“Becoming Aware ”

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Although pressures to veil as a symbol of anti-government solidarity diminished with Suharto’s resignation, the number of veiled women on college campuses in Yogyakarta and other university cities continued to grow. Moreover, as Javanese parents came to realize that veiling did not negatively affect their daughters’ friendships, employment opportunities, or marriage prospects, many came to view veiling as a positive phenomenon, expressive of a young woman’s deeper understanding of the requirements of her faith.

 In interviews, the majority of young women from secular institutions (like Gadjah Mada University) who had made the commitment to veil told me that they did so between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, just prior to or during their first year of university classes. Almost without exception, these women describe their decision in religious and personal rather than social or political terms, as the result of a deepening religious understanding, a “becoming aware” (menyadari) of their religious responsibilities. Even young women who may have briefly worn a headscarf as part of a religious school uniform cited changed religious awareness as their reason for deciding to wear it constantly. Oci, a student in her second year at UGM, described her decision to veil in just such personal and religious terms. She said that she had begun to wear the veil consistently at the beginning of her second semester of college. A few years earlier, she had attended a “modernist” Muslim (Muhammadiyah) high school where female students were required to wear the headscarf as part of their school uniform, but were allowed to take it off after classes— and most students did. I started thinking seriously about wearing the veil consistently during my first semester in college, but I was hesitant because the religious consequences are very heavy. I just couldn’t decide. Finally, I did a special prayer that helps you to choose between two things, the sholat Istikharah.

After that I decided to wear it and I’ve worn it ever since. As Oci notes, the ethical standards and behavioral restrictions associated with veiling are weighty, and most Muslims regard the decision to adopt the veil as a great behavioral divide. It is widely held, for example, that veiled women should not be loud or boisterous; hold hands with a member of the opposite sex (even if he is her fiancé); go out in public after evening prayers; patronize cafés or clubs; wear makeup or fingernail polish; smoke, dance, swim, or wear tight clothing; or ride on the back of a motorcycle holding on to a male driver. If a young woman in jilbab violates any of these prescriptions, she exposes herself to public moral censure, some of it severe. She may be reprimanded by family members, friends, and co-workers, or even be challenged by total strangers on the street. Most importantly, those who decide to veil are told that after doing so they should be konsisten dan konse  kuen, “consistent and responsible in their behavior,” and must pakai terus, “wear it continuously”; that is, not put it on one day and take it off the next. In light of these expectations, most young women think long and hard before donning the veil. Those who do not veil describe themselves as “not yet ready” (belum siap) to commit to veiling’s weighty ethical standards and behavioral restrictions. Because veiling is considered a serious personal and religious commitment, women resist the suggestion that their decision to veil was influenced by social or environmental pressures, such as those made by boyfriends or family members.

Although acknowledging that such pressures exist, women insist that the most important influence on their decision to veil is God’s commands as expressed in the teachings of Islam. They insist, moreover, that religious responsibility must be individually embraced in order to be truly significant, and reject the notion that the obligation should ever be imposed.




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