May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

We are the blessed ones

We are the blessed ones
Published: Jun 17, 2012

Activists work to change men’s interpretations of Islam that justify their superiority at home


Rachmad Hidayat

Men care about families
Rachmad Hidayat

Indonesia’s high rate of domestic violence against women has led to the establishment of services and networks to provide support for female victims. But very few steps have been taken to resolve the problem from the perspective of abusive husbands. Where efforts have been made, such as those of a team of men working in the Men’s Program of Rifka Annisa, an NGO based in Yogyakarta, they have encountered strong resistance in the face of popular beliefs about men’s superiority in the family, many of which use Islam as a justification for violence in the home.

Rifka Annisa (which means ‘the woman’s friend’ in Arabic) works mainly with women victims, but has recently opened a program aimed at male clients, Muslim and non-Muslim, who are perpetrators of domestic violence. The program provides them with counselling services intended to lead to behavioural changes. Although clients all bring their own specific histories, the counsellors are nevertheless highly aware that Muslim clients tend to deny, minimise and excuse their violence, frequently blaming the victims, and also defend their superiority over their wives using Islamic doctrines which they believe favour them as men. Although not all Indonesian Islamic authority figures support this interpretation, the team has realised that such claims reflect an ideal of manhood that is accepted by many Muslim men, and which too often leads to incidents of domestic violence.

Manhood among Muslim Javanese

Not many abusive men come to Rifka Annisa for counselling. But in serving those who do, Rifka’s male counsellors are confronted with repeated claims about male authority in the family. In spite of the fact that perpetrators show clear signs of a lack of self confidence, insecurity and crisis of identity, they nevertheless believe that Islam gives them the right and authority to lead and educate their wives.

In order to better understand this problem, a researcher affiliated with the Rifka Annisa team carried out a project about ideals of manhood prevalent in Javanese communities located in Pasiran and Lemahduwur. Many of the participants were respected figures, and some were holders of roles in village government. All of them perceive marriage and family as central to their identities as men, as members of society and, above all, as Muslims.

Men in both villages contended that having a family is the main path to personal maturity. They see it as essential for the pursuit of a happy life and extension of the historical lineages of their families. Apart from that, in Islam marriage is considered to be a form of worship (ibadah). At the same time, however, their conception of the family allows them to play a role in which their dominance is socially and religiously acceptable. For these reasons, the men in both communities claim that to be a real man, one must be the leader of one’s family. It was hard for them to reflect upon themselves without referring to their positions as heads of families.

According to Kadiman, a 27 year-old father who has been married for two years, ‘In Islam, it is men who become the leaders.’ Kadiman’s position was supported by Waluyo, an older man with more than 20 years’ experience of marriage. In Waluyo’s opinion, it is right that men play the role of the dominant actors in the family and bear the entire responsibility for family life. Men like Kadiman and Waluyo interpret their leadership roles as a religious obligation that binds them in this world and more importantly in the hereafter. For them this leadership role is a duty for which men themselves will be held directly accountable by God. In other words, these Muslim men believe they have an exclusive relationship with God that places them in an intermediate position between women and God.

Some men see this exclusive position as fundamental to the identity of Muslim men. According to a fifty year-old man named Arief, a highly respected figure in the village of Pasiran, ‘Being the men of families, we are the blessed, beloved and chosen ones.’ Some men also suggested that men’s superior position in marriage corresponds to their privilege as a leader (imam) in ritual practice – a role designated as male in Islamic orthodoxy – particularly in daily prayer. These men also believe in the benefits of mutual understanding, cooperation and mutual respect between couples. But they are firm in their belief that it is necessary for men to remain in charge of the family.

