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

Living Islam

Living Islam
Published: Jan 10, 2011

Clare Harvey

    Lies Marcoes Natsir – gender activist
    M Anshar

Lies Marcoes Natsir is one of Indonesia’s foremost experts in Islam and gender. She has played a pioneering role in the Indonesian gender equality movement by bridging the divide between Muslim and secular feminists and encouraging feminists to work within Islam to promote gender equality. Lies is a passionate and talented trainer and has used these skills to change people’s attitudes to the status of women in Islam. With her strong leadership and commitment Lies has empowered countless Indonesian women and brought gender into mainstream parlance in Indonesia.


Lies (pronounced ‘Lis’) grew up in a small town in rural West Java as the seventh of ten children. Her mother was a member of Aisyiyah, the women’s wing of the modernist Muslim organisation Muhammadiyah. She was a vendor and the backbone of Lies’s family. Lies’s father came from a traditionalist Muslim background but later supported Muhammadiyah and the religious activities of Lies’s mother. Lies says she ‘wasn’t interested in the things that children of a middle class Muhammadiyah family should be interested in such as science and medicine’. She enjoyed scouts, camping and playing by the river. This is not to say she lacked scholarly curiosity. At an early age, in fact, she spent hours in the evenings reading novels by Buya Hamka (the famous Minangkabau religious scholar 1908-81) and social studies books in her father’s library. No other family in her town had a library in their home.


In 1978 Lies left her home town and, following her older sister, entered the IAIN (State Islamic Studies Institute) Syarif Hidayatullah in Jakarta. Lies found university life very stimulating and she threw herself into extra-curricular activities. She was lucky to be there when campuses in Indonesia still had a strong democratic atmosphere, just before the NKK policy (Normalisation of Campus Life) quashed political activity on campuses. Students traditionally came to this university to study Islam, but when Lies began her degree students and lecturers were also beginning to investigate social sciences as a way of understanding the world. A key proponent of this change was Lies’s theology lecturer, Professor Harun Nasution, who had a great influence on Lies. She says he taught her ‘how to think freely and [to see] that Islam could be understood from many different perspectives’.

Also driving the change was the now famous social research institute LP3ES (Institute for Economic and Social Research, Education and Information). As well as being involved in LP3ES Lies was also active in the local branch of HMI (Islamic Students Association) which had the now well-known Islamic intellectual and academic, Azyumardi Azra, as its head. Through HMI a cohort of young students, including Lies, was encouraged to read beyond their Islamic texts and learn about western social science research if they wanted to improve the situation of their fellow Muslims.

Inspired by this new approach to Islam and to learning, one day Lies was returning to her home town from Jakarta when she noticed a group of girls walking out of a school with their faces covered to their eyes. They were wearing the chador and attended an Islamic boarding school. Curious about these girls Lies decided to research them and their school. Much to her father’s dismay she began attending the boarding school so she could learn more about their lives. Her father’s disapproval stemmed from his own background as a rationally-minded Muslim and his view that the Islamic mysticism (tasawuf) taught at the school was ‘dangerous and deviant’.

She slept in the cramped boarding house and bathed in the filthy river alongside the girls, beginning an approach to learning she has carried through life

But Lies was determined that she had to, in her words, ‘feel what those girls felt’ if she was going to understand what was going on. Her inquiry caused her to end up with serious infections and fever after she slept in the girls’ cramped boarding house and bathed in a filthy river alongside them. This way of learning is something Lies has carried with her throughout her life. She always seeks to put herself in other people’s shoes in order to understand them, even if she disagrees with what they stand for.

Knowing gender and Islam

Without realising it, Lies had begun her career as an anthropologist. Her formal training in anthropology and gender issues began when she started working with Martin van Bruinessen, a scholar of Indonesia from the Netherlands. In 1982 Lies became Martin’s research assistant and she began following the lives of sex workers in urban communities. She was so interested in how these women lived that she would spend hours at their homes. Lies recalls that at one time she thought she might have to give up the research because, she says, ‘as a 24 year old girl from the Islamic University’ she felt shocked to see men coming in and out of the sex workers’ homes.

