Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Contesting the leadership of Muhammadiyah

Published on The Jakarta Post (
Contesting the leadership of Muhammadiyah

The Jakarta Post | Tue, 07/20/2010 4:39 PM | Opinion

Ahmad Najib Burhani and Tuti Alawiyah

The 46th Congress of Muhammadiyah in Yogyakarta wrapped up on July 8. One of several issues hotly discussed or dominantly appeared during the congress was leadership.

Several newspapers covered controversial issues such as the involvement of former State Intelligence Agency (BIN) deputy chief Muchdi Purwopranjono as one of 39 candidates for the executive board members of Muhammadiyah and the disharmony between its chairman, Din Syamsuddin, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Muchdi was not elected as one of 13 executive board members of Muhammadiyah for 2010-2015. And the conflict between Syamsuddin and Yudhoyono did not distract the former from being reelected as the head of the country’s largest Islamic organization.

Other leadership issues which occurred during, and continued since then are the colorless nature of the new leadership and the objection of women in Aisyiyah for not being involved or inserted in the new leadership of Muhammadiyah. Compared to the previous leaderships of Amien Rais, Ahmad Syafii Maarif, and the first term of Syamsuddin, the present leadership is dominated by scholars from Islamic higher education (State Islamic Universities or UIN/IAIN). Only two of 13, namely Bambang Sudibyo, former minister of national education, and Dahlan Rais, brother of Amien Rais, who are not scholars of Islam. No physician, engineer, lawyer, businessman, economist, and Non-Government Organization (NGO) activist in the leadership.

The absence of women on the executive board of Muhammadiyah has been an issue for several decades.

As a recurrent topic in every congress of Muhammadiyah, this problem has never been completely resolved or settled. In the 1960s and 1970s, women had formally been given the chance to be leader of Muhammadiyah. Under Maarif’s leadership, Muhammadiyah employed affirmative action by giving a special quota for women to be elected in the executive board. Unfortunately, this policy was annulled at the end of his leadership.

This article will focus on the role of women in Muhammadiyah and in its leadership. What is the main burden or difficulty that hinders the inclusion of women on the executive board of Muhammadiyah?

The establishment of Aisyiyah, the sister organization of Muhammadiyah, in 1917 was under a modernist paradigm. Different from fundamentalist paradigms that confine women to domestic and reproduction life, modernist Muslims empower women and allow them to actively participate in social activities.

The role of women in leadership roles in society (as doctors, lawyers or judges) and education (to pursue highest level of education and to play in the system of education) is essential. Modernist people rescue women from exclusion, but their social role is still segregated from men.

Under this paradigm, a question should be raised: what is the membership status of women in Muhammadiyah? Do they have full membership? Culturally, they are perfect members of Muhammadiyah. When this organization claims that the total number of its followers is such and such, women are certainly included in this calculation.

But when there is an issue of employing affirmative action by providing a special quota for women in the leadership of Muhammadiyah, the common rejection of this policy is that women already have their own organization, Aisyiyah, which needs devotion and if they want to run for leadership in Muhammadiyah, they have to follow normal process of election. There is another way to increase the possibility of being elected to the leadership of Muhammadiyah, namely by merging Aisyiyah to Muhammadiyah.

Leadership of Muhammadiyah is constitutionally open to both male and female. However, since the number of female representatives who have the right to vote is very limited, women find it almost impossible to be elected. And since there is segregation of activities between male and female, the chance of women being elected as leaders of Muhammadiyah’s regional branches, thereby becoming representatives in the congress is also limited.

Therefore, although theoretically woman could be elected as the president of Muhammadiyah, culturally there is no such opportunity. This is the reason why some people believe that without affirmative action, woman would never become executive board of Muhammadiyah, or at least they have to wait 100 years.

Affirmative action is deemed to be able to resolve social, cultural and practical hurdles that face women’s involvement in Muhammadiyah leadership. When conditions to gain equal participation cannot be achieved, especially in an organization as old and as large as Muhammadiyah, certain circumstances that promote women’s participation might be the answer.

This action would also speed up social change in regard to women’s equal involvement in this organization. If the cultural and natural process is so difficult to be achieved, as shown in women’s leadership in Muhammadiyah almost in every level, the central executive board of Muhammadiyah can provide a model to embrace women’s groups in its leadership. This action, hopefully, can penetrate the changes to other lower levels of Muhammadiyah.

The next question is why should women become involved in Muhammadiyah leadership? Since the members of Muhammadiyah are both male and female, it is not fair to “culturally” exclude women from participating in decision making and executing programs. This is about equal rights and participation.

Women’s engagement on the executive board of Muhammadiyah might promote a more dynamic leadership and give leverage not only to other women but also to men, young, adult, and older adult by providing different perspectives to solve several important issues from social, economic, educational, to political problems.

With the involvement of woman in Muhammadiyah leadership, unequal participation and the strict division between male and female would be dissolved without necessarily merging Aisyiyah with Muhammadiyah.

Ahmad Najib Burhani and Tuti Alawiyah are PhD students at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Texas, Austin.

— JP
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