Muslimahs Speak Up

By Liezel Longboan

JAKARTA – “You should wear a jilbab (headscarf), otherwise your hair will be burned in hell.” That is what Nong Darol Mahmada remembers her grandmother telling her as a little girl growing up in her father’s pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Banten province, about 30 kms from Jakarta.

Out of fear of having her hair go up in flames, and also out of love for her grandmother, Mahmada wore a jilbab all throughout her childhood and teen years, and even when she was already in university in Jakarta. Mahmada had decided to take up theology, majoring in tafsir (interpreting the Koran) at the Universitas Islam Negeri (UIN, State Islamic University). In her sophomore year, however, she says she learned that the Koran does not require women to wear a jilbab.

The issue about jilbabs would later lead Mahmada to rethink what she had been told about her faith. Now 31, Mahmada is among a growing number of Muslim women activists who are seeking to understand Islam from an Indonesian woman’s perspective.  Indeed, in the midst of various socio-political debates now taking place in Indonesia, Muslimahs – as Muslim women are called here – are speaking up and calling for discussions on Islam where their voices will be heard.

Multi-faith, multi-cultural – these are how many Indonesians describe their country.  Although Muslims make up 85 percent of Indonesia’s 220 million people, it is not an Islamic country, says women’s rights activist Lily Munir.  While the Indonesian constitution asserts a belief in One God, it does not adopt Islam as a state religion. Thus, Indonesia is neither a secular nor an Islamic state.

But the last few years have seen certain changes in the way Islamic teachings are being interpreted in the world’s largest democracy, and some Muslim women’s rights advocates now see the increasing call for a stricter interpretation of their faith as a threat to their rights, as well as those of non-Muslims.

As many Indonesian women – who make up 51 percent of the country’s population — see it, conservative and fundamentalist Muslims are undermining their generally dynamic role. Komnas Perempuan (National Commission on Violence Against Women), an independent government body, itself says, “Radical Islamist groups propose an alternative vision of women’s role in society, one that is considered ‘more Islam’ than the conventional, mainstream roles currently in practice in the general Indonesian society.”  Put another way, the ultraconservatives want to prescribe how a Muslimah should dress and define the kinds of roles she can assume in both public and private life.

Stricter rules for women

“It is difficult to be a Muslim woman not only here in Indonesia,  but in all Islamic countries because of competing interpretations of Islam in the Muslim world,” observes Mahmada, currently the program manager and one of the founding members of Liberal Islamic Network (Jaringan Islam Liberal, JIL).

She confesses that like many other Muslimahs, she is worried about the rising support for fundamentalism, which she defines as a literal and strict interpretation of Islam. Her organisation is at the forefront of providing fresh perspectives on Islam, often clashing with that of conservative ulamas (Muslim scholars).

But she says, “The biggest challenge now for women is the implementation of Shari’ah (or Islamic) law.”

At present, Shari’ah law is imposed in Aceh province, a predominantly Muslim province in northern Indonesia,  and Tangerang district in Banten province. Mahmada observes that if a local government implements Shari’ah law, women are always the first to feel its effect:  they are made to wear the jilbab.

In Aceh, the abandonment of civilian law has also meant requiring Muslimahs follow a curfew, and observe proper Muslim attire (no tight-fitting clothes), among other things. An unamused Mahmada, however, says while shaking her head, “That women use the jilbab is the government’s indicator of success in implementing Shari’ah law.”

Munir, meanwhile, says that over 10 districts and provinces have indicated their desire to adopt Shari’ah law, including Cianjur, Garut, Tasikmalaya, Indramayu, Banten, South Sulawesi, Riau, Ternate, Gorontalo, Pamekasan, and West Sumatra.  But she asserts,  “Shari’ah law cannot give justice as it is imposed from above.  It is rigid as it is based only on one interpretation. You discriminate (against) others if you impose it.”

“Porno-action” as an “offence”

As it is, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are already up in arms over a controversial proposal that is now in Parliament: an anti-pornography bill that seeks to ban not only pornographic materials, but also porno-aksi, or porno-action, a new “offence” that includes wearing revealing outfits and dancing erotically.

In Bahasa Indonesia, the proposed bill is known as Rancangan Undang-Undang Anti-Pornografi dan Pornoaksi, or RUU APP. First introduced in Parliament in 1999, the bill was reintroduced in February 2006 by legislators from Islamic political parties, including the Justice and Prosperous Party (PKS), a small but popular conservative party that explicitly promotes Islamic ideology.

One of the strongest endorsers of the bill is the Indonesian Ulama Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI), the highest Islamic body that issues fatwa or religious decrees for the Muslim faithful. About 1,000 ulamas of the MUI approved a fatwa on May 28, 2006 endorsing the immediate passage of the bill.

