Indonesia: Developing A Discourse Of Gender Justice In Islam


In sharp contrast to many other Muslim-majority countries, women in Indonesia play a very significant role in the public sphere, even in the realm of the production of Islamic discourses. The history and experiences of Indonesian Muslim women, including their role in Islamic scholarship, and also the prolific writings of a number of Indonesian male scholars championing gender justice using Islamic arguments, is largely unknown to Muslims elsewhere.

The fact that the Indonesians are not Arabs is one reason for this, of course. Another reason is that the remarkably interesting scholarly work seeking to develop Islamic perspectives on gender rights and equality written by both Indonesian male as well as female scholars remains almost wholly in Bahasa Indonesia, little of it having been translated into Arabic, English and other international languages.

Syafiq Hasyim, author of the recently-published Understanding Women in Islam—An Indonesian Perspective, works with the Jakarta-based International Centre for the Study of Islam and Pluralism, that has been at the forefront of efforts to evolve socially progressive and contextually- relevant understandings of Islam, particularly as regards women and relations between Muslims and others. Last week, I read his simply unputdownable book in one single sitting. Hasyim’s principle contention is that while Islam regards men and women as ontologically equal, this has not been reflected in the Muslim historical tradition, noteworthy exceptions notwithstanding. Muslim historiography, theology as well as jurisprudence continue to bear the stamp of patriarchy, and Islamic discourse, generally speaking, continues to be heavily male-centric. All this has served to uphold patriarchal rule, which Hasyim contends, is un-Islamic—because male supremacism is akin to associationism or shirk, a heinous sin in Islam.

To promote his project of Islamic gender egalitarianism and justice, Hasyim evokes the distant Muslim past, the time of the early Muslims, when, he says, Muslim women played vital public roles, including even in the political realm. They requested the Prophet a separate slot of time for learning, and he granted them their request. The Quran made the acquisition of knowledge—and this does not mean just religious knowledge, narrowly defined, alone—binding on every believer, male as well as female. Early Muslim women enjoyed the right to choose their spouses, dissolve their marriages through khula, set terms and conditions in their marriage contracts, inherit property, and use and earn their own money—all radical measures that women elsewhere at that time could hardly dream of. To further back his argument for Islamic gender justice, Hasyim writes that God destined the Prophet Muhammad not to have a surviving son perhaps ‘to prevent the making of a male cult of sons of the Prophet in the patriarchal Arab culture’. The Prophet was taunted by his foes for not having sons, but, unmindful of their mockery, he ‘insisted that there was no greater reward for a Muslim than to have two daughters, treating them well and supporting them, unless God took them into His heaven’.

Further stressing the fact that in Islam women have the same status, qua humans, as men, the Prophet, Hasyim tells us, is reported to have declared: ‘Women are the candle of family life’. Accordingly, he was never violent to his wives. ‘The best among you,’ Hasyim quotes the Prophet as having remarked, ‘is the best in treating his wives, and I am the best among you all in treating my wives’.

Hasyim insists that Muslim women need to study and interpret Islam for themselves, rather than rely on traditionalist patriarchs, many of who continue to champion prejudices against women that have no warrant whatsoever in Islam. For Muslim women to become Islamic scholars in their own right would be no wrongful innovation, he insists, referring to the scores of early Muslim women scholars of the Quran, Hadith and fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence, who were recognized as equals or even as superiors by noted male scholars of their times. He refers to their writings, as well as the central role they played in the realm of Islamic scholarship, as ‘buried discourses’, which he urges Muslim women to excavate and emulate.

