APSN Banner

Indonesian Muslim women want freedoms to stay

Jakarta Post - October 15, 2001

Achmad Sukarsono, Jakarta – Indonesian policemen often do a double-take when they wheel bloodied corpses in to Oktavinda Safitry at Jakarta's central morgue. They soon give the devout Muslim woman and veiled coroner approving nods.

"First, maybe they think this is not a place for someone like me. But they have no complaints when I tell them "I'm the doctor" and they see me work," said the 26-year-old Safitry as she carefully took a blood sample from a male cadaver's genitals.

Other women across Indonesia hold similarly testing jobs, clearly separating the world's largest Muslim country from Arab nations which still ban women from doing many things. Indonesian women Muslims can usually get educated according to their ability, walk outside at night without a male relative and attain the country's highest office.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri is a Muslim and a mother, although she was largely thwarted from taking power in 1999 by some Islamic leaders who opposed a woman ruling Indonesia. She became president in July.

All women interviewed in recent days criticised the US-led air strikes on Afghanistan, which have entered their second week.

But Muslim businesswoman Siti Mulyati Djasa also said she totally rejected restrictions on women such as those applied by the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan. "I do not agree with such practices. I pity them [Afghan women] because it degrades women beyond comprehension," she said.

Megawati on Sunday abandoned Jakarta's stance that the air strikes on Afghanistan should only be limited and, apparently bowing to local Muslim pressure, expressed veiled but strong condemnation, saying no government had the right to attack another country or seek to cleanse blood with blood.

Envy of the Middle East

There is no blanket obligation in Indonesia for women to cover their entire bodies in public or stay at home. In cities, women are found throughout private firms, while they form the backbone of the labour-intensive manufacturing sector and also till the fields in rural areas.

These freedoms stem partly from economic necessity but also have their roots in the moderate teachings of the Koran and because Islam was not imposed on Indonesia, but melded with local culture during centuries of contact with Arab traders.

However, a mix of Islam and traditions can occasionally roll back freedoms, while some women's activists worry conservative Muslim leaders will use anger at the US air strikes to rally support for imposing some stricter regulations.

Leading womens' rights activist Nursyahbani Katjasungkana told Reuters that Indonesian women had long been the envy of women in other Muslim countries, where lives can be austere. "They think Indonesian women live in heaven," she said. But Katjasungkana and other activists said women here had some way to go on the equality path, adding that the force behind intolerance was not always Islam but traditions of male dominance in a nation made up of more than 250 different ethnic groups. "Religion is only a justification for men to obstruct women's progress. It's not the religion which blocks this, it's the traditional culture," said 21-year-old student Nadiya Ahya Hayati, the first veiled woman to lead the prestigious debating society at the high-profile University of Indonesia.

In the eyes of educated Indonesian women, Islam can get caught up in male chauvinism. "Many Islamic teachings from the Prophet have been manipulated for a male bias," said Nefirsa Viviani, a feminist who wears a traditional Muslim veil and robe.

Others take the many derivations of Islam for granted, or prefer to lead simple and pious lives. Veiled Nana Juariah, 35, sees nothing wrong with staying at home, bearing children and being a cleric's second wife. "There are more women than men. So if we resist the Koran and prevent men from having more than one wife we open the gate for men to have affairs which is sinful," said the mother of three.

Islam allows men to have up to four wives at a time, although the custom is not widespread in Indonesia. One high-profile polygamist is Vice-President Hamzah Haz, who has two wives.

'Emancipation gone too far'

Juariah also criticised feminists whom she thought were irresponsible for encouraging women to leave home often, reflecting not so much strict interpretations of Islam, but what some would see as conservative traditional mores. "Women's emancipation has gone too far. They [some women] prefer to be far from their homes and children and you see a lot of kids getting involved in drugs because of that," she said.

Viviani, who edits Indonesia's only journal promoting Muslim women's rights, blamed poverty, a lack of education and old-fashioned clerics for such views. "There are still many clerics who think the best place for a woman is at home and that they should obey their husbands without reserve," said the managing editor of Jakarta-based Swara Rahima.

Surprisingly, one factor posing a test to the relative freedom enjoyed by Indonesian Muslim women is euphoria over laws that devolve certain powers to the country's far-flung regions. In several areas, male politicians have proposed laws aimed at stamping out prostitution and which also include curbs on women walking around at night. Most regulations have failed to get passed, although some incidents have been reported.

Swara Rahima recently published a story about a veiled girl on a night bus to visit her grandmother in West Java province when a mob of men stopped the vehicle and dragged her out. One of the men said the region had banned women travelling at night without a male relative. Others shaved her head.

Even in the staunchly Muslim province of Aceh, the implementation of Islamic sharia law has only led to some similar isolated cases that were quickly condemned by women's groups.

Back at Jakarta's central morgue, Safitry finishes with the male corpse and makes clear that what counts in her line of work is not religion, but ability – and a strong stomach. "My job is not about being a man or woman. I know a lot of male doctors who faint and throw up when they're here," she said.