Diary of A Questioning Girl, part 1

(This piece first appeared in Kill Your Darlings magazine.)


I was never afraid of the dark. As a toddler I lay awake in bed watching tree branches outside my window, conjuring tales of witches with twisted claws reaching through the glass.

When afraid, think of God, my parents said.

The Indonesian word for God is Tuhan. The Indonesian word for demon is Hantu.

God is watching you, always, although you can’t see Him.

Like a demon, I thought.

On the tree I saw a blue-furred owl with horns and glowing eyes watching over me. The Indonesian term for owl is Burung Hantu, demon bird.

Pelangi Pelangi Ciptaan Tuhan, other children sang. Pretty Rainbow Made by God.

Pelangi Pelangi Ciptaan Tuhantu, I sang.

‘TUHAN!’ said Mama.

‘TUHANTU!’ I insisted.

Whenever I thought of God, I saw my blue-furred guardian blinking its golden eyes.


All night angels rain curses on a woman who refuses her husband’s advances, my Islamic teacher at elementary school said.

Did your wife refuse your advances last night? I wanted to ask.

But good girls don’t challenge their teachers. Good girls do as they’re told. Good girls pray five times a day and read the Quran daily.

Eliza is such a good girl, she’s our favorite grandchild. She’s our favorite niece.


Growing up, my role model was Aunt T. She was the only woman among ten siblings who earned a university degree, drove her own car, and she achieved her dreams of becoming an ambassador. Moreover, whereas my father blew up and made everyone stressed whenever we were stuck in traffic, Aunt T. told jokes, played games, and made the best of the gridlock. I wanted to grow up just like her.

After she’d returned from her diplomatic post in Paris, I stayed over at her house. In her bedroom I saw on the wall a painting of a naked woman on a pink sofa.

Nude paintings are a sin, I’d often heard.

I didn’t know how to tell her. I didn’t want her to go to hell.

If you pray using someone else’s praying mat, you are giving that person this much pahala – which is the points you need to get into heaven.

Nine-year-old me did the math – how often I needed to pray using her mat to offset her having the painting. From then on I’d spend my weekends at her place, I promised myself. I’d read from her Quran. I’d pray behind her as often as possible, multiplying her pahala by 27 each time.

As I lay down to sleep, the naked woman’s eyes gleamed like my blue-furred owl’s. 


I asked Mama why another one of my aunts wore hijab.

‘She believes that hair is part of her aurat and she shouldn’t show it to just anyone,’ she said.

‘And we don’t believe that?’

‘No, we don’t.’

I asked her why an uncle kept having children after already having four daughters.

‘He believes birth control brings more harm than good,’ she said.

‘And we don’t?’

‘Birth control has brought our family so much good.’

From her, I learned that even within our family, there are different ways to practice Islam and still get along fine; that it’s all right to have a Christian best friend; that you can’t judge someone based on their religion or their clothes. I’d learned these values before I understood the meaning of my prayers or the Quranic verses that I read. Yet we credit religion for shaping our morality and everything that’s good in us.


My teacher told us the story of Musa and the pharaoh:

The Red Sea closed in on him, the pharaoh was drowning, and he saw the truth of Musa’s God and struggled to utter the words that would get him into heaven: La ila ha illallah. There is no God but Allah. But God wouldn’t let him off that easily. He sent waves over the pharaoh each time he tried to say the sentence, so that he could only let out, La ila. There is no God. He drowned and his soul is condemned to hell.

Surely if God would like to send the pharaoh to hell, he could still do so even if he’d said the sentence, couldn’t He? Or is God too virtuous, too good to break a promise He’d made? I thought. Or perhaps God, in all His wisdom, knows that the pharaoh did not really repent, but only wanted to save himself and thus condemns him to hell.

And what about us who perform good deeds not for the sake of doing what’s right, but because we want to go to heaven?

Don’t you think God knows?


With the blessings of Allah the All Powerful, we the Indonesian people hereby declare our independence.

