KSI Interview with Lies Marcoes: GESI Perspective in Research for Development

Lies Marcoes Natsir is one of Indonesia’s foremost experts in Islam and gender. She has played a pioneering role in the Indonesian gender equality movement by bridging the divide between Muslim and secular feminists and encouraging feminists to work within Islam to promote gender equality. Lies is a passionate and talented trainer – frequently used by KSI and other DFAT programs – and has used these skills to change people’s attitudes to the status of women in Islam. With her strong leadership and commitment, Lies has empowered countless Indonesian women and brought gender into mainstream parlance in Indonesia.


Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
A: I graduated from IAIN/UIN Jakarta, from the Islamic Theology Faculty, with a Religious Comparison Major. After more than 15 years as an activist in the reproductive health area, including as a program manager at the Association of Islamic School Development and Community (P3M), I received a scholarship from the Ford Foundation for my Masters program in the field of Health Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. 
I have also been a researcher and activist in the women’s movement in Indonesia. These are two roles that, in a number of cases, are not always linked to each other and not always played by one person. Usually, people choose to become activists by using the research outcomes of another institution as the basis for their cause, or they only become a researcher without advocating their research outcomes. 
I may be a bit unique, in that I do both. I love the research world, especially research on religious social anthropology. This issue gave my life colour and meaning. I love to go to the field; finding out, asking questions, listening to stories, and writing them up with a specific discipline and theory, particularly feminism. By doing this, I can explain a phenomenon by using a critical perspective related to the relationship (authority) between men and women, a perspective that can dismantle gender prejudice and bias, and the resulting discrimination. 
I also love to write. I love writing research outcomes. I often write an extract of my research outcome in the opinion section in media such as Kompas, the Jakarta Post, or on social media by using popular and easy to understand language. When I am writing all of these, I feel that I am conducting advocacy to change perspectives or policies. 
In the context of time, I think my momentum was timely, even though any time can be used as momentum for anyone to experience changes in their lives. I was going through life in the era of mid-New Order, which at the time was very arrogant towards people. 
The political engine of the New Order, namely the Golkar party and civil servants, became the most effective backbone in supporting the regime. Meanwhile, others of us, NGOs, the student movement and the press, must work under a shadowy pressure – invincible but frightening. Speaking on women’s rights at the time, we had to point out the mistakes of the Family Planning (FP) program for example, a program that has been proven to support development by significantly reducing the birth rate. We had to explain that a program, even with its positive impact, must still be questioned if, in its implementation, it takes away individual basic rights of women controlling their own bodies and violates the principles of democracy by forcing their will without any room for negotiation. We know that at the time, FP was done coercively, using military means, systemic threats, using the approach of shame for those who did not follow the State’s will, and did not leave room to question or refuse the program. These methods, according to us activists, violated the basic principles of freedom and jeopardized the program itself. People were following FP because of force, not because of their own awareness, but through mobilisation. Now, we can see the result, we have found the evidence that FB has been rejected for reasons that should have been discussed in the past–reasons related to its objectives, benefits, methods and origins. And this comes from a domain that should have been discussed first, such as religious or demographic political perspectives. 
I used to speak about reproductive health in the face of state coercion, now my research and advocacy remains on reproductive health issues. The difference is that we used to face the coercive force of the State, now we are facing another shadowy force from the religious perspective, which also feels entitled to have power and control over a woman’s body.    
Q: Can you explain how feminism is made operational in your research?
A: In researching any theme, I always want to critically observe the power relationship, including the gender power relationship.  
With this gender analysis and feminism, I can also see the agency of women: how they provide meaning, either by being compliant or fighting against the patriarchal will that is making them suffer, but it requires a critical awareness to realise this. For example, when I researched the radical movements in Indonesia, I read several research outcomes on this issue. I am baffled as to how a religious movement in Indonesia can ignore the involvement of women. How can something so real and visible manage to be skipped in the research framework. For example, the wanted terrorist Noordin M. Top can survive because he is camouflaged by forming a regular and normal family. Don’t we want to know who the wife is, whether she is afraid or not, how did they know each other, what is the wife’s view of her husband’s cause? In short, don’t we want to know how the terrorist moves from one city to another, who washes his underwear? I am very surprised that research on a religious movement in Indonesia can fail to question the women’s position. At that point, I assume there is a huge gender bias. Terrorism is considered a masculine world, the world of men. But this bias is lost in the research.
Based on this curiosity, I designed research on women and fundamentalism. I tried to observe it in a round way, not directly at the heart of the research on radicalism. I agree with the opinion of Ihsan Ali Fauzie from PUSAD Paramadina, who concluded that fundamentalism is a way to radicalism. Together with a researcher of Yayasan Rumah Kita Bersama (Rumah KitaB), we intensively interviewed 20 women on what can connect women to a fundamentalist point of view and movement in Indonesia. The outcome was very interesting. In each woman we interviewed, there is an agency to fight and engage in a jihad to defend her religion. The women attached a very personal meaning to jihad. Of course, this concept was received through their involvement in their fundamentalist group. Here, there is an agency role of women, namely as ‘servants’, both in providing meaning or even criticising the organisation or their fundamentalist group. 
A more interesting thing is how women attach meaning to their jihad. Fundamentalist groups place jihad in two categories. One is major jihad (jihad kabir), namely jihad that puts your life on the line in the battlefield/conflict area. Meanwhile, small jihad (jihad saghir) is a jihad related to the role of women to give birth, especially to boys, that will become the actors of major jihad, and being patient while their husbands go on jihad. However, women from younger generations are not satisfied by this social role. They negotiate to participate in major jihad, for example by becoming bomb carriers. This is an interesting fact. But it is the researcher’s job to question this fact in a deeper way. 
