The lesson learned is to acknowledge the historicity of how the women’s domain in their social reproduction is closely related to their role as peacebuilders because they sustain the ‘operation’ of daily life even during conflict.
(Reposted from: Peace News, July 6, 2023)
Feminist literature and gender studies often has a global North bias, which stems from the epistemology of a Western-European paradigm in portraying Muslim women as submissive and subjected to male privilege in a ‘patriarchal’ religion. Saba Mahmood’s ‘Politics of Piety’ dismantled the biases towards Muslim women’s religious-based movement as a mere tool for men to maintain power. In fact, from this perspective, these women are powerful, politically conscious, and represent significant masses of society. She calls it a ‘docile agent’. From there, we use the lens of critical peace education – which helps with a nuanced understanding of, and engagement with, context, power dynamics and social relations, and a decolonising analysis.
The strategic ways women in Islamic traditional schools in Aceh navigate their agency is through a constant power negotiation. They do so by maintaining their piousness, and through their reputation of piety that society respects and gives them a social, economic, and political platform, despite some challenges from various forms of masculine politics.
In Aceh, since the coming of Islam, dayah is the grassroots education, which was the only education people were exposed to even before colonialism. It produced ulamas, poets, traders, travelers, and community leaders, and created vibrant cosmopolitan societies, especially around coastal areas. It was during the colonial era by the British, Dutch, and French, among others, that grassroots education in regions across Asia and Africa was uprooted and systematically destroyed or changed. Education is starting to be created to fulfill the demand of the global market – enough basic skills for the colonised to read, write, and do work under imperialism.
Indonesia is an archipelago multicultural country, so there are various ways that our different landscapes – coastal, interior, highland, rural, urban – shape our understanding of social realities. Grassroots education – communal, religious, customary for family-based – stems from how people develop their philosophy, values, and practical needs to address challenges and to function collectively in various settings. Rethinking grassroots education is more relevant than ever now that we are constantly homogenised into one particular standard of intellectual and intelligence, and often it erases the cultural, social and historical aspects of younger generations.
Women’s stories and lived realities in the dayah must be understood within their own context if we aim to understand more about the variations in more silent or covert forms of agency, as women negotiate their space to maneuver in restricted spaces. This shall contribute to the feminist discussion of what resistance is and how we situate gender equality or empowerment in its historical and social realities – even if we want to challenge a specific gender norm.
Acehnese has a matrifocal culture, and it balances the patriarchal element in their culture so men and women share various and different roles in both public and private. But this balance was disrupted during conflict because the state enforced its masculine, gender ideology, which was about militarism and paternalistic symbols. Again, even the dichotomy of ‘private’ and ‘public’ can be more nuanced than the modern European conception. In Aceh tradition, and in many Muslim communities, the ‘private’ sphere is not a derogatory space for women. Rather, it is a space where social gatherings are hosted, food is served, and the social reproduction of daily life is centred around. It was not antagonistic to the so-called public sphere. This dichotomy, thus, seems capitalistic – relevant in the settings of specialised and gender division of labour for the purpose of alienating people as they work for an economic arrangement that uprooted people from their tradition and philosophy of home and communal space.
Acehnese has a matrifocal culture, and it balances the patriarchal element in their culture so men and women share various and different roles in both public and private. But this balance was disrupted during conflict because the state enforced its masculine, gender ideology, which was about militarism and paternalistic symbols.
The lesson learned is to acknowledge the historicity of how the women’s domain in their social reproduction is closely related to their role as peacebuilders because they sustain the ‘operation’ of daily life even during conflict. For women education leaders in religious spaces, education embodied their feminine role of nurturing and transmitting intergenerational values, but at the same time, it rebuilt together a sense of unity among people who are torn by violent conflict. We have stories of religious women leaders who initiated peace during the outbreak of violence in Aceh and Ambon region – it took a different kind of courage to step up in the face of a bloody conflict, facing the threat of vulnerability against their own lives – and demand the men to stop fighting. After the conflict ended, some of them run for political offices, maintain their community advocacy, and continue to struggle for justice even when formal and official politics sidelined or undermine them. They did the political negotiation in the beginning and negotiate the patriarchal and masculine politics. This strength is what we need to acknowledge and adapt into the peacebuilding mechanism.
This research was conducted at ICAIOS (International Center for Aceh and Indian Ocean Studies) as part of the research team with Prof. Eka Srimulyani and Maida Irawani, in collaboration with Dr. Mieke Lopes Cardozo and Faryaal Zaman from the University of Amsterdam. It is published under the title “Silent struggles: women education leaders’ agency for peacebuilding in Islamic schools in post-conflict Aceh” in Journal of Peace Education, Vol 19, 2022, Issue 2.