Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 39(1), pp 83–105 February 2008. Printed in the United Kingdom.
E 2008 The National University of Singapore doi:10.1017/S0022463408000040
Indonesian women and political Islam
This article investigates the history of women’s relationship to political Islam in
Indonesia over the last century. It addresses three questions: how Islamic women have
been politically active in Indonesia, how Indonesian women have been affected by
political Islam, and how they have influenced political Islam. Independence marked a
turning point. In the colonial period, women were more active within radical Islamic
organisations than in moderate ones. Since independence, however, the situation has
changed. Instead, the role of women has strengthened in moderate organisations while
radical Islam has kept women in the background.
There is a voluminous literature by Islamic men about how women should behave
and be treated.1 Clearly the issue is a critical one for Islamic communities, which have
always considered it important to regulate women, partly in order to maintain and
promote internal solidarity. Thus, for instance, Islamic law has decreed that Muslim
women may not marry non-Muslims, whereas Muslim men may marry non-Muslim
women, on the assumption that children will take on their father’s religion. How women
are treated in Islam is one of the issues about which Islamic groups often feel defensive in
the face of outside criticisms of the backwardness of their religion: practices like polygyny
and restrictions on the sexuality and mobility of women are frequently cited as evidence
that Islam is out of step with the modern world. The stance of Islamic groups, in relation to
the position of women is a key to categorising them, particularly today when Muslims are
engaged in far-reaching debates about the role of women. Radicals tend to react strongly
against criticism, while moderate Islamic Indonesians have re-examined their teachings
and made considerable interpretative revisions to accommodate modern concerns that
Islam has been too restrictive towards women.
These issues have all had resonance in Indonesia. The aim of this paper is not to
add to the general literature concerning Islamic views of women, but rather to
investigate something more specific and empirical: the history of women’s relationship
to political Islam in Indonesia. Three questions will be addressed: how Islamic women
have been politically active in Indonesia, how Indonesian women have been affected by
political Islam, and how they have influenced political Islam. These have always been
Susan Blackburn is an Associate Professor in the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash
University, Australia. Correspondence in connection with this paper should be addressed to:
1 For discussion of Islamic publications generally in Indonesia, including those concerning women, see
the useful article by C. W. Watson, ‘Islamic books and their publishers: Notes on the contemporary
Indonesian scene’, Journal of Islamic Studies, 16, 2 (2005): 177–210.
significant questions for the understanding of gender relations in Indonesia, although they
have received little attention in the literature on political Islam or on the political activities
of Indonesian women.2 In recent years, the rise of Islamic terrorism, democratisation and
decentralisation has given new urgency to the need to address these questions.
Some terms used in this paper need clarification. First, I distinguish between
Islamic and Muslim Indonesians, using the former to denote Muslims for whom their
religious identity takes precedence and the latter to refer more generally to religious
affiliation. In Indonesia, where almost 90 per cent of the population profess to follow
Islam, it is confusing to refer to, for instance, members of Nahdlatul Ulama as Muslim
as though this differentiates them from other Muslim Indonesians. Using the term
‘Islamic’ here distinguishes them from Indonesians who do not identify strongly with
their religion. Politically, this is obviously important: Islamic Indonesians are likely to
be motivated to act politically in ways that they find compatible with their religion, visà-vis other Muslim Indonesians who will be less concerned about religious rectitude.
Second, ‘political’ as a term is problematic. On one reading, the notion of political
Islam is reasonably straightforward, referring to Islamic groups or individuals who take
political action in the public arena on the basis of their religion. This would include
political parties based on Islam, or Islamic pressure groups that try to influence policymaking. The implicit contrast is with Islamic people or organisations that occupy
themselves solely with religious, social or cultural affairs, deemed non-political.
However, when we focus on how women act, it is possible to see them as acting
politically if they challenge existing power relations at any level. Within Islam, women
are political if they participate in debate about the interpretation of texts or if they
question prevailing religious practices. Because Islam has comprehensive teachings
about women’s role and place in society, almost anything women do can be seen to be
political in the sense of either accepting, supporting or challenging religious practices
and beliefs. Within Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), for example, the decision to allow girls to
form a drum band constituted a political breakthrough. Photographs of NU women
drilling with rifles during Sukarno’s Guided Democracy period reveal that even more
revolutionary changes were afoot in the early 1960s.3 This paper will deal with both
more and less overt kinds of political activity by Islamic women, but for reasons of
space it focuses more on the public arena.
Third, it is important to have some way of categorising groups within political
Islam, however difficult those categories may be. For the purposes of this paper, a
distinction will be made between political moderates and radicals.4 Moderates are
2 I began investigating the political activities of Indonesian Islamic women in my article, ‘Indonesian
Islamic women enter the political arena’, Kultur: The Indonesian Journal for Muslim Cultures 2, 2 (2002):
21–46. This article contains some material included in this paper. My initial interest was ignited by the fact
that in some circles women continue not to rate a mention in discussions of political Islam. For example, in a
recent Indonesian book on political Islam, Indonesia dan dinamika Islam politik, ed. M. Hamdan Basyar
(Jakarta: PPW-LLPI, 2000), women are completely invisible: even the well-known 1998–99 debate as to
whether a woman could become president is ignored.
3 50 tahun Muslimat NU berkhidmat untuk agama dan bangsa, ed. Saifullah Ma’shum and Ali Sawawi
(Jakarta: Pucuk Pimpinan Muslimat Nahdlatul Ulama, 1996), pp. 77–80, 85.
4 Here I am following the categorisation employed by Khamami Zada, Islam radikal: Pergulatan ormasormas Islam garis keras di Indonesia (Jakarta: Penerbit Teraju, 2002).
INDONESIAN WOMEN AND POLITICAL ISLAM
defined here as those who work towards their goals through reforms within the existing
political system, while radicals reject the system and work outside it. Clearly these
terms apply to a restricted view of political action in relation to acceptance of the polity
and they may not be relevant to politics at other levels, such as within the family or civil
society. This restriction is accepted for the purposes of the current argument: a
different kind of paper could be written about moderate and radical aspects of
Indonesian Islam in relation to, for instance, the practice of marriage. As I will explain,
what I find interesting, looking back over the last century is that moderate political
Islam was slower to accept women as political actors than was radical Islam. Yet by the
end of the century, the situation was reversed: women are scarcely heard among the
ranks of radical Islam, while within moderate Islam they have become ever more vocal
and active. Obviously this says something about changes in the Indonesian social and
political context as well as in the nature of political Islam.
Having clarified the terms used in this paper, I turn now to investigating the
neglected question of how Indonesian women relate to political Islam of either radical
or moderate varieties. Taking the last century as a canvas reveals some trends that are
broader than what can be found by concentrating just on recent years.
How Islamic women have been politically active
In the history of Islamic women’s political activity in Indonesia, the declaration of
independence in 1945 marks a watershed. During the Dutch colonial period, Islamic
Indonesians were politically preoccupied with the fact that they were governed by kaffir
(foreigners) and their first priority was to get rid of them. Distinctions within political
Islam were somewhat blurred, because both radicals and moderates shared this
common aim and there was as yet little discussion of the kind of state that would
follow independence. Initially, most Islamic political actors could be classed as radicals,
because they worked outside the colonial political system. The Dutch referred to them
as ‘non-co-operators’. By the 1930s, with the failure of non-cooperation to achieve
results against Dutch intransigence, many Islamic politicians resorted to what was
called ‘cooperation’, that is attempting to gain reforms within the representative
political institutions created by the Dutch, notably the local councils and the colonial
During the colonial period, then, the main goal of overtly political Islamic
organisations was to undermine or destroy Dutch rule. Some of these organisations
owed only a loose affiliation to Islam while others were stricter in their adherence, and
although there were tensions between them, during the colonial period they had a
common enemy. Women could and did participate in this struggle, both within
Islamic political parties and via the women’s movement. Their participation had
already been authorised in strongly Islamic areas like Aceh where women had
previously fought against Dutch conquest during the Aceh War. Within Sarekat Islam
(the Islamic League – SI), and one of its successor parties, Partai Sarekat Islam
Indonesia (Indonesian Islamic League Party – PSII), and within even more radical
Islamic organisations such as Persatuan Muslimin Indonesia (Indonesian Muslim
Union – Permi), there were well-known and vocal women leaders. Some were jailed for
their political activities.
By the 1920s, in the Dutch East Indies, most Islamic political parties had
established women’s wings, branches or sections to add to their support base,
proselytise and raise funds. In some cases, these wings were under the leadership of
wives of men who led the mainstream organisation, a step which may have been
intended to keep the women’s wing under male control.5
The decade of the 1920s was the heyday of parties that took a defiantly ‘noncooperating’ stance toward the colonial government. Women were no exception in
their bravado, bursting upon the stage with a force that clearly shocked many
observers, defying as it did all the feminine stereotypes. And some of these women
identified with Islam. They were associated with parties such as the ‘red’ wing of the SI,
which then split off to form the Sarekat Rakyat6 (People’s League – SR) and the Partai
Komunis Indonesia (Communist Party of Indonesia – PKI). At least some of these
women came from the peasant or working class, which differentiated them from most
women in organisations. In 1923, a ‘women’s SI’ was reported to have been formed in
Semarang, with an all-woman executive.7 Another such branch, called Wanodiyo
Utomo, was set up around the same time in Wonokromo, at the initiative of the wife of
Cokroaminoto, the SI leader.8 Around this time, we hear the first accounts of women
addressing political meetings. Thus, in early 1923, the nationalist paper Matahari
carried a speech entitled, ‘Must women also support the movement?’ delivered by Mrs
Kurliah-Jayadireja at a public meeting organised by the trade union, Vereeniging van
Spoor en Tramweg Personeel (Association of Railway and Tram Personnel, or VSTP).