In my research, because I used gender analysis and feminism, I raised the question of why women feel dissatisfied with their traditional roles in performing small jihads. This question brought me to a more interesting finding. It would seem that the social position of women within fundamentalist groups is very low. They are unappreciated, unseen and unrecognised as something that provides meaning to jihad. These young women are desperate to prove their bravery, even being braver than men. They want their role to be seen and recognised. The only way to prove this is by sacrificing their lives (as the bomb carrier). In the theological concept, actors of jihad are incentivised by receiving angels in the next world, but what is in it for the women? The concept is not as bright and clear as for men. Despite this, women still want to prove that they are willing to put their lives at risk. With this, they are ‘respected’ and their presence and existence are accepted. We can then understand why some women are willing to blow themselves up by carrying a bomb and thinking of this as a jihad (read the publication of Rumah KitaB entitled the Testimony of Servants: A Study about Women and Fundamentalism in Indonesia, red.).
Q: Violence against women is a long-standing phenomenon. How does your research bring to light data and information on the facts of violence, and thus, become evidence for policy change and social justice?
A: This is an interesting question. This explains my two working arenas – research, and writing for advocacy. I wrote an article in Kompas to respond to the statement of the Minister of Education and Culture, Mohammad Nuh, (he was in power from 22 October 2009 to 27 October 2014, red). At the time there was a rape of a Junior High School student in Depok, committed by her senior. The school refused the victim’s right to go to school after the rape. The minister said that this was not sexual violence, but consensual sex. So, instead of finding a solution on the discriminatory action of the school, the minister condoned it in the name of protecting more students. 
In this article, I explained that sexual violence against teenagers is similar to violence in dating. The point is rape can occur in a relationship initially built on a consensual basis, but at one point there is a coercion using the power relationship in the name of love. There is a gender difference that must be understood on the perception of teen boys and girls on the expression of love, the power relationship, and the meaning of a sexual relationship. This difference needs correct understanding that is not biased and not based on male assumptions.  
Another example is the research of Rumah KitaB that I am leading on child marriage (there are 14 research titles that can be viewed on Attempting to step out of the focus that sees child marriage as a result of poverty, we tried to further explore the root of such poverty. Child marriage has become a phenomenon that can be found almost anywhere in Indonesia, both in rural and urban areas. Data shows that one in five Indonesian women were married when they were under age, and two thirds of these marriages ended in divorce. Indonesia is in the top ten countries with the highest child marriage rates in the world. We tried to observe the root of the poverty, namely the changing living space in rural areas as a result of change of land ownership and its conversion. When men and community figures lose their access to land, they become more picky in dealing with public moral problems, including their teenagers. They tend to be more conservative and at least let child marriage slide. By doing this, they show their power politics role and receive economic benefits by becoming a regulation broker. At the analysis level, this research demonstrated how child marriage is actually a form of violence by adults to children. To make matters even more frightening, this violence is agreed upon between adults. Not one adult is challenging it. They often state moral reasoning, in the best interests of the child, covering up shame or resolving immoral conduct. This is contradictory, because marriage of a child is clearly immoral. They drop out of school, stop expressing themselves, and stop playing, which are their rights.
Among the institutions that we observed in the context of this research, there were ‘vague’ institutions. There were neither formal nor informal institutions, but they were extraordinarily effective in promoting child marriage practices. 
Q: How do you, along with other researchers, advocate a policy change that is not reactive and does not target the issue on this ‘vague power at work’?
A: We see that child marriage is promoted not only by formal institutions, but by other institutions accommodating this practice. Emergency door regulations, such as dispensation to get married when under age from the Religious Court after the Religious Office has refused because it violated the Marriage Law is one of the accommodative formal institutions. Or, people take advantage of informal institutions, where a community figure is involved in approving a child marriage by conducting an under-handed marriage, which is illegal from the State’s point of view, but legal from a religious stand point.
Between these two institutions, there is a very powerful situation encouraging child marriage practices, neither by formal nor informal institutions. We call it a ‘vague institution’, namely decisions taken by unknown figures. It may be the mother, father, relative, a big family or the community. The point is marriage is done to cover up shame and resolve the anxiety of adults surrounding the child. This is particularly true when the child is pregnant, or is considered to have disturbed the family stability by the way the child expresses his or her sexuality. They are considered flirtatious, unable to control themselves, and so forth. This shame has plenty of power, but its bearer is so vague. That is what we mean by vague power at work. 
The research on child marriage that we conducted has produced new theories that still need to undergo some testing, for example, the phenomenon of social orphans, where the child does not have a father and mother as a place for them to seek protection and help. Their parents have lost their social roles as parents due to severe and systemic poverty.    
Q: What kind of progressive maneuver would you like to create through your research to improve the gap in the power relationship between women and men in Indonesia?
A: Our research on FP (publication entitled Religious Perspective Map on Family Planning, red.), fundamentalism, women in radical movements, or child marriage basically shows how religious views and institutions can take a larger role in protecting women. We do this by contrasting text and reality when text is used blindly as a tool to justify or legitimise violence against women. We show facts on this violence and face it with the normative, ideal teachings brought by religion. If we believe religion is a blessing for all humanity, why are only some people enjoying it? If religion teaches us good things, why does it result in bad treatment of women? Certainly, it is not about the religion, but how people interpret it in a biased and incomplete way. In the niche between the fact of bad treatment suffered by women and the normative ideal value of religion, we have the opportunity to build an alignment to women. The feminism analysis knife to me is a way to grow critical thinking and methodology to build alignment, namely thinking and action to address oppression. 
