Dina went to a bar. Yes. She went several times to a jazz bar and salsa club in Ghent, Belgium. You might be thinking “so what?,” but you see, Dina is a young Muslim girl from Indonesia and shouldn’t go to these kind of places. They’re considered a place of sin by some Muslims.
I can imagine how a conversation among other Indonesian Muslims would play out if they knew that Dina went to a bar. I know because I grew up in an Islamic environment and in a culture that told us that bars, pubs, and clubs were dirty places and only for bad people who will end up with an irresponsible hangover. Even our television series painted this perception. They neglected to tell us that these places are also fun and a great way to socialise and meet new people.
It is not because Dina is not a practicing Muslim. She prays five times a day. She even fasted for almost 20 hours a day during Ramadhan (the annual ritual of fasting from dawn to sunset that takes place every year) for the last two years when Ramadhan fell in the summer in Belgium.
“It is because I appreciate my friends.” Dina gave me her reason. “Most of my friends are not Muslim. For most of them, this is their first time seeing a girl wear a hijab and they have been trying so hard to understand me. They ask me what is allowed and prohibited in Islam. They have cooked halal food so I can eat. They remind me to wear my hijab when boys are around.”
She continued: “My friends are open to me so I need to be open-minded as well. And anyway, in the bar I talk only. I know that I cannot drink alcohol, so I just drink coke. I don’t dance, so I just sit. My friends appreciate that. It is up to us what we want to do in the bar. It doesn’t have to be like what I saw in the Indonesian tv series”.
I met Dina in September 2014 also in Ghent, Belgium. Both of us are Indonesian, but we never met in Indonesia. We were assigned to live in the same dorm when we started our Master studies at the University of Ghent. Dina, who was living on the tenth floor, two floors below me, studied Biomedical Engineering while I studied Rural Development.
She was just 22. My first impression of her was of a small, shy, and afraid girl. If both of us were in Indonesia, we might not be friends. We are very different. Dina is very religious, quiet, and soft. You’ll likely find her in her room or in the laboratory. On the contrary, my friend told me that I am very gay, outspoken, and extroverted and you’ll likely see me at bars and parties.
“I am labelled as a Muslim,” she said. “But I am much more than one label. I am a daughter, a girl, a friend. A Korean series lover. I am a biomedical engineer. Biomedical engineer is the person who creates tissue or system which support or replace a certain organ function when something goes wrong.”
Studying in Ghent is very important to Dina. The biomedical field is still new in Indonesia, yet is very developed in Europe. She can gain a lot of knowledge from her university studies and learn a lot from her classmates who already have plenty of experience. The fact that she is a girl also proves that education is not a privilege for her.
I later understood why she prefered to stay in her room and always declined my invitation to go jogging. Not because she is only praying, but it is too tiring for Dina to be out all the time and to do exercise. Dina was born with these problems, but she didn’t realise it until she was 21 and could no longer walk.
“There are eight titanium plates planted in my spine to support me to stand up straight and walk. But it was very expensive. It cost around 25 million rupiahs (around 1650 euros). If I can create cheaper artificial organs, I can help a lot of people in Indonesia who also need help like I did.”
In 2013, Dina invented artificial blood vessels to replace ruptured ones. She told me many biomedical experts in Indonesia discouraged her and told her that it was impossible, especially because she was really young and new in the field.
“I got a gold medal in the National Indonesian Student Scientific competition. If we can produce our own blood vessels, we don’t need to import them from abroad. The shipping cost itself is already extremely expensive”.
Of course, a lot of research and clinical examination still needs to be conducted. It’s estimated it will take at least 15 years until the artificial blood vessels can be used within the human body.
“I am glad that I could initiate this research. Now I see many of my juniors motivated to do research that seems impossible.”
“I can understand why some people see Muslims in a certain way. Some of us are very exclusive and very close-minded. Some people don’t have any chance to understand us better.”
She continued: “But to me, I appreciate the diversity. I regret how we, Muslims, often react anarchically if we don’t like something, especially in Indonesia, the biggest Muslim population in the world (though it is not an Islamic state). If Islam is really a peaceful religion, we have a lot of homework to prove it.”
Dina and I began to reflect on the upcoming governor election in Jakarta in February next month. Some voters prefer not to choose one of the candidates because he is not a Muslim, even though he has already showed a great deal of good for the people of Jakarta. Instead, there is a lot of hatred speech against him.
Dina said: “Living as a Muslim in Indonesia is very easy. We have no war, there is always a prayer break, prayer room is everywhere, and during Ramadhan almost everybody is fasting. Sometimes, I think we are spoilt. After living abroad as a minority, I understand how we should be thankful living in Indonesia by appreciating other religions too. If we want to compete, compete with ideas and programs, not by attacking him because of his religion. It is not relevant”
I responded: “It is not only the Muslims, Dina. I think everybody needs to understand and appreciate each other, no matter what their religion is. The first step is maybe to start talking with them, like us now.”