Indonesia’s gender equality discussion: Is an Islamic feminism possible?

Indonesia’s gender equality discussion: Is an Islamic feminism possible?

11 Şubat 2017

Interview with Prof. Dr. Amany Lubis

The role of women in the history of Islamic civilization is undeniably significant, from the list of the first converts, the first martyrs, the first wealthy donors, the first migrants, and the main helpers of the prophet’s Hijra’ from Mecca to Medina, we can see clearly how women took important parts in all of these pages of Islamic history. Yet even now, the issue of Muslim women’s participation and involvement in the development of the public sphere is still debated, especially when it is connected with the idea of gender equality. In order to clarify the issue of gender equality in Islam and the importance of Muslim women’s involvement in the society, I was able to hold an exclusive interview with Prof. Dr. Amany Lubis, an Indonesian academic who is now a professor in the Faculty of Sharia and Law at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, Indonesia. Since 2006 Lubis has been a full-pledged Professor in the field of Islamic Political History. Currently she is the Chairperson of the Indonesian Council of Ulama in Women, Youth and Family Affairs for the period between 2016-2020, the Chairperson of the International Council of Moslem Women Scholars in Indonesia, as well as holding a position of the Ethnic Commission at the Senate of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, Jakarta, Indonesia. Below is the translation of our interview on January 19, 2017.

When we hear the term of gender equality, I wonder if Islam has a problem with it, or do we, as Muslims need to redefine the term, or is gender equality in line with the teachings of Islam?

In Indonesia, the term “gender equality” was first developed in the 80’s, this is when the term was first introduced, and in the 90’s this term became popular in universities, and then in 2000 there is a Presidential Instruction (Inpres) during the era of Gus Dur (President Abdurrahman Wahid) stated that there must be a Center for Women’s Studies in every university in Indonesia. Here, some universities named the study centers as gender studies or women’s studies. So, since 2000 the government of the Republic of Indonesia has formally applied the term of gender equality. The Presidential Instruction itself was named as PUG (Pengarusutamaan Gender or Gender Mainstreaming). This has been applied at all levels of this country, either in terms used in the State Ministry of Women Empowerment, as well as in local governments that are related to women and gender equality programs. This is what is called as Gender Mainstreaming in Development. So, we are more advanced in comparison to other Muslim countries when it comes to gender equality. Now, allow me to tell you my experience in this matter.

In the beginning, it was hard; it was very hard just to include the term gender equality in our social and educational systems. Because it is said that the term comes from the West, the concept of gender equality is a non-Islamic concept and so on. Since I have some knowledge of the English language, so for me it is not a problem if the term is in English, and when I look at it etymologically, well, it has not just reflected the western culture. But it is a term; the concept itself is that we are defending women as well as men in allowing them to have a happy life inside and out home. It is a good concept and very Islamic. Why is it when we defend one group of society and discredit the other, it is only then we are Islamic? Or when we are discrediting women and defending men, is only then we are Islamic? That is not the case. So gender equality is about preserving the welfare of both men and women, especially when it comes to allow them to fulfill their roles in the society as citizens of this country. This is regulated by the state. The state has the responsibility to pay attention to the roles of men and women with equality, equity, harmony, and justice. Now, in English there are terms known as equity and equality. Equality means the exact same rights between men and women, and this is applied in Indonesia, in regards to salary for example, the salary of women and men in the same position must be equal, it should not be differentiated between men and women’s salaries. This has been applied in Indonesia. This is what equality means. For example in our country if men can drive cars so do women. If men can be teachers, then so do women. Men and women can be judges. So in Indonesia equality is well applied. Now, equity, which is something that we are also fighting for, is gender equity that pays attention to the social roles of men and women. It is highly related to the roles of men and women within families. Because for example, women are always connoted with their presence at home, by only having to be home, when it comes to taking care of their children, women are put as the sole responsible figure, it is said that mothers are like the first school for their children, so when a child does not appear to be good women would be responsible for it, but if a child appears to be good than it is the father who takes credit for it. We can see there is some kind of harassment towards women in this matter. We can see there are ideas that are not supportive of the concept of gender equality and justice for women.

