Islam and Feminism Are Not at Odds

On a sweltering day in Jakarta, I met Maria Ulfah Ansor. It was late 2002, and I had just arrived in Indonesia to study women’s activism for my dissertation in sociology. Maria Ulfah was then the head of the young women’s division of one of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama, which provides services and charity to millions of Muslims in Indonesia. My reading about Islam and feminism led me to expect that she would consider feminism, women’s rights, and gender equality to be foreign, Western, and un-Islamic. Yet as she sat across from me in her cream silk headscarf and matching modest outfit, she spoke passionately of reproductive rights for women, including access to contraception and the morning after pill.

When Islamic women show up in Western pop culture, they’re often portrayed as oppressed and silent. Over and over, Islam is discussed as if it’s an inherently misogynistic faith—from France banning women from wearing hijabs, to feminist group Femen attempting to “liberate” Muslim women by declaring a “Topless Jihad Day” to the continued and constant scrutiny around how Muslim women dress. Films like the The Stoning of Soraya M reinforce American views of Muslim societies as violent and backwards, while the female characters in the TV show Homeland, while thankfully not voiceless, oscillate between being sinister terrorist accomplices and CIA collaborators.

But if you take time to talk with Muslim women in Indonesia about feminism, you’ll find that Islam and women’s equality are not inherently at odds. Instead, as I write in my recent book Mobilizing Piety: Islam and Feminism in Indonesia, a significant number of activists in Indonesia use Islam as a way to build support for women’s rights.

Indonesia is has the most Muslims of any country in the world—nearly 90 percent of the 250 million Indonesians are Muslim. Indonesia is unusual because of its eclectic heritage: Hindu-Buddhist until the arrival of Islam in the 14th century; colonized by the Netherlands; and governed by a military dictatorship aligned with the US from the late 1960s until 1998. I had spent a year there as a high school exchange student, so when the country began to democratize in the late 1990s, I was eager to study how women’s activism was part of the exhilarating changes. I spent nearly two years there between 2002 and 2008 studying women in four organizations: Solidaritas Perempuan, an NGO which advocates for the rights of women who migrate for domestic work overseas; the small Muslim NGO Rahima, which focuses on education about women’s rights in Islam; Fatayat, which provides a range of services and programs for women; and women in a growing Muslim political party called the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which seeks a stronger role for Islam in the state.  As a sociologist, I volunteered with these four groups, interviewed their leaders and members, and observed their workshops, staff meetings, and demonstrations.

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