Dutch reporters subsequently summarised the Indonesian account as follows:
When she appeared on the podium, 1,500 voices shouted ‘Long live the women’s
movement!’ Her speech urged Native women to take an interest in the political struggle
of their menfolk, not to hinder them in that but rather as much as possible to support
them, for the happiness and prosperity of the wife is closely dependent on that of her
husband. The speaker recalled in her speech the women who already dared to speak in
public in the Indies: in Paree woro [Javanese for woman] Sostroatmojo is a well-known
speaker at S.I. meetings; at Semarang saudara [comrade] Munasiah has often spoken; at
the most recent V.S.T.P. congress in Semarang a speech was made by Mrs Tetes; and just
recently woro Cokroaminoto led a S.I. meeting at Garut.
She concluded by pointing out that women in Europe were now to be found in
parliaments, and in Turkey and India Muslim women were also politically active –
examples that she hoped to see followed in the Indies.9 This was a period when Islam,
nationalism and Marxism mingled in explosive combinations.
5 Examples include the Jakarta branch of the women’s wing of PSII set up in 1929 which was led by the
wife of Cokroaminoto, the leader of the party. This is found in Politiek-politioneele overzichten van
Nederlandsch-Indie, Deel 2: 1929–1930, ed. Harry A. Poeze (Dordrecht: Foris Publications Holland,
1983), p. 189. Subsequently the executive of the women’s wing was led by the wife of Abikusno, the
party’s president. It is notable that in contemporary reports, Indonesian married women were often not
mentioned by their own names but only in relation to their husband.
6 This paper uses modern spelling of Indonesian names, except where old forms are used in quotations.
7 Sinar-Hindia, 23 Apr. 1923, reported in Overzicht van den Inlandsche en Maleisch-Chineesche pers
(Batavia: Landsdrukkerij, 1923), p. 189.
8 Kemadjoean-Hindia, 20 Apr. 1923, reported in Overzicht, 1923, p. 206.
9 Matahari, 15 Mar. 1923, reported in Overzicht 1923, pp. 687–8.
INDONESIAN WOMEN AND POLITICAL ISLAM
Although after the failure of the 1926–27 revolts the communist movement
disappeared for the rest of the colonial period, radicals continued to operate, albeit
under considerable difficulties. By committing themselves to the nationalist movement,
women became ‘political’ in the eyes of the colonial authorities,10 and laid themselves
open to the same kind of scrutiny and harassment that male nationalists had to face.
After the demise of communism, in Sumatra, it was prominent women in Islamic
political parties who were in most danger. A well-known case was the fiery Rasuna
Said, a leader of Permi, founded in 1930, which married Islam and nationalism.11 The
Dutch colonial attorney-general commented in 1933:
More than elsewhere, on the West Coast [of Sumatra] the women are accustomed to be
interested in the political movement and to stimulate it, whereby sometimes in their
speeches they put the men to shame. Figures like Rasuna Said and Rasimah Ismail are
certainly no exceptions. At many meetings the women are even in the majority and often
express themselves more sharply and passionately than the other sex….12
Rasuna Said and other Islamic women activists were arrested and jailed for some
Of the Islamic parties, PSII actively promoted a women’s wing from the late 1920s
and permitted women to speak at its public meetings. For instance, at the PSII congress
in Surabaya in 1929, a public meeting was held for about 1,500 people at which the
famous leader Cokroaminoto introduced the subject ‘The woman question’, and a
woman called Woro Sumoadinoto was reported as advocating the need to raise the
status of Indonesian women, and as stating that it was also the duty of women to join
the independence movement.13 At the PSII conference at Yogyakarta in 1930,
representatives of the women’s branch spoke about raising women to a position of
equality with men, and about polygamy and marriage laws.14 Siti Rukaeni, secretary of
the women’s wing of the PSII, was warned by local authorities at a meeting in Java in
1929 to ‘moderate her language’, and in 1933 she was arrested and jailed after a
10 This is very obvious in the treatment of the women’s movement in the Overzicht van den Inlandsche
en Maleisch-Chineesche pers, a fortnightly intelligence report for the colonial authorities on the nonEuropean press in the Dutch East Indies. This detailed and conscientious summary of the press
(including many newspapers no longer extant) showed most interest in the women’s movement when it
became overtly nationalist.
11 Permi had about 10,000 members in 1932, with about 160 branches spread over most of Sumatra,
Audrey Kahin, Rebellion to integration: West Sumatra and the Indonesian polity (Amsterdam: Amsterdam
University Press, 1999), p. 55. Historian Taufik Abdullah notes that when the majority of its male leaders
were arrested and exiled and various female leaders had also been jailed, Permi boldly selected a woman,
Ratna Sari, as its president in 1933, ‘Kilasan sejarah pergerakan wanita Islam di Indonesia’, in Wanita
Islam Indonesia dalam kajian tekstual dan kontekstual, ed. Lies M. Marcoes-Natsir and Johan Hendrik
Meuleman (Jakarta: INIS, 1993), p. 76.
12 Cited in R. C. Kwantes, De ontwikkeling van de nationalistische beweging in Nederlandsch-Indie:
Bronnenpublikatie. Derde Stuk 1928–1933 (Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff, 1981), p. 843.
13 Poeze, Politiek-politioneele overzichten, p. 95.
14 Ibid., pp. 291–6.
15 Boekoe peringatan ‘Pergerakan Isteri PSII’ 1918–1940 (s.l.: Madjelis Departement Pergerakan Isteri
PSII, 1940), pp. 21 and 29.
Within the confines of male-led parties, however, it was difficult for women to
gain priority for issues relating directly to women, and men were reluctant to promote
women to positions of leadership. This led to occasional friction. A remarkable
commemorative volume produced by the women’s wing of the PSII in 1940 very
frankly documents conflicts between it and the male leadership of PSII in the 1930s,
due to the latter’s refusal to allow adequate independence to the women’s wing.16 The
only chapter in this book contributed by a member of the PSII executive stands in
strong contrast to the other contributions by members of the women’s wing: while his
article is wordy, turgid and unrevealing, the women provide trenchant commentaries
on matters of importance to Islamic women, such as marriage rights and the role of
women in politics.
Most organised Islamic women were in avowedly ‘non-political’ organisations set
up for religious purposes, such as ‘Aisyiyah, the women’s wing of Muhammadiyah,
founded in 1917 in Yogyakarta. Within these male-dominated organisations, women
had the greatest difficulty gaining a voice. The use of the tabir or curtain between men
and women at meetings is indicative of the reluctance of organisations like Nahdlatul
Ulama and Muhammadiyah to accept women speaking before a male or mixed
audience. This practice was common at least until the Second World War.17 An official
history of Muslimat NU, the women’s wing of NU formed in 1946, describes the
struggle that women had within that organisation to be allowed to speak at NU
conferences (the first woman did so in 1938) and then to establish Muslimat. As the
book states, ‘the history of the birth of Muslimat NU can really be called a spectacular
political event within the circle of NU’.18 Such Islamic organisations, not formally
involved in politics themselves before the war, held profoundly conservative views
about women’s place, which was not deemed to be in public life. It is interesting,
however, that the practice that some women received in these organisations as
preachers (to all-women audiences) gave them useful training in public speaking.19
Outside the Islamic male-led organisations, Islamic women became involved in
political activities through their engagement with the women’s movement which also
had an increasingly nationalist thrust. Following on the first national women’s congress
in 1928, a federation of women’s organisations was formed that held regular
conferences. A number of Islamic organisations joined it: ‘Aisyiyah, the women’s wings
of Jong Islamieten Bond (Young Muslims Union), Persatuan Islam (Islamic Union –
Persis) and PSII, Sarekat Putri Islam (League of Muslim Women), and Permi. On
particular issues women from these organisations had an input: on education of girls,
on early marriage, on women’s suffrage, on polygamy. These activities did not bring
16 Ibid., pp. 15–33.
17 Hoofd-Comite Congres Moehammadijah, ‘Peringatan congres Moehammadijah Minangkabau Ke
XIX’ (Djokjakarta: 1930); Soekkonde, ‘Soedoet’,, Soeara ’Aisjijah, 30 Nov. 1941; Sejarah Muslimat
Nahdlatul Ulama (Jakarta: PP Muslimat NU, 1979) p. 43; 50 tahun Muslimat NU: berkhidmat untuk
agama Negara dan bangsa, ed. Saifullah Ma’shum and Ali Zawawi (1996), p. 84.
18 Ibid., p. 69.
19 The first woman with the courage to speak at a NU conference, Ny R. Djuaesih, was a well-known
mubaligh (preacher). Other prominent Islamic women leaders and members of parliament since 1945
were also preachers (e.g. Ny Hj Machmudah Mawardi, Ny Aisyah Dahlan, Ny Hj Tutty Alawiyah and Ny
Hj Khofifah Indar Parawansa).
INDONESIAN WOMEN AND POLITICAL ISLAM
them into conflict with their male counterparts; mostly they were acting in support of
Islamic men or very gently encouraging them to move in directions they felt were in the
interests of women.
The first congress of the Indonesian women’s movement, held in 1928, gives us a
glimpse of a very different style of Islamic women’s group. An Islamic organisation
based in Yogyakarta in the 1ate 1920s, Walfajri, led by A.D. Haani, founded a women’s
group, Natdatul Fataat.20 At the 1928 congress, Natdatul Fataat submitted proposals
that stood out as completely different. Not only did they propose that wives’ access to
divorce under Islamic law be facilitated and husbands’ access limited, but they
recommended that after divorce, fathers continue to contribute to the maintenance of
their children in the care of their ex-wives – an idea quite contrary to received views of
Islamic law. As a quixotic finale, they suggested that women’s dress should be
reformed: they should adopt the rok (Western-style skirts).21 However, Natdatul Fataat
did not join the women’s federation, perhaps because it was too conservative for its
tastes, and it played no further part in the women’s movement.
