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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 14 May 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islamic Feminism Offers an Antidote to Islamic Legalism

By Lailatul Fitriyah

May 12 2016

The horrific tragedy that happened to 14-year-old Yuyun early in April has shocked us all. Predictably, not long after this incident, some politicians and talking heads jumped on the bandwagon to deliver an unwanted “diagnosis” about what has gone wrong with our society.

Fahira Idris, a member of the Regional Representatives Council (DPD), blames the unregulated consumption of alcoholic drinks as the root cause of the rape and murder. This is, of course, a deeply misleading conclusion, considering that firstly, the occurrence of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), especially in Indonesia, is not reducible to one root cause, and secondly, that crimes cannot be whitewashed by attributing them to random external factors.

The occurrence of SGBV and the experiences of the survivors need to be addressed in a way that accounts for its multi-faceted and multi-layered dimensions. While I wholeheartedly support the wave of SGBV advocacy following this tragedy, I must say that simply looking at the issue from a secular-feminist standpoint is not enough.

Secular feminist perspectives might give us an insight into how the patriarchal socio-cultural and political structures have created this misogynistic environment within which female bodies are regarded as men’s property. However, one must also ask what the factors are that strengthen, or even legitimize, the presence of patriarchal socio-cultural and political structures in Indonesia.

One of these factors is the more legalistic, Sharia-based approach to understanding Islam. The fact that Muslims account for approximately 90 percent of the Indonesian population is enough to show how significant the implications of their understanding of Islamic teachings are. The ascent of more literal-legalistic readings of Islamic teachings means that women can be degraded into second-class citizens, or even worse, into merely men’s property.

There are at least three reasons for this. First, the Quran was revealed within the context of 7th century Hijaz and thus some of the verses, when read literally, would only amount to specific instructions for people who lived at that time in that region.

Second, a legalistic approach to understanding Islam reduces the vast and complex Islamic tradition into a simplistic judgment on what is “wrong” and “right” without criticizing the power play behind it.

Third, the mechanistic methods through which some contemporary Indonesian Muslims shape their understanding of Islam only serve the status quo and exclude alternative readings and voices.

Enter Islamic feminism, a body of approaches, theories and activism that aims to reclaim Islamic traditions (theology, jurisprudence, exegesis, etc) and give them back to the voiceless and marginalized groups such as women, the disabled and non-cisgender groups. In Indonesia, this movement is best represented by scholar-activists such as Prof. Musdah Mulia, Kyai Husein Muhammad, Neng Dara Afifah and many others.

Within the realm of Islamic feminism, a legalistic and “Sharia”-based approach to understanding Islam is criticized and questioned. Islamic feminism offers an antidote to Islamic legalism by shifting the focus from debates over “right” and “wrong” toward the daily challenges faced by marginalized groups, including domestic violence, child abuse and LGBTQ ( lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning ) advocacy. In other words, Islamic feminism highlights what Muslims are supposed to do in the face of oppression and injustice, rather than turning Islam into a competition of superficial piety.

What is the role of Islamic feminism in curbing SGBV cases like Yuyun’s? Islamic feminism provides the tools for women and non-cisgendered groups to tackle misogynistic interpretations of Islam. This is important in light of the 2016 Annual Report of the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan), which mentioned “Shar’i” online dating services and religious marriage providers among the sources of SGBV, which reached 16,217 documented cases in 2015.

The promotion of early marriages by some elements in Muslim communities has exacerbated the situation. Instead of being reminded of their capacities and potential, girls are being told that they can only be good Muslims when they submit themselves to the will of their imam (husbands); polygamy becomes a common practice, even valorised through films and soap operas; LGBTQ groups are attacked for their negation of heterosexual orthodoxy; and men are deemed as leaders just because the Quran appears to say they are.

In a world where the promise of heaven for women depends on their submission to men and where heterosexual orthodoxy is deemed sacred, the prevalence of SGBV is to be expected.

What is surprising is not what happened to Yuyun, but the involvement of some Muslim women in taking an antifeminist stance on the promotion of early marriages and polygamy. This needs to change.

We cannot pretend to solve a problem when we are still a part of the problem. We need to start shifting our focus from our love affair with Islamic legalism to a wider perspective to understand Islam embodied in Islamic feminism. This might not bring Yuyun back (nothing ever will), but it will desacralise the place of men in our society; after all, we do not need their permission in order to attain heaven.