Women in many societies of our country, in this case, we are not talking about those who live in the cities, but those who live in societies who pay little attention to women’s education, like women who live in the mountains, by the sea or in rural areas, for these women, if they are already able to read, then they are told to stop going to school. At the 3rd grade of the elementary school, girls are told to stop continuing their school; it is believed that they do not need to finish their elementary school lets alone junior high school. We are talking about this level here and we are talking about the majority of the Indonesian society. This is what should be fought for. So gender equality is about offering opportunities to those who cannot obtain accesses in allowing them to be equal to those with accesses; access to education, access to health, and access to self-actualization.

Women in those areas are creative people. Even though they are farming with limited access, they are able to work professionally, making it possible for harvest and so on. This must be appreciated. So gender equality in this regard is about offering accesses to women in every field. If this does not happen then the government must pay attention to this, it is the responsibility of the government to do so. Now we have seen some changes about this. Before, when, for example, women would like to acquire loans from the banks.

So in getting bank loan contracts, it is stated that when a woman would like to take a loan even as small as three million Rupiah, her husband’s signature is compulsory, so women cannot stand on their own two feet. Before, every loan contract made by women must include a man’s signature. Hence active women who would like to have home industries and would like to take a loan even as little as three million Rupiah as I said, to be a street vegetable vendor or to sell snacks cannot take loans from the banks easily. At last, now the regulation has been revised and in order to take loans, their husband, brother or father may accompany women. This is OK because this is for security right? We are not asking for women to be able to do everything by themselves, it is OK. Our intention is merely to be able to allow both men and women to empower themselves. It is not a problem if a male family member should accompany a woman when they need to take loans. Now finally the same goes to men as well, when a man would like to take a loan he must be accompanied by his wife as a witness. Now it is more equal in this matter.

Furthermore, our fight was also in explaining this term to the religious leaders and figures who have traditional and conventional mindsets, who acknowledge that a woman’s role is limited to that at home, from giving birth and caring for their children, and it stops at their role in serving their husbands, this is the point where we need to open up the scholar’s insights. There were countless times where we visited Islamic boarding schools, we visited so many places, we published books, we created TV programs, and we tried everything in order to create awareness about this matter. At long last, the scholars are now have realized and understood the idea of gender (equality). For example, before, for those who sit (in the governmental institutions), if 5 persons is required in that institutions, before, they let all of these people to be filled by men, but now thanks to the policy of gender mainstreaming by the government of the Republic of Indonesia, women’s presence must be considered in those institutions. Don’t let it be filled by men only, but there must be space to be filled by women too.

Furthermore, with the new regulation about general elections or about political party, there is a 30% quota to be filled by women. People commented that oh this idea of women quota is merely following other countries, but we don’t have to think about other countries because domestically, the percentage of women in Indonesia is more than that of men, which is 51%. By looking at it from that point of view only, can we let women be marginalized? Do they have to be the burden carried by the 49% men, or should we empower them so they could, together with men, develop this country? It is rather peculiar if we still refuse to change our mind and understanding paradigm of this idea that women should not be allowed to work in the public sphere. We have examples from the Prophet’s time of his women companions who all worked and did trades.

Sayyida Khadija, The first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a very renown and wealthy businesswoman, she did her business internationally, we are not talking about a home industry or a small business here, she did her trades all over the world. I am so happy now; I remember I have told you about this earlier, I am very happy whenever I read surah (al-Quraish) in Al-Quran. If we want to talk about gender equality, Al-Quran has provided us the idea of gender equality in this surah. Firstly, we will note that Sayyida Khadija has served as an example, she traded to the North and the South, meaning to the regions of Syria and Yemen. Syria includes Europe and it’s surrounding, and Yemen includes Nusantara (Indonesian archipelago today) and it’s surrounding. So she traded internationally, universally. That is Sayyida Khadija, which is an example.

Does that implicitly show Allah’s appreciation to Sayyida Khadija?

