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


Indigenous Women

At our recent meeting our study group focused on indigenous women in different parts of the world and the numerous challenges they face in a rapidly changing world. Tracing indigenous traditions, Elinor Gadon  explained what makes people tribal rather than Hindu as she shared details on her research work with indigenous women in different parts in India:


Culturally they have always been part of Indian civilization. Unlike most tribal peoples outside India, they have maintained trading and ritual links with city-based, ‘civilized’ society for well over two-thousand years. Hindu civilization did not on the whole seek to displace or convert tribals, although there was certainly often conflict, and tribes were forced to retreat to the remotest areas: the forests and mountains between Hindu kingdoms.
The defining features of tribe anthropologically might be given as a close, ritualized dependence on the natural environment, especially the forest, a strong egalitarian social organization based more on clans than on caste or class, and a high degree on until at least recently of economic self-suffiency and political independence. Drums, dancing and song are at the heart of tribal culture. They do not worship the gods in temples of with the aid of brahmin priests, but at shrines in the forest. All their deities are closely connected with nature, identified with features of the local environment or natural forces including diseases. As well as priests they have diviners and shamans who go into trance to communicate with spirits.
Equality  is a powerful ideal. Land is usually divided equally among household, unlike Hindu villages which tend to have large divisions between landlords and landless laborers. Elders carry more weight in village councils than young men, and women do not usually take part, although they may have decisive influence from the sidelines. On the whole women are much freer than in Hindu villages. They speak out openly and are not bound by double standards of sexual morality, as free as men to have love affairs. Divorce is relatively easy; divorcees can marry again without any stigma. This emphasis on equality goes along with tribal villagers sefl-respect, self-sufficiency in fulfilling most of their own needs.
(Submitted by Elinor Gadon, from Felix Padel, “The Sacrifice of human being: British Rule and Konds of Orissa” New Dehli: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp17-19. Photo curtesy of WSRC/GaiDI)

Looking at issues of gender-based violence and inequality among indigenous women in a different part of the world, Marguerite Bouvard  spoke about her past experiences as she recalled her ties to Mayan women in Guatemala:

o23_84_99-m  My presentation was on the International Indigenous Women Forum and its work in leadership and human rights training, and building alliances between the Indigenous women‘s movement and the global women’s movement. Specifically I spoke about indigenous women in Guatemala, the generation that was subject to General Rios Montt’s genocide and the younger generation of Mayan Kakchiquel’s program. Lisbeth Coloc developed three programs for 60 women and their families that included strengthening the community and political advocacy, economic development, how women can become self-sustainable by building their own businesses and psycho-social help. The program works with community groups in five municipalities and is the largest indigenous group in Guatemala.

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News from our members: Marguerite will be reading poems from her new poetry book, The Light That Shines Inside Us on March 20 at 12:30. A quote from the blurb by Steven Kessler, “Across cultures, and languages, wars, brief intense joys and relentless suffering, her poems radiate compassion and a universal humanity. “

Women in French Politics

Women’ s March to Versailles during the French Revolution”WCsg_women's march to versailles(image courtesy of  libcom.org – class struggle online)

WCSG November meeting was organized and moderated by Maryline Kautzmann:

I introduced the discussion on political women by sharing what I had learned from a few readings about women in French politics.

After a short historical review where I tried to show how women gradually made their way to the French political scene, I focused on three very different French political women:

Simone Veil, who is still considered by many as the best example of a successful political woman, Edith Cresson whose extremely short and negative experience as the first female Prime Minister was marked by deep-rooted political sexism, and Ségolène Royal, the first woman to have made it to the second round of presidential elections. I considered her a very positive example because her failing to be elected could not, in my opinion, be imputed on her gender.

Finally in a more improvised third part, I talked about Rachida Dati and Rama Yade, the two young and good-looking ministers during Sarkozy’s term. I wondered if their presence in the government was not part of strategy on the part of Sarkozy, to defuse critiques concerning his debatable decisions on immigration limitation. Ornit added that even though that may be the case, one should not undermine the fact that they both have been very powerful women,  which is extremely encouraging. Finally, I quickly mentioned Christiane Taubira, our current Minister of Justice, for her eloquence and determination and Marine Le Pen, the head of the nationalistic party the “Front National”, and whose recent popularity I qualified as terrifying despite the advance it may represent for women’s participation in politics.

A very interesting discussion followed.

Rajashree and Smriti talked about Indian women, and their role in politics. They explained how certain governmental instructions have placed women in important political positions on the local level. However these women’s role often comes down to being their husbands’ voices. Women’s participation in politics was imposed from the government which explains the fact that there has never been a real women’s movement in India. Women in India also unite for environmental causes: there was a Hugging tree movement: they prevented trees to be chopped off by hugging them or drawing effigies of the Gods on them.

Oge talked about politics in Mongolia. 10 out of 76 seats in the Parliament are reserved for women. Nonetheless, these women rarely dare to voice their opinions or concerns, except for one of them who comes from a remote rural area, who expresses herself despite her lack of political education. The wives of the political men of Mongolia can also be very powerful. They are often Russian and can have a great influence on their husbands.

Marguerite mentioned women who, in certain small communities, hold important positions and are very good examples of strong women. She deplored the fact that not much has been said about women like these.

As far as American political women are concerned, we mentioned, Sarah Palin, the “loose cat”. Linda said that in her opinion, Palin was chosen to be the vice-presidential nominee not because she was competent but rather because she was seen as both sexy and feisty.

Ruth mentioned Jane Swift, who was governor of Massachusetts, and who, much like Edith Cresson, had seen her career interrupted because many were not happy to see women holding such powerful positions.

We also talked about immigration:

We discussed the heated debates that exist in France concerning the Arabic immigration. Marguerite underlined how aggressive and stubborn many French people can become when talking about the Arabs. Elizabeth shared what she had learned about Norway and the way some people were actually proposing to consider only those born from a Norwegian mother as being eligible to the Norwegian nationality. (Moderated and summarized by Maryline)