Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 30, November 2012

Islam and Gender Relations in Indonesia,
with a Special Focus on Eastern Indonesia

Kathryn Robinson

  1. Gender relations and their transformation, including women's sexuality, are key elements of political contestation in contemporary Indonesia.[1] The dramatic political move to democratisation and freedom of expression since the end of the Suharto regime in 1998, has allowed Islamic organisations (including political parties) to flourish in all their diversity. Female bodies and women's public roles figure prominently in debates between groups seeking that Indonesia become an Islamic state; and secular nationalists seeking to retain the character of Indonesia as a religiously diverse (though theistic) state.[2] Decentralisation of political authority to the district (kabupaten) level was a key element of the democratisation strategy.[3] Women's groups have publicly protested at the outbreak of local regulations based on Shari'ah Law which contains regulations relating to women's clothing and deportment as key elements, which have accompanied decentralisation in over 200 of the 400-plus districts in Indonesia. Contestation over gendered forms of power have emerged in national politics; in protests over a law purportedly regulating pornography which has a strong focus on women as perpetrators of pornographic acts, including through dress.[4] There have been debates over the appropriateness of women taking political leadership in an Islamic country,[5] but the degree of political contest over gender roles is no better illustrated than by the fact that democratisation has also allowed activists and their male advocates to pass legislation setting a minimum gender quota for women candidates.[6] This has resulted in strong growth in the number of women elected to political positions (in legislatures and in local executive positions). In addition, the gender mainstreaming program as governmental policy has also strengthened the gender equality law. Currently (2012), a proposed gender equality law has attracted strong opposition, including from Islamist groups, who fear that amongst other things it would open the way to same-sex marriage, but this law has many male champions in mainstream parties.[7]
  2. The papers in this volume address aspects of current contestation around gender relations in Indonesia and test propositions about the universal and singular nature of Islamic positions in regard to gender difference and gender roles. Several of the papers have been written by anthropologists working on an Australian Research Council (ARC)-funded project, 'Being Muslim in Eastern Indonesia,'[8] which is undertaking local studies of the diverse ways in which Islamic practice is embedded in the daily life of communities who identify as Muslim. These local studies provide a challenge to assumptions of the character of Indonesian Islam, which often reflect studies in the most populous island of Java, and/or assumptions about current political dynamics which reflect the high visibility of organised Islamist groups in Jakarta—and hence in national and international media.[9]
  3. Indonesia, like other Muslim countries, has seen lively theological debates in recent decades about the role of women in Islam. Indonesia has a strong contingent of Muslim feminists who champion the idea of gender equality as a fundamental Islamic value, and this group includes male and female religious scholars. Several papers in this volume touch on these debates.
  4. Alimatul Qibtiyah's study goes to the heart of the debates about social and religious roles for women that are enjoined by religious doctrine. From analysis of public debates, she identifies ten key issues that are commonly the subject of debate about Islam and gender equality, including women's political participation, rights in marriage and inheritance, including polygamy. She then surveys 165 academics attached to a number of Women's Studies or Gender Studies centres at six universities in the central Java city of Yogyakarta and analyses their responses on these issue in relation to a categorisation of literalist, moderate and progressive views. While most of her sample share 'progressive' views, it would perhaps surprise observers who are unfamiliar with Indonesian Islam that the academics at Islamic universities tend to be more 'progressive' (that is have views endorsing gender equality) and that women are not necessarily more progressive than men. However, Indonesian Muslim scholars frequently point out that literalist and conservative interpretations of Islam have tended to arise in the technical faculties of secular universities, and that the tertiary Islamic institutions, whose students tend to come from religious schools, are less susceptible to literalist, conservative and dogmatic views of Islam. One of the main reasons for this is becuase students enrolling in Islamic universities mostly graduate from Islamic schools or Islamic boarding schools/pesantren. Therefore, they have known Islam and its discourses well since they were in their almamater. They are well-versed in diverse interpretations of Islam, from literalist, conservative, moderate to liberal ones. This in turn has made them wiser in choosing what kind of Islamic interpretation they want to follow. This is different from students in secular universities who tend to start learning Islam in detail when they are at university. The result is that they know Islam which is more literalist, since literalist groups usually have a stronger foot in secular universities.
  5. Marjaana Jauhola investigates the ways in which feminist theorising about gender difference has been accommodated in Indonesia—in Aceh in particular. Local theorists, including those who support international feminist agendas like 'gender mainstreaming' rely on a simplistic gender binary, which sees the fundamental differences between masculinity and femininity as rooted in (God-given and hence natural) biological sex differences, kodrat. Jauhola reviews the work of some current influential theorists, and illustrates the contradictions inherent in asserting this natural divide as the basis of progressive social policy, through the response of waria (male to female transgender) to public celebrations of International Women's Day, who demonstrated against the public assertion of this gender binary with banners proclaiming 'Waria are human too'. She poses the ethical question of the consequences of gender mainstreaming policies for people who fall outside the 'heteronormative binary matrix' that the dominant official feminist interpretations validate
  6. Debates about gender relations and Islam are taking place in a climate of increasing public expressions of piety throughout Indonesia, which in part reflect the ways in which Indonesia is enmeshed in global currents concerning the expression of Islamic religiosity and identity. Several of the papers in this volume address the ways in which new expressions of piety impact on women. Veiling of women has gained popularity (and fashionability) as a public expression of piety and popular culture is marked by Islamic themes. In Aceh, as Jauhola notes, there is strong pressure on women, including use of violence, to force women to conform to dress codes proclaimed as Islamic. Eva F. Nisa investigates the still minority phenomenon of young Indonesian women electing to wear the full face veil (termed cadar in Indonesian) which she notes commentators and public opinion often associate with extremist and violent expressions of Islam, and male control over women's bodies. This is a pathbreaking study which investigates the role of women in one of the Salafi groups that are emerging as strident voices in the Indonesian religious landscape. She finds that the young women who choose to join the Salafi organisation Wadah Islamiyah, in Makassar, and to wear the cadar as the uniform of that group, are exercising choice and experiencing pleasure in the 'virtuous habitus' through which they express their piety and experience self transformation. She also argues that within the organisation they undertake activities in the public sphere, in particular recruitment of new members, which is enabled by their choice of the cadar. Her paper, like many in this volume, question the homogenising impulses of current trends, especially the assumption that women are necessarily or usually 'victims' of current trends of intensification of public piety among Indonesian Muslims. Following Lara Deeb,[10] she understands 'public piety' as the expression of religious commitment that requires visibility. Eva Nisa's study also reminds us that feminists should start seeing the nature of women whose lives are governed by literalist views of Islam. Her research provides a challenge to the prejudices around the character of female followers of conservative Islamist groups.