Yes. And our Prophet has also continued her business with her capital. Later the connection (of this surah) is, why trading, why pay attention to the world? It is a consequence that we trade internationally so that we could always prevent hunger, and so that the public is prevented from fear. So what is dangerous is when we do not think creatively, not to mention to be petty in our thinking. This surah has explained to us the effect of not trading and not to think universally. The effects are hunger and fear. There is no security if the economy and potential are not paid attention to. So this surah is talking about potential. The surah mention the Quraish tribe but we have better understanding thanks to Ibn Khaldun, Quraish here is not only talking about the Arab tribe in Mecca, it is not only that, Quraish here means people with potentialities, people with bright ideas, and who are able to build the world, the way the Quraish in the old days built the world as we know now. Our time, the future is still long, and it is the spirit of Quraish that we need to hold on to, Inshallah.

The late Yoyoh Yusroh (an Indonesian woman activist, former MP of Indonesia) once stated that history has shown how Islamic civilization went backward is due to the limitation or prohibition of women’s role in the society. What is your opinion about this statement?

Well, it is only one side. The problem of the backwardness of Islamic civilization is not only due to that. Both men and women are responsible for this, it is not only due to the lack of attention to women, but also a lot of problems contributed to this matter, and the main problems are economy and politics. We are talking about the lack of unity of Muslims, they scold and judge one another and they made a coalition with people who should not be trusted. These people pretend to have a sweet face a sweet tongue and pretend to help us but they hit us on our backs. That is what happened, and we are responsible for this, why do we give our backs to them?

If we as women would like to take a part in the society or realize that we have the potentiality to be involved in building the society, does that mean that we have to choose the role of a feminist?

Always in many forums, I said that I am a woman activist, since the beginning of this interview I have told you since the 90’s I have been a woman activist and fighting for the gender (equality) term, and tried to make it an inclusive term within the Islamic fiqh. Gender equality that is implemented in Indonesia copes with Islamic teachings. I believe in this.

I would like to add an important note about this. Now the understanding of gender has been misappropriated. Misinterpreted. You can read it on the internet and you can also read it on a forum I was involved in MUI (Majelis Ulama Indonesia/ The Indonesian Council of Ulama), speaking about New Urban Agenda, about planning modern cities in this millennium. In this forum gender equality was highly spoken about. Now there is a phenomenon that since the definition of gender has become the social role of male and female, we now find men and women who refuse to be addressed as men or women. Hence now we can see in a lot of places in the world that there are three columns for gender, which are man, woman, and ‘other’. …. Of course Muslim countries reject this idea as well as some Latin American countries, they reject this idea too. …. Well we have the right to have our own definition of gender equality. I also believe that the government of the Republic of Indonesia will reject this. In UN council about Habitat III the Indonesian delegation stated, “No, we have our own definition of gender equality and it does not include LGBT in it”. So we cannot hold the view that LGBT could have equal rights the way men and women do.

Lastly, I would like to talk about the ”Family Resilience in the Perspective of Islam,” a book that the MUI just published and you were highly involved in the production of it, was the idea of making this book because Muslims are starting to have shifting ideas about marriage?

No, Muslims still have an understanding that the establishment of a happy family is the noblest goal in life. That is why in Indonesia there are still a lot of people who get married, the percentage is still high. The background of creating this “Family Resilience” book is due to the soaring number of divorce. There are a lot of problems within families hampering the noble intention of marriage. MUI pays a lot of attention about this, from the increasing number of divorce, the hostilities in families, broken home children, even up to radicalism and human trafficking and drug abuse. The reasons for all these problems are back to the failure of the families to achieve resilience and harmony among family members. This is why this book was made. This is where it should be highlighted. We would also like to give better understanding for those who are about to get married, they must realize that while their intention is good and even when they feel like they have adequate religious knowledge, they have to enhance that knowledge, they have to realize that life is not always as beautiful as they picture it to be, life is beautiful but we have to be ready to anticipate so many things. So this book also talks about the importance of “SUSCATIN” (Kursus Calon Pengantin/Short Course for Brides and Grooms). This is because young couples need to be prepared for their future life in order to have a strong and happy family.