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Constructing the ideal Muslim woman through Islamic self-help books on marriage

The Conversation - April 6, 2022

Evi Eliyanah and Nurenzia Yannuar – Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. Almost 90% of its population, around 236.5 million people, are Muslim. Women make up almost half of it.

With the increasing popularity of Islamic pop literature and authorities on Islamic teachings in the country becoming fragmented, young Muslims have looked to Islamic-themed self-help books for guidance on Islamic lifestyle and values.

Our research, which is still under review, has found Muslim self-help books on marriage tend to promote women's roles as submissive wives and devoted mothers, but at the same time economically productive individuals.

These gender roles are promoted using Islamic narratives of rewards (heaven and God blessings) and punishment (sin and God disapproval).

This finding indicates the struggle among Indonesians to define the ideal woman in the post-authoritarian Indonesia. Previously, the authoritarian government under Suharto established the concept of ideal woman as devoted mothers and submissive wives, which later has been challenged by feminists in various fronts.

Now, the intensifying Islamisation in the country has made this struggle more complex. Various groups have used different interpretations of Islamic texts to justify their respective conception of what an ideal woman is.

Self-help books

These books are part of the growing hijrah movement among Indonesian Muslim youth. The movement, popular among Muslim youths in the post-authoritarian Indonesia, inspires self-transformation to lead what they believe is an Islamic lifestyle.

Some of the writers are notable figures in the movement, such as Felix Siauw, La Ode Munafar and Abdul Somad.

Our research selected a number of self-help books and discovered how they guide young Muslims to build a blessed marriage until jannah, or the afterlife. This was partly by performing the aforementioned prescribed gender roles as obedient companion of their husbands and devoted mothers, while being economically productive.

They include Felix Siauw's Udah Putusin Aja (Just Break Up!), La Ode Munafar's Indonesia Tanpa Pacaran (Indonesia Without Dating), Cinta Onde-Onde (Sweet Love), Hati-hati Muslihat Lelaki (Men's Deception), Calon Umi Shalehah (Aspiring to Become Pious Mothers) (co-written with his wife D.S. Apriani), Berani Nikah Takut Pacaran (Dare To Marry Fear Dating), Abdul Somad's Ustadz Abdul Somad tentang Wanita (Ustadz Abdul Somad on Women), and Ahya Alfi Shobari's Menjadi Istri & Suami Dambaan Surga (Becoming Wives & Husbands Heaven Desires).

We find these self-help books attempt to empower young Muslim women within Islamic values. They believe that by following Islamic values, God will reward them with the love of a husband, a happy family, and ultimately, be granted the key to heaven.

Women's public roles and contribution to the family's income are appreciated, but they do not afford them equal power relations with their husbands.

In doing so, the books show their young Muslim readers that becoming a good mother is about safeguarding piety and negotiating with pressures for women empowerment and gender equality.

The ideal Muslim woman

These books highlight several values reflecting a good Muslim woman. The most highly emphasised role for Muslim women is associated with their reproduction.

The books suggest that being a reproductive and caring wife is women's main responsibility. These pious women are those who will bring faithful children into the world. (Ustadz Abdul Somad tentang Wanita, p16)

Another book also mentions:

Taking care of the house and doing house chores are women's responsibilities. (Menjadi Istri & Suami Dambaan Surga, p106)

Since women are also responsible for the education of their children, mothers should be educated and knowledgeable (The Perfect Istri Salehah, p25).

While welcoming men's participation in domesticity and caring, the books clarify this is not men's obligation; their main responsibility is to provide for the family and to offer guidance for their wives and children.

Occasionally, husbands must spare some time to help their wives in performing their wifely and motherly duties of taking care of the house and caring for their children. (The Perfect Istri Salehah, p15)

Since there is no obligation for men to be involved with the domestic chores, husbands who are willing to do so should be cheered on and celebrated.

Second, a woman should know how to dress herself perfectly to make her husband happy.

Being home after a long day at work, a husband is entitled to a relaxed environment and should not worry about household chores.

A shalihah wife is a woman who takes care of herself so that she always looks attractive in front of her spouse. (Menjadi Istri & Suami Dambaan Surga, p103)

Next, a good wife should be obedient to her husband. Being dutiful to her husband is in line with following God's order:

A wife is expected to obey her husband in a demanding ma'ruf. (Berani Nikah Takut Pacaran, p162)

The same idea is also mentioned in another book:

It was your responsibility at the time to obey your husband in line with God's instructions. (Menjemput Jodoh Impian, p121)

Despite maintaining a submissive role to their husbands, women are still allowed to work and have public roles.

However, they must choose a career that will not disrupt their main role as mothers at home and one that will not undermine the role of their husbands as the main breadwinner in the family. They must also ask for permission from their husbands first:

A wife can work with her husband's consent, otherwise she must resign from her workplace. (The Perfect Istri Salehah, p15)

From these messages, we conclude these books inspire readers to abandon what they perceive as liberal, gender roles not in line with Islamic values and adopt what they consider more Islamic ones.

Islamising the roles of Indonesian women

This construction of the ideal women promoted in these self-help books can be described as an Islamised version of neo-ibuism.

Indonesian feminist Julia Suryakusuma introduced the term state ibuism to describe the ideal woman prescribed by Indonesia's authoritarian Soeharto regime: faithful companions to their husbands, pro-creators of the nation, mothers and educators of their children, home keepers, and useful members of Indonesian society.

Many have challenged such limitations in line with the growing movements for women empowerment. Muslim feminist women, for instance, have been critical on the subordination of women and their gender roles in Indonesia.

Yet at the same time, there are interest groups that attempt to reinstate state ibuism or slightly modify it to make it sound novel and relevant with the contemporary development in women empowerment movement.

Neo-ibuism, refers to a new generation of ibu or mothers who maintain the state ibuism features, while accepting women can be economically productive and politically engaged.

The Islamic self-help books on marriage clearly promote the Islamised version of neo-ibuism. They partly attempt to undermine the work of Muslim feminists, who advocate that gender equality is not contradictory to Islamic values.

[Evi Eliyanah is a lecturer at the Universitas Negeri Malang. Nurenzia Yannuar is a dosen at the Universitas Negeri Malang.]

Source: https://theconversation.com/constructing-the-ideal-muslim-woman-through-islamic-self-help-books-on-marriage-17433