  7. The young women in Eva Nisa's study are mostly students, in the city of Makassar. Phillip Winn describes the manifestation of piety among rural women in Leihitu, Ambon whose activities can also perhaps be regarded as part of a 'religious revival' in Indonesia. The women have begun to come together in regular religious study groups (Majelis Taklim). Winn challenges the presumption that expressions of intensified piety are novel forms of worship. Within these groups, which may be new, the women reaffirm longstanding forms of devotional performance among local Muslims, in particular the recitation of Barzanji (a poetic recitation celebrating the birth and life of the Prophet Muhammad) which is regarded as bid'ah or a religious innovation by non-traditionalist Muslims. Majelis Taklim are springing up all over Indonesia as venues where women seek religious instruction, engage in prayer and read religious texts. While some are formally organised in networks, such as a BKMT (Badan Kontak Majelis Taklim/Majelis Taklim Cordination Body) network under the leadership of a former Minister for Women's Role, Tutty Alawiyah (1998–99) (who claimed in 2009 that the network represented fourteen million women), many are independent of this network. As in the case of the women of Wahdah Islamiyah studied by Nisa, Winn argues that participation in the Majelis Taklim allows women a role in public space other than the family and household, in a way that does not confront 'an existing community imaginary of gendered devotional practice.'[11]
  8. Neo-conservative prescriptions concerning women's social and religious roles fly in the face of the ways in which Islam has accommodated the diverse cultures of the archipelago, however. Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population: around 85 per cent of its 206 million citizens profess Islam. While there is a large body of scholarship on Indonesian Islam we know more about Islam in the most populous island, Java that accounts for 60 per cent of the total population. As noted above, this volume includes several papers which focus on the less well-studied eastern islands of the archipelago. Islam is the dominant religion in South and Southeast Sulawesi. It accounts for half of the population of Maluku and is firmly established in pockets of Nusa Tenggara Timur. South Sulawesi was one of the sites of armed struggle in Indonesian post-independence which aimed to constitute the new republic as an Islamic state. While the Islamic rebellion was defeated by the Indonesian national army in 1965, these political demands have re-emerged in some of the districts newly empowered by the decentralisation of political authority in post- Suharto Indonesia. The district of Bulukumba in South Sulawesi was one of the first districts to exploit the opportunities of the radical decentralisation of politics to implement local regulations based on Shari'ah. In a manner that has become typical of these moves (now in over 268 districts) these regulations focus strongly on restricting women's freedoms.
  9. Islam is firmly embedded as a critical element of social identity for the Bugis people of South Sulawesi and Moh Yasir Alimi's paper describes how rural people in the Bulukumba district negotiate the new political space created by the perda syariah (local regulations based on Shari'ah) which can be in tension with their own pubic discourses of piety and expression of Islamic identity. In particular he investigates the contestation over head covering. Through addressing the life choices of a very pious woman, Haji Sanirih, he explores the tension between her desire to express her haji status (which reflects both her piety and her high social status) through wearing the cipo' cipo', a cloche-like head covering—symbolising the holy Ka'bah in Mecca, for Bulukumba Muslims—which is the public 'badge' of haji status for women. The cipo' cipo' does not cover the ears and throat and so is under challenge from the local regulation requiring women to wear the more encompassing jilbab ('tight veil' which covers ears, hair and throat). As a pious woman and a religious leader in her community, she 'recognises the importance of Islamic clothing for women,' but she is confident in her own interpretation which refuses the prescriptions regarding women's clothing put forward by the 'male, urban district administration'. The presence of cipo'-cipo' demonstrates the product of the acculturation of Islamic values with local culture. Since the increasing popularity of Islamic revival groups, this kind of Islamic expression embedded in cultural innovation is under the threat of those who think that this practice is not part of the true Islamic practice (bid'ah).
  10. Women's rights in marriage and divorce have been strong areas of political struggle for women in Indonesia beginning in the colonial period.[12] As Islam became embedded as a fundamental aspect of social life, Islamic practices in regard to marriage, divorce and inheritance were accommodated within the kinship and marriage systems prevailing in the archipelago. Marriage and divorce are critical factors in the diverse gender orders that characterise Indonesia—a diversity that flies in the face of the homogenising discourses of national politics, including current Islamist discourse. The colonial regime left regulation of family matters to the Islamic courts which established principles that accommodated aspects of adat or custom. In 1974, in response to longstanding women's demands, the state enacted a secular marriage law which mandated a minimum age of marriage, placed some restrictions on men's right to polygamous marriage and established conditions for divorce. Also under the Suharto regime, the distinctive Indonesian applications of Islamic family law that have developed in the Islamic Courts were codified in the Kompilasi Hukum Islam (Compilation of Islamic Law) effected as part of the exercise of unifying Indonesia's court system. Two papers in this collection are concerned with aspects of marriage and divorce in rural Islamic communities in South Sulawesi. Faried F. Saenong investigates marriage practices among a rural Bugis community. His ethnographic study shows that while marriage rites are conducted under Islamic law, the practice of negotiating, arranging and ritualising marriage is heavily conditioned by deeply held cultural views of marriage as a social institution. The deep imbrication of 'custom' and Islam in the practice of marriage as a social institution is also evident in Nurul Ilmi Idrus's paper. She reports on the manner in which the religious courts operate in the district of Sidrap, and the ways in which they express local understandings of marriage and of the rights and duties of husbands and wives; in its local context, then, this national institution operates in ways that reflect local 'gender orders' as expressed through marriage.
  11. The papers in this volume illustrate the diversity of expressions of Islam in Indonesia, the complex interweaving of Islamic practice and gender relations, and the complexity of contemporary refractions of trends in global Islam throughout the archipelago.[13] While ideologies based on Islam are a strong aspect of contemporary attempts by some sectors of Indonesian politics to use gender politics and the oppression of women in their quest for power, there are perhaps even stronger forces that associate Islam with women's equal social participation, drawing on the established ways in which Islam and local custom have become mutually accommodated in Indonesia, and contemporary theological debates, which counter misogynist readings of Islam, with those emphasising its fundamental embrace of the equality of all human beings before God.


