Islam’s new Kartinis – May: Nurish Amanah, Indonesian activist

Nurish Amanah (photo: Raquel Evita Saraswati)
Nurish Amanah (photo: Raquel Evita Saraswati)
This month, I have the pleasure and honor of introducing you to one of my dear friends, Nurish Amanah. Nurish is an educator and student from Java, Indonesia.
As I’ve mentioned before, the point of this column isn’t just to highlight well-known figures in the Muslim community. It is also to introduce you to women who are working for positive incremental change within and beyond their communities – but whose efforts aren’t seen by the mainstream media or general public.
This month’s feature is especially meaningful to me. Nurish is someone whose resilience, deep love for God and dedication to improving the human condition are humbling and inspiring. It is my personal belief that the world is a better place for her presence in it – and that we will see many great things from her work in the future.
Nurish Amanah (photo: Raquel Saraswati)
Nurish Amanah (photo: Raquel Saraswati)

Raquel: What does Kartini’s legacy mean for you as a young Indonesian woman?

Nurish: Raden Ayu Kartini is the most popular symbol of the emancipation of Indonesian women and a national heroine.

Despite her enormous popularity as a national heroine for women, there are historians in some circles who question the legitimacy of her high ranking. They feel that Indonesia doesn’t give as much recognition to other great women like Dewi Sartika, Sultanah Seri Ratu Tajul, and others. Their complaint is specifically about race and ethnicity. They believe that Kartini was declared a heroine for all women because she was Javanese.

On Kartini Day, celebrated annually on the 21st of April, the country celebrates the life and legacy of Raden Ayu Kartini. For me, every woman of valor deserves to be called “Kartini.”

Kartini is a symbol of women’s emancipation, achievement and equality. Today’s Kartinis – Islam’s new Kartinis – can be Javanese, Arabian, Chinese, American, African and more.
Raquel: You work on so many important issues – but I know that education is one of your greatest passions. Can you tell me about how and why you decided to work on alternative education?

Nurish: I have taught from the kindergarten to university level. I have learned a lot about educational development, particularly in the field of alternative education. Indonesia is still considered part of the third world, and we are facing significant problems in education. Kompas, a major Indonesian daily newspaper, reported in March of 2010 that over 5 million school-age children are currently not enrolled in school. Most of these children are female.

Given the high numbers of students either not able to attend school at all, or to achieve higher levels of education, it is important to me to do something constructive for them. I am seeking to open an alternative school. It is a slow process, especially given my commitment to doing so without dependence on traditional fundraising. I am committed to funding much of the project myself. I work very hard, even selling textiles in my village, to make honest, halal money.

Nurish and Raquel
Nurish and Raquel
Raquel: Can you tell us more about your alternative education project? I know you have made some progress already. What is your ultimate goal?


Nurish: My friends and I founded an organization called ABINITIO in 2008. We began work on an online magazine with the goal of developing a successful small business, and hiring students who need employment so that they can support themselves while getting an education.

Once our business is well-established, we will open a school for alternative education in a village or rural area, where education is most difficult to obtain.

My ideas for our alternative schooling program differ greatly from the education currently available in government and traditional schools. I firmly disagree with the educational system in public schools – the curriculum is unreasonably stressful and student life is very difficult. Some teachers hit their students as a form of punishment. I believe that is counter to the spirit of education.

I believe in learning outside of the classroom. By remaining isolated in the classroom, teachers can’t be fully aware of students’ talents and potential. We will create outdoor learning environments as well as media laboratories for students. Through these alternative learning environments and a holistic approach to education – free of violence and needless pressure, students will develop responsible relationships with society and the environment. It is also my hope that with a more student-centered approach like this, the school will graduate individuals who are more compassionate and aware.

Raquel: One of our first conversations was about women and the environment. Can you share with readers some of the connections you’ve found between environmental damage in Indonesia and the welfare of women?

Nurish: In our conversation, I was referring to the case of the Sidoarjo mud flow.

(*Raquel’s note: Lapindo, an oil and gas company, was drilling near the Sidoarjo mud volcano. The volcano erupted, releasing enough mud to fill a dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools. Despite controversy, the international community has come to an overwhelming consensus that the volcano’s eruption is connected to Lapindo’s drilling activities. The mud flow, currently contained by levees, still continues to intermittently disrupt local highways and villages. There are concerns that the volcano may erupt again in the future.)

Nurish: Upon learning of this incident, I wrote a paper titled “The Death of Ethics,” in which I discussed environmental ethics. The Sidoarjo incident was not a natural disaster, but an environmental one caused by human beings. It destroyed thousands of hectares of rice fields, homes, industries, mosques and more. Women and children suffered the most from the devastation, and we are seeing that this is often the case.
Raquel: What are some other connections you see between women, the environment, and industrialization?

Nurish: I think the issues of industrialization and consumption are also women’s issues. Women’s lives are often controlled by the cultural, social, religious and political demands on them. For example, women are expected to be physically beautiful. To meet these demands and to be accepted in the work force and social sphere, women need to spend a lot on products and services to enhance their physical appearance. Though it is the women consuming these products, they are actually being controlled by the forces insisting that they be “consumed” for their bodies and looks. In short and to be frank, women’s bodies are regularly assaulted by the cosmetics, fashion and other industries.
Raquel: I have enormous respect for you as a woman of faith. How does Islam inspire you to create positive change?
Nurish: Islam teaches me to learn with other people and other groups. For me, Islam represents unity, and not just among Muslims. We have to be respectful, tolerant, and peaceful with others. Lakum dinukum waliyadin means “To you be your way, and to me mine” (Qur’an 109:06). This verse promotes tolerance toward other religions and other groups.  All human beings are family, and this is my understanding of the essence of Islamic teaching.

Raquel: Do you have a Muslim female heroine? Who is she, and why?

Nurish: Surely, I do. The first one I must mention is my mother. It is because of her that I am here and that I have survived – and her spirit is always with me. Her patience drives me to be a better woman.

Secondly, I dearly admire Nawal El Saadawi and her books inspire me. I don’t know her personally, but I like her ideas. She is very amazing.  Her book, Woman at Point Zero, really inspires me.

Nurish and Raquel
Nurish and Raquel


Islam’s new Kartinis: Introduction

                                  March, 2010: Valerie Khan Yusufzai

                                  April, 2010: Nujood Ali


Raquel Evita Saraswati is an American Muslim activist and writer whose main interests are religion and human rights, conflict resolution, women’s issues and democracy.

© Marc Gopin

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