Strengthening Religious Narratives in Support of Women’s Right to Work

On Thursday, 6 August 2020, Rumah KitaB, with support from Investing in Women (IW), an initiative of the Australian Government, held an online workshop with the theme “Gender, Islam, and Economic Empowerment of Women.” The purpose of the workshop was to inform foundational research for and the design of IW-backed campaigns for influencing gender norms (IGN) in support of women’s economic empowerment in Indonesia. Rumah KitaB is one of four organizations in Indonesia that IW is funding to implement such campaigns.

A total of 43 persons (8 men and 35 women) took part in the event, including representatives from Rumah KitaB and its network of researchers; IW and the three other IW-supported organizations in Indonesia for IGN campaigns—Sedap Films, Magdalene and Yayasan Pulih; the Indonesia Business Coalition for Women Empowerment; and other stakeholders. This three-hour event was facilitated by Lies Marcoes-Natsir, a gender expert and Executive Director of Rumah KitaB. The two resource persons also from Rumah KitaB were Achmat Hilmi and Fayyaz Mumtaz.

In opening the interactive workshop, Alison Aggarwal, IW’s Gender Advocacy Director, noted the strong interest from the IGN partners in Indonesia for discussions on how religious norms and interpretations of Islamic text and teaching inform the gender norms that limit the role of women and men at home, at work and in society. Alison also acknowledged Rumah KitaB’s experience and expertise in promoting religious narratives that address social challenges in Indonesia, such as child marriage and gender-based violence.

Lies then facilitated a discussion among participants about their experiences and observations on how religious views impede women from working. Participants talked about a range of issues, including that people now tend to push women to stay at home rather than working outside of home, and the view that men are the leaders of women (Arrijalu Qowwamuna Alan Nisa’), which is quoted from surah An-Nisa: 34.

The issues raised by participants were addressed throughout the workshop. In her first session, Lies shared a presentation on how the essential (biological) differences between men and women have been creatively interpreted by society through various forms of knowledge, including religion (tasawuf, fiqh, interpretation of the Qur’an). Menstruation, for example, is a biological occurrence, but in society or culture the monthly cycle experienced by women is given various meanings—including that women are impure, dirty or less logical because they bleed.

The essentialisation of men and women gives rise to “rules” or norms that inherently assign work roles based on gender. Lies noted that as social constructs, the gender roles of men and women (feminine-masculine, domestic-public, reproductive-productive), should be fluid but, because of essentialism, are seen as fixed, invariable and unalterable. Gender essentialism is also often justified using interpretations of religious texts that are closely intertwined with culture, politics and economics. Further, the roles assigned to men are considered superior to those associated with women. This stereotyping tend to subordinate women across social spheres. Stereotypes and subordination, Lies said, lead to other types of gender-based violence against women, such as physical violence, poverty, and double burdens of labour.

One of the ways to address the gender norms arising from religious views that essentialise women and men is the development of interpretations that empower rather than subordinate women. This was discussed by  Achmat Hilmi, who proposed maqashid syariah as an alternative “tool for reading” religious texts. Maqashid syariah works by not simply relying on the text itself but also at the same time considering the social reality in which the text was produced and understood, and also including a sense of spirituality. This way of reading that is offered by maqashid syariah clearly differs from the “literalist exclusive” way of reading, which tends to be rigid, and from an “eclectic” way of reading that selects only what is needed.

For example, a verse of the Qur’an that is often sued as a basis for domestication of sharia: al-Ahzab 33, which reads, “[O women] … and abide in your houses and do not display yourselves (and behave) as did the people of the former times of ignorance…” This verse is frequently used to “keep women at home.” This is traditionally interpreted to mean that women’s bodies can create disorder or temptation in society and  that the inherent nature of women is to stay at home. However, according to Hilmi, using maqashid syariah, the word “houses” in this verse could be interpreted to mean not only houses in the physical sense but, more broadly, the space in which women have agency. This interpretation could be used to advocate for workplaces, an economy and a society where women can participate without fear of sanctions.

Fayyaz Mumtaz supported the discussion on maqashid syariah by describing how Muslim women in the time of the Prophet Muhammad played an active role in society in many activities and lines of work. This historical example, he said, shows that there is no prohibition on women playing roles in the world of work.

Participants were then invited to ask questions or raise comments at the end of the session. One of the comments was, the participants found out that there are also verses from the Al-Qur’an and hadith that support gender equality. However, unfortunately these verses are less popular so that the religious preachers rarely use them.

In closing the session, IW highlighted the importance of discussions to highlight insights gathered from the implementation of the campaigns for influencing gender norms in support of women’s economic empowerment. IW foreshadowed follow-up sessions, particularly as Rumah KitaB and other IW partners complete their foundational research for their campaigns.  [] (NA)




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