    [1] This volume began as a session at the 2009 Women in Asia conference held at the University of Queensland, where we addressed issues pertaining to the expression of gender relations in the Muslim societies of eastern Indonesia.

    [2] Indonesia's state ideology, the Pancasila (Five Principles) includes 'Belief in One God' as the first principle.

    [3] Edward Aspinall and Greg Fealy (eds), Local Power and Politics in Indonesia: Decentralisation and Democratisation, Canberra: the Australian National University, Indonesian Update Series, RSPAS and Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2003.

    [4] Pam Allen, 'Women, gendered activism and Indonesia's Anti-Pornography Bill,' in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, issue 19, February 2009, online:, accessed 24 October 2012.

    [5] Kathryn Robinson, 'Islam, gender and politics in Indonesia,' in Islamic Perspectives on the New Millenium, ed. Virginia Hooker and Amin Saikal, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Press, 2004, pp. 183–96.

    [6] Kathryn Robinson, Gender, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia, London: Routledge 2008.

    [7] Personal communication with Nursyahbani Katyahsungkana, 23 September 2012.

    [8] DP0881464 Being Muslim in Eastern Indonesia: Practice, Politics and Cultural Diversity. CIs Kathryn Robinson and Andrew McWilliam, PIs Nurul Ilmi Idrus and James J, Fox, SRA Phillip Winn.

    [9] Islamist groups have been very successful in 'grabbing headlines' and giving the appearance of strength in public political debate, for example the success of the radical group FPI in preventing Lady Gaga from performing in Jakarta in June 2012. They have very low number of followers but their 'voices' are loud. The people who demur from their view achieve less publicity, but social media postings would indicate that while the Islamists might be successful in apparently regulating pubic space, their views are widely rejected.

    [10] Lara Deeb, An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi'i Lebanon, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

    [11] See Julian Millie, 'Islamic preaching and women's spectatorship in West Java,' in The Anthropology Journal of Australia, vol. 22, no. 2 (2011): 151–69 for a similar dynamic in West Java.

    [12] Kathryn Robinson, 'Muslim women's political struggle for marriage law reform in contemporary Indonesia,' in Mixed Blessings: Laws, Religions, and Women's Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. Amanda Whiting and Carolyn Evans, Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2006, pp. 183–210.

    [13] Robinson, Gender, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia, ch. 2.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 29 November 2012 1058