But Maria Ulfah, chair of the Fatayat NU, notes that, among other things, the provisions of the bill seem to be targetting women, forbidding them from showing parts of their body, and even from doing traditional dances such as dangdut.  “There is so much pressure on women,” says Ulfah, who has graduate degrees in Women’s Studies and Islamic Law, both from the University of Indonesia.

Fatayat is the young women’s wing of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia with some 40 million members, mostly from the rural areas. Fatayat has issued a statement rejecting the bill and is part of Aliansi Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity Alliance), a network made up of women’s and human-rights groups opposed to the proposed law.

“Is it possible for somebody to monitor people’s every move?” asks Indira Tyas, a 24-year-old Muslimah. The graduate student at Gadja Mada University, Indonesia’s oldest state university, adds, “Even if we cover up ourselves but we imagine other things, then that would still be a problem.”
Observers have pointed out that apart from putting pressure on women to cover up, the bill has an apparent disregard for Indonesia’s diverse culture and religions. Says Ulfah: “We have many ethnic groups, cultures, and customs here in Indonesia.”
Strong opposition against the bill has come from Bali, Indonesia’s top tourist destination, where majority of the population are Hindus.  Artists, journalists, Christians, and human-rights advocates have also voiced out their opposition to the bill.

“This is frightening,” a female journalist who would rather remain anonymous says of the bill. She says that the debate over RUU APP is not just about respect for culture and religion, but even goes to the core of freedom of expression itself.

Arina Manasikana, 24, also disagrees with the provisions of the RUU APP. A textbook writer for secondary schools in Yogyakarta, she considers Islam her ideology. But she says the RUU APP does not accommodate diversity, even though Islam itself is tolerant of other faiths and cultures.  Yet other observers have noted that in places like Aceh, there have even been calls to apply Shari’ah to non-Muslims as well.

Unenlightened kyais?

Munir traces much of the ultraconservative interpretations of Islam in the country to present-day kyais or teachers, who run the Islamic schools or pesantrens.  “Most of them are patriarchal.  They read the Koran textually.  There is not enough enlightenment,” she explains.

Herself the daughter of a kyai, Munir is the founder and executive director of the Center for Pesantren and Democracy Studies (CEPDES), a Jakarta-based non-government organisation that aims to promote a “socially engaged, democratic and progressive understanding of Islam” among ulamas and santris (students in pesantrens).

Munir credits her parents, particularly her father, for her liberal upbringing.  Her father was one of the first Indonesian ulamas to establish a girls’ pesantren in 1948. Munir says,  “Both of my parents were very modern and very gender-sensitive. My father never distinguished between girls and boys in terms of education. That was what shaped me until I grew up and got married.”

As CPDS executive director, Munir works to promote a democratic culture in pesantrens. She says there is lack of democracy in these institutions due to taqlid, or blind adoption and imitation of traditional legal decisions.  Munir says that often, kyais lecture and the students just listen and passively submit.  Thus, one of CPDS’s concerns is how to promote critical thinking in pesantrens so that santris can think critically about social issues.

People’s understanding of Islam is largely influenced by culture, she says. She cites a local saying that goes,  “If your husband goes to hell, you follow him to hell.  If he goes to heaven, you follow him to heaven.”  The saying, which underlines the woman’s subservience to her man, is based on Javanese culture, not on Islam, according to Munir.

“Our culture is patriarchal, but Islam is a woman-liberating religion,” Munir stresses.  She says there are 30 sections in the Koran that talk about equality between women and men. “The problem,” she says, “is that Muslims look at the text and not the context of the time the text was written.”

Munir says that the practice of Islam in Indonesia is different from that in the Middle East, where the faith traces its origins.  She says Islam came to Indonesia without bloodshed, mainly because the Arab merchants who brought Islam adapted to the local culture.  “There is a very high mingling of local culture with Islam in Indonesia,” she says.

JIL’s Mahmada, for her part, says, “Right now, there are some groups who want to make Indonesia an Arab country and domesticate women.” She says that while Arab women have no role in society, Indonesian women can do many things.

Like Munir, Mahmada has a kyai for a father. Her involvement with JIL has raised the ire of other kyais, who have told her father that JIL’s philosophy is too dangerous for Islam.  ”They said our ideas are too liberal, no longer Islam,” she says.  But she is grateful that most kyais belonging to Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) are open-minded and inclusive.  Her father is a member of the NU.

For all her frustrations over interpretations of her faith, Mahmada, like many other Muslimahs, says Islam remains an essential part of her life — something that will never change even as she and other Indonesian Muslim women clamour for a new understanding of Islam.  Mahmada says she remains committed to her faith. “I am the person I am now because of my study of Islam,” she says.  “I see it as liberal and able to empower me as a woman…It is a map and a guide.”

El Baroroh, a writer for JIL, also believes that most Muslims in Indonesia remain moderate.  “Islam is not the solution for all our problems,” she also says.  “It’s not about rituals, it’s how you live it.”

Liezel Longboan is a freelance writer from the Philippines. She contributes to the Women’s Features Service.