June 2016 was a good month for Komnas Perempuan (Komnas), the National Commission on Violence against Women, an independent state agency. One of Indonesia’s top religious leaders, Dr. (HC) KH. Ma’ruf Amin, National Chair of the Majlis Ulama Indonesia (MUI, the Council of Islamic Leaders, the clerical governmental body that provides Islamic guidance), made an unusual reference to Komnas Perempuan praising the organization’s ongoing efforts to eradicate all forms of violence against women. He also announced that MUI would start paying closer attention to violence against women and issue fatwas against it. Not only did this remark cause great excitement among Indonesian advocates for women’s rights, it also reveals a strategy employed by Komnas of cultivating support among male religious authority figures to address detrimental gender norms and practices.
That same month, Komnas Perempuan commissioners were preparing a visit to the presidential palace on June 9th, to discuss the draft for a law on sexual violence against women with two ministers and President Joko Widodo himself. The bill was considered another victory in the struggle for women’s rights.
The month closed with the governmental decision that 3,143 local Shari’ah-minded laws (perda or peraturan daerah) should be abolished. The decision concerned the rules that were considered to be discriminatory and intolerant and thereby out of alignment with Indonesia’s Constitution. For years Komnas Perempuan and other human rights organizations had produced reports and findings arguing that the majority of these rules were especially harmful for women and children. Working both within and across Muslim, Christian, and other traditions, Komnas and women’s empowerment groups have sought to dismantle prejudicial legislation, and, more profoundly, to change mindsets to allow for the advancement of women and children. Komnas Perempuan’s remarkable success this last June should not be surprising: it is the result of decades of careful work, along with its partner organization of Koalisi Perempuan, to develop women’s agency both through and in spite of discursive traditions. These two women’s movement are notable, in part, for their strategic deployment of religious and secular sources of authority to pursue their aims of women’s agency and flourishing.
The Birth-Hour of Two Women’s Movements
In the chaos leading up to the fall of the Suharto regime in May of 1998, organized groups attacked ethnic Chinese businesses, raping and killing ethnic Chinese women in Jakarta and Solo. This blatant disregard for the bodies and lives of women turned out to be a turning point; two influential organizations were launched that advocate women’s rights: Komnas Perempuan and the Koalisi Perempuan.
After significant pressure, on October 9 of that year Presidential decree 181 announced the creation of Komnas Perempuan, an independent state human rights organization that would address all forms of violence against women. Working closely with local, national and international partners, Komnas was tasked with raising awareness about the many forms of violence that impact Indonesian women.
On December 17th, 1998, a second organization advocating the rights of Indonesian women was launched. Founded by 75 women activists from different regions, the Koalisi Perempuan Indonesia (Women’s Coalition, KPI) aimed to insert gender equality and justice into the newly formed democracy. KPI continues to promote women’s roles in democratic reforms by various capacity building activities that, among others, include anti-corruption education.
Key Loci of Collaborations
Both KPI and Komnas maintain memberships that represent the broad spectrum of Indonesian society, with a diverse membership of internally varied religious affiliations, regions, social classes, and ethnic groups. KPI’s executive committee, for example, includes a broad constituency that includes farmers, laborers, lesbians, prostitutes, and other groups whose voices often remain unheard. The intersection of these constituencies within the democratic processes of the organizations are spaces of lived pluralism, with representatives negotiating cultural and religious practices in order to, often laboriously, set the goals of the two organizations. This process is not free of contention: for example, when issues arise concerning LGBTQ populations, some conservative Muslims or Christians prefer not to involve themselves in the conversations.
The groups work at the fault lines of national laws and regulations, local cultural practices, and religious injunctions. Within this disputed field, KPI and Komnas’ goal is to change the frame of reference concerning issues related to women and gender. Since the majority of Indonesia’s inhabitants is Muslim, the Islamic legal system (fiqh) dominates the social and legal discourses for Muslim as well as for non-Muslim women. However, the division between secular and religious discourses is not clear-cut. In certain circumstances or at certain levels of society individuals or groups use the discourse that is most familiar to them or most appropriate to the occasion. For example, when certain ideas are transmitted via Qur’an or Bible study groups, the leaders will necessarily speak from a religious frame of reference. In other contexts, discourses on universal claims to equality are often couched in religious language by Muslim and non-Muslim women while secular language, for example that used in human rights discourses, can be taken as a challenge to revisit the discussions about respective religious traditions. Surprisingly, secular language is at times used to formulate religious arguments, a topic we will touch upon in a future essay.
Many of the groups related to the two organizations consider religious teachings to be a vehicle for women’s empowerment, for example through discussions about gender relations, the role of women in the family, and religious leadership. Religious language is also being used to encourage women’s participation in political platforms as political positions are considered to provide opportunities to advance ideals of justice and equality. Non-religious sources may be used as well: secular human rights discourses are, in fact, central to promoting recognition of LGBTQ dignity. As such, these women’s rights advocates use different founts of authority in specifically contextualized ways, sourcing religious and secular traditions as appropriate to their particular location.
Komnas and KPI seek external collaborators to further their cause as well. They curry the support of male religious leaders using what Khaled abou elFadl calls “persuasive authority”, paving greater social support for their public activities. In this sense, the organizations selectively work within existing social systems of authority to advance their cause (Chapter 2, 2004).
These two human rights organizations reconfirm a woman’s value as citizen and her duty to guard the democratic principles of the nation state, in particular the ideals of pluralism, meaning that it is forbidden to discriminate against citizens based on gender, religion, ethnicity, or social status. In doing so, they create spaces of agency for women as public defenders of pluralism. They do this in a fiercely pluralist fashion, including women, groups, and organizations of all regions, ethnicities, and religions. Yet these women negotiate complex social rules, and some spaces of agency expand faster than others. For example, there is often a deep and paradoxical gap between these women’s public and their private lives. In the public sphere they can be influential politicians while at home submitting to their husband’s decisions.
Through their work directly with victims, their cultivation of varied supporters and arguments among traditional sources of authority in Indonesia, and their advocacy for women on the regional and national stage, these two organizations have pushed society to reimagine women’s rights and to respect women’s dignity. In other words, Komnas Perempuan and KPI seek to bring about a mental revolution that will lead to real change within society; a nation in which women are full partners in sharing power and authority. They have done this not by drawing on one single source of authority, but by building a multi-perspectival normative commitment to the agency and flourishing of Indonesian women.
Photo Credit: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs/Komnas Perempuan. “Komnas Perempuan held a theatrical performance as part in advocating rights of the migrant workers. Many of community member, NGOs, women activists are involved and attend the event. This activity is part of KP exercises to increase KP’s capacity in influencing relevant policy debates affecting women’s rights.”