Q: What trend do you want to see in the next generation of researchers and analysts that want to promote policy change for social justice?
A: A while ago, I saw a documentary video of a poet, Agam Wispi, an Indonesian runaway poet staying in Amsterdam. He was a poet for the People’s Cultural Institution (Lekra) from Medan, North Sumatera in the late 1930s. He was the most influential Lekra poet during 1950-1960s, before joining the navy and being stuck abroad during the 1965 incident. According to the records of the Literature Encyclopaedia developed by the Ministry of Education and Culture, his poetry contained reform never seen before, such as language, expression and emotional word choices. I was very impressed with his work because it contained anger about the social situation that he considered to be unfair for the poor. 
In the 1980s, he was invited to Jakarta and he met young poets and writers in Indonesia. He was very impressed with how active these youths were. According to him, their work was very creative and they were acting to fight the oppressive regime.
Inspired by this interview, I see that a critical young generation is the most important element in social change. Issues of environment, labour and specific issues on the oppression of women are mobilised by activists. They are not just conducting research, but also consistently and persistently taking action to move and resist a bad situation. The methods may be different than during my years. The actions today are done through fun methods, out of the standard organisational boxes, but they produce very good results. Social media and technology are clearly helping them, while back in my era cell phones did not even exist.
I see the use of social media as an advocacy tool being a trend that will develop in the future. Infographics, short videos and short movies will become inevitable smart choices in this digital era to advocate policies from research outcomes. This is the era of youth in a fast-paced global era. 
However, there are two things that can pose a threat. The first is ethics. The truth of social media news is very hard to trace, from research methodology and knowledge management perspectives. How the research was conducted is not explained, all we get is the outcome. We really must uphold ethics, if not, there will be research outcomes that cannot be academically accounted for, making it no different from hoax news. If false information is used for advocacy material, that is truly frightening and clearly wrong. 
The second issue, and I feel that this is a crisis, is organisation at the grass roots level. It is there that the real fight for humanity issues lies. Who do we want to defend? Surely the oppressed people. To find them and build their resistance to oppression in the social or gender structure, they need friends. Who is currently working at the village level to organise the people? Political parties do not go that low, instead we have religious communal groups. A number of villages are lucky to be selected for NGO work. Beyond that, we expect the awareness to come from the villagers themselves, who regretfully, have not learned to truly organise themselves for more than 40 or 50 years. Existing organisations are established by the State through agents (village officials). Village elites become small kings who are currently managing their own funds, such as the village fund allocation. In my observation, this is an important facility to conduct advocacy for change. However, the institutional and organisational aspects at the lower level are very fragile. Village discussions become a technocratic mechanism where the voice of the marginalised, including women, is rarely heard. I feel that the trend of change should come from there, but who is over there? Without any critical people, without organisations based on the essence of democracy and public space free from primordial interests, we will let democracy die from its most basic core: representation at the village level. 
So if you ask me what do I want to see in the future, I want people’s education at the village level. Not only Qur’an recital. Not only about livelihoods. I want a community organisation growing at the community level, the village. It is not enough through organisations managed by the village or recital/religious groups, but a critical people’s organisation, where people are aware of their rights, within which are elements of marginalised villagers who have the same opportunity to voice their opinions. Efforts toward this have clearly been done, but again, who is over there? I left the village a while ago. I am only looking from afar and am powerless to raise the awareness of my own village people. This is ironic for many activists of social movement and the Gender Equality and Social Inclusion, red. (GESI) justice movement.     
Q: Within the next five years, how do you see the ‘GESI perspective in research for development’ helping to create and support a wider and more robust knowledge sector in Indonesia?
A: At the knowledge production level, we have to be able to prove that without GESI, just like the examples I put forward from several researches above, the research outcomes are not only inaccurate, but also lost. Lost here means that the knowledge production cannot fulfil the expectation, which should be the basis of policies. When the research is wrong, how can the recommendations be right? At the communication level, we need creative ways, just as activists do through media, but they must be very GESI-sensitive. Not for the sake of GESI itself, but so that knowledge can really be effective and knowledge can be easily read by policy makers.
I feel that issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) must be prioritised. There are 17 targets that need robust knowledge production. This will also help policy makers to budget and plan a policy. A simple example is how many contraceptives are needed in this country? We cannot simply give up to the drug industry producers. Knowledge production must be able to complement the State with correct data, so that the State can meet the reach of contraceptives, thus meeting the rights of women.
SGD targets need good databases. The GESI perspective is important to be brought forward, especially for data on targets that seem to be neutral on GESI, for example, the target to eradicate malnutrition and famine, or targets on water and sanitation. Without using GESI, the target to eradicate malnutrition, stunting, famine, or to make clean water available will not be achieved. There needs to be an understanding of how the power relationship works and influences access and control of nutrition and clean water. The power relationship can be based on ethnicity, race, physical condition, or geographical condition, within which there should be the reality of the gender and age relationship. 

