Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

A shared vision

Published: Jul 22, 2007

Portraits of Islamic women from different centuries and different organisations

Eka Srimulyani and Siti Syamsiyatun

Islamic women have become much more prominent in public life in recent years, as the constraints of New Order authoritarianism fade into memory. New Islamic women’s organisations have been established, and publications on gender and Islam have appeared. The older established mass Islamic organisations Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) have also begun promoting ideas about the empowerment of women.

Although the issue of gender in the modern context is increasingly being recognised, there is still a dearth of public knowledge about Muslim women from both the past and the present. This is not because there are no women worthy of our attention. Rather, it is because such women have not received the same public recognition as their male peers, perhaps because they come from a community tradition which does not focus on the role of women.

The two biographies below seek to correct this historical record and celebrate the lives of Nyai Khoiriyah Hasyim and Siti Ruhaini Dzhayatin. These two Muslim women come from different generations and different organisations, but they share the ideal of dedicated service to the women of their communities. By espousing ideas for the empowerment of women, and pioneering schools for girls, these women are role models for other Muslim women to follow. Both have played public roles in their organisations NU and Muhammadiyah respectively. And both have used community organisations such as NGOs and majelis taklim (Islamic learning circles) as vehicles for spreading their views.

Nyai Khoiriyah Hasyim: advocate of women’s education

Khoiriyah was born in 1906 in Tebuireng, Jombang, East Java, the daughter of Kiyai Hasyim Asy’ary and Nyai Nafiqah. Her father was the founder of the Tebuireng pesantren (Islamic boarding school) and later of NU. Throughout her life Khoiriyah was active in Muslimat NU, the women’s section of NU.

Her family background, particularly her father’s role as an Islamic teacher, gave Khoiriyah an opportunity to study religious teachings in a period when this was extremely rare for a girl. Pesantren did not accept girls as pupils, so the young Khoiriyah followed her father’s lessons from behind a screen as he taught the male students.

Khoiriyah married Maksum Ali, one of her father’s pupils, while still a teenager. In 1921, the pair founded the Salafiyah pesantren in the village of Seblak, and when her husband died in 1933, Khoiriyah continued the leadership of the Seblak pesantren alone. In 1937, following her second marriage to Kiyai Muhaimin, an Indonesian ulama (teacher), she left Indonesia for Mecca. The leadership of the Seblak pesantren passed to her daughter and son-in-law.

Khoiriyah lived in Mecca for 19 years. In 1942, she founded a pioneering school for girls – Madrasah Banat. She believed that through education, women could be liberated from their ignorance. After her second husband died, Khoiriyah met President Sukarno in Mecca. He invited her to return to Indonesia to develop the nation. In 1956, she returned to Jombang where she resumed leadership of the Seblak pesantren, using the experience and knowledge she had gained in Mecca to further develop it. Girls from Jakarta and other regions in Indonesia came to study there.

The Seblak pesantren, which when founded had only male pupils, became the most respected pesantren for girls. In 1964, Khoiriyah opened a kindergarten within the pesantren. In addition to being the director of the Seblak pesantren, she also took over the role of director of the Tebuireng pesantren in the transitional period in 1965.

Khoiriyah was not only actively involved in pesantren educational institutions, but also taught in a number of majelis taklim. Because she was so active, one of her grandchildren relates that she had her own special becak (bicycle rickshaw), with a personal chauffeur, who was always ready to take her to different places to give lessons. Together with the other women of Muslimat NU, she also pioneered a medical centre at Tebuireng under the supervision of Dr Sudioto.

In addition to her teaching, Khoiriyah also published articles about religion – something rarely done by anyone in that time, let alone a woman. One of these, ‘Main points of a lecture: the understanding of mazahib (school of Islamic law) and tolerance’, was published by the magazine Gema Islam in August 1962.

In 1970, on the advice of Dr Sudioto, Khoiriyah retired to Surabaya for health reasons, although she remained actively involved in educational work there. From 1972 to 1979, she was involved in the organisation of the educational foundation, Khadijah. She also pioneered the founding of a women’s Islamic study group, Yasmara, in Surabaya, where she regularly taught classic Islamic literature.

