RISING Women Ulama: Professor Azyumardi Azra CBE KEYNOTES

16 March 2018 | By Zain Luke Ali

RISING Women Ulama: Women Leadership for Peace, Prosperity and Pluralism welcomes Professor Azyumardi Azra CBE, Senior Professor of Islamic History and Culture and Director of the Graduate School at Sharif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, Jakarta, Indonesia.

Distinct from the segregation, domestication and discrimination experienced by women in other Muslim countries where place is rarely given for the emergence of women ulama, Indonesian Muslim women instead have an important position and role in the growth of Muslim community in country. There is no other reason for this except for the fact that Indonesian Islam embraces the Wasatiyah Islam, a middle path Islam, that is inclusive, accommodating and tolerant, providing much more space for freedom and independence of women. Since the beginning of the spread of Islam in Indonesia until today, Indonesian Muslim women have always been present in a wide range of sectors of public life from religion, socio-cultural, education, economy to politics.

The emergence of Indonesian women ulama is related closely to many Islamic educational institutions from surau (prayer house -functioning also as an educational institutions in West Sumatra), pondok or pesantren (traditional Islamic boarding schools in Java and other islands), madrasah (modern Islamic schools primary and secondary), sekolah Islam (Dutch-based Islamic education) until higher education level, consisting of public State Islamic Universities (PTKIN), public ‘general’ if not ‘secular universities (PTUN) and Islamic-based and non Islamic-based private universities (PTS) . Throughout their past history until now, these Islamic educational institutions are inclusive to both their students (called santri), and female students. However, it is worth emphasising, from the wide range of those Indonesian educational institutions it is the pesantren that has proven to play more outstanding role in the formation of cadres and regeneration of Indonesian women ulama.

To understand the position of women in the pesantren system, once again we need to first understand the historical, sociological and cultural context of Indonesian Muslim women in their overall community. Clearly, Indonesian Muslim women are an integral part of the Muslim community, who cannot be separated from the condition and the reality of their broader environment. Without the true knowledge and understanding of the historical, social-cultural, and the reality, this will only result into misperception and distortion which is misleading regarding the position of Indonesian Muslim women in the field of education, particularly in pesantren and other Indonesian Islamic educational institutions.

In my understanding and according to my own research from an historical, sociological and cultural point of view, there is very little evidence of discrimination—let alone repression—or of the segregation of women in Indonesia, simply because they are Muslims. If there is any subordination of women to men, this is primarily due to the social and local indigenous culture, not because this is inherent in the tradition of Indonesian Islamic social and culture since the beginning of the development of Islam in this area. On the contrary, ever since the early days of Islam in Indonesia, Muslim women have been involved in the social, political and religious domain without any restriction and discrimination. A concrete example is the existence of four successive women rulers or Queen (Sultanah) in the Sultanate of Aceh in the 17th century post-Sultan Iskandar Thani’s era.

In those early days, there is also little evidence of discrimination of girls to access education through traditional Islamic educational institutions, like the mosque, Acehnese traditional Islamic institutions (dayah and rangkang), surau, pesantren and others. Thus, it is fair enough to assume that those girls and Muslim women were also involved in those kinds of educational institutions as mentioned above. This is because, family and community in general are aware that girls—like their counterpart boys—needed to be equipped with the knowledge about Islam so that they could fulfill their religious duties well. Nonetheless, at the same time we can also assume that the girls and women were not educated in the same intensity as boys and men. Because, until today I have not found women pursuing further studies in Haramayn (Mecca and Medina) or at any other traditional centres of Islamic knowledge in the Arab world or at any other places so that they can later get involved in the cosmopolitan networks of ‘ulama’ that gained momentum from the 17th century onwards.

The slight weakening of the position of Muslim women socially speaking in many places in Indonesia, in my view, started to happen when the so-called Islamic ‘orthodoxy’ found its momentum, since the 19th However, I have not come across the works of ulama in the 17th and 18th century which put women in an unfavourable position vis-à-vis their male counterpart. Even a prominent ulama of Abd al-Rauf al-Singkili calibre in the 17th century religiously, socially and politically accepted the rule of the Sultanah over Muslim society in the Sultanate of Aceh; while this is rejected in other Muslim societies in the Arab world, South Asia and beyond simply because only men are allowed to lead.

