“Ukh, may I share my story here?” wrote “Enny” in Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran (Indonesia Without Dating) Whatsapp chat group. A shortened form of ukhti, the Arabic word for sister, “ukh” is a favorite term of endearment among the women in the chat group.
It was almost 9 PM; my eyes were glued to the screen to see what Enny would say next.
“Last Muharram someone committed a ‘khitbah’ to me,” she texted, referring to the first month of the Islamic month and the practice of asking one’s hand for marriage. “A man, from Bekasi. Insha Allah (God permits) we were to get married after the end of Muharram. But then he texted me to cancel everything.”
Enny ended the text with a smiley emoji, as if to assure others she was fine.
I joined Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran Whatsapp group in mid-February 2018. This group is one of the digital platforms for followers of the social movement of the same name. Founded by Laode Munafar at the end of 2015, the movement campaigns actively against dating, blaming it as the root of all problems faced by young people and for damaging Indonesia’s younger generation.
Laode did not respond to Magdalene’s queries regarding the movement’s origin, but in an interview with BBC Indonesia, he said that he initiated the movement on Instagram, Facebook and Line as a response to young people reporting that, “their future has been ruined because of dating.”
“Dating is damaging in all aspects of life: from the (young people’s) future, their psychological health, honor, and, more importantly, it is wrong according to religious teaching [...] In non-marital relationship is not bound by anything, not religion, or the law, so if a couple goes as far as having sex, the man may easily ditch the woman without having to deal with the consequences,” says Laode.
He added that dating distracts young people from studying and from their communities. In his interview with the BBC, Laode chose a religious approach because, “Indonesia has a large Muslim population.”
Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran’s social media accounts has almost 400,000 followers on Facebook; their Instagram account is followed by more than 595,000 accounts. Their campaign formats are diverse, from posting pictures, memes, short videos shot in modern and stylistic cinematography style, and other eye-catching illustrations accompanied by religious texts. The main message of their social media posts promotes the concept of hijrah, which is mainly understood as one’s transformation to be a better person. But in the context of this movement, hijrah means strictly saying “no” to dating and going straight to marriage without dating.
Aside from social media campaigns, this movement also organizes offline activities in schools and mosques.
Interestingly, most of Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran’s social media messages are directed at female followers, including posts on how women should behave and conduct their social lives. In one of the memes they posted, they blamed women for the decline of humanity. They claimed women today are tainted by secularism and feminism, which they are supposedly fighting against by elevating women’s status within society.
Militaristic rules and protocols
Whatsapp group is one of the means offered by Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran as a platform for peer support and to share articles that members must distribute further in their own social media and digital channels.
To become a member, we have to first register by paying Rp 180,000 (about US$13) in registration fee via bank transfer. This amount covers the registration and a book written by Laode on the same topic. The screening process that took place after the payment is made takes about a week before one finally becomes a member.
The group, which obviously separates male and female members, offers other incentives to its members, from discounts for purchases of merchandise and for trainings, including religious sermon materials. The admin stated that they aim to garner up to 10,000 members. In the group I am a member of, there are 167 members and two admin persons. From that group alone, I calculated around Rp 30 million that have been collected just from the registration fee.
Before I joined the chat group, I was curious as to why so many of the members did not mind paying Rp 180,000, which I find not cheap. And with so many members, I had expected a very chatty messenger group.
But it turns out this group has a super strict, rigorous, and almost militaristic rule. First, we weren’t allowed to talk in the group except on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Not even to say greetings to each other. When someone did greet other members with salaam, the admin would be quick to give censure her, albeit after responding to the salaam.
Interestingly, most of Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran’s social media messages are directed at female followers, including posts on how women should behave and conduct their social lives. In one of the memes they posted, they blamed women for the decline of humanity.
Second, we are only allowed to discuss issues related to the themes raised by Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran. Third, we are not allowed to promote events or products, unless such events or products are partners of the movement. The admin will kick members out of the group should they break the rules for four consecutive times.
Aside from that, all of the group members are obligated to spread the sermon articles posted every Tuesday and Friday in their own networks. The admin actually takes a roll call on those who have shared the articles, whether in forwarded text messages or Instagram posts, the latter usually accompanied by pictures.
I couldn’t help but feeling awkward when they called me ukthi, but even funnier is being called “ukh.” It reminded me of the admins of online shops who always call their female customers “sis.” Still, the most absurd term of endearment is “ukhsay”, a portmanteau of “ukhti sayang” (ukhti darling).
