The Role of Indonesian Muslim Women in Promoting Democracy, Human Rights and Gender Equality

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to Google Plus


Before we get into the heart of the topic, allow me to first give some background on the history of Indonesia. And then why this nation did not decide to become an Islamic State, despite the fact that the majority of its population is Muslim.

It is important to point out that Indonesia is very unique. As the third largest democracy and the biggest Muslim country in the world, neither is Indonesia an Islamic state, nor is Islam the official religion. Indonesia since its independence on August 17, 1945, is the Pancasila state. Why? Because the founding fathers and mothers of Indonesia who were mostly prominent Muslim figures, did not choose Islam, but Pancasila, as the nation’s ideology.

They stated that choosing Islam as the nation’s ideology would be problematic, because Islam as a religion does not have only one single interpretation. It would surely be difficult to choose the interpretation of Islam as a reference in state management. Another reason for this is that the Muslim population is not always the majority in all the provinces. The majority of the population in the Province of Bali are Hindus. While in the Provinces of North Sumatera, North Sulawesi, East Nusa Tenggara and Papua, the population is mostly Christian.

Pancasila consist of five principles; the principle of spirituality, the principle of humanity, the principle of Unity, the principle of democracy; and the principle of social justice. Pancasila, is the common ideological platform of the Indonesian state that is has a lot of a diversity and plurality, not only in terms of ethnicity and culture, but also in terms of religion and belief.

For mainstream Muslim, the Pancasila is already Islamic enough; the five principles of Pancasila are basically in conformity with the fundamental teachings of Islam. However, there were (and still are) splinter groups that wished to established an Islamic state in Indonesia both through constitutional and illegal means, but they all failed, particularly because mainstream Muslims did not support the idea.

Indonesia is now 72 years of age and Pancasila has proven effective to unite such a heterogenic people. There are more than 300 ethnic groups with 700 dialects, inhabiting over 17,000 islands, spreading from Sabang at the extreme West to Merauke at the far East, which would entail a 12 hour flight to get from one end to the other.

A portrait of Indonesian Muslim women

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, 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.

Unlike Arab women, 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 view 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.

In my opinion, 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 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 the most conspicuous product of economic globalization. Poverty is also the product of injustice prevailing in the society. 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.

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. Certainly there is promising growth in the 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.  Our society still holds firm the values of patriarchal culture, which are not conducive for building peace and democracy. The indicators of such 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. This misinterpretation results 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 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 supposed to obey her husband and her failure to comply with the lawful wishes of her husband constitutes nusyuz. 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 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. 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.

Women's Involvement with Radical Islamic Groups in Indonesia

Last year we were stunned when a Muslim woman, Dian Yulia Novi, was arrested prior to carrying out a suicide bomb attack in Indonesia. She was previously a woman migrant worker in Singapore and she was also the wife of Bahrun Naim, the person responsible for the Sarinah bomb attack. The plan was that on December 11, 2016, she would detonate a pressure cooker bomb at the State Palace, but was arrested by the police before she could carry out the plan. This tragedy uncovered the fact that a number of Muslim women were involved in radical Islamic groups and terrorist movements in Indonesia.

Apparently the most recent trend in terrorism is to turn women into perpetrators. If terrorist acts in the past had a masculine face and used a patriarchic approach, recent trends of terror use women as executors using a feminine approach. Although the women are executors, they are actually still the victims of their ignorance, are being exploited by those with systematic plans for terrorism.

Why women? Discussions on issues of feminism reveal that women can be most relied on in terms of loyalty and obedience. Women are a group of people who would easily believe anything related to religion. Mostly women always see religion as a best friend although religion is often unfriendly towards them. And the most convincing factor is that women can be bastions when it comes to defending their family from any unwanted threats.

The main motivation for women involved with this radical Islamic groups is theological. Initially, they were exposed to a radical understanding of Islam, such as the obligation to kill all kaffirs (non-Muslims). They firmly believe the obligation to establish an Islamic state through jihad. Women must join in the jihad movement in defense of an oppressed Islam.

Some of them are recruited through marriage, with their own husband carrying out a systematic effort to instill a radical Islamic ideology through “brain-washing”. This means that they are purposely wedded to then instill radical ideas in their minds. Quite a number of them get married in jail. Others are wedded after they have received radical indoctrination.

It is interesting to note that many of the women recruited into terrorist movements are migrant workers. Why? Because they generally have their own money, are independent and daring, and the most important thing is that they are used to travelling abroad. They are also active users of social media and the internet. Some of them were exposed to radical Islamic ideology through the internet while they were working overseas. Some of them meet their husband and their group through social media.

Not all of the women are aware that their husbands are involved in terrorist movements. Some are even disappointed because they felt they had been lied to by their husbands. “I really did not suspect that my husband was connected to a terrorist group. I thought all along that he was very active in his work at the office,” bemoaned a wife of a terrorist. In our efforts to advocate for them, this group of wives is not difficult to convince and can easily be asked to cooperate to sever the chain of radicalism.

