One issue arising from the arson attack on a house of worship in Sigi, Central Sulawesi, is the definition of “house of worship”. The local authorities stated there was no burning of a church, but rather of a “service post”. To local residents, however, the building that was burned was, in fact, known as the place of worship of a Christian group.
This is not simply a semantic issue that a “service post” is different from a church, but rather an issue of who has the authority to determine whether a given place is referred to as a house of worship or not.
As I have been exploring the issues of feminism and gender, and based on my own experience as a woman, I have become very sensitive in seeing, observing and being involved in how rituals and practices of worship based on the ways of a given religion treat women.
While conducting research in Tengger, East Java, in 1984, I watched the formal worship of the ancient Javanese Hindu Tengger, such as the Karo or Kasodo celebrations. In the vast sandy expanse of Mount Bromo, I witnessed the official rituals led by village priests. They came from all corners of Bromo; all were men. The worship rituals were orderly and consistent, following the rules from A to Z, reciting in loud voices so that everyone could hear what was being prayed. The priests all wore their official garbs and insignia; all were uniformly clad in black. The rituals were conducted at the specified time (in the middle of the night).
But in the morning preceding these celebrations, and the next day, I observed very different worship, at different venues. The women performed their own, separate worship. Wearing simple, ordinary clothing, they prayed quietly, while making offerings of the best foods produced from their crops.
The places where they prayed were places they considered holy; the authority to recognize these venues was determined by local residents, including the women. These places included large, leafy trees, permanent natural springs, dams on small streams, graves of the ancestors, piles of natural stones, or places where their children’s placentas were buried. These holy places clearly related to their daily lives as farmers of the Tengger ethnic group who depend on the goodness of nature.
We can also see similar practices among many other groups in this country: in the traditions of the Hindus of Bali, Sunda Wiwitan, indigenous tribes in the interior, and other local religions. In all these cases, it is the people themselves who determine that certain places are considered sacred and designated as houses of worship.
If you go to a Chinese temple, you will find a special spot for worship of the ancestors that is believed to fulfill the needs of prayers by women: safety for their children, protection and a sense of safety, praying for good fortune and safety for their husbands and parents, and even asking to be given a life partner. For them, this is their place or house of worship.
When I and Rumah KitaB mapped houses of worship in eastern Indonesia, where Muslims are a minority, we identified places of worship based on the understanding of the local people. It seems that any place associated with the activities of the Muslim community, such as a madrasah, orphanage or even the home of an ustadz (teacher) were referred to as Muslim houses of worship.
For the nearby community, the characteristic for a building to be considered an Islamic house of worship is that the place has a loudspeaker from which adzan (the call to prayer) is broadcast. So it is not surprising if the security authorities do not consider a “service post” in Sigi an official house of worship.
Obviously, I understand that the security authorities use the official definition of a house of worship, such as being legally certified. But we should also note that the more official a religion, the more officially it is carried out, and the more official the determination of who holds the authority to designate the status of a house of worship.
From my experience, the determination of this authority entails dimensions of “class” and gender. The “lower” a group is, or the smaller its minority, based on ethnicity, gender and sexual identity, the harder it is to obtain recognition from the authorities of its house of worship. A prayer hall established by an LBGTQ group in Yogyakarta has been repeatedly raided and shut down, yet this is simply a place where the transgender worship. Why is it exclusive? Because in other places, they are not accepted.
Nyai Masriyah Anva, the head of the Kebon Jambu pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Cirebon, West Java, has talked about houses of worship for women. The pesantren has a large mosque to accommodate students and other members of the pesantren. But she felt that in this mosque, women were very marginal. She wanted women to have a house of worship that was friendlier to them. So, rather than trying to overturn the established rules, she simply set up a separate mosque for herself and her female students.
This is not in fact a new innovation. In 1926, Muslim women took the initiative to establish their own houses of worship called Masjid Istri (Women’s Mosques). As recorded by a researcher/official of the Dutch East Indies government, G. Pijper, in Fragmenta Islamika (translated by Prof. Tujimah), this initiative arose from and was realized by members of the women’s group Aisyiyah in Pengkolan, Garut, West Java, and in the Kauman area of Yogyakarta, and then in other places. This way, they overcame the obstacles of these restrictions by establishing their own houses of worship, claiming the authority to do so for themselves.
In women’s experience, a house of worship is like their private home where they can express the feelings of their soul, a place to be intimate with, complain to, and declare their love or sadness to the beloved.
Therefore, the authority for houses of worship should not be determined by the state, but rather by the opinion of the community concerned. The feelings arising from the commitment of individuals to the place where they worship should be protected by the state, whatever its form.
The writer is the director of the Rumah Kita Bersama Foundation. The original article was published on rumahkitab.com.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.