Thu, 24 Jul 2003

Indonesian Muslim women's role in political

A conference convened by MIC (Melbourne Indonesia Consortium), a body consisting of five universities in Melbourne, Australia, titled The Dynamics of Political Islam in Indonesia, reminds participants of the important role Muslim women in Indonesia have played in the development of the nation. One of the speakers on the role of Muslim women is Susan Blackburn, a senior lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University. Her forthcoming book is entitled Indonesian Women and the State in the Twentieth Century.

Following is an excerpt of an interview with The Jakarta Post's contributor Dewi Anggraeni.

Question: In your paper you mention that during the colonial period the radical groups among Muslim women were particularly active. Could you explain how this happened?

Answer: In the colonial period a number of Islamic organizations were primarily concerned with getting rid of foreign rule. What made them radical at that time was the fact that they rejected the existing colonial system. From Sarekat Islam onwards, there were organizations that took their guiding principles from both nationalism and Islam. This combination seemed to offer them considerable flexibility as far as gender was concerned, so women could play a prominent role in such organizations. It was really continuing the tradition of the Aceh War against the Dutch, when some women became leaders in the name of national independence and defense of Islam.

Who were the better known personalities during the period?

The best-known women leaders in radical Islamic organizations in the colonial period were in the Sumatran organization Permi (Persatuan Muslimin Indonesia). After male leaders of Permi were arrested, women took their place in the 1930s. The Dutch colonial Attorney-General noted in 1933 that women leaders like Rasuna Said and Rasimah Ismail sometimes "put the men to shame" with their fiery speeches. "At many meetings the women are even in the majority and often express themselves more sharply and passionately than the other sex," he said.

Within Sarekat Islam and its successors like the Partai Sarekat Islam Indonesia, women were also active during the colonial period, although they did not achieve such prominence as in Permi. Tjokroaminoto's wife started a women's wing of Sarekat Islam and was noted for her public speeches. In the period leading up to the communist revolts of 1926-1927 in Indonesia, the distinction between Islam and communism was not as clearly made as afterwards, and there were organizations that combined the two with nationalism in an explosive manner. It was a combination that accommodated women in public roles. PSII also had its women's wing and permitted women to speak at its public meetings. I stress 'permitted' because at this time the moderate Islamic organizations like Muhammadiyah did not allow women to speak before mixed audiences. At such meetings they used to segregate the audience and erect a curtain (tabir) to conceal the women from male eyes. Even in PSII, however, women often felt restricted by what the male leaders wanted, and struggled to advance their own agendas.

What groundwork had these women prepared by the end of the colonial period, of which women in general were then able to take advantage?

By the end of the colonial period women in radical Islamic organizations had helped to legitimize women's public role in politics. The main resistance had been in the overtly non- political, moderate organizations like Muhammadiyah, which preferred women to stay in the background. But by the 1930s almost all Indonesian organizations had been drawn into the nationalist fold, where opinion was turning in favor of a greater public role for women. Nationalists recognized that women had to participate in modernizing the country in preparation for independence. By the time of the Japanese Occupation, for instance, the nationalist movement, including its Islamic elements, had accepted the notion of womens right to vote.

How did the moderate Muslim women react to their radical sisters? Did they work alongside them, shun them, or work independently of them?

During the colonial period moderate Muslim women meant those who worked within the colonial framework, which largely excluded anyone with overtly political goals. Moderate Muslim women were to be found in "non-political" religious organizations like Aisyiyah, the women's wing of Muhammadiyah. Although at first they had little to do with radical Islamic women, the rise of the women's movement and the founding of the women's federation in 1928 gave them a venue to work together with them and with non- religious womens organizations and organizations of other religious groups. Because the women's movement moved increasingly into the nationalist camp, it meant the gradual politicization of moderate Muslim women. One of the issues that divided the women's federation was attitudes to polygamy.

What happened to the radicalization after independence? Why?

The context changed after independence. What made people radical before was rejection of the colonial status quo. After August 1945 it was a question of whether you accepted the new political system of the Republic. For radical Islamic groups the role of syariah became a defining issue. The radicals would not accept an Indonesian state that was not based on syariah law. Relatively few Islamic groups took this line; the majority accepted, however reluctantly, that Indonesia was not an Islamic state but a state based on Pancasila.

When defense of syariah became the central issue, women disappeared from public profile of radical Islam in Indonesia. In the groups associated with Darul Islam and more recently groups like KISDI (Indonesian Committee for World Muslims Solidarity), Lasykar Jihad (Jihad Force) and Front Pembela Islam (Defenders of Islam), women play no prominent roles. This is entirely consistent with the strict scripturalist approach to Islam held by such groups: for them women's role is in the family, not in the public eye.

How did the moderate groups react to this version of radicalization?

Moderate Islamic groups since independence have been those prepared to work within the framework of an Indonesian state based on the Pancasila, which does not enforce syariah law and is tolerant of other religions. It has often been dangerous to associate with radical versions of Islam because they may be acting outside the law, condoning rebellion or extremism. Women in moderate Islamic groups are very wary of being linked with such activity. Many of them also reject the views that radicals hold about gender: they have moved to a much more liberal stance. Radical Islam appears to have nothing to offer them.

In the post-New Order era now, are Muslim women still playing as influential roles as they have in the past? In what fields?

Since the late New Order period, Muslim women have been more influential than ever before in the history of the Islamic movement in Indonesia. It goes along with higher education levels for women generally and within the Islamic education sector in particular. To an unpredented degree, well educated young women are willing to challenge conservative Islamic views on women. They have publicly embraced more woman-friendly reinterpretations of Islamic texts that have been emerging globally and in Indonesia since the 1980s. Many of them have linked these interpretations to issues of concern to women, like reproductive health and domestic violence. Examples of these prominent Islamic women include Lies Marcoes-Natsir, Farha Ciciek and Musdah Mulia who have entered into public controversies about women and Islam. I mentioned Abdurrahman Wahid's mother before. If you look at his wife and his sister you see a different, more assertive public style. Sinta Nuriyah (wife of Abdurrahman) and Aisyah Hamid Baidlowi make no secret of their strong desire to implement feminist reforms within moderate Islamic circles, and with the support of sympathetic men like Abdurrahman (Gus Dur), they have had some success.