Promoting Democracy, Human Rights and Gender Equality in Indonesia

Musdah Mulia

Unlike Muslim women in the Middle-East, particularly in Arabic countries, Indonesian Muslim women have since long been known to be free to conduct activities outside the house. Since long before Islam came into Indonesia, women were actively worked in farm, particularly in paddy’s field,  trading in the market place, trading between cities and even islands, worked as fisherwomen. Women worked in all sectors that men undertook. Many women even took on the responsibility of their family, and some of them became the sole providers in the family life.

Mostly Indonesian women are not restricted from being outside the house, and are not imposed with the obligation to have a muhrim (male guardian). Women are used to leaving the house without a muhrim. Many don’t even understand what a muhrim is. To see women being out by themselves is something very common, even at night.

Women in some Arabic societies cannot drive cars, and are sexually segregated, but in Indonesia, women can drive cars, ride motorcycles, and even fly planes. They also make up the majority of university students. Many of them convince that gender equality and women empowerment are consistent with Islamic values.

In the religious domain, many women are actively conducting religious rituals such as marriages rituals, death ceremonies, maulid celebrations, some of them become mosque committee members and many of them organize umrah and haj pilgrimages. In these cases they are not only taking care of administrative preparations for the congregation consisting of males and females, but also guide them in carrying out rituals in Mecca and Madinah.

In terms of clothing, not all Muslim women wear the hijab. A growing number of women are choosing to cover their heads, while others do not. Even if they do wear the hijab, the style of the hijab is usually very varied and fashionable. Some women even wear the burqah (where the whole body is covered except for the eyes), but their lifestyle remains active and dynamic.

Many women can be seen wearing hijab in tight jeans and transparent blouses. For some, wearing hijab is not really a religious calling, but it is more to imitate others so they do not appear different. And for some, it is merely a fashion trend. The hijab does not in any way restrict women activities and no segregation between men and women is apparent.

My personal opinion on the hijab is very clear, that is not an Islamic obligation, merely a tradition. For me wearing the hijab is a free choice, so let us respect those who chose to wear the hijab in any form, and at the same time we should respect those who chose not to

wear it. I do convince that  one’s piety is not measured by a piece of clothing. Islam teaches us that one’s piety as a Muslim should be gauged only from the quality of their religious obedience, namely of one’s deeds to uphold the humanity and to care for the environment, and it is only God who has the right to judge, not human beings.


Major problems faced by Indonesian Muslim women

Although Indonesian Muslim women seem more free and independent, they are facing heavier and more varied problems than any other Muslim woman in the world.  The first problem is extremely poverty. Indonesia has just been liberated from the authoritarian regime of the New Order in 1998 and it was since then that the Reforms Order took shape emphasizing on democratization efforts. However, efforts to eliminate poverty seems to be unfolding very slowly. Poverty is also caused by the growing of population so fast. And that it is hard for the state to manage such a numerous population. As a result, public services related to clean water, basic needs, education, health services, and transportation are very poor.


Poverty is also the most conspicuous product of economic globalization and the product of injustice prevailing in the society. Poverty exists due to non-transparent management of state funds, rampant corruption and unequal and discriminative policies. While the management of state assets only benefit a small number of elites.

The question is why women? The world’s statistics reveals that the groups most vulnerable to oppression, discrimination, and violence brought about by poverty are women. Poverty brings to many cases which relate to lack of well-balanced nutritious food, lack of education, unemployment, migrant workers, trafficking, prostitution, sexual harassments, and domestic violence.

Since the economy crisis was getting worse, many of Indonesian Muslim women were working abroad as migrant worker. They are very sensitive level income and they can be laid off any time by their employer. They are also often abused. The economic contribution from those migrant worker to the state foreign exchange is very significant. But for this big contribution they do not get guarantee in social security and do not receive legal assistance from the state.


Certainly there is promising growth in Indonesian economy, but that prosperity is only enjoyed by very few people and is only true in large cities. As a result, there is an appalling social gap. In such a condition, women must surely be the ones who suffer the most.


Secondly, the problem of patriarchal culture. The main obstacle in upholding gender equality is cultural factors. Until now, our society still holds firm the values of patriarchal culture, which are not conducive for building peace and democracy.

In my opinion, patriarchy is not just about men, it is about presuming one way of doing things, one way of being, and one way of knowing is superior and should dominate. From Islamic perspective, Patriarchy rests on the satanic notion of istikbar or thinking of oneself as better than another. So, the concept of patriarchy contradicts the Qur’anic vision of the equal and reciprocal moral relationships and responsibilities of women and men as laid out in many Qur’anic verses. It also contradicts the vision of the relationship between husband and wife as reflected in many Islamic teachings which talks not of domination and competition, but partnership, cooperation and affection.

The indicators of patriarchal culture, among others, are: Our society still adheres to beliefs that give preference according to sex. In all matters men have the advantage over women, boys have priority over girls. This culture is deeply interwoven in society and introduced into all aspects of life, such as in education, economy, and politics. Our society still believes that being pregnant and delivering a baby are women’s responsibilities by nature. Therefore, the pain and suffering and even death that women have to face as a consequence of their reproductive functions. Our society still believes that the responsibility of taking contraceptive measures falls to women. As the result, men’s participation in family planning is very minor  (only about 3%).