After completing this research Lies attended a seminar on the role of women in Indonesia. There she met well known feminist activists of the time, such as Saskia Wieringa, Mies Grijns and Julia Suryakusuma. This was when Lies began to learn about feminist theory. The early 1980s was a time when women’s roles where highly politicised in the extremely patriarchal ideology of Suharto’s New Order regime. That ideology assigned women a subordinate position in society. Despite this awareness about women’s second class status, Lies recalls that the feminists were unable to fully explain the situation. She says the debates and analysis were chaotic and people described women’s issues with the misleading term ‘genderism’.

Not satisfied with this explanation, Lies began her own field work using direct observation to help her understand Indonesian society and the place of women within it. She chose to study blacksmiths who were receiving development assistance. While observing them she noticed things that the male researchers overlooked. She saw women ‘in the back’, making small metal tools, like fruit knives. But it was the men in the formal industry who were ‘studied’ and ‘seen’, and who therefore benefited from development assistance. From this, Lies began to draw conclusions about the biased nature of development.

‘Training the trainers’

Lies’s first hand observations of the lives of women, such as the boarding school students, sex workers and metal workers she had lived with, gave her a new understanding of the way gender bias permeated all aspects of society. In 1986 she began a life’s work of training activists, intellectuals, police, religious leaders and government officials in gender sensitivity. She initially collaborated with Kalyanamitra, one of the first feminist NGOs in Indonesia, to train all their local partners in gender awareness skills.

With an energised and inspiring style of imparting knowledge and skills, Lies has trained many people to include a gender perspective in their workplaces and daily lives. She uses the classic approach of working from what people already know to move to what they do not yet know, through discussions and role play. They learn from their own experience and from each other rather than from direct ‘teaching’. She shows respect for those she is working with even if their views are initially very different from her own. Through her gentle approach, participants come to see different perspectives and positions which can result in an acknowledgement that change is necessary and is in line with Qur’anic teachings.

Because of the success of her workshops, Lies is constantly called upon to be a gender adviser to many non-government organisations and international aid agencies.

Linking Islam and gender

Around the time Lies first began these gender training workshops, increasing numbers of Indonesian women began wearing headscarves. This trend caused a split between Indonesian secular feminists and Muslim feminists. A number of Muslim feminists had begun covering their hair. In response, the secular feminists adopted the position of western feminist theory that the head scarf was oppressive and women should take it off as a sign of their independence. Lies could see the positions of both groups but with her strong Islamic background she knew that it was not possible to totally reject the scarf. The issue had to be understood in the dual context of Islam and of Indonesia.

To strengthen her theoretical understanding of the challenge, with her friend Wardah Hafidz, Lies invited feminists and Islamic scholars from other countries to come to Indonesia and discuss feminism in Islam. These scholars – Amina Wadud, Riffat Hassan and Asghar Ali Engineer – offered a feminist methodology to interpret Islamic scripture. Finding this approach was like an oasis for Lies and gave her a way to respond to the cynicism of the secular feminists as well as develop strong arguments for women’s rights within Islamic circles.

Drawing on new ways to interpret the Qur’an and hadith (the traditions of the Prophet), Lies began to confidently negotiate a coming together of Islamic and secular feminists. She brought the secular feminists to the women’s wings of Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah and convinced them that if you want to talk about women’s issues you have to talk about religion. Lies persuaded the secular feminists that many of the universal principles encapsulated in Islam could be the basis for promoting women’s rights. Moreover, as Lies pointed out to them, all women activists had a common cause. The New Order regime’s policies which subordinated and discriminated against women could more effectively be countered if they worked together.

Lies had long been convinced that the biggest problems for Indonesian women concerned health and education. Issues of reproductive health, from contraception to maternal mortality, needed urgent attention. With support from Rosalia Sciortino at the Ford Foundation, Lies began working with a pesantren-based NGO called P3M (Centre for the Development of Pesantren and Society). Extending her activities into the health sphere, to give an Islamic nuance to the way women’s health issues were tackled, Around 1995, Lies began providing training in gender theory to respected Islamic leaders, including Kiai Hussein Muhammad. Kiai Hussein then developed an authoritative gender-sensitive methodology for interpreting the Qur’an. Kiai Hussein and Lies used the approach when giving training workshops on gender equality and reproductive health issues in Islamic schools and communities. Kiai Hussein is now a champion for women’s rights within Islam and, because of the high regard in which he is held by other religious scholars, he has been very influential in changing the attitudes of many Muslims to the status of women in Islam.

