Nyi Seppo, The Madurese Female Educator (Knowing Nyai Siti Maryam)

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ALMOST EVERY day, there are always guests who visit the ndalem. Some just want to meet Mbah Nyai Siti Maryam or Nyi Seppo, which means Nyai Sepuh (after Mbah Kiai Ahmad Jazuli, her husband, Mbah Nyai was the only elder in the boarding house). Some asked for prayer, some asked for advice, some sent students to boarding houses. There are also those graduated students. Mbah Nyai always received all the guests happy, no matter how many people visited or how tired she was. All of them were met with smiling faces and incomparable hospitality. “Kaule sanausa gerre manabi bede tamoy pas sehat rassana. Kaule cek sennenga manggiin tamuy.” said Mbah Nyai in Madurese, which more or less means: “Even when I’m sick when I have guests, I feel like I’ll get better immediately. I love to accompany guests.”

Mbah Nyai never refused anyone who came to visit. All guests are always met and respected, no matter how tired or how busy. She also never discriminated against who the guests were. Distant guests, near guests, rich, poor, male, female, old, young all received the same hospitality.


In Madurese custom, generally, guests who are sowan to the Kiai are usually separated. Male guests are met by men, and female guests are met by women. However, if you go to Mbah Nyai, both male and female, all are accepted by Mbah Nyai, regardless of gender. When asked why she also met male guests and even shook hands with male guests, Mbah Nyai replied that all of them were considered her children, so it was not a barrier for her to meet her own children.

Refusing Early Marriage

I remember well that evening. The weather was so hot, and we had just arrived at our husband’s house in Sumenep (eastern tip of Madura Island) when a group of guests appeared to enter the ndalem. After shaking hands, I went inside, not accompanying the guests. At first, there was faint small talk, asking each other how things were and so on, until then, one of the guests spoke in a low voice to Mbah. Because I didn’t really understand the Madurese language, I asked my husband what the guest said. The husband replied, “It wants to say goodbye to the santri.” I frowned, “Why? Don’t you just want a new school year?” I ask. “Want to get married,” replied the husband briefly.

I was silent. The voice from the living room sounded hazy. Then slowly quiet. In the next second, Mbah Nyai’s firm voice was heard, “Are you getting married? Later, stay overnight, finish the vocational school (which means Vocational High School, equivalent to high school), yes. Only then did you get married.” The group of guests were all silent; no one dared to argue. Everything is sami’na wa atha’na for the dawuh Mbah Nyai.

Immediately after the guests said goodbye, She went inside. She said to my husband, “You will build a college later, son, here, so that the female students will marry later when they are staying and graduating from college.”

In Madura, child marriage is prevalent even today. This is because there are so many factors behind it. First, the economic aspect. Marrying a daughter as early as possible is considered to lighten the family’s economic burden. After marriage, the daughter becomes her husband’s responsibility, especially for families with many children. The release of financial obligations for one child will significantly help the family economy. Sending girls to school is considered not to provide many significant benefits because, after all, she will marry and be brought by her husband after marriage. The important thing is that she can read, write, count, and recite the Koran. Moreover, girls who graduate from pesantren, even though they have just graduated from junior high school, are considered to have enough provisions to become wives. Because they have studied basic fiqh books, such as Fathul Qarib, Fathul Mu’in, and have also studied Qurrotul Uyun as a household provision.

Some families feel it is more important to send their boys to school because the higher the school, the greater the chances of getting a better job. With that, the family can also benefit if the son has sufficient income. Because a son who is already working will definitely help ease his family’s financial burden.

Second, social factors. In the customs of the Madurese community, there is a families habit that wants their ties to be always close. One of the bindings is marriage if they have children of different sexes to be matched (the term is du-jhudu in Madurese). The matchmaking between families is often planned long ago since the child is still very small or still in the womb (the term is tok-ngatok in Madurese).

After the match was agreed upon, the ngobu custom was carried out. The male family was entirely responsible for the woman’s livelihood even though the baby was still red until the wedding day. And, if the matchmaking fails, then the ngobu custom is considered null and void. If it is cancelled, the woman’s family must return all the property received from the man’s family.

Therefore, once the children are born and finally reach puberty, the family generally does not wait long to marry. Delaying marriage from such an arranged marriage is considered risky. The fear that matchmaking will fail is also why these parents hasten to marry off their children.

Women’s Education Warrior

Of course, this does not happen to all families in Madura. Many families have started to think about facilitating their children to get higher education, including their daughters. However, it is undeniable that in the villages, there are still a lot of child marriages. For them, as long as the religious requirements have been met, the wedding can occur. Most of these marriage cases happen to girls. For them, girls who are already menstruating and hatam recite Fathul Mu’in, and Qurrotul Uyun are considered the time to get married.

In Bilapora Timur Village, Sumenep, She is one of the religious leaders who always tries to get girls to get sufficient formal and spiritual education before getting married. Nyai Siti was also the first woman to take the initiative to build a women’s hut in the area 41 years ago. At first, during his pioneering period, only about ten female santri stayed there. Still, the number is actually overtaking the number of santri at the male boarding school established since the period of his grandfather-in-law.

