Friday, March 23, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, March 23, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

Does wearing a veil reflect the degree of piousness of Muslim women? Muslim scholar and women's activist Siti Musdah Mulia's experience may help answer this question.

During a flight from Medina to Cairo to do research for her doctoral dissertation at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University, Musdah and all women on board were fully veiled.

"When the plane made a transit stop in Jedah, some women began to relax their attire. To my surprise some men began to sip wine. And even more surprisingly, when the plane landed in Cairo, all of the women entirely put away their veils and were dressed up in complete Western attire," recalled Musdah during a recent interview with The Jakarta Post.

When Musdah asked some of the women why they changed their clothes, one of them said: "Oh, that's only our traditional dress. Here (in Egypt) wearing a veil is not a tradition."

It was a first-hand experience for Musdah, who had grown up in a religiously strict environment, that the Hanafi mazhab (school of thought) is more relaxed than the Syafi'i.

This means Islam is not a religion which holds a monolithic interpretation, Musdah said.

When asked why she herself wears a Malay-styled veil, Musdah said: "I wear this simply because I feel comfortable, not because I feel I am religiously forced to wear this ... and certainly not because of the sharia-inspired bylaws."

She was refering to several bylaws of the country that oblige women to wear the veil.

"I am worried that even our five-time-a-day prayers will soon be regulated by laws .... As a result our religious ritual will no longer come from our heart, but from fear of being prosecuted," she warned.

Musdah quoted woman Muslim Sufi Rabiatul Adawiyah in saying that "she would prefer to have heaven put away from her if she prays merely for heaven".

Born March 3, 1958, in Bone, South Sulawesi, Musdah moved to Surabaya with her parents and went to elementary school there. But her grandfather asked her parents to take her back to Sulawesi, fearing that further secular education would alienate her from religious knowledge, "which my grandfather believed was important for a young girl like me."

So Musdah studied in a traditional Salafiah As'adiyah Islamic boarding school in Wajo, South Sulawesi, until completing Aliyah (Islamic high school).

Still living with her grandfather, Musdah continued studying Arabic literature at IAIN Alaudin Makassar, completing her degree in 1982.

"My grandfather was even highly distrustful when my male colleagues visited our house to return my textbooks," recalled Musdah.

But Musdah said that it was her marriage to tolerant and broad-minded husband Ahmad Thib Raya that eventually set her free, because "he came from a religious but enlightened family".

She believes that marriage is a serious social contract between men and women, which should adhere to the principles of endless love and being polite or civilized to each other.

"That is why it is beyond my comprehension why many religious leaders commit polygamy and have no respect toward equality between men and women," said Musdah.

She said that she wanted to spread the freedom and respect she enjoys to other women, "so I want to transfer my belief into a system."

As a senior researcher at the Religious Affairs Ministry and an adviser to the minister, she began her "war" against what she perceives as the gender-biased Islamic Law, which was put into effect through presidential instruction in 1991 and has become a "holy" reference for judges in religious courts.

"Women are exploited as mere sexual objects," she said of the law.

So Musdah and her team designed a document called a counter legal draft, meticulously written to challenge and replace the Islamic Law, in 2004.

The draft includes a provision forbidding polygamy, while inter-faith marriage is allowed and children are free to choose their own religion.

It immediately drew a barrage of criticism from conservative segments of Muslim society. The Indonesian Ulema Council condemned the draft as a bid'ah (diversion) and taghyir (change) of original Islamic law and a gross manipulation of Koranic verses.

After massive pressure, then religious affairs minister Said Agiel Al Munawar forbade Musdah and her team to conduct seminars and workshops using the ministry's official name, and instructed them to return all pertinent documents to the ministry.

The next religious affairs minister, Maftuh Basyuni, canceled the draft in 2005.

"But no one can stop the spread of ideas," Musdah said, pointing out that several doctoral dissertations have been written based on the draft she and her team wrote.

Musdah, the first woman to receive a research professorship from Indonesian Institute of Sciences and the first to do her dissertation on Islamic political thought, said the Koran should be critically read and interpreted using a historical perspective.

"For example, the an-Nisa verses of the Koran, which talk about men's leadership, should be read contextually that at that time men were more qualified than women because in the jahiliah period the latter were not exposed to education."

"However, today we find many women who are more educated and qualified than men," said Musdah.

"And we should not condemn Muslims who convert to a different religion. I myself have a positive thought that those who convert from one religion to another are still in the process of searching."

Musdah further said that Koranic verses are classified into two categories: qath'iy al-dalalah and zhanny al-dalalah. The first indicates the absolutism of the verses, and the second shows that the verses can be multi-interpretable.

"I regard the physically written form of all Koranic verses as qath'iy al-dalalah, while the generating meaning all of them is at the same time zhanny al-dalalah," said Musdah, adding that Prophet Muhammad urged his followers to use ijtihad (independent reasoning) in grasping the deeper messages of the Koran.

Musdah has written numerous scholarly works, including Potret Perempuan dalam Lektur Islam (Portrait of Women in Islamic Lectures) (1999), Islam Menggugat Poligami (Islam Challenging Polygamy) (2004) and Muslimah Reformis, Perempuan Pembaharu Keagamaan (Muslimah Reformist, Women as Religious Reformers) (2005).

Musdah received the Kelirumologi Award from the Kelirumologi Study Center Institute in 2005 for her efforts in promoting gender equality.

She said that gender inequality can be found in three aspects of the country's law: content of law, culture of law and structure of law.

"Patriarchal culture is still strong, reinforced by unbending religious interpretation. And at the structural level, insensitivities still can be found among law enforcers and judges," said Musdah.

Very recently she was given an International Women of Courage award from U.S. foreign minister Condoleezza Rice. The award was presented in conjunction with International Women's Day on March 8.

"I was at first reluctant to go to the U.S. to receive the award as this would strengthen the wrong perception among fundamentalists that I am a Zionist agent working to destroy Islam," she said, adding that she was finally assured by her colleagues that this award was constructive to her struggle.

However, praise from the world's super-power has not dampened her critical thinking. When Rice asked Musdah what the U.S. could do to contribute to her work, she responded: "I would like the U.S. to change its violence-based foreign policy."