Muslimah Reformis

Musdah Mulia, an Indonesian Muslim woman scholar who spoke to the Taliban (Part I)

IO – In January 2012 the UNFPA or United Nations Population Fund, invited Indonesian Muslim scholar, Musdah Mulia to speak at a conference and 6 workshops in Kabul about democracy and strengthening women’s reproductive health and rights. She was told that a number of Taliban mullahs would be attending the conference and workshops. Then UNFPA challenged her, “So, what do you think? You dare to speak to the Taliban?”

They clearly knew how to handle a Buginese woman for Musdah spontaneously responded, “Whose scared?” ­ and by February of that year she was on a plane en route to Kabul to speak as an Indonesian Muslim woman scholar ­ to the Taliban.

It was only afterwards that Musdah had some second thoughts about flying to Kabul, for during those years there was still a lot of fighting taking place with the Taliban and suicide bombings were a frequent occurrence. “But,” she thought to herself, “when would I ever have the opportunity again to speak to the Taliban who regard women so lowly? I should go.”

On the 21 st of February 2012 she was on a flight from Dubai to Kabul. Most of the women on the flight were wearing full burqas with only a net meshing grate for the eyes. She remembers thinking to herself how uncomfortable they must be feeling. In Dubai she noticed several women with no head scarfs, donning them and completely covering their heads just before they boarded the flight to Kabul, and followed their example.

Kabul was covered in snow and the airport was full of armed troops. There a UN official led her to a specially designed anti­missile armored vehicle. At the time the Serena Hotel was the only hotel in the city available that was sufficiently secure for UN personnel, security officials and humanitarian aid workers. The roads along the way to the hotel we’re full of armed troops with sharpshooters stationed on the roofs of buildings. However, what drew her attention most were the many women in burqas begging along the sides of the roads, some with small children in tow between the ages of five and 11. The population of Afghanistan is about 39 million and women make-up nearly 50% of the population. When the Taliban were in power 20 years ago they forbade women to work. The result was a high increase in poverty and desperate women were forced to turn to begging and prostitution. She found it incomprehensible that the Taliban allowed begging and prostitution but would not allow women to work. Her heart was drawn to the poor women begging on the streets of Kabul but the UN official warned her not to open the window to give them money as it would be extremely dangerous to do so.

Later at the hotel the first thing the receptionist did was to familiarize her with the evacuation procedure in case of a bomb threat. She was also shown the exact location of the bunker that she would need to retreat to, after which she was warned to never leave the hotel grounds unless she was in an armored vehicle.

Musdah Mulia (right) at the Conference Promoting Family Planning and Birth Spacing in Afghanistan in 2012
Musdah Mulia (right) at the Conference Promoting Family Planning and Birth Spacing in Afghanistan in 2012

Musdah was there at the invitation of the Afghan Ministry of Public Health with the support of the UNFPA. The conference and workshops were attended by religious leaders including several mullahs of the Taliban. Afghanistan is one of the poorest Islamic nations in the world with an extremely high mortality rate for mothers giving birth. A lack of women’s reproductive health and rights is one of the reasons behind the poor condition of Afghan women’s lives. The conference and workshops were intended to familiarize religious leaders with democracy and women’s reproductive health and rights and an interpretation of Islamic teachings that supported them. It was hoped that they would then spread the message to Afghan society through mosques.

On the first day of the conference several men with thick beards stared at her in an unfriendly fashion and when it was announced that she was from Indonesia they declared all Indonesians kafirs which translates as infidels, because they said Indonesians practice birth control and Indonesian men do not wear robes or have beards. She thought that they were joking until she saw their silent, angry stares. During the interval several approached her to explain the Hadiths which instruct men to grow beards. The Hadiths are a collection of traditions that record the actions, words and silent approval of the Prophet Muhammad. “Imagine,” she thought to herself, “in the Afghanistan of the Taliban, not growing a beard not only prevents a man from going to heaven but results in him being put in prison.”

“This,” she thought, “is what happens when people only understand their religion in a textual way rather than the important spiritual and moral concepts that lie behind what is written in the text.” She knew that such spiritual and moral precepts would always respect human beings as part of God’s creation.

At the start of the conference the speakers were all accused of being kafirs and American agents sent to destroy Islam. Musdah sincerely regretted their attitude for differences of opinion are in her view, not something to be feared but something that can increase our social capital and thereby make us more critical and wiser as human beings.

To her surprise, there was a change on the third day. The participants appeared to be slowly opening up to what was being explained and it was possible to even begin dialogues with them. She felt their increasing respect for her because she was able to recite verses from the Quran and Hadiths to back up her explanations and they appeared to be increasingly swayed by her advice to respect all human beings irrespectively, about the importance of gender equality, education and information, as well as the reproductive health and rights of women. They discussed social cultural issues, the role of men in supporting these efforts and the importance of collaboration and partnership. From the start the importance of using religion and religious texts in swaying their opinion was very clear to her and as an Islamic religious scholar from Indonesia, extremely well-versed in the Quran and Hadiths, she felt she had a role to play. They were impressed that she could recite so many verses from the Quran relating to family matters and community life.

It surprised her but by the end of the conference the participants had agreed that it was important to increase national dialogue with conservative religious leaders. They also asked for more workshops involving the regional civilian leadership and building a mechanism for cooperation with civil society with regard to women’s reproductive health and rights,

The participants respected Musdah because of her ability to recite so many verses from the Quran in support of her arguments however, she felt that all women need to be respected whether they are able to recite passages from the Quran or not. Musdah’s final surprise came at the closing event when 3 Taliban mullahs approached her and asked to be photographed together with her. Spontaneously she responded, “Alas it is impossible for me to be photographed together with men who are not related to me.” The UN staff standing near them burst out laughing as Musdah cheekily threw the Taliban’s words back at them.

