Female Ulema Speak Up Despite Obstacles

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Hope and despair fi lls the fi rst half of 2017 in eff orts to protect the rights of women and girls. In late April the fi rst ever Indonesian Women Ulema Congress issued a fatwa on preventing child marriage and ending sexual violence. Yet, child marriage remains legal, and deliberation on a sexual violence bill has stalled. The Jakarta Post reporters Nurul Fitri Ramadhani and Ati Nurbaiti fi led these reports following the congress in Cirebon, West Java.

In the highlands of North Sumatra province, preacher Nani Ayum Panggabean was invited to speak at a elebration of Isra’ Mi’raj (Ascension Day of Prophet Muhammad). Her sermon dwelled on a popular theme: howto build harmonious relationships within the family.

The leading preacher quoted relevant Quran verses, such as one stating “that men and women are equal; that men must treat their wives well and be the family breadwinners.” When delivered in cities like Medan, the provincial capital, the message should stir “no problem.”

“But the next day the village chief’s wife came to me, saying, ‘Please don’t say such things [...], we’re ashamed; we’re quite fi ne. Just preach on Isra’ Mi’raj.”

So Nani questions how messages of the fi rst ever recent women ulema congress could, with the support of local authorities, reach villages to help change such views.

Around the beautiful Lake Toba, the preacher said, men do not exactly abuse their wives. “But there women usually work on the farms while men sit around at coffee shops,” she said. Her remarks were met by grins from the men.

Nani was among some 1,200 participants at the congress and a preceding international seminar focusing on “the role of women ulema in strengthening values of Islam, nationhood and humanity.”

The collective voice of local and foreign women clerics and pesantren (Islamic boarding school) leaders shattered chronic neglect of urgent issues at the grassroots level, including the victimization of women and girls.

From the main venue at Kebon Jambu Al Islamy pesantren in the village of Babakan Ciwaringin, Cirebon, the women ulema issued three historic fatwa to loud applause. The first stated that “preventing child marriage is mandatory,” and therefore it is the responsibility of the government, parents, teachers, religious fi gures and informal leaders to prevent child marriages.

In response, Religious Aff airs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin said when closing the congress that he would take up the fatwa with other government offices. This would mean a commitment to overcome the fact that the legal age for marriage is 21, but with parental consent girls can marry at 16 and boys at 19 or younger — in line with the 1974 marriage law upheld by the Constitutional Court. A famous cleric, for example, wed his son at 17 last year, despite criticism.

The second fatwa, which states “all forms of sexual violence is haram,” both within and outside marriage, goes against longstanding views that a woman faces hell if she refuses her husband’s sexual advances.

The third fatwa ruled that “development which exploits the environment is haram,” as discussions at the congress had revealed increasingly difficult access to resources amid reckless development across villages.

Daily experiences of these female religious leaders and conditions of women and communities eventually led to the urgency of strengthening the role of female ulema. But many women religious fi gures are also beholden to patriarchal views, “especially if they benefi t from the system,” said lecturer Nur Rofiah. As a result, the congress led to the concept of “women’s ulema,” meaning female and also male “pro-women” ulema “who possess and incorporate gender perspective in their actions.”

In practical terms, the congress raised the need for more special training of female ulema, especially through sharia faculties in Islamic higher education. But regardless of formal education the women encouraged each other that “it’s never too late to learn,” said Nyai Masriyah Amva, the host of the Cirebon congress.

While such leaders cited family and community members who held them back, they also credited mothers, fathers or fathersin-law who encouraged them to learn; while other relatives would resent a clever woman in their midst “who was allowed freedom to sit and study,” Nyai Ruqoyyah, a pesantren leader from Bondowoso in East Java, was cited as saying.

With personal experiences including forced child marriage, abuse and widowhood, the women leaders eventually drive independence and courage in other women and youth in their pesantren and communities.

Nyai (Masriyah) told us that we will have to study to become independent,” said a graduate of the Al Islamy school, Hilyatul Aulia. In her village in East Cirebon she was the only unmarried 18-year-old. The belief is that girls would be old maids if they are not engaged by 15, said Hilyatul, now a student at a nearby institute.

Another graduate, promising young female ulema Neng Yanti Khozana, echoed the challenge of a small recruitment pool for female religious leaders. Once a girl is considered mature enough, she said, they are taken out of school to be married off , often preferably to relatives, such as in Cirebon.

Pesantren owners seek males to lead their schools, so kyai who have no sons wed off daughters as the son-in-law will inherit the pesantren leadership. For poor families, it is a matter of status and pride when someone asks for the hand of their daughter, especially if she has studied at a pesantren.

Like other women, the first challenge of a Nyai is their own marriage; despite their mastery of religion they can “get drowned” in a life dominated by the kyai.

After each trip Indonesians expect oleh-oleh (gifts); and one preacher said hers was very special.

“The oleh-oleh that I take from here is [a lesson from] Nyai Masriyah that one only needs to lean on Allah,” said a participant from Surakarta, Central Java. With this she said she was sure she could spread heretical sounding things from the congress, such as the idea that a woman is not automatically and totally subordinate to a man.

“This understanding is still taught across pesantren in Surakarta,” she said, declining to give her name. She added a lengthy “process” was required to teach new notions, such as that negotiation is possible and necessary between husband and wife.

The Jakarta Post, June 16, 2017

Source: The Jakarta Post, June 16, 2017, Hal 8