Turns out the very strict rules made some of the ukhtis feel uncomfortable and they, in turn, created a separate Whatsapp group. A few days after I joined the group, a fellow member – let’s call her “Elisa” – sent me a private message inviting me to become part of this separate group.
“This group is for Tangerang and Jakarta regional members meet-up, Ukh… It’s just so that it’s easier for us to communicate,” said Elisa. I quickly accepted.
“But please don’t mention about this group in the main group, Ukh,” she added.
Unlike the main chat group, this one has a lot of interactions, with members discussing issues or sharing their personal stories. These ukhtis later organized a meet-up, which took place after Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran discussion in Istiqlal Mosque in March.
The discussion was attended by three speakers, including young Instagram personalities, Natta Reza and Wardah Maulina, who were among the most prominent young Muslim role models campaigning for hijrah and getting married at a young age (Read more on them here). The couple is part of Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran movement, having also written a book, Berani Menikah Takut Pacaran (Dare to Get Married, Fear Dating) published by Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran.
By then I had read the book written by Laode that I received as part of the new member;s package. Like all the social media’s posting, the book mostly targets women as guardians of morality or the cause of moral degradation in society. One chapter specifically discusses how women should dress: they must wear hijab and long and loose clothes, because their whole body is their “awrah (intimate parts of the body) except for the face and palms of the hands.”
On page 67 Laode equates Muslim women wearing long tight pants outside of their house to lontong (rice cake covered in banana leaf). He puts the blame on women for arousing men.
Many of the statements claimed by Laode in the book have no clear references. For example, on page 155 he accuses the government of facilitating curriculums that promote dating.
The “blame everything on the West” narrative is prevalent in this book, but with neither structured nor logically sound arguments. His description of secularism have no references to any literature. He accuses Republic of Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Atatürk, as a British Jew who liked to get drunk, was promiscuous and hedonic, and died with his body deformed. I turned to Google to fact-check these claims and found that such claims originated from unreliable blogs.
Marriage as the best solution
Laode’s book boils down to the idea that marriage is the best solution for many aspects in life, and that marriage is much better than staying single. This is why we should never complicate the process of getting married, especially if such concerns were financial. This is what worries many, especially those who are fighting to eradicate underage marriages.
National coordinator for Jaringan Muda (Youth Network) Lathiefah Widuri Retyaningtyas said Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran is one of the anti-equality movements that they have been monitoring.
Jaringan Muda, which focuses on the issue of sexual violence in young people, was shocked when they learned about movement, she said. The movement limits the option for personal relations between young people. Even more shocking was finding young people’s growing interest in the movement, said Lathiefah.
She added that Jaringan Muda also fears that the movement would result in stricter political control over women’s body autonomy. The solution that “getting married sooner is better” championed by the movement would negatively affect young people who are not ready to build a family, said Lathiefah.
“Judging from their campaign posters it’s clear that marriage to them is merely a gateway, a means to legitimize sexual desires. We believe that this is narrow thinking,” she added.
“The root of the problems asserted by the movement is also unclear, and that the moral standard campaigned by this movement can potentially criminalize women under the guise of zina (unlawful sexual intercourse).
“But we are confident that not all young people are willing to buy the campaigns spread by Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran. In our observation, we see that there are many more young people who choose to be free to make choices,” she said.
To fight against this kind of movements, Jaringan Muda conducted activities that focuses on opening up rooms for dialogues to campaign for equality in many campus buildings.
“One of the events that we initiated from 2015 is Jaringan Muda National Meeting, which has been held twice, as well as women meeting in campuses which will be held in the near future. From these events we found many inspiring campus-based women’s movements. With these events, we also hope to create a space for this kind of movements instead,” said Lathiefah
For the ukhtis in the Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran Whatsapp group, however, marriage remains the main goal and the solution to all their life problems. On my chat group, Enny’s failed marriage plan was responded by other group members expressing their sympathies.
“I have been through similar situation, ukhti,” texted another woman, “Ajeng”. “I felt such great pain in my chest. I felt ashamed: what would my family and the people from the village think of me. But what else can we do about it? Allah’s plan is greater than ours.”
“Alhamdulillah, I have received another marriage proposal. Insya Allah we’ll have the akad (marriage vow ceremony) next month. Be patient, ukhti. I am sure you will find someone better.”
This article was translated from Indonesian by Amira Ruzuar.
Also read about “Instacelebs” who encourage young people, including teenagers, to marry young.