When the husbands were asked about not being open to their wives, some of the answers given were: “We are taking care of covert secret duties, and if we tell our wives, it will no longer be a secret.” Some of them even answered with a cynical expression: “well, if the wife knows then there will be chaos, women find it hard to keep their mouths shut, that’s how women are.” Some others answered “we purposely did not involve our wives so that if we were to be apprehended, the children and family would still be protected.” 

The tasks and roles of women in radicalism movements are quite varied and significant. Among others, they carry out the role as educators and trainers, agents of change, preachers, solicit and collect funds. Women involved in radicalism movements are actually executors of terrorist acts as well as victims. They are victims of their husband’s ideologies, victims of religious indoctrination, victims of stigmatization from society, victims of the media, and also victims of the excesses of conflicts. Again and again, women are only the victims of a condition created by the patriarchal powers.

The Significant Roles of Indonesian Muslim Women

Firstly, women’s role in building gender equality

We do believe that Islam is not a barrier to gender equality program. But the big question is how to understand Islam? Islam was passed down in the seventh century through the Prophet Muhammad at a time of ignorance (Jahiliyah era) where people embraced paganism, patriarchy, despotic and feudalistic values. It was not surprising, therefore, that the moral messages of Islam were targeted more at eradicating all form of paganism, patriarchy, despotic and feudalistic system. The Prophet Muhammad has been described as a ‘proto-feminist’, reportedly having introduced reforms banning female infanticide, and granting women a series of rights.

The significant role of Muslim women in building gender equality is promoting and upholding the concept of tawhid. In explaining the Islamic teachings we always begin  from  the concept tawhid as the core foundation of Islam. Tawhid  is completely a conviction that there is only one God to worship and that is Allah. This conviction has given rise to the principle of equality of all human beings: man and woman.

We also give attention to the main objective of  the creation of human beings. Islam as a religion strongly teaches that human being: woman and man is a noble creature entrusted with a special task to be khalifah fil ardh (a moral agent). As the moral agent, every human being is obliged to uphold justice, prosperity, welfare, and peace in the universe.

In 2004, in my capacity as The Coordinator of the Gender Mainstreaming Team in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, we have proposed a new draft of family law in the name of  the Counter Legal Draft of the Compilation of Islamic Law. This draft  grounded in the Islamic principles of equality and justice. We are proposing the following articles: An equal minimum age of marriage (nineteen years) for men and women; Abolition of the requirement that the (male) guardian must consent to the marriage of a woman; A standard form marriage contract in which all marriages contracted are monogamous and polygamy is strictly prohibited; An equal right to divorce and divorce only by judicial decree; An equal division of matrimonial assets and an equal right to custody and guardianship of children.

With this draft we actually wish to eliminate all forms of discrimination, exploitation and violence against girls. We also  wish to eliminate all harmful traditional or customary practices, such as female genital mutilation.

Secondly, women’s role in deradicalization efforts

We are very sure that women can be the agents of disengagement. If they can be recruited as terrorists, it should be easier to encourage them to be agents of peace. We urge the government to use a comprehensive strategy in combating all forms of religious radicalism. An approach stemming from militaristic power based on the principle of security should be reviewed.

The most important thing we have done is asking the government of their strong political will to eliminate the roots of terrorism that are already present in society. We also seriously encourage all Islamic religious leaders: men and women and all elements within Islam to uphold Islamic teachings that compatible with humanitarian  values such as justice, equality, tolerance and peace. Because we do believe that the essence of Islam is to humanize human beings and establish a fair and civilized society.

It is our conviction that there is no easy or single way to sever the chains of radicalism. We compel the government to overcome the structural problem that causes the various social inequality and injustice. At the same time, we ask the government to improve and accelerate economic growth that would be a very important instrument for improving the welfare of the people. This is because a slow economic growth, low income of the people, high poverty and unemployment rate, not to mention poor quality of education would have a dire impact on the lives of the people. These unfavorable conditions would have a direct correlation with rampant radicalism and acts of violence in society.

Regarding this radicalism some actions have been done. First, making critical action towards Islamic interpretations that has an extreme sense by look back to the substantive meaning of Islam. Second, reconstructing religious tradition that put forward the spirit of non-violence. Third, asking the government to play its role in giving law protection fairly in the social life of society.

Thirdly, women’s role in upholding the principles of human right

Indonesian Muslim women are absolutely committed to upholding human rights, particularly the right to religious freedom through the inter-faith network. Our main objective is to advocate the rights of vulnerable groups who are being discriminated and exploited. We actively in advokating the government to demolish all religion-based regulations that are anti-democracy and disadvantageous to women and minority groups.

In addition, we are also carrying out peace education programs so that women from minority religions and indigenous religions understand their rights as full citizens and as free human beings. And also we encourage them to speak out, to dare voice their opinions to fight against all forms of discrimination, violence and religious-based exploitation for whatever reason.

Fourthly, women’s role in promoting humanistic Islamic interpretations

Many Muslim women realize that the Qur’an and the Sunnah are texts which should be read and interpreted contextually, namely by understanding the historical and political contexts on which the both were revealed. Context-based interpretation will lead us to an in-depth understanding and appreciation of the messages of universal Islamic morality.

