Indonesia: Women point to biases in Koranic exegesis

The Jakarta Post

Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the National Commission on Violence Against Women and Children are hopeful their newly launched book will change the views of the Indonesian Muslim community surrounding women and their rights. Breaking the Silence: Religion listens to the voice of women victims of violence for the sake of justice, launced on June 30, is intended to serve as a reference for clerics, Islamic women's organizations and the government, in promoting progressive and just perspectives on the Islamic view of women.

The two women's groups believe religious values have had a big influence on society.

"We feel Indonesians rely heavily on religious values, so violence against women and the protection of women cannot be separated from these values," commission chairwoman Yunianti Chuzzifah said.

The book, which highlights stories of the mistreatment of women based on misconstrued religious tenets, attempts to shed as much light as possible on the initial context of Koranic verses and how to counter their misapplication within the current social context.

Maria Ulfah Anshor, the chairwoman of Fatayat, the women's wing of NU, said many Muslims did not have a comprehensive understanding of the Koran and tended to ignore the initial social context of its verses.

"The Prophet said the interpretation of verses should include the social context. However, many people just look at the literal meaning of given verses and the real message is not delivered," she said.

According to Yuniati, polygamy was one of the main sticking points in any discussion of women's rights in Islam.

"In polygamy, a woman becomes the victim of man who justifies his action on the basis of religious teachings," she said.

"This is when the substance of religious value gets reversed," she said.

In the Koran, polygamy was allowed only within the narrow context of marriage as a way of protecting the social status, inheritance and other rights of primarily widows and orphans. Nowadays, however, the basic principles underlying polygamy have somehow shifted from protecting women to the practice of victimizing women.

The book documents a story of a female migrant worker who found out that her husband, to whom she had sent her salary, had married another woman in her hometown while she was abroad for 18 months.

The author of the book, Nur Rofiah, said there were many misunderstandings about religious teachings in Islam, and among religious organizations such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, as well as among the Christian and other religious communities. A recent NU congress acknowledged the conservative practices of minor marriage and female genital mutilation.

"Sometimes what a woman sees as violence is not perceived as such by those she is accusing," Nur said, citing ingrained religious misperceptions in society.

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Sat, 07/03/2010