26 Mar 2016

‘Feminising’ Islam in Contemporary Indonesia: the Role of Progressive Muslim Women’s Organisations

Nur Hidayah,  September 2012
The University of Melbourne

Abstract
This thesis examines the role, strategies, and struggle of progressive Muslim women’s organisations in introducing a transformation of Islamic legal discourse and activism on gender and its wider implications for the dynamic relationships between Islam, women, civil society, and the state in contemporary Indonesia. It addresses the issues of Islamic law reform on gender in the intersections of religion with gender, culture, and politics, to reflect on how society deals with religious tradition and modernity within a secular nation-state context.

It argues that progressive Muslim women’s organisations since the late New Order in the 1990s have introduced a gradual shift in the gender discourse and activism of Indonesian moderate Muslims, particularly among the reformist generation. There has been a gradual development of Indonesian Muslim legal discourse on gender from scripturalism, holding on to the ideology of gender inequality, during the Colonial period, to an Indonesian national fiqh madzhab in the Soekarno period, to state fiqh madzhab and social fiqh discourse in the New Order period, to Indonesian Islamic feminism, aspiring for gender equality, in the current democratisation era. These developments have influenced Indonesian Muslim women’s movements that have gradually shifted from social welfare, pursuing practical gender interests, to gender-based activism, challenging unjust religio-political structures.

These organisations play a role in not only “Indonesianising” Islamic feminism, in the sense of contextualising Islamic feminism in Indonesian Muslim society, but also ‘feminising’ Indonesian Islam, in the sense of challenging patriarchal Indonesian Islamic discourse and offering a more egalitarian vision of Islam. In doing this, they have combined the methodologies of traditional Islamic scholarship with those of modern humanities and social sciences, and socialised this discourse in programs for women’s empowerment through cultural, structural, and legal strategies. Muslim women have thus actively challenged patriarchal Islamic discourse, feminised Muslim civil society and the public sphere, as well as opposed the ‘religious imperialism’ of Middle Eastern cultures.

The thesis has identified some constraining factors to explain why progressive Muslim women’s organisations have not yet achieved wider socio-religious transformation. Some key constraints are Islamic legal conservatism in Indonesian Muslim religiosity (particularly on gender issues), rising Islamist groups that promote a retrogressive discourse on gender, and the state’s ambivalent gender policies. These challenges reflect a struggle for political power among different Muslim groups following the more democratic political opportunities after a long period of suppression and marginalisation of political Islam. Progressive Muslims and Islamist groups compete to win the hearts and minds of mainstream moderate Muslims. The thesis suggests that success in promoting new gender discourses has been achieved by negotiating existing intellectual frameworks widely accepted among ‘grassroots’ Muslims. Progressives need to find a balance between seeking social change and
working with existing Muslim social institutions. This can be achieved by adopting gradual and evolutionary approaches, rather than radical and revolutionary ones.

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