Women and Islam in Contemporary Indonesia


Painting by AHMED ABUSHARIAA, Sudan

In this article, Dr. Dina Afrianty analyses how both global and local Islamic voices are being increasingly channelled into democratic politics. In a context where Indonesian women are underrepresented in politics, she highlights the need to lead the battle for equality on several fronts by influencing both political processes and the forms in which Islam is expressed in public forums.

Today’s Indonesia is going through challenging times as the country observes the resurgence of public Islam. In the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Islam has become the main frame of reference for Indonesian society to reflect upon socio-cultural and political issues. When Indonesia embarked on its democratic reform in 1998, Muslim feminists and female activists had high hopes that gender equality, freedom of choice and tolerance would become the key principles driving Indonesia’s development. Women were indeed at the forefront of the reform movement and paid a heavy toll as mass rapes accompanied the demise of President Suharto’s regime.1 With the establishment of the National Commission on the Elimination of Violence against Women in 1998, or Komnas Perempuan, followed by the creation of national and sub-national women’s organisations, many thought that gender equality was finally within reach.

Democracy and the Rise of Political Islam

Democracy implies providing equal opportunities to all political and religious groups, including conservative ones, to engage with, influence and shape public discourse and policy. The transition period from the authoritarian regime of Suharto to consolidated democracy witnessed the multiplication of political actors with liberal, leftist, right-wing and socially conservative platforms opposing each other in the public arena. After two decades of democratisation, one can only note the growing influence of conservatism and the gradual encroachment of religion into Indonesia’s legislative and judicial sectors.

This development is the result of a combination of factors. First, the failure of western democracy and economic capitalism to promote social justice and equality in Indonesia. This has largely been perceived as contributing to the marginalisation of Muslims. Many Indonesians believe that corruption and social ills are the by-products of western culture. This development can also be seen as a response by Indonesian Muslims to the rise of Islamophobia that has spread worldwide with the public focus on Islamic terrorism. It is important to note, however, that religious identity has always been a part of Indonesia’s public domain, with Islam playing a central role in building social cohesion among the population. This strong connection with Islam justifies, in the eyes of the Islamists, the need for an Islamist State. This conviction is reflected in the many constitutional attempts made by the Islamists to entrench Islam as the State ideology.

Today, an increasing number of Indonesian Muslims wish to express their religiosity in public and appear comfortable not only with religiously themed consumption, but also with faith-based public policy and laws. Although this trend is consistent with a global increase in public piety, it also reflects the growing influence of Wahhabism, a major Islamic revivalist movement which originated in Saudi Arabia. The emergence of radical Islamic organisations such as Laskar Jihad, Majelis Mujahidin and the Islamic political party of Social Justice (or PKS) has been heavily influenced by the spread of Wahhabism. According to the Indonesian Muslim scholar, Noorhaidi Hasan, these organisations differentiate themselves from earlier Indonesian Muslim institutions by their “strict adherence to extreme puritanism, manifested in their appearance and in the enforcement of religious observance.”

Muslim feminists, women’s rights and civil society activists denounce the rise of political Islam as a threat to equality and justice, as political and conservative religious groups propagate interpretations of Islam meant to subordinate and confine women to the domestic sphere. In recent years, populist religious preachers and Islamists have carried out a series of campaigns advocating for polygamy, the veiling of women, female genital mutilation and child marriage. Beyond the noticeable rise in veiling, there has also been recent controversy surrounding the use of social media platforms to promote polygamy. A smartphone application was launched in 2017 enabling married men to seek out additional wives in disregard of State laws regulating access to polygamy (Marriage Law No.1/1974). These campaigns, much to the concern of Indonesian moderate Muslims, have been well received by a growing number of women who agree with the idea that their duty is to stay home to serve their husbands and  nurture their children.

Indonesia’s Muslim Feminist Movement

The increasing acceptance of conservative Islam is regarded as a setback by Muslim feminists and moderate Muslims who have been fighting against a number of traditional and conservative religious practices (including polygamy and women’s seclusion) since the early years of Indonesia’s independence movement. Faced with this challenge, Indonesian Muslim feminists have adopted an approach similar to the strategy implemented by Islamic feminist movements in the Middle East and North Africa. This approach consists in rereading and reinterpreting Islamic teachings in a way that challenges the misogynistic and patriarchal understanding of Islam as promoted by conservative religious leaders.

