The seventh annual International Indonesia Forum Conference was recently held in the West Java city of Bandung. This year’s cosponsor of the conference was the State Islamic University Sunan Gunung Djati. During the two day conference, 52 papers were presented in 16 different sessions on a wide variety of topics. The theme of the conference was: “Representing Indonesia.” Several papers focused on the status of women in Indonesia.
Of particular interest were two papers by two female academics who are devout Muslims and who also happen to be sisters. Irma Riyani, a PhD student at the University of Western Australia, challenged the use in Indonesia of traditional Islamic texts to justify male control over female sexuality. She noted that many Indonesian women she has interviewed readily explained that they had been taught and believed that sexual relations in marriage were the duty of the wife and the right of the husband. To counter this prevailing view, she applied a Muslim feminist hermeneutical approach to Islamic texts to challenge traditional male control over female sexuality in Indonesia.
Doctor Nina Nurmila (above), a faculty member at the host university and author of Women, Islam and Everyday Life: Renegotiating Polygamy in Indonesia (Routledge, 2009), looked at levels of participation by women in academic leadership positions at Islamic universities in Indonesia. To justify the appointment of more women to higher levels of leadership in Islamic Institutions, she cited several verses from the Quran which argue “for equality between men and women.” She then explained that this means that woman should “have the potential to be a leader” if they are qualified and are willing to work hard. Professor Nurmila then used a “critical reading of the misogynists hadiths” to further challenge the fallacy of thinking that women are not fit to lead. She explained that the commonly cited hadith which credits the prophet Mohamed with stating “peope who entrust their affairs to women will never know prosperity and find salvation” and is often used to justify not giving leadership positions to women, was only heard by Abu Bakra, was narrated 25 years after the death of Mohammed, and was used by Abu Bakra to justify shifting his support from `A’isha (the wife of Mohammed) to Ali, his son-in-law. Nurmila suggests that this statement (accurate or not) was never meant to be applied to all women in all situations and that it should not now be used to keep women out of upper levels of leadership. The fact that Nurmila was free to critique and challenge these interpretations of the Quran and the hadith as a means to overcome the low level of females serving in administrative positions at her own Islamic university is an encouraging example of both academic freedom and open religious discussion within Indonesia. It is also an encouraging example of how feminist Muslims across the Islamic world are using new interpretations and readings of Islamic texts to challenge long held traditions that subjugate women.
A third paper about women in Indonesia was presented by anthropology professor Carol Chan of the University of Pittsburgh. Her study looked at differing views of female labor migrants from Indonesia who work primarily as domestic workers in Asian countries from Hong Kong to Saudi Arabia. Chan explained how these female labor migrants are viewed by other Indonesians as either being the heroes of development because of the remittance money they earn or they are viewed as being the victims of abuse, violence and even death in their countries of work. This dichotomy of views serves to illustrate the challenges these women face in terms of feeling a need to support themselves and their families while having to risk the chance of ending up in a home where they may be abused or even killed.
These and other papers presented at the conference show a vibrant interest among Indonesianists to better understand the status of women in Indonesia, to challenge detrimental traditions, and to advocate for improvements. They give hope.
By Dr. Chad Emmett