SUMENEP REGENCY, Indonesia: Every morning, Dewi Khalifah greets students at the Islamic boarding school she runs, as they make their way to class.
The school, Aqidah Usymuni, is currently home to about 800 boys and girls who are housed on separate properties.
Lessons are held from 7am until 1pm, followed by Quranic studies at 3pm.
Students conclude the day with further religious studies before turning in for the night.
But this school isn’t like other schools in East Java province’s Sumenep Regency.
In fact, it is one of a handful of schools in the regency which encourages students to pursue their studies instead of getting married before the age of 18 – something that close to 70 per cent of the people in the regency have done, according to research done in June by an non-government organisation, the Rumah Kita Bersama Foundation.
EDUCATION VS MARRIAGE
Child marriage is rampant in Indonesia.
A report launched in July this year by the government of Indonesia and UNICEF showed that over one in four girls married before reaching adulthood.
The report is the first of its kind for the country – it uses government data to set a baseline for monitoring progress on key sustainable development goals and targets for Indonesia’s 84 million children.
It showed that girls marrying before the age of 18 were at least six times less likely to complete senior secondary education compared to their unmarried peers.
It is also not uncommon to see child brides in Indonesia being discriminated against in schools.
Local media carry reports of students being turned away from public schools upon their marriage, despite no official laws requiring them to do so.
Experts in Madura’s salt-producing Sumenep Regency tell Channel NewsAsia that such is the situation in the regency as well.
There is also the issue of deep-rooted patriarchal views, which place women in a domestic setting, thus restricting child brides from continuing their education if they marry young.
SCHOOL FOR EVERYONE
According to Lies Marcoes Natsir, executive director for the Rumah Kita Bersama Foundation, facts on the ground have shown that if a girl marries before completing high school, chances are, she may never go on to complete it.
This is contrary to the way boys in the same situation are treated, who are still able to continue their studies post-marriage.
“Well it’s different; I will stop studying after I complete high school … I would’ve liked to have gone to college if I didn’t marry. But because I am married, I can’t,” said Sariyatun with a laugh.
The 17-year-old is joined by her friends as she shares her experiences, several of whom are younger than her and married, just like her.
The girls are all students at the Mambaul Ulum Institution, an institution in Sumenep that doesn’t believe children should stop studying simply because of marriage.
The institution admits not just boys who are married but girls as well.
“They can study here on the condition that they are not pregnant. What happens then if they become pregnant? Well, we exempt them until they give birth,” said Fathol Haliq, founder of the Mambaul Ulum Foundation.
After a girl delivers her baby, she can come back to the school and complete earning her diploma, which she can then use to get a job in the event that she has an opportunity to work.
“We are providing them with an alternative means of education to empower them, so that they do not become victims of the cultural system that is deeply rooted in the practice,” Fathol added.
Over at Aqidah Usymuni, the efforts are slightly different, but the goals are the same – that a girl shouldn’t have to give up education over matrimony – but not every parent is comfortable with that idea.
“In Sumenep, everyone is afraid of remaining unmarried,” said Sumarni, whose daughter is a student at the school and recently turned 17 years old.
“By 17, girls themselves want to be married. I also have plans to marry my daughter off; I want to get her engaged, but Dewi Khalifah says my daughter is to continue studying at the boarding school, she can’t marry yet.”
Dewi took over managing the Islamic boarding school from her mother, who established the school to empower women. She explained that her mother was married off at 10 years old, and at that time the culture in Sumenep forbade women from obtaining an education.
Her mother sought to make a difference, and Dewi herself actively encourages her students to continue their studies and refrain from marrying as well, until they are at the very least 18 years of age.
Students who do get married receive support.
Aqidah Usymuni is the only Islamic boarding school in the entire regency which provides scholarships for children who marry, so that they may continue their education even after their nuptials.
The scholarship has greatly benefitted students like Ahmad Dardiri and his wife Misnama.
The two married young – he at 18 and her, at 16. The policy allows the couple to not only pursue their education, but to do it together.
“Traditionally in Madura, if you have to pay a fee to study and if you have to choose one between husband and wife, the husband is prioritised,” said Ahmad.
“A wife is still synonymous with the kitchen, you know; it’s only the husband who can continue his education, so we are breaking this ‘Madura culture’.”
Tradition dictates that a woman’s place is at home, caring for her husband and children.
Completely erasing the patriarchal culture painted in tradition isn’t possible, lamented Dewi, as there are a number of factors dictating its practice including economic conditions, which also influence how families conduct themselves.
“Because once a girl is married, she isn’t her family’s responsibility anymore,” said Ms Dewi.
