Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Religion, Politics and Gender in Indonesia: Disputing the Muslim Body

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Religion, Politics and Gender in Indonesia: Disputing the Muslim Body

Article excerpt

Religion, Politics and Gender in Indonesia: Disputing the Muslim Body SONJA VAN WICHELEN New York: Routledge, 2010, xxvi+154p.

Democratization and Islamization are the two most important developments that are shaping and influencing the socio-political landscape of Post-Suharto Indonesia. As the biggest Muslim majority country in the world, Indonesia is considered by many to have undergone a successful transition from authoritarian to democratic governance despite some limitations. A new democratic process has also witnessed the growth of Islam in Indonesia. It is generally understood that contemporary Indonesian Islam in the post-Suharto era has shown a decline in political Islam (as indicated by the weakening of Islamic political parties). However, to borrow a term, "social Islamization" is showing signs of progression (Ota et al. 2010, 5). This is clearly indicated by an increase in the publication of Islamic books, the popularity of veiling, a lively discussion of Muslim women's rights, the emergence of a new generation of Islamic preachers, the growing attention accorded to the Islamic banking system, and the commodification of Islam.

This book was written in the context of the progressively changing democratization and Islamization, in which Islam has gradually moved to the center stage of Indonesian society and shaped its public sphere. Sonja van Wichelen notes how these two important developments, along with globalization (pp. xiii-xv), have enabled vibrant debates on social-cultural issues, Islam, gender, and politics to flourish and subsequently involve various actors with different ideologies. This book originated from a PhD thesis submitted to the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research (ASSR), the Netherlands, and builds on the author's criticism of the current state of scholarship on Islam and democracy, which she believes has mainly dealt with a debate on the compatibility of Islam with liberal democracy. Sonja tries to go beyond the classical debate. By using gender politics as a tool of analysis, she investigates how Muslims are making Islam compatible with democracy and negotiating their religiosity in the public sphere and within the nation-state (p. xiii). Although media analysis is the main research method used, she has also gathered data through fieldwork and interviews with more than 60 Muslims and women's organization activists collected over three periods (2003, 2004, 2005) adding up to a total of 12 months, mostly in Java (p. xxiii).

Media analysis is an important research method in this book. Sonja presents an empirical analysis of public debates on Islam and gender, focusing on four cases in post-Suharto Indonesia (all mass-mediated through print and electronic media). These were the female presidency, the manifestation of new veiling practices, the pro-polygamy campaign, and the contestation over public sexualities. Discourse analysis encompasses three analytical levels, namely, representation, discursive context, and social practices. These are used in this book to understand and analyze the four cases (p. xxiv). Throughout the six chapters, the book develops the argument that "public debates on Islam and gender in contemporary Indonesia only partially concern religion and more often refer to shifting moral conceptions of the masculine and feminine body in its intersections with new class dynamics, national identity and global consumerism" (p. xv).

While the book presents interesting facts on, and assessments of, the public debates on gender and Islam in contemporary Indonesia, it would have been better if the author had also addressed the following points. First, in delineating the context of the study in Chapter 1's democratization "Muslim Politics and Democratization," it would have been more useful if the author had clearly and thoroughly mentioned some fundamental socio-political features earlier on in the book. For example, the book did not adequately address the phenomenon of the growing practice of veiling among Muslim female high school and university student followers of the Tarbiyah (education) movement as an example of the explicit impact of Tarbiyah movement that emerged on university campuses since 1970s (p. …

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