Indonesia: Women writers address gender inequities within Islam

Amana Media Initiative
The founders of writers group FLP show that Islam and women’s empowerment are not mutually exclusive.
In 1997, Indonesian writers Helvy Tiana Rosa, Asma Nadia and Maimon Herawati were looking for a way to improve young people’s writing skills and access to the media. In February that year, the three Muslim women formed Forum Lingkar Pena (FLP), or Pen Circle Forum, at Jakarta’s University of Indonesia.
Back then, the three founders were not focusing only on female empowerment, but they soon realised they could promote women’s cause. The fundamental values of Islam arguably promote and honour the position of women in society. However, many interpretations of Islamic texts and practices of many Muslim societies contradict the principles of gender equality and justice. Islam is often misunderstood as a theological source of oppression against women.

FLP’s founders showed that Islam and women’s empowerment were not mutually exclusive. The writing group soon became a phenomenon in the Indonesian literary world. In a relatively short time, the organisation had established branches in nearly 30 provinces and subsections in more than 100 cities. It also set up international branches in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Egypt, and Europe. Having recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, FLP now has about 5,000 members, 70 percent of whom are women.

As women have come to dominate its membership, it has played a significant role in empowering young Muslim women, a segment of society that is always a potential victim of discrimination. Even though FLP does not explicitly state its goal to champion women’s rights, it has nonetheless given Muslim women a powerful voice through writing. FLP holds workshops and training sessions for members and also links women writers with some of Indonesia’s largest publishing houses.

Since 1999, major publisher Mizan has published over 100 Islamic fiction titles, including some works from FLP members. Many of these texts focus on personal and public conduct, showing how Islamic values can guide people’s lives.

As they sharpen their literary skills, FLP members become active, critical and progressive. They also raise awareness that young Muslim women can be active and need not be objectified. FLP helps women speak, not only hear. In this way, it empowers women with an alternative participatory education.

Through FLP, women organise themselves to develop their writing and reading skills, an answer to male voices in the literary world. Indonesian migrant workers and FLP members in Hong Kong, Wina Karnie, Syifa Aulia, and Swastika Mahartika, attest to the organisation’s influence. “Writing and producing literary work made us feel more valuable,” they say. Last year, in a Hong Kong mosque, they launched short stories they wrote as part of FLP.

Despite these successes, FLP still faces a major challenge: how to encourage young Muslim women to critique interpretations of Islam that discriminate against them. But FLP believes it can meet this challenge, using openness and critical thinking to foster moderation. The fact that many of FLP’s members come from an Islamic background can be a bridge between Muslim and other communities.

Such a bridge is particularly important at the current time, when the gap between conservatives and liberals seems to be widening. The interaction between these groups through FLP can help reduce unhealthy misunderstanding and prejudice. The interaction at FLP, which is not only academic, but also personal, gives space for communication between Muslims from all backgrounds.

Another force of moderation comes from the FLP’s interaction with the market and book buyers. FLP members think twice about radical or xenophobic writing as they want to widen their readership. FLP does not seek out Islamic publishers only; it is also pursuing general and even Christian publishing houses. There is no concern that FLP will be a medium for fundamentalist Muslims, as some people suspect. The openness of FLP and its writers enables them to follow a moderate path.

By: Mohammad Iqbal Ahnaf and Latifah

29 June 2007