In subsequent years, the women’s federation took an increasingly overt political
direction. One sign was its espousal in 1938 of the cause of women’s suffrage. By that
time, a number of Islamic political organisations had joined with other moderate
nationalist parties to press for reform that would give the colony a democratic
parliament. It was within the scope of that demand that universal suffrage was, rather
unobtrusively, embraced by a coalition of nationalist parties that included Islamic ones
such as PSII and Muhammadiyah.22
A rare insight into the attitudes of women on the Islamic side of party politics at
this time is gained from an article in 1940 on ‘The Women’s Movement and the
Campaign for an Indonesian Parliament’ by Mrs S. Yati, an executive member of the
PSII women’s wing, PI-PSII, which was in turn a member of the women’s federation.23
This appears to be the basis of a speech she made at a public meeting during the PSII
congress in January 1940, where she urged women to mobilise behind action for an
Indonesian parliament.24 After explaining that politics related to the management of
the country, Mrs S. Yati argued that in order to improve the social conditions and the
economy of the country so that people could earn a reasonable living and not be
oppressed, it was the responsibility of common people to engage in politics by
participating in the government of the country. Referring to the rise of the women’s
movement in the Indies, she claimed that it had gradually moved into political action
because of an awareness that ‘politics is the best weapon to improve our status and
prestige’. This had led to recent actions in pressing for women’s suffrage. This political
20 Walfajri is described by Dutch intelligence of the day as a ‘social-reformist’ organisation, active in
economic and educational work, closely aligned with Partai Sarekat Islam but abstaining from political
activity, Politiek-politioneele overzichten van Nederlandsch-Indie: Bronnenpublikatie. Deel 1: 1927–1928,
ed. Harry A. Poeze (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982), p. 130.
21 Congres Perempoean, ‘Congres perempoean Indonesia jang pertama’, Isteri (1929): 8–9.
22 Susan Blackburn, ‘Women’s suffrage and democracy in Indonesia’, in Women’s suffrage in Asia:
Gender, nationalism and democracy, ed. Louise Williams and Mina Roces (London: Routledge Curzon,
2004), pp. 79–105.
23 Boekoe peringatan, pp. 76–84.
24 Pertja Selatan, 22–28 Jan. 1940, reported in Overzicht 1940, pp. 79–80.
struggle was a necessity for Indonesian women, she reiterated, and not ‘just because we
see Western women in parliament’. Social and economic efforts would not succeed
unless accompanied by political action. For Mrs S. Yati as an Islamic activist, the 1937
defeat of the colonial government’s effort to reform the marriage law was an example
of the success of political action. In the area of industrial relations, she noted that much
needed changing, as far as women’s work was concerned: for instance, political action
was required to introduce laws to ensure equal pay for equal work:
In civic matters, surely we women have the right to a say [medezeggingschap] like other
citizens in the running of the country, but up to now we have had no satisfaction in this
respect, rather only disappointment…
Women’s struggle for betterment, for equality of rights and independence, will not
be perfectly achieved while Indonesia remains a colony…
One way to achieve improvement is to struggle alongside men to demand an
A change in the present system of government will offer a broad opportunity for
Indonesian women to fulfil their needs and achieve a high status.
The right to a say in the management of everything including the management of
the politics of the country will surely become wider and freer for us.
Here an Islamic Indonesian woman provided quite a comprehensive argument for
the nationalist and feminist advantages of the vote for women. Mrs S. Yati was certainly
not alone among Islamic women in calling for women’s suffrage. Aisyiyah also
supported the campaign for a parliament and celebrated in 1941 when the colonial
government granted limited suffrage to Indonesian women.25
By the end of the colonial period, therefore, the groundwork was laid for women’s
political activity within the Islamic movement in Indonesia. Islamic Indonesians had
become accustomed to women making speeches in public on political topics, being
involved in organisations that participated in often strident debates about issues like
polygamy, and assisting the nationalist cause. Their leaders had mostly accepted the
argument that women should have the right to vote. The mass mobilisation behind
the nationalist movement that occurred during the Japanese occupation and the
Revolution of 1945–49 helped to further break down prejudices within Indonesian
Islam against women being active in modern organisations with secular goals. It was
clearly nationalism that legitimated the entry of Islamic women into the political arena,
quite quickly, in the case of radical political Islam and more slowly in the cases of
moderate political Islam and overtly non-political Islamic organisations. Nationalists
were eager to mobilise women in support of their goal of independence, and to involve
them in their political project of shaping the citizens of a modern nation.
What is different about political Islam during the colonial period as compared
with after independence, is that while moderate political Islam gradually opened its
doors more widely to women’s political activity, the phenomenon of radical Islamic
women leaders disappeared. Clearly much changed in the post-independence period.
25 A. Z., ‘Kaoem Moeslimaat disamping poeteri Indonesia – satoe toedjoean lain asasnja’, Soeara ’Aisjijah,
30 Nov. 1941, p. 750.
INDONESIAN WOMEN AND POLITICAL ISLAM
The political context was fundamentally different. Whereas the goal of anticolonialism had linked radical and moderate Islamic and secularist political parties in
an often uneasy alliance before 1945, divisions were much clearer once independence
was achieved. After 1945, moderate and radical Islamic groups disagreed about whether
it was possible to work on behalf of Islam within a nation-state that was neither based
on Islamic law nor pursued the cause of pan-Islamism. Radicals still want Indonesia to
be an Islamic state in which syariah law is practised, while moderates have accepted
that this is either impractical and/or undesirable and are willing to work politically
within the confines of a largely secular state (with important concessions to Islam such
as the role of religious courts and state promotion of religion). Radicals also feel the
pull of allegiance to Islamic causes elsewhere in the world, such as in Palestine, more
than do moderates, who have accommodated to the world of nation-states and
national interests. Islamic radicals have been occasionally militant or extremist26
because their demands have been consistently rejected by every political regime since
Incidents of Islamic radicalism have been relatively uncommon since 1945. There
have, however, been a number of Islamic radical political movements in Indonesia, the
best-known being the Darul Islam rebellion spanning the late 1940s to the early 1960s,
in West Java, Aceh and South Sulawesi. Darul Islam protagonists rejected the
Indonesian state as too secularist, and took up arms against the government in Jakarta.
Some proselytising Islamic organisations also adopted a radical line, one of them being
Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (Indonesian Council for Islamic Predication)
founded in 1967.27 After a period during which most elements of radical Islam were
resolutely suppressed by successive governments, the late New Order period, when
elements in the regime had their own reasons for fostering Islam, saw the rise of some
new militant Islamic radical groups such as the Komite Indonesia untuk Solidaritas
dengan Dunia Islam (KISDI – Indonesian Committee for Solidarity with the Islamic
World), Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (Council of Indonesian Mujahidin) and Laskar
Jihad (Jihad Troops).28 This coincided with a resurgence of Islam in Indonesia, fuelled
by pan-Islamism connected with the Iranian Revolution. With the fall of Suharto, yet
more such groups appeared on the scene, including Front Pembela Islam (Islamic
Defenders’ Front) and Jemaah Islamiah (Islamic Community).29 Current extremist
Islamic groups in Indonesia are direct descendants of Darul Islam, as they all have the
aim of imposing syariah law, by force if necessary. Although they have direct links to
earlier radical organisations, what distinguishes them in recent years is their supranationalist perspective. As a global religion, Islam has always stressed solidarity with
26 The term ‘extremist’ as used here is not synonymous with radical, which as explained, refers to those
who reject the prevailing political system. That rejection implies nothing about the methods they
espouse, which may be peaceful but may also be violent, in which case the term extremist applies.
Militant methods may not necessarily be violent but may well involve strong language and intimidating
27 Robert W. Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and democratization in Indonesia (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2000), pp. 106–9.
29 On the activities of these organisations, see Zada, Islam radikal, and L. Z. Rahim, ‘The road less
travelled: Islamic militancy in Southeast Asia’, Critical Asian Studies, 35, 2 (2003): 209–32.
other Muslims around the world, but now this commands even greater weight. Islam’s
threatened status in a globalising world is constantly emphasised, and the significance
of international events (notably United States hegemony) arouses passionate
resentment. The global identity of radical Islamic Indonesians has thus become more
pronounced over time.
Compared to radical Islam in colonial days, it is striking that there appears to be
no place for women within these organisations, except at the margins. While radical
Islam was a nationalist phenomenon, women played a role. Now, when radical Islam is
increasingly oriented to international events and Middle Eastern models, women are
only visible behind the scenes in minor supportive roles about which we have no
information, or making up the numbers in occasional peaceful street demonstrations.30
This is, of course, entirely consistent with radical Islamic ideology. The scripturalist
approach of radicals to Islam holds that women’s role is as daughters, wives and
mothers, out of the public eye, and that politics is a man’s world.31 They have never
been so contrary as to thrust forward women to preach this message (unlike some
other militant religious groups, for example, in India).32
It should be noted that I do not categorise Acehnese separatism as a radical Islamic
movement. The Acehnese independence movement, Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, appears
to have little to do with Islam and denies it supports imposition of syariah law. It is
based on Acehnese nationalism and opposition to rule by Jakarta rather than on
religion.33 As its leaders maintain, the struggle is a direct continuation of the Aceh War
against colonialism: Islam is regarded as part of the Acehnese national identity. The
fact, therefore, that women are known to have taken up arms in the Acehnese cause,
does not weaken my argument about the invisibility of women in radical Islam in the
30 Studies of Islamic extremist groups in Indonesia have noted the important role that women can play
behind the scenes, as wives and in supportive activities, but not as public figures, International Crisis
Group, Jemaah Islamiyah in South East Asia: Damaged but still dangerous (Brussels: International Crisis
Group, 2003), pp. 1, 27–8; International Crisis Group, Terrorism in Indonesia: Noordin’s network
(Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2006), p. 6.
