Women and Religious Radicalism in Indonesia

Muslim women in Indonesia.

Perhaps surprisingly, women's issues have become a top priority on the major political and theological agendas of the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI). MMI is a radical Muslim umbrella group alleged to have links to al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant organization in Southeast Asia that has initiated a series of violent attacks against U.S. targets and allies in Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines since 1999. 

Yet perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a clear distinction within these groups between men's views on the role of women and the way women view themselves.

The MMI takes the position that women are the primary carriers of culture and that their responsibility is to preserve and transmit shared beliefs to future generations. Male leaders in the MMI encourage women to remain at home, away from the public eye. Yet women within the MMI sometimes appear to have more in common with their progressive counterparts in women's rights organizations across the country. And these views appear to be tolerated, despite being quite different from the public rhetoric of these groups.

For example, men in positions of authority in the MMI denounce roles for women outside of the domestic sphere. Muhammad Thalib, the deputy head of the Righteous Decision-Makers group within the MMI, responsible for general policy for the organization, wrote that professional women create social disorder. In his view, women working outside the home contribute to unemployment among men because they are forced to compete with women in the labor market. Because of this economic deprivation, posits Thalib, men feel emasculated, which then leads to a host of social crimes against women.

Yet interestingly, within the MMI organizational structure, there is a special division for women called An Nisa. Within An Nisa, women view their roles in society quite differently from the organization's male leadership. Women involved with MMI negotiate a delicate balance between their status, their responsibilities within their families, and their place in society, resisting the traditional male notions of women's roles in public life and discourse.

Because of this, women's efforts to rethink and reshape theological and cultural orientations are extremely important, particularly those concerning classical religious teachings about the relationship between men and women.

According to some of the women involved in An Nisa who publish articles on their website, Islamic principles recognize male and female "equality." One of An Nisa's members argues that as God's co-representatives, women must work hand in hand with men, and that building a Muslim society requires equal participation.

An Nisa members also formalized an agreement for MMI female members that runs counter to Thalib's statements regarding women, suggesting that women have the same role to play as men in the political arena and are compelled to be active in political parties. Accordingly, they feel it is a religious obligation for women to be socially and politically engaged.

The women of An Nisa are relatively empowered in the sense that they accept the concept of male leadership and their role within the domestic arena, but at the same time, they define themselves as God's representatives. They feel obligated to be involved in public life and to work alongside men to build a better society.

This dissonance between the MMI's male leadership and the women of An Nisa shows that there is an opening for those working to empower women to dialogue with their counterparts in more radical groups over ideas of women's involvement in the betterment of society, women's rights and equal participation in public life.

Inayah Rohmaniyah is a tenured lecturer at the Faculty of Islamic Theology and Philosophy at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She is also a doctoral candidate at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, Yogyakarta. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service: