Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Interpreting Islam for women

Interpreting Islam for women
Published: Jan 10, 2011

Joanne McMillan

   Ciciek addressing participants at a workshop on violence in high schools
   Farha Ciciek

Farha Ciciek Abdul Assegaf has fond memories of her early childhood in Ambon. She remembers racing her friends in the street, games of hopscotch and playing in the rain, stealing star fruit from a neighbour’s tree and sharing stories. In those days, she says, Ambonese society was pluralistic and tolerant of religious and ethnic diversity. ‘As a child, I rarely gave a thought to social status, religion, ethnicity or gender,’ recalls Ciciek. ‘I mixed with boys as well as girls, Chinese kids, Indo-Portuguese kids, Christian and Muslim kids – there was never any problem. It was an environment in which freedom was real and solidarity was quietly fostered.’

Now in her forties and living in Java, Ciciek (pronounced ‘Chichik’), as she is known to her friends, often wishes she could return to Ambon. But that, she says, is impossible. ‘Returning to Ambon would mean travelling across not only space but also time,’ Ciciek says ‘back before the civil war that destroyed not only buildings and lives but also the culture of pluralism in Ambon. All that’s left of my Ambon now is memories.’

Ambon may be lost to her, but the tolerance and egalitarian values fostered by Ciciek’s childhood have endured. Since those days playing with her friends in the street, Ciciek has gone on to become one of Indonesia’s most prominent Muslim social justice activists. She is one of the pioneers of Indonesia’s contemporary Islamic feminist movement and a leading light in a generation of Muslim activists who have sought to develop and promote tolerant and socially progressive interpretations of Islam.

Patriarchy at home

For Ciciek, the struggle to achieve justice for women and transform what she describes as Indonesia’s ‘patriarchal social system’ is one that has taken place in her private as well as her public life. ‘Like it or not,’ says Ciciek, ‘the fight for gender justice is not just a fight against discriminatory government policy, the armed forces, and social norms or customs, but also, often, against the people closest to us, those with whom we have close emotional relationships. For me, my own father was the central figure against whom I fought the hardest.’

Ciciek was born into an aristocratic family in Ambon’s Arab-Indonesian community in 1963. Her father was the son of a Yemeni Muslim preacher, said to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Her mother was also the child of an aristocratic but poor Ambonese family.

The lives of both her parents, Ciciek says, are examples of the pervasive effects of patriarchal social structures. Ciciek’s mother, though a promising student, was forced to drop out of school to help support her family and allow her brothers to continue their education. Later, as a Muslim housewife, she was expected to be completely subservient to her husband. ‘If she wanted to leave the house,’ says Ciciek, ‘she had to ask for my father’s permission. He limited her relations with her family and forbade her from joining social organisations. She did everything he said, even though I know it often pained her greatly.’

Her father too, she argues, was a victim of patriarchal society. ‘Although my grandfather had an Arab wife and several children in Yemen, he took local wives as he moved throughout the Indonesian archipelago as a way to help spread his teachings,’ Ciciek says. Her grandmother was the second wife he took in Ambon. ‘When my grandfather moved on to Java, my grandmother was not prepared to go with him. My grandmother raised my father in poverty, with almost no support from her husband. Naturally, this profoundly affected my father’s psychology.’

‘Unless it was absolutely necessary, I was forbidden to leave the house except to go to school’

Despite being effectively abandoned by his father, Ciciek says that her own father was proud of the family’s direct lineage from the Prophet. He saw it as his duty to protect the purity and sanctity of this lineage. For Ciciek, this meant a sheltered adolescence, governed by her father’s strict rules. ‘I was forbidden to go to the cinema, or attend girl scouts, or do martial arts like my brothers,’ Ciciek says. ‘I was not permitted to mix with men or boys except for close relatives. Basically, unless it was absolutely necessary, I was forbidden to leave the house except to go to school.’

Ciciek’s experiences, and the experiences of her parents, have profoundly influenced her thinking about relations between men and women and made her determined to fight for social change. ‘The story of my father’s hardship, my mother’s suffering and the twists and turns of my own life are a personal portrait of a social system that has failed to create a just world for all people,’ says Ciciek. ‘We will never be able to create such a world as long as this discriminatory, patriarchal system remains in place.’

Taking action

Ciciek first became involved in women’s rights activism when she was a student at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University in Yogyakarta in the 1980s. Together with progressively-minded friends, she organised forums on campus to discuss women’s perspectives on poverty, economics and politics. These forums were extremely popular and lively, and led Ciciek and her friends to establish LSPPA (Institute for Women and Children’s Development) in the early 1990s.

‘Our goal with LSPPA was to raise public awareness about women’s rights and start a critical discussion about emancipation and discrimination against women,’ Ciciek says. ‘Back then, we did receive considerable support. But this was far out-weighed by the enormous resistance to our views.’

‘We saw religion as a tool of emancipation for the weak and marginalised’

Often, Ciciek says, people who opposed notions of rights and equality for women used religious arguments to support their position. Initially, Ciciek and her colleagues had difficulty countering these arguments. ‘The problem is most Muslims in Indonesia believe Islam tells them that women are naturally inferior and subordinate to men,’ explains Ciciek. ‘My colleagues and I could not accept this. We saw religion as a tool of emancipation for the weak and marginalised – so it was therefore impossible for Islam to degrade women. But at that time we didn’t have the weapons to challenge discriminatory interpretations of Islam.’

Around this time, Ciciek and her colleagues encountered the work of Riffat Hassan, an Islamic feminist scholar from Pakistan, who challenged the theological basis of women’s subordinate status. This led them to works by Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan Islamic feminist, and Asghar Ali Engineer, an Indian Islamic scholar who discussed interfaith relations, human rights and women’s issues. With the blessing of the authors, LSPPA translated these works into Indonesian and disseminated them widely. ‘Again, our efforts to spread alternative ideas received a lot of criticism,’ says Ciciek, ‘but in the end it was worth it because of the huge influence this work had on the development of discourse about equality and justice for women and men in Islam.’

Equally gratifying, Ciciek says, was the impact one of these translations had on her mother. When Ciciek was a postgraduate student at Gadjah Mada University, she and her mother discovered that Ciciek’s father had taken a second wife in secret. When confronted, her father justified his actions by citing Qur’anic verses that state men may marry up to four wives. Ciciek encouraged her mother to defend her right to just treatment, also stipulated in the Qur’an, and gave her mother a copy of LSPPA’s translation of Engineer’s book Rights of Women in Islam for inspiration.

The book, she says, had a profound effect on her mother. ‘After all my mother had suffered and endured in her life because she believed it was her religious duty to do so, she was astonished to find that Islam – or a way of interpreting Islam – actually advocated the rights of women like herself. It was deeply enlightening for her. She felt she had been sent a blessing from God’. Ultimately, Ciciek says, her mother had no choice but to live with her father’s polygamy. ‘Nevertheless,’ says Ciciek, ‘I was pleased that my mother had realised that the core of religion is justice.’

Reinterpreting Islamic texts

The work of foreign Islamic feminists inspired Ciciek and her activist friends, and became a catalyst for their own explorations of Islamic teachings from the perspective of women. During the 1990s, Ciciek was involved with a program called ‘Fiqh An-Nisa’ (Islamic jurisprudence concerning women) run by P3M (Centre for the Development of Pesantren and Society), a well-known Islamic NGO which focused on modernising pesantren, traditional Islamic boarding schools. She served as program coordinator between 1999 and 2000. The objective of the Fiqh An-Nisa program, Ciciek says, was to develop critical interpretations of religious texts and teachings that related to women’s rights in pesantren circles. ‘We used reproductive health as a starting point for these discussions,’ Ciciek explains, ‘because it was a “softer” topic than, say, feminism’.

In 2000, Ciciek and a number of colleagues split with P3M and established a new NGO, Rahima, a centre for training and information on women’s rights issues. Rahima carries out regular discussions, seminars and workshops about women’s rights and Islam, and publishes the quarterly magazine on Islam and women’s rights issues, Swara Rahima (Voice of Rahima) as well as books of Islamic scholarship. Rahima also works to engage different professions or sections of the community in efforts to raise awareness of issues related to gender and Islam. Recently, for example, Rahima has worked with academies of midwifery to integrate training in Islam and gender issues into their curriculum. This training means that graduates of these midwifery programs are equipped to promote women’s rights in the devout Muslim communities in which they work.

One of Rahima’s innovative methods of promoting gender justice has been through creating and disseminating salawat (prayers sung in praise of the Prophet Mohammed) that advocate women’s rights. ‘This method was really effective,’ Ciciek says, ‘because using a cultural approach meant that resistance was minimal and community acceptance was greater.’ Rahima’s salawat have been used in pesantren, religious study groups, high school classes, wedding celebrations, cultural festivals and even an Indonesian Idol-style singing competition.

Combatting violence against women

Ciciek and her colleagues have also succeeded in persuading the pesantren community to help combat violence against women. Ciciek, Lies Marcoes Natsir and a group of like-minded women established Puan Amal Hayati, an association of pesantren that runs refuges for women and children as well as education campaigns about violence against women. ‘To me it made sense for pesantren to provide support for victims of violence,’ says Ciciek, ‘not only because they have facilities at their disposal to house victims, but also because they have authority in their communities to change public attitudes’.

