Religious prescriptions affect women’s rights, most notably in the area of marriage law and rights within the family. In the Dutch colonial period, family law was largely left to Islamic authorities. But during its slow spread through the archipelago, Islamic law accommodated itself to the existing practices there, particularly in regard to polygyny and property rights: the former was unpalatable in much of the archipelago, and indigenous customs commonly recognised women’s inheritance and other property rights.
Activist women in the nationalist movement successfully pressed for pro-women government regulations in regard to Islamic marriage, especially polygyny, child marriage and divorce by repudiation. Women’s activism continued in post-independence Indonesia and by 1974 they achieved some of their goals with the passage of a national marriage law. It set a minimum marriage age and gave greater protection in matters of divorce and polygyny. Efforts to standardise Islamic laws in 1997 further strengthened some customary rights, including women’s common property rights on divorce.
But these successes cannot be taken for granted. In the democratised political space that opened up after the fall of Suharto in 1998, women activists argued for a revision of the 1974 marriage law to ban polygamy and further limit men’s prerogatives in divorce. At the same time, some men (together with women supporters) took advantage of the freer political climate to unsuccessfully campaign for the restoration of rights to polygyny, which many argued was a religious entitlement.
Individuals and groups identifying as Islamic feminists have championed women’s marriage rights and revision of the law. They argue that the Qur’an fundamentally supports a society of equality. But the opening up of democratic space also created room for anti-liberal Islamic groups, called keras (hard), whose view of Islam encompasses the expression of masculine prerogative.
In 2008, noisy street demonstrations by (usually male) supporters of groups like the Islamic Defender’s Front effectively pressured the national legislature to pass a so-called ‘anti-pornography’ law, which largely targeted women who failed to meet dress standards or engaged in proscribed ‘pornographic’ actions in public. ‘Hard’ Islamic groups argued that restrictions on women’s dress and behaviour were expressions of Islamic orthodoxy.
Champions of women’s rights opposed the bill on the grounds that it was largely an attempt to restrict women’s freedom of movement. It was also strongly opposed by non-Muslims in Bali and Papua who argued for the rights of women to bare breasts in public as a historic cultural norm. While the law has largely lain dormant since its passage, it has been a lightning rod for opposition by women who regard it as emblematic of official attempts to limit women’s freedom in the name of Islam.
Islamic rhetoric accompanied another limitation of women’s rights as citizens in the post-Suharto period, this time linked to the ‘big bang’ decentralisation of political authority to local government. Many newly empowered districts enacted local bylaws purportedly based on sharia law. These local regulations mainly targeted women: curfews, restrictions on their movement in public, dress codes (especially the requirement to wear the jilbab or tight veil) and recently in Aceh a ban on women sitting astride motorcycles. In 2015, Human Rights Watch reported that 279 local regulations discriminated against women, 90 of them requiring women to wear the jilbab. In some cases this requirement has been imposed on Christian women.
Women, including Islamic feminist activists, have contested these regulations — and they are also frequently ignored. However, they have licensed vigilante acts by radical groups and arbitrary enforcement by local government agencies against women appearing in public without the veil or after curfew. In West Java, factory shift workers have been harassed and accused of ‘immoral’ acts when returning home from work. Significantly, not all the politicians championing these anti-woman regulations represent Islamic parties. Rather, the rules seem to be a product of populist strategies that use an Islamic idiom to court male voters with promises to sustain masculine prerogatives by controlling women.
While there have been some attempts to use religion to limit women’s participation in politics, Indonesian women from all religious backgrounds have been active in politics at local and national levels. Laws requiring gender quotas for political parties’ parliamentary candidates were enacted in 2008, and currently 17.5 per cent of seats in the national parliament are held by women. Women’s involvement in public life also shows that Islam cannot be singled out as being hostile to women’s rights. It is predominantly Hindu Bali that has the lowest levels of women’s political participation. In spite of the 2008 quota, Bali is one of three provinces where women are not eligible to vote in the influential neighbourhood-level political units known as banjar.
Of the three parties that achieved more than 20 per cent female representation in the 2014 elections, one was the Islamic party PKB, which is closely associated with Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). The other two were secular nationalist parties. PKB’s success in getting women into parliament reflects the large number of women in NU-affiliated mass organisations.
Many of the diverse communities of the archipelago have had notably tolerant attitudes to individuals who are outside the constraints of a gender binary, from transgender entertainers to priests of customary religions. Yet in recent years Indonesia’s tolerance is showing some cracks.
Visiting Muslim lesbian feminist author Irshad Manji, for example, was subject to attacks by radical Islamic groups in 2012. In recent months there have been increased levels of violence against LGBTI individuals, commonly justified in the name of Islamic orthodoxy.
The reactionary groups that seek to restrict the rights of women and deny those of LGBTI individuals are seen by many Indonesians as expressing a foreign, ‘Arab-influenced’ variety of Islam which deviates from what the prominent Indonesian scholar Azyumadi Azra has called Indonesia’s ‘colourful’ — and tolerant — religious traditions. Despite radicals’ rejection of what they condemn as alien ‘Western’ ideas about sexuality and gender, it is perhaps these open-minded religious traditions that are still most at home in Indonesia.
Kathryn Robinson is Emeritus Professor at the School of Culture, History and Language, The Australian National University and author of Gender, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia (Taylor & Francis, 2009). She is Southeast and East Asia Editor of the Encyclopedia of Women in Islamic Cultures.
This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Gender and sexuality’.