Musdah Mulia giving a talk about Islam and Peace at the Bishop Building in Oakland, California in 2016. Photo courtesy of Musdah Mulia.

Now 9 years later and after the fall of Afghanistan back to the hands of the Taliban, Musdah says that she does not know what exactly the results of that conference and workshops were but she was pleasantly surprised when on the last day 3 workshop participants approached her and apologized for their unfriendliness and rudeness at the start of the conference. They explained that they only now understood the meaning of democracy and the importance of human rights and women’s reproductive health and rights. The 3 men thanked her and told her that in the future they would try to spread the message that only through knowledge and education could Muslims truly enjoy justice, welfare and peace. This delighted Musdah as it proved to her once again the importance of education, dialogue and every effort to build a more civilized society. This is in fact nation building. She believes that such efforts are extremely important in facing radical Islamic groups who oppose human rights such as the Taliban. Musdah says, “Islam is about making people be more humane.”

Perhaps, part of the reason that Siti Musdah Mulia is so courageous is because she is Buginese, an Indonesian ethnic group known not only for their great sailing skills but also for their bravery, daring and sense of adventure. In Musdah’s family it was a long line of women from her mother, her grandmother, right through to her great-grandmother who maintained and firmly carried out the Buginese heritage and traditions of her ancestors.

Her great-grandmother was of the Buginese nobility and still had a personal slave. The women in her mother’s family implemented even very old-fashioned traditions such as forbidding young girls to eat cucumbers and pineapples or very oily fish as there is a Buginese belief that if they do so, they will become quite vain and flirty. Her grandfather who was a very traditional ulama or religious scholar used to admonish her not to laugh loudly with her mouth open as it was unseemly for a woman to do so. Sometimes, the many rules and tradition could literally, be quite suffocating for a young girl. Every night before going to sleep, Musdah had to wrap 5 meters of moist cloth around her waist to ensure that it would remain a small waist. The material was first soaked in water and then wrapped around her body where it would eventually dry due to her body heat.

As a young girl the women of the family felt she was growing too rapidly and were afraid that if she grew too tall she would become too manly looking. Therefore, she was made to carry the wooden mortar for pounding the rice to husk it, raised above her head 7 times around the house at sunset, in the hope that she would cease to grow any taller.

A birthday celebration for Musdah Mulia’s mother (front left) who is seated beside her great aunt (front right). Musdah Mulia is standing in the centre. Photo courtesy of Musdah Mulia

Until the age of 5, Musdah Mulia was raised by her parents in Surabaya. Then her parents moved to Jakarta however, they did not take her with them. She was sent to the village where her grandparents lived in the Regency of Waju in South Sulawesi. In 1971 at the age of 11 she was sent to a religious boarding school or pesantren named Asadiah. There she was given a very strict Muslim education with the boys separated from the girls by a very thin wall. At Asadiah, the male teachers were not allowed to even look at the girls.

However, although her mother came from a very traditional family, she was in fact surprisingly moderate in her outlook. Her grandmother however, was not at all so and Musdah says that using today’s values she could even be termed a racist as she was dismissive of and always looked down upon all other ethnic or tribal group, regarding them all as bad people. Nevertheless, it was from this strong and opinionated, perhaps even racist woman that Musdah appears to have inherited her strength and daring. Musdah’s grandfather once owned many of the large Buginese sailing boats known as pinises. However, he passed away early in her life, leaving her grandmother a widow who had to fend for herself and this may have forced her to be extremely capable and durable. Shaped by circumstances, tradition and perhaps also traits inherent to her individual nature, her grandmother was a strong and quite fearless woman. When any man came searching for her hand in marriage she used to tell him, “You want my money? Well, know also that I am a single parent with five children.”

Her grandmother was the first in her village to provide her daughter with an education by sending Musdah’s mother, Buaidah Achmad to a pesantren in Parepare called Pesantren Darul Dakwah wal Irsyad. Later, at the mosque a woman could preach as long as she had had a pesantren education. Musdah’s mother preached and performed a form of storytelling about the life of the Prophet Muhamad known as barsanji. This is a form of supplicatory prayers and praises that tell the story of the Prophet Muhammad and are based on a book called the Kitab Barzanji which was written by Syekh Ja’far al­Barzanji bin Hasan bin Abdul Karim in the 18th century. Her mother had memorized the Qu­ran and could both write and read Arabic script with an excellent pronunciation.

Musdah Mulia’s large extended Buginese family in Makasar meet every year at Eid. Photo courtesy of Musdah Mulia

Her traditional Buginese heritage as well as her descent from strong women and a mother who was the first educated woman in her village probably helped prepare Musdah Mulia to face the Taliban mullahs in Afghanistan but her father’s heritage as will be seen in Part II of this article also prepared her for the task of facing conservative Muslim men with a low regard for women not only in Afghanistan but also Indonesia.

(Tamalia Alisjahbana – Independent Observer)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy Part II and Part III of the article:

Musdah Mulia Indonesian Islamic woman scholar who debated radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir (Part II)


Musdah Mulia, Indonesia’s foremost Islamic woman scholar and the influences on her thinking (Part III)