Women as Agents of Social Change?
Gender and Social Transformation in South-East Asia
Women’s movement and political change
The idea of women as ‘agents’ of social and political change goes back to the time of the French Revolution and is inseparably linked to the fight for equal rights. One of the first to demand secure rights for women was the revolutionary Olympe de Gouge, who wrote a ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Female Citizen’ in 1791. Although de Gouge was executed by the ruling political powers for this provocation, neither repression nor defamation were able to check the nascent movement for the assertion of the equal rights of women and men.
In the nineteenth century the so-called ‘women question’ also became a topic of discussion for reform-minded intellectuals outside Europe. Women’s movements arose simultaneously in Egypt, Indonesia, Iran and Turkey. Activists became involved in nationalist movements or in the resistance to colonial rule, and associated their utopias of gender equality with the struggle for independence, democracy and modernity. As in Europe, these countries also underwent significant political and social transformations, and the legal situation for women gradually improved. Women’s education became a goal of national development and over the course of the twentieth century many discriminatory laws were abolished. In 1979 a convention against all forms of discrimination against women was passed by the United Nations: the gender turn had made it onto the global community’s agenda. However, as we will see from the example of Indonesia, individual countries are still a long way from implementing the convention.
The women’s movement in Indonesia
The Indonesian women’s movement goes back a long way. It has its beginnings in the reform ideas of the Javanese princess Raden Ajeng Kartini (1879-1904), who enjoyed a very close friendship with the Dutch feminist Estelle Zeehandelaar and campaigned for the education of girls and an end to polygynous marriages. Education remained a key concern for later women’s rights activists, together with the fight for independence. In the first half of the twentieth century a number of nationalist secular and religious organisations came into being which established their own women’s factions. The ‘Budi Otomo’ (‘Noble Character’), formed primarily of intellectuals, founded the organisation ‘Putri Mardika’ (‘Free Women’) just one year after Kartini’s death, while the ‘Jong Java’ (‘Young Javanese’), established in 1918, a group that counted the future president Sukarno among its members, set up the group ‘Putri Indonesia’ (‘Women of Indonesia’).
The Muslim ‘Muhammadiyah’, orientated towards the writings of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, organised female members into the ‘Aisyiyah’ in 1917, and the conservative ‘Nahdlatul Ulama’ (‘Renaissance of the Legal Scholars’), formed when Islamic preachers (kyai) united in 1926 in reaction to reform Islam, established the women’s organisation ‘Muslimat’ in 1946. Abida Samiuddin and R. Khanam note that the usual pattern in the creation of women’s organisations was to form groups that were complements to exclusively male affiliations, and that their female leaders were often recruited from the wives of the leaders of the men’s organisations.
This implicit association of women with their husbands was both an opportunity and a curse. Although women were only assigned a place in society through their husbands, as wives or widows of influential anti-colonial fighters they could also claim leadership positions in politics and even in the military. In the war of resistance by the people of Aceh, which was won by the Dutch only after thirty years and with tremendous losses on both sides, Cut Nyak Dien and Cut Meutia fought, while Emmy Saelan supported Wolter Monginsidi’s rebellion in south Sulawesi, Martha Tiahua her husband Pattimura in the Moluccas, and Roro Gusik the revolt of Untung Suropati in Java. However, women remained powerless unless they could be identified with a man.
Ahmed Sukarno, the first president of the independent Republic of Indonesia, publicly declared his sympathy with the aims of the women’s movement. He was closest to the socialist ‘Isteri Sedar’, which championed not only education and social causes but also campaigned for greater involvement of women in politics, and he once styled himself ‘Supreme Shepherd of the Women’s Revolutionary Movement’. The gender studies scholar Saskia Wieringa describes this attitude as pure lip service, as after independence the president’s support for the aims of women activists was half-hearted. In 1960 he announced that there was no need for a feminist battle, and that the abolition of polygamy was no longer on the agenda; in 1954 he himself exercised the prerogative of taking a second wife.
There was disagreement within the women’s movement over such issues. During the colonial period it had already disintegrated into different factions, characterised above all by dissent among Muslim and secular-socialist groups. There was most disagreement over the question of polygyny. Secular women activists demanded a complete ban on multiple wives, but women in the Islamic organisations felt they could not reconcile such a radical approach with the precepts of the Koran.