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Nyai Siti Maryam was born in Gadu Timur Village, Ganding District, Sumenep Regency, on 15 Muharram 58 years ago to Kiai Jamaluddin and Nyai Masrurah. The lineage of the father’s line is as follows: Nyai Siti Maryam bint Jamaluddin bin Khazin / Abdul Mu’in bin Murtadho bin Mufid bin Sihhah bin Dzu Limah bin Abdul Karim bin Syish bin Ali Zainal Abidin (Sunan Sandalwood) bin Khatib bin Musa bin Qasim (Sunan Drajat) bin Raden Rahmat (Sunan Ampel). While from the maternal line, the lineage is as follows: Nyai Siti Maryam bint Masrurah bint Tsuwaibah bint Khadijah bint Kiai Mohammad Syarqowi (Founder of the Annuqayah Guluk-Guluk Islamic Boarding School, Sumenep, or better known as Guluk-Guluk Islamic Boarding School only).

When she was born, Nyai Siti’s mother, Nyai Masrurah, said that Nyai Siti would be strong as a leader in the future. Because, according to the Madurese belief, children born on the full moon in the month of Muharram will be strengthened to become a leader. And, it seems that Nyai Masrurah’s words did come true.

Since childhood, Nyai Siti was educated to recite the Koran by her parents, who are also caregivers of the Pesantren Jamalullail. Before finally staying at the Al-Anwar Gadu pesantren, she was raised by her uncles and aunts since 7 years old, namely Kiai Anwar and Nyai Arifah (Nyai Arifah is the younger cousin of Kiai As’ ad Syamsul Arifin Sukorejo, Situbondo, who became one of the founders of Nahdlatul Ulama), until she finally married.

Nyai Siti Maryam married Kiai Ahmad Jazuli bin Thohiruddin at the age of 13, and since then has been living in Bilapora Timur Village, Ganding District, Sumenep Regency and helping Kiai Jazuli take care of the Darussalam Islamic Boarding School. Darussalam pesantren was founded in the 1800s founded by Kiai Harru, Kiai Jazuli’s grandfather. However, since 1961, it was Kiai Ahmad Jazuli who took care of the boarding school.

Initially, the Darussalam Islamic Boarding School only accepted male students. In 1975, thanks to the initiative of Nyai Siti Maryam, the female boarding school was opened. At that time, Mbah Nyai was only 17 years old. And the women’s boarding school became the only women’s boarding school in Bilapora.

As soon as the Darussalam Islamic Boarding School opened the girls’ boarding school, over time, there were a lot of female students who ended up staying there. Most of them are children from the previous period DarussalamPesantren alumni from East Java and Madura and the surrounding community. In fact, there are also female students from West Java and Kalimantan who stay there. The teaching curriculum at the female boarding school focuses on yellow book (“Kitab Kuning“) education. Also, it emphasizes the education of manners and morality.

Even though Nyai Siti was married at 13, she did not want the female students staying at the Darussalam pesantren to marry at such a young age. Especially since Darussalam Pesantren has formal schools after the 90s.

From 1993 until now, Pesantren Darussalam has built traditional schools ranging from PAUD, RA, MI, SMPi, and SMK. The students who stay there generally also attend boarding schools. Previously, children who attended traditional schools were dominated by male students. Still, after constructing traditional schools up to the High School level, almost all female students staying there also attend formal schools.

There are still some guardians of students who think that their daughters only go to junior high school. For such parents, the important thing is that their children can recite the Koran, understand fiqh. After graduating from junior high school, their parents usually say goodbye to them for marriage. In the past, Nyai Siti often had trouble finding reasons to detain female students whose parents wanted to take them home for marriage.

However, after the vocational school construction, She usually detains female students who have just graduated from junior high school and want to be married off by their parents to continue their education. Apart from being too young to marry after graduating from junior high school, She also believes that girls also deserve to have sufficient formal education before marriage. Because who knows, the child also wants to work besides being a housewife. And a higher level of education will help the child to have more choices for his future.

Although usually, the parents of santri object to their children having to continue school and stay again, they also do not dare to oppose Nyi Seppo’s dawuh. So finally, they were “forced” to allow their son to stay in the cottage and postpone the wedding.

Indeed, as a religious leader, every dawuh Nyai Siti must always be listened to by the community. So, when She asked the students who wanted to be married after junior high school to stay again and continue their education at SMK, their parents would also comply. This is a distinct advantage for Nyai Siti. That the power of his words is used to continue to fight for the education of girls.

However, Nyai Siti’s struggle in pursuing the education of her daughters also encountered many obstacles. Moreover, after Kiai Ahmad Jazuli passed away, Nyai Siti had to fight hard to take care of both the boys’ and girls’ cottages. With infrastructure and facilities that are still very limited, Nyai Siti inevitably has to work very hard in continuing her late husband’s struggle.

