The Indonesian Women’s Ulama Congress under way. Jack Britton

The Indonesian Women’s Ulama Movement

Author: Jack Britton

In May 2017 the seaside city of Cirebon, West Java, hosted a world first: the Kongres Ulama Perempuan Indonesia (Indonesian Women’s Ulama Congress), or KUPI. Over 500 participants attended the proceedings. Dozens of academics and secular women’s rights activists flocked to Cirebon to witness the event, but the vast majority of participants were women ulama.

The term ulama is mentioned throughout the major sources of Islam including the Quran and the hadiths. The term technically refers to scholars in general, but the word ulama has socially evolved to refer to Islamic scholars or leaders who have an advanced understanding of the sources of Islam and provide spiritual guidance to their communities. Throughout the history of Islam, women have played key roles as ulama, leading religious educational institutions, preaching to the community, and acting as figures of social authority. Patriarchal versions of history, though, have largely obscured their efforts.

The three-day event was a historical moment that broke ground in its condemnation of gender-based violence, environmental degradation and religious radicalism. While acknowledging and celebrating the roles that women ulama have played in Indonesia, the congress also included participants from over 15 countries. Speakers included Saudi Arabian and Pakistani women’s rights activists.  

We wanted to strengthen the confidence in the Indonesian movement and build awareness that it is not just us experiencing violence and not just us struggling for change,” Dr Faqihuddin Abdul Qadi, a member of the congress steering committee, explains. “The idea was to build the moral, spiritual and social strength of the movement and build international friendships and networks.”


Religious intolerance and identity politics

Such a platform, upholding a moderate, progressive Islam in Indonesia, could not have come at a better time.

While the congress was ongoing in Cirebon, the outgoing Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, was on trial for religious blasphemy. Ahok’s case had seen Islamic groups, such as the notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the now banned pro-caliphate Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, mobilising their members to participate in a series of massive protests, in which hundreds of thousands of Muslims took to the streets to demand his imprisonment. He was ultimately sentenced to a two-year prison term.

Since then, developments in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world have triggered concerns that progressive Islam in Indonesia is under threat. Suicide bombings, the increasing politicisation of religion, attacks against minority religious groups and a number of high profile blasphemy cases—the latest of which involved the imprisonment of a Buddhist woman who complained that a mosque loudspeaker was too loud—has dominated recent media coverage of the archipelago.

Developments in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world have triggered concerns that progressive Islam in Indonesia is under threat

Despite a previous political alliance with Ahok—which saw the pair become governor and vice-governor of Jakarta in 2012—analysts now say that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is trying to negate criticism from religious conservatives by picking Ma’ruf Amin, one of country’s most influential Muslim figures, as his running mate in the 2019 presidential election. It’s a decision that observers say puts conservative religious organisations such as the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI)—which has issued fatwa against religious and sexual minorities in the country—in proximity to power.

It is in this context that KUPI is trying to demonstrate that the pluralistic, progressive brand of Islam for which Indonesia has historically been known for is still alive and well.


Taking a stand against sexual violence and child marriage

According to Dr Nur Rofiah, a lecturer at the Institute for Quranic Studies Jakarta and a key organiser of the 2017 Congress, it’s important to understand two key terms. The first, perempuan ulama, or women ulama, refers to women who have the knowledge and skills required of an Islamic scholar. The second, ulama perempuan, translated as women’s ulama, refers to ulama—regardless of their gender—who have a developed sense of gender sensitivity, gender perspective and an awareness of the need to pay special attention to the unique conditions of women. The term “women ulama” provides acknowledgement to the female Islamic scholars and leaders who are so rarely recognised in society whilst the second term, “women’s ulama”, recognises and celebrates all ulama—male and female—that utilise a gendered perspective and fight for gender equality through their teaching. It is the latter term on which KUPI, which also counts men within its ranks, focuses.

Since the Cirebon conference, the KUPI has gained global attention, with many countries inviting delegations of Indonesian women ulama to speak about the movement in the hopes that such a model of progressive Islam can be replicated abroad. Representatives of the Women’s Ulama Congress have already visited London and there are now standing invitations to visit Thailand, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Throughout the history of Islam, women have played key roles as ulama, but patriarchal versions of history have largely obscured their efforts

Much of this attention and admiration has been a result of the religious deliberations and the related recommendations produced by the Congress. Religious fundamentalism, sexual violence, child marriage, protection for migrant workers and environmental degradation were among the topics deliberated in the 2017 congress. These issues were consciously selected as representing problems that aren’t unique to Indonesia, but are relevant to the entire global community. The Congress’ religious deliberations referred to the Quran and other sources of Islamic teaching, as well as the Indonesian constitution and international human rights law.

