Muslim Women in Development Literature

Muslim Women in Development Literature May 22, 2013

I recently came across a publication by Cordaid, a Dutch development organisation, called “Looking for That Other Face: Women Muslim Leaders and Violent Extremism in Indonesia” (available here). This publication recounts the stories of six quadragenarian Muslim feminists from three islands of Indonesia (Aceh, Java and Lombok): Ibu Umi Hanisah (Meulaboh), Badriyah Fayumi (Kota Bekasi), Enung Nursaidah Ilyas (Tasik Malaya), Inayah Rohmaniyah (Jogjakarta), Nyi Ruqqoyah (Bondowoso), and Aini Masruri (Lombok).



Their life histories, focusing on how they oppose patriarchal dominance and other oppressions, and fight for social change and justice within their own communities, are told in individual chapters. For example, the first chapter is dedicated to the story of Ibu Umi Hanisah, 44, the head of a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) for girls. She recounts how her pesantren grew to be the go-to centre during the Acehnese struggle for self-determination and later on, the tsunami disaster in December 2004.


The authority she earned during these two events gives her credibility as a female community leader, which she uses to mediate cases of rape, domestic violence, and other social and interpersonal conflicts — always following up on criminal cases. One of the ways she guards against future abuse is by ensuring that for example in the case of domestic violence, the man will sign a written contract to not abuse his wife, in the presence of representatives from their families, police, village, government, and social organisations.


These six chapters are amazing examples of how to portray Muslim feminists: let them say what they want to say. Apart from a few introductory paragraphs that summarise the life history of the featured woman, most of the chapter’s text is in the form of quotes, which allow us to hear their story first hand (albeit translated from Bahasa Indonesia into English).

Devoting an entire chapter to the story also allows for nuance and a tracing of their thought processes, which were not a result of the “West”. As Enung Nursaidah Ilyas, a head of a school and a crisis centre for abused women, says “I am not a westerner. I am an Indonesian Muslim woman standing up for social justice.”



However, I had the general impression that there was a clear difference in what the author had to say (in the form of his own text), and what the women themselves had to say (in the form of quotes). Despite the clear inspiration of Islam for these women’s feminist activism, the author seemed to insist on pigeonholing their actions into a liberal feminist framework. Freedom is only legitimate when one is “liberated” (p.73), when marriage is “self-chosen” (p.64), or when one is not sexually “prudish” (p.79). The author only highlights the importance of the Islamic framework when talking about “increas(ing) women’s sexual freedoms” (p.33).


For example, the author emphasises the individual choice of Inayah Rohmaniyah in choosing her own path in life even when she had already stated that her choices were influenced by her father’s egalitarian ideas and the works of two prominent Indonesian scholars, Fazlur Rahman and Nurcholis Madjid.


The more important issue of the gendered and classist application of interpretations of sharia law, in the example she gives of poor girls being picked up for the offence of khalwat (close proximity between unmarried couples), but not elite women in cars. However, the author gives a hypothetical situation of a woman being arrested for wearing tight pants!


Another concern was textual accuracy. I was troubled by one of the quotes which wrongly attributed to the Quran a story about a pregnant woman asking to be stoned for adultery. This quote by Ibu Umi Hanisah is used to explain the “heart of our faith” as being “education and nurturing”, not harsh punishment. The author then implies that praying and repentance were the true aims of sharia law.


His own interpretation of her words shadows the nuance from Ibu Umi herself. The text before and after the quote is more nuanced about sharia, emphasising that the real problem is the institutionalisation and unjust application of sharia, since sharia “is in everything we do” (p.20). As the publication was mostly targeted to the European donor and development industry, it would have been more useful to explain the misconception around the definition of sharia, in the light of recent right-wing fears of the “tsunami of Islamisation” of Europe, similar to the fear of ‘creeping sharia’ in the US.


Finally, I was concerned about the amount of self-reflexivity put into the publication. As a white Dutch man interviewing these women through a local woman translator, he seemed rather unaware of local social and religious norms. When a 14 year-old  girl in Nyi Ruqqoyah’s pesantren refused to shake his hand just before maghrib prayer, he retells the incident in a condescending way.

“Goodness — almost touched an unknown man! That would have undone her wudhu, the ritual hand-washing before prayer” (p.83).

Being a publication of one of the most well-known Dutch development organisations, it seems to target the Dutch development industry in general (since words that are similar to Dutch like “misi sosial”, or social mission, are not translated). Despite some factual errors and a lack of self-reflexivity from the author, I think that the stories of these women collectively form a valuable resource to promote greater understanding of how feminism can work within an Islamic framework.


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