Unrealized Dreams

Some of her dreams for a female boarding school that have not yet been realized include building a particular prayer room for female students because they still use the RA rooms as temporary prayer rooms for daily activities. She also dreams of equipping them with various skills like sewing, foreign languages, or cooking. And till today, She is still thinking about and trying to figure out how to provide sewing equipment, language laboratories, cooking equipment, and the staff who can teach these skills.

She also dreams that one day, the Darussalam Pesantren will have a university so that the students staying there can also continue their education at University. Especially for female students who mostly do not pay much attention to their formal education by the family. In fact, with higher education, these students can have more choices in the future, for example, if they want to work as teachers or employees.

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In addition to fighting for education for girls, especially girls around the Ganding and Lenteng sub-districts, she also pioneered and revived the NU Muslim organization in Bilapora Village and became an active pioneer of NU Muslimat activities in the two sub-districts. Nyai Siti started as the head of Muslimat NU at 14 and continues to work hard to grow the organization. In addition, she tries to educate NU Muslim women to dare to voice their opinions, lead, and be independent.

Nyai Siti also strongly encourages women’s active role and participation in social, political, and community activities. One of them is by promoting and seeking the election of female village heads in Bilapora. At that time, most of the residents rejected the advancement of Eni Setiasih, a NU Muslimat activist, to become a female village head candidate under her guidance. This is because of the belief that female leaders were not following religious law. There is so much opposition. Moreover, throughout history, there has never been a female village head there before.

Residents of the community were confused by this condition. However, when they were politely asked her about women’s leadership. She actually believed that the most important thing is leading and bringing the community into a better condition, not merely gender. Thus, Nyai Siti’s explanation was finally enough to ease the confusion that occurred in society.

When Eni Setiasih was finally elected village head, tensions did not subside. Many parties do not like the election of Eni Setiasih, who then provoked the residents and brought the issue into the religious conversation; that female leaders are not following religious law. However, once again, this was managed to calm down thanks to Nyai Siti’s firmness in defending and fighting for the position of women’s leadership.

The position of women, which in some areas in Madura is still secondary, does not apply to Nyai Siti’s life. Although she did not receive formal education until college and mostly only struggled with classical books, she was not fluent in Indonesian, but her perspective was quite progressive. She emphasized that Allah created equal human beings, both male and female, and all are entitled to the same fundamental rights without any exceptions. That is why Nyai Siti strongly encourages the fulfilment of the right to education for girls and boys. Even if, in the end, the girls choose to be housewives, at least they get married at an adequate age and have finished high school and completed their boarding school.

Although the reasons stated by Nyai Siti regarding her refusal to marry children can be said to be very simple. She is not familiar with sexual and reproductive health issues and the health effects in girls who marry at a young age. Still, her refusal against child marriage concerning women’s education is quite encouraging. The awareness that education for women is as important as education for men has sparked and created greater expectations, especially for the community around the Darussalam Islamic boarding school, Bilapora.

It is undeniable that the establishment of a women’s hut in Bilapora village and the number of girls who eventually study and go to vocational school in the area are more or less the fruit of her struggles.

Nyai Siti herself can even be said to be a pioneer of female ulama leaders in Bilapora Village. After the death of Kiai Ahmad Jazuli in 2004, Nyai Siti has taken care of the Darussalam Pesantren until now. She is the one who leads the management of both the boys’ and girls’ cottages. And she may be the only female caregiver at the Islamic boarding school in the area. On various occasions, she also often leads tahlil or istighosah in Madura, Banyuwangi, Jember, Lumajang, Ponorogo, with congregations for women and men.

Even though Nyai Siti is getting older, her activities have not diminished at all. In addition to taking care of the boarding school students, she is also still actively managing the NU Muslim organization and several activities. For example, she also founded the Darussalam Pesantren’s alumni organization, which became a forum for all alumni spread across various regions in Indonesia to keep them stay in touch.

For Nyai Siti, the community, alumni, and students are like her own family. All are considered as children who need to be nurtured and loved. And the surrounding community treats Nyai Siti like their own parents. They came in droves to her to share their complaints, problems, and anything. Perhaps this is what also made Nyai Siti think deeply about society, especially in education.

Female Cleric Role Model

Her persistence in educating students and the community has been an inspiration to many people, including several alumni of both male and female students who make Nyai Siti a role model in their lives. Many of the santri alumni who eventually founded the pesantren and took care of the boarding school followed the methods indirectly exemplified by Nyai Siti. The Islamic boarding schools are scattered around Madura to East Java, especially Jember and Banyuwangi. The hope is that Nyai Siti’s struggle in fighting for education for everyone, not only for men but also for women, can be imitated by her family, students, alumni, and community. And may she be given health and a long life full of blessings to realize her dreams in the world of student education.

*This article won 1st place in the Writing Competition of Ulama Perempuan: Their Role and Gait in Society in the Feature/Profile category organized by Rahima, Fahmina, and Alimat in the framework of the 2016 Indonesian Ulama Perempuan Congress.


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