It is Saturday 7 AM in early March when I arrived at a train station near my house, ready to depart for an event of Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran (Indonesia Without Dating). With me was a fellow member of Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran WhatsApp group whom I shall call ukhti (Arabic for sister) Ica, a 24-year old woman I met online a few days after joining the group. Not wanting to stand out, I had borrowed an Islamic robe (gamis) and a long headscarf (jilbab) from a friend, and bought a fabric face mask that I wore like a veil.
The poster on the Instagram account said there would be two Islamic scholars, and a young married couple speaking at the event we were attending, a discussion on the evil of dating. Out of the four, my friends looked forward the most to listening to Natta Reza & Wardah Maulina, who were dubbed an “inspiring couple.”
Arriving at Juanda station in Central Jakarta, we were greeted by hordes of women wearing headscarves in various sizes, from chest-, hip-, to knee-length ones. Some of them also covered their face with veils. At Istiqlal Grand Mosque, Icha and I sat at the back row because the front rows were full already. The second speaker, a fiqh expert named Siti Hafidah, was on the stage talking about teenager, social interaction, and Islam. She was talking about life in Cairo, where she previously studied.
“Cairo has a very strict social control. When an unmarried couple is seen together outside, the people around them would throw objects at them until they dispersed.”
“If a couple wants to be seen together in public, they should marry first. A real man expresses his feeling and proposes marriage to you,” said Siti.
To avoid sex before marriage – a practice known as zina in Islam – Siti recommended to put up some sort of veil or divider separateing the area between men and women. She also reminded the female audience to maintain modest appearance in order to avoid fitnah or slander.
Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran organizes routine discussions on teenage social interaction like this to educate devoted Muslim teenagers on the evil of dating, and to encourage the young to marry soon.
But it was the next – and final – speakers for this session who were the most awaited ones. By then the crowd in the women’s section of the mosque had swollen, forming rows and columns made up of women my age in their early 20s, looking enthusiastic and excitedly moving ever so closer to get a good look at their idols.
The female moderator opened up the discussion by asking the young man: “What are your current activities, Natta?”
“Not much. I’m just busy making my wife happy,” the 27-year old man replied, followed by “Subhanallah” – praise God – from the gasping female audiences.
More and more women arrived as time went by. Some took videos of the talk until their phone ran out of memory. Every once in a while, they expressed their admiration for Nata’s seeming devotion to his religion, but most of the time, the young women, whether in jilbab or full niqab, looked giddy, not unlike girls at a boy band’s concert.
Natta told the crowd that he used to be in a band and live a free and “dark” lifestyle before he decided to devote himself to Islam or “berhijrah”. A failure in his life became a turning point that led him to this decision, he said.
“Hijrah is easy, but staying consistent in the path is difficult,” he said.
His wife Wardah said that she used to be the only person who wore a veil in the Craft and Fashion Major at Universitas Telkom Bandung
“It is difficult, but I can still do my hobbies with a veil on, such as mountain climbing and so on,” she explains. She currently owns a fashion brand for Muslimah called Wardah Maulina Exclusive.
Natta and Wardah are considered inspirational for getting married at such a young age – and without ever dating – as a proof of their religious devotion. They were seen as “courageous” because they decided to tie the knot after only knowing each other for three hours, a tradition called “taaruf” in this community. For this they won popularity with legions of fans.
Nata said he proposed to Wardah via an Instagram message, although at the time he was a street-singer with unstable income. Wardah was still in her third semester.
“I came to Wardah to propose to her, but she was angry about it. She said that if I was serious, I should have come to his father,” he recalled.
Because Wardah’s parents live in Aceh, Natta contacted them through the phone and asked his father for the permission to marry his daughter. They got married in Aceh, last year in February.
The couple said they had a rough financial situation after the marriage with Natta’s small income busking. Often Wardah could only eat only after Natta came home to their boarding house with the little money he earned playing music. But within months they grew in popularity on Instagram (their combined followers now reach about 1 million) and started endorsing products and getting speaking engagements. With the media raising their profiles, they soon became the poster couple for getting married without dating.
Natta said marriage was fun, as shown in their photos and videos shared on their respective Instagram accounts. They often travel together, taking their romantic poses that inspire envy of their followers.
They are not the only young married couple getting popular for promoting marriage among the young, thanks to increased religious conservatism in Indonesia. The targets of this movement are high-school and university students.
This poses a serious risk, according to Lathiefah Widuri Retyaningtyas from Jaringan Muda (Youth Network), as marriage is not a simple affair and has a lot of consequences for youth. If marriage at a young age – an age where people are supposed to explore themselves – becomes a trend, it would bring negative impact, especially towards women.
“This becomes more problematic if we link it to the age of marriage. If people get married under 17 years old, it would impact their reproductive rights. It would also embolden the anti-equality politics, in which women’s morality is controlled, and ‘good’ women are supposed to marry at a young age,” she added.
In addition, the trend of rushing into marriage may impact the freedom of youth, especially women, as well as affect their role in society.
“If women are not haunted by the thoughts that they have to get married as young as possible, we would have a lot of terrific women figures,” she added.
This article was translated from Indonesian by Ireisha Anindya.
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