Gendered Anxieties: Islam, Women's Rights, and Moral Hierarchy in Java1

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This paper examines debates that occur in the course of Muslim women's rights advocacy in Java, Indonesia, to provide critical ethnographic insights into the ways that gender issues and notions of family are implicated in political consciousness about nationhood, religious identity, boundaries, and governance. Javanese Muslim women's rights activists focus on the historical contextualization of religious doctrine to argue against what they see as misguided interpretations of Islam that threaten to control women. This paper examines these efforts through a close reading of the discursive shifts and arguments that take place in the context of programs designed to promote women's rights in Islamic education in Java. It argues that the challenge for women's rights activists and intellectuals is to locate the ways that moderate or normative social and religious values can combine during times of change or crisis to reinforce a moral hierarchy of gender relations and an "idea of woman" in an attempt to control such change. The paper demonstrates that in Java, a moral hierarchy of gender relations, mimetically extended from family to nation, dovetails with religious interpretations to resolve anxieties about social change and security through the control of women.

[Keywords: Islam, gender, Java, morality, Indonesia, religion, globalization.]

During a heated discussion at an Islamic women's rights advocacy workshop held in Eastern Java, Indonesia in 1999, a young male participant summarized the consensus of many in the room saying that even if men's control over and discriminatory attitudes towards women are "a case [of]...widespread misinterpretation [of Muhammad's teachings] it makes Indonesian women all the better."2 The workshop was one of many Islam and women's rights programs held throughout Java during a critical period of political change after the fall of former President Suharto in May 1998. The regime change also took place during the Asian economic crisis. The first year and a half following the President's resignation seemed a liminal period in which anything could happen. It was a period of both optimism and uncertainty. Numerous non-governmental organizations advocating rights and interests that had been sidelined by the former government cropped up, and pre-existing ones flourished with new influxes of funding from international donors. Women's rights advocacy operated in a context that seemed open to the notion of reform (reformasi) not only at the government level, but in terms of its civil society and social life more generally. But the new openness and plurality of expression raised concerns within the country about just what sorts of values, regulations, and interests would take a central position in the post-Suharto years. Such concerns continue to be explored throughout Indonesia today, with the most recent expressions heard in the current controversy surrounding proposed anti-pornography legislation and the adoption of shari'a-inspired legislation, including laws that restrict women's mobility and mandate their dress, in over 22 regencies (Noerdin 2002:180).3 For women's rights advocates, the concern continues to be that, while democratic reform might occur in the government, social values concerning women's roles in conjunction with increasing expressions of Islamic faith threaten to become increasingly restrictive.

Since the 1990s, in the Javanese Muslim communities where I conducted my research, social anxieties and concerns about both their and Indonesia's futures have been complexly related to political regime change, economic crises, and a growing sense of being part of a global economic community. But they are also influenced by tensions between the related ideologies of nation, gender, and recourse to Islam as an alternative paradigm. One place to witness this complexity and the challenges it poses is in women's rights public outreach programs. The debates that occur in the course of Muslim women's rights advocacy in Java provide critical ethnographic insight into the ways that gender issues and notions of family reflect a broad political consciousness about nationhood, religious identitv. …


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