Women and Islam in Indonesia

The World Culture Group Study held a discussion, on October 30th, on Women and Islam in Indonesia led by Siti Nurjanah (Nur). Nine members of the group discussed a range of issues from how the power relation between men and women is influenced by the natural environment and how political Islam affects women’s life in Indonesia. Nur proposed that there are definite consequences of environment for cultural and society, including gender relations. Radical Islam uses a standard of morality and security that justifies the exclusion of women from the public sphere. But Indonesia’s tropical environment has allowed women to oppose this standard. Women have dominated most traditional markets in Indonesia, as sellers and buyers. Indeed, Indonesia has the highest percentage of women in the work force in the region. A simplistic understanding of Islam facilitates extremists’ distortion of Islam; it allows extremists to define Islam in ways that are exploitative of women.

Nur described how until the early late 1990s many Indonesians lived with a syncretic mentality. Suharto’s departure to hajj in 1991 – an attempt to diversify his power base away from the military and to court support from Islamic elements – marked the politicization of Islam. This was followed by overwhelming influences of Islamic elements into the educational system, banking, and the media, which altered social-cultural norms toward the pseudo-Islamic. At the same time, political Islam has been challenged by women’s freedom of expression. Many women belong to religious and non-religious organizations and actively engage in community building, including family planning, health and sanitation, child nutrition and immunization, income generation, lending circles, and other family-oriented welfare programs.

Linda Bond and Ruth Nemzoff raised questions about the role of women in family planning programs and men’s imposition of morality on women. Discussion focused on how gender insensitive policy-making trigger exploitation and gender biased social norms. The family planning program was a failure until the government invited Islamic leaders to help to ease the worries of women. In this case, Islam contributed significantly to human development and women’s welfare.

Submitted by: Siti Nurjanah


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