A strong woman: Ibu Ratna Suminar, widowed more than 40 years ago, raised
her three children alone and saved to buy her own house.
In Indonesia, marriage is regarded as the norm for all healthy, mentally sound, Muslim men and women who are of legally marriageable age. There is strong social pressure for women to have a husband, and widows and divorcees are encouraged to re-marry. But it is difficult to achieve equality in relationships between husbands and wives because of social norms favouring male leadership. Some women decide that the risks of re-marriage are too great and they choose to provide for their families themselves.
Ibu Ratna Suminar, now 71 years old, is one example. She explains why she decided to stay single after her husband died when she was still a young woman, in 1968. ‘I did not want to marry another man because I love my children. What if my new husband did not love them? What if my new husband fell in love with my grown up girls? What if my new husband could not make me happy? I chose to be economically independent by opening a canteen in the school where my late husband worked. Because of my hard work, I was able to educate my children, buy this house and go on the pilgrimage. I stopped working in 2000 when I was 61 because my adult children asked me to stop working. They are all married now, so I can rely on my late husband’s pension. All I do is go to religious gatherings three times a week.’
Ibu Ratna has clearly made a great success of her life. But to get to where she is today she had to work very hard in order to make enough money to educate her children and support her family. For years on end, she would leave home every day after her dawn prayer at about 5am to buy food at the market. Then she cooked and opened her canteen between 10am and 3pm. After that, she had to catch up with her own home duties then prepare for the next day at the canteen. Although she says she sometimes did not get enough sleep, she was happy and healthy most of the time.
Many women in Indonesia are sole providers for their families because they have no other option. Life can often be very hard for such women. However, social norms value only the contribution of husbands to the economic well-being of families. Religious and legal frameworks suggest that only men are the heads of households. Failure to recognise alternative realities makes life very difficult for those women who, for a variety of reasons, are the main providers for their families.
Article 31 of the Marriage Law, passed in 1974, states that men are heads of the family and women are housewives. Even though the belief that males are the heads of their families is not unique to Islam, many Muslims believe that the article is based on the Qur’anic verse An-Nisa’ (4): 34. This verse has often been literally interpreted as ‘Men are leaders of women, because Allah has given some of them more (strength) than the other, and because they spend their means to support the family.’ Other verses that are interpreted to support the view that male breadwinners are in a superior position to those they support, or to support the more general proposition that men are superior to women, include Al-Baqarah (2): 228:
Divorced women shall wait concerning themselves for three monthly periods. Nor is it lawful for them to hide what Allah has created in their wombs, if they have faith in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands have the better right to take them back in that period, if they wish for reconciliation. And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree (of advantage) over them. And Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.
As the revealed word of God, the Qur’an is the ultimate life-guide for all devout Muslims. But its injunctions must be understood and interpreted so they can be implemented in daily life. Not all scholars understand verses in the same way. There are differing and sometimes conflicting interpretations. Verses about the relationship between men and women, and husbands and wives, are particularly subject to a range of interpretations. For example, a literal reading of the Qur’anic verse 4: 34 can result in the understanding that men are the leaders of the family because men are superior to women and because men spend their money to support the family.
However, there are other theologically supported interpretations of the verse. For example, Asghar Ali Engineer, an Indian male Muslim feminist, regards this verse as a sociological verse, not a theological one. In his view, the verse is a description or account of gender relations at the time and in the place the Qur’an was revealed. In the seventh century, men were indeed the heads of families in patriarchal Arab society. According to Engineer and like-minded theologians the verse does not prescribe that all men everywhere, and at all times, should be the heads of their families.
These debates are very much alive in Indonesia. Nasaruddin Umar, an Indonesian male Muslim scholar who did research on the use of gender terms in the Qur’an, explains that verse 4: 34 uses the Arabic word rijal (gender term, masculine), rather than dzakar (male). He suggests that not all ‘males’ can become ‘masculine’. This only happens if the male fulfills the two requirements stated in the verse: firstly, he is superior to his spouse, either in terms of his level of education or his income and, secondly, he spends his money to support the family. Thus masculinity is an achieved state, not something that is biologically given. As a result, not all males are automatically ‘masculine’, and females can become ‘masculine’ if they fulfill the two requirements.
The image of the family in many Indonesians’ minds is a very traditional one, in which the husband works outside the home to earn money, enabling the wife to stay at home to care for the children, prepare food and do other domestic chores. When the husband comes home, the house is clean, the food is ready, and children well cared for. The wife cheerfully welcomes her husband and is available and willing to meet all his needs.
The image of the family in many Indonesians’ minds is a very traditional one, in which the husband works outside the home to earn money, enabling the wife to stay at home to care for the children, prepare food and do other domestic chores
This image obscures the fact that not all men are capable of providing for all their family’s needs. In reality many women contribute to the economic well-being of their families. Many are the sole breadwinners, whether they are single, married, or divorced. The stereotype of male-headed households means that such women are not recognised for their role. As a result, they are vulnerable to being exploited and discriminated against in terms of salary levels and employment benefits. For example, family health cover is often denied to women employees as a matter of course.
