Muslimah Reformis

My Personal Experiences and Activities

Actually, I pursued my career in government institutions since 1985 until now as a researcher and lecturer within the Ministry of Religious Affairs. From this position, I am freer to present the voice of women in various issues and cases. In the Ministry of Religious Affairs, I voice the rights of women in public policies concerning marriage and a number of policies related to women.

I am also very active in various education and training programs, and also advocacy activities on the issue of democracy, human rights, and religious freedom. Even though this job as civil servant does not prevent me from being active in various non-government organizations: Women organization, Islamic organization, and interfaith organization. From 1990-2005 I was the head of Fatayat NU, young women organization belong to Nahdhatul Ulama, the biggest Islamic Organization in Indonesia.

I was also the head of Research Division of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (2000-2005). In 1998 together with progressive scholar I established The Institute for Religion and Gender Studies (LKAJ), and then in 1999 together with a number of pluralist religious leaders from various religions I established an interfaith organization called the ICRP (Indonesian Conference on Religion for Peace).

The Concept of Tawhîd

As a Muslim woman, I do believe that the essence of Islam is revealed in the humanistic values it embodies. In my opinion Islamic teaching is compatible with the principle of human rights. It is also compatible with the principle of democracy. For me, theologically, Islam is a blessing for all human being. There is no difference between male and female. And I am very convinced and confident that Islam guarantees equal rights for all women and event for all human beings.

The core of Islamic teaching is the concept of tawhîd. It is the basis for Muslim devotion to God, and guides every Muslim on how to establish harmonious relationships among human being. The conviction that no human equals God gives rise to the principle of freedom and the equality of all human beings.

From this obviously follows that all forms of discrimination against women or minorities can be considered as a denial of the principle of tawhid. Quite the opposite, a true understanding of tawhid seeks the liberation of all human beings from all forms of tyranny, dictatorship or despotic system.

So, a true understanding of tawhid should bring about a community based on moral and humanitarian values that frees it from any discrimination and injustice.

I believe that the core aim of all religion including Islam is for betterment of all human beings, to be pious and useful for themselves, their family and their community.  For me, as a Muslim, the Quran is the ultimate authority. Anything that contradicts it cannot be considered to be Islamic. Furthermore, I also believe that the Quran is open to multiple interpretations as a result of human agency in seeking to understand the holy text.

For me, there is no final authoritative human interpretation of the holy text. Thus, the history of Quranic exegesis is a story of a constant and continuing endeavor of Muslims seeking to understand the word of God.

So, every understanding of the Quran is really an effort to understand it, rather than being the absolute understanding, which God alone knows. To claim that a certain understanding of the Quran, even if it be that of the most well-known ulema, represents the absolute, final understanding is simply fallacious. It is tantamount to the sin of shirk, because only God knows absolutely what God intends to say and mean.

Now I would like to share my experience in Fatayat NU, an Islamic women organization belong to Nahdlatul Ulama, the biggest Islamic organization in Indonesia. My experience is relating to promoting the health and reproductive rights of women. I devoted my time to this program for more than 20 years. The principal aim of this program was to promote women basic right, especially to Muslim woman groups at the grass-root level.

The implementation of this program in the society was not as easy as it was on paper. Because, talking about health means entailing a wide variety of other issues existing in the society, such as: community’s nutrition processing, ensured availability of clean water, environmental sanitation, the provision of immunization, the maintenance of health infrastructures and facilities provided by the government, and of no least importance was the family planning awareness.

In upholding democracy, together with pro-democracy and civil society groups I have been actively involved in formulating the Draft Bill on Civil Registry; the Draft Bill on Anti-Domestic Violence, the Revision of the Law on Health, the Law on Citizenship, the Law on Labor, the Draft Bill on Anti-Pornography, and so on, which are considered problematic for building democracy in Indonesia.

20 years being engaged in this program, I really discovered and learned so many interesting lessons  which boil down to as follows: It was not easy to convince the society concerning the importance of women rights, particularly health and reproductive rights and the need of Family Planning Program.

There are many factors responsible  for this unfortunate condition, which among others: the lack of education; cultural values and religious misinterpretations which always consider women as the second human being, the object of development; and generally a mother is just treated as a production machine.


The Indonesian Council of Ulemas

As I mentioned before that I was also one of the head of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (2000-2005). At this organization, I fluently  and loudly represent the voice of women in discussing contemporary issues like women rights and domestic violence.

From my long experience working in the issue of women I came to the conclusion that women and religion have never been best friend. There are many cases of domestic violence that stem from religious  misinterpretations.

It is also interesting to witness that many Muslim society still regard women as the second human being. Why? Because, in fact, woman’s rights of inheritance is only half of that of men; women can not be a leader in her family life, women can not be a marriage guardian for her children, even if in fact she is the single parent of her children;

And also women can not be a witness in  marriage ceremony; the number of goats offered for the ritual akikah of a daughter is only half of that provided for a son; in relating to social activity, two woman witnesses are equalized to one man witness, and mahar (dowry which is given for a bride) is always considered as the payment of the women’s body, even it is considered as the price of the vagina. It is terrible!

And it is important to note that, in the context of women, the implementation of Islamic law in Indonesia signifies the throwing back of women to the domestic confines of home, returning to passage of the principles of woman domestication; reestablishing woman subordination. It is a fact !

That is why I am so active in urging those religious leaders to transform religion’s masculine face so that women feel more comfortable and feel that their interest is accommodated within religion.

In this regard, it is very often that what I have done invites controversy, such as my ideas on the right of women to interpret Islamic teachings, the right of women to become an ulema (religious leader). My ideas on the right of women to be active in public sphere to eliminate all forms of discriminations against vulnerable people, like diffable and LGBT people. Muslim women are allowed to marry non-Muslim. Muslim women are allowed to lead gender-mixed prayers, etc.


ICRP (Interfaith dialogue activist)

1n 1999  together with a number of religious leaders, we established an interfaith organization called the ICRP (Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace). This organization is very actively promoting interfaith dialogue and religious freedom for all people.

At the ICRP, I mobilize the potentials of religious  leaders to take care of human rights, in particular the rights of minority groups. I also invites female religious leaders to come to the fore as promoters of peace and as initiator of conflict reconciliation, and also to accompany religious communities who have been discriminated against by the state and by majority groups  to demand their religious freedom.

There seem to be four fundamental principles that must be fulfilled in establishing interfaith dialogue.

First, the principle of humanity. Frankly speaking as religious community we tend to take on the position of God, by acting arrogantly and being judgmental. In all honesty, we tend to judge and find fault in others instead of devoting ourselves to each other and caring for each other. We always claim to be in the right and others are always wrong, misguided and infidels.

In living together, we must always maintain our position as human beings, not as God. Our duty is to contend for goodness, and leave judgment on whether our devotion is acceptable or not to God and just to God. So, our task as humans is only to struggle to do the best as much as we are able to do. And then we leave everything to God. We don’t know who among us will be saved, who among us will have our devotion accepted, only God knows that.

Secondly, the principle of one family. As religious community we must consider other people, of whatever faith, as our brothers and sisters, as part of one family. We must realize that we all come from the same origin, namely from God, although we call Him by different names. All of us come from the One and because of it we are really one family.

In my experience, this feeling of affinity will eventually lead us to social solidarity. Ultimately, we will realize that, as brothers and sisters, we have a common enemy. The enemy of all religions is no other than injustice, all forms of discrimination,  violence, oppression, ignorance and poverty. Once we have this awareness, as people of faith we can work together to eradicate all the common enemy.

Thirdly, the principle of democracy. Democracy stems from respect and appreciation for other people. The essence of democracy is respect for the nature and dignity of human beings as noble beings. Religious leaders should actively create and promote religious interpretations that are humanistic and democratic.

Forth, the principle of religious pluralism. One of the major problems faced by religious community in this era of globalization is religion-based conflict and violence, both internally as well as between different religious communities. Why do conflicts happen? It is because religious community no longer lives in isolated blocks, but interacts with each other, so it is very possible that frictions happen with the potential to cause conflict.

Working in this organization for  a long time, I came to the conclusion that there are at least three concrete actions must be done:

Firstly,  cultural reconstruction through education in its widest sense, namely from education in family life to formal education in school then non formal education in society life. These efforts are absolutely very much needed because culture of peace, tolerant and inclusive cannot emerge naturally and spontaneously in our society,  instead it must be arranged in such way through education in widest meaning.

Secondly, law reform. We need to amend and review of some important laws and public policies which are not conducive to the establishment of democracy. After that, it is important to push the state to fulfill its obligation in promoting, protecting and fulfilling the principles of human rights, especially the rights of religious freedom.