Decision making at home also places the right in the men’s hands, although it might involve the safety of women’s lives. As a result, many women do not have the liberty of choosing or making important decisions such as: the decision regarding when to marry, when to get pregnant, how many children to have, where to give birth? What method of giving birth to choose? And so on and so forth.

On the other realm, the efforts to increase the family income poses multifarious burdens on women, and even had a tendency to bring about violence. Women still had to maintain the domestic household tasks while at the same time they had to distribute their time for the pursuit of family’s economic betterment. On the other hand, men do not care a damn to the efforts to fulfill children’s rights including maintaining their sustainable lives. The men generally hold the view that the tasks to take care children all belonged to women.

Thirdly, the problem of Islamic misinterpretation. Frankly speaking, the type of interpretation widely accepted and adopted by Muslims is patriarchal misinterpretation of the Qur’an and hadith. Most Islamic misinterpretations, especially in line with women position and gender relationship are based on concepts that were developed hundreds of years ago by classical jurists. For example according to gender-bias Islamic interpretations, women should have many children. The more children you have, the larger fortunes you will get” while abortion is a strict prohibition. This gender-bias interpretation also influences women’s decision to participate in the Family Planning program.

Those misinterpretation is absolutely gender bias and not compatible with the principle of women rights, especially women’s reproductive health and rights. Islamic misinterpretation of marriage for example, mostly women still consider marriage as an obligation. So, unmarried woman is deemed to have violated the Islamic teachings and thus cannot be considered as a good woman. Parents are deemed rightful to force their daughters to wed, even to those they dislike. These misinterpretations result in rampant forced marriage, children marriage and polygamy. All these forms of marriages generally end in divorce and domestic violence, especially for young girls which eventually lead them to narcotics, drug abuse, HIV/Aids, prostitution, migrant workers, and resorting to abortion.

Fourthly, the absence or lack of law enforcement.  Although Indonesia became an independent state in 1945, it only implemented a democratic system since 1998. This democratic system is impaired by the political elite and state authorities who have not consistently implemented the values of Pancasila and the principles of democracy that uphold virtual values or ethics. Some of them are involved in corruption and other criminal acts. It is therefore unsurprising that democracy in Indonesia is still at the procedural level, not substantial. As a result, law enforcement and protection of human rights are still very unsatisfactory, particularly related to women, children and minority groups.

We still have some statutes and public policies which do not side with women abound, such as Marital law, Manpower Law, Health Law, Citizenship Law. Such statutory laws always put women as objects of law rather than subjects, causing them to undergo multiple layers of discrimination.

Fifthly, gender-biased in Islamic family law. The current Islamic Family Law still contains a large number of provisions that explicitly discriminate against women, such as: The minimum age of marriage is lower for women than men; A woman, regardless of her age can only marry with her guardian’s consent, whereas a man does not need to get the consent of a guardian; A man may marry multiple wives (up to four), but a woman can only have a monogamous marriage; A woman is absolutely supposed to obey her husband and her failure to comply with the lawful wishes of her husband constitutes nusyuz (disobedience). That actually means she can lose her right to the children’s maintenance while there is no provision for the father’s loss of guardianship in the case of irresponsibility.

The key challenge to law reform within Indonesian Muslim Society is there is still a belief that Islamic family law is God’s law and is, therefore, infallible and unchangeable. That is why any effort at reform to be regarded as un-Islamic.

In the mean time, there are still many Muslims believe that men and women do not have equal rights. So that the demands for equal age of marriage and equal rights to divorce, guardianship and inheritance are considered as against God’s law. And many Muslims still believe that only the male ulema, or male religious scholars have the authority to speak on Islam. Thus, women face difficulties advocating for reform when they do not have the support of those perceived to have religious authority.

Many Muslims: men and women are afraid to speak out on Islamic teachings in public sphere, especially if their views are controversial and contrary to Islamic views of majority. They fear controversy or being labeled as anti-Islam. This fear extends to progressive scholars and religious leaders who have the knowledge and credibility to speak out, but choose to remain silent for fear of jeopardizing their jobs and livelihoods, invoking community hostility, or facing threats to their safety.

Last but not least, the problem of the emergence of radical Islamic groups. The fall of President Soeharto after more than 32 years in power, has unleashed the dormant Muslim radicalism. The euphoria of newly found democracy have provided very good grounds for radicals to express their extremism and radical discourse. As a result, they are now able to freely express and articulate their anti-democracy ideas in the public domain.

There were at least three important implications of the fall of Soeharto and his New Order Regime. First, is the establishment of numerous Islamic political parties that adopted Islam as their foundational basis, thus replacing the Pancasila.  Second, is the emergence of radical Islamic groups such as the Lasykar Jihad, FPI (The Islamic Defense Front), Hizbut Tahrir and MMI (Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia). Those groups actually has compounded women’s problems even more, such as the emergence of various Syari’ah laws that discriminate against women, the compulsion to wear the hijab, widespread polygamy, prohibition to abortion and control birth, and women’s involvement in terrorist attacks. Third, is the growing demand for the formal implementation of shari’ah in some regions of Indonesia. Aceh was the first province to demand the application of shari’ah law. The Shari’ah law disposed women of their sovereignty and dignity and are highly potential to trigger violence to women. Looking at the whole history of radicalism among Muslim, I would argue that radicalism among Muslim is more political than religious.

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