The following stories show that when women become family breadwinners, their contributions and achievements are often ignored. People often assume that women can only become household heads if they are divorced or widowed. Some of the following women, whose names have all been changed, show the opposite. Many women become responsible for their households even when they remain married, and they often have to do so in the face of very difficult circumstances.
Real lives of real women
A heavy burden: Ibu Feby works in her salon to support herself, her four
children and one grandchild.
Ibu Juli, 35 years old, works as a domestic servant in my neighbour’s house in Bandung. She looks very thin, unhappy and tired. Juli tells me that she does not know where her husband is. He went to Jakarta five years ago to look for work and never returned. About a year ago, she looked for him in Jakarta but could not find him. His relatives say that he now has another wife. Juli has given up the search because she does not have any more money for the transport to and from Jakarta. She is struggling to survive by working daily between 7am and 2pm in my neighbour’s house to support herself and her teenage son. Her monthly salary is below Rp. 500. 000 per month (about A$50) but she is fortunate that her employer pays her son’s school expenses.
Ibu Ana has also faced many hardships. When she came to my house offering to do domestic work, Ibu Ana said that she had not eaten for four days. After a few days, she began to talk to me about herself. She is 48 years old. She said she has three male adult children who have married and live in their in-laws’ homes, but none of them has a job. Ana and her husband live with their youngest child, a 17 year old girl, in the house that was bought by her parents-in-law. She told me that her husband has not given her any money for four years. ‘Does he work?’ I asked. ‘Yes, he works as a construction worker. Sometimes he works on other people’s farms and sells vegetables’, she answered. ‘What does he do with his money if he does not give you maintenance?’ ‘He gives it to another woman, who is actually married. They are having an affair. My husband wants me to leave our home, he wants to sell it. Where would I live if he sells it?’ ‘Who washes his clothes?’ I asked. ‘I do’, she replied, ‘He will ask me to leave the house if I do not do it’. Ibu Ana pays the gas and electricity bills in their home, without any contribution from her husband.
Heading the household
Ibu Lisa, aged 37, works in a factory. She usually gets up at 4am, while her husband is still sleeping, so that she can wash the clothes, clean the house and prepare breakfast before going to work. At 6am she is ready to go to work, which starts at 7am. She returns home at 4pm. Even though she is exhausted, she goes directly to the kitchen to wash the breakfast dishes. She also cooks dinner. After dinner, she usually wants to sleep to recover from her hard day and prepare for the next one. But her husband, who is jobless and usually spends most of his day watching TV, typically wants to have sex with her. She sometimes refuses saying that she is exhausted and needs to sleep. When this happens he becomes angry and they quarrel before going to bed.
Lisa is hurt when she finds out that her husband has married another woman, a fruit seller near her house. Her husband told her that he married the other woman because Lisa often refuses to have sex with him. Instead of helping Lisa to do the housework so she could have more energy and time, he looked for an easier solution: a second wife. With two wives who earn money, he can watch TV all day and enjoy frequent sex.
Ibu Feby, now 49 years old, divorced her first husband after having a daughter because she could not endure his violence. Several years later, she re-married and with her second husband had three children (now 17, 15 and 11 years old). About ten years ago her second husband died of cancer. Now she prefers to stay single rather than have another husband. Even though Ibu Feby can rely on her husband’s pension, she still has to rent a house to live in and in which to run her small salon. She is struggling to survive and educate her three children. Sometimes she is forced to borrow money from her friends to pay her children’s school expenses. An added complication is that her eldest daughter was abandoned by her husband during her early months of pregnancy and has come home to live with her. Now Ibu Feby has to work even harder to support them all.
The stories of these women are not unusual. There are women in Indonesia who are household heads, either de facto (they have a husband who cannot or will not support his family) or de jure (they do not have a husband to support them). However, these women are often forgotten, hidden behind the myth that only men can be heads of households. As a result, these women are overburdened with their public and private responsibilities, without having their rights recognised as financial supporters and leaders of the family.
Widely accepted interpretations of Qur’anic verses, especially verses 4: 34 and 2: 228, place men in a superior position to women, disregarding the reality of just who it is in a marriage who is actually superior in terms of education and income and who does the work to support the family. It is time for Indonesian Muslims to be aware of the alternative interpretations of these verses. Promoting the alternatives among Indonesian Muslims might gradually alter societal attitudes about men’s and women’s roles, from a view that sees only a rigid division to one that accommodates greater flexibility based on abilities and circumstances.
It would also offer greater protection to women if the Indonesian government reformed the Marriage Law by redefining heads of household. Household heads should not be defined on the basis of sex, but in terms of the achievements and contributions of wives as well as husbands. Such a step would mean women who are heads of their households would be acknowledged by the state and less vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation.
Nina Nurmila (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches Gender and Religion at the Postgraduate Program of the State Islamic University (UIN) in Bandung.
This article is part of the Women and Islam feature edition.