Implementing religion in our daily lives is challenging because different people have different values. Many religious authorities in Indonesia promote peace. However, some religious groups have used religion as justification for violence.
The same can be seen with regard to women’s rights. On the one hand, religion is used to protect women’s rights in many Muslim countries, while in countries like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, women’s rights are restricted using religious justifications.
Do these religious policies for women reflect women’s voices? To find out it is necessary for women to raise their voices and weigh in on issues of women’s rights and religious jurisprudence.
Indonesia’s first Congress of Women Ulema should continue the spirit advocating women’s rights in Indonesia. Last month, a women’s long march was held in Jakarta along with similar marches in other nations.
Following Kartini Day on April 21, which commemorates a national heroine for womens’ rights, the first Congress of Women Ulema is to be held in Cirebon, West Java on April 25 to 27. It is to reflect the strong desire of many gender practitioners and scholars to fight injustice and stand for equality.
The congress would be crucial to solve many problems that women face. Just take the reports in mid-April on Aghnia Adzkia, an Indonesian student who had graduated from the University of London who was ordered by Italian immigration officials in an airport to take off her hijab.
Some said there is nothing wrong with proving that the woman was a regular passenger and not a terrorist, but this policy, particularly the way it has been implemented by many Western countries, has become a sensitive issue because the hijab is seen as an individual right for women. No one should force a woman to take off her head scarf.
Facing that assault by a sovereign state is a dilemma for many Muslim women in Indonesia and abroad.
How should women deal with that kind of situation? Is it justifiable to take off their head scarves under certain conditions? Who is eligible to recommend a solution?
We need an authority that could recognize the procedure to follow and provide a justification for women’s actions — the voice of women ulema is one such necessary source.
A recent survey by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Indonesia found that onethird of Indonesian women have faced physical or sexual violence. Indonesia was ranked 88th out of 144 countries in the world in the gender gap index, which is worrying as it is the world’s fourthmost populated country.
This means Indonesia measured poorly for women’s economic participation, education and political empowerment. There are about 111 million Muslim women in Indonesia out of a total population of 260 million, according to the 2016 data of the Indonesian Demographic Profile.
This shows that in building solidarity with many women organizations and helping women to be empowered, women ulema could help half of the country. Their recommendations could help empower women, especially those isolated by government, private companies, or communities.
Recently, 91 bylaws were issued with a “sharia nuance” that restrict women’s involvement in public or private spheres, adding to previous bylaws.
These policies, such as curfews, dress rules, virginity tests, and marriage constraints for religious minorities, must be followed by the citizens under their jurisdiction.
For those citizens, their first question must be what ijma or qiyas (Islamic jurisprudence) did local governments refer to when they created these policies? Local governments shouldn’t be creating sharia for women on an ad hoc basis and with opaque decision-making processes.
The restriction of women in public and private spheres using religious justifications must be discussed critically on a national level. It is hard to understand the impact of these policies on women’s rights without the religious oversight of a national body like that of the women ulema.
Institutionally, a forum of women ulema could initiate the dialogue and cooperate with government, such as the Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry and local governments. This dialogue is necessary to develop mutual understanding and create rules based on gender sensitivity.
Through a gender sensitivity framework, a forum or body of women ulema is needed to encourage the reconciliation of Islam with human rights. Islam and the human rights discourse don’t negate each other.
This can be seen in the pro-human rights stance of international Islamic organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Ruhaini Dzuhayatin, the Indonesian member of the OIC’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission, explained that she encountered doubts from Islamic fundamentalist groups about a human rights approach in Indonesian law.
Before the commission was formed, some fundamentalists didn’t recognize human rights in Islam. The Commission, however, has been successful in convincing fundamentalists that Islam acknowledges human rights.
The upcoming congress of the women ulema must be an impartial body for all Indonesian Islamic communities. We hope this initiative will make a great impact on women’s lives and make women’s issues a focal point, not only in Indonesia, but also worldwide.
The writer is a research and program associate of the Study Center for Religion and Democracy (PUSAD) Paramadina in Jakarta. (Fini Rubianti)