Having dwelt at length on the gender egalitarianism of the Quran and on what he regards as the positive role models for Muslim women in the distant past, Hasyim traces the process of decline of Muslim women over the centuries. This he attributes to a host of factors, including the emergence of monarchical rule, the development of patriarchal fiqh (for which he uses the Arabic term fiqh al-abi) and the concoction of fake hadith reports with the specific purpose of denying Muslim women the many rights that the Quran had granted them. This process was also aided by borrowings from Christian, Jewish and pre-Islamic Arab sources that were heavily biased against women. For Muslim women to recover the hidden gender egalitarianism of the early Muslim past, it is imperative, Hasyim writes, that the tradition of patriarchal fiqh be analysed, critiqued and replaced, because, despite constituting an affront to the principles of equality and justice so central to the Quran, it continues to shape the views of millions of Muslims even today. This patriarchal fiqh, a thoroughly historical and a human product, is premised on the untenable notion that women are innately inferior, fickle-minded and stupid, and that they must constantly be under male domination for their own good. Overcoming this burden of patriarchal fiqh demands that Muslim women once again take an active and leading role in studying Islam, as did their early sisters before the patriarchal take-over. In this regard, Hasyim laments that, because so few Muslim women are presently involved in the production of Islamic, particularly fiqh-based, discourses, even issues that are specific to women, such as childbirth and menstruation, that should have involved women in discussions about them are handled almost entirely and everywhere by male clerics.

Central to the process of deconstructing patriarchy in the name of Islam, Hasyim says, is the task of critiquing critical aspects of fiqh al-munakha or fiqh about marriage, which upholds the subordination of Muslim women based on the notion that marriage entails the handing over of a woman to her husband, a relationship similar to that between a seller and a buyer. Indeed, he tells us, numerous fuqaha, scholars of fiqh, actually envisaged marriage as similar to a commercial transaction, an agreement that resulted in a man taking over ownership of a woman’s genitals and rest of her body, which was for him to enjoy. This reflected the objectification of women by men, and, in effect, their ownership by the latter. Consequently, marriage came to be defined largely by its sexual and physical aspects, rather than other aspects such as love and blessings that result from following God’s will. The objectification of women through marriage subordinated women to men’s will and control, so much so that many fuqaha went to the extent of insisting that men, rather than women, had the right to sexual pleasure and that a man could force his wife to satisfy his sexual desires even against her will. Such blatantly patriarchal injunctions, Hasyim argues, are wholly contrary to the Quran and the Hadith, which speak of spouses as equals and as partners, without any degree of subordination or control, as reflected, for instance, in a hadith report, ‘Women are the twin halves of men’. This implied, in sharp contrast to the arguments of the patriarchal fuqaha, that the husband and wife belong to each other, being made, as Islam believes, from nafs wahida, one common breath or primal matter.

Critiquing further aspects of patriarchal fiqh prescriptions as regards marriage, Hasyim writes that while Islam gives women the right to choose their spouses, the fuqaha have tried to circumscribe the right by insisting that a girl’s marriage cannot be considered valid without the consent of her guardian, which they have reduced, without any clear Quranic warrant, to mean male relatives from the patriarchal lineage. Likewise, while the Quran does allow for polygamy, this must be seen as a response to a particular socio-historical context, and not the open permission that the fuqaha have granted it while overlooking the stringent and very restricting conditions that the Quran seeks to control its practice with, particularly the insistence on the equal emotional, as distinct from simple material, treatment of all wives. In this way, he says, the fuqaha have wrongly given the permissibility (mubaha) of polygamy priority, ignoring the demands of justice or adala. The same is the case with the issue of arbitrary divorce, including triple talaq in one sitting, a right given by the fuqaha to the husband, again without clear Quranic permission. So, too, the permission given to a husband for beating his wife, and to correct her, without a corresponding right given to the wife to correct her aberrant husband. Likewise, the absurd fiqh pronouncement—which, too, lacks Quranic sanction—that a wife who suffers patiently her husband’s bad behaviour will go to heaven. Overall, Hasyim argues, the tradition of patriarchal fiqh ignored the principle that spouses should treat each other well, which, if properly followed, leaves very little possibility for the wife’s nushuz or disobedience that merits warning or punishment on the part of the husband.

