Saturday, January 8, 2011

Women of Muhammadiyah

Pieternella van Doorn-Harder

Doorn-Harder, Pieternella van. 2006. Women shaping Islam: Indonesian women reading the Qur'an. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Studying the women’s efforts, one readily concludes that they have had an enormous impact on Indonesian society. During the past two decades, Indonesian allegiances have shifted to a middle ground: Muslim believers are less interested in traditionalist Fiqh-based reasoning and have little patience for extended Javanese rituals, but the somewhat rigid Muhammadiyah patterns are not entirely acceptable either. In this middle ground, some students have become interested in the Islam Baru groups, and others study Sufism, but the majority is simply traying to be more conscientious in practicing their religion, fasting regularly, reading the Qur’an, and learning about Islam. During this process of renewed Islamization, `Aisyiyah preachers were ready, preaching, teaching, and providing Islamic alternatives for the indigenous rites of passage in the life cycles of women and children. At birth, `Aisyiyah midwives knew the correct religious formulas to whisper in the baby’s ears; at death its leaders prepared a woman’s body properly for burial. They performed the rituals in simple, economical ways that saved time and money, precious commodities in Indonesia, now and in the past. The upshot was that women gained understanding of the Islamic rituals and principles without having to delve into the time-consuming practices traditionalists followed….

`Aisyiyah women live their lives at the fault lines of interpretation about what it means to be a “good Muslim woman.” While trying to strengthen a woman’s position, they espouse the view that women complement men. With this primary tenet in mind, its programs make sense. Women working side-by-side with men can bring about the true Islamic nation. But the togetherness has its limits. Women can and do help build hospitals, elementary schools, and universities; but when directors of such programs are chosen, they have to stay in their own quarters with the clinics, preschools, and nursing colleges. They addressed the plight of women via the harmonious family model but had to perform hermeneutic acrobatics to create a spouse who complements her husband, yet is equal in some sense.

This lack of consistency does not go down well with younger feminists, male and female, so we see a storm of criticism over the family program. In their indignation, many of its critics forget the benefits the harmonious family has brought to thousands of women. Paradoxically, the criticism is a sign of `Aisyiyah’s success: it impresses on women the importance of knowing the Islamic sources that define their role and position. Students of the sources took them to a higher level; now they not only read the texts but reread them as well. And while rereading, they demand clear answers to their questions about gender, not unclear reformist talk that dodges the difficult points (pp. 127-9)

Chapter on "Women of Muhammadiyah" pp. 87-130

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