“Before we begin, let’s pray together. Begin.” Then silence, for about fifteen seconds, as students bow their heads. “Finish.”
This is the way the first class of each day at SMA N 3 Yogyakarta begins. Note that the N stands for negeri, or country—this is a public school.
Indonesia has six accepted religions: Islam, Catholicism, Christianity (which really means Protestantism), Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It is not acceptable, however, to be atheist, agnostic, or Jewish. The first pillar of pancasila, Indonesia’s guiding political policy, is “belief in one God,” which has enough room in it to accept Indonesian versions of Hinduism and Buddhism, but definitely not the lack of any God at all.
As a result of “knowing” that everyone has more or less similar beliefs, religion takes a highly visible role in everyday society here. My school’s flag ceremony alternates every other week with school-wide prayer, which is separate for Muslims, Christians, and Catholics. There are different uniforms for Muslim girls (long skirts and sleeves for girls, with headscarf) and Christian girls (short sleeves and knee-length skirts). All students take classes in their own religions, and each school has rooms for each religion.
Religion is visible outside of school as well. The call to prayer is audible five times a day (starting around 4:30 in the morning) from nearly anywhere you go, and the minarets of various mosques are easily seen amongst the sprawl of other, less important buildings. Headscarves abound in the street, and people wearing shorts or bearing tattoos are stared at just as much as Caucasians. Islam isn’t the only visible religion, either—I describe the location of my boarding house by its proximity to a Catholic church, and everyone knows where I mean.
In America, we pride ourselves on freedom of religion, and rightly so. Nearly every week in my home church, we thank God during our time of prayer that we can meet freely and are open to believe whatever we believe. We know that in some places, this isn’t the case, and we’re lucky to live in a nation that allows us to choose and practice our relationship with God as we wish.
There are some side effects to this freedom, however. Religion is private business and, as a result, Americans seldom share their religious beliefs with anyone outside of their religious community. It’s considered rude to ask someone about his or her religion, and even ruder to impress your own beliefs upon another, which is possibly what others will consider you to be doing if you talk about your beliefs in public. For some Americans, church isn’t even that religious of an experience.
In Indonesia, I’ve found, there exists a different kind of religious freedom that stems from its high level of visibility. Since I fall under one of the prescribed categories (and count myself lucky for this), I can feel free to express my religion freely and often. I can pray before I eat, and it’s not weird for those around me. When students ask me when I’ll find a husband, I can respond truthfully—“When God shows me the right man,” and have my answer met with a chorus of gleeful girls squealing “Amiiiiin!” I can use religious examples in class, ask students what they believe and practice, and talk openly about what I believe and why. None of it’s strange, and none of it’s awkward. I know that it would be in America, because I’ve tried to do these things while in the company of people who don’t share my beliefs, and trust me, it’s awkward.
I realize that I am part of a privileged group in Indonesia, not only because of my white skin and American nationality, but because my religious beliefs happen to line up with what the government thinks I should believe. I feel for other ETAs, who sometimes need to obscure the truth about their own religions in order to be accepted here and not be seen as stereotypes. There is something beautiful to be found in Indonesians’ attitudes about keeping religion in the open, however, and it’s something I hope to take home with me.
About the author: Gillian Irwin is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at SMAN 3 Yogyakarta in Yogyakarta Special Region. She graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2013 with a degree in Music and English.