Ciciek’s determination to involve pesantren in helping victims of domestic and sexual violence stems from an incident that occurred when she was working for the women’s NGO, Kalyanamitra in the 1990s. ‘One day a woman came to Kalyanamitra with her five children, seeking our help,’ she recalls. ‘She and her children were fleeing her husband who had subjected them to regular violent abuse. At that time, we did not have our own crisis accommodation, so we had to find a place to house them. We tried Muslim organisations, but none of them were able to help us. In the end, the woman and her children were taken in by nuns at a Catholic convent. The nuns took care of the woman and her children very well, and they were very grateful for the help. However, as Muslims, they felt uncomfortable in the convent and were deeply hurt that no Muslims had been prepared to take them in.’

   Children from Ledokombo celebrating Indonesia’s independence day with local games, including stilt- walking
   Farha Ciciek

After that, Ciciek lobbied pesantren circles to get involved in advocacy for victims of violence. ‘Pesantren are the moral centre of Muslim communities and should be able to provide a helping hand to Muslims who need it,’ she says. ‘It particularly concerned me to hear Christian groups which provided support for victims irrespective of their religion being accused of having a hidden agenda of ‘Christianisation’. This suspicion of other faiths and lack of compassion for victims was such a contrast to the love and solidarity shown by those Catholic nuns who had reached out across religious boundaries to help the woman with her five children. “What’s wrong with you?” I would say to the pesantren community. “You are always going on about Christianisation but you can’t look after your own people when they have a problem. Do something!” But thank heavens, we have now made a lot of positive progress.’

Fostering the potential of a new generation

These days, Ciciek is highly sought after for her expertise on gender and interfaith issues. She acts as a consultant or advisor for a range of groups and bodies including pesantren communities, student organisations, interfaith groups, women’s organisations, governmental and non-governmental organisations, aid agencies and professional groups. Recently, she has completed research into religious radicalisation in secular government schools. She remains a member of Rahima’s executive board, though she stepped down as director in 2006.

Since 2006 she has been an advisor for the Australian Agency for International Development’s Learning Assistance Program for Islamic Schools (LAPIS). Her involvement with this program, she says, has been very rewarding. ‘As a women’s rights activist, working to improve madrasah (Islamic schools with a modern curriculum, often based in pesantren) has a special meaning for me,’ says Ciciek. ‘In times of political and economic crisis, the number of poor children, and especially girls, being sent to madrasah increases. Through LAPIS, I have an opportunity to ensure these children receive a better quality education, and make a real difference to their future.’

Ciciek’s latest project, and current passion, is her work with young people in the village of Ledokombo in the Jember region of East Java. Ledokombo is her husband Suporahardjo’s home village, and in 2009, Ciciek and her family moved from Jakarta to Ledokombo to look after Suporahardjo’s elderly mother. There Ciciek and Suporahardjo have been working with the local community to develop a youth centre. The centre, called ‘Tanoker’, aims to build the potential of local children and foster cooperation and tolerance.

‘Ledokombo is considered “under-developed”’, says Ciciek. ‘There are a lot of social problems here – children dropping out of school, high unemployment, drugs. Most of these problems are a result of poverty. However, the children of Ledokombo have enormous potential. They are highly motivated to improve themselves, they participate whole-heartedly in activities, and they are prepared to work together and to stand up and be counted.’

Tanoker runs after-school groups in traditional games, cooking, sport, music, dance, painting, and reading and writing. Every month, these groups put on a performance for parents, teachers and community members as well as guests from outside the village. ‘We ask everyone to bring a plate of food,’ says Ciciek, ‘and after the performance, we all eat together.’ In the near future, Tanoker plans to supplement these groups with regular distance learning classes in which children can interact via teleconference with students and teachers in different regions of Indonesia, including Jakarta, Maluku and Papua, as well as in Japan and Australia.

Tanoker also holds special events to celebrate different holidays throughout the year. Last August, Tanoker celebrated Indonesia’s national day by hosting the nation’s first ever stilt festival. The festival’s centrepiece – a stilt walking competition for children – was based on traditional East Javanese games and attracted 152 contestants in bright home-made costumes.

Tanoker, Ciciek says, has big ambitions. ‘Our dream is to build Tanoker and Ledokombo into a place where people from all different communities come together, share and support each other in creating a more just and harmonious, and a better future,’ she says. ‘My husband and I are working hard to make this dream a reality. But, the real driving force behind Tanoker is the village children – they are really extraordinary.’

Joanne McMillan (jo_mcmillan@yahoo.com) is a freelance writer and researcher based in Canberra, Australia. From 2007-2009 she worked as a translator and editor for Fahmina Institute, an Islamic NGO in Cirebon, West Java.

This article is part of the Women and Islam feature edition.

Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011

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