A chat with Indonesian academic, writer & activist Novriantoni Kahar about his book ‘The Imagined Romance of Halima: Five Acts of Love in Religious Struggle’ – a collection of poetic essays which seeks to highlight the spiritual and emotional effects of discriminatory practices against Muslim Women
Within Indonesia there are a number number of people, both male and female, working hard to reform misogynous discourse to make Islamic practices more woman-friendly. With many voices also in contradiction to such trends, never has the issue of women in Islam been so widely debated in Indonesian public life. Contradictions within the movements of contemporary Indonesian Islam indeed reflect the ferment of democratic transformations occurring in Indonesia. From movements calling for the reinstatement of the Khilifa to genuine progressive reflections on problems within doctrinal approaches to Islam, these movements reflect the diversity that has unfolded since the collapse of since the New Order regime.
Novriantoni Kahar is writer and activist who explores problems of discrimination. In his book “The Imagined Romance of Halima: Five Acts of Love in Religious Struggle” (Imaji Cinta Halima: Lima Kisah Kasih dalam Pergumulan Agama), he hopes to highlight the spiritual and emotional effect of discriminatory practices against women in the Muslim world.
Novri is a santri Muslim who gained his primary Islamic education at Pondok Modern Gontor Ponorogo (one of the most well-respected Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia). He is also a graduate of al-Azhar University in Egypt. His’ academic approach to Islam is one of co-mingling Islamic knowledge with social sciences like sociology and political science. In this way, Novri “does not accept Islam as a das solen as such, but tries to study it as as a das sein, as a factual phenomenon”.
Novri was inspired to write The Imagined Romance of Halima by his work in anti-discrimination campaigning in Indonesia as well as by his experiences gained whilst living abroad in the Middle-East and Europe.. The stories are set in Indonesia as well as other Muslim-majority countries. All express different facets of the impact of religion on the major life choices of women.
The book’s title story, “Imaji Cinta Halima” tells of a love affair between an Indonesian driver and a Saudi woman. Their illicit engagement ironically being facilitated by the policy of gender segregation practiced in the Holy Land of Saudi Arabia. Another tale also set outside Indonesia tells of a love story between a Coptic Christian and a Muslim. Set in Egypt, the story comes to a sad end, with traditions and bigotries within the two communities deciding the young couple’s fate.
As a Muslim, Novri wonders how people can be “so incredibly sensitive in protecting ‘Islam’s reputation”, yet so completely desensitised to some of the discriminatory acts committed in the name of religion. In the post September 11 political landscape, we have become accustomed to seeing the image of a middle-class Muslim woman, dressed in fashionable Islamic attire talking adamantly about how Islam has “liberated” her and how acts of violence and bigotry towards women could never happen in Islam’s true name, putting the causes down to being a product of “culture”. Simultaneously, there are Muslim women who are experiencing acts of abuse at the hands of men acting within their own religious rights through interpretations of particular Islamic discourses. The experience of both women is real.
Islam can indeed ‘liberate’ a woman if she is empowered to interpret the practice of Islamic teachings through the works of progressive scholars. On the other hand, doctrinal interpretations within Islam can justify acts which destroy, even end, a woman’s life. This is the reason Muslim’s like Novri call for a “genuine recognition of the problems within Islam” when it comes to discrimination against women and other minorities.
As Novri explains, “if we really pay close attention to the issue of discrimination toward women in Islamic or Muslim-dominated countries, the fact is, it is happening. We must not be frightened to hold issues within the Muslim community to the light where they can be examined and aired. Denial only compounds these problems”.
Novri sees some of the reasons for such hypersensitivity at criticism in Muslim communities as being driven by certain political and psychological factors: “Politically, Islamic ideology affects many aspects of Muslim thoughts and practices, in every aspect of life, whilst psychologically, Muslim-majority societies find it difficult to accept the gulf between their imaginary ideal Islam and the actual manifestation of it in their daily life. Perhaps if we began to see the effects of the harsh treatment of women for how they are, we can begin to address some of the problems within our communities”.
Through the stories in Imaji Cinta Halima, Novri hopes to help promote an awareness of the ways in which religion and tradition is used to discriminate against women in both subtle and overt ways, and the ways in which this affects their daily lives. “Denial is a common defence mechanism in Muslim societies everywhere however we Muslims need genuine recognition that many of the problems rampant in our societies are coming from within. There are real problems within Muslim societies and we need to stop attributing our them to some outside force or conspiracy. Islam should not be exempt from being be examined and criticised honestly from within. It is as simple as that”.
‘Imaji Cinta Halima’ is published by Renebook, Novri tweets at @novri75