They number many, but very few have brought forth innovative ideas on gender equality. Such is the irony of Indonesia’s female ulama (Islamic scholar) and leaders of women’s religious boarding schools leaders, amid expectations they become the bastion of equality rights in this country.
It was a proud moment when the first national Congress of Female Ulama was held in Cirebon, West Java, a few months ago. The congress which took place in the Kebon Jambu Al-Islamy Boarding School was attended not only by local female ulama, but also their colleagues from some 30 countries.
The congress came up with three fatwa (ruling): forbidding child marriage, environmental destruction and sexual violence. On marriage, the ulama urged the government to increase the marriageable age for girls–16 according to the marriage law, which tends to put girl-children at a strong disadvantage–to 18 years of age. So far, no follow-up to the congress has been apparent.
Early marriage, gender discrimination and inequality between the sexes are latent issues long faced by Indonesian women, resulting in their being sidelined and marginalized. Not all women have the opportunity for broad self-development, and, sadly, the custodians in religious boarding schools–the kiai (cleric) and ulama–seem unable to overcome these issues.
These religious schools have the power to break down the walls of gender discrimination which trivializes the role of women, the gender which in fact is held in high esteem by the Qur’an. Indonesia has a huge number of Islamic boarding schools–around 27,000 in all, with almost four million students, nearly half of whom are female. If a change of perspective on women could emerge from these schools, the outcome will be groundbreaking, not only benefitting Muslims but the nation’s entire population.
Tempo’s evaluation of several female religious boarding schools headed by women ulama found, among others, that gender equality is not taught systematically, say, by including it as a mandatory part of the curriculum. The focus instead is placed on trivial subjects such as culinary skills, Muslim wear and speechmaking. Gender equality as a topic is discussed sporadically as the opportunity arises, or only so far as the teacher’s creativity allows. This clearly is far from effective. The students will be hard put to gain the critical knowledge necessary for their development.
Initiatives to turn the tide of discriminatory conditions to favor women must come from the country’s large force of female ulama. Not only should they introduce gender equality values in a systematic manner, more importantly, they should show courage in seeking out exegesis of these values from multiple sources–not limiting it to the Qur’an. We hope female ulama will find the courage to seek out religious interpretations that side with women, not only elevating the status of their gender, but also opening up narrow-mindedness, that women in Islam enjoy the same full rights as men.