Thursday, January 11, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, January 4, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Cirebon, West Java

Husein Muhammad might be a rather slim Muslim cleric, but his boldness and burning determination cannot be overlooked and are clearly on display when he talked about the degrading conditions under which many women still live here.

"The country might have been liberated from colonialism, but its women have not been," Husein told The Jakarta Post in Cirebon, West Java.

"Restrictions on women's activities and aspirations occur because of the unbalanced relations between women and men. Men always regard themselves as superior -- stronger than women with regard to dignity, knowledge and physical condition."

He said that this happens not only because of local tradition and culture, but also mistaken and rigid interpretation of religious texts, which reinforced local tradition and culture to subjugate women.

"The essence and spirit of Islam is justice, so interpretation of Islam should always prioritize this, regardless of the time and place we live in," he argued.

"It is because of this that the interpretation of religious texts is always multidimensional. We should regard the Koran as a lantern in our lives, but rigid interpretation casts aside the timeless spirit of humanity that is deeply enshrined within Islam."

Husein, who has been advocating women's rights for almost 13 years, said that the term "gender" is still alien to many clerics. Some even suspect that the movement and campaign to improve women's condition is an attempt to promote Western values that are perceived to have the potential to distort Islamic values.

He said that many clerics are of the opinion that gender differences, as with sexual differences, are unchangeable.

He explained that their opinion is inseparable from how they comprehend the classical texts, hadis (guidance for understanding religious queries) and fiqh (study of laws pertaining to ritual obligations), "yet many hadis that appear to be discrediting women need to be methodologically revisited."

He cited one hadis from HR al-Turmudzi, which he said had the meaning: "I bequeath to you, so that you do good to women, because they often become the targets of abuse among you, although you are obliged to do good to them."

Many verses in the Koran also carry the spirit of humanity and urge equal treatment between humans.

He said that one of the problems in campaigning for gender awareness is the lack of religious knowledge among many women Indonesian activists.

"In the 1980s, those who raised awareness of gender equality usually blamed religion as the cause of oppression of women, thereby squarely laying the blame at the feet of clerics.

"Regrettably, these activists had an inadequate knowledge of Islam, so their movement provoked a negative reaction from many clerics."

Born May 9, 1953, Husein Muhammad spent his youth studying religion deeply at Pesantren Lirboyo Islamic boarding school in Kediri, and finished in 1973. He later continued his studies at Al-Azhar University in Egypt (1983) and the Institute of Koranic Science (PTIQ) in Jakarta (1980).

His scholarly works include Fiqh Perempuan: Syarh Uqud Al-Luzam (Fiqh on women), Islam agama Ramah Perempuan (Islam is a religion that is friendly to women), Spirit Kualitas Kemanusiaan (The spirit of quality for humanity), Dawrah Fiqh on Women, and Fiqh Anti-Trafficking.

Realizing that his efforts need to be more institutionalized, together with activists Affandi Mokhtar, Marzuki Wahid and Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir, Husein helped establish the Fahmina Institute in November 2000 in Cirebon.

It is a not-for-profit, non-government organization concerned with the study of religion and society and strengthening of the community. It has an ethnically, ideologically and geographically diverse membership.

The vision of the Fahmina Institute is to realize a civil society that is critical in its thinking, open in its attitudes, powerful in its dignity and just in the way it regulates and orders people's lives.

Activities include community organization training, efforts to abolish corruption and abuse of position or power, the improvement of regional policy control regarding women and impoverished communities, advocacy for free and high-quality education, bolstering the capacity of women and combating women-and child-trafficking.

Husein said women-trafficking is a delicate problem in Indonesia. The Indonesian Migrant Workers Consortium (KOPBUMI) reported that about 1.5 million Indonesian migrant workers are victims of human trafficking.

Approximately 700,000 to one million Indonesian migrant workers are exploited as sexual workers and in other degrading jobs. The most serious cases occur mostly in West and East Java, particularly Cirebon and Indramayu.

Husein regretted that many victims are "criminalized" by society, and added that it was the responsibility of society to combat human trafficking. Husein has received an award from the U.S. government for these efforts.

Nonetheless, Husein's noble efforts are not without challenges. Last May, the hard-line Forum Ukhuwah Islamiah (FUI) sealed the office of the Fahmina Institute. The group accused the organization of being a Western puppet that works to a hidden Western hidden agenda to destroy Islam.

The group put up a poster with offensive words on the window of the office.

"They even said that my blood is halal. I don't feel intimidated, but my colleagues are. I'm safe enough due to my authoritative position as a cleric," said Husein, who is also a leader of Pesantren Dar el-Tauhid Arjawinangun in Cirebon.

"I also have to face challenges from other prominent clerics, but thanks to my social status as a cleric they don't dare to confront me directly. They merely persuade people not to follow my teaching."

In spite of this, Husein vowed to continue his struggle.

"More and more women are now benefiting from a quality education, so why not give them a dignified chance to contribute to the development of this country?" he challenged.

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