31 See R. William Liddle, ‘Media Dakwah scripturalism: One form of Islamic political thought and
action in New Order Indonesia’, in Toward a new paradigm: Recent developments in Indonesian Islamic
thought, ed. Mark R. Woodward (Tempe: Arizona State University, 1996) for a useful distinction among
Muslims between scripturalists and substantialists. The former attach greater importance to the letter of
scriptures, whereas the latter are more concerned about keeping faith with the spirit behind the writing,
which requires careful interpretation and contextualisation.
32 A striking aspect of the increased conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India in recent years has
been the appearance of fanatical spokeswomen on both sides. Analysing this situation, Amrita Chhachhi
notes that women’s active involvement in religious fundamentalist organisations ‘has in fact freed them
from traditional patriarchal controls over their mobility since they are allowed to move around in the
service of god and the propagation and defence of their religion’ (Amrita Chhachhi, ‘Identity politics’, in
Against all odds: Essays on women, religion and development from India and Pakistan, ed. Kamla Bhasin,
Ritu Menon and Nighat Said Khan (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1996), p. 8. Another author in the
same book offers a profile of ‘a militant, fundamentalist’ Islamic women’s organisation in Kashmir
(Shiraz Sidhva, ‘Dukhtaran-E-Millat: A profile of a militant, Fundamentalist Women’s Organisation’, in
Against all odds).
33 International Crisis Group, Aceh: Why military force won’t bring lasting peace (Brussels: International
Crisis Group, 2001), p. 5.
INDONESIAN WOMEN AND POLITICAL ISLAM
There are a number of possible reasons why radical Islam accommodated women
in prominent political roles during the colonial period but not more recently. One is
that Indonesian Islam in the first part of the century was less influenced by Middle
Eastern-derived scripturalism that has been such a feature in recent years, and which
has rigid views about limiting women’s public activities.34 In a similar vein, the mixture
of nationalism and Islam in the colonial period added an important element of
flexibility as far as gender was concerned. Another possible explanation, which I
canvass further below, is that bright and articulate women were attracted to radical
Islam when it was fighting for national independence but now few share its goals.35 The
objectives of creating an Islamic state with the concomitant enforcement of syariah law,
and of fighting the cause of international Islam against the West inspire fewer women.
It is, of course, possible that while Indonesian women are not politically active
within radical Islam, they may passively support it. We might consider an analogy with
Gerwani, the communist-oriented women’s organisation of the 1950s. It seems most
likely that Gerwani attracted millions of supporters not because they understood or
were attracted to communist ideology, but because Gerwani conducted many activities
that were useful to poor women, such as anti-illiteracy courses, creches and campaigns
against price rises.36 Because the situation in Indonesia has in recent years mirrored the
economic and political uncertainties of the 1950s and early 1960s, it would not be at all
surprising to see women rally to an organisation that offered them some assistance in
their daily lives. So far, however, there is no sign that radical Islamic organisations play
such a role (although a few moderate parties like PKS certainly attempt to provide
support to needy families, as discussed below). If women support them, they must do
so for religious reasons rather than material ones, and there is little indication that
doctrinaire Islam is appealing to many women.37
Within moderate political Islam, however, women’s role increased after
independence. While this is most clearly seen in the prominence of women within
political parties associated with Islam that have contested elections from 1955 onwards,
just as in the colonial period, ostensibly ‘non-political’ Islamic women’s organisations
have also been active on certain political issues. It is in fact often hard to differentiate
between political and non-political Islamic organisations, as some of them, like NU,
have been in and out of the political arena, sometimes taking the role of a political
party and, at other times, withdrawing to what they claim to be purely religious, social
34 This viewpoint is supported by a number of authors, including A. Bubalo and G. Fealy, Between the
global and the local: Islamism, the Middle East and Indonesia (Washington, DC: Brookings Institute,
35 I think it is possible to argue that the militancy of the Islamic women described by Sidhva in India
(Sidhva, ‘Dukhtaran-E-Millat’) was closely related to their identification with the struggle for the
independence of Kashmir. Their responses to Indian repression are very reminiscent of what has
happened in Aceh.
36 Donald Hindley, The Communist Party of Indonesia, 1951–1963 (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1964), pp. 203–10.
37 In the survey of Indonesian public opinion concerning attitudes towards Islam conducted in Nov.
2002 by the Research Center for the Study of Islam and Society in Jakarta, it is noticeable that support
for more fundamentalist Islamic ideas was much lower among women than men; S. Mujani and R. W.
Liddle, ‘Indonesia’s approaching elections: Politics, Islam and public opinion’, Journal of Democracy, 15,
1 (2004): 119.
and cultural activities. Along with NU, the other large Islamic organisation,
Muhammadiyah, had been a corporate member of the Islamic party, Masyumi, in
the 1940s and remained in it when NU left to form its own party in 1952. Following the
fall of the New Order, both NU and Muhammadiyah spawned a number of political
parties to which, however, they never gave their formal imprimatur. Nevertheless,
leaders like Abdurrahman Wahid of Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (Party of National
Awakening – PKB) and of NU, and Amien Rais, leader of Partai Amanat Nasional
(National Mandate Party – PAN) and a former leader of Muhammadiyah, were still
naturally identified by most people with those Islamic organisations.
Islamic women were evident in political life from the start of independent
Indonesia. Machmudah Mawardi, representing Masyumi, was chosen to be a member
of the working party (Badan Pekerja KNIP) that advised the new Republican
government in 1946. In the liberal democracy period of the 1950s, Islamic political
parties found women’s wings useful in preparing for the 1955 general election. (NU
was prevailed upon to permit an autonomous women’s wing, Muslimat NU, to form
and to stand women as candidates largely because of rivalry from Muhammadiyah. The
latter already had a women’s wing, ‘Aisyiyah, and was preparing its own female
candidates for the Masyumi party.) In the elections, 52 seats were won by Masyumi
candidates, of whom three were women, while NU had five women among its 45
members of parliament. This compared favourably with the other main (non-Islamic)
parties, PNI and PKI.38 In parliament, Islamic women played a prominent part on
certain issues, especially in the marriage law debate of 1957, when they spoke out
strongly against attempts to introduce a marriage law not based on religion.39
After the demise of parliamentary democracy in the 1950s, the scope for political
Islam was progressively narrowed by measures taken by Presidents Sukarno and
Suharto. Under the New Order, moderate political Islamic Indonesians had only one
legal avenue of parliamentary representation, through the Partai Persatuan
Pembangunan (United Development Party – PPP), whose independent Islamic spirit
was restricted by the Suharto government’s interference in its governance and
imposition of asas tunggal (adherence to a single ideology, Pancasila). The parliament
itself was largely supine, but the voices of Islamic women were heard on another
tumultuous debate on the marriage law, that ended with a compromise. Islamic
women were apparently well satisfied with the 1974 Marriage Law that retained the
religious nature of marriage while restricting the rights of Muslim men to easy divorce
and polygyny.40 However lacking in power the parliament might be, it nevertheless
permitted useful training in practical politics for some Islamic women who
subsequently became quite prominent political figures. A notable example is
Khofifah Indar Parawansa, a remarkably dynamic Minister for Women’s
Empowerment under the Wahid presidency, who had cut her teeth as a PPP
representative in parliament in the 1990s.
38 Ma’shum and Sawawi, 50 tahun Muslimat NU, p. 73.
39 Susan Blackburn, Women and the state in modern Indonesia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2004), chapter 5.
INDONESIAN WOMEN AND POLITICAL ISLAM
The really important changes in Islamic women’s political activity, however,
occurred outside the parliament in the late New Order period. Unlike political parties,
non-government organisations (Lembaga Swadaya Masyarakat) had rather more
freedom to develop since they did not directly challenge the government. By the 1980s,
women’s increasing access to education and the rise of the middle class, as a result of
growing prosperity in Indonesia, contributed to the appearance of a new cohort of
politically aware Islamic women. What was most noticeable was their willingness to
challenge conservative Islamic views on women. Armed with good educational
qualifications, usually from Islamic institutions funded by the state, these young
women enthusiastically embraced the more woman-friendly reinterpretations of
Islamic texts that were emerging globally and in Indonesia from the 1980s onwards.
Many of them linked these interpretations to issues of concern to women, like
reproductive health and domestic violence. These Islamic women, some of whom
accepted the label feminist, grew accustomed to publicity. Examples include Lies
Marcoes-Natsir, Farha Ciciek and Musdah Mulia who have entered into a number of
public controversies relating to women and Islam. They are not associated with
political parties but have close connections with sympathetic politicians such as
Abdurrahman Wahid and Khofifah Parawansa. The organisations with which they are
associated have benefited from foreign aid from western sources such as the Ford
Foundation, and they are well connected with international feminist groups.41
At the end of the New Order, young Islamic women turned out in demonstrations
against Suharto in 1998 but did not take a prominent public role. In the last few years
among the new groups and parties that have mushroomed in Indonesia the numbers of
Islamic women with moderate, liberal agendas have increased. It is of course possible to
be moderate without being liberal, but it is striking how liberal ideas have become
much more prominent in Indonesia today than they were 20 years ago. However, such
women are still in a minority within a highly male-dominated sphere. After the 1999
election, the proportion of women in parliament was actually less than at the end of the
New Order, and it increased only marginally in 2004.42 Proportionately fewer women
have been elected to represent overtly Islamic parties than for the main secular
parties.43 As in the colonial period, moderate Islamic organisations have thus been slow
to promote women to public office.
How women are affected by political Islam
There is much at stake for Indonesian women generally, depending on which way
political Islam goes.
