They are no Westernised feminists but they see themselves as equal to men and with the right to build a better Indonesia.
WHAT is it about the way Islam is taught and practised in Indonesia that over 500 women religious leaders could come together to issue fatwas declaring child marriage and sexual violence as haram? And to assert themselves as ulama with the authority and right to advance justice and equality as a common good for ALL?
And if that is not mind-boggling enough, this first national congress of women ulama (KUPI – Kongres Ulama Perempuan Indonesia) was supported by the Ministry of Religion and the State Islamic Institute of Cirebon. The Minister of Religion himself, Lukman Hakim Saefuddin, closed the event together with Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Hemas, a Member of the Regional Representative Council (second chamber of Parliament), and wife of the widely respected Sultan and Governor of Jogjakarta, both known as supporters of women’s rights.
And to top it all, it was held in a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in a village in Cirebon that was led by a woman, Nyai Masriyah Amva, who declared on stage that she was a feminist and a pluralist who embraced all of God’s creations in all their diversity – to the cheers of the crowd. The group of us from Malaysia and a few other international activists and academics were gobsmacked. We all had tears in our eyes at the closing event to see the compassion and justice of Islam upheld by these hundreds of grassroots women, most of whom don’t speak a word of English and who probably have not even been to Jakarta, let alone leave their country.
These are no Westernised feminists. They are grassroots religious leaders and teachers who confidently declared they are equal to men, and as citizens of Indonesia they have a right and duty to build a better nation and a better people, be it at the personal, family, community or national levels.
Like male ulama, they too are the heirs of the Prophet (pewaris Nabi), they pronounced, and it is their duty to end all forms of cruelty among humans, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, group or gender. They declared their right to undertake this responsibility based on interpretations of the Texts of Islam and the public interest, and their right to spread their understandings of Islam that are relevant to their times and circumstances.
While here in our beloved homeland, we are making news because we have political and religious leaders who support the right of a rapist to marry his rape victim, the right of Zakir Naik to live and preach freely and be rewarded with permanent residence status and titles and land to build his ideological factory, the right of Muslims to have their hands and feet cut off and to be lashed and stoned to death according to Hudud law, the women ulama of Indonesia are making world news that a compassionate, empowering Islam exists to protect and promote women’s rights.
So what is it that the Indonesians got right and we got so wrong? There are many reasons of course why the Islam dominant within Indonesian society, and within its government, is far more open and progressive than in Malaysia. Several facts matter.
First, Islam in Indonesia developed largely independent of state authority. The existence of the independent pesantren tradition and two mass-based Muslim organisations, the Nahdhlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah with tens of millions of followers across the archipelago provided spaces and platforms where belief, scholarship and activism developed, rooted to the needs and aspirations of the people at the community level. It was not an Islam that served the interest of the political masters. The military and the political elites of Indonesia like Malaysia’s founding fathers too were determined to keep political Islam at bay, seeing it as potentially divisive within a plural society of diverse religious and ethnic groups. This meant institutionalisation of the religion was also kept at bay in Indonesia.
Second, Indonesians, I believe are far more confident, proud and rooted in their culture, tradition and identity as Indonesians and as Javanese, Malays, Madurese, Sundanese, Minangkabau, Bugis and the myriad ethnic groups of the archipelago.
The likes of renowned Islamic scholars such as the late Abdurrahman Wahid and Nurcholish Madjid believed in democracy and pluralism and played critical and influential roles in shaping the growth of a progressive discourse on Islam in Indonesia. The many pesantren graduates I know confidently proclaim their opposition to any idea of an Islamic state with syariah supremacy. When I ask why, their ready and confident answer is that Indonesia is a plural society.
With an Islamic state, only one understanding of Islam becomes the Truth and is adopted as state law to which everyone must comply with. This denies the plurality of the Islamic tradition, but more importantly denies the plurality of Indonesia and the diverse ways Islam is practised there. Thus an ideological Islamic state with Islamic law, they proclaimed, would lead to totalitarian rule.
Third, the teaching of Islam in the state Islamic universities and institutes throughout the provinces underwent rounds of curriculum reform to deal with the challenge of modernity. In the 1970s, Harun Nasution as the Rector of the State Islamic Institute (now university) in Jakarta, led the first major reform process that set the foundation for a rational and holistic approach to Islamic studies that today dominate the Indonesian state Islamic education system.
He believed Islam should be taught from all perspectives and not just the traditional fiqh, ibadat, tawhid approach. He introduced philosophy, theology, mysticism, law and law reform, and rational thinking. He introduced the seminar method of teaching to encourage students to discuss topics freely and think critically.