The social consequences of putting women aside in doctrinal terms, however,  could be observed starting the times of Nawawi Al-Bantani in the 19th century primarily through his work Syarh ‘Uqud Al-Lujayn fi Bayan Huquq Al-Zawjayn. This work has become the primary reference among the kiyai (respected title for teachers in pesantren) and in pesantren. As we can see, this orthodoxy crystallisation came from ulama from the Middle East, which indeed positioned women in a subordinate position vis-à-vis men. The same also happened to the dethroning of the Sultanah in Aceh in the 17th century; they were deposed because of the fatwa issued by the ulama from Makkah who stated that it was forbidden for women be the leader or the ruler of the Muslim community.

Despite the tendency of doctrinal orthodoxy which continued trying to place women in a subordinate and marginal role socially, culturally and religiously speaking, yet there has not been concrete evidence that since the emergence of the work of Nawawi Al-Bantani as mentioned before, women were forbidden to learn in Islamic educational institutions, especially in pesantren. Traditional Islamic educational institutions, principally pesantren and surau still tried in many ways to accommodate, children, students or female santri; once again so that at least they had the basic knowledge of Islam to enable them to practice their religious Islamic obligations.

When madrasah and Islamic schools —as a new form of Islamic education in Indonesia —emerged and developed rapidly since the first decade of the 20th century thanks to the efforts of ‘modern’ organisations like the Jami’at Khair, Adabiyah, Muhammadiyah and so forth, girls got the same position as boys. In the next development even, Islamic-based educational institutions which were originally madrasah started to emerge. In this case, the most outstanding one is the Madrasah Diniyyah Li al-Banat (madrasah for female students, founded on 1 November 1923) in Padangpanjang, West Sumatra, by Rahmah El-Yunusiyyah, a modernist Muslim woman activist. This madrasah which later was more known as Diniyah Putri Padangpanjang played a significant role in the education of Indonesian Muslim women as well of those who came from other parts of Southeast Asia, and became later the prototype of madrasah and pesantren especially for female students which were set up in later years.

Despite the emergence of modern madrasah specifically for women, pesantren continued to be instrumental in educational institutions in Java. This can be seen from the biographies of many women ulama and other religious figures, either in the pesantren community or in the movement of Islamic organisations. One example is Nyai Sholihah Wahid Hasyim who studied in a madrasah located in a pesantren Daughters of kiyai got normally their formal education in pesantren, in addition to informal tutoring from other kiyai in the pesantren complex. I think the same applies to other pesantren in other places.

Women empowerment in pursuing education cannot be separated from the awakening of women wing organisations of big mainstream Islamic organisations like the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU, founded in 1926), Muhammadiyah (founded in 1912) and many other smaller organisation across the archipelago. As a rule, these organisations founded their women wing organisations not long after their respective parent organisations. Some of these women wing organisations in addition to providing formal education either in the pesantren, madrasah and other Islamic school environment, also ran religious learning groups, which later became more known as Majelis Taklim Perempuan. With its good progress in the provision of formal, non-formal and informal education, these women wing organisations have a key role in the strengthening of education for girls and women as well as in strengthening women position overall.

Without any doubt, education for girls developed very rapidly since the 1970s when the Islamic educational institutions from primary level up to higher education expanded significantly. In the recent or contemporary development I observe, that education for girls in pesantren can take one of these two forms: first, co-ed, where girls study together with boys, without segregation. In here, both genders compete freely, whereby the tendency shows that generally girls perform better than boys. Secondly, separate education, especially for girls, or strictly speaking female students in a special pesantren for girls. The second option is also good, mainly to avoid concerns about relationships between girls and boys. Yet the latter can be relatively counter-productive for the empowerment and the actual equality between men and women. We cannot fight against discrimination with segregation and exclusivity. Women can really be empowered and equal if they are to be involved in the real world which is not exclusive and not separate from that of men.

The emergence of contemporary women ulama who are active in many educational institutions (public or private), Islamic organisations, and through da’wah (religious propagation either face-to-face or through electronic media) become more observable today. By so doing, they are also playing a greater role in the dynamics of Indonesian Islam, especially in the strengthening of middle path Islam (Wasatiyah Islam).


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