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In Indonesia, Female Clerics Seek Recognition and Rights for Women

Women “ulama” – Muslim clerics – recently held their first ever national gathering in West Java. The goal was twofold: to gain recognition for women religious scholars, and to advance women’s rights by sharing their interpretation of Islamic texts.

Written by Priyanka Borpujari Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Attendees at Indonesia's first major gathering for Muslim female clerics, the Kongress Ulama Perempuan Indonesia, held in Cirebon, West Java, on April 25-27.Priyanka Borpujari

“Why is there nothing written in the Quran or the [Book of] Hadith about husbands who do not satisfy their wives sexually? Are there any punishments for men like there are for women who refuse sex?”

The question drew loud applause, as the woman asking it, wearing a colorful hijab like all the 800 or so women in the audience, sat back down.

This was the first gathering of the national congregation of Muslim women “ulama” (clerics) from across Indonesia. They met for three days in late April in Cirebon, West Java, to assert themselves as scholars and preachers of Islam on par with men.

At the gathering, referred to as Kongress Ulama Perempuan Indonesia (KUPI), a wide range of socio-political issues were discussed and fatwas were issued, all of them informed by the clerics’ study of Islam and their experiences as women.

The conference included discussion around the interpretation of religious texts as pertaining to women’s rights. (Priyanka Borpujari)

The idea for the gathering was born five years ago. The Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) refused to recognize women as ulama, a position conferred based on a person’s knowledge of the Quran and the Book of Hadith. In response, various women’s groups from different Muslim organizations came together and discussed the need for a space that would empower women ulama to assert their own positions, issue fatwas and question the state.

Attendees included women working at the community level as well as those immersing themselves in Islamic study at universities. KUPI also invited ulama and scholars from Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to share their experiences. A number of non-clerics were also present, notably secular activists who believed it was important to engage with religion in this Muslim-majority country. This included Kamala Chandrakirana, who founded the country’s National Commission on Violence Against Women and who took part in planning KUPI.

“Women have been ulama since the beginning of Islam, but women’s names have disappeared from any references thanks to a patriarchal interpretation of Islam and political history,” Chandrakirana says.

Prior to the conference, as the organizing committee discussed the three-day program’s structure via WhatsApp groups, she says she realized that many women did not describe themselves as ulama. She says this shying away from owning their religious erudition explains the absence of documentation on the number of female ulamas in Indonesia.

“Women ulama have created spaces in their communities for conversations that enable women to speak up and question whether Islam permits husbands to beat wives,” Dwi Rubiyanti Kholifah, Indonesia country director of the Asian Muslim Action Network says. “The ulama is able to respond from the perspective of classical texts as well as feminism.”

The gathering’s location was symbolic. It took place in the expansive courtyard of the Kebon Jambu al-Islamy Pesantren, an Islamic boarding school led by a woman, Nyai Masriyah.

In her speech at the gathering’s opening ceremony, during which several male ulama and male students were present, she said, “I have been crowned a feminist. But what does ‘feminist’ mean? It is forbidden for a woman to conform to man or any other creature, except God. She does not need a man, except as a comrade and a friend. So ladies and gentlemen, do not worry. The KUPI movement is very affectionate to men – we will treat them with the highest respect, as much as any other creature created by God.”

Anthropologist Kathryn Robinson of the Australian National University, who has extensively researched Islam in Indonesia, was present at the opening ceremony.

She remarked, “They held up the Quran, the Kitab Kuning [the Indonesian “Yellow Book” of Hadith], the constitution, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, as they proclaimed these as the basis of their [discussions] and of their fatwas.

“They have immense pride in upholding the values that each of the documents represent, and that is essentially what secular Islam in Indonesia looks like.”

The conference included several parallel sessions in which pressing issues were discussed, including sexual violence, polygamy, radicalism, peace and security, and education. Three fatwas were issued: against sexual violence, against child marriage and against environmental degradation. Even though not legally binding, fatwas can be tremendously influential.

During the three days of the gathering, attendees could also get free pap smears at a designated room inside the compound.

Attendees were offered free pap smears. (Priyanka Borpujari)

Nenny Agustina Adamuka, a graduate student of international studies, thought she had signed up for a religious meeting, but was surprised to see that issues pertaining to women were also being discussed. “I never knew that my religion has never allowed women to be subjugated. I was also surprised when some women were so progressive that they said that Muslims can marry non-Muslims – I am still not sure about this,” she said.

A visit from the Minister of Religious Affairs, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, was seen as a clear message that women ulama were recognized as legitimate. At the closing ceremony, many women were in tears, hugging each other, ecstatic over this newfound acknowledgment of their role as torchbearers of Islam and defenders of women’s rights.

As the dust settled in the Pesantren and the residents of Cirebon returned home, Chandrakirana said she felt that history had been created: “Such a communal spirit is true to the spirit of Islam.”

Even after KUPI had concluded, the WhatsApp groups kept buzzing with activity, with the 200-plus core organizers sharing photos and texts. But Kholifah says the work is far from over: “We will need to use the energy created to engage in advocacy, lest this first gathering be just a bubble with no action.”

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