The pious wife

How do the Muslim men in these villages perceive women’s position and status? And what forms of womanhood fit their values? For these Muslims, the image of a good wife is summed up in the idea of a ‘righteous’ (sholehah) wife, a concept with which many Muslims are familiar. It references a woman who is obedient, submissive to men and sexually attractive. The submissive aspect of sholehah wives is important in determining the quality of a marriage. Romsi, a 43 year-old father of two children, asserted, ‘A good family requires a sholehah wife. We could say it like this, that with a blink of an eye, she gives herself to you. I mean she knows by herself what to do and how to behave towards her husband, that is, to be completely obedient.’

Other Muslim men support their views with the traditional story of human creation, from which they believe that women were created from the bones of a male. A 56 year-old man named Anggoro, who has been married for more than 20 years, bases his hierarchical view of human value on that story: ‘So, if children will enter Heaven following their mother, then wives, if they want to enter Heaven, have to submit to and serve the men. That is how the religion tells it. That is the truth.’

Although disputed by some Islamic feminists, in Javanese village life the doctrine of the sholehah wife functions as a rule that controls women’s behaviour. Although Javanese men claim to act as the central figure in the family and take on the responsibility of leading it, it is ironic that they see the key to a family’s success as lying not in the quality of men’s leadership, but in the level of women’s submission. For men in these areas of rural Java, leading a family does not involve implementing Islamic ideals of leadership and family life, but rather making sure that women behave in accordance with their expectations.

A movement takes shape

Many of Indonesia’s Islamic leaders do not give any support to the idea that Islamic doctrine allows men to act violently towards women. But conceptions such as the righteous wife are widely supported, and activists at Rifka Annisa believe that these interpretations are important for understanding the formation of a superior and sometime aggressive male identity. Islamic teachings on family and marriage have been understood as a framework for the disciplining of women. It is this way of looking at men’s position and identity that emerges in the crises faced by the abused wives who seek assistance with Rifka Annisa. Male counsellors dealing with cases of wife abuse have frequently attempted to challenge men’s beliefs about their right to ‘discipline’ women, but are yet to make significant progress.

For Rifka’s counsellors, the lesson is clear. A substantial effort to deal with domestic violence must include consideration of the dominant values of manhood, large parts of which reflect interpretations of Islam that Rifka Annisa considers to be unduly biased towards men’s dominance. Since 2007, the ‘Men’s Program’ division in Rifka Annisa has taken steps to promote non-violence as an ideal of manhood, running a series of campaigns addressing a wide range of audiences, men and women alike. Rallies, talk shows and talk programs on local radio and TV have been organised, including contributions from local and national public figures, artists and Islamic leaders. These activities are intended to provide a public space to explore new values encouraging non-violent masculinity, and to introduce new meanings of concepts such as bravery, virility, toughness, superiority and leadership. A research report was published and T-shirts, brochures and banners created, all to display concern about the culture of violence. Promoting interpretations of Islamic doctrine that support equality and disapprove of violence are parts of that agenda.

Although Rifka Annisa is the first organisation in Indonesia to shape this novel perspective into a systematic working program, it shares this concern with other Indonesian NGOs. These NGOs have been involved in women’s activism for a long time, but are now turning their attention to men’s needs also. In 2009, Rifka Annisa joined with these organisations to initiate a national network named The Alliance of New Men (LLB). The Alliance promotes Rifka Annisa’s perspective that men should be substantially involved in addressing the issue of violence against women, and encourages the idea that values of non-violence should be promoted as genuine elements of Indonesian culture.

This initiative has been widely appreciated, and the ‘Men’s Program’ is steadily receiving more and more positive feedback. However, because the program attempts to address long-established values and cultural concepts, great energy and time will need to be expended before satisfactory results appear. In Java, attacking the serious problem of domestic violence against women involves a fundamental reassessment of men’s comfortable position as family heads.

Rachmad Hidayat ( is a PhD candidate at Monash University. He worked with Rifka Annisa in 2009 and 2010. The research from which the data of this article was taken was sponsored by AusAID and Monash University. The author would like to express his gratitude to all Rifka Annisa activists, especially those of the Men’s Program Division, and to all his friends in the LLB.

Inside Indonesia 107: Jan-Mar 2012

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