Speak Up on Religious Discrimination at School
Speak Up on Religious Discrimination at School

Published in Jakarta Post

Sati (not her real name) is a Hindu living in Jakarta. In 1991, she had to pose as a Muslim when she enrolled in a public elementary school for safety reasons. Consequently, she should attend every hour of the Islamic class and participated in the various activities of Islamic worship such as prayers and reading the Quran. This went on for ten years until she enrolled in senior high school.

At the age of 17, when she applied for the national ID card, her father suggested her to fill Islam in the religion column. At that point, she refused and insisted on becoming her true self, a Hindu — a decision that she regretted later when her sister miserably became a target in a riot involving Muslims and Hindus in South Lampung, Sumatra in 2012. The mobs burnt her sister’s house to ashes, forcing her to flee and hide for weeks. Sati’s sister suffered a miscarriage on the run.

Nowadays, to be a non-Muslim in Indonesia implies the inevitability of a troublesome and unjust daily life. Discrimination against non-Islamic communities has been so prevalent that children are becoming easy targets. The blatant religious discrimination is quite expansive, harming students’ educational rights.

In May 2016, Zulfa Nur Rohman, a vocational secondary school student in Semarang Central Java, failed the 11th grade for a religious reason. He could not continue to 12th grade since he refused to reading the Quran and perform prayers in the mandatory Islamic studies classes.

Zulfa became a victim of an unjust policy at his school because he is an adherent of a traditional faith, Hayu Ningrat. When enrolled in kindergarten, his parents had to declare their religion. Since Indonesia’s 1965 Blasphemy Law does not accommodate his faith, Zulfa’s parents claimed themselves as Muslims. Zulfa then had to follow all the Islamic studies classes and participate in every worship activities. When he refused to perform the prayers and recite the mandatory declaration of faith or shahadah, his teacher gave a zero score. Thus, he could not continue to the next grade.

These cases by no means only belong in the past. Just last June, a public junior high school in Banyuwangi, East Java, rejected a girl because she was not a Muslim. The student identified as NWA, complained to local education authorities who ordered the school to enroll her. However, the school required her to wear the hijab even though she is a Christian.

When she returned to the local education office, the officials refused to take any actions and suggested she enroll in another school. Fortunately, the incident was all over the news. Regent AZWAR ANAS expressed outrage and the school withdrew its nonsensical policy – though the student applied and was accepted at another school.

Sati, Zulfa, and NWA are just a small number of students who experienced religious discrimination in Indonesia schools.

The abusive behavior often targets minority students, both in verbal or physical forms of bullying by other students of the majority group. Bullying worsens when the system endorses the discrimination by default, as happened to Sati and Zulfa. The government has so far shown no serious intention to alleviate those cases.

Public schools are supposed to accept students regardless of race, ethnicity, social class or religion. The Education Act states education is organized in a democratic, fair, and non-discriminative manner by upholding human rights, religious and cultural values, including respect for pluralism.

It is the duty of the ministries of education and religious affairs to manage the education system, while local education authorities are responsible for education in schools. They should also be responsive regarding discrimination in public schools.

The necessity to fill the religion column for enrollment seems to be the starting point of discrimination at school. The religion column in the national ID card also often triggers such discrimination.

Indonesian law has liberated civilians to leave the religious column on their ID card empty. However, many officials remain unaware of this and are unwilling to process ID cards of those who refuse to choose one of the six official religions.

On the other hand, the blasphemy law threatens citizens who leave the religion column vacant on their ID cards. Citizens could be prosecuted and punished for being an atheist — while acknowledging one of the six religions which is not in accordance with their true beliefs also risks being prosecuted for falsifying one’s identity.

If the government is serious about addressing religious discrimination in schools, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his Cabinet must begin to review all policies with loopholes for any religious discrimination. Local education authorities should be more responsive responding reports of discrimination against non-Muslim students, primarily in public schools. Also, the Education and Culture Ministry should examine any discriminative public school policies.

However, government policy improvements will definitely take time, while religious discrimination against non-Muslim students occurs round the clock. Thus, the role and support of the community, as well as that of the media is essential.

We need society to be alert of any religious discrimination, raise the issue to gain public attention and raise awareness. Being silent and passive when knowing or witnessing religious discrimination against minority students is not an option.



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