This led to the growth of a new tradition of diskusi (discussion) groups set up in the pesantren and the Islamic Institutes and wherever Indonesian students congregated overseas. They would discuss the latest book or article that generated interest and would invite visitors and travelers to share knowledge and experience with them. I have had the pleasure of being invited to many of these diskusi groups, where students were so eager to hear about Malaysia, Islam and politics.
In later years, other Rectors introduced further reform in the belief that Islam must be taught with other branches of knowledge, in particular the humanities in order to grapple with modernity. To only teach the classical texts is to produce intolerant, obscurantist ulama who cannot provide solutions to modern day problems, said Amin Abdullah, a former Rector of the State Islamic University in Jogjakarta.
As early as 1994, he introduced a course on Gender and Contemporary Thought in Islam. The works of feminist scholars such as Amina Wadud and Fatima Mernissi were translated into Bahasa Indonesia and used in the curriculum. Even the early letters to the editor and Question and Answer booklets of Sisters in Islam on issues such as equality, polygamy, domestic violence, were used in classroom discussions on contemporary feminist debates.
Gender studies was integrated into the teaching of kalam (theology), fiqh (jurisprudence), and tasawuf (spirituality). A gender studies unit was set up to train the lecturers of the state Islamic institute system in gender as a category of thought that must be integrated into all branches of knowledge.
Fourth, many of the graduates of the pesantren and state Islamic institute network were at the forefront of the democracy movement to overthrow the Suharto regime. They were in the streets protesting against authoritarian rule and demanding democracy, human rights, women’s rights and justice.
This, they said, forced them to think through how this new language to overthrow an oppressive state could be reconciled with Islam. They began to work with women’s rights and human rights activists and NGOs to develop training manuals to bring the new language of rights and democracy into the pesantren.
This effort to bridge the gap between traditional knowledge and new knowledge produced an understanding of Islam, they claimed, that was transformative, democratic and gender inclusive, and provided answers to the social and political realities of the time.
As the famous Kyai Hussein Mohammed, one the first ulama converts to the cause of women’s rights in Indonesia said, the gender training he underwent forced him to find a way to reconcile between his belief in a God that is just and the discrimination women suffered.
Today, Kyai Hussein leads the Fahmina Institute for Religious Studies in Cirebon (besides his own pesantren), producing the next generation of feminist male and female religious leaders.
Thus what happened at Nyai Masriyah’s pesantren was the culmination of decades of reform in how Islam is taught in Indonesia and the hard work of women’s rights activists who introduced gender training into the pesantren and the network of state Islamic institutes and universities.
The Islam they learnt and imbibed is an Islam that is compassionate that should serve the interest of the community in which they are embedded. They see with their own eyes the harmful effects of child marriage and sexual violence.
Gender training gave them the language and analysis to understand and recognise the harm caused. They then used Islamic principles to declare such harmful practices as against the teachings of Islam, and therefore it is incumbent upon the authorities and the community to take steps to stop such practices. Not one woman ulama mentioned the fact that Prophet Muhammad married Aishah at the supposed age of nine. That was simply not an issue for them.
Contrast this to the kind of debate in Malaysia where professors with PhDs from western universities appear on television to defend child marriage as Islamic, conveniently ignoring the fact that the Prophet’s first wife Khadijah was 15 years older than him, and shamelessly ignoring all documented evidence of the harmful effects of child marriage.
This is what happens when Islam is used as a political ideology and a source of identity against a constructed enemy; then what emerges is what the Indonesians call “Islam keras”, hardline Islam.
Many radical “Islam keras” groups of course have emerged in Indonesia since the overthrow of the Suharto regime, using religion to demonise, attack and mobilise against those opposed to their call for an Islamic state and syariah rule.
My Indonesian friends are of course worried with the recent mobilisation and guilty verdict against the outgoing Governor of Jakarta on blasphemy charges that many believe are politically motivated. But at the same time, the Jokowi government has banned the radical Hizbut Tahrir which calls for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, accusing the hardline group of activities and pronouncements in violation of Pancasila principles and the 1945 Constitution.
Just as in Malaysia, there is in Indonesia, too, a public contestation between social forces supporting a hardline Islam and those that believe in an Islam of equality, justice and compassion.
But the big difference is that in the largest Muslim country in the world, the progressive Islamic scholarship that dominates the religious education system, and the resilience and confidence among those in government and in religious authority, among the leadership (male and female) of Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, and among the graduates of the pesantren and State Islamic universities and institutes, stand them in good stead that it is their belief in a compassionate and just Islam within a plural Indonesia that will prevail.