Tuesday, November 07, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, November 4, 2006


Alpha Amirrachman
, Contributor, Jakarta

Syafiq Hasyim studied Philosophy and Theology at the Faculty of Ushuluddin of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta in the 1990s.

During that time, he observed that many women's organizations had difficulty in advocating women's rights and in effectively transferring their ideas to the grass roots.

They were often accused of imposing Western values that were not always perceived to be in line with religious and local perceptions.

"In a country where religion, particularly Islam, plays a prominent role, we should speak in the language of Islam," Syafiq told The Jakarta Post.

As a person born to a Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) family 35 years ago and educated at the Matholi'ul Huda pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Jepara, Central Java, for seven years, Syafiq is undoubtedly familiar with Islamic tradition and kitab kuning (classical texts).

NU is the largest Muslim organization in the country, and claims to have 40 million members.

However, his activism with the women's movement during his student days in Jakarta opened his eyes to the ugly reality of the position occupied by women in a country that often suffers from narrowmindedness.

Determined to devote his career to deconstructing the patriarchal mind-set of society, Syafiq joined the Indonesian Society for Pesantren and Community Development (P3M) in 1997 and became a researcher in the division of fiqh al-nisa', whose task is to research women's issues and advocate women's rights.

With his colleagues, Syafiq helped introduce a program of reproductive rights for Islamic women, taught at NU pesantren, supported by The Ford Foundation. It was the first time the country included such an enlightening program in its curriculum.

He recalled that they initially received strong resistance from kyai (religious figures), but they convinced them by arguing that the Islamic principle of regarding women highly should be translated into action.

However, P3M was still loosely affiliated with NU -- some of whom still strictly hold fast to literal interpretations of Islam -- and so Syafiq was plunged into a bitter debate on the issue of polygamy.

The issue reached a point that forced Syafiq to leave the organization in 2000.

He and his colleagues that shared the same aspirations established the Rahima Foundation in the same year, a more independent organization that focuses on the empowerment of women with an Islamic perspective.

It emphasizes the dissemination of information concerning women's rights within Islam to local community Muslim groups and pesantren.

After completing his Masters in Islamic Studies in the Netherlands, Syafiq became involved in a program with Rahima in building awareness of women's rights.

The program, which was supported by The Asia Foundation, was run in Tasikmalaya and Garut in West Java -- places where local governments were enthusiastically introducing sharia-inspired laws amid the euphoria of regional autonomy.

Nevertheless, after preliminary research, it was found that people were not keen on such regulations, and the infamous Darul Islam movement, that had aspired to establish an Islamic state, is now considered mere history.

"There could also have been political and economic motives behind the initiatives," said Syafiq. "Allegedly, among them were the legitimization of polygamy and benefitting politically connected businesses by forcing women to wear Muslim attire."

Rahima collaborated with local community groups such as Nahdina, ASPER and LK-HAM in Tasikmalaya. In Garut, it cooperated with pesantren such as al Musadadiyah and those of NU, Persis and Muhammadiyah. The Women's Crisis Center was also established in Garut.

About 400 women and men together participated in the programs. Rahima introduced them to research carried out in many countries such as in Pakistan where the Hoodod Ordinances brought misery to women.

Also, through radio talk shows, the program reached a wider audience in an effort to discuss freely a wide range of issues from economic rights of women and domestic violence to leadership.

Now, many of the graduates of the two-year program have become prominent local activists whose critical voice cannot be ignored by local governments.

Syafiq also took the initiative to broaden networks at the regional and international level. Later, Rahima became involved in a project known as Rights at Home, which involved several non-government organizations in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and South Africa.

The project tried to explore women's issues from each region.

"The findings were diverse and resourceful," Syafiq said. "For example, domestic violence in the Middle East was largely motivated by religious stands, while in Indonesia it is more complex, with economic and social issues entangled."

Capacity-building for women activists from each region was also achieved through training and workshops in Lebanon and South Africa.

The significance of the role of women during the era of Prophet Muhammad can be seen through their involvement in re-telling the hadits (Prophet's sayings) and in the establishment of early Islamic discourse, said Syafiq, adding that "some of them were also voluntarily involved in a war."

Several women's rights are protected by Islam; among these are the right to choose their marriage partner, to divorce, to inherit and possess property, to raise their children, to spend their own money, and the right to a decent life.

Unfortunately, after the death of the Prophet, the role of women in the public sphere declined and appreciation of women also plummeted, said Syafiq, who has been working for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) as one of its gender advisers for the Agency of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Aceh-Nias from 2005.

Against the backdrop of the implementation of sharia in Aceh, Syafiq was involved in the program of strengthening the role of women ulama, who are underrepresented at almost every layer of society.

He said that he would write a book on his current involvement in Aceh.

As a young and progressive Islamic scholar, Syafiq is indeed a prolific writer.

His books include Menakar Harga Perempuan: Eksplorasi Lanjut atas Islam dan Hak-hak Reproduksi Perempuan (Weighing Women's `Price': Further Exploration of Islam and Women's Reproductive Rights) published by Mizan and The Asia Foundation (1998) and Kekerasan dalam Rumah Tangga (Domestic Violence) published by the Fatayat NU (1999).

Women's Leadership in Islam (editedrby him) was published by The Asia Foundation (1999) and Dari Aqidah ke Revolusi (From Aqidah to Revolution) by Paramadina (2003).

His recent book written in English has been collaboratively published by Solstice, The Asia Foundation and the International Center for Islam and Pluralism, and is titled Understanding Women in Islam: An Indonesian Perspective.

Syafiq said his biggest dream is to spread an Indonesian interpretation of Islam which is moderate, humanistic and progressive throughout the world.

He vows to write more -- not only in Bahasa Indonesia, but also in English.

"Some Islamic scholars from the Middle East might dismiss our version of Islam as they always regard themselves as more authoritative," said Syafiq.

"But we also have the right to interpret Islam in our way, to ensure that Islam brings peace and justice upon us and the universe, and takes a decisive side with marginalized sections of society -- particularly women."

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