Fatayat NU —The Growing Influence of an Indonesian Women’s Association
There are about 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. It can be difficult to imagine the diversity of beliefs in the Muslim community, in which radical, moderate, and tolerant views can be found. The NU, a moderate, traditionalist organization, is Indonesia’s largest Islamic group, with about 50 million members.
A place of one’s own
On the last day of 2017, while many in Taipei were still making New Year’s Eve plans, Muslim men and women in traditional dress passed through the underground shopping mall at the Zhongshan Metro station and gathered before a private home in a quiet lane off Chang’an West Road, where they removed their shoes and kneeled reverently on a green carpet for the day’s prayers.
The crowd had gathered for a special occasion, the wedding of the son of a senior member of NU’s Taiwan organization. NU members had come from all over Taiwan to offer their congratulations and take the rare opportunity to socialize with acquaintances. A succession of dishes was carried from the house’s kitchen to share with visitors who had not yet eaten. Seated on the ground, the celebrants enjoyed the food and chatted about everyday life.
Tarnia Tari is the director of the Taipei office of Fatayat NU, the NU’s women’s youth league. She has been working in Taiwan for 11 years already and currently works as a caregiver. She has only her Sunday holiday to spend on association affairs. She points out that women account for most of the Indonesian workers in Taiwan and that the NU hopes to use the meetings of the women’s association to encourage women to support each other and to provide them with greater assistance if they need it. Aside from Taipei, Fatayat NU has set up branches in Taichung and Changhua.
In explanation of the NU’s importance to the Indonesian Muslim community, Tari points out that Islam places great value on doctrine and encourages Muslims to set aside some time each day to listen to sermons by imams. “The association gives them an opportunity to listen to sermons by Indonesian imams on a regular basis,” she says. “Once or twice a month, the NU also invites a prominent imam to Taiwan to preach to adherents—something we really look forward to.”
Ministry of Labor statistics show that at the end of November 2017 there were 670,000 foreign workers in Taiwan, including 260,000 from Indonesia. Of the Indonesian workers 90% are Muslim, making Indonesia a major source for Taiwan’s Muslim community. Although there are mosques in Taipei, Zhongli (Taoyuan), Dayuan (Taoyuan), Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung, and Donggang (Pingtung), long working hours make it difficult for migrant workers to attend, and the mosques are often some distance from train or subway stations. Nearly all the NU branch offices, on the other hand, are located close to stations and hold regular gatherings every second and fourth Sunday of the month, which makes it easy to remember. The NU branches have nearly supplanted the role of Taiwan’s mosques.
“In the past, Indonesian Muslims had trouble finding a place to worship,” Tari says. “Later, a group of devout Muslims took the initiative to establish a Taiwan branch of the NU, with full support of the Indonesian parent organization.”
After the founding of the Taiwan branch, the Taipei Railway Station became the main place where Muslim migrant workers gathered for prayers, but prayers were scheduled only once every three months until the NU found a permanent location in a backstreet off of Chang’an West Road, which allowed Muslims to pray weekly at a time that suited them or attend larger monthly prayer services. The establishment of the NU branch finally helped foster a sense of belonging for Indonesian Muslims working in Taiwan.
A bridge for migrant workers
The NU combines elements of conventional Islamic theology and Sufism. It promotes mainstream religious practices and the cultivation of “goodness” in daily life through introspection and positive thinking. The organization is committed to combating radicalism, extremism, and terrorism. It is a major force for anti-radicalization efforts and highly influential in Indonesia. In Taiwan, the NU also works closely with the Indonesian Economic and Trade Office to Taipei, Indonesia’s representative office in Taiwan, to assist Indonesian migrant workers.
These workers encounter a host of difficulties. A common problem for recent arrivals is their inability to communicate with employers because of their lack of Chinese language skills. When employment agencies are too busy, or unwilling, to deal with the situation, the NU can provide needed assistance. In some cases, the passports of migrant workers have expired and they don’t want to spend extra money on renewing them through their employment agent; or they plan to give up their job in Taiwan and return home early. They often turn to the NU to understand Indonesian passport renewal procedures and the relevant procedures of Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency, or to book a ticket to Indonesia. In the event of the death of a migrant worker, the NU helps with Islamic funerary preparations and funeral rites, and works with the Indonesian representative office to arrange for repatriation of the body.
Cooperation extends beyond routine migrant worker issues. For example, because migrant workers are limited to working in Taiwan for 14 years, the Indonesian representative office works closely with schools and businesses to offer professional and vocational training programs to help Indonesian workers cultivate skills that can be used to find jobs or start their own businesses when they return home. This has become an important aspect of the cooperation between the NU and the Indonesian representative office.
Providing spiritual sustenance
The worst thing when living abroad if you don’t speak the language is when problems arise and you don’t know where to turn for help. Tari recalls how things were when she first arrived in Taiwan 11 years ago. Her Chinese was poor, life here was alien, and the cold winter temperatures and frequent earthquakes were alarming. She feels that the atmosphere in Taiwan has become more welcoming and that employers increasingly look out for the interests of migrant workers. Many employers treat them like family.
Mobile phones are also an essential part of their daily lives. With the proliferation of free voice call and messaging apps, migrant workers find it easy to keep in touch with friends and relatives in Indonesia. Cultural alienation and homesickness are no longer such painful parts of their lives.
Tari has seen many migrant workers who are emotionally drained from long working hours and lose hope in the future. When they return home they are at a loss and don’t know what else to do. They may get into a cycle of going to different countries, where they have to readjust once more, before returning home again. “Everyone yearns for the sense of spiritual belonging that gives us a goal in life,” she says. “The NU acts as an extended family for us, and we can give each other advice and encouragement. It also gives us spiritual nourishment and fills us with joy, which sustains us through our working hours.”
In each of Fatayat NU’s Taiwan branch offices, two or three women are working day in and day out to improve Muslim women’s lives and offering information on legal issues. In Taipei, for example, the NU facility is used for worship, but also includes a small basement classroom used for educational programs. “There are classes offered every Sunday, on such practical subjects as sewing and makeup,” says Tari. “We also invite Indonesian college students to teach English and computing.”
Tari is extremely grateful to have a space where women can swap information on marriage, romantic relationships, and other highly personal topics.
The women are also planning to establish a volunteer group to involve more Muslim women in serving the community, including non-Muslim female migrant workers, and even actively contributing to the welfare of Taiwanese society. “Islam teaches us to seek the out the good and to do good deeds,” Tari says. “Maybe we have little time to go out and do good because we work such long hours, but whenever we are able to we must act.”
There are many Muslim women like Tari who love Taiwan for both its way of life and the warmth of the people. They have found happiness here, and they hope in return to share the beauty and goodness of Islam.