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  • Writer's pictureMarjorie Anne Foster

Life in a Islamic Boarding School

Updated: Jul 31, 2019

After a week spent at a male and female Islamic boarding school in East Java, Indonesia, here is a personal reflection on my experience.

We were greeted at the entrance of the all girls boarding school with 19 headscarves. This would be our daily uniform. I was amazed by the poise, intelligence and kindness of the women. The school went from twelve-year olds to twenty-two-year olds. Ranging in majors from International Relations to Islamic Philosophy, it was clear that these women were serious about their studies and their dignity within the school.

To understand the lives of these girls, it is important to understand their daily schedule.

Rising at 3:30 or 4 am, the first hours of the morning are devoted to prayer and recitation of the Qur’an. By 7 am, these women leave to teach the younger students. Yes, these college girls are teaching the 12-16-year olds Math, Science, Islamic Studies, Arabic and English. They teach until 12:30 and prepare lunch and rest before their 3 pm college classes. They are typically in class until 9 pm, with a few breaks for free time and exercise. At 9:30, they are in charge of chaperoning the younger student’s study hall and answering any questions they may have about the days lessons. Typically, these women don’t go to sleep until they have finished their own homework and chores around 1 am.

“We teach them 24 hours,” the male headmaster proudly told us. “Our goal is to teach and educate about how to make leaders and religious scholars also focused on science and technology.”

The school strives to practice and teach five spirits: Sincerity, Simplicity, Self-Sufficiency, Islamic Brotherhood and Freedom.

These principals are clearly lived through the obligation of dress codes. All women must wear the same garments in order to simplify their lives and limit jealousy or differences between their sisters, as was explained to me by one of the students.

“We don’t really need expensive things to make us happy,” said Avinie Aurora Tembriany, a student I had become close with. “We just need enough.”

When we asked the women at the girl’s boarding school why they were required to cover their heads, they said it was a form of protection. They also said they enjoyed it and one women even explained how it brought her confidence.

“I would feel unclothed if I left the house without it,” she said. “It brings me a great sense of confidence and peace.”

Everything within the school is run by the students. Each individual has a chore and must complete it in order for the school to run. The lawn is managed by the middle schoolers, the kitchen is managed by the high schoolers and the college students are in charge of looking after and taking care of the younger students.

There are strict rules within the school. No dating, no drinking, no leaving the school grounds (ever) and no cell phones (except for a few hours on Friday). When asked how the girls learn about the outside world, one school leader said, “They don’t, that is the point.” Despite this comment, the girls were very globally aware and engaged, even more so than I may be at times.

For the older girls, the lack of cell phones means a strengthened relationship with those surrounding them. The disconnect from global news also helps them focus on “inward growth.”

“Having cell phones makes you close with those who are far,” explained Tembriany. “But it also makes you farther from those that are close.”

Across the board, the girls appreciated this rule, along with the others. They explained that they didn’t have time for social media or even dating.

“Yea, maybe if we had more than 24 hours in a day we could use Instagram everyday,” said student Netty Yuwanda.

Yuwanda explained that her life at the boarding school was better than she could of every imagined.

“Of course, in the beginning, I was tired,” Yuwanda said. “But, you get used to it. You start to love it and this is where I have found peace. It is only here that there is peace like this.”

Welcome to the men’s world

After a two hour bus ride, we arrived at the male Islamic boarding school. With its grand marble floors and tall white columns, the school was breathtaking. It was a shock to have come from a school where twenty young girls sleep on the floors of a small room to a place of such grandeur. Although I was never able to see the men’s dormitory, they said the conditions were similar to the females, a statement I find hard to believe when compared to the rest of the campus.

The headmaster of the school presented to us the daily lives of the men. Their schedules were similar to the womens, minus the cooking, cleaning and taking care of the younger students. Men were able to take classes in Arabic, English, Social Science, Sciences and Islamic Studies. They also could never leave the confides of the school (unless permission was requested, which was easily granted) and they are not allowed to date or drink. There was no dress code (they are only restricted not to wear jeans) and men had free access to smart phones, with some websites blocked. When asked why women don’t have the ability to have a phone, there was no clear answer.

The qualities the school seeks to instil within their students are “morality, sound body, broad knowledge and an independent mind.” The headmaster stated that the school aims to produce future global leaders and one way they seek to do this is through inforcing a strict languge code. If the students are caught speaking in any other language than Arabic (“the language of religion”) or English (“the language of Science”), they have to clean the toilets, a job typically done by the female workers.

The headmaster highlighted the ways the men also sustained their campus. He stressed how they even organized the purchasing of the food for the local women to cook and were in charge of enforcing publishements for the younger students.

“All aspects of our campus are designed for education,” said the headmaster. “We seek to raise men that are leaders.”

The men are taught about their relationships to women through their “compulsory Islamic world view classes.” The aim is to balance secular education with Islamic belief, but certain Islamic principals should never be compromised, according to the headmaster.

“What do you teach men in classes here to make women here feel safer?,” one American student asked. “If they feel the need to be covered 24/7 because of fear of men, does that concern you and the leaders you are raising?”

The headmaster chuckled and explained that “the incidents you have in the U.S., we don’t have here. Women stay covered so that they would never go to a pub wearing a mini skirt to get taken advantage of like in the U.S.”

It was clear from the tension in the room that there would be no “settling” or a peaceful exit to the conversation. As some of the American women began to leave the room in tears over the students and faculties comments, the men tried to explain that the education they receive is suffienct because it is not separate from their Islamic teachings.

After taking a water break, I returned to the class to a man asking me who had walked me there and back. I explained that I walked myself. “Wow. Congratulations!,” he said surprisingly and a little unsettled.

Later in the day, an Indonesian women asked if the boarding school men thought they should have any type of Women’s Studies or Feminism classes offered. The man next to me softly, yet immeditly said “no.”  I volunteered him to speak up, but he resisted. The pain in my gut restricted me from asking why he thought what he did.

 During these moments, I was directly confronted with my own Western cultural training. It was the first time in a long time, I struggled to find empathy or understanding towards someone who’s worldview was different from mine.

As the men open my doors, allow me to eat first and kindly escort me to my next class, I am reminded that these rules and religious obligations are not rooted in malice or hate, but out of respect. But, nonetheless, the words I have heard spoken by men about how women should behave have been burned into my memory.

This experience is not a reflection of any faith in its entirety. No singular experience can be. I have never felt so small being a women. Not because of this school or theology, but because of the individual conversations I had with individual people.

As I sit here sweating through the headscarf that feels as if it is choking me, I am struggling to make sense of it all and even struggling to get the courage to explore what my own faith says about gender related issues like these. I welcome this experience because I know that it is challenging my “Western thought” and views of “Feminism” and I hope to gain a better understanding of this place and these people.

To conclude, I have learned that women can take a whole lot of resistance and can still prove people wrong. So, thank you to those that were surprised that I could walk down a hall way by myself, who think “getting taken advantage of” is my fault and who consistently talk louder than me in any given opportunity. You have successfully motivated me to kindly, respectability and unapologetically strive to prove you wrong and take advantage of the opportunities other women will never have.

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