This effort started in the early 1990s and was championed by moderate Muslim scholars who had graduated from State Islamic higher educational institutions as well as Western and Middle Eastern Universities. While inspired by literature on Islamic feminism by Fatima Mernissi, Amina Wadud, Ziba Mir-Hosseini or Asghar Ali-Engineer, Indonesia’s feminist movement also engaged with local traditions to advance the rights of women. In relation to face veiling, for example, Muslim feminists argue that the practice, coming from the Middle East, is more an expression of culture than an Islamic teaching. They highlight that most female Muslim leaders during the colonial period wore only a modest shawl to cover their hair. Similarly, they point out that women have historically played an important role as public leaders in several parts of the country, including the Islamic Province of Aceh.

Despite some success, Indonesian Muslim feminists today are struggling to counter the discourse of political and religious actors who are promoting Islam as a political ideology capable of solving all socioeconomic, legal and political ills in society. Women have unfortunately become the first targets of political Islam’s proponents. Misogynistic and patriarchal political campaigns run by Islamists are endangering the progress made towards gender equality and women’s rights in Indonesia.

Contemporary Challenges Faced by Indonesian Muslim Women

As Indonesia enters into a more conservative phase, recent incidents have shed light on the many challenges faced by women. Stories of women being caned for allegedly committing adultery or zina in Aceh, no longer trigger public outcry. Caning as a form of punishment is now seen as being consistent with Islam and therefore socially acceptable. Only a few people condemn the practice as the result of a misogynistic and patriarchal interpretation of Islam. A woman in Aceh, for example, was recently sentenced to one hundred lashes for Khalwat or being in close proximity with a man who was not her husband. Under the 2014 Islamic Criminal Code (Qanun), Khalwat is punishable by one hundred lashes, a significant increase from the ten lashes provided for in the previous Qanun dated from 2003. In addition, caning must be conducted in front of a mosque after the Friday prayer. Making the punishment public is seen as a way to discourage others from breaking Islamic law. Supporters of political Islam in Aceh are adamant that the implementation of Sharia Law is based on the rights granted by the central government to the Acehnese to live according to Islamic principles. Any criticism from Muslim feminists, civil society and human rights activists, in particular at the national level, is therefore rejected and considered baseless.

Another incident recently caused public outrage when a religious court judge from North Sumatra argued in a book and in interviews with national media that the way to respond to the increased rate of divorce, was to require women to undergo virginity tests prior to marriage.5 His assumption was that divorces are driven by the lack of commitment to the sacred institution of marriage and that couples often decide to get married based on lust only. This judge, unfortunately, is not the first public official to let his religious convictions influence his views of public interest and order. In 2015, eight judges from the Constitutional Court decided to reject an application for judicial review made by health professionals and civil society activists to increase the marriage age for girls from 16 to 18.6 Petitioners presented scientific information about the health and psychological hazards associated with marriage and pregnancy of girls aged 16. They insisted on the non-compliance of the current marriage age with a number of national laws including the laws on Education, Human Rights, Child Protection, Employment, Health and even the Indonesian Constitution.

Rather than following the recommendations from health practitioners, the judges rendered their decision based on the opinions of Muslim-based organisations such as Muhammadiyah, Nahdhatul Ulama7 and the National Ulama Council (or MUI), a quasi-government institution. These organisations argued that marriage must be practiced according to ‘religious beliefs.’ Consistent with such arguments, the judges asserted that Islam is not concerned with a minimum marrying age but with what is known as aqil baligh (puberty or adulthood). A girl is considered an adult when she is sound of mind and able to distinguish between ‘bad and good,’ a stage that girls of 16 have already reached according to the court.

Another argument made by the judges was that the world is currently seeing an acceleration of carnal urges among youths as a result of various factors such as improved access to technology and information. These urges, according to the judges, should be channelled through lawful marriage in accordance with religious teachings so that no children are born out of wedlock.

What is the Future of Indonesian Muslim Women?

Given this background, Indonesian moderate Muslims need to respond by reconsidering the place of Islam in Indonesia’s modern State. The examples above demonstrate exactly how restrictive understandings of Islam, many of them inspired by global Islamism, have slowly, yet successful, penetrated into Indonesia’s public institutions.

In spite of the progress made over the past three decades, the contemporary women’s movement needs to embrace new strategies and engage with women involved in faith-based institutions. These women might be able to influence the development of Islamic doctrine by those affiliated with Islamic political parties or the two largest Muslim-based organisations in Indonesia, Muhammadiyah and Nahdhatul Ulama.

Information and communications technology have enabled Indonesian women to get acquainted with other Muslim cultures and forms of religiosity. They have been exposed to both Islamic feminism and militant Islam. The main challenge for Indonesian women is now to find their own path, one that advances women’s rights while being respectful of Indonesian culture.