Looking for a more equitable space for female clerics

When you mention the word ‘ulama’, what most people think of is the face of a male religious figure. In fact, there are many female clerics in Indonesia, who have no less important roles. The unequal power relations cause less appreciation for them.

For this reason, the public is advised to strictly use the term female ulama, to refer to those who have these qualifications. This opinion was conveyed by Prof. Etin Anwar, an Indonesian diaspora who is also a lecturer at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York, United States.

Prof Etin Anwar, lecturer at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York, USA, in the screenshot.  (Photo: Mouab/Nurhadi)

Prof Etin Anwar, lecturer at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York, USA, in the screenshot. (Photo: Mouab/Nurhadi)

“When we do not distinguish between men and women, then we cannot distinguish power relations. Because basically, from the perspective of power relations, we know that when it comes to ulama, the ulama are men. When it comes to male clerics, they have very dominant power relations,” he said.

Etin Anwar spoke at the National Seminar on Islamic Studies (SNKI) III, organized by the Ushuluddin Faculty, Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN), Jakarta. This seminar will take place October 25-26 2021, by presenting a number of speakers. One of the themes discussed was Reading the Phenomenon of Women Ulama in Indonesia.

The Power of Male Scholars

Male clerics have power relations to science, society, and to authority. Because the position of female ulama is in the minority, it is important to clearly state them. In fact, this decision can encourage the growth of affirmative efforts, namely special breakthroughs with good intentions, namely encouraging the position of female ulama. Etin said that there are still limitations for female clerics to be involved in the wider arena.

Khairul Ghazali (above), giving a lecture at the Al Hidayah Islamic Boarding School, Sei Mencharim, North Sumatra, July 22, 2017. (Photo: AP)

Khairul Ghazali (above), giving a lecture at the Al Hidayah Islamic Boarding School, Sei Mencharim, North Sumatra, July 22, 2017. (Photo: AP)

“For example, how many percent of our female ulema are involved in the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). Suppose this. The MUI is an institution that represents scholars in their relation to religious affairs, which is inclusive in nature. What percent are women? Can no, The head of MUI is a woman, ”Etin asked in a questionable tone.

The same case was exemplified by Etin in religious organizations such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). It is hard to imagine that NU will be led by a female cleric.

The power relation of male clerics in terms of science can occur because they have more learning processes. There are still many female clerics who are trapped in domestic work, such as cooking and washing dishes.

A woman (in the foreground) and a man (in the background) attend a religious lecture on marriage without dating at a mosque in Bekasi, on the eastern border of the capital city of Jakarta.  (Photo: AFP/Adek Berry)

A woman (in the foreground) and a man (in the background) attend a religious lecture on marriage without dating at a mosque in Bekasi, on the eastern border of the capital city of Jakarta. (Photo: AFP/Adek Berry)

“If, for example, we go to a meeting of the ulama, surely in the end, the role of the female ulema is usually informal. The kyai’s wife, although great, is definitely behind the scenes. He arranges the food and others,” added Etin.

For this condition, according to Etin, at least there must be an acknowledgment of this problem. If it is realized that this condition is a problem, of course there will be efforts to overcome it.

Female Scholars Mean Broad

Sociology Lecturer, UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta, Dr.  Dzuriyatun Toyibah in the screenshot.  (Photo: Mouab