The scripturalist approach of radical Islam claims to offer much to women. It
promises them the virtuous comfort of certainty of doctrine, and the security of male
41 Some sources that discuss the role of Islamic feminists in recent years are M. Mulia, Muslimah
reformis: Perempuan pembaru keagamaan (Bandung: Mizan, 2005) and S. Muslikhati, Feminisme dan
pemberdayaan perempuan dalam timbangan Islam (Jakarta: Gema Insani, 2004).
42 In 1997, women comprised 12 per cent of the members of the lower (elected) house, the Dewan
Perwakilan Rakyat. After the 1999 elections, the percentage dropped to 8, and climbed back to 11 in 2004
(Inter-Parliamentary Union website, http://www.ipu.org/english/home.htm, last accessed 8 Aug. 2007).
43 S. Sherlock, Consolidation and change: The Indonesian parliament after the 2004 elections (Canberra:
Centre for Democratic Institutions, 2004), p. 12.
support and protection for daughters, wives and mothers. These aspects are well-suited
to the pietistic side of the Islamic revival that Indonesia has experienced since the
1980s. Just as Saba Mahmood has documented in Egypt, many Indonesian Islamic
women are seeking guidance on how to live virtuous lives.44 While outwardly this may
be manifested in the wearing of ‘Islamic dress’, the serious work of forging Islamic
selves goes on mainly in private, or in small groups out of the public eye. Although
their project would, if fulfilled among large numbers of women, have a profound effect
on Indonesian society, it is not connected to public political life, at least in any direct
way. It does not demand the intervention of the state. Such women may, nevertheless,
be among those who have participated in large demonstrations on such issues as the
anti-pornography bill discussed below.
The promises of religious certainty offered by extremist Islam may be attractive to
women in times of disasters and upheaval, such as many Indonesians have experienced
over the last decade. On the other hand, there are good reasons why radical Islam is
unlikely to attract many Indonesian women.
First, Indonesia is culturally very different from the Middle East or west or south
Asia. In particular, it has a longstanding tradition of greater freedom for women,
especially in public places. Second, unlike Afghanistan or Pakistan, almost all
Indonesian women are now literate and have at least elementary schooling. Along with
this goes access to information, including knowledge about countries where radical
Islam has triumphed. Negative impressions have reached the Indonesian media about
the fate of women in Afghanistan and Iran despite initial solidarity with those nations
in support of their struggles against foreign domination. It would be impossible to eject
Indonesian women from the workforce as was attempted in Afghanistan and Iran.
Women have always dominated the informal economic sector, and there are now
growing numbers of women in the formal workforce getting better pay and enjoying
more independence from their families. Finally, in recent decades, the age of marriage
for women has risen significantly and the birth rate has declined markedly in
Indonesia: women are less preoccupied with family obligations than before. The notion
that Indonesian women would just stay home and look after their families is clearly
Since radical Islam has not held power in Indonesia, its influence is largely limited
to indirect social pressure. Its ideas are in the air, including the media and the popular
literature available in local bookshops.45 These reflect a hard-line, scripturalist
approach to the position of women in Islam. While they undoubtedly cater for those
searching for self-improvement, an aspect of the Islamic revival referred to above, it is
difficult to know precisely who consumes these ideas or what effect they have. That
they are shared by a substantial number of mainly rural Muslims is shown in a 2002
survey of Indonesian public opinion, which indicated that although only a minority
thought that polygamy should be permitted and that a woman should not be allowed
44 Saba Mahmood, Politics of piety: The Islamic revival and the feminist subject (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2005).
45 Most interesting is the array of cheap, small books on specific subjects related to women (sexuality,
marriage, etc). All authors are men, some of them Indonesian but mostly from the Middle East. For
more details, see Watson, ‘Islamic books’.
INDONESIAN WOMEN AND POLITICAL ISLAM
to become a president, a judge or a member of parliament, around half still thought
priority in education should be given to boys, that inheritance for daughters should be
half that for sons, and that in public women should always be accompanied by close
Easier to discern is the influence of political Islam on policies and practice
concerning a number of key issues relating to women in Indonesia, where battles have
been waged between different interpretations of Islam and the weight they should have
in Indonesian society. On a number of these issues, a progressive line has prevailed.
Early in the twentieth century, there was opposition from Islamic (male) leaders to the
notion that girls had a right to go to school, or that minimum ages should be set for
marriage. Similarly, they strenuously opposed any reform of Islamic marriage laws
intended to restrict men’s right to easy divorce and polygyny or to extend women’s
access to divorce. Until the New Order negotiated skilfully with Islamic leaders, they
held that contraception was a sin. These are all areas where Islamic leaders, including
leaders of Islamic political parties, initially resisted change that benefited women. With
gradual change in mainstream Islamic thinking in Indonesia, and determined efforts by
women and governments, that resistance was overcome. One example of how far
Indonesian Islam has come is that it is the only Muslim nation where women are
judges in religious courts.47
A number of areas remain where Islam creates an effective political obstacle to
change on issues concerning women. They include sex education of adolescents and
access to legal abortions. Even here, however, the influence of new ideas within
moderate Islam has turned the tide on some issues. For instance, after considerable
opposition from Islamic forces, legislation against domestic violence, including the
outlawing of marital rape, was finally passed by the Indonesian parliament in 2004.
Three issues that have received great publicity in recent years, and in which both
moderate and radical Islam took a strong stance relating to women are the 1998 rapes
case, the Megawati presidency debate and the draft anti-pornography law. A number of
Islamic groups were very resistant to accepting the notion that Chinese Indonesian
women had been mass raped during the 1998 riots. This reflected not only
misunderstandings about the nature of rape (that rapes did not occur if raped women
did not come forward to give public witness, that men could not rape women during
such the tumult of riots, etc.) but also indicated opposition to the bad press that
Indonesian Muslim men were receiving overseas, where the event was seen as Muslims
raping non-Muslims. No Islamic organisations took up the cause of the raped women,
although a number of individual Islamic women did so.48
The debate in 1998–99 over whether a woman could be president of Indonesia
revealed the power of Indonesian political Islam on an issue related to women’s
46 Mujani and Liddle, ‘Indonesia’s approaching elections’, p. 114.
47 Blackburn, Women and the state, pp. 128–9. The background to this important move has not been
researched. It appears that it was possible because the secular democratic government of the time,
although not ready to introduce a uniform marriage code of the kind that would satisfy the women’s
movement, was prepared to make a more indirect effort, via the courts, to introduce greater equality for
Muslim women in marriage.
48 Susan Blackburn, ‘Gender violence and the Indonesian political transition’, Asian Studies Review, 23,
4 (1999): 431–66.
leadership. After the 1999 elections in which Megawati’s party won a plurality of the
votes, a troika of Islamic political parties kept Megawati out of the presidency by
manoeuvring to have Abdurrahman Wahid, a well-known Islamic leader, elected to
that position by the People’s Consultative Assembly. Various Islamic bodies
pronounced that a woman could not be a leader of a Muslim nation. Radical
Islamic groups were particularly insistent on this interpretation of the scriptures, going
further than others by claiming that all public offices connected with taking political
decisions were haram for women.49 That this was a transparent political ploy by the
Islamic parties was revealed in 2001 when two of them defected to vote against Wahid
and for his replacement by Megawati. It was nevertheless a shock to the presumption of
equal citizenship in Indonesia (upheld in the constitution) that reputable Islamic
leaders had expressed such discriminatory points of view. It should be noted that the
leading Islamic women’s organisations, Muslimat NU and ‘Aisyiyah, both declared that
they did accept women as national leaders.50 Since the subsequent introduction of
directly elected presidents in Indonesia, the parliament is no longer in a position to
block presidential candidates.
Nevertheless, the fact that Indonesia is likely for the foreseeable future to lack a
majority party means that its governments will be coalitions in which Islamic parties
can play influential roles. Many groups were outraged in 2006 when an Islamic
minority in the parliament initiated a draft law that, in the name of combating
pornography, aimed to restrict the movement of women by dictating what they could
wear and outlawing ‘sensual movements’ including dance performances. After
strong lobbying by women’s groups and the cultural, arts and media communities,
not to speak of the fury of Balinese leaders, the bill was watered down to exclude
many of the measures to which they objected. Although in its original form such a
law could never have been passed, and indeed the amended bill has not yet been
debated in parliament, what has concerned women’s organisations is the huge
demonstrations mustered by Islamic groups (including many women) in support of
the draft law and the trend in favour of such restrictions at lower levels of
Democratisation in Indonesia after 1998 has been associated with decentralisation,
meaning that the central government’s power is often undermined at provincial and
district levels. Since the Decentralisation Law began to be promulgated in 2000,
political Islam has become increasingly active and influential at these lower levels. Only
Aceh, by a special dispensation, has been allowed to introduce syariah law, as the
central government made an effort to woo Acehnese away from support for the
separatist movement. In 2005, the policy was put into effect, setting up agencies to
implement syariah. During that year, most cases prosecuted under the law were against
women for ‘acts of indecency and immorality’ and violations of the Islamic dress
49 Zada, Islam radikal, p. 141.
50 Berhard Platzdasch, ‘Islamic reaction to a female president’, in Indonesia in transition: Social aspects of
reformasi and crisis, ed. Chris Manning and Peter van Diermen (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian
Studies, 2000), p. 343.
51 Violence against women 2005: Domestic violence and restrictions in the name of morality (Jakarta:
National Commission on Violence against Women, 2006).