MAQÂSHID AL-ISLÂM: Konsep Perlindungan Manusia dalam Perspektif Islam (The Concept of Human Protection in Islamic Perspective)

The Religion and Cultural Fundamentalist Issues in BERDAYA Program

One of the challenges of BERDAYA program is that the purpose of this activity can contradict with religious and cultural fundamentalists who consider child marriage to be their domain.

Religious fundamentalism is both a religious as well as an ideology that believes that the best way to save people from destruction on earth is to “return to the basic dogma.” Methodologically they invite to return to the understanding of the text of Scripture (Qur’an and hadith). But its way of understanding uses the literalist basis. This literalist argumentation rejects the results of ijtihad and the classical law argumentation that have been codified by scholars who develop Islamic thought contextually for centuries through the process of culture-civilization to Islam in accordance with the times. This reinvigorated effort of textual teaching eliminates the essence of humanity within it. This literalist view makes the religious view stalled, static and consequently Islam evolving backward so that religious views become rigid and incapable of adapting to the modern age, this condition creates an antipathic view of the modern civilization itself.

Ideologically, this view of fundamentalism is one level below radicalism, while radicalism is a belief or action with the imposition of views and attitudes through violence and terrorism. Fundamentalism is the embryo of the birth of radicalism even to the level of terrorism if there is no process that prevents it. Cultural fundamentalism is also similar to the condition of religious fundamentalism, both of them refers to the basic guidelines of an ideology, one a religious ideology, while another is a cultural ideology. Cultural fundamentalism will give rise to a rigid and absolute view of treating traditions. Religious and cultural fundamentalism are equally harmful to women because they consider the existence of women to be a measure of change, so control over the women is important to keep their ideology. Child marriage is one of the things that they maintain because it is in accordance with the religious fundamentalism that is believed.

See the Small Mexican Town Embracing Islam

In Chiapas, 400 Mexicans are building a new identity by merging their indigenous practices with Islam.

In photographer Giulia Iacolutti’s native Italy, the conversation about Islam revolved around fear and terrorism, but when she arrived in Mexico, she found none of that.

In 2014, a professor introduced Iacolutti to the imam of one of the mosques popping up around Mexico City to host a growing Muslim community. For a year, she embedded herself in their homes, rituals and feasts for a project called Jannah, an Arabic word that represents paradise in Islam.

Islam came to Mexico in spurts over the past decades, with immigrants from Lebanan and Syria, and even a group of Spanish Sufi Muslims who came to convert members of the Zapatista revolutionaries in the ‘90s. It caught on quickly. The country now has around 5,270 Muslims—triple what it had 15 years ago, Iacolutti says. An Arabic teacher helps them read the Quran and a scholarship offers a chance to study at a medina in Yemen.

In Mexico, which is largely Catholic, Iacolutti found that having a belief system is more important than following a particular religion. She spoke to Catholic mothers who didn’t want their daughters to convert to Islam, but were pleased when the change inspired a more pious way of life. “In Mexico it’s better to convert to Islam than in Europe,” she says. “They don’t think of terrorists.”


Up: Amina stands outside of her house in Molinos de Arcos.
Down: Thirteen-year-old Yalal has a brother who is studying in Yemen on a scholarship offered to the Muslim communities in Mexico.
Photograph by Giulia Iacolutti

“They want to build identity,” Iacolutti says of the new Mexican Muslims. “What is pleasing about Islam is that it brings practical actions in daily life: You have to pray five times each day. You can’t eat pork and you can’t drink alcohol.” (Read more about progressive Muslim women)

Converts are fueling the growth in Mexico City, while high birthrates and large families spur it on in rural regions.

After a year of living with the community, Iacolutti asked for an introduction to the imams who tended to a rural community of Muslims in the southern state of Chiapas. By merging their indigenous practices with Islam, these 400 converts lived much differently than their Mexico City counterparts.

For one, they tend to blend in easily, since many indigenous women wrap their heads in scarves. “I want to speak my language, I want to put on the indigenous dress, but I also want to believe in allah,” they told Iacolutti.

But the remoteness makes it difficult to maintain important tenets of their religion. Chiapas is a poor state, and meat that has been butchered in accordance to Islam, called halal, is rare. During one holiday feast, Iacolutti watched as the community sacrificed two cows and immediately brought meat to their Christian neighbors. “One ideal of Islam is you have to help a person that is poorer than you,” she says. “It’s not important if you believe in another god—you are my neighbor and you can eat the same food.”

Iacolutti is an atheist, but she was never once asked to convert. In such a devout country, her subjects seemed unbothered by a nonbeliever in their midst. Once, in a conversation with a Muslim woman in Mexico City she felt a longing for the other’s faith. “I think you have a very rich life because you believe,” Iacolutti told her. “I don’t believe. I see you and think you have a better life.”

The woman scolded her. “You take pictures,” she replied. “Your god is photography and beauty and information. You believe in this. I believe in allah.”


When Jihad Became Synonymous with Evil

It seems as if acts of terrorism will never stop haunting humankind. Terrorists can appear anywhere, anytime, unexpectedly, and can target anyone. They seek to ignite “Global Jihad” to oppose all those who do not share their ideology, whatever their religion. And yet the language they use is the language of religion: Jihad. Are they really trying to set in motion a modern Islamic Crusade?

Definitions of Jihad throughout History

 “Jihad” is derived from the root word “mujahadah”, which means “going to war to uphold the religion of God” (al-muqatalah li-iqamati al-din). The order for Jihad in the context of war (qital) was only given after Prophet Muhammad SAW migrated to Madinah. Before that, Muslims were ordered to be accepting of whatever treatment they received from the unbelievers.

