Pious and Critical: Muslim Women Activists in Indonesia

by Rachel Rinaldo

Rinaldo_image2When I began fieldwork with women activists in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2002, it was not long after 9/11 and the American media was full of stories about the suffering of women in Afghanistan. The narrative of a clash between militant Islam and Western ideas such as feminism and human rights was pervasive. I assumed that religious Muslim women in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, would see feminism as foreign, Western, and not Islamic. Certainly, I met many who made exactly such arguments. Yet I also encountered devout Muslim women who did not necessarily use the word feminist to describe themselves but who were advocating for equality and rights for women. Indonesia in the 2000s was in the midst of political democratization, and I found that these activists were inspired by a wide range of ideas, including liberal ideologies of human rights as well as Muslim texts and traditions.

In the last decade, a small but influential global movement of Muslim women’s rights activists (sometimes called Muslim feminism) has emerged. While there have long been advocates for women’s rights in Muslim societies, this newer movement emphasizes the compatibility between Islam and feminism. Such activists often use contextual interpretation as a method to discover a basis for equality and rights in Islamic religious texts, emphasizing the importance of understanding religious texts with reference to their social and historical context. The transnational network Musawah, which advocates for equality in Muslim family law, and the British organization Maslaha are examples of such activism. In Indonesia, a diversity of approaches to practicing Islam as well as democratization have facilitated Muslim women’s rights initiatives.

Rinaldo_image3Many of the Indonesian activists I met also use contextual interpretation as a way to challenge conventional interpretations of Islam, especially those that they believe contribute to discrimination against women. The organizations in my study included Fatayat N.U., the women’s division of one of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations, and Rahima, a Muslim women’s rights NGO. These activists advocate for more women to become involved in politics, for expanded protections for women migrant workers, for more egalitarian family law, and for expansion of reproductive health programs, among other initiatives. While many of the staff and volunteers of these organizations were educated in Muslim schools and universities, they have also been influenced by feminist workshops offered by local and international NGOs since the early 1990s. They argue that at its core Islam is about equality and social justice for all. As one Fatayat activist told me, “When I study religion more deeply, I salute Islam even more, because since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam has given women a high position….But because in Indonesia the culture is patriarchal and the kyais [Muslim scholars] are men, all the verses are just interpreted as they look [i.e. literally] and they benefit only men. So my task is to straighten out those wrong interpretations.” Like this woman, my informants often told me that Islam per se is not an impediment for women – it is the way it is often interpreted that accounts for women being treated unequally.

rinaldo_image1These claims are indicative of what I see as an emerging form of agency among some Muslim women activists in Indonesia that drives their efforts to empower women. In my article, I argue that these Muslim women activists manifest what I call pious critical agency, a distinct form of agency that involves the capacity to engage critically, and in a very public way, with religious texts in order to advance claims for political and social change. Pious critical agency has emerged as women have gained greater access to education, both secular and religious. In recent decades, growing numbers of Indonesian women have not only entered universities, but have also been trained in Islamic law and interpretation. Pious critical agency emerges from such training and education, and it gives the activists I studied the interpretive flexibility to creatively fuse Islam and feminism.

This type of critical interpretation is not limited to the Indonesian context, but is also an important aspect of women’s activism in other religions such as Orthodox Judaism and Christianity. Pious critical agency can thus be a helpful concept for understanding religious feminisms around the world.

We often assume that it is better for religion to be separate from politics, partly because religion has so often been used to justify inequality between men and women. Feminists have often viewed religion as a source of constraint for women, and Islam is often seen as especially patriarchal. Indeed, Indonesia has seen upsurges of religious extremism and intolerance in recent years. Yet the women activists I met did not experience Islam as a limitation. The emergence of pious critical agency shows that religion can be mobilized by believers in support of critical discourses on gender and advocacy for women’s rights. As I learned from my fieldwork with women activists in Indonesia, religion can be a powerful force for fostering progressive social change and gender justice.

Rachel Rinaldo is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. Her article “Pious and Critical: Muslim Women Activists and the Question of Agency” appears in the December 2014 issue of Gender & Society. For the article press release, click here. This post also draws on research from her recently published book Mobilizing Piety: Islam and Feminism in Indonesia. Rachel is also the co-editor (along with Orit Avishai and Afshan Jafar) of an upcoming special issue of Gender & Society on Gender and Religion, due out in February 2015.

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