At the close of the Congress women ulama presented the results of their deliberations along with corresponding recommendations for the government, religious institutions and the community. Most notably, the Congress declared that sexual violence—both inside and outside marriage—to be haram (illegal according to Islamic law).

Although the 2004 Elimination of Domestic Violence Law criminalised marital rape in Indonesia, sexual violence is still a major problem, with a persistent conservative view (link in Bahasa Indonesia) being that husbands are sexually entitled to their wives.

“Sexual violence has incredibly harmful effects on women, not just as a result of the immediate trauma and violence of the event but also the through the multiple layers of stigmatisation and suffering that occurs afterwards,” says Dr Rofiah.

Recently, a 15-year-old girl was jailed in Sumatra for having an abortion after being raped by her brother. The girl was ultimately acquitted, but not before this shocking case got the attention of the international press and highlighted the layers of marginalisation and abuse that victims of sexual violence can face in Indonesia.

The Congress also called for a halt to the practice of child marriage, and urged the government to eliminate the practice by raise raising the legal age of marriage for girls from 16 to 18. The Minister of Religious Affairs, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, was in attendance at the closing ceremony and promised that he would champion the recommendations from the congress and use them as a reference in pushing for changes to the marriage law. Since the congress, Lukman has met with the Minister for Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection to discuss options for raising the minimum age for marriage to 18. Lukman has also been vocal about the harmful practice, publicly stating that child marriage does more harm than it does good.

Child marriage is rampant across the archipelago and occurs with such frequency that Indonesia is currently among the ten countries with the highest number of child brides. An article in the 1974 Marriage Law allows girls below the age of 16 to be married with permission from the courts, if leave is sought by the parents. In 2017 the Indonesian National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) recorded 11,819 permissions granted by the court’s which allowed child marriages to take place.

KUPI’s recommendation on the need to halt child marriage has proven to be an important step in mounting a challenge to the practice in Muslim communities. In April 2018, President Jokowi met with a number of women’s rights activists, including representatives of the women’s ulama movement. In this meeting, Jokowi voiced his commitment to speedily passing a Government Regulation in Lieu of Law aimed at preventing child marriage. This regulation is currently being developed.


Challenges ahead

Yuniyanti Chuzaifah, vice-chairperson of Komnas Perempuan, says KUPI plays an important role in fighting violence against women: “In a religious society such as Indonesia, movements such as this can have a real impact in tackling violence against women in the community, especially as violence against women is often justified through masculine interpretations of religion.”

But the challenges are by no means trivial. The movement is fighting for faith-based women’s empowerment across the nation even as it struggles against gender-based discrimination and increasing religious conservatism.

According to Komnas Perempuan, as of 2016, there are 421 discriminatory regulations operating across Indonesia. Many of these regulations operate in the name of religion and in effect limit women’s human rights by enforcing things like gender-specific curfews or the compulsory wearing of the headscarf.

There are also challenges present within the movement. Dr Rofiah explains that “an internal challenge is that there are almost no women who want to be referred to as ulama”. This mindset exists because sexist perceptions that ulama must be men still prevail in some communities in Indonesia. Dr Rofiah says that “what is important for ulama is recognition from the community, not simply labeling oneself as an ulama.”

KUPI - New Naratif
The closing ceremony of the Indonesian Women’s Ulama Congress. Jack Britton

To overcome these challenges, the movement is looking to establish a stronger and more diversified support base, especially within educational institutions. Some of the strategies the movement has employed include building a social media presence, holding events at universities, spreading its recommendations through grassroots networks of preachers and consolidating links within pesantren or Islamic boarding schools.

Indonesian mass religious organisations including Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama—each with millions of members—have voiced their appreciation for KUPI, helping the movement to gain legitimacy. Financial support from donor organisations has also been important in allowing the movement to be able to push for and effect real social change.

After the first congress, KUPI’s network has only continued to grow. The steering committee of the congress have confirmed that, although they are currently focusing on the consolidation of the movement and overseeing the dissemination of the recommendations from the first event, the huge public support for the initiative means that a second congress can be expected.



Jack Britton

Jack Britton is a translator, researcher and writer currently embedded with the Indonesian National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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