These tensions between the two camps became steadily greater in the first years of independence, reflecting the power struggle that was taking place among Communist, nationalist and religious sections of the élite. This culminated in disaster in 1965, when an unsuccessful coup attempt by the Communist party plunged the country into deep crisis. The retaliation by the military and various Islamic organisations was to cost hundreds of thousands of Communists and Socialists their lives. The biggest Indonesian women’s organisation, GERWANI (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia – Indonesian Women’s Movement), which at its peak had 1.5 million members and was closely connected with the Communist Party of Indonesia, also became a target for the anti-Communist mobs and was broken up.
After banning the most radical Indonesian women’s association with the largest membership, the state assumed the regulation of women’s activities. Two important organisations were created: Dharma Wanita, to which all the wives of state civil servants had to belong, and Dharma Pertiwi, the equivalent for the wives of men in the army. Their activities amounted to nothing more than charitable undertakings and helping to organise national celebrations, which included events such as cooking competitions.
Although Indonesia under the second president, Suharto, suppressed independent political organisation and cultivated a national mother-cult which assigned women primarily to servient and caring occupations, in the 1980s women activists started to reorganise. Once again they demanded equal rights and denounced the sexual violence that was rampant. Despite difficult conditions, things slowly began to move, and in 1984 Indonesia signed the ‘International Convention against All Forms of Discrimination against Women’.
Differing concepts of family law
Since the overthrow of Suharto, activists on Java have striven for reforms in a multiplicity of contexts. In discussions about fairer relations between the sexes, participants such as Siti Musdah Mulia and Maria Ulfah Anshor, both (previously) for many years chairwomen of the young women’s organisation Fatayat NU, became central figures of the movement. Mulia has become familiar to the general public as the instigator of the reform of family law. An Islamic scholar, she heads a research group at the Ministry of Religion that formulated a draft law to be compared with the existing one with regard to strengthening the rights of women. In contrast to the existing law, the draft revision advocated a ban on polygyny and introduced monogamy as the bedrock of marriage.
According to Musdah Mulia, this clause was a necessary one because conflicts, child abuse and violence against women were more likely to occur in polygynous marriages than in monogamous ones. She sees a need for concrete action because in her opinion Indonesian law, which allows polygyny only if the wife is barren, ill, or does not fulfil her marital duties, is not being implemented properly. Mulia explains that men often take a second wife even when none of these conditions apply.
The alternative proposal also envisages that a woman should be able to decide for herself whether or not she wishes to get married, as well as having equal rights in carrying out professional or social activities. The Ministry of Religion initially showed interest in the draft reform, but then the minister in charge, Said Agil, forbade any further discussion of the paper on the grounds that the concept had not been agreed with the Ministry of Religion. A more fundamental reason for rejecting the alternative proposal was, however, more likely to have been the fact that the Council of Islamic Scholars (MUI) had previously asked the Ministry of Religion to reject it on account of protests within the Islamic community. It would appear that the Ministry yielded to pressure from the extremely conservative MUI. In recent years the MUI has increasingly announced legal judgements that testify to its extremely conservative stance.
Unlike the MUI, many women activists welcome the alternative proposal as a desirable reform with the potential to open up new spheres of influence for women. Maria Ulfah Anshor, who as a parliamentary delegate is currently active in the Commission IX (Demography, Health, Workforce and Transmigration), describes the alternative proposal as a breakthrough and extraordinarily courageous. Like other members of Fatayat NU, she represents the view that polygyny is unacceptable.
Interpretation of Islamic sources by women activists
Many recent research papers consider Muslim women’s organisations to be forces of Islamic feminism. Pieternella van Doorn-Harder, for example, regards Islamic feminism as a new force within the Islamic women’s organisations of the Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama – respectively, the Muslimat and Fatayat, and the Aisyiyah and Nasyiatul Aisyiyah – a force that is gradually changing the position of women. She assesses the reinterpretation of Islamic sources practised by the female leaders of the organisations as a step towards emancipation.
Discussion of the necessity of reinterpreting the Koran and the hadiths is indeed taking place in the women’s organisations, if only at the leadership level. Many of the presidents of the women’s organisations argue that numerous Islamic sources have until now been interpreted on the basis of gender in a way that is distorted and disadvantageous to women. This, they say, can be ascribed to the fact that these texts came into being in a different time and under completely different premises which no longer have any validity today. On this basis they demand a historical-social contextual reinterpretation of Islamic texts as a strategy to reinforce the position of women.