Thirdly, reinterpretation of religious teachings. In this regard, it is very important to urge religious leaders to promote humanistic, inclusive religious interpretations. So that, there will no longer be any interpretations that are discriminative against minority groups. Religious leaders should return to their prophetic task which is to push for transformation of society in order to attain a civilized society.

I do believe that interfaith dialogue is an attempt to overcome all forms of discriminations and prejudice in our society.  I am so convinced that  faith is dialogical. Faith is dialogical first, between God and human beings; and second among human beings.

In the context of my country,  Indonesia epitomizes a case of exceptional uniqueness. In spite of being designated as the world’s largest Muslim community, Indonesia is not an Islamic State. Such condition came up because the founding fathers and mothers of this republic -the majority of whom were Muslim- did not choose Islam as the foundation of the state. Rather, they chose Pancasila as state ideology.

Why Pancasila?  Pancasila can be expanded to ensure protection for all citizens of whatever religion. Pancasila means five principles: the principle of spirituality, humanity, unity in diversity, democracy and  social justice. The first sila: Belief in the one and only God means that every Indonesian citizen, no matter their religion or even they are atheist, should respect each others religion for the sake of  harmony and  peace of all human being.

But our problem is actually not everyone accepted the pluralistic spirit of the Pancasila and our constitutions. Islamist groups have struggled for their  dream  of an Islamic state. Those include militant uprisings in the period following independence, from the Darul Islam movement, the Masyumi Political Party,  and more contemporary expressions  in the forms of HTI, the Islamic Defenders Front, and so on.

In different ways those varied groups have contributed to the climate of religious intolerance, through intellectual, theological, and political discourse, through violence and intimidation, and also through legislation.

The threat to the religious freedom also comes from several regions that are actively producing discriminative regional regulations (Perda).  From the Annual Report of the National Commission on Violence against Women there are at least 354 regional regulations that have the potential to discriminate against women and religious minority groups.

Triggers for increasing religious intolerance comes from the spread of extremist ideology, funded by sources out side Indonesia  as well as domestic organizations, through educations, preaching and the dissemination of  literature  through  publishing  pamphlets and books. And also the absence  of the  government  is absolutelt a trigger for increasing  violence.

And last but not least is the unwillingness on the part of majority of Indonesians Muslim, to speak out against intolerance. Actually, there is “a silent majority” (a passive intolerance) who do not approve of the rising intolerance  but do nothing to challenge it.



In 2004, in my capacity as The Coordinator of the Gender Mainstreaming Team in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, I have developed a draft model family law in the name of  the Counter Legal Draft of the Compilation of Islamic Law.

This draft  grounded in the Islamic principles of equality and justice, and have prepared a guide to the proposed provisions, with justifications for reform based on a holistic framework that emphasizes four elements: religious principles, domestic laws and policies, international human rights law, and sociological trends and data that present the realities of women in Indonesian families.

The question is why the Reform of Family Law is important? Family law is a litmus test for gender equality and has the most powerful impact on Muslim women lives. One of the subtle but most pervasive areas of discrimination against women in the Muslim world today is the inequality that occurs within the context of the family.

Throughout Muslim countries, Muslim women are speaking out about such discrimination and are fighting for reform of family laws to promote justice and equality within the family. In almost all countries women face gender-based discrimination in their family laws. Family laws in these countries declare that the husband is the head of the family, require the wife to obey her husband, and give the husband power over his wife’s right to work and travel, among other rights.  Almost Muslim considered family law as God’s law.

The current Islamic Family Law in Indonesia contains a large number of provisions that explicitly or implicitly discriminate against women, such as:

  1. The minimum age of marriage is lower for women than men.
  2. A woman, regardless of her age, can only marry with her guardian’s consent, whereas a man does not need to get the consent of a guardian.
  3. A Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman but a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man.
  4. A man may marry multiple wives (up to four), but a woman can only have a monogamous marriage.
  5. A woman is supposed to obey her husband. Her failure to comply with the “lawful” wishes of her husband constitutes “nusyuz” and means she can lose her right to maintenance.
  6. A man can divorce his wife at will, outside of the court system, but a woman must go to court and obtain a judicial divorce on one of a number of very specific grounds that require extensive evidence.
  7. Custody and guardianship of children are determined separately. The mother has a right to physical custody of her children only up to the age seven for a son or nine for a daughter, after which custody “devolves upon” the father.
  8. The law specifies that a woman (not a man) can lose custody on several grounds, including “immorality.”
  9. A woman is not entitled to guardianship of her children: The law states that “the father shall be the first and primary natural guardian of the person and property of his minor child” and upon his death guardianship devolves to one of several male Muslims. There is no provision in the existing law for the father’s loss of guardianship in the case of irresponsibility regarding the children’s maintenance.

