Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Indonesian Muslim women’s movement and the issue of polygamy: the `Aisyiyah interpretation of Qur’an 4:3 and 4:129

Mudzakkir, Rof'ah. 2005. "The Indonesian Muslim women’s movement and the issue of polygamy: the `Aisyiyah interpretation of Qur’an 4:3 and 4:129." In Abdullah Saeed. Approaches to the Qur'an in contemporary Indonesia. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 175-192.
Rof’ah Mudzakir
Lecturer at UIN Sunan Kalijaga Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The interpretation of the Qur’an cannot be separated from its context, in which political, social and economic factors play a role. An exegete living within the values of his or her own time and place is heavily influenced by these factors. In understanding the interpretation of the Qur’an, therefore, one should always consider the context of the text. This study considers the above hypothesis by examining the interpretation of the tow Qur’anic verses relating to polygamy, namely Q. 4:3 and 4:129, offered an Indonesian Muslim women’s organization, the `Aisyiyah, the women’s wing of the Muhammadiyah. One of the largest Muslim organizations in Indonesia, the Muhammadiyah was founded by Ahmad Dahlan in 1912 in Yogyakarta.
Indeed, in the history of the Indonesian women’s movements that emerged in the late nineteeth century, the issue of polygamy occupies an important position. Its importance lies in the fact that polygamy continues to be viewed as a barrier to the key objective of the women’s movement –that is, to modernise and improve the position of Indonesian women, both culturally and legally. It is not surprising, therefore, that since the first Indonesian Women’s Congress in Jakarta in December 1928, a fierce debate on polygamy has continued in Indonesia. The debate on polygamy has even led women’s organizations to disagree among themselves. While most organizations have decided to support the abolition of polygamy, some continue to support it, or at least to not reject the practice outright. In this debate, Muslim women’s groups represent the latter category, while Christian and non-religious organizations have chosen to contest the very validity of polygamy. Considering the importance of this issue in the Indonesian women’s movement, it is interesting to observe how Islamic groups justify their refusal to support the abolition of polygamy. In this article, we will examine why this is so, focusing on the `Aisyiyah.
The `Aisyiyah was founded on 22 April 1917 by Ahmad Dahlan in the expectation that this organization would help the Muhammadiyah, and act as a partner in promoting the Muhammadiyah’ ideas of Islamic reform. Thus, ideologically speaking, the establishment of the `Aisyiyah was based on Ahmad Dahlan’s belief that women and men are equal in the eyes of God. Considering this belief, it is not surprising to see that, in the early days of its existence, the `Aisyiyah changed the manner of participation of Muslim women in religious activities. Praying in the mosque, receiving religious training, and even wearing the veil were all signs that women (just like men) could publicly participate in religious observances. These kinds of activities were introduced by the `Aisyiyah as something that Muslim women had not experienced before.

Viewed from a wider perspective, the `Aisyiyah is no different from other women’s organizations in Indonesia which have attempted to represent women’s interests and have struggled for their advancement. However, as the female wing of the Muhammadiyah, this group has been one of the biggest Muslim women’s organizations in Indonesia. In 2002, the `Aisyiyah had 194,722 members throughout 30 provinces. More than other women’s groups, the nature of the `Aisyiyah as a mass-based group has allowed its activities to touch the grassroots level of society. Indeed, the role of the `Aisyiyah is not limited to religious activities. Its main concerns are more oriented towards social and community development, with women as the particular target, focusing on issues such as education, health and charitable activities. In fact, this organisation’s great contribution to Indonesian society can be seen in its establishment of hundreds of educational institutions, thousands of mosques, and hundreds of health centres and orphanages all over Indonesia.

Due to its role and nature, the `Aisyiyah has been described as representative of Indonesian Muslim women. It is important, therefore, to observe its response to the issue of polygamy. Another factor contributing to the significance of the `Aisyiyah in the discourse on polygamy is the development of the organisation’s arguments in justifying the practice of polygamy. Interestingly, rather than being the product of purely religious reasoning, this development is more affected by the social and political context of Indonesia. Thus, it is this point that is the main concern of this article.

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