The women’s organisation Fatayat has also been involved in the critical discussion on the subject of abortion. In this context the recently-published book by Maria Ulfah Anshor, Fikih Aborsi (Jurisprudence of Abortion) which won the Saparinah Sadli Prize for the defence of women’s rights, deserves special mention. In it the chairwoman of Fatayat calls on government representatives to formulate an alternative law to the current jurisprudence: one that allows a woman to seek an abortion if her reproductive health is endangered. Anshor calls for a moderate jurisprudence that makes it possible for a woman to seek a safe abortion carried out by a trained doctor in the event of an unwanted pregnancy. In her opinion, the formulation of jurisprudence with gender perspective is of key importance for the protection of a woman’s reproductive rights.
However, the reinterpretation of Islamic sources is very problematic for women activists in a number of ways. For one, they are constantly confronted with the fact that male Islamic scholars have the prerogative of interpretation, and that their attempts to provide for more gender justice by means of new interpretations often provoke vehement criticism and are rejected by male experts on Islam. Both the reform proposal for family law and Maria Ulfah Anshor’s demands for a more moderate abortion law were either rejected entirely or, in the second instance, subjected to very heavy criticism. On the other hand, the debate about the reinterpretation of Islamic sources is confined to a few intellectuals and does not extend to the wider membership of the organisations.
Women in Aceh
The province of Aceh represents a special case in Indonesian development. Following the 2004 tsunami and the end of the thirty-year Acehnese civil war, rapid changes have been taking place, in which international NGOs have had an influence. As agents of civil society, women have been actively involved in the processes of political change, and have used the state of upheaval to reclaim women’s rights. However, this has been only partially successful.
Although their role in reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation is repeatedly emphasised, they are de facto excluded from negotiations and are scarcely represented on political executive committees. Only three of the 43 members of the national reconstruction committee are women, and there is not a single woman in a leadership position in the successor organisation to the former Acehnese liberation army.
The implications of the introduction of Sharia law in 2002 constitute the greatest problem. The contents of the new local laws are orientated towards neo-conservative Islamic values and norms, and legitimate the supervision of women in almost all areas of public and private life. Women who violate Sharia laws are publicly humiliated and maltreated; they are also exposed to violent attacks by self-appointed moral guardians in the local morality police, Wilayatul Hisbah. Women activists who believe that the implementation of the Sharia laws contravene human rights are attempting to fight this development on two levels: on the one hand they offer legal support to those affected, while on the other they try to influence the formulation of local legislation.
Sharia in Aceh consists of a catalogue of laws divided up into different subcategories called qanun. The contents of the qanun were pushed through parliament in 2003 without any consultation with civil society institutions. Those decisively involved in formulating them were professors and academics from the faculty of law at the Islamic university IAIN-Ai-Raniry in Aceh, members of the council of scholars of Islamic law, and members of the council for traditional law in Aceh. The governor of Aceh has considerable powers with regard to the implementation of the Sharia, so the Sharia authorities, the above-mentioned morality police and the inspectorate for change in the law all come under his aegis.
The main criticisms of the Sharia by women activists relate to the interpretation of the qanun numbers 12, 13 and 14 in the 2003 version. Among other things, these deal with criminal law and lay down rules about relations between unmarried men and women (khalwat). Yet they do not precisely define what is meant by the term khalwat. It is down to the local morality police and the Sharia court to decide whether or not a certain form of behaviour is a khalwat offence. Thus, for example, there were cases in which it was debated before the Sharia court whether a distance of less than ten centimetres between the shoulders of a man and a woman should be adjudged as khalwat or not. Khalwat offences were punished particularly harshly in accordance with the jinayat, and resulted in public whippings in 2005 and 2006.
Women activists in Aceh initiated a series of working groups and alliances to take action against what they saw as a misogynistic interpretation of the Sharia. They drafted an alternative to existing qanun, formulating a gender-sensitive interpretation of the Sharia that did not recognise khalwat as an offence of indecency and rejected whipping as punishment. The alternative draft was presented to the provincial parliament in Aceh in November 2008, but was rejected on the grounds that the formulations were too great a contradiction of the spirit and content of the original qanun. The committee responsible for changing the law is now supposed to amend the draft in order to present it to parliament once more. This step, which again subverts consultation with civil society organisations, is intended to pre-empt the alliance of women activists. They are revising their original draft law, and intend to put it before the newly-assembled provincial parliament before the committee presents its version.