The educational background of parents also matter, particularly if they come from lower-educated backgrounds.
“They feel that, ‘I got married as a child so why shouldn’t my child do the same?’” Dewi said. “It saddens my heart that they still enforce this practice on their children.”
STUDYING AS A SOLUTION
Reports published last year by the National Statistics Agency supported by UNICEF showed that women who were married between the ages of 15 and 19 had a lower level of school participation compared to those who weren’t married.
Indonesia has committed to achieving its Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, its aims include eliminating all harmful practices against girls and women including child marriage.
The report launched by the government of Indonesia and UNICEF showed that 12 per cent of women – 1.2 million – nationwide aged 20-24 years were married or in union before the age of 18 in 2015.
Earlier this year, Marta Santos Pais, special representative of the UN Secretary General on Violence Against Children met with President Joko Widodo and several ministers at the State Palace in Jakarta.
Pais discussed children’s protection from violence and its role in national development, and raised the issue of child marriage.
Minister of Education and Culture, Muhadjir Effendy who was reportedly present at that meeting, explained that the government has a 12-year compulsory education programme in place.
He told reporters after the meeting that this was one way the government is trying to curb child marriage.
Effendy said the ideal age for someone to marry was above the age of 17 – this way, a boy or girl who completed the compulsory 12-year education programme would automatically be 18 years old.
Bringing the issue to public notice is one way to overcome it, but a more definitive solution would be to legally revise the rules of marriage and keep children in school for a longer period of time, according to observers.
“There should be local regulations governed by the executive and legislative branch that children should no longer marry at the age of 16 or 18; but at the very minimum, they should possess a college degree,” said Aqidah Usymuni’s Dewi.
On Tuesday, April 26, 2016, I was invited to be a resource person in “Character Education Based on Pesantren Tradition” book discussion, representing the other authors. The theme of the event was First Century Anniversary of Bahrul Ulum Madrasah and 191th Anniversary of Bahrul Ulum Pesantren, Tambak Beras, Jombang, East Java. The event was also attended by Mbah (respected) K.H. Mustafa Bisri and Mbah K.H. Husein Muhammad, all of whom are Indonesian influential figures in the field of social and religious affairs.
The book discussion was conducted by Bahrul Ulum pesantren, initiated by its kyais and students, colliding with the First Century Commemoration of Bahrul Ulum Madrasah and 191 Years of Bahr Ulum Pesantren, Tambak Beras, Jombang, to learn from the kyais’ journey within pesantren in the development of flexible and in-depth religious education in Indonesia. The religious education is based on values exemplified by the kyais and nyais, in building students’ great personality.
Hundreds of kyais and gus, and ten thousand of students from Bahrul Ulum and its surrounding pesantrens were enthusiastic attending the event. Their extraordinary enthusiasm was perceived by the committee who were really prepared and helpful, led by KH. Fadlullah Malik, M.MPd. and Dr. Muhyiddin, Deputy President of Wahab Hasbullah University. The committee had prepared four main venues of the event; Main hall in which Gus Mus, Buya Husein, and I as resource persons gathered with four hundreds participants, all of whom were kyais, nyais, and students of Wahab Hasbullah University. Meanwhile, other participants attended the event in two other large buildings and a courtyard, in which dozens of television and high-amplified sound system were placed. The participants were highly enthusiastic following the event through television screen.
Indeed, this commemoration was exceptional, and I was grateful and blessed was able to be together with Gus Mus and Buya Husein, who attracted thousands of participants in the event “Character Education based on Pesantren Tradition” book discussion, written and published by Rumah KitaB in the early 2014.
The event was officially opened by K.H. Irfan M. Sholeh, M.MPd. as the Chairman of Yayasan Pondok Pesantren Bahrul Ulum, and the opening speech was delivered by the head of committee, K.H. Fadlullah Malik, M.Hi. and Dr. Muhyiddin. During the event, the resource persons congratulated the anniversary of Bahrul Ulum.
The book discussion was moderated by Dr. Muhyiddin, as the vice president of Wahab Hasbullah University. In the introduction, the moderator stated that the Character Education based on Pesantren Tradition book has successfully mapped and explored pesantren’s noble traditions and reminds the education practitioners to liven up the traditions in this modern era, whose values have eroded the ‘traditional’ living values of many young people in Indonesia.