Muhammad bin Qasim, in “Fath al-Qarib”, explains that the legal status of Jihad is fardhu kifayah, a collective obligation. However, if “enemies” invade and attack Muslim countries, Jihad is no longer fardhu kifayah, but instead becomes fardhu ’ayn, an obligation for all individuals. In this context, Jihad is meant to “protect” and “preserve” the Muslim community. Jihad is shown to those who attack and war against the Muslim community (kafir harbiy). Conversely, Jihad is not aimed at those unbelievers who choose peace with the Muslims and live among them in harmony, such as kafir dzimmiy (natives), kafir musta’man (travelers), or even kafir mu’ahad (countries which have established diplomatic relations).

Within the context of Indonesia, Jihad in the sense of war was proclaimed by the organization Nahdlatul Ulama in the form of “The Jihad Resolution” of 10 November 20145, when Indonesia faced the Dutch colonialists who sought to regain their control over the country. At that time, the religious teachers, scholars and students, and the whole community, all rushed into the field of battle to do jihad and defend their religion and the homeland.

Nevertheless, as Prophet Muhammad SAW stated, Jihad in the sense of war against “enemies of Islam” falls under minor Jihad (jihad ashghar). The true jihad (jihad akbar) is “to war against desire (lust)” (mujahadah al-nafsi). This is because the real enemy, which exists within everyone, is their passions. Once, as they were returning from the field of battle, the Prophet SAW said to his companions, “Raja’na min al-jihad al-ashghar ila al-jihad al-akbar” (“We are returning from the ‘lesser jihad’ to the ‘greater jihad’” – meaning the battle against one’s passions).

According to Abu Bakar in “l’anah al-Thalibin”, Jihad (war) is only a means (wasilah) to reach a goal (maqashid), which is to provide guidance/ direction. Abu Bakar said that if this goal can be reached without going through Jihad, this is the better way. Meanwhile, Zainuddin al-Malibari, in “Fath al-Mu’in”, is more interested in elaborating the definition of Jihad as not only limited to the context of war. He stated that “Daf’u dhararu al-Ma’sumin min al-muslimin wa al-dzimmiyyin wa musta’man al-ja’i” (“meeting the needs of the poor, whether Muslim, dzimmiy, or musta’man”) also falls under the category of Jihad. A broader understanding of Jihad is to provide basic necessities, health and education.

This is the true spirit and meaning behind Jihad. The true Jihad is the jihad that is not based on hatred and hostility, and is not meant to destroy humanity.

The Prophet Muhammad SAW actually did not like solving problems through war. In other words, waging war was not what the Prophet SAW intended. Evidence of this is that in the eight battles in which the Prophet SAW took part, only one person died by his hands, Ubay bin Khalaf. Before he left for the field of battle, Muhammad SAW always ordered his troops not to kill those who were in the middle of prayers, children, the elderly, those not involved in the war, or even damage trees or kill animals.

The Hijacking of the Definition of Jihad

In recent events, the word Jihad appears with a single definition which seems to be synonymous with violence. The image of Islam in recent times is always associated with the acts of violence carried out by a certain group of terrorists. Jihad is seen as a way to carry out hate, hostility, and merciless killing.

Yet Muslims have long been familiar with Jihad. Jihad has had a variety of meanings and uses. This means that Jihad is not always interpreted as meaning “going to war in the path of Allah” (even in the proper way as of described above).

The term Jihad has been hijacked by a handful of people to fulfill their political ambitions. They use the name of Islam and the Muslim community to wage war against the West. In fact, the majority of Muslims prefer to live in peace, friendship, and mutual respect and appreciation for those of other beliefs and nations. This can be proven by the lifestyle of Muslims in all countries with a Muslim majority. But due to the acts of a handful of people, the religion and lives of Muslims are tarnished.

Therefore, in order to “re-neutralize” the definition of jihad, Muslims need to take back the true meaning for themselves. Muslims must not be trapped by the negative image and politicization carried out by terrorists in order to achieve their political goals. Muslims also need to prove to the rest of society that Jihad is not for violence or treating humankind as enemies.

Terrorism is the common enemy of the Muslim community, and must be eradicated through collective action. No religion on earth is against humanity. A religion that goes against humanity is an enemy of mankind itself. Wallahu a’lam bi al-sawab.

Indonesian Muslim Feminists: Islamic Reasoning, Rumah Kitab And The Case Of Child Brides

Written by Nelly van Dorn-Harder, Professor at Wake Forest University, North Carolina. Published by Institute on Culture, Religion & World Affairs, Boston University, USA.


Indonesian: not Arab!

