Feby Indirani, author of 'Bukan Perawan Maria' ('Not Virgin Mary') and creator of the 'Relax, It's Just Religion' campaign. (Photo courtesy of Feby Indirani)

Relax, It's Just Religion: Feby Indirani's 'Magical Islamism'

BY :DHANIA SARAHTIKA

OCTOBER 17, 2018

Jakarta. Published last year, Feby Indirani's book "Bukan Perawan Maria" or "Not Virgin Mary" is filled with stories about Indonesian Muslims finding themselves caught in strange, surrealistic circumstances.

A suicide bomber, anticipating a heaven full of angels, is stuck in the afterlife’s waiting room.

A corpse, who had spent her lifetime learning Arabic so she could pass her mandatory interrogation in the grave with flying colors, gets a shock of her (after)life when she's questioned by an angel speaking in her mother tongue, Sundanese.

A pig, an animal considered najis ("dirty") and whose meat is haram ("forbidden") to be consumed by Muslims, wants to convert into Islam.

Feby told the Jakarta Globe in a recent interview that her book belongs to a new genre of her own invention, called "Magical Islamism."

"Many things in this life and beyond are magical. The afterlife, supernatural beings, all those are magic," the writer and journalist said.

Feby said her book presents narratives written from multiple points of view with dabs of dark humor.

She pours out questions about Islam that she's waited to ask all her life, and tries to make readers empathize with people who might have different interpretations of the religion.

"The characters [in my book] believe everything they are taught, but can you be sure what’s going to happen in the hereafter? Everything comes back to our interpretations of the [Quranic] tenets. Every time we talk about religion, we should ask ourselves this question: are we talking about the religion itself or our interpretations of it?" Feby said.

The author herself comes from a Muslim family, just like "many moderate Muslim families out there."

Feby's family encouraged her and her siblings to pursue formal education.

They were allowed to read whatever books they want and ask all the questions they wanted to ask.

"Living in Indonesia makes you unable to shake off religion no matter how un-religious you may feel. Every one hundred meters or so, you'll find a mosque or other places of worship. You simply can't separate religion from our life," she said.

Feby has written about the problems of religion in both fiction and non-fiction.

One of her essays, "Rangkul Dia, Perempuan yang Membuka Jilbabnya" ("Hug Her, That Woman Who Takes Off Her Hijab"), calls for people not to judge female Muslims who choose to take off their headscarves.

The essay made it into a collection of essays published by feminist online magazine Magdalene, titled "Menjadi Perempuan" ("Becoming a Woman").

When Feby was working as a journalist for Tempo magazine, she traveled to Tasikmalaya to interview members of the persecuted Islamic sect Ahmadiyah.

The trip resulted in a book titled "Ahmadiyah: Keyakinan yang Digugat" ("Ahmadiyah: A Faith Accused").

Feby said her family didn’t have a problem with her interviewing a group that many Muslims in Indonesia think of as blasphemous.

"My family is that open-minded. But still, one question remained for me. Who has the right to determine which Islam is right or wrong? The Syiah and Ahmadiyah communities here are marginalized because people say they practice the wrong kind of Islam. Who has the authority to say which is the right Islam and which are the wrong ones? Writing is my way to bring that question to the public," said the author, who participated in the Australia-Indonesia Muslim Exchange in 2006.

Power of Fiction

Feby said she was worried her book Bukan Perawan Maria would attract negative reactions, even abuse, but that didn’t stop her from publishing it.

For a while though, she couldn't find any publisher willing to take the risk.

Religious tension in Indonesia was at an all-time high during the divisive Jakarta gubernatorial election when Feby completed the manuscript, so mainstream publishers were hesitant to publish it.

In the end, Feby decided to partner with cultural organization Pabrikultur, founded by film critic Hikmat Darmawan, to put the book out.

Some of the stories in Bukan Perawan Maria had already been published in magazines and blogs.

"Baby Ingin Masuk Islam" ("Baby Wants to Convert" – the word for "pig" in Indonesian is "babi," phonetically close to "baby") was first published on Qureta in November 2016, the same month when the first anti-Ahok rally by hardline Muslim groups took place in Jakarta.

The story garnered thousands of clicks, and surprisingly, hardly any negative comments.

After that, a report on her book launch and a short story called "Rencana Pembunuhan Sang Muazin" ("A Plot to Kill the Muezzin"), which also ends up in Bukan Perawan Maria, were published on detik.com.

The responses were starkly different.

In the article, many commenters called out Feby for offending Islam, but the short story's comment box was filled with praises.

"It’s interesting to see how people often just read the headline and get angry immediately. But when they read fiction, it's almost impossible to jump into conclusions. They have to read it first, digest the content. They have to postpone their response. That’s crucial. They actually have to read what it’s all about first before they comment," she said.

Bukan Perawan Maria has been translated into English, and is in the process of being translated into Italian.

"People from western countries like Australia and the United States are saying that conservatism is rising in Indonesia, that it's no longer a tolerant place. To me, it's important that this book is translated into English to show the world that we’re not that bad. The fact that Bukan Perawan Maria exists shows that Indonesia has not become totally conservative, and hopefully we won’t reach that point because there are many people fighting for diversity here," she said.

Relax, It’s Just Religion

Feby took her time to figure out a way to present the book to the public in an inviting way.

Among the challenges included the perception that only religious leaders should be allowed to talk about religion.

"But what's wrong if artists talk about it? We rarely talk about religion per se, but our personal experiences are always bound together with it. The thing is, art can be interpreted in many ways. We can enjoy art together even if we don’t share the same opinion," Feby said.

This was the thinking behind Feby's "Relaksasi Beragama" ("Relax, It’s Just Religion") exhibition, which was held on July 15-25 in Jakarta.

In the exhibition, seven artists offered their own interpretations of Feby’s stories.

The goal of the exhibition, Feby said, was to start conversations around religion that aren’t polarizing and "don’t always revolve around right and wrong, the existence of hell, calling out a person as kafir [nonbelievers] or onta ['camel,' an offensive nickname for conservatives]."

The exhibition pulled in around 1,000 visitors and many of them suggested the exhibition should be taken on a tour around the country.

Feby then applied for the Cipta Media Ekspresi grant for women in the arts and won Rp 200 million ($13,000) that she will use to host the exhibition in Bandung (West Java) and Mataram and Lombok (West Nusa Tenggara).

She chose the above cities for a reason.

According to a Setara Institute report released in 2015, Bandung was one of the most intolerant cities in Indonesia.

Mataram made it to the same list last year.

The Bandung exhibition was held last month.

Because of the massive earthquake in Lombok in July, the exhibition there that was initially planned for August had to be postponed to the 27th of this month.

Some of the local artists who were going to take part in the exhibition in Lombok also pulled out because they still had to cope with the aftermath of the disaster.

Both these exhibitions feature training sessions for the public to teach them a more relaxed way of discussing and practicing religion.

Feby works with local female artists in each city.

Aside from fostering dialogues on religion, the exhibitions are also meant to empower female artists.

“Most religious figures are men, so female voices are rarely heard. And these aren’t just women, but also artists. They might not be the accepted authority to speak about religion. But as individuals, are we not allowed to respond to religious issues in our own way?" Feby said.

Feby, who is going to appear at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival later this month, said she is writing another short story collection as part of her Relax, It’s Just Religion campaign, set for release in 2019.

The writer, who is now taking her master's degree in Digital Media, Culture and Education at the University College London on a Chevening scholarship, said she is also cooking up another campaign called "Relax, It’s Just Politics" as Indonesians brace for next year’s sure-to-be-heated presidential election.

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