INDONESIAN WOMEN AND POLITICAL ISLAM
code.52 Other regions are introducing elements of syariah by the back door, and yet
again they concern women, such as regulations restricting women’s movement at
night, on the ground that they are protecting public morality (maksiat).53 One reason
why district assemblies have felt free to canvass regulations that restrict women is that
they contain so few women members: only 350 out of a total of 10,250 according to
Rather than examples of political Islam such as Afghanistan or Iran, more relevant
for Indonesia now is probably the experience of Malaysia, where the Muslimdominated government seeks to attract voters away from Islamic parties. In recent
years, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS, has gained control of two states of the
Malaysian federation. The federal dynamics in Malaysia hold some warnings for
Indonesia: there PAS threatens to implement syariah but does little for pragmatic
reasons, while the central government moves towards more ‘Islamic’ measures to try to
neutralise the attraction of PAS to Malays.55 In the case of Indonesia, we must watch
not only the increasing political activity by Islamic people at lower levels with regional
autonomy, but also the response of Jakarta. In both Malaysia and Indonesia, measures
affecting women are central to the political game being played, because these are often
regarded as the easiest and least costly way of proving one’s Islamic bona fides. Whether
or not they are politically cheap will depend in large part on how women respond.
Rather than fearing the effects of decentralisation, Elizabeth Collins has put
forward a different argument that is worth considering. Based on her study of Islamic
organisations in South Sumatra, she believes that:
in the more open political environment of the post-Suharto period, the authoritarian
Islamic organizations are losing their appeal, and organizations that appeal to Islamic
values … have begun to change in ways that make their practices more democratic.56
It is by no means clear from her account, however, that becoming more
democratic means respecting the rights of women.
How 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. While it is
52 Ibid., pp. 14–16. The Jakarta government appeared to view the introduction of syariah as a way of
placating separatist feeling in the province, but as noted earlier, the separatist movement had never made
syariah part of its platform. The contradiction became obvious in the December 2006 election in Aceh,
when the GAM candidate, who won the governorship, heavily criticised the policing of syariah, Mark
Forbes, ‘Democracy calling’, The Age, 11 Dec. 2006.
53 See nal, ‘DPRD Sumbar setujui ranperda pekat’, Kompas, 15 Aug. 2001 and Edriana Noerdin,
‘Customary institutions, Syariah law and the marginalisation of Indonesian women’, in Women in
Indonesia: Gender, equity and development, ed. Kathryn Robinson and Sharon Bessell (Singapore:
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2002).
54 SB/V-1, ‘Peraturan daerah di era otonomi cenderung rugikan perempuan’, Kompas, 28 Aug. 2001.
55 Farish Ahmad-Noor, Pas post-Fadzil Noor: Future directions and prospects (Singapore: Institute of
Southeast Asian Studies, 2002), and J. Perlez, ‘Within Islam’s embrace, a voice for Malaysia’s women’,
The New York Times, 19 Feb. 2006.
56 Elizabeth Fuller Collins, ‘Islam and the habits of democracy: Islamic organizations in post-New Order
South Sumatra’, Indonesia 78 (2004): 95.
clear that the Islamic movement in Indonesia has changed considerably over the years,
the precise causes are unclear.
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 by two
generations of women in the family of Abdurrahman Wahid. Within 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 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 PKI after the ‘coup’ of
1965.57 Although leaders of Muslimat NU claimed that their organisation has had a
tradition of avoiding conflict,58 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 goal is to make religious leaders aware of how gender bias often is constructed by
religion, culture, and society. If we can change the perceptions about this text, the future
generations of male religious leaders will learn to accept women as equal human beings.59
Like her mother, Aisyah has been a long-serving member of parliament (for
Golkar) 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.’60
Insufficient research has been conducted on how women influence political Islam
from within. Books published by Muslimat NU and PSII Wanita nevertheless hint at
covert conflicts between their groups and male leadership, often resolved in favour of
the women.61 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.62
57 Ma’shum and Sawawi, 50 tahun Muslimat NU.
58 Ibid., p. 93.
59 Nelly van Doorn-Harder, ‘A Muslim feminist stirs Indonesia’s waters: Interview with Sinta Nuriyah
Abdurrahman Wahid’, The Christian Science Monitor, 17 May 2001.
60 Devi M. Asmarani, ‘Aisyah ponders new gender awareness in Islam’, The Jakarta Post, 22 Apr. 2000.
61 See for example Boekoe peringatan, sejarah Muslimat NU, and Ma’shum and Sawawi, 50 tahun
62 A recent doctoral thesis has shed light on the strategies of young women to influence male leaders, see
Muhammadiyah: Siti Syamsiyatun, ‘Serving young Islamic Indonesian women: The development of
gender discourse in Nasyiatul Aisyiyah, 1965–2005’ (Ph.D. diss., Monash University, Clayton, 2006).
They have been careful not to confront leaders and have formed alliances with younger, sympathetic
INDONESIAN WOMEN AND POLITICAL ISLAM
It is indeed striking, in recent years, to witness the increasing eloquence of Islamic
women and their readiness to debate gender issues. I have already mentioned some of
them. 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 organisation
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.63 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.64
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
and argue the point on Islamic hadith 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. 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-Islam. 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.65
Such problems have beset Indonesian Muslims arguing about gender for at least a
century. As I have explained, 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
63 Rahima website: www.rahima.or.id, last accessed 8 Aug. 2007.
64 Examples include Farha Ciciek, Ikhtiar mengatasi kekerasan dalam rumah tangga: Belajar dari
kehidupan Rasulullah (Jakarta: Lembaga Kajian Agama dan Jender, Perserikatan Solidaritas Perempuan,
The Asia Foundation, 1999); Istiadah, Pembagian kerja rumah tangga dalam Islam (Jakarta: Lembaga
Kajian Agama dan Jender, Perserikatan Solidaritas Perempuan, dan The Asia Foundation, 1999); Masdar
F. Mas’udi, Islam dan hak-hak reproduksi perempuan (Bandung: Penerbit Mizan, 1997); Musdah Mulia,
Pandangan Islam tentang poligami (Jakarta: Lembaga Kajian Agama dan Gender dengan Perserikatan
Solidaritas Perempuan dan, The Asia Foundation, 1999); Ratna Batara Munti, Perempuan sebagai kepala
rumah tangga (Jakarta: Lembaga Kajian Agama dan Jender, Solidaritas Perempuan dan The Asia
Foundation, 1999); Nasaruddin Umar, Kodrat perempuan dalam Islam (Jakarta: Lembaga Kajian Agama
dan Jender, Solidaritas Perempuan dan The Asia Foundation, 1999). Most of these authors are women;
all are Indonesian and it is notable that the 1999 booklets were published with funding from the Asia
Foundation. See also Watson, ‘Islamic books’, for discussion of Indonesian Islamic publishers who
include feminist works on their lists.
65 This dilemma is strongly expounded by Rachel Bloul in her description of a conference in Penang on
Islam and women, see ‘Gender and the globalization of Islamic discourses: A case study,’ in Southeast
Asian Identities, ed. Joel S. Kahn (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1998). For an
illuminating description of how young Indonesian Islamic women negotiate the issues of feminism and
Islam, see Syamsiyatun, ‘Serving young Indonesian women’.
behaviour between the sexes. 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, some 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 (the headscarf that covers
the hair and neck) 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 syariah
law.66 She has since continued to campaign against the further implementation of
syariah in her province:
During a radio show on the effects of the implementation of syariah in Aceh on women,
I said, ‘This is Arabisation, not Islamisation, so when will Aceh’s officials exchange their
cars for camels, so that things can be exactly like they are in the Arab world?’ The
telephone lines immediately filled with angry callers. My point was simply to highlight
that in a narrow interpretation of syariah, women are invariably the first victims. 67
It is perhaps easier to see the influence of women if we look at some of the issues
listed in the previous section, 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 in the 1950s with minimal controversy. On other matters,
there has been direct confrontation. Secularist women openly confronted Islamic
organisations on issues like polygyny, and they have been increasingly vocal in recent
years on matters like the 1998 rapes case, the Megawati presidency debate, and violence
against women. 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 sex education for teenagers, it
is just a matter of time before they accept more liberal interpretations of scriptures.
My own convictions about the trend of political Islam may be biased by my focus
on the moderates and the actions of Indonesia’s women’s organisations.68 These are
undoubtedly the better-educated groups in Indonesian society. Robert Hefner has
referred to the ‘strict and anti-cosmopolitan Islamism of the urban poor and the
66 ‘Syariah in Aceh silencing women’s voices’, The Jakarta Post, 8 Apr. 2002.
67 S. Kamaruzzaman, ‘Women and syariah in Aceh’, Inside Indonesia, 79 (2004): 9.
68 Blackburn, Women and the state.
INDONESIAN WOMEN AND POLITICAL ISLAM
lumpen-middle class’ where scripturalism has a strong following.69 Obviously we need
more research on how the notions of radical Islam are faring in these circles, and
whether the turmoil within Indonesia in recent years and the actions of the United
States against Islamic countries internationally are likely to strengthen radical Islam still
further. Mujani and Liddle have argued that the most reactionary Islamic views in
Indonesia exist mainly in rural areas where the dominance of moderate Islamic
organisations act to block this sizeable minority gaining political clout.70 I too find it
hard to imagine radical political Islam gaining a strong foothold in Indonesia. The
trajectory of Indonesian history is against it, and it is impossible to see how radicals
would bring women into line with their narrow doctrines. Indonesia cannot be
compared with Iran, where Muslims revolted against a dictator who alienated many by
his modernising measures, including enforced measures to ‘liberate’ women. Indonesia
is a democracy where the majority of people voted in 1999 and 2004 for basically
secularist parties. Islamic moderate parties gained modest support and radicals had
virtually no following.71 Nor was this a flash in the pan, for the pattern was similar in
the earlier democratic elections in 1955. Historically speaking, neither dictatorship nor
democracy has served political Islam well; in fact it fared even worse under the rule of
Sukarno and Suharto. So long as Indonesia remains a democracy, the degree of support
for Islamic parties will continue to be reflected in the polls.
