Sun, 23 Apr 2000

Aisyah ponders new gender awareness in Islam

By Devi M. Asmarani

JAKARTA (JP): Aisyah Hamid Baidlowi is a prime example of a modern Muslim woman succeeding in her worldly ambitions, yet never straying from her Islamic roots.

She currently is a Golkar Party legislator in the House of Representatives, but a significant portion of her career was spent within the religious milieu. For five years ending last month she was the head of the Muslimat Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the woman's body of the country's largest Muslim organization.

Soft-spoken yet filled with spirit, the mother of five and the grandmother of seven speaks of how one of the world's great religions gained such a bad reputation in regard to the treatment of women because of the infiltration of patriarchal cultures.

Aisyah is certainly well versed in Islam. Born on June 6, 1940, in Jombang, East Java, the second of six children, she hails from one of the country's most influential Muslim families. Her grandfather, Hasyim Ashari, founded NU, and her father, Wahid Hasyim, was minister of religious affairs in 1945. Aisyah's older brother is President Abdurrahman Wahid.

But Aisyah does not take credit for her success. She insists that it was the power of her mother that made her what she is.

"My mother is the great one, not me," she says modestly. "My mother encouraged her children to broaden their horizons. We were given books all the time. Everything was books, and we became used to reading."

Her mother also fostered democracy among the children from a very early age by encouraging them to express their opinions.

"Every dinner, we'd have heated debates. And we were also given the freedom to bring our friends home. It was my mother's philosophy to treat every guest the best she could."

The memories of their beloved mother serve as the tie that binds in a family where political aspirations run in different, and sometimes conflicting, directions. Abdurrahman is the founder of the National Awakening Party (PKB) while another brother, Salahuddin Wahid, is a member of the United Believers' Awakening Party.

When The Jakarta Post interviewed Aisyah last week, she was tending her husband, who had just suffered a heart attack, at Harapan Kita Hospital. In between talking to the doctor and looking after her husband, she shared her views on the new gender awareness in Islamic teaching in the country. The following is an excerpt of the interview:

Question: Recently there have been increased efforts in Indonesia to introduce a new teaching of Islam that is more gender sensitive. Is this a new thing, and why should there be a reinterpretation of Islamic teachings on women?

Answer: In countries that are based on Islam, this has been done. In Indonesia it's a relatively new thing, but it started around the late 1980s or early 1990s. We observe that Muslim women are marginalized. But it is not caused by religious teachings, rather by the influence of local cultures.

Q: In what sense do religious teachings encourage a situation where women are marginalized?

A: Women are excluded from decision making by the husband, but she has to bear the implications of the decisions. Now we hear more and more of domestic violence, which 10 years ago was hardly heard of because it was considered taboo and shameful for the women.

But there have been changes in values. Marriages in Muslim families are no longer determined by the parents. These changes have been taking place mostly because the level of education has improved for the women. The women's horizons are broader, and they are no longer bound by cultural taboos. With higher levels of education, they are breaking cultural barriers.

Q: So is there a loosening of religious values in educated women here?

A: They still hold on to Islamic values, even if they have adopted a modern mind-set. Many women in Jakarta still wear headscarves and go to religious gatherings. It is from partaking in religious activities that they realize some things have to be reexamined.

Q: The new interpretations of women in Islam seem radical compared to what we were brought up to think. Do you believe there is a limit to interpreting religious teachings?

A: Yes, there is. Koranic verses that are absolute and universal must be accepted. For example, if a woman is left by her late husband, she must go through iddah (a waiting period) before she can remarry. This, to me, cannot be bargained, because the purpose is to see whether the woman is carrying the baby of her late or former husband. Some people have different interpretations of what should happen during this time. Some do not allow a woman to leave her house at all, even to go to the front yard. But other than this extreme interpretation, a woman still has the chance to have a normal life with her family. She can still go out to shop, see a doctor or go to a movie if she needs recreation during the mourning period.

Q: Does this new school of thought face any challenges or objections from the Islamic community?

A: Yes. Almost all religions are patriarchal in nature. The teachings of the religion and the holy scripture were mostly interpreted by men, so many things are still discriminative against women. One Koranic verse, for example, cites that a man has a higher position than a woman. This should be seen in the context of a family. The man cited here is sociological in nature, meaning he is the one earning the money, and not biological, as has been interpreted.

Q: So interpretations of religious teachings should be contextual in nature?

A: Yes. Other Muslim women are also working to reinterpret Islamic teachings, including Ibu Sinta Nuriyah (President Abdurrahman's wife). Currently she is reviewing the "yellow book" (the standard guidebook of religious edicts). This book stipulates that women must fully obey men in their roles as wife and daughter. The book specifically discusses the wife's obligations to her husband, but it does not tell her about her rights as a woman. So this is what is being revised.

Q: What are some of the examples of the teachings that are being revised in this book?

A: Sometimes we treat the words kodrat (biological characteristics) and obligations as the same thing, when they are two different things. Kodrat are those characteristics particular to women, like menstruation, pregnancy and breast feeding. Our society and religious experts have depicted obligation as the woman's kodrat. Another example, one hadith says that if a wife refuses her husband's request to have sex she will be condemned by 40 angels until the next day. There is no exception here, even if the wife is sick or very tired, for example. It is very discriminative. The woman is expected to abide by her obligations, but is not entitled to her rights.

Q: It is ironic that Islam was born as the religion of liberation and yet it acquired a tainted reputation in the eyes of the world as a religion that oppresses women. How did this happen?

A: It is local culture that plays the dominant role in the interpretation of Islamic teachings. Much of Arabic culture, which is patriarchal, influences the interpretation.

Q: And many modern Arab countries have a poor image regarding their treatment of women.

A: It's all about culture, not the religion. Many people don't know the essence of the religion, but claim to be authorities.

Is it possible that the Prophet Muhammad, who says the best man is one who respects his wife and family, and the Prophet who, in one verse, says to respect one's mother, would encourage men to disrespect women?

Q: Do you think this kind of gender-sensitive awareness of Islamic teachings is widespread or is this is still an exclusive thing here?

A: I think this is mostly still exclusive, but we can already see its impact on the public. In the cities, intellectuals have contributed to and encouraged this movement. In the end of my leadership of NU Muslimat, I held a forum in which kyais (Muslim scholars) gathered to discuss societal problems related to religion. Two months ago at a workshop on violence against women and polygamy, I proposed to discuss these problems at the Muslimat NU congress in a bigger forum involving more female kyais, or what we call nyai. This resulted in recommendations for the NU's executive body to discuss further.

The issues included female circumcision. In Indonesia this isn't a problem because it only involves a small incision on the infant's genital. But in Africa, it can be a problem because it can actually damage the reproductive organ. Another issue was nusyuz, or a wife's disobedience, especially regarding conjugal rights, and whether a woman can be an Imam (leader of communal prayer). The results of this congress were recommended to be decreed as fatwa (a binding ruling in religious matters) by NU's executive body. At the closing of the congress, we were really touched by the positive response.

Q: How many of NU's members are women?

A: If we look at istiqosah (prayer for divine help) and religious gatherings held by NU, the percentage of women is greater than that of men. That is why we demand to be given more strategic positions in the organization's executive body, because so far the positions we have are in plenary sessions. We want more strategic roles so we have more of a say. As one example, the NU executives wanted all NU followers to become members of the National Awakening Party. This was a big issue, and personally I have always tried to keep NU Muslimat members neutral in politics. But because we had no positions in the executive body at the time, we weren't included in discussions of this issue. So it isn't without reason that we demand to be given more of a role. The fact is that the majority of NU members are women.