The moderator invited Ahmad Hilmi as one of the authors to speak first. The author describes the profile of Rumah KitaB organization briefly, then explained the background of the writing, the purpose of the writing, and the methodology. Character Education Based on Pesantren Tradition book is a result of field research, conducted in various schools in Indonesia. The background to the writing is the unavailability of teaching materials that focus on character education in Indonesia. On the other hand, the character development of young people is losing its ground. The number of student’s fights which cause casualties is still high, as well as hates speech through social media that are often motivated by discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, race, and class. The students are losing of the spirit of learning; they prefer to hang out until late at night rather than study, becoming drug users, etc.
This situation shows that the school has no longer served as the central place for character building. It only serves as a means of regular formal learning; it starts at 07.00 a.m. in the morning, students do homeworks and tasks, study for the national exam, then return home later in the afternoon. The important thing is GRADUATED!
It therefore is alarming as the students are only taught to answer the questions during exam, but their characters are not fostered because specific book as a medium to learn values with student-friendly methodology used a primary handbook for teachers in the classroom has not yet been provided. On the other hand, our country has an abundant of educational values that come from pesantren’s noble traditions that have not been explored.
Thus, in the early 2014, Rumah KitaB had successfully written the book, as a result of field research in various pesantrens in Indonesia. The book contains fifteen main values, adopts many poems and stories of the former kyais in pesantren, and describes the values using rich interpretations of various verses in Al-Qur’an and Hadith, concluded from readings of a number of Yellow Books. Therefore, this book can be read for students from different background and educational institutions in Indonesia. Before in Jombang, Rumah KitaB has successfully held a series of training and book discussion in many cities, involving hundreds of teachers and students who represent their respective educational institutions.
After that, the next speaker is Gus Mus, a charismatic kyai figure in Indonesia. He explained that pesantrens in the past put forward the elements of education (tarbiyah) rather than teaching (ta’lim). When this condition is reversed 180 degrees, the pesantren buildings are more luxurious and towered, but the kyais are losing their roles and ”have nothing to do”, because the existing management and organizational structure do not ensure kyai’s involvement in pesantren.
If we want to restore the dignity of pesantren back to the glorious era, today’s kyais need to strive to achieve the level of sincerity like kyais in the past, who never needed anything from the others. Gus Mus greatly appreciated the views of Buya Kyai Husein in one of his works that stated ascetic (juhud) must be encouraged for kyais in the present. However, it is too heavy to be implemented in today’s current situation that, arguably, is too extreme. We can start from the concept of ”simplicity” because simplicity would bring us to “peaceful from within” as the opposite of ”peaceful from the outside”.
According to Gus Mus, characteristic that has been missing from the preachers (mubaligh), educators, and dai now is the spirit of ad-da’wah that reassuring and refreshing. Da’wah spirit spread by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Wali Songo, and Salaf scholars, is eroded by threatening and intimidating behaviors in da’wah. This kind of da’wah is not inviting, but dismissing people. Basically, there is a sharp distinction between the meaning of da’wah (invitation) and amar (command). However, nowadays the meaning of both terms is confused, so it creates an ambiguous concept.
Most kyais in the past did not know the “nationalism” term, but they acknowledged that Indonesia was their homeland, and it must be preserved and must not be destructed or colonized. Therefore, students who did not love their country will be bombarded by the advice of Mbah Wahab, Mbah Hasyim Ashari, and other kyais, who loved Indonesia with their body and soul.
According to Gus Mus, today’s serious concern is that people put forward their interests and search for the verses later. It is inversely proportional to the scientific tradition in pesantren which have responsibility until doomsday. Gus Mus Appreciating the book “Character Education Based Pesantren Tradition” that elevates the stories and inspiring stories in conveying the message, because the methods of the story was not threatening but pervasive.
On the other hand, Buya Husein emphasized on the importance of building awareness to contemplate various shortcomings and social problems that exist, as well as to contemplate the required exit strategy. Social problems are always closely linked to the failure of educational institutions in developing its students’ characters. Therefore, schools should return to its roots therefore the nobleness of the schools, as it has been successfully established in the past, can be restored in the present. Buya Hussein appreciated to the existence of Character Education Based on Pesantren Tradition to remind us the importance of values-based education that has been established by the scholars in the past. After that, Buya Hussein recited a poetry and sang Arabic poetry that rich in values.
The event was closed by a poetry recital by Gus Mus about hubb al-wathan (nationalism) titled “I Still Remember that Melody”, created by Gus Mus himself, and can be found in Character Education Based on Pesantren Tradition book page 38 – 40. In the end, an anthem titled ”Syubbanul Wathon” was sung by all participants. The song was created by Mbah Wahab Hasbullah, famous ulama from Jombang, a colleague of Mbah Hasyim Asy’ari, the founding father of NU.