We would like to mention some of misinterpretations of Islamic teachings: First, the misinterpretations of the origin and nature of human creation. Generally, religious figures always describe that the first human being created by God was Adam. Thereafter, Eva, his wife, was molded out of his ribs. Such conception has given rise  to a wide implication on the society, that is to say, women are men’s subordinators; women are only the second beings; women are not important creatures because they are only created from and for the interest of men. We firm that such understanding is misinterpretation. (See an-Nisa (1)).

Second, the misinterpretation concerning the expulsion of Adam and Eva from Eden. Widely disseminated in the community is the idea that Adam was expelled from Eden due to the seduction of Eva, his wife, who was first, seduced by the temptation of Satan. The implication of such understanding implanted in the minds of people is that women are fundamentally seducers and are close to the Devil. Hence, never be too close to women and never listen to their opinion.

Third, the misinterpretations of women leadership. Widespread and deeply engraved in the mind of the people is the conception that women are not fitted to be leaders due to their weakness in mind and religion. What is more, there is a hadith which goes: Misfortune befalls a nation when it entrusts its leadership to women. Those three examples of misconceived interpretations lead to the idea that the position and status of women are indeed low and inferior.

To counter those Islamic misinterpretation we have done reinterpretation efforts. Since 2000, Indonesian Muslim women have been very actively in promoting and publishing the progressive and humanistic Islamic interpretation. Firstly, in terms of human creation we proposed that all human beings: men and woman created by God from the same material (nafs wahidah). There is no cause, therefore, to assume woman’s inferiority to man. This declaration obviously states in such Qur’anic verses: an-Nisa, 1, al-Mu’minun, 23: 12-16; Al-Hajj, 22: 5; and Shad, 38:71.

Secondly, with reference to deeds, we proposed that both man and woman shall be rewarded for their merits and punished for their sins as stated in al-Nisa,4: 24; al-Nahl, 16: 97; al-Ma’idah 5: 38; al-Nur, 24: 2; al-Ahzab, 33: 35-36; al-An’am 6; 94. 

Thirdly, in terms of leadership, we proposed that every human being is basically a leader at least for him/herself. Every person will be asked to be responsible before God. A hadith states: “Every one of you is a leader and every one of you will be questioned as regards your leadership” This hadith implies the opportunity to anyone, regardless their gender to become a leader. So, Islam firmly states that both man and woman have equal access to become leader (al-Taubah, 9: 71).

In fact, there are many Qu’ranic verses that explain the principle of gender equality in Islam, for example: equality in the right to participate in public sphere and all social life; equality in religious punishment for sins; equality in the moral values it advocates; equality in the jurisdiction to carry out all religious duties. So that women in Islam enjoyed independent character and jurisdiction.

Fourthly, in terms of family planning program, we always promote that Islam seriously pays attention to woman’s reproduction health. Mostly Muslim leaders agreed that Islam permits family planning. The Qur’an never says that using contraceptives is a sin against God. In addition, Islam has no objection to birth spacing because there are many verses encourage mothers to breast-feed their children for 30 months.


All Muslim: men and women must have the courage to voice Islamic interpretations that are more humanistic and rational. That kind of Islamic interpretations will be able to respond to all contemporary issues of modern society, such as democracy, human rights and gender equality.

Islamic organizations must be at the forefront in campaigning for humanistic Islamic interpretations that are able to liberate Muslims, particularly Muslim women, from ignorance, poverty, injustice and all form of discriminations. Those model of Islamic interpretations will absolutely be able to raise the welfare and the quality of Muslim community and also for the peace and betterment of all human beings.

As a conclusion, it could be said that the role of Indonesian Muslim Women in promoting and upholding democracy, human rights and gender equality in Indonesia is very significant. Their role actually could be known from many concrete efforts such as:

Firstly, Cultural reconstruction efforts through education in its wide sense, from education in family life to formal education in school then non formal education in society life. We produce many books, leaflets, modules on gender equality in Islamic perspective. 

These efforts are absolutely very much needed because culture of peace, equality and justice, tolerant and inclusive cannot emerge naturally and spontaneously in society, instead it must be arranged in such way through education system. These cultural values must be begun from home, from family life.

Secondly, Islamic reinterpretations. Some efforts have been done regarding promoting humanistic, inclusive and progressive Islamic interpretations which are more conducive for the fulfillment democracy and the principles of human rights, particularly women basic rights.

Last but not least, law reform efforts. Many efforts have been done in line with amending and revision of some important laws and public policies which are not conducive to the establishment of democracy, human rights and gender equality.

[1] The paper is submitted on The 2016-1017 Yulee Lecture held by The George Washington University, in Washington D.C., 24th April, 2017.

[2] President of Indonesian Conference on Religion for Peace (ICRP), and also Lecturer of Islamic State University, Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta, Indonesia. She can be contacted at: Alamat email ini dilindungi dari robot spam. Anda memerlukan Javascript yang aktif untuk melihatnya.  or Alamat email ini dilindungi dari robot spam. Anda memerlukan Javascript yang aktif untuk melihatnya..