The efforts by women activists to formulate a gender-sensitive formulation of Sharia are being hindered by religious, traditional and political authorities that represent patriarchal values and norms and want to hold on to existing hegemonic structures. It is only by making major compromises that women activists are able to implement their own ideas about gender justice and equality within in Islam. No one dares to be openly critical of the implementation of regional Sharia laws, because they are too afraid of being accused of blasphemy and of disrespecting Islam.
Internationalisation of work in support of women’s rights
The local women activists received support from international organisations that were involved in the reconstruction programmes and equipped with large budgets. A total of nearly six billion euros in aid were made available. Around a third of this came from the Indonesian government, a third from international donors, and a third from NGOs. By the end of 2007, 90% of the aid had been allocated. Numerous projects were set up in cooperation with local organisations to implement the aid programmes. Local NGOs campaigning for women’s rights were financially supported in this way and were able to establish themselves, both structurally and by employing staff. Gender-specific demands could thus be brought onto the international stage and asserted more successfully.The aid programmes of the international organisations helped convey the goals of development cooperation, which were developed in the West and are orientated towards the ideals of the United Nations where gender equality is concerned. Gender equity, gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment appeared in the manifestos of the Acehnese women’s organisations, which looked for ways to implement these terms in an Acehnese context. One of the most visible successes of this cooperation is the Aceh Charter on Women’s Rights, signed on 11th November 2008 by a broad confederation of important decision-makers in Aceh. This charter is the first and only women’s charter to be adopted in a country with a majority Muslim population. In many aspects concerning the rights of women it goes further than the national law, and in political and civil society circles on both national and international levels it is seen above all as a success.
Transition: to what?
In spite of progress in the implementation of anti-discrimination programmes, there is still much to be done with regard to enforcing equal rights for men and women. Forces of inertia within the bureaucracy, political parties and religious organisations block many new ideas and prevent women from accessing the centres of political power. This is aggravated by the fact that important issues are debated only by educated members of the élite. At the grassroots level of the Indonesian women’s organisations there is, for example, no awareness of the necessity of a new interpretation of Islamic texts. At this level women are mainly interested in practical improvements in the economic situation. Women activists and NGOs respond to this with financial assistance measures or training courses. They also offer information seminars on topics of everyday relevance such as reproductive health, participation of women in politics, transmigration, and domestic violence. In this respect Indonesia is no different from other countries, including those in the West. Progress is being made only slowly, but the successes cannot be ignored.
However, the consequences of the increasing Islamisation of the society remain completely uncertain. Aceh is the only Indonesian province in which the Sharia is the foundation of criminal law, but many other regions are passing supplementary edicts in line with Sharia, obliging women to dress according to Islamist ideas of morality, or to leave the house only in the company of a male relative. Interestingly, women are also active in the Islamicisation movement, organising prayer groups and supporting Islamist organisations. A controversial anti-pornography law, which was promoted primarily by Islamic women activists, was passed by Parliament in 2008.There is just as much disagreement among women in Indonesia about what kind of social order they consider suitable as there is among women in other parts of the world. The government-led emancipation programmes imposed in Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923 and in Iran under Shah Reza Pahlevi in 1936 encountered resistance from women in particular. In both countries women fought for the reintroduction of the veil in public. In this sense, Indonesian women activists too could become the agents of a quite different transition to the one dreamed of by their pioneering sisters in Europe and Asia. It remains to be seen which path Indonesia will go down, but one thing is certain: secular activists certainly do not represent the majority of the country’s female population.
is a professor at the Institute for Ethnology at the Goethe University, Frankfurt. Her area of expertise covers the transformation of post-colonial Islamic societies, with an emphasis on feminism and gender in Islam.
is a professor at the Asia-Africa-Institute of the University of Hamburg, specialising in Islam, gender, women’s movements and Indonesian literature.
is conducting research for Hamburg University’s Institute for Ethnology on the involvement of women’s movements in the transition process in Aceh.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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