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.
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