Some of the key reforms that we are proposing include:

  1. An equal minimum age of marriage (nineteen years) for men and women;
  2. Abolition of the requirement that the (male) guardian must consent to the marriage of a woman;
  3. A standard form marriage contract in which all marriages contracted are monogamous and polygamy is prohibited.
  4. An equal right to divorce and divorce only by judicial decree;
  5. An equal division of matrimonial assets, instead of the present standard practice of awarding only one-third of the assets to the wife; and
  6. An equal right to custody and guardianship of children.

With this draft I wish to eliminate all forms of discrimination, exploitation and violence, particularly in family life. For me it is actually an effort to seek solution for a number of contemporary social problems faced by Indonesian’s women.

I face some barriers to this reform as follows:

  1. There is a belief in Muslim societies that the family law is God’s law and is, therefore, infallible and unchangeable, rendering any effort at reform to be regarded as un-Islamic;
  2. Many people still believe that men and women do not have equal rights in Islam generally, such that demands for equal age of marriage and equal rights to divorce, guardianship and inheritance are portrayed as against God’s law;
  3. Many people still believe that only the male Muslim religious scholars have the authority to speak on Islam. Thus, women’s groups in Muslim societies face difficulties advocating for reform when they do not have the support of those perceived to have religious authority.
  4. Many Muslims are afraid to speak out on Islamic issues in public, especially if their views are contrary to orthodoxy or majority. They fear controversy or being labeled as anti-Islam. This fear extends to progressive scholars who have the knowledge and credibility to speak out, but choose to remain silent for fear of jeopardizing their jobs and livelihoods, invoking community hostility, or facing threats to their safety.

The increasing power of Islamist groups in Indonesia over recent years has also reinforced patriarchal attitudes and discriminatory legislation which strongly oppose all kinds of women’s rights. This viewpoint, propagated through local regulations and fatwas issued in various provinces, has contributed to the interpretation among some Muslims that family law reform and upholding women rights are un-Islamic.

As the religious people we have to totally understand what is the main task of religion, namely to be an agent for liberation and freedom.

Religion should realize social justice.  Prophets in former days cried for social justice to flow like a river.  Religion should teach that without social justice and liberation, gender justice and equality, and also real peace is impossible.

Religion should be an agent for reconciliation and peace in the world.  Religion should be able to tell that a world absent of social justice and with unlimited competition creates a perennial structure of violence and armed conflict. Religion should propose peaceful co-existence and corroboration instead of competition and armed confrontation, transforming the world into one of love and peace.

Religion needs to emphasize that we are part of nature, the environment and the universe. This earth mother! Without these things, human existence is impossible. We have to realize that human beings are the only stewards who can protect the integrity of nature and we have to keep them alive by thinking pro-environment.

Finally,  If feminist’ struggle is to uphold justice, so, I have no doubt that I am really a feminist. That is my foremost identity. But I am also a Muslim woman, and you know I have no problems calling myself a Muslim feminist. I am very proud of my Muslim identity.

I don’t see any contradiction in being Muslim and feminist at the same time, because I have been brought up with an understanding of Islam that is just. And God that is absolutely just, including in matters related to women and gender relations.

I don’t care to all those barriers,  I will step forward without fear to any one. I do believe that to be a Muslim is to be a khalifah fil ardh, it means to be a moral agent in this world. I am responsible to continue the prophetic task. The prophetic task of Muslim people didn’t end with the prophet Muhammad.

I am very convinced that my duty as a Muslim is doing efforts of transformation and humanization. I have to transform  myself, my family and my community. It also comprises the efforts of ‘humanizing’ the people, that is to say to make them more ‘human’.

Of course, this is really not easy. As a Muslim woman and as a human being, I must do whatever I can do and give whatever contribution I can make. I do all of these efforts just to eliminate all forms of discrimination and exploitations, for the betterment of all human being, for the birth of a better civilization which respects humanity.

And, I know as I often say, my mission will only end on judgment day. With however small contributions that I can give, there at some point time in the future I will never repent having lived in this mortal world.