“Religion must guard us against committing sins, but more often, sins are committed in the name of religion,” wrote early 20th century Indonesian women’s rights pioneer Raden Ajeng Kartini. In her correspondence with Estella Zeehandelaar, she also expressed her profound opposition to polygamy, a common practice among members of the Javanese nobility of her day, sanctioned by religion. And yet the great Kartini herself in the end had to bow to customs and religion when her father married her off as the fourth wife of the Regent of Rembang.
More ironically still, more than one hundred years after Kartini’s death, even though arranged marriages are mostly extinct, religious doctrine has continued to be used against the advancement of women’s rights in this country. The cases range from being medieval to downright ridiculous.
Hasan Ahmad, 47, a member of the legislative Council of Sampang, Madura, was recently arrested by the police for having had sex with nine underage girls. While acknowledging that his action was in breach of the law, Ahmad maintained that according to Islamic law he had not committed adultery as he had a cleric perform a marital rite — in a car — before engaging in sex with each one of the teenagers.
As Islam only allows four wives, Ahmad also revealed that he almost always divorced them after paying their sexual services. During his interview with the press, he laughingly dismissed his arrest as “due to his naughtiness.”
The fact that a lawmaker showed no contrition after being the perpetrator of sexual trafficking of underage girls simply highlights the challenges faced by Indonesian women’s rights movement. The defiant attitude also exemplifies how many Indonesians deem religious — read divine — laws are somehow higher than state laws, a definite handicap in any nation that endeavors to establish the rule of law.
In the autonomous province Aceh, which has embraced Islamic Shariah as normative law, anachronistic regulations against women seem to be in vogue. Earlier this year, the province’s city Lhokseumawe enacted a ban on female passengers straddling on a motorcycle, mandating sitting sideways as the proper religious way. In an April raid in the city, 35 women were detained for sitting astride on motorcycles.
More recently, a law was proclaimed to outlaw audible farting by women. Mayor Sayyid Yahia explained that it was against Islam that a woman should pass wind in a manner that can be heard by others, as he believed audible farting was a male behavior. Hence, by farting audibly, a woman is guilty of impersonating a man.
These clearly sexist regulations are clear setbacks for women’s rights in Aceh and highly ironic considering the region has had significant history of female leadership in the past.
Aceh has produced Tjoet Nyak Dien, the celebrated 20th century rebel leader against Dutch colonialism and more importantly Admiral Malahayati, the first woman sea admiral in world history. On Sept.11, 1599, under Malahayati, the Aceh navy successfully defeated the Dutch in a sea battle and killed the latter’s leader Cornelis de Houtman. Significantly, this battle saw the full participation of Malahayati’s 2,000 strong regiment of Inong Balee, Aceh’s women soldiers.
Today, in stark contrast, religion is being used in Aceh to discriminate against women. It does not help that Islamic religious texts are interpreted by religious councils comprising exclusively of male clerics.
However, hope remains as more and more intellectual Muslim women are coming forward to voice their opinions on gender equality. Muslim feminist Siti Musdah Mulia, and other prominent women with orthodox Muslim background such as Yenny Wahid, daughter of the late President Abdurrahman Wahid, will undoubtedly help shape the future of the struggle for equality between men and women in Indonesia.
Still, the road ahead is arduous, as evident in the recent difficulties experienced by political parties to fulfill the 30 percent quota of candidacy for parliament in the 2014 legislative elections.
It would seem, more than a century after its publication in 1911, Kartini’s “Out of Darkness Into Light” is still a pertinent reminder of unfinished her work, and indeed our work, towards gender equality in Indonesia. Her frustration with religion in relation to women’s rights is still, regrettably, relevant today. As did their ancestors who adapted Islam to the local values and customs, today’s Muslim feminists of this country must be the ones to shape the blending of their faith with the betterment of rights for all women. Happy Kartini Day!
Johannes Nugroho is a writer and businessman from Surabaya. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org