Reinterpreting Islam: First The Female Clerics, Now The Feminists
We are now five days into Ramadhan, another 25 to go — Alhamdullilah (thank God)! We refrain from consuming food and drink from dawn to dusk, but there are no time limits to imbibing from the Quran to deepen our knowledge and faith! After all, Ramadhan is considered holy as it was during this month that the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad.
In the spirit of Ramadhan, Jurnal Perempuan, Indonesia’s oldest feminist journal, is also engaging in the study of Islam in its KAFFE series.
KAFFE? Yup, it’s short for Kajian Filsafat dan Feminisme (School of Philosophy and Feminism). Since last year, they have presented six topics followed by 600 participants from all around Indonesia, and – surprise, surprise! -- this month it’s about Islam and feminism! The reason for this they say, is because of the high incidence of violence against women which uses religion as justification - with impunity.
Hey, don’t be jealous girls, there’s no sexism in this respect: violence justified by religion occurs across the board, lately in alarming proportions, and usually with impunity. The most blatant and shocking instance was of course against Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the now imprisoned non-active governor of Jakarta for alleged blasphemy, a blatant and huge setback for democracy, the rule of law, and Indonesia’s reputation for being a moderate Islamic society.
As Jurnal Perempuan wrote in the introduction of this month’s KAFFE theme: “These lectures are intended to debunk misogynist religious texts, and to draw out Islamic perspectives that voice justice, humanism and gender equality”. They add that they also want to critically review and analyze the philosophical and theological basis of Islamic theology about the rights and dignity of women. That goes without saying!
The Islam and Feminism series consists of four topics: “Polygamy is not an Islamic tradition”, by Dr. Nur Rofiah; “Women and Islamic Fundamentalism”, by KH Hussein Muhammad, “Women’s leadership in Islam”, by Dr. Neng Dara Affiah, and “Sexual and reproductive rights in Islam” by Dr. Maria Ulfah Anshor, M.Si.
Nur Rofiah is an alumni of Ankara University in Turkey who teaches on Islam and gender at the Jakarta Quranic College (PTIQ) and is a facilitator on workshops on gender and the Quran.
Hussein Muhammad is the famous feminist cleric, founder of three Islamic feminist organizations, and commissioner at the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) for two periods (2007-2010, 2011-2015).
Neng Dara Affiah has been a prominent Muslim feminist activist and scholar for about two decades, and was a Komnas Perempuan commissioner together with Hussein Muhammad.
Maria Ulfah Anshor, a seasoned Muslim-feminist activist, was also a two-term member of the Commission of Indonesian Children’s Rights (KPAI). Her book The Fiqh of Abortion from the Perspective of Muslim Feminists, garnered her the Saparinah Sadli Award in 2004.
Clearly, none of the speakers shy away from topics considered controversial in Islam. On May 26 I attended the first KAFFE lecture by Nur Rofiah. She started by looking at the history of polygamy - in Babylon, Syria, in the Arab world, Africa, China, India and also in Europe: Russia, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and in all religions. The practice existed long before Islam appeared on the scene. The number of wives was unlimited, sometimes into the hundreds. So when the Prophet Muhammad came along, and tried to regulate this practice by limiting it to four wives, it was a pretty darned progressive act. Also, during war times there was a scarcity of men, so men were urged to take on widows or orphans.
Polygamy is permitted in Islam with conditions: “Marry women of your choice – two, three of four … but if ye fear ye will be unable to deal with them justly, then marry one, to prevent ye from doing injustice”. So in fact the spirit of Islam is monogamy.
Prophet Muhammad himself was in a monogamous marriage with his first 15-year-older wife, Khadijah, for 28 years. It was only two years after she died that he engaged in polygamy for the eight remaining years of his life. And guess what? Most of his 11 wives were older than him, and all were widows save for two. The oldest, Saudah was 70 to his 52 years. But the West labels Muhammad a pedophile because of his marriage to Aisyah, who was still a child when they married. Talk about bias and ignorance.
Muslim feminists include polygamy in the category of violence against women (VAW), because it is well nigh impossible to be fair to all wives. That is why the spirit of the Indonesian Marriage Law is also monogamy, and why polygamy is only legal in 58 out of almost 200 nations in the world.
Another thing that the KAFFE lecturers had in common was that all had been involved at the historic Congress of Women Clerics (KUPI) held in Cirebon in April (see “Female clerics stage national congress in Cirebon”, The Jakarta Post, April 25.). The title of the congress was “The role of women clerics in upholding the values of Islam, nationhood and humanity”. They don’t beat about the bush do they?
In 1998, women involved in the Voice of Concerned Mothers (SIP) spearheaded the Reform Movement. Now in 2017, in the midst of rising religious extremism and radicalism, women clerics are the ones spearheading a new, progressive movement, through a more accurate interpretation of the Quran and a critical, historical review of Islamic practices.
KUPI was more than just an event – it’s a movement to revive the true peaceful, humanitarian spirit of Islam, as well as to uphold the spirit of nationhood and humanism which a small group of bigoted, violent extremists are viciously trying to destroy. In the past, there was tension between secular and religious feminists in Indonesia. Now the Muslim feminists are taking the lead and everyone is working hand in hand together.
If you look at the Jurnal Perempuan introduction of its KAFFE series this month and replace “misogyny” and “gender”, this is what comes out: “These lectures are intended to debunk hate-filled religious texts, and to draw out Islamic perspectives that voice justice, humanism and social equality”. It applies to everyone, right? Because feminists are for everyone!
Clearly, feminist movements, whether secular or religious are among the groups fighting the scourge of radicalism trying to destroy our Republic. Let’s support and join them, otherwise we may lose the pluralist Indonesia we know and love!
Jakarta | Wed, May 31, 2017
Penulis: Julia Suryakusuma
(The writer is the author of Julia’s Jihad)