Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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Indonesia: Gender expert Musdah speaks within reason

Siti Musdah Mulia has raised the ire of many for her boldness in criticizing some aspects of Islam considered sacred.
Take, for instance, her views on the jilbab (head covering), which she herself wears, but says is an entirely personal decision, with no directive demanding it.

As for polygamy, the 45-year-old gender and religion expert notes that it has been prohibited in Tunisia, which has a constitution based on sharia law, as a crime against humanity.

"It's very interesting how the ulema there came to the decision. They have seen the social excess from polygamy and they think only a prophet can achieve the fairness (in the respective marriages) that is a prerequisite of polygamy.

This is no shallow babbling from a pseudo intellectual or a "celebrity" activist, for the mother of three has studied Islamic teachings all her life.

Born in Bone, South Sulawesi, she was the top doctoral graduate in Islamic political thinking at Syahid Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN Syahid) in Jakarta, as well as the first woman to hold a PhD in the field.

Now a lecturer at her alma mater, the mother of three is also the author of several books, including on contemporary Islam, Islamic public policy, gender equality and polygamy.

She is the director of religious research and social affairs at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and her team has just completed the counter legal draft of the compilation of articles under Islamic law.

The latter will likely spark anger among some clerics, as several articles go against existing concepts, including allowing interfaith marriages and giving the right of a woman to divorce her husband.

Musdah will probably take any attacks in stride, for she has been fearless in fighting for gender equality and attempting to shift religious thinking to be more accommodating to the human aspects of an issue.

She said conservative people "used to annoy me, but now I pity them. I think their narrow-mindedness is due to limited access (to knowledge) and the opportunity to see the other side".

But it still hurts when she is labeled a tool for Western concepts.

"That makes me feel so sad. I don't need people to pay me to fight for humanity, to formulate Islamic teachings that are more friendly to women," said the secretary-general of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP) and director of the Religion and Gender Evaluation Institute (LKAJ).

Here is an excerpt of an interview with Musdah last week.

Question: What was the reason behind the issuance of the counter legal draft of the compilation of articles under Islamic Law (KHI)?

Siti: The compilation is a positive law in Indonesia. It is stipulated in the 1991 Presidential Instruction and has been the guidance for all the judges in the religious court.

However, many articles in the compilation are no longer able to accommodate contemporary issues.

There are no stipulations for issues like illegitimate children, or the now rampant cases of domestic violence. Settlement of the cases has been very biased because the judges have no reference (to draw upon).

And then there is the prohibition of interfaith marriages. With the globalization process, it is inevitable that people are easily connected with each other. Why is it banned while even the ulema have different perspectives on that matter?

Therefore, the compilation needs to be reevaluated. It has been 13 years since it was stipulated. Many things have changed in our society within that period.

This counter legal draft will certainly cause anger among the ulema.

I bet (laughs). But let them be.

People always say that religious teachings are final, it's God's law, no need to tinker with them. That statement especially arises during the discussion of marital law.

I tell them that the whole marital law is manmade, none of it is a fax from heaven. Why be afraid? God won't get mad, He's very wise.

Yet there are people with access and education (to knowledge) who are still conservative.

That's because they don't want to use their reason. People use their logic and reason for everything, except within the religious scope. But religion demands people to use their reason so that it is not something that is taken for granted.

There are many verses in the Koran which criticize people who do not use their logic: "Do you really want to follow the perspectives of your parents.. your ancestors?". That can be interpreted as "Are you not willing to use your reason?" Religion is a very rational thing.

How long did it take you to realize there are many religious misperceptions?

I grew up in a very strict Islamic boarding school environment. My grandfather is a noted ulema. My parents didn't allow me to befriend non-Muslims. If I hung out with an ethnic Chinese friend, a Christian, they ordered me to shower afterwards.

Contact with men was prohibited, I could not laugh hard -- everything was under tight control. But at that time I believed that was the right way.

The turning point came when I took a postgraduate program about the history of Islamic concept. The religious concept was taught critically, with reason.

As I had the opportunity to visit Islamic countries all over the world, I saw that Islam had many faces. It opened my eyes that some of what my grandfather and the ulema taught me in the boarding school had to be reevaluated. Some of it was right, but the rest was just myths.

