Women Ulema Struggle Amid Conservatism

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“I am often mocked and ignored. Many husbands prohibit their wives from coming to my [Quran] recitations because they think I teach their wives to rebel,” said Shinto Nabilah Asrori, a nyai (female cleric) from Magelang, Central Java. Male clerics in the area have said she is too modern, she told the first ever Congress of Indonesian Women Ulema.

The leader of the Al Hidayat pesantren (Islamic boarding school) was citing the challenges she faced as a female ulema spreading her understanding of the Quran that teaches females are on a par with men.

In her testimony, which drew laughter from the audience, Shinto said one woman once asked whether she had sinned as she had repeatedly refused her husband’s demand for sex, “even while she was frying tempe [soybean cake].”

Meeting his demand was impossible, she said, even as he threatened her with physical abuse, for he had repeatedly announced their “divorce.” In Islam the verbal announcement, stated at least three times, is as valid as a divorce confirmed in court.

Presented with such a dilemma, as the husband was unemployed and would have nowhere to live in the event of a separation, nyai Shinto told the woman to say special prayers for three days, while she would help seek a solution. Women keep coming to her sessions called the “S3”

for santri sampun sepuh (elderly Islamic students), she said. Other speakers at the Congress in Cirebon, West Java, held from April 25-27, said that around 1,000 years ago, female ulema played crucial roles as religious figures, intellectuals and policy makers. The commissioner of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) Hussein Muhammad cited among them Sukainah bint al-Husain, the great granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.

However, he said, women began to be marginalized following the rise of patriarchy, which restricted women from activities outside the home in the name of “protecting women from slander.”

This situation prevails to this day, speakers said, despite many female ulema putting forward new Islamic ideas, including criticism of conservative views.

Heroines like Kartini were unexpectedly cited as among Indo- nesia’s early female ulema, for the speakers said they had sought out Islamic teachings to understand the acute discrimination they confronted as women.

Siti Aisyah, chairperson of Aisyiyah, the women’s wing of the Muhammadiyah, one of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organizations, said today’s female ulema face even more complex challenges, with the increasing influence of conservative and radical Islamic teachings.

The most formidable challenge comes from fellow women with more conservative views. Groups such as the Family Love Alliance (AILA) easily attract middle class followers with their advocacy of improving family harmony and morality, while female preachers often repeat interpretations that reinforce male superiority. The often-cited obligation of women to “obey” their men, the ulema Nur Rofiah said, is actually based on verses that meant “obeying God, not husbands.”

However female ulema have strengths comparable to their male counterparts, said Machasin, a professor at Islamic State University (UIN) Sunan Kalijaga Yogyakarta: religious knowledge that is more sensitive to issues of inequality, a generally more gentle approach to teaching and lovebased leadership. (Nurul Fitri Ramadhani)

The Jakarta Post, May 6, 2017

Source: The Jakarta Post, May 06, 2017