Each Monday, during the flag-raising ceremony, students take turns reciting the preamble of the Constitution in front of the entire school. When the task fell on a Muslim student, there was no problem. Christians students pronounced Allah in a slightly different way. When the task fell on a Hindu or Buddhist student, however, there was a pause. Some barely whispered the name and moved on.

One kid changed the word ‘Allah’ into the neutral ‘Tuhan’.

He was the bravest kid I knew.


Before leaving for the US on an undergraduate scholarship, I went to the mosque and recorded the call to prayer. It turned out I didn’t need to – my university was very progressive, there was a Muslim student association and an imam on campus.

I went to Eid celebration on campus, but was disappointed that women and men had to take turns eating. It was never like that in Jakarta.

I was ready to lose my virginity to a Pakistani student who did oral sex but refused to have intercourse, then I broke to pieces when I saw him pray. I felt dirty and sinful.

In Indonesia, your religion is your tribe. I was often told to side with “our Muslim brethren”—no matter what the roots or nuances of a conflict, always sympathize with “our brethren”.

At this time, the person who understood me most, whom I considered a member of my brethren above everyone else, was singer-songwriter Tori Amos. I finally found someone who spoke the rage I felt inside – I too thought my Good Book was missing some pages, I too felt I had been everybody else’s girl but my own. And it felt good to know that the repression I felt, the yearning to burst through, wasn’t solely the product of my Indonesian environment or Muslim upbringing. Tori was raised in an American, Christian household, yet our hearts sang similar songs.

I imagined she and I punching out of our boxes and holding each other’s hands.


I traveled to a French village to attend my mother’s friend’s wedding, and some of the guests took issues with my saying no to pork but yes to wine. ‘Isn’t it a little hypocritical?’ they asked.

‘You have children outside marriage, but you still go to church. Isn’t it a little hypocritical?’ I wish I’d found my voice then.

If they’d replied, ‘We’re not devout, we only go to church for weddings’, I’d say, ‘and Muslims are not allowed to not be devout?’

If they’d said, ‘That’s very common in France’, I’d say, ‘You don’t meet many Muslims, do you?’


‘Lucky we were born in Indonesia, not the Middle East,’ my sister once said. ‘We’re blessed with Islam, but we can wear whatever we want, we can work, and go anywhere without a male relative.’

Ten years later – after the rise of extremist groups and Saudi-funded study programs in Indonesia, after a flurry of Islamophobia in the US and Europe, after she’d married a man whose religious practice is based on obedience to rituals rather than common sense – she doesn’t work anymore, she called me a kafir for not covering my hair, she said it was all right to ban Muslims from pubs, because ‘it’s for their own good’.

A few years before she married, she asked if she could come live with me. Our father had become verbally abusive and she couldn’t live with him anymore. Our mother had found a job abroad. I’d just graduated from college and was renting a room of my own, immersing myself in sex and drugs – I didn’t want the responsibility of caring for a teenager.

I should’ve been there for her the way my mother was for me.

It’s the biggest regret of my life.


It pains me to write this, but I must. I know I broke your heart. I know you pray to God every night to bring me back into His light. I know our relatives accused you of being a bad mother, letting your daughter go astray. Please forgive me.

You may think I stopped believing because you let me study in the States, or because I was lazy or too weak to resist temptations, such as sex and alcohol. I need you to know my reasons.

There was a time I needed to examine everything I’d been taught. I needed to do it if I was to save my life, if I didn’t want to feel sinful all the time just because I was born a girl, just because I wanted to experience everything that life had to offer. I was told that eventually God would forgive all sins, except the sin of doubting Him. For weeks I walked around dreading that I’d see nothing but hellfire the moment I took off the glasses through which I’d viewed the world for as long as I could remember.

But I needed to look beyond doctrines to figure out how I should live, if I could practice the religion in a way that is aligned with my values of freedom and equality, and I needed to free myself from the fear of sinning when doing so.