Khoiriyah died on 2 July 1983 and was buried in the family graveyard at the Tebuireng pesantren in Jombang. Despite the traditional seclusion of women her achievements in education were outstanding, as was her service to a community which was still very patriarchal.

Siti Ruhaini Dzuhayatin: towards just relationships

Siti Ruhaini Dzuhayatin is one of Indonesia’s leading Muslim women thinkers. She plays a key role in the development of the discourse on gender and Islam in Indonesia today. Ruhaini began promoting ideas about gender perspectives in the interpretation of Islamic law during the 1990s, when large religious bodies and women’s organisations were still reluctant to examine gender issues in Islam. Ruhaini developed her feminist ideas through a variety of different sources and activities: from academic thinking, student groups, mass organisations and NGOs.

Ruhaini was born in 1963 in Blora, Central Java, and grew up in a Muhammadiyah family that provided an egalitarian education to both sons and daughters. She was grateful to her parents for this upbringing, and it inspired her to fight for women’s rights, a resolve which sharpened as she grew older and developed greater life experience.

Of her mother, Ruhaini relates: ‘My mother was an independent women, and I later wondered how she could be like that. She was the principal of a primary school, but she had also inherited a reasonable amount of land and wealth from my grandfather, who was a lurah (village head). Because she was independent, Mother had a fairly strong bargaining position with our father. She was insistent about our education.’

While still at primary school, Ruhaini joined in the prayer meetings, sport and singing activities of Nasyiatul Aisyiyah, the women’s organisation of Muhammadiyah. She continued her education at the Pabelan pesantren in Magelang for six years, where she first became concerned about gender discrimination. When studying religious texts, for example, Ruhaini began to ask her teachers for explanations of teachings that she felt discriminated against women. She also questioned the wisdom of the kiyai, who did not allow female pupils to join boys in events such as the Scout and Guide Jamboree, which took place outside the pesantren.

Ruhaini began to articulate her concerns about gender injustice when she was a student at the Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic Institute (IAIN) in Yogyakarta. While studying in the Faculty of Syariah (Islamic law), she criticised much accepted theological writing as being a misogynist interpretation of the Qur’an and hadith. Ruhaini was also active at this time in the Islamic Students Association (HMI).

After graduating as the top student in the Faculty of Syariah, Ruhaini became a lecturer at her university; and later received a Master of Arts from Monash University. Her studies in Australia allowed her to add another academic tool, western social theory, to her knowledge of Islamic law. This equipped her to better analyse gender inequality in fiqih (Islamic jurisprudence). As a lecturer in the Faculty of Syariah, Ruhaini was also active in the Women’s Study Centre at university, which from the mid 1990s became the backbone of the movement to mainstream gender at the IAIN university.

Not fully satisfied with her academic work, Ruhaini was also active in the community. Together with other Muslim activists, she founded an NGO to help women victims of violence, the Rifka Annisa Women’s Crisis Centre in Yogyakarta. In 1995 Ruhaini again became involved with the women’s organisation of Muhammadiyah as a member of a prayer institute, several years after she had broken ties with it. There, Ruhaini and her friends began to formulate a gender policy for the organisation and strategic steps to implement it. In the same year, Ruhaini was also chosen to become a member of the Tarjih Council, the function of which is to issue rulings on doctrinal issues. She was also chosen as a member of Muhammadiyah’s Council on the Development of Islamic Thought, which is one of the sources of religious authority for the Muslim community in Indonesia. The religious views or fatwa of Muhammadiyah are also issued by this body.

Within the Muhammadiyah environment, Ruhaini avoids using the language of western feminism, preferring religious terms that are known and understood by the community. A relationship between a husband and wife is described as ‘makruf’ (good and appropriate) and a relationship between a man and woman as ‘adil’ (just), equal and in harmony. Ruhaini and her friends’ willingness to compromise in re-joining Nasyiatul Aisyiyah has already borne significant results: Muhammadiyah now includes women in the Tarjih Council in executive positions, and at all leadership levels from the village to the national level.

Eka Srimulyani (Eka.srimulyani@uts.edu.au) is a student at the Institute for International Studies, University of Technology, Sydney.
Siti Syamsiyatun (ssya4@student.monash.edu.au)
is a student at the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University.

Inside Indonesia 84: Oct-Dec 2005

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