The rise of the new Islamic party, Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS), in the 2004
polls indicates what such a party needs to do to obtain support. It gained 7 per cent of
the vote and 45 seats in 2004. Although the party originated with the radically inclined
Muslim Brotherhood, and it clearly depends on having a strongly Islamic image, its
constitution and manifesto make no mention of establishing an Islamic state. It has
women members of parliament, and even stood non-Muslim candidates at the 2004
election. Most commentators attribute the success of PKS to activities that are not
connected to overt political Islam, such as campaigning against corruption and
providing community service. Bubalo and Fealy have gone so far as to argue that ‘the
role that PKS has played is a tangible demonstration of how Islamists can sometimes
assist a process of democratisation by generating an alternative to the oligarchic
structures that often underpin autocratic – or formerly autocratic – regimes’.72 As in
my previous comment on Collins’ optimistic views about Islam and democratisation in
Indonesia, I would caution that democratisation does not always mean respect for
women’s rights. PKS was one of the parties that backed the Anti-Pornography bill
69 Hefner, Civil Islam, p. 105. As noted, the evidence of the 2002 survey of Indonesian public opinion
revealed some very conservative Islamic views about women in rural areas and among older people
(Mujani and Liddle, ‘Indonesia’s approaching elections’).
70 As noted, the evidence of the 2002 survey of Indonesian public opinion revealed some very
conservative Islamic views about women in rural areas and among older people (ibid.).
71 See Greg Fealy, ‘Islamic politics: A rising or declining force?’ in Indonesia: The uncertain transition, ed.
Damien Kingsbury and Arief Budiman (Adelaide: Crawford House Publishing, 2001) and Sherlock,
‘Consolidation and change’.
72 Bubalo and Fealy, Between the global and the local, p. 32.
73 A. Heriawan, ‘RUU AntiPornografi lindungi perempuan dari ekspoitasi seks’ PKS website, http://pksejahtera.org/2006/index.php, last accessed 8 Aug. 2007.
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 ignore religious teachings, exposing a gap between doctrine and lived
reality. For instance, they seek abortions in large numbers.74 This constitutes a
challenge to Islamic leaders, who can either continue to try to hold the line or, as has so
often happened, they can go back to the religious texts to reassess them in the light of
changed circumstances. In Iran, the Islamic regime has gradually had to make
concessions in the face of resistance to its hard-line 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.
Over the course of the last century, there has been increasing divergence between
moderate and radical Islamic organisations as far as the political role of women is
concerned. Early in the twentieth century, there emerged modern Islamic organisations, in which women played a part. They were slow to find a voice in ‘non-political’
organisations like NU and Muhammadiyah, but a few prominent women emerged in
radical parties like Permi and PSII. Their combative, stridently anti-Dutch style was at
odds with the ‘behind the scenes’ role favoured for women in moderate organisations.
Since independence, women’s roles have strengthened within moderate Islamic
organisations, which are now making efforts to recognise women and foster their
leadership. The converse is the case with radical Islamic organisations since 1945. Darul
Islam, KISDI and so forth have never made a place for women in public life: it goes
against their scripturalist version of Islam. That interpretation has in some small
groups become ever more restrictive in the face of globalisation, which in their case
means increasing influence from scripturalist circles in the Middle East. In the case of
moderate political Islam, globalisation has meant increasing openness and willingness
to adopt more liberal and pluralist views, including on gender. On a number of issues
where Islam has been politically very important for women, such as marriage,
education and public leadership, Islamic women have struggled to influence political
Islam, with considerable success.
From time to time, Indonesia is subject to waves of Islamic resurgence emanating
from the Middle East. The current wave has made its mark in terms of greater signs of
piety in Indonesia, and strong pan-Islamist sympathies. Contemporary radical versions
of Islam look beyond the nation-state to a global victory for their religion. There is a
battle going on in Indonesia for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslim women.
How will we know who is winning? Is the increasing adoption of ‘Islamic’ dress by
Indonesian women a sign that the radicals are making inroads? I think not, since it
74 While there are no accurate statistics on abortion, which are very difficult to acquire legally in
Indonesia, they have been variously estimated at a total each year of from 750,000 to 2.3 million (see
‘Ada 2.3 juta aborsi di Indonesia setiap tahun’, Kompas, 3 Mar. 2000, Terence Hull, Sarsanto W.
Sarwono and Ninuk Widyantoro, ‘Induced abortion in Indonesia’, Studies in Family Planning, 24, 4
(1993): 241–51, and ‘Lebih sejuta kasus aborsi di Indonesia setiap tahun’, Kompas, 10 Dec. 1998).
INDONESIAN WOMEN AND POLITICAL ISLAM
does not coincide with a declining role for women in public life. Radical Islam will
attract followers only on the fringe, amongst disaffected groups who may well be
influential from time to time and from place to place in Indonesia. But the odds are
stacked against the radicals, given the well-entrenched public economic role of
Indonesian women and their rising levels of modern education. In moderate Islamic
circles, women will continue to gain a greater role and to insist on more liberal
interpretations of scripture. In the polls, all forms of political Islam have failed to gain
much support from that half of the electorate who are women.
Cont Islam (2008) 2:23–39
Muslim women, middle class habitus, and modernity
Published online: 12 February 2008
# Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2007
Abstract This article asks how pious religious practices, which are often highly
gendered, and implicated in diverse formulations of “the modern” in non-Western
contexts. Based on ethnographic research among women members of Indonesia’s
Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), I argue that PKS women’s pious practices are part of
the creation of a particular kind of middle class subjectivity. An examination of two
constitutive elements of this habitus, clothing and marriage, reveals how these pious
Islamic practices enact class and gender difference, and simultaneously produce
“modern” selves. While scholars have shown that gender is an important axis for
class difference, I extend this argument to suggest that gendered forms of piety are
key ways class in which distinctions are embodied and expressed. Yet the habitus of
PKS women is just one of several competing Islamic habitus in Indonesia. The
question of which habitus is most culturally legitimate, I maintain, turns on the
hegemony of particular understandings of piety and ideas about how modernity
should be defined–issues which remain unresolved in contemporary Indonesia.
Keywords Islam . Women . Gender . Modernity . Habitus . Indonesia
It was an unusually clear and sunny day in Jakarta in July 2003, and the Prosperous
Justice Party’s seminar on pornography was taking place in a banquet hall at the Sari
Pan Pacific Hotel. At the front of the room, behind the speakers table, a large banner
read “Pornografi dan Kommitmen Menjaga Moralitas Bangsa” (Pornography and
the Commitment to Guard the Morality of the Nation).
Postdoctoral Fellow 2007–2008, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.
R. Rinaldo (*)
Department of Sociology, University of Chicago, 1126 E. 59 St., Chicago, IL 60637, USA
Cont Islam (2008) 2:23–39
Erna, a longtime party member, introduced the seminar. “We face the challenge of
building an Indonesia which is moral,” she told the audience. Noting that the nation
is now facing “a very complicated issue, that of pornography,” she said that the
speakers would explore “recent efforts to guard national morality.” Over the next
several hours, the speakers discussed the necessity to overhaul Indonesia’s laws on
pornography to protect its vulnerable youth. Most advocated banning all forms of
pornography, though it wasn’t quite clear what constituted pornography. However,
one speaker provided a clue when she expressed her concern about advertisements
depicting women without covering up their aurat. (Aurat is an Arabic term for parts
of the body that should not be seen in public.) While the borders of aurat are
debated among Muslims, the conventional view in Indonesia is that aurat includes
the area from a woman’s chest to her lower legs.
The event was remarkable in two ways. It was organized by the Women’s
Division of the Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, or PKS), which
meant that most of the attendees and several of the speakers were women. Not unlike
the divisive debates about pornography in the U.S. and Australia in the 1980s, this
discussion seemed to have been initiated by women. Indeed, not long after the
seminar, PKS helped introduce legislation to ban pornography. It proved politically
divisive and was returned to a parliamentary committee for revision. But the impetus
behind the bill came from some of the female leaders of the party, who considered
pornography, however it is defined, an affront to religious piety.
Just as striking was the explicit connection between pornography and national
morality. While there was concern about protecting women’s dignity and honor, it
was couched in terms of protecting the Indonesian nation from negative influences
(especially those of the West). Though Indonesia has existing laws regulating
pornography, these were seen as inadequate because they are not based in religious
law. The seminar demonstrated that for PKS, personal virtue and national morality
are closely connected. The party’s conception of what it means to be a pious Muslim
links these two spheres in practice, and constitutes a particular kind of modern
Islamic habitus. Because women’s bodily dispositions take on special importance in
revivalist Islam, studying women in PKS can provide important clues to the
production of this habitus.
The burgeoning scholarship on the Islamic Revival has overturned social scientific
assumptions that modernity and secularism are synonymous (Mahmood 2005; Berger
1999; Brenner 1996). Moreover, it has now become clear that modernity is not
singular, but multiple, and accordingly, the cultural programs of modernity vary
(Sachsenmaier et al. 2002). But there are still many questions left unanswered. What,
for example, is the relationship between gender and modernity? If modernization
increasingly brings women into the workforce and the public sphere, does modernity
entail a shift in gender roles and ideologies? The PKS seminar, with its linkage of
personal virtue and national morality, compels the question of how practices of
religious piety, which are often highly gendered, are related to more general changes
in modern culture.