Indonesia is a vast country with numerous languages, cultures and ethnicities. It should not surprise us that discussions about Islam reflect the complexity of the country. In spite of this diversity, authorities on Indonesian Islam agree that several distinctive features set it apart from Middle Eastern Islam. According to Azyumardi Azra, Indonesian Islam is firmly embedded in local cultures, and the state is democratically governed under the common ideological platform of the Pancasila model that in principle sanctions the full legal presence of Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and Bahai communities.1 Furthermore, a distinctive feature is that for nearly half a century the majority of Indonesian Muslim leaders have allowed women to hold religious and secular leadership roles. This development is also discernible in various mainstream Muslim organizations of which Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah are the largest, and “can be seen as a perfect representation of Islamic-based civil society.”2

Simply put, the prevalent opinion is that Indonesian Islam is not Arab and never will be. Yet, when in 1998, the Suharto regime fell and the country’s political system became more democratic, Islamic movements whose main goal was to align Indonesian Islam more closely with interpretations from Middle Eastern Arab countries started to influence the country’s public life. The new-found democratic freedoms not only allowed for a pluralization of Islamic ideals, but also led to a fragmentation of religious authority. Communal boundaries were redrawn and relatively small numbers of extremist Muslim thinkers disproportionately influenced the creation of new laws and Islamic regulations. New political and religious actors emerged, all presenting new possibilities for what Hoesterey and Clark referred to as a glorious Islam “in the abstract.”3 In this crowded landscape, women, their bodies, roles, and rights became the symbolic bearers of how the abstract should be translated into reality.4

This new religious reality begs the question as to how Muslim feminist activists belonging to the mainstream organizations of NU and Muhammadiyah negotiated some of the sweeping changes in religious attitudes. While feminism comes in many forms, in this context I refer to Muslim feminists; women and men for whom the key to women’s liberation is found in re-interpreting the Qur’an and other Islamic sources (for example the Tradition or Hadith) from the perspective of gender equality. Their reference point is the belief that the sources for women’s liberation are the Muslim holy texts, but that these have been misread and abused to subordinate women.5 In Indonesia, feminists, Muslim or not, fight several battles against multiple forms of injustice perpetrated against women. Among others, they address issues connected to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women such as human trafficking, women’s reproductive rights (including FGM, Female Genital Mutilation)6, polygamy, unregistered or secret forms of marriage (nikah siri), child marriage (pernikahan di bawah usia, or pernikahan dini), and women’s public and private leadership roles.7

In this essay I focus on the strategies developed against the practice of underage or child marriage by the non-governmental organization Rumah Kitab (Rumah Kita Bersama). The rationale for this choice is that the practice of child or underage marriage touches on several of the main priorities of the Muslim feminist agenda as it includes the issues of secret marriage and polygamy. Furthermore, in Indonesia and many Muslim majority countries it is a brazen infraction of state marriage laws that impose a minimum age for women and men. Underage marriage is a form of violence against women, it threatens a girl’s (reproductive) health, and is often performed in secret as by necessity
it remains unregistered. In many instances the child bride enters a polygamous union.

According to the 2015 report by Coram International, 7.8% of Indonesian brides were 12-14 years old and 30.6% were 15-17 at the time of marriage (according to Indonesian law, the minimum age for girls is sixteen and for boys, nineteen).8 These numbers are higher than the numbers given by Unicef in 2014 that estimated 21% of Indonesian women between the age of 20-24 to be married before the age of eighteen of whom 3% were under the age of 15.9 The practice is mostly driven by socioeconomic factors such as poverty and local customs. For example some areas perform so-called “hanging” marriages (kawin gantung): a girl child is officially married but sexual relations are postponed until she has reached maturity. Child marriage is also supported by rigid gender norms that normalize male violence against women. Certain radical Muslim groups have promoted the practice as proof of Islamic correctness and a means to protect the bride’s honor. Some groups even present the practice as “cool.”

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How Indonesian School System Segregates Believers

The article was originally published in Magdalene, written by Amrina R. Wijaya.

I used to attend an all-Muslim school in my early years. There we did many things “Islamic”: the girls were obliged to cover their hair and once a week we were taught about the history of the Prophet and the glory of the Islamic civilizations.

Since everyone was of the same faith, I had never seen anyone at school making gesture in the shape of a cross across their chest before the class started. It was also a foreign idea for me back then to imagine that there were people in this world who are actually prohibited from savoring beef-based dish. Islam is the only religion we understood.

Attending a religious school was a good thing to some extent, because it exposed me, as a believer, to good Islamic values at such early age, which laid the foundation for me to later develop and rethink them as I grew older. But, on the other hand, being surrounded by people of the same faith has blinded me, and others, to religious multiculturalism we encounter in real life.

We were told over and over again that our religion was the truest of all that some of us became very disdainful and irrationally scared of getting dirty, whenever encountering a term not in our religious dictionary. The word Christianity used to be akin to the F-word for us, and making fun of Jesus would be considered appropriate.

Later I found out from my other friends who attended more heterogonous public schools that faith-related mockery also existed outside the walls of religious schools. One time, a friend of mine was told that she would burn in hell unless she converted.

In reality, diversity should not be a foreign concept for most Indonesians. People as young as schoolchildren have been exposed to diversity, from their neighborhood and from schoolbooks. This raises the question: why do the schoolchildren – who are supposedly pure hearted and innocent – treat other adherents like they were aliens, and declare that hellfire awaits them?

One of the main reasons, I believe, lies in an education system with a curriculum that focuses on “knowing the what’s” instead of “understanding the why’s and how’s”. When it comes to religious diversity, schoolchildren know that there are Muslims and Christians and Buddhists, they know the name of other religions’ houses of worship, but they have no idea why their followers wear different religious symbols, or how all faiths believe in respecting men of all kind.

Religious subjects are still taught exclusively to its adherents – thanks to our constitution on national education system – keeping “the others” outside their reach and creating an even bigger gap among different believers.

