Indonesia: A Former First Lady Presses On for a Tolerant, Feminist Islam

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The transgender Muslim women gazed around the reception room with wonder. It was loaded with lavish tributes from foreign rulers: gold filigreed swords from Kuwait, elaborately painted Chinese urns and elegantly framed Quranic verses. Finally the host, Sinta Nuriyah, 69, breezed into the room in her wheelchair, passing by a giant bust of her husband, Abdurrahman Wahid, a former president and a powerful voice for moderate Islam.

The women, wearing head scarves and traditional gowns, had come to Ms. Sinta for advice. Their Islamic school for women had been shut down by a local hard-line organization amid a nationwide crackdown on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations, and they were at a loss as to how to reopen it.

Ms. Sinta, wearing a batik shawl and a veil that partly covered her hair, was in typical good cheer, listening intently and finding pauses in conversation to offer counsel. “Reach out to the regional district head,” she said. “All people have the right to worship God, not just some people. That’s the truth in Islam.”

She offered a beaming smile to the assembled women, clasping their hands and embracing them as they crowded around her wheelchair for selfies.


“There’s nobody else in Indonesia like her, who cares this much about marginalized groups,” Shinta Ratri, the leader of the school, gushed.

Since her husband’s death in 2009, Ms. Sinta, a women’s studies major who was paralyzed from the waist down after a horrific car accident in the ’90s, has carried forth the family’s campaign for a feminist and tolerant Islam. “We live among different religions, ethnicities and cultures,” she said in an interview. “It’s necessary that we stand up to extremists.”

Tears have been appearing in Indonesia’s pluralist fabric in recent years, as hard-line Islamic groups that were once at the margin of national politics exert ever greater influence. Jakarta’s first Christian governor in generations, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, is facing prosecution for “insulting the Quran,” after a vigorous campaign by Muslim hard-liners to have him unseated.

Ms. Sinta, was one of the few leading Muslim figures who stood up for Mr. Basuki after he was charged last year, praising him in a recent television appearance as “brave enough to step forward and take a position from the dominant group.”

Her activism on behalf of minorities frequently puts her in the cross hairs of the hard-liners. For the last 16 years, Ms. Sinta has made a point of touring Indonesian cities during Ramadan, holding interfaith breaking-the-fast ceremonies to promote tolerance.

Last year, at a Catholic church in Semarang, she was confronted by a hard-line Muslim group whose members accused her of promoting the mixing of two religious traditions. The dispute was widely reported in the national news media, with the leader of the regional division of Banser, a Muslim militia with a moderate orientation, announcing that it would mobilize to protect Ms. Sinta’s events in the future.


Ms. Sinta spoke to college students who were studying the ideas of her husband, the country’s first president to win a contested election. CreditKemal Jufri for The New York Times

Categories: The Muslim Times

1 reply

  1. regarding her husband: quote: As president of Indonesia, Gus Dur received the Ahmaddiyah leader Mirza Tahir Ahmad, as his guest. Wahid defended the rights of the Ahmaddiyah to exist in Indonesia on the constitutional principle of freedom of religion. For Wahid, pluralism is not only an intellectual concept but a matter of practice. Wahid held that the koranic message of insaniyah – humanity – represents Islam’s universalism and respect for human rights and equality. unquote.

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