In this article, I use Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to show how the pious
practices cultivated by women in Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party are part of the
creation of a certain middle class subjectivity. Theirs is a habitus that is oriented
Cont Islam (2008) 2:23–39
toward modernity and accords with essentialized, though not necessarily traditional,
notions of gender. I maintain that is one of several competing versions of Islamic
habitus in contemporary Indonesia, but that it remains unclear to what extent this
habitus is more culturally authorized than others. Lawler (2004) has recently argued
that gender is an important axis around which class distinctions are drawn and
maintained, and that the habitus, as a form of socialized subjectivity, is the means
through which such large scale inequalities are made real. I wish to extend Lawler’s
formulation by suggesting that gendered pious practices can also be a key part of
how class distinctions are embodied and expressed.
This article is based on 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Jakarta, Indonesia
between 2002 and 2005. The study focused on a spectrum of women’s groups
ranging from a secular feminist NGO to Muslim women’s rights organizations to
women in the Prosperous Justice Party. With regard to PKS, fieldwork consisted of
attendance at party events, including a conference, seminars, and demonstrations, as
well as in-depth interviews with 12 women party members ranging from their late
20s to 40s. Interviewees were selected by the head of the party’s Women’s Division.
However, PKS leaders did not supervise interviews, which took place in party
members’ homes or workplaces. All interviews were conducted in Bahasa Indonesia.
Although the name of the party is used throughout this article with the party’s
permission, individual names have been changed.
Throughout this article, I sometimes refer to women in PKS and other Muslim
groups as women activists. I define women’s activism as a large category of women
mobilizing other women for purposes of political and social reform. Feminism, in its
multiplicity, is one possible category of women’s activism. In Indonesia, many
women who advocate for gender equality hesitate to use the term feminist,
particularly because of its association with secularism and communism. Following
their preferences, I use women’s rights activist to describe those women who seek
equality with men.
Women and Indonesia’s Islamic revival
Though the majority of Indonesia’s 220 million inhabitants have been Muslim for
centuries, until recently Islam played a less significant role in the public sphere.
Indonesian Islam has frequently been portrayed by Western scholars as ‘syncretic,’
mixed with mystical pre-Islamic beliefs. Indonesian Islam is probably better
characterized by multiplicity. While populations in some regions have long practiced
orthodox forms of Islam and have had extensive contacts with the Middle East, Java
has long been known for its fusion of Islam and Javanese rituals (Geertz 1960). In
general, however, Indonesian Islam has had a strong interpretive bent, and
Indonesian Muslim scholars tend to adhere to the Syafi’i school of traditional
Cont Islam (2008) 2:23–39
Islamic jurisprudence (considered more socially liberal). In Indonesia, Islamic texts
have often been interpreted in ways that emphasize social equality and contest status
hierarchies (Wahid 2001). Nevertheless, because classical Arabic is the sacred
language of the Quran, Islam has also conventionally required education for access.
Indonesia is also often categorized as a secular state. However, according to the
government, Indonesia has neither a secular nor an Islamic state, but one based on
the philosophy of Pancasila, which mandates belief in a singular God, as well as
ideals of social justice and harmony. The militaristic Suharto regime (1965–1998)
did not suppress religion, but sought to manage it (Sidel 2006). As part of its
campaign to modernize the country and eliminate opposition, the regime compelled
Indonesians to choose religious identities and undergo religious education in
schools. These changes laid the groundwork for an Islamic revival that was in
important ways state sponsored (Sidel 2006; Hefner 2000).
In the 1980s, the government embarked on an ambitious program to promote
cultural Islam. It encouraged Muslim content on state radio and television, banned
lotteries, supported the creation of an Islamic bank, and funded Quranic recitation
competitions (Taylor 2003). Many of these new policies were responses to popular
mobilizations by Muslim groups demanding such reforms. These mobilizations arose
as part of a global wave of interest in Islam in the wake of the Iranian revolution.
As Indonesia became more integrated into the global economy in the 1990s, there
were increasing influences from transnational Islam. Books, tracts, and cassettes by
Middle Eastern Muslim thinkers flowed into Indonesia, conveying new and different
ideas about what constitutes proper Muslim behavior and how Islam should be
integrated into the nation-state (Hefner 2000). The new ideas about Islam revolved
around piety. While Indonesian Muslims, like Muslims in many countries, had often
been informal in their practice of Islam, these ideas emphasized that being a true
Muslim meant practicing the religion through adherence to certain religious norms.
While it is difficult to know how much beliefs have shifted, it is clear that in the past
20 years, many Indonesians have come to see carrying out the five daily prayers and
abstaining from alcohol and pork as essential to being Muslim.
Many of the new ideas about Muslim piety concerned women. There were
increasing calls for women to wear proper Muslim clothing, especially the veil, and
to behave in modest ways. Up till this time, veiling had been rather uncommon in
Indonesia, but by the early 1990s a new generation of university-educated women
was eagerly adopting the veil (Brenner 1996).
A women’s movement was emerging. In the 1980s, a few women took advantage
of government loopholes to form NGOs. Many of these women were inspired by
having had the opportunity to attend the International Women’s Conferences or by
their visits to foreign countries. A new generation of women activists, many of
whom identified with Western models of feminism, arose through these NGOs, and
some established their own initiatives in the 1990s. These new women’s NGOs,
empowered by their foreign funding, took a critical stance toward the government
(Brenner 2005; Blackburn 2004).
The discourse of women’s rights and gender equality spread to Muslim women’s
groups. These groups, some of which were part of the mass Muslim organizations
that have long helped to define the mainstream of Indonesian Islam, were also part
of a global trend for women to seek a more active role in the interpretation of Islamic
Cont Islam (2008) 2:23–39
teachings (Maghadan 2005; Badran 2002). In the early 1990s, writings by Middle
Eastern women’s rights activists like Fatima Mernissi and Riffat Hassan were
translated into Indonesian and published in a number of journals. They were avidly
read by many of the newly pious young activists.
The women’s movement grew alongside a student movement. Women’s groups,
environmental organizations, and Muslim student groups participated in popular
mobilization efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and these events seem to
have initiated a process of ideological cross-fertilization (Hefner 2000). These
organizations developed a common discourse of human rights, democracy, and
religious pluralism. They were to become the backbone of the reformasi
movement that erupted in late 1997 and which resulted in Soeharto’s resignation
in May 1998.
Yet gender discourses among Muslim groups in the 1990s weren’t necessarily
oriented toward equality. Indeed, some Muslim groups developed far more
conservative understandings of gender than were the norm in Indonesia. They
questioned the validity of careers for women, urged women to cover their entire
bodies, and promoted polygamous marriage (Brenner 1999).
The 1990s in Indonesia were thus characterized by a diversity of Muslim
discourses on gender, ranging from an interest in reconciling Islam with feminism, to
a conservative view of marriage and family life. If at the height of the Soeharto
regime, both secular and religious women were marginalized from the public sphere,
by the 1990s, Islam was fast becoming a resource for a spectrum of women’s activisms.
While secular women’s groups and Muslim women’s groups were once divided
over issues like polygamy, my research indicates that this is no longer necessarily the
case. Many Muslim and secular women activists in Indonesia are now unified by
concerns over the implementation of Islamic Shariah law and growing conservatism.
Advocates of political Islam have increasingly turned their efforts to the provincial
level, where they have enjoyed some success. Several provinces have instituted
Shariah inspired legislation, especially laws requiring Muslim women to wear
headscarves or forbidding them from being out alone after dark. Muslim women’s
rights groups are actively trying to contest such interpretations of Shariah.
Yet not all Indonesian women activists oppose efforts to legislate Shariah. Many
women in PKS endorse such developments. While they share demographic
characteristics and pious orientations with other Muslim women activists, as I will
discuss here, the women of PKS envision rather different reforms than those
advocated by Muslim women’s rights groups. The divides among Muslim women
activists in Indonesia are not merely about gender ideology, but also revolve around
important philosophical differences. These differences are tied to particular understandings of pious practices and to different kinds of Islamic habitus.
The Prosperous Justice Party
The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) was founded in 1998 as the Justice Party (Partai
Keadilan) by a group of 50 Muslim activists. The Justice Party failed to get many votes
in Indonesia’s landmark 1999 elections, and reinvented itself in 2002 with a more
Cont Islam (2008) 2:23–39
moderate leadership as the Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera—PKS).
PKS received 7.3% of the popular vote in the 2004 elections, approximately 8.325
million votes, giving it 45 seats out of 500 in the national legislature.
The roots of PKS stretch back to the Tarbiyah movement, which arose on
university campuses in the 1970s and 1980s, partly as a result of a wave of
Indonesian students returning from study in the Middle East. Influenced by the
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, they emphasized Islam as a complete way of life,
and disdained any separation between religion and politics.
Tarbiyah activists formed campus groups that focused on dakwah (religious
propagation) and religious study. By the end of the 1980s, dakwah groups constituted
an underground network. The group who formed the Justice Party were Tarbiyah
activists with degrees from European, American, and Middle Eastern universities.
Unlike some of the more radical currents of the Islamist movement, these Tarbiyah
activists embraced electoral politics as a way of achieving their goal to Islamize the
country (Collins 2004).
PKS was founded as a partai dakwah (dakwah party), and the party maintains this
conception of itself. As one woman explained, “For us, PKS is more than a political
party; it is, in fact, a medium that assists us in implementing the teachings of Islam.
Islam is a religion that encourages righteousness and brings goodness to the whole
PKS does not adhere to any particular school of Islamic jurisprudence, which
until recently have been standard features of Indonesian Islam, and party leaders are
sometimes dismissive of traditionalist Islam. PKS leaders base their practices and
beliefs mainly on the text of the Quran and the Hadiths, a position that places them
within modernist Islam.
Compared to other Indonesian parties, PKS has a small membership (estimated at
about 500,000) because it is a cadre organization. Some PKS leaders assert that
women constitute more than half the party’s membership. Though I was not able to
obtain hard data to show that this is the case, observation of party events bears out
the impression that women are involved in significant numbers. Yet, though there are
some women in top leadership positions, there is a clear division of labor wi…
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