The perpetuation of this segregation of believers is (unintendedly) supported by the local school system (in which ironically only reflects the fact that is a “normal” practice in society!). We see how most state schools in Indonesia are very Muslim-dominated, that prayers are often led in the Islamic way – rather than a universal one – to which the minority groups have to conform.

This condition would likely justify the dominance of a certain faith and perpetuate the underrepresentation of minorities. Today we also see that there are many faith-based groups in junior and senior high schools, and despite the common ground of love and peace they all agree upon, the discourse of tolerance is only taught and spoken of within their walls.

These groups create many religious events whose participation is restricted to a certain faith – retreat night for Christians and prayer gathering for Muslims, for example – but, strangely, no faith-based events open for all believers as an arena to understand each other. In practice, they are never seen to be “in contact” with other faith-based club members in promoting interreligious tolerance.

Being so used to be segregated by beliefs, it is no wonder that schoolchildren tend to magnify the theological differences each other has than to pose similarities such as on the ideas love, respect, and peace – aspects that are way more important in creating an inclusive social life. This “us-versus-them” point of view is what catalyzes intolerance that later leads to “othering” and faith-based mockery.

In her article “A Case for Pluralism in the Schools”, published in The Phi Delta Kappan magazine, social scientist and professor in multicultural education Christine Bennett wrote: “… we are greatly in need of a curriculum that builds understanding of each of our cultural orientations and fosters intercultural understanding.”

The implementation of the curriculum she argued for can take many forms: from reducing the dominance of a certain faith in schools, arranging school trips to different religions’ houses of worship, or engaging believers of different faiths in an interfaith event.

Nevertheless, this idea of interfaith understanding among schoolchildren, of course, still faces many criticisms. Many claim that introducing the values of one faith to another is never a good idea, fearing it would erode “religious purity”. People are afraid that by being tolerant and exposed to other beliefs, children will stray too far from their own religious teaching.

But refusal to understand other beliefs creates a mental state that the late Gus Dur calls “mental banteng” (the bull mentality). It’s a condition in which believers of a faith build walls around them and are very defensive of foreign ideas. People with this mental state are highly reactive to any kind of new ideas, and their close-mindedness is a peril to social integration. This is not what we expect from our young generations.

To deny multiculturalism in Indonesia is to deny fact. Instead of constantly being told about the differences between religions, children should hear more about how they are more alike. Focusing too much on religious differences only fosters and strengthens the sense of “other” between believers. Religious multiculturalism and pluralism should be cherished and embraced with love by children, like the colors of the paper rainbows on their classroom windows.

Launching on Fiqh on Child Marriage Book

Fikih Kawin Anak: Membaca Ulang Teks Keagamaan Perkawinan Usia Anak-Anak (Fiqh on Child Marriage: Rereading Religious Texts on Marriage in Childhood) book was launched on Thursday, October 8, 2015. The event was opened by the Director General of Islamic Community Guidance, Ministry of Religious Affairs, (Dirjen Bimas Islam) Prof. Dr. H. M. Machasin, M.A. with remarks by the Chairperson  of the Nahdlatul Ulama Executive Board (PBNU), K.H. Sulthon Fathoni, M.Si. Present were senior women’s activists, such as Ibu Saparinah Sadli, Ibu Syamsiah Ahmad, Ibu Tini Hadad, and Ibu Zumrotin K. Susilo, and also male activists, such as K. H. Husein Muhammad, a former commissioner of National Commission for Women (Komnas Perempuan). The event was also covered by Kompas in its Friday, 9 October 2015 edition.

The event was attended by a wide range of participants, not just activists, with a good balance of males and females. Rumah KitaB distributed 237 copies of the book at the launch, and interestingly, the chairperson of NU’s tanfiziyah (board) Prof. Makruf Amin, asked for 20 copies, because PBNU will be holding a fatwa session to support the government’s effort to raise the marriage age.

There was quite a  dynamic discussion on how to interpret the texts on child marriage in the launch of the book “Fiqh on Child Marriage: Re-reading Religious Texts on Marriage in Childhood”.

peluncuran fikih kawin anak

peluncuran fikih kawin anak peluncuran fikih kawin anak


In the introduction, the Director of Yayasan Rumah Kita Bersama, Ibu Lies Marcoes, M.A., explained that the purpose of this study is to complement social studies on child marriage, in which there is always a religious element used in justifying the practice. In the Constitutional Court’s rejection of the judicial review proposed by women’s activists seeking to raise the marriage age, and in other social/ political experiences that seek fulfillment of women’s reproductive health rights, it is always the case that religious arguments are used as an important foundation by both those supporting these efforts and those opposing them.

Thus, it was no exaggeration when Ibu Badriyah Fayumi, Lc, M.A., one of the resource persons, a female ulama who is highly respected for her excellent mastery of the classical religious text, said that if only the Constitutional Court justices had read the book Fiqh on Child Marriage, their opinions could well have been different and they would have understood and agreed that the marriage age needs to be changed in line with the needs of the current era. First, because the book has very strong religious references; second, because the book also contains data on the dire social and health consequences of child marriage; and equally important, the book examines the political practices of progressive efforts to raise the marriage age in Muslim countries elsewhere in the world.