Returning to reform

After completing her master’s degree in Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam Lies came back to Indonesia in August 2000, when the reform era was in full swing. When asked if she thought the situation of women had improved after the fall of the New Order, she recalls that the situation for women had actually become worse, both in terms of health issues and the effects of Islamic fundamentalism.

Concerned with what she observed, Lies sought funding from a large international donor to travel across Indonesia and assess the situation. She noted that decentralisation of government – one of the key aspects of reform – was having a deleterious effect on women. The distribution of medicines was disorganised and inadequate and the maternal mortality rate had risen. From her interviews Lies learnt that the New Order had created an insidious problem which affected women more than men. During the New Order period women’s reproductive behaviour was tightly controlled by the state through strong birth-control measures. At that time some hard-line Muslims interpreted this as a direct form of repression against Islam. After the fall of the New Order some hard-liners reacted by propagating the idea that women could ‘wage jihad through their wombs.’ Men were thus encouraged to have large numbers of children and multiple wives. This was an extreme position which was not accepted by mainstream Indonesian Muslims but some men continue to hold this view.

   Lies facilitating a gender awareness workshop for police officers
   Leopold Sudaryono

Despite these problems, Lies points out that as reform has progressed there have been some gains for women. She says gender equality activists and local governments have now forged closer ties resulting in productive collaboration. NGOs with a concern for women’s rights are now able to lobby governments to change discriminatory policies and make gender-sensitive budget allocations.

Recent projects

In 2001 Lies was invited to work with The Asia Foundation and continues to work there today as a Senior Program Officer on women’s empowerment and Aceh programs. One example of her new initiatives is her work with a group of syariah court judges in Aceh who recognised that legal processes discriminated against women. Because the syariah courts deal primarily with family law matters such as divorce, inheritance and child custody, a gender perspective among judges is crucial if they are to provide equitable justice to Muslim families. Thus, Lies began working with mostly male judges in Aceh to design workshops with the aim of providing all syariah court judges in Aceh with a gender perspective.

In addition to the workshops Lies collaborated with judges on a groundbreaking resource book that sets out parameters for gender sensitive process in syariah courts. Judges are now using the book as a reference to ensure that trials are underpinned by gender sensitivity. The main reason why this program is so successful – in an area known for Islamic conservatism – is the strategy Lies has developed. She encourages men to be the champions of gender equality and to express women’s rights in Islamic terms.

An ongoing legacy

Lies has been a motivating force behind the establishment of many organisations that champion gender equality. For example, with a group of like-minded people she established Rahima, an NGO that promotes women’s empowerment through programs on Islam and women’s rights in Islamic and mainstream schools. She also recognised the potential of a small study group in West Java and then helped it to become an NGO called Fahmina Institute. Fahmina now tackles trafficking of women and girls and trains local community policing groups in gender awareness. Lies was also one of the activists involved in establishing the pesantren-based NGO, Puan Amal Hayati, which works to promote gender equality, preventing violence against women and providing services to women who have experienced violence.

While Lies acknowledges that gains have been made for women at the local level in recent years, she is worried about a trend towards conservatism at the macro political level. This is threatening pluralism and could all too easily encourage the subordination of women.

In October 2010, Lies attended the Fourth International Conference on Islamic Feminism in Madrid. With Rozana Isa from the Malaysian NGO Sisters in Islam, she spoke about her work for The Asia Foundation, with the male religious court judges in Aceh. Participants at the conference, Lies notes, were impressed to hear that practical programs to empower women in Malaysia and Indonesia were making a mark. The news from other parts of the Muslim world was not as encouraging.

This is just a snippet of the fascinating life and outstanding contribution of Lies Marcoes Natsir. Surely there is a whole book in her life story, but, letting out a big belly laugh, Lies exclaims that she’s not sure she would ever have the time to write it. She is totally engaged with her current commitments: tackling problems of violence against women in Aceh, encouraging gender mainstreaming across a range of development programs, and nurturing the establishment of new organisations and study groups. And she does all this with the sight of only one eye. As the result of medical malpractice she is now blind in the other.

Clare Harvey ( is a program officer at The Asia Foundation in Jakarta.

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

Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011

Latest Articles

Labouring in vain?

May 03, 2024 - HASNA A. FADHILAH

The Labour Party (Partai Buruh) was revived in the wake of opposition to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, but failure in the 2024 election shows they failed to connect...

Book review: Uncovering Suharto's Cold War


Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.