After I stopped seeing the world through religion’s lens, I revisited the story of Musa and thought it was understandable that the pharaoh considered himself a god. He, and his fathers before him, were raised to think he was. Never once did an Islamic teacher tried to make us understand why the antagonists in the stories of the prophets became that way. As children we were told simply that the pharaoh was the enemy because he didn’t believe in our God. Little was mentioned that he enslaved people because they were of a different race. When it was mentioned, it was framed as originating from the primary evil of not believing in our God.

I can understand why today in Indonesia so many Muslims view others based on their God, not their actions; why so many believe that one’s good deeds don’t matter if they don’t believe in the right God.

Do you really think I’m lost?

When my plane takes off I still whisper Bismillahir rahmanir rahim. But faith is like a mirror, and mine is cracked into a thousand pieces.


My memories of Ramadan and Eid have always been happy. As a child I couldn’t wait to practice fasting. The first time, I was eight or nine and fasted until 10 am. The next year I fasted until noon. I felt proud whenever I could complete a full day of fasting. Nearing Eid, my parents took me shopping for a new dress, we cooked ketupat, semur, sambal goreng, kari kambing, and so much more.

This year during Ramadan I read Taqwacore by Michael Muhammad Knight – a novel about Muslim punks. I thought, maybe there is a way that I can still practice Islam.

In that novel, we see women leading Friday prayers, we hear a story of Aisyah standing up to the Prophet Muhammad, we see people reciting Quran to rock music – conversations and practices that I need to see happen in my community. And all the characters in that novel proudly proclaim themselves Muslims.

I’ve known people like the novel’s characters – they were my friends and lovers. But we always felt inferior to our more conservative friends. We promised to reform when we get older. We deferred to conservative ulamas for guidance. Now I’ve met bold, outspoken Muslims who present inclusive and empowering religious views, yet how many are recognized and accepted as leaders in our communities?

There’s so much resistance to religious reinterpretations, but we don’t help things if we feel we are less worthy, less fit to be leaders than our more conservative peers.

When will we – when will I – get over this inferiority complex and rise to lead?


After my grandmother died, I thought of death a lot.

In my final moments, as the waves loom over me, will I succumb to the fear of the unknown and whisper La ila ha illallah, just to be safe?

Perhaps God will choke me before I could finish the sentence, the way He did Musa’s pharaoh. Perhaps He’d know I was only saying it as an insurance policy and He’d gather my ashes from the dolphin sanctuary where they’ve been spread, and torture me anyway.

He’d discount all the points I’d collected by living as well as I believed, for losing faith at the last minute in how I’d decided to live my life, for thinking that God could be manipulated so easily.

I could say a thousand La ila ha illallah and it wouldn’t matter.

Or, will God understand the weakness of His creation and forgive me?


Either civilizations perish before they become advanced enough to create lifelike simulations, or they become advanced enough but choose not to, or we live inside a simulation, say some scientists. One advanced civilization can create billions of simulations, therefore the odds are overwhelmingly on the side that we are living inside a simulation – a game in an alien kid’s computer.

A kid with blue furs and golden eyes.

Perhaps, after he simulates the end of the world, he would revive us, line us up and judge us. When my turn comes, he’d say, You didn’t obey me.

I’d look at him and it would all make sense. Why many rules seemed arbitrary, egocentric, unfair, cruel; or why sometimes I felt the universe was watching over me and other times I felt completely abandoned. Perhaps in those times, he had to get up and pee or do his homework. After all, he is just a child.

Or perhaps he’d say, You didn’t really understand me. You didn’t interpret my words with enough compassion! How could you think I’d want my creations to do such cruel things!

He’d toss me into another simulation – a red world with spiky red hills awash with red clouds.

Standing tall as flames soar before her, the resurrected woman remembers that she used to be me on earth, but I wonder, in that new simulation, she may have my memories but does she still have my soul? Will I feel her pain or will I already be at peace?

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