Wahyoe Boediwardhana ,  The Jakarta Post ,  Malang, E. Java   |  Sun, 05/25/2008 12:01 PM  |  Discover

The quality of education today for Muslim women is being continuously improved upon these tenets of Islamic education. The teaching of both Islam and sciences are considered very important, particularly in the face of contemporary challenges.

Despite the greater number of professional women who are advocating better education for their peers in the country, the domestic role of women in guiding their children’s learning still seems to remain the primary reason for improvement.

“Children rarely, if ever, turn to their fathers first about something. They are more likely to ask their mothers first. This is because they are closer to their mothers and see her every day,” the chairman of the Al Rifa’ie Ponpes foundation, Ahmad Muflih Azam, told The Jakarta Post.

Some educators of a particular segment have responded to the need by providing a broader educational opportunity for Muslim girls.

One such individual is K.H. Achmad Zamachsyari, who set up in 1992 a modern pondok pesantren (ponpes) for female students.

The Al Rifa’ie Islamic boarding school in Gondanglegi district, Malang regency, aims to educate its students to develop their command of technology, to be proficient in foreign languages, to become high achievers and to develop a noble character. At present, it has 734 female students who come from 18 provinces.

Muflih rejected the prevailing assumption that ponpes were “backward”; he believes that the stigma of ponpes as a marginalized educational institution is no longer relevant.

“That might have been the case during the colonial era, when santri (Islamic students) had no opportunities for formal schooling. Now we have equal opportunity, and ponpes often provide a more complete syllabus, particularly with regard to religious education,” he said.

The Al Rifa’ie ponpes achieves this balance between academics and religion by combining formal secondary school curricula with religious education provided at its Madrasah Murottilil Qur’an Al Rifa’ie (MMQA) and Madrasah Diniyah Al Rifa’ie (MDA).

The MMQA provides Koranic studies that lead towards a teaching certificate while the MDA follows the government-approved Islamic/ponpes curriculum, which has been developed further with the Lirboyo-Jombang, the Gontor-Ponorogo and other regional ponpes.

In addition, Al Rifa’ie offers its santri creative skills courses such as culinary management, fashion design and crafts during its 18-hour school day. It also has classes in modern languages, journalism, shariah banking, social sciences, computer sciences, multimedia technology and the life sciences.

“There’s no discrimination in Islam. Men and women have the same educational opportunities,” said Muflih.

Another all-girls ponpes, Al Ishlahiyah, located in the district town of Singosari, provides religious classes on campus and sends its students to attend classes in academic subjects at other Islamic schools.

“Basically, our students study more salafiyah subjects on the Koran and the Hadith than those attending formal schools, including tauhid (Allah and His attributes), tazawuf (building character towards a divine union) and fiqh (Islamic law),” said Lathifah Mahfudz, the curriculum advisor at Al Ishlahiyah.

“That’s the general advantage of ponpes over formal schooling. Instead of relying on formal subjects alone, ponpes offer more religious content, so its graduates will cultivate good character and serve as role models (in society). Most formal schools only have two hours of religious lessons a week,” she added.

With about 350 santri, Al Ishlahiyah has more limited facilities compared to Albut the heads of the two ponpes agree that the central and regional governments needed to assume a greater role in supporting the development of Islamic schools. “… Apart from their considerable contributions (to national education) since the colonial era, ponpes can also act as a screen to filter out anti-religious influences on the younger generation,” Muflih said.

A key area of support is human resources, which requires technical guidance and training as well as skills in curricular management to rais their competitiveness. Ponpes also need more quality science teachers, scholarship funds and modern facilities.

“So far, we haven’t received any special government attention. Though a ponpes department has been established under the education ministry, its direct impact on schools is yet to be seen,” Muflih said.

Lathifah is more critical in her views: “The government may have noticed that we have survived independently without aid, so perhaps it believes that ponpes will continue to exist (without support).”

Despite of the lack of government support, ponpes still try to accommodate disadvantaged students.

“At our institution, we give opportunities to those who cannot afford school expenses, as long as they are highly motivated to learn and to succeed,” Lathifah said.

Aside from academic knowledge and skills, ponpes offer santri valuable experiences in developing a sense of solidarity, discipline, respect for teachers and elders, tolerance, ethics and financial management skills.

“Such experiences will be very useful at home and in (the students’) future family life,” she stressed.

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