How Do Women Influence Political Islam?

Efforts to influence political Islam are made by Indonesian women both within the Islamic movement and outside it. Which is more effective is difficult to say. However women in Indonesia have changed their political strategies considerably. By Susan Blackburn

Efforts to influence political Islam are made by Indonesian women both within the Islamic movement and outside it. Which is more effective is difficult to say. However it is clear, that women in Indonesia have changed their political strategies considerably over the years. By Susan Blackburn

photo: AP
Muslim women protest in Jakarta, Indonesia

​​Within political Islam it is often difficult to find evidence of direct influence by women on decision-making. In the past much of their influence seems to have been applied behind the scenes, but in recent times it has become much more overt.

As a striking example we can take the influence exerted within Nahdlatul Ulama - the largest Islamic organization in Indonesia - by two generations of women in the family of Abdurrahman Wahid (Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, became president in 1999).

Within Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) it is acknowledged that Abdurrahman Wahid's late mother, Solichah A.Wahid Hasyim, had a strong influence on the organisation. She was a leader of the so called Muslimat NU and a member of parliament from 1960 to 1982.

Interestingly, apart from her talent as an intermediary between disputing factions, she is also credited with having played a decisive role in getting the NU to take a firm stand against the Communist PKI ("Partai Komunis Indonesia") after the Communist 'coup' of 1965.

Increasing influence by hiding it

Although leaders of Muslimat NU claimed that their organisation has had a tradition of avoiding conflict, at least one of their leaders was thus willing to advocate conflict as well as resolve it. However, she rarely allowed her influence to be seen in public – and perhaps it was the stronger for that reason.

Abdurrahman Wahid's wife, Sinta Nuriyah, and his sister Aisyah Hamid Baidlowi belong to a younger generation and operate differently. Sinta Nuriyah makes no secret of her strong desire to implement feminist reforms within moderate Islamic circles. She has campaigned successfully to review misogynist teachings in the texts used in pesantren, (the Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia).

Like her mother, Aisyah has been a long-serving member of parliament for Golkar (Suharto's former party) and the head of Muslimat NU, within which she has supported liberal changes in relation to the position of women. She has argued for "more strategic positions" for women in the leadership of NU, because, as she puts it, "The fact is that the majority of NU members are women".

Men increasingly support Islamic feminist thinking

In general not enough research has been done on what women do to influence political Islam from within. Books published by Muslimat NU or the Islamic PSII Wanita ("Partai Syarikat Islam Indonesia") nevertheless hint at covert conflicts between their groups and male leadership, often resolved in favour of the women. The impression gained is that women within NU and PSII had to wheedle or defy the male leadership to introduce changes in favour of women.

Logo 'Muslimat NU'

​​It is indeed striking, in recent years, to witness the increasing eloquence of Islamic women and their readiness to debate gender issues. In alliance with sympathetic men within these organisations, women are helping to strengthen the support base for Islamic feminist thinking.

A recent example of a pluralist, progressive Islamic organisation in Indonesia is the formation of "Rahima", a centre for training and information about Islam and women's rights, an organization focusing on women's empowerment with an Islamic perspective. Its Board of Management features some of Indonesia's best-known Muslim intellectuals and activists, both male and female.

Criticism takes scholarly knowledge and strength of mind

An effort is now being made to counter radical propaganda on women, including the publication of popular and academic books propounding a liberal Islamic feminist point of view. While radical literature is often connected to the Middle East, the recent counter-propaganda is often published with help from Western funding sources.

The task of influencing Islamic practices from within the Islamic movement is fraught with difficulty for women. It takes considerable training in Islamic theology plus unusual strength of mind for a woman to stand up against well-established ulama (Islamic scholars) and argue the point on Islamic hadith (narrations about the life of the Prophet) or jurisprudence.

The price paid for being taken seriously by Islamic leaders may be cutting oneself off from support in the non-Islamic world by accepting the premise of the universal Islamic claim to truth and arguing only within its parameters.

