Wed, 09 Mar 2005

Gender equality demand wins support

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Prominent Muslim scholars threw their weight behind a demand for the revival of the alternative draft Islamic law code, which they say will encourage gender equality in the country.

Syafiq Hasyim of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP) said he believed that the alternative draft would not cause disquiet among Muslims as some influential Muslim institutions had predicted.

"I'm pretty sure Muslims here won't have a problem with the draft because they need it. There are many examples of interfaith couples, for instance, who want to get married but cannot because the state forbids it," Syafiq, who was also involved in the finalizing of the draft, said on Tuesday.

As for polygamy, he said that Indonesia should take Tunisia as an example. The African country applies sharia but banned polygamy in 1959.

Syafiq urged a new discourse in order to find some compromise.

"We believe that we can overcome the arguments of those who oppose the draft. Everything we have done was based on Islamic teachings. Maybe it's our own interpretation, but don't be judgmental because we have applied the legal rules contained in Islamic jurisprudence," he said.

Women activists on Monday urged the revival of the draft, saying it would strengthen the position of women in marriage. They also regretted the government's decision to ditch it without a public discourse.

Drafted by a team led by gender expert and Islamic law scholar Siti Musdah Mulia from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the draft was aimed at accommodating contemporary issues and women's needs, instead of veering heavily into chauvinistic interpretations.

Among the proposed articles that sparked anger among Muslim clerics were those that banned polygamy, allowed interfaith marriage and gave women equal divorce rights, as extended to men, as well as the right to marry without the permission of a guardian.

Minister of Religious Affairs M. Maftuh Basyuni announced on Feb. 14 that the controversial draft had been shelved for fear of it's causing social disorder among Muslims.

Scholar Lily Zakiah Munir said on Tuesday that the right of interpretation was not vested in one interest group only.

"There should be a process of public discourse instead of simple abandonment. The draft is important in treating women as its targets," she said.

Meanwhile, scholar and women's activist Maria Ulfah Anshor, while agreeing with the revival of the draft and a public discourse, thought the team had not come up with the right strategy for launching the draft.

"It was launched too hastily. They should have disseminating the draft to the public first before announcing it. People got the wrong impression.

"People in this country tend to comment before they know the issues they are commenting on. I know a cleric from the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) who said he had not even read it but commented on it anyway," Maria said.

Syafiq said that whatever strategy was adopted, it would still not work as the content of the draft was far too progressive and controversial for Indonesia.

"But we will keep on going, discussing and campaigning for it everywhere, especially among non-governmental organizations," he said.

In line with the efforts of liberal Muslims and women's activists to shed patriarchal interpretations of Muslim religious teachings, a woman imam will lead Friday prayers at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery, New York, on March 18.

Dr. Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, will be the first woman to lead public, mixed-gender prayers.

Maria welcomed the news, saying the move would serve as a reference for feminists here in their fight for gender equity.

"There is a text saying there was a woman imam once in the period of the Prophet Muhammad named Ummu Waraqah. Unfortunately, the text has never been used. Instead, people refer to another text saying that an imam must be a man," Maria said.