations, is reputed to be a male-dominated religious community. Yet women increasingly are taking on authoritative roles as Muslim preachers within the NU ranks and across the country, according to newly published research.
“This is a new phenomenon, which doesn’t have a direct correlation with the rise of Islamic orthodoxy happening in other parts of the world,” researcher Muhammad Khodafi told BenarNews.
A lecturer at the Islamic State University (UIN) in Surabaya, his research into nyai – women who serve as preachers, or religious teachers and scholars – is featured in a new book titled “Post-Reformasi Islam in Indonesia,” which was launched in Jakarta on Aug. 25.
In fact, Indonesian women have held such roles in the past, but a revival has sprung up in the Reformasi (Reform) period, according to Khodafi. Reformasi was the opening of society and religion in Indonesia that came about after President Suharto’s 32-year-old New Order regime collapsed in 1998.
“It is more open now and it’s possible for liberal to fundamentalist views to prevail. It is unlikely this would have happened in the past,” Marzuki Wahid, a lecturer at the Syekh Nurjati State Islamic Institute (IAIN) in Cirebon, West Java, told BenarNews.
Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, but practices a relatively moderate interpretation of Islam. Although male and female worshipers pray separately at local mosques – as in the rest of the Muslim world – the nyai of Indonesia preach to co-ed audiences – not women only.
Women also hold high positions on the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s most powerful Islamic clerical body, and sit on an MUI commission that decrees fatwas. Two of the council’s seven deputy secretaries general are women.
“It’s unlikely that these things could happen in many other Muslim countries,” Azyumardi Azra, a Muslim scholar and former rector at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University in Jakarta, told BenarNews.
The resurgence of nyai is a distinct characteristic of Islam in Indonesia, which reflects gender equality in the public domain, Azyumardi said. Indonesian Muslim women, in other words, have the same opportunities as men to pursue careers as preachers, judges specializing in in Islamic jurisprudence, and civil servants.
Reformasi was among the factors that spurred the revival of women preachers in Indonesian society, because the reforms opened up more opportunities for women in higher education, Khodafi said.
For his research, he followed and observed two nyai – Uci Nurul Hayati and Hani’ah – who work as preachers in East Java province, an NU stronghold.
Uci is an Islamic lecturer and Hani’ah has been preaching sermons since she was a student.
Uci has her own television program, “Apa Kata Bu Nyai” (“What Does the Nyai Say?”), which airs twice weekly on TV9 NU, a channel operated by Nahdlatul Ulama’s chapter in East Java. The religious organization claims to have 30 million followers nationwide.
Hani’ah runs a Quran recital group for women, offering them advice about their domestic problems.
“The rise of nyais in the NU community has been boosted by TV9 NU, which gave significant air time to broadcasting their preaching programs,” Khodafi said.
Male chauvinism lingers
Still, nyais face resistance from some of their male colleagues in Islamic clerical and scholarly circles – known as kyais – who contend that female preachers do not reflect their religion’s values, Khodafi said.
“Such resistance shows an indication that there is a competition between the nyais and kyais to gain public attention,” he said.
Anik Sofrida, a nyai in Malang, East Java, said she had never experienced such prejudice from her male counterparts.
"Alhamdulilah (praise God), there is no such thing," Anik, who began her career 14 years ago as part of a Quran recital group in her neighborhood, and now preaches about four times a week, told BenarNews.