At the book launch, the Director General of Islamic Community Guidance, Prof. Dr. H. M. Machasin, M.A. said that normatively, it is almost impossible for child marriage to satisfy the requirements for building a strong, healthy family with a proper vision. Fiqh cannot be applied as static law, because from the very beginning it has always been useful to seek solutions to social/religious problems relating to religious law, with a wide range of opinions. The problem is that it is always difficult for fiqh to resolve this diversity of opinions, and therefore the presence of the state is needed to build legal unification. Many efforts have been undertaken by the state, including the Marriage Law and the Compilation of Islamic Law (KHI). Both of these are political products and represent a compromise between fiqh and efforts to moderate Islamic law. Logically, both of these (the Marriage Law and KHI) can be reexamined when a new compromise is needed, for example with regard to raising the marriage age. And in his opinion, this book is an effort to provide a reference as a basis for why child marriage needs to be reexamined.

At the book launch, Rumah KitaB presented three resource persons, all of whom hold important positions, in MUI, PBNU and Muhammadiyah. Dr. Moqsith Ghazali, M.A. is from NU’s reconciliation commission and also a member of MUI; Ibu Badriyah Fayumi, Lc, M.A. is in a very strategic commission in MUI, the fatwa commission; and Ustadz Dr. Fahmi Salim, Lc, M.A., is in MUI’s dakwah (outreach) commission, and also holds a position in Muhammadiyah, with a very conservative and textualist perspective. Nevertheless, with their respective approaches, they appreciated and agreed with the efforts made by Rumah KitaB in offering to reexamine the texts related to child marriage.

Their suggestion was to prepare a very short version of the book, like a policy brief, as a handy reference for judges and decision makers, such as KUA (Religious Affairs Offices), in rejecting the practice of child marriage.


Islam and Indonesia’s New Social Orphans

This article was originall published in Jakarta Globe.

Every Ramadan, Muslims talk not only about fasting but also about helping orphans. Indeed, for those who are unable to fast and cannot make up for this later in the year, feeding orphans or the poor is seen as an equivalent deed.

In the Koran there are many verses that command us to uphold our prayers and to fast, followed immediately by a social obligation to help the poor: “Perform the prayers, pay zakat.”

But who exactly are these “orphans” and, considering the dramatic and ongoing changes in our social structure, isn’t it about time to review this concept?

Parents out of the picture

Generally, the Indonesian term yatim piatu is used to refer to children who have lost both parents — yatim is a child without a father, while piatu means a child without a mother. This interpretation is based on the assumption that parents are the sole source of both life and protection. However, the structure of society and the factors that cause children to become “orphans” have changed considerably in recent times.

Changes in our living space have altered the extended family structure throughout Indonesia. Traditional economic resources have been destroyed, but the economic resources that have replaced them — such as oil palm plantations, mining, oil and gas extraction and the cement industry — do not recognize a social or communal role of protection.

And so children and teenagers become social orphans: they have no parents, as their parents are absent, but they also receive no protection from the extended family because it — also — has become powerless.

Sadly, the functions of traditional communities have become inadequate as a means of help, and in fact create social pressure to preserve the only remaining form of defense: the self-respect of the (otherwise ineffective) extended family.

Historical context

At the time the religious commands about helping orphans and the poor were revealed, parents were the source of protection, backed by their tribe or clan. In a traditional agrarian society, the functions of social protection and support, support from nature, and other mechanisms of protection, as documented in the moral guidelines in the Koran, were quite effective in aiding orphans and the poor.

In the social structure of historical Mecca and Medina, these functions grew and expanded in a communal society that depended on the strength of the clans, in which the tribal leaders carried out these protective functions. Islam then established rules, not merely as normative ideals (in the period when the Prophet Muhammad was still in Mecca) but also as explicit regulations for the procedure and its implementation (during the prophet’s time in Medina).

The Koran describes in great detail how these protection mechanisms are to be organized, such as the obligations to pay zakat fitrah (annually at Idul Fitri, the end-of-Ramadan celebrations), zakat mal (charitable donations), payments of fines for religious violations and it even presents specific calculations. This, at the time, was considered adequate to provide for orphans and the poor.

The problem is that in the modern socioeconomic structure, the term “orphans” should actually apply not only to those whose parents are no longer alive, but also those who have effectively lost their parents — such as children and adolescents whose parents are working in other provinces or as migrant workers abroad. These are children whose parents are alive but who have lost their entire social support network.

At the same time, the social functions of the extended family or clan can no longer be relied on, due to the interventions of corporations, the state and the wider context of economic globalization. The protective powers of parents and relatives have been eroded by same social changes that create these new social orphans.

Consider, for example, regions where many parents have gone away as migrant workers, such as West Nusa Tenggara, East Java, West Java, and West and South Kalimantan. The rates of child marriage in these regions are extremely high. The cause is obvious: children grow up without substitute parents who are able to safeguard their growth and development.

Religion of justice

We can explore the changes in Indonesians’ living space further by looking at statistics. School dropout rates and maternal and child mortality rates are all higher for residents in regions that undergo significant changes in their living spaces: from natural forests to oil palm plantations, from irrigated rice field agriculture to the tourism industry, from natural beaches and coastlines to iron-sand mining sites.

These changes in the structure of society, in power relations, and in living spaces create a multitude of social orphans. They have generated massive wealth for some and massive exploitation for others. These changes have also altered social relations to become more exploitative and oppressive. In this changing social structure, the meaning of the term “orphans” thus has to be expanded as well.

The protection of orphans needs to be seen in a new perspective.

What we need are ideas rooted in religion and society that recognize the concept of social orphans. Only then can we seek a solution through the injunction to fast and provide for those in need. Without this, Islam will merely be a set of rituals that has lost its essence as a religion of justice that defends the poor and the weak.