RISING Women Ulama: Kamala Chandrakirana’s FULL SPEECH

16 March 2018 | By Zain Luke Ali

RISING Women Ulama: Women Leadership for Peace, Prosperity and Pluralism welcomes Kamala Chandrakirana – Founder of Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women and of the Musawah global movement for equality and justice.

“My name is Kamala Chandrakirana. I was brought up in a multicultural extended family in which inter-religious marriage and cross-cultural friendship were the norm. It was a time when Indonesia’s multicultural character was a source of confidence and pride rather than distrust and insecurity, the way it is now. My education brought me to three continents: Indonesia, USA and Japan, and I continued on to build my family and work life in the global community.

I grew up with stories of struggle from my father, my aunts and uncles, each of whom had contributed in unique ways to the birth of Indonesia as a sovereign nation. After independence, when the promise of Indonesia was betrayed, I saw how firmly they stood defending the ideals even at the cost of marginalization from power and, in some instances, imprisonment. These are the values instilled in me throughout my life. Eventually, I found my home in the women’s movement which has kept me grounded in local, national and international struggles for peace, justice and human rights for all. It is through this movement that I have been invited into and engaged deeply in activist spaces within progressive Muslim communities in Indonesia and beyond.

Indonesia today is not the same as the Indonesia of my childhood. The intricate weaves that had bound us together across our diverse ethnicities, races and religions have weakened and frayed and may not hold against the relentless onslaught from today’s politics of fear and hate. By now, families are divided, schools are teaching intolerance, neighborhoods are drawing lines of separation from ‘the other’, communities act misguidedly on the basis of stereotypes for problem solving, and, when outbreaks of violence occur, peacemaking is equated with that easier path of segregation as the ultimate solution. Indonesia today also has the highest rate of inequality in Asia, second only to that of China’s.

It is in this moment of deep polarization and gaping inequalities that we, in Indonesia and the progressive Muslim world, appreciate the leadership of our women ulama. They have carved a unique space, through the convening of KUPI in April last year, in which they contributed their collective voice to address the nation’s rising intolerance and persistent injustices. Allow me to repeat Badriyah Fayumi’s point that this contribution is made based on a fundamental claim that the public role of women ulama is an historical inevitability – a role integral to their faith and merely the logical consequence of being scholars of Islam who stand on equal footing with their male counterparts. With this, Indonesia’s women ulama publically asserted their legitimacy as a source of juristic authority within Islam.

Through the national congress, Indonesian women ulama created a unique and unprecedented space for the production of religious opinions (fatwa), one based on deep conversations with women victims of violence and with their advocates in civil society, such as myself. For those of us whose efforts to attain equality and dignity for women have too often been dismissed as inconsistent with our religion, we found new haven among the women ulama who hold the conviction is that religious scripture must be interpreted in dialogue with the lived realities of women. We gained new strength from being accepted as sources of valid knowledge in the development of fatwa for the common good. We attained new optimism in knowing that this space is not a one-time project, but rather, a long-term commitment to regularly convene such a forum for consensus building within Islam in which women’s equality and rights are treated as central to the dignity of humankind. We are encouraged by the promise of achieving a new social contract within Islam towards peace and justice for all. We take pride knowing that this is made possible through the bold leadership by women ulama in democratizing the production of fatwa.

The three fatwas produced during the KUPI congress demonstrated the women ulama’s grounding in the average woman’s lived realities. They reflect the priority issues of the day: sexual violence, child marriage, and social injustice in connection with environmental degradation. While these issues are specific to women’s lives, they occur constantly in the various contexts of daily life across the country, including within the divided families, neighborhoods and communities where intolerance and extremism breed. The women ulama are thereby addressing the deeply gendered dimensions of our nation’s ills today. They have set the stage for overcoming them from within communities of faith, while securing women’s dignity at the core. To me, this looks like faith as critical engagement.

In the intense deliberations for each of the fatwa, the women ulama chose to give recognition of women as persons of faith in Islam as well as citizens of the nation. With this, they have further distinguished themselves by the conscious will to locate Islam within the context of nation, which consequently meant interpreting religious scripture in dialogue with the legal guarantees provided in the national constitution and the lived realities of women on the ground.

As a women’s rights activist who is engaged in national and global settings, I am proud to stand beside Indonesia’s women ulama. Their unique positions in the community – being teachers of Islam in community prayer groups; heads of religious schools, small and large; scholars and lecturers in Islamic universities across the country – make them leaders with distinct potential and impact. As someone who has walked along this journey with them, I am witness to their efforts of awareness raising, knowledge building and community organizing that have been conducted over two decades. I consider it a unique privilege to have been part of this, including in making deep connections with global networks and conversations on women’s rights within Islam, such as those initiated by Musawah, the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. I remain in awe at both the boldness and perseverance of dialogue within our traditional pesantrens on difficult issues. It is exciting to see how whole pesantrens transform themselves, along with the emergence of a new generation of leaders. Indeed, the women ulama, along with their enlightened male counterparts, are part of nothing less than a significant social movement that connects multiple struggles at the local, national and global arenas.

Many have dismissed Indonesia’s Islam as being merely an interesting anomaly within the Islamic world. But, as long as we are not in the business of imposing blueprints across diverse contexts, this is not a particularly useful way of thinking about the Indonesian experience. Through KUPI, Indonesia has shown what is possible within Islam. While the face of Islam remains diverse and even contradictory, we would do well by keeping vigilance over what is good and working in Muslim communities. The reality of Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world today, is crucial evidence of diversity in the Muslim world. Continual interest from among the progressive Muslims – many but not all of whom are feminist Muslims – in the Indonesian experience is simply part of a long tradition of mutual exchange and learning across the Muslim world. There are no signs of this ending even in this volatile era of ours. As our civilization today continues to seek new sources of ideas and inspiration, we in Indonesia are proud to declare our contribution through the leadership of our women ulama: the democratization of the fatwa for the common good.

On a last note, given the theme of today’s RISING forum, I am reminded that the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security calls for states to support local women’s peace initiatives. I would argue that KUPI is one such initiative. By understanding KUPI’s intent, frame of thinking, methods of work, and diverse engagements, we learn of the unique ways in which women lead in society. We witness, as today in this forum, how women’s leadership is an inclusive one, in which enlightened and open-minded men struggle alongside them.

For those of us who are committed to peace, justice and dignity for all, we must ask the question: how do we support women’s leadership that grows deep within religious communities in distant corners of the globe? What kind of support is effective knowing that these women operate through organic and indigenous social movements, not necessarily through formal organizations? International support that requires local groups to become implementers of rigid projects and defined agendas set out elsewhere would undermine their capacity to adapt in complex environments. What would it take to further enable women such as these – women who have carved out their own unique and context-specific spaces and ways of leadership? In a time of heightened institutional crisis and policy debates on international aid and philanthropy, we would do well in dealing with these practical and yet critical questions.”


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