Using Religion to Strengthen Gender Equality in Indonesia
‘My husband rapes me repeatedly. I asked the ulama (religious leader) for help, but he sided with him, saying that according to Islam, a woman has to obey her husband. I have nowhere else to go. I have no tears left to shed. I no longer scream.’
It was while recording stories like this that staff at Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan), a branch of the country’s Human Rights Commission, decided in 2007 that they needed to focus on religious leaders if they wanted to protect women.
That insight led to intense brainstorming, studies and analysis, which with time has morphed into three books written by female scholars and religious leaders representing Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism.
Titled ‘Breaking the Silence: Religions Listen to the Voice of Female Victims of Violence in the Name of Justice’, the books in Bahasa Indonesia were launched in the capital Jakarta, late-April. They aim to break the monopoly held by men over interpretations of holy books and to challenge the hegemonic patriarchal culture upon which domestic violence is based.
Komnas Perempuan has recorded 54,425 cases of violence against women in 2008, a 113 percent increase from 2007.
Some 90 percent of the cases were classified as “domestic violence”, which includes “economic violence” – a category which included women being left economically vulnerable, financially neglected by their husbands or having their own economic opportunities stifled. It is believed that this number is only a tiny percentage of the real figure.
A staffer of the independent Komnas Perempuan, who did not want to be identified, said that while the books are to be distributed free, it would take time before they make an impact, but “this is potentially a breakthrough”.
Muslim-majority Indonesia is a deeply religious country that forbids atheism by law. Here Muslim ulamas, Christian pastors and Catholic priests are held in high esteem.
“They (women victims of violence) often prefer to confide in ulama or pastor instead of the police,” Neng Dara Affiah from the education department of Komnas Perampuan, told IPS. “But unfortunately, we have observed that religious leaders’ understanding of domestic violence is biased in favour of men.”
The manuscript for Muslims was written by a team affiliated to Muhammadiya, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organisation which has considerable political influence. With some 30 million members, it is mainly focused on social and educational activities.
The head of the Social Council in the female wing of Muhammadiya, Susilahati, one of the authors, explained that the book project was important in the campaign to stop domestic violence as “it allows a discussion about how to accommodate the victims’ needs and thoughts in a theological context.”
Susilahati is also a commissioner at the Komisi Perlindungan Anak Indonesia (Indonesian Child Protection Commission) and the president of the Ikatan Pekerja Sosial Indonesia (Indonesian Social Worker’s Union).
Take for instance the Hadith that has time and again been used by ulamas that says, “If a man calls his wife to bed and she refuses, and he goes to sleep angry with her, the angels will curse her until morning.”
For Susilahati, who like most Indonesians has only one name, this Hadith is a “classic case” of how people misinterpret religion to justify what is done to victims. The Muhammadiya writers have argued that the Hadith should not be taken literally.
They quote a series of other Hadith to underline the prophet’s fairness. One of these says, “A sublime man is the one who respects his wife and a contemptible man is the one who humiliates his wife.”
“This is why this project is so important,” Susilahati stressed. According to her, the problem of interpretation is not limited to Islam but “it also happens within other religions”.
The Hadith is from the oral tradition relating to the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad. It is part of traditional Islamic jurisprudence and used to determine a Muslim way of life.
Iswanti, who has started on a doctorate in theology and feminism, and is one of the writers who scrutinised the Bible, was very forthcoming. “There is no doubt that some interpretations of religious texts weaken the position of women. They could even be used to legitimise violence against women,” she said in a phone interview with IPS.
The new publications from Komnas Perempuan have published many real-life examples where interpretations of the Bible have been used to the detriment of women. Roughly 5 percent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Protestant, and a further 3 percent are Catholics.
Domestic violence, for example, has at times been hushed up, or excused by literal interpretations of passages that say “wives must be submissive to their husbands like they are submissive to Christ”.
“Besides offering a modern reading, we hope that this book will help change the paradigm of theology so that the Church can take a more proactive approach in helping women,” Iswanti said.
“When women go to church asking for help, statements like, ‘be patient’ or ‘pray to God’ are not enough,” she asserted. “We hope the church can change the way it counsels women, so that they are no longer viewed as guilty.” Iswanti is an activist with the Jakarta-based Mitra ImaDei, which organises domestic workers.
Komnas Perempuan knows that support from the male-dominated religious leadership is critical if their plea for gender equality is to be accepted by the ulama in small villages in central Java or by pastors in the remote highlands of Papua.
Encouraging initial endorsements have come so far from Din Syamsudin, head of Muhammadiya, Andreas Yewangoe, head of the Indonesian Church Council (PGI) and Yosep Dedy Pradipto, head of the Indonesian Bishops Conference (KWI) who were present at the launch on Apr. 22.
Newspapers reported that all the three agreed that it was time to reinterpret the Koran and the Bible to take women’s rights into account.
Din was quoted by The Jakarta Globe newspaper saying that he was really concerned about the condition of the status of women in Indonesia, and their subordination to men. “The interpretations (of religious texts) made by males lead to misunderstanding, and the strong patriarchal culture in the country puts the women as subordinates,” he is quoted by the newspaper.
Andreas, leader of the Protestant Church, stated that all attempts to reinterpret the holy books should be based on equality and justice. The KWI’s Yosep advised religious leaders and people to start seeing the situation from the victim’s point of view if they are to fight violence against women.
For abused women who turn to their religious leaders for help, this could mean justice at last.