In matters of inheritance, too, Hasyim argues, contemporary Islamic thought must take the question of gender justice with the urgency that it demands. While he accepts the Quranic rules about division of property as normative, he mentions that Islam does offer a way out to those who want to give an equal portion to daughters, through grants before one’s death. In this regard, he quotes a hadith narration, in which the Prophet is said to have exhorted: ‘Equalise the gifts you give among your children. If I was allowed to give more to one, I would give more to my daughter’.

Critiquing and replacing patriarchal fiqh prescriptions as regards women’s roles in the public sphere, too, must be a central focus of efforts to secure gender justice for Muslim women, writes Hasyim. One such enormously contentious issue is the possibility of Muslim women becoming heads of state. This is no mere theoretical question as several women, including one in Hasyim’s Indonesia, have indeed risen to become heads of Muslim states in recent years, despite the opposition of both radical Islamists as well as traditionalist ulema on ostensibly ‘Islamic’ grounds. The proponents of patriarchal fiqh, vehemently opposed to this possibility, offer various arguments to back their case, mostly based on theories of innate biological differences between the genders, backed with recourse to what Hasyim regards as weak or even downright fabricated hadith reports. Hasyim counters their argument through appeals to early Muslim history to highlight the possibility of Muslim women playing key political roles, including as leaders of armies, advisors to Caliphs, as well as a clear, approving mention of a reigning queen in the Quran.

Surveying the tradition of patriarchal fiqh, Hasyim contends that one of its central weaknesses is its lack of awareness of gender equity, which reinforces the misplaced and erroneous notion of Islam as such being opposed to women’s rights and empowerment fiqh. The absence of the notion of gender justice in the fiqh tradition is, however, understandable, Hasyim reminds us, since it was a product of medieval times, when the notion of gender rights not yet formally recognised, as is the case today. This is why, he says, contemporary Muslim scholars need to develop a new fiqh, including on gender-related matters, that upholds gender justice, which can no longer be denied to Muslim women. This is not a call, he hastens to add, for a new shariah, for while fiqh is a product of human reflection and thought, and, therefore, fallible and also amenable to reform, the shariah, along with the Quran and the normative practice of the Prophet, is unchangeable. For Islam to reflect its inherent dynamism and to respond to changing contexts, it is imperative, he says, that fiqh evolve over time, rather than, as the patriarchal clerics and ideologues insist, remain static. Hence his call for what he calls a contemporary fiqh al-nisa (fiqh of women), rooted both in the Quran and the practice of the Prophet (based on authentic, as opposed to weak or fabricated hadith reports), as well as in the lived realities of Muslim women today. This new fiqh for women must aim at freeing women as well as men from unjust social structures and practices that hinder gender and other forms of equality. In order to be contextually-relevant, Hasyim argues, it also needs to creatively engage with contemporary human rights frameworks, the Islamic concepts of attaining justice (adl) and the good (ma‘aruf), the higher aims of the shariah (maqasid al-shariah), masalaha or general welfare, and avoiding damage (mafsada), new developments in the social sciences, historical criticism, anthropology, and linguistics.

The fiqh about or of women that Hasyim proposes is, at the same time, he says, a fiqh for women (fiqh li al-nisa), one formulated specifically to promote women’s interests, based on a gender-sensitive reading of the Islamic scripturalist tradition that Hasyim regards as truer to its spirit. To undertake this stupendous task also requires, Hasyim writes, the formulation of fiqh min al-nisa or ‘fiqh from women’, one that is formulated by Muslim women themselves, based on their own experiences and realities, their quest for the equality and rights promised to them by the Quran, and their own readings of the Islamic tradition. And that is happening today. Increasingly, Muslim women across the world are taking up the task of studying the Islamic scriptural resources and interpreting it by and for themselves, recognizing, to be sure, the worth of past male interpreters where there is need to, but unhampered by their patriarchal prescriptions.

By Yoginder Sikand

24 June, 2010