Isolation caused by trying to "changing the system from within"

For such women, to admit the force of argument of feminists or "outsiders" may undermine their own argument, based as it is on a view of the world in which secularism, feminism, the West and non-Islamic sources generally are frequently demonised as anti-Islamic.

Thus small advances within an Islamic framework for the women's cause may be at the expense of understanding of and identification with women of different religious affiliation.

Such problems have beset Indonesian Muslims arguing about gender for at least a century. During the colonial period tensions already existed between Islam and "modern" notions of women, and those who propounded reforms within Islam laid themselves open to charges of encouraging licentious Western-style behaviour between the sexes.

After colonialism rifts opened between Islamic factions

But during the colonial period it was easier to smooth over the contradictions by reference to shared nationalist goals. Now the divide between radical and moderate Islamic views of women is much more difficult to bridge within political Islam.

While undoubtedly many Islamic women continue to argue for reforms within the rarified discourse of Islamic theology (meaning: reserved for an elite group), some Islamic women are willing to defy radical Islam quite openly. An example is the stance of Suraiya Kamaruzzaman, the director of the women's organisation Flower Aceh.

After wearing a jilbab (i.e. headscarf) as a sign of her Islamic identity for many years, in 2001 she decided to leave it off in protest against a decision by the Acehnese local government to enforce the wearing of Islamic dress on women, in accordance with their reading of sharia law:

"I became so mad when I heard cases of women being chased and pelted with eggs and tomatoes for not wearing the jilbab," Kamaruzzaman says. "A woman on a bus to Takengon was so angry with a group of young men who harassed her for wearing a loose shawl that she threatened them with her sickle. I've concluded that the issue of women's dress can be used to domesticate women for many purposes. Any man, from school boy up to old man, now thinks that he is the morality police."

Quiet revolution concerning education of girls and early marriage

It is perhaps easier to see the influence of women if we look at some of the issues relating to how Islamic political activity has affected women. On all of these issues Indonesian women, both within and outside the Islamic community, participated in debates and, together with sympathetic men, produced reforms leading to further empowerment of women.

In some cases it was a matter of persuasive, educational work to change attitudes, the kind of quiet revolution that occurred to turn around Islamic thinking on the education of girls and early marriage. At least one dramatically progressive change, the admission of women as judges to Islamic courts, occurred with minimal controversy.

On other matters there has been direct confrontation. Secularist women openly confronted Islamic organisations on issues like polygyny (one man marrying more than one woman), and they have been increasingly vocal in recent years on matters like the 1998 rapes case, the Megawati presidency debate, and violence against women.

Acceptance of liberal interpretations just a matter of time

Political Islam has had to take account of the opposition it encounters from within and outside its ranks. The more radical elements are defiant, rejecting such opposition as Western-influenced and anti-Islamic.

Judging from the way in which thinking has shifted in favour of women's empowerment over the years, however, the more pragmatic elements must be aware that on some issues, like marital rape and sex education of teenagers, it is just a matter of time before they accept more liberal interpretations of scriptures.

The new requirement for parties to put forward a minimum of 30 percent women candidates, if enforced, will impact on Islamic parties, in ways that are as yet unforeseeable. This is a good example of sustained lobbying by women across the political and religious board having an impact on political Islam.

Challenge to Islamic leaders

Finally, it is worth pointing out that, as in every Muslim society, Indonesian women often act or are treated in contravention to the teachings of Islam. Sometimes this is to their advantage, as for instance in customary law on inheritance in West Sumatra, where property is inherited through the female line.

At other times, Muslim women quietly corrode religious teachings, exposing a gap between doctrine and lived reality. For instance, they seek abortions in large numbers.

This constitutes a challenge to Islamic leaders, who can either continue to hold the line or, as has so often happened, go back to the religious texts to reassess them in the light of changed circumstances.

In Iran the Islamic regime has had major difficulties to withstand the resistance to its hardline policies by ordinary people, including women. Political Islam has to contend with the needs and wishes of ordinary people who often feel they cannot live according to scripturalist teachings.

Monash University
Susan Blackburn

​​Susan Blackburn

© Susan Blackburn 2004

Dr Susan Blackburn is senior lecturer in the Department of Politics, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.