Why did you choose the politics of Islam for your PhD?

I wanted to find out whether the political scene is really as slick, dirty and as masculine as people think, and whether Islamic politics really conflicts with the modern perspective.

It turned out that the preconceived notion was untrue. Islam is very modern, I would even say it's radical. Unfortunately, the ideas are not being developed and promoted.

The concept of an Islamic country is not merely about cutting criminals' hands off, stoning adulterers or the obligation for women to wear jilbab.

If you look into the literature, there are many forms offered and there are many variants involved in the form of Islamic government or a country. In the long history of Islam, it has been different from time to time.

Which means there is no single standard concept about the form of a country. Instead, it has to suit the situation and the condition of the society, and its preference. Be it a kingdom or a republic, it's OK.

Islam only gives basic principles that must be upheld in a governmental system. They refer to the tauhid concept of worshiping only one God. Thus, the rest of the creatures are equal, and this is the root of the real democracy.

So, the concept of egality, fraternity and equality must not be claimed as Western values, and Muslims must not think of it as Western related. It's a universal value. And those concepts were already practiced ideally in the period of Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.

What about sharia law?

Sharia must be based on the Islamic principles mentioned earlier, and it has to constantly accommodate those universal principles.

There must not be any coercion. Women may wear jilbab if they want to. If they don't, no problem. There is no single directive saying that (not wearing) jilbab is something haram (forbidden) or not.

I personally think jilbab is a fashion statement. You may wear it if you're comfortable, or if you believe it's part of your religion. But it doesn't concern other people. It's your personal choice and matter.

But isn't the nature of religion to spread its teachings?

There are some absolute teachings that cannot be rejected, Some dogmatic issues that you can't say no to. Like there is only one God, or monotheism, and that Muhammad is the prophet and the messenger of God. Well, basically the five pillars of Islam and six pillars of faith.

That's all. The rest can be negotiated. Like jilbab, it's ikhtilaf, which means there are different opinions on it. It's not something that is agreed upon unconditionally.

Every religious follower must think that their religion is the most tenable. Now, how do we manage it so that people can live harmoniously while still holding to that claim.

My belief in Islam, for instance, must not hamper me from appreciating other religions, from accepting another religion's righteousness, and from interacting with other religious followers.

Unfortunately, those things have yet to be implemented in our society.

What went wrong?

Because people perceive religion as divine, therefore it must not be criticized.

Now, how to explain to society that religious teachings consist of basic principles, which are absolute, and nonbasic principles which are the interpretation of the basic principles. The latter are not absolute.

At that time, the principles perhaps were suitable, but is it really so now? Therefore, let's evaluate, reread. Let's pick the suitable ones, and the rest ... Well, religion is made for the benefit of humans.

The problem is that religion has always been for God, to worship God. Therefore, it doesn't bring positivity to humanity.

A man prays all the time, fasts and performs the haj, but he still beats his wife. It's such a sad irony. Religion must bring peace to other people. God doesn't need anything. He doesn't need to be worshiped, He's already perfect.

Since religion is contextual, is it still needed?

It depends on the individual. If he or she thinks religion doesn't bring peace of mind, then there's no use in having a religion. Just follow your conscience, seriously.

No matter how people sugarcoat things, I personally consider Islam very patriarchal. What do you say to that?

That's the problem. Because Islam descends from the very patriarchal Arab society, so a patriarchal interpretation is inevitable.

Religion is considered very sacred so that only certain people can read the literature and explore the teachings. There are hardly any women ulema, because since we're little, the ulema has always been associated with men.

There was the prohibition for women to serve as a witness in marriage, because back then, maybe it was not easy to seek capable and intellectual women. But not now. Ditto for the marriage guardian for women. If women are mature and can decide for themselves, why need the guardian? ...

Since you wrote your PhD dissertation about politics, how come you are not involved in practical politics?

Because it's still pretty much a man's world ... True, I should start to get involved and tidy things up. But maybe later, when I'm retired, which is like 14 years from now (laughs).

The political scene is still very much a jungle, so let's clean it up, little by little, to make it more women friendly.

Originally published on 3 October 2004 by Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta