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September 12 2011 16:00 | Hochschule für Philosophie


Siti Musdah Mulia

Representative of the “Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace”


The United Nation's Human Development Index (HDI) has developed measures to evaluate the status of people in terms of morality rates, employment, income, literacy, education, health, political agency, and access to recourses. By measuring such concrete basis, the UN has reconfirmed the suspicion that the status of women's development is always, in every country, less than that of men. It was also telling that the disparity in development indices between men and women was often greater in Muslim countries, including Indonesia.

The central question I have posed in this article, does religion pose barriers for political engagement of Muslim women?

Islam Introduces Ideal and noble Teachings

Seventh-century Arab society had its own modes of sexual politics, and it records was mixed. A woman could choose a husband at will. In spite of some freedoms, women could not inherit property but were themselves considered property. Unrestricted polygamy and slavery were replenished by taking women captives in war. The sexual abuse of such women and slaves was endemic, and baby girls often buried alive. This was the milieu in which the Qur'an was revealed and interpreted.

However, the Arabs did not invent sexual inequality or discrimination. In the seventh-century no society was egalitarian, no society at that time recognized women as full human beings, or as moral agents, or as independent legal persons. Then, Islam came to introduce the concept of tawhid. Tawhid is the basic tenet of Islam which teaches the belief in Allah and His Prophet, and provides human beings with the guidance in how to properly interact with other human. To properly uphold tauhid as one's creed will bring humanity to better life in this world and an everlasting happiness in the hereafter.

One of the highest and most important principles in tawhid as the essence of Islam is the equality of all people. Islam looks to all people as members of humanity, distinguished only by their relationship to Allah.2 Islam stressed the importance of equality among people, regardless of their race, class or gender. Muslim scholars agreed that all instructions in the Qur'an are directed to all believers: women and men. This includes religious duties, rights, and rites. So, there is no distinction among men and women in religious orders, values and principles.

In fact, there are many Qu'ranic verses that stress this male-female equality in Islam, for example: equality in religious punishment for sins;3 equality between women and men in the moral values it advocates.4 Islam also gave women the jurisdiction to carry out all religious

duties. So that women in Islam enjoyed independent character and jurisdiction.5Islam also gave women the right to participate in public sphere and social life equally with men.6 It can be concluded that Islam gives the duty of reforming the society on all believers: males and females alike. Both of them are responsible and none is exempted because this duty is not based on gender, but rather on the fact that they are both part of humanity.

The early history of Islam bore a concrete witness to how the Prophet, Muhammad peace be unto him, had undertaken a revolutionary leap in women's status and position amidst the pagan society of the Arab. The Prophet had proclaimed the obligation to welcome the birth of a baby girl amidst the prevailing Arab traditions which deemed the birth of a baby girl as a grave disgrace to the family. The Prophet introduced the entitlement to inheritance rights in the period in which women were treated as merely obj ect or as only a part of inherited commodity. The Prophet decreed the ownership of mahar (dowry) as the right to which women were fully entitled in marriage when the society regarded that mahar was the sole right of their parents or their guardians. The Prophet had made deliberate total correction to the practice of polygamy by exemplifying his monogamous life with Khadijah, a woman to whom the Prophet paid great respect. Even, as a father, the Prophet strongly refused the idea when Ali ibn Abi Thalib, the husband of his daughter's, Fatima, had an intention of marrying another woman.

The Prophet had also given opportunity to women to become the imams (leaders) during prayers in the era in which society positioned men as sole leaders of the religion. The Prophet also promoted women to higher position, even three times higher than that of men amidst the society which viewed women as merely producing machines. The Prophet had placed wives as equal partners of husbands in the days when society treated women just only as sexual objects.

In fact, the Prophet did not behave like a traditional head of household in other matters, either. He has directly done his own house-hold chores including preparing his own food. Not only did his wives not wait upon him, but his status as God's Messenger did not deter them from sometimes quarreling with him. Even, one of them divorced him by saying that the sought refuge in God from him.7 There is no record that he ever abused them physically or verbally. In sum, for most of his life Muhammad himself respected and trusted women. He was also strongly influenced by a number of forceful females, and attempted to provide for equal participation of women, especially in political life of the new community.

Those historical facts had thrown light that the Prophet had undertaken a radical change, even quite radical and revolutionary encompassing all aspects of life, to the status and position of women in the society. The Prophet had changed woman's position from the lowest, disdained and humiliated object to, respected and highly revered the subjects with dignity. The Prophet had proclaimed her full stature of the perfect human, equal to that of her male counterpart. Both woman and man are created equal by God, as the same human beings with equal opportunities and rights to become khalifah fi al ardh (the manager of life on earth). The value of humanity of both woman and man is equal with no distinction at all. What woman and man stands out from one another is only relating to their excelling in virtue, piety, reverence, spiritual and ethical qualities for which only Allah is the one and the only Judge. Therefore, the duty of any human

being is to engage in fastabiqul khairat (competition with one another for virtuous good deeds) for the pursuit of Allah's divine blessing and mercy.

Religious Construction of Women's Political Rights

The fact that post Prophet-era, Muslim community failed in maintaining the heritages of authentic Islamic values. Although Muslim women's participation in politics has increased, they are still not equal. Women generally remain reliable and loyal supporters of their respective parties. Most of the political parties have a women's wing which is integrated into the party structures. In reality, Islam presents to liberate human being from tyrannical grip, discrimination, exploitation, injustice, and gender inequality. But instead of liberating, Islam was treated as justification to preserve injustice against human being, especially injustice against women. Consequently, there, in communities are not so many women being able to take participation in public domain. It means that, relating to the position of women, there is a wide gap between normative Islamic teachings and the living Islamic values, which are now largely practiced in Muslim communities. In normative domain, Islam is very respectful of woman, but in empirical domain woman position is marginalized and subordinated.

Sociological reality in Muslim communities demonstrates that woman exposes to discrimination, exploitation and harassment. Ironically, those destructive treatments are justified in the name of religion. Also in the name of religion, women are not treated as entirety of human, hence it is considered illegitimate for woman to represent herself in marriage. It is also illegitimate for woman to be guardian and witness in a marriage of her own daughters. In the name of religion, woman is restricted to participate in politic, because politic is always considered a dirty and severe world. In the name of religion, woman is strongly prohibited to be a leader because she is considered to bring about destruction for nation. Even in the scope of family, woman is prohibited to be a head of family since those having authority to be head of family are men. In the name of religion, women are considered impure so that they are driven out of worship places whenever they are in menstruation period, and they are banned absolutely to be a leader of ritual. In the name of religion, woman is driven away from getting high educations, career, and being active in public domain.

In the name of religion, woman has to be a wife loyal to his husband by satisfying his lust whenever he wants, and to be acquiesce in the event that her husband has two or more wives. It is a fact that woman should to be a patient mother who has to grow up her children, and she has to be a good wife preserve the dignity of her family, and to be a support of moral for the sake of the whole communities. In the name of religion, woman is always positioned as an object of law in all regulation and laws, especially those related to family law, such as marriage law, and heritage law.

It is ironical that the religion features in social life has changed to become vicious and uninteresting. Religion facet has changed to become patriarchy, the featuring power and even harassment. Religion is presented in unfriendly facet against woman, whilst woman with her

feminine character deserves to understanding religion better. The problem is, whether the gender inequality originates from the original character of religion. Because, if the interpretation results from human construction, off course, it might be affected by something beyond religion, such as patriarchal tradition, feudalistic political system, or it can also be influenced by Arabic patriarchal culture in the Middle East.

Religion reinterpretation is a necessity

The preceding explanation, leads us to a simple conclusion that the main factor of the decrease of woman position in Muslim communities, is religion interpretation which are constructed by the owners of religious authorities, and that is not the religion it self. In fact, these interpretations are often considered to be as holy as religion itself.

So that, the solution offered to settle the problem is reinterpretation of religious teachings or ijtihad. Muslim communities almost agree that ijtihad in the sense of building new interpretation is a necessity, not only after the decease of the Prophet, even in the era of His life. The hadith of Muaz ibn Jabal indicates that necessity very clearly.

This following description explains basic principles in reinterpretation of Islamic teachings.

a. The principle of Maqashid al-Syar'iyah

Although the Qur'an and Hadith generate and lay down legal binding rules, indeed, the number is very small compared to human problems, which require legal decision. Therefore, reinterpretation is inevitable. Such reformed interpretation shall stick to Islamic legal resources namely the Qur'an and Hadith. The understanding of the two resources shall not be based on literally interpreted text but rather more on non-literally or contextually with reference to the true objective of Islamic legislation (maqashid al-syari'ah). The objective of Syari'ah is clearly implemented in the values of justice (al-'adl), virtue (al-mashlahah), wisdom (al-hikmah), equality (al-musawah), compassion (al-rahmah), pluralism (al-ta'aduddiyah), and human rights (al-huquq al-insaniyah).

Imam al-Ghazali has formulated the values engraved in maqashid al-syarl'ah into five basic principles of human rights which he designated as al-huquq al-khamsah. The said five human rights constitute the rights to live, rights to voice opinion freely, rights to have religion, right to have properties and right to reproduce offspring. The concept of al-huquuq al-khamsah subsequently leads to the importance of treating human beings as the subject of Islamic legislation. Therefore, it is not exaggerated if Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyah, a prominent scholar in Islamic Jurisprudence in the school of Hambali, has stated the following statement: Islamic legislation is actually established for the interest and benefit of humankind and for humanity universal objectives such as virtue, justice, compassion, wisdom. It is these principles that shall serve the guideline in legislation making, and must inspire every law-making agent. Any deviation from this principle means running counter to the true ideal of the Islamic legislation itself. The same statement was also made by Ibn Rusyd: that the benefits for human kind constitute the root of various legislations stipulated by God. Even more, Izzuddin Ibn Abdissalam has arrived at the conclusion that all religious provisions are entirely directed for the benefit of humankind.

b. The principle of fiqh relativity

Notwithstanding that the Qur'an is eternal and absolute truth, but its interpretation is not absolutely eternal and ever-lasting. Its interpretation is always relative. The historical development of many schools of Islamic Jurisprudence (fiqh) constitutes a clear and positive evidence of the relative nature of the interpretation.

Fiqh as we know today is truly an intellectual engineering of medieval Muslim scholars, the contents of which consist of four basic components namely matters of ubudiyah (dealing with transcendental and vertical relationship between human beings and God), muamalah (disclosing relationship among human beings, and human beings with other creatures as well as with the universe), and jinayah (discussing various criminal matters).

It is necessary to understand that a mufassir (exegete) and a faqih (scholar of fiqh), however objective he can not separate himself from traditions developing at the time of his life, Therefore, the codification of fiqh views prevailing in a gender — biased community will certainly produce books of fiqh which are misogynic. In sum, no human interpretation of the Qur'an and hadith can possibly accepted as having the same authority as the Qur'an and hadith itself, for that would mean also erasing the distinction between God and humans.

C. The Principle of Thematic Interpretation

The teachings of Islam in their basic, underlying fundamental principles, are expressly stipulated in the Qur'an and the Sunnah (Prophet's Traditions). Islamic teachings are neither time nor space bound. These highly authentic sources serving as the prime guiding torch of Muslim people are revealed to the cultureless group of society but to cultural values-laden bracket of society. Therefore, both the Quran and the Hadits embrace the dimension of humanity in addition to that of Divinity.

The study of the widely practiced verse-for-verse-based interpretation (al-tafsir al-tahlily) has brought us to a conclusion that there are at least five shortcomings or defects discovered therein. First, such interpretation is greatly influenced by sectarian point of view (al-ta 'milah al'ashabiyah). Second, the products of religious understanding is deriving from this model of interpretation seems to be fabricated, and exaggerated. Third, its interpretation is highly characterized by non-Muslim's viewpoint, such as by Israeli's notion or by sources stemming from Judaeo-Christian tradition of ancient time. Forth, the priceless miracle of the Qu'ran (i'jaz) tends to be ignored in this conventional interpretation. Finally, the distinctive uniqueness of and

the magnificent rhetoric aspects of the Quran escapes the observation of the tafsir scholars adopting this method.'

Therefore, it is for this very reason that an offer is made for the solution to the problem of interpretation, called thematic interpretation, which adopts inductive method. This method of interpretation is constructed on the theory which confides that all contents of the Qur'an constitute an integral and inseparable part, one part elucidates the Other (Al-Qur'an yufassiru ba 'duhu ha Van). Actually, the basic principles of this interpretation theory was already popular in the era of Prophet's companions, under the term tafsir bi al-ma'tsur.

Tafsir scholars should comprehend the Qur'an based on the information contained in the Qur'an itself, not on any idea or any tenet deriving from outside the Qur'an. It is for this reason that an in-depth understanding of words, sentences, and grammatical structure of the language of the Qur'an is direly needed. The pattern of thematic interpretation advocates three approaches. First, highlighting the importance of an in-depth understanding of the lexical meaning of any Qur'anic word. The understanding of the original meaning of words in the Qur'an will be of great help to the tafsir scholars in understanding the intended meanings (al-ma'na al-murad) in accordance with the reasons why these verses were revealed (reasons of revelation). Second, engaging the selection of all verses which relate to the subjects under study. By adopting these principles, Al-Qur'an is accorded with its own freedom and autonomy to talk about itself so as to produce objective interpretation, not the subjective interpretation saturated with political inclination of its tafsir scholars or commentators. Third, in the frame of understanding words, sentences, and the grammatical structure of the language of the Qur'an, a readiness and willingness are required to accept the existence of religious texts which were revealed under certain condition (as-siyaq al-khas) and ones which were revealed in more general contexts (assiyaq al-am).

In other words, any interpretation shall be reached by textual and contextual approaches at the same time. Religious teachings addressing women's issues in the community are generally understood with the interpretation which transcends the understanding of the texts of holy books so that they are understood away from their historical and anthropological contexts. Therefore, Moslem community, according to al-Syatibi, have been engrossed too far in the textual interpretation so that they fail to take into account the benefit which serves as the intention and goal of the revelation of the syariat (maqashid al-syariah). The same notion is also held by Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, stating that their (Moslem people's) reading and interpretation of the religious texts are more focused on talwin than on takwil, therefore, it is not surprising if their interpretation is saturated with certain ideology and biases. A logical consequence of such understanding is that a number of Moslem people hold the view that all realities about women which have been prevailing for centuries are a matter of divine authority, something given, something taken for granted, what's more, when religious labels are imposed thereon. It is this type of understanding that still dominates the Islamic thought on women.

Building political system based on women experiences.

Women have contributed to national development in modernity, and policy makers need greater awareness about and sensitivity toward this fact. Women are economic contributors, both in the labor market as well as trough services within their families and communities. These services have not only remained unrewarded but are also often unacknowledged in the construction of explicit development plans and projects. What is more, the majority of our Muslim population is poor-many living at abject poverty levels. It is uncommon that women's contribution to the public sector is invisible. As a result, women lack the services and protection of unions or other politically recognized levels of infrastructure to guarantee humane conditions, equitable wages, and other aspect s of work usually deemed appropriate for male contributors to the public sector. Women also lack access to, ownership of and control over productive resources. Ultimately, this lack of access allows foe development projects to go into implementation without identifying the needs, opportunities, and roles of women in a particular project. In short, women's contributions are taken for granted.

In the context of public and ritual Islamic discourse, women's voices remain largely silenced at the policy making level. If women are included, they are usually tokens in certain social welfare programs, but not equal partners in the decision making process for major development programs. As a result, the benefits of such programs, especially in politics are inequitably accrued between women and men, girls and boys.

In recent years, the domestication of women in Muslim countries has become more visible with the economic and political crisis that hit most of Muslim countries after the fall of oil prices. The crisis has generated social dissatisfaction due to the widening gap between the "have" and the "have not" and fuelled by the accusation of importing immoral secular values through media. Such a condition has fostered religious extremism and calls for a return to the basic teachings of the Qur'an and hadith. Along with their condemnation of political and economic failure caused by adopting secular systems, the extremist also accuse women of being the primary source of this catastrophe through their feminist movements. Even though not as radical as those found in the Middle East, the extremist religious group in Indonesia target women as the midst of this moral panic. The common accusation against women is that they contribute to moral degradation as a result of their absence from home.

Furthermore, like in many other Muslim countries, working women who are normally unveiled are often identified as the agents of evil and moral disintegration such as permissive sexual behavior. Therefore, the extremists call upon women to return to their "basic role" at home and adopt a proper Islamic dress by veiling themselves.

As regards Indonesian context, the number of women slightly exceeds that of men. Central Statistics Bureau in year 2001 recorded that the number of woman population is 101.628.816 or accounting for 51% of the total population of Indonesia. The number of woman voters reached 57% of total number of voters (based on data of 1999 General Election). Briefly put, women constitute a strategic group and their engagement will become key component in building democracy and civil society.

Facing domination of patriarchal cultural values, and discriminatory situation, woman's political agenda should begin from the activities of awareness rising, especially in changing the standpoint and mindset of society (men and women) on the principles of democracy and human rights which is compatible with Islamic teachings that guarantee the gender equality, legal supremacies, and justice.

But the problem which has arisen is that only few women are interested in politics. Why? Because politics is always depicted as masculine in characters: tough, rational, competitive, rigid,

dirty, and frightening so it is appropriate only for men. On the contrary, domestic area is always regarded as feminine: gracious, emotional, devotedly obedient, and submissive. It is as if to add force to that the duty is only appropriate and honorable for women: as wives, mothers, or household managers.

Consequently, there are not many women interested in joining political party or politic, let alone showing ambition to hunt for position of leaders or decision-makers as such endeavor requires firm and rational attitude. What happens next? All woman's interests, aspirations and needs which, by all measures, are very different from those of men, are not upheld, acknowledged, appreciated, even ignored and unfulfilled.

Political behavior covers independence, freedom of expression and aggressive acts. Those three characteristics are never considered ideal for women. People always regard the independent and aggressive women daring to express their opinion unacceptable and unwanted. On the other word, women with such character are not ideal.

The woman experiences prove that the main factor of woman success in state office position is to be a trustworthy person. That is, she has to be able to give clear instruction and be willing to follow up, review every statement for the interest of accuracy, maintaining personal integrity, and truly maintaining public trust. Additionally, she has to be able to work in team, and establish relationship with her colleagues based on the integrity and respect of each other. Woman has to be able to accomplish assigned to her and she must be a leader truly.

There are three elements embodying leadership potential in an individual, namely authority, competence, and creative aggressiveness. Authority as a main element in building leadership capacity of an individual is always defined as power and firmness or capability to take an action required to achieve something for the sake of the biggest objective. An even community do not prepare woman to build quality of power in her self. So how possible it is, for a woman to have a dream of being leader if she has not cultural reference as her reference. It is not surprising that most women have difficulties to free themselves from the cultural influences to be active in politic.

Women are not desirous of leadership whenever we preserve manly-power ideas, which is full of masculinity. Therefore, now is the right time to promote power with the perspective of woman, namely that having the capability to establish more dignified community in compliance with women characteristic as guardian and nurturer. Hence, the new definition of power should combine masculine and feminine characters achievable by man or woman.

It is somehow we need to disseminate this new understanding of power, which is not always masculine so that woman does not have to eliminate her feminine characteristics to acquire power. Woman should not avoid feminine character and should behave as man to get authority and to be a leader. Actually woman acting as household in her family, mostly performs her authority, because mother is a very authoritative figures in her family and she uses her real authority in her position as household to run her house. Experience in her family serves as reference to run power in a wider and more complex domain such as state. For woman the authority should be understood as a willingness to make people more prosperous. Power for a leader is just like power of a mother in her activity of nurturing her family.

For the future, it is the time to develop a concept about woman-power that is different from man-power, which up to now becomes reference by all parties. Power in feminine concept is a power full of love. The power is not originated from its self, but it is directed to achieve an objective. Therefore, woman power integrates woman quality with man characters, having the same values. On the other words, woman and man qualities are not in opposition. In the gentleness and love in fact there is tremendous power.

Aside from that, woman-power also covers ideas to empower others instead of destroy others. Contrarily, the idea that has long been used is that to achieve power a man should be willing to step on others. Power should be understood as potential to perform something useful for the others. Consequently, position should be interpreted as means to empower others, instead of cheating others. Therefore, woman-power should cover ration, objective, clear agenda to be achieved. Sidney Verba from Harvard University confirmed that the main women contribution in politic is that they are more willing to perform something useful for people rather than to broaden their scope of power.

By developing definition of power based on woman experience, woman can be a good politician; that will not insult his political opponents, in whatsoever reason; that will not intrigues of politic which are usually used by man. A woman politician can sharpen her motherhood-side which is always aware of others' needs to settle her political agenda. The power is actually the ability to settle the problem, is not it?


Finally, in answering the question indicated in the preamble of this paper, I can conclude that the obstruction of woman to be active in political party or politic is the religious interpretation, not the religion itself. That is religious interpretation, which are bias gender and bias patriarchal values. That is the main problem.

Bias interpretation is intentionally preserved and descended by generation to generation in the name of religion for the interest of reaching political objectives. It is indeed ironic. The most ironic is that in the real life of Muslim community in various countries, those the relative and profane human interpretation of The Qur'an are often considered holy and sacral, more holy and sacral than The Qur'an it self.

For the conclusion, the woman struggle in politics still requires prolonged time. So, what must we do? Here I propose three things. First, establishing networking between various groups of woman, from many nations as it is attempted by this workshop. Struggle for success always requires smart strategy and strong solidarity. This networking is very necessary to eliminate all kinds of rule and regulations as well as political policies, which are not friendly woman. Secondly, internally the women their selves have to always attempt promote their capacity and quality through a wide range of education. Women's organizations, especially women's wing of any political parties should propagate for increased participation in decision making post. Third, the last but not least, is that women should be brave to carry out interpretation of religious teaching. Since, inequality and discrimination against women, especially in politics derive from from the secondary religious texts, the Tafsir (Qur'anic exegesis) and hadith. As such, by returning to a fresh and immediate interpretation of the Holy Book and by taking a new and critical look at the hadith, by engaging in creative ijtihad, modem Islamic authority could very well reform and renew the position of women in politics.

As a closing I would like to remind you one verse in the Qur'an: "I found a woman reigning over them, and she has been favoured with every thing, and she has a throne that is magnificent" (Q.S. al-Naml, 27:23).


Munich  2011

of H.H. Pope
Benedict XVI

09.11 - Destined to live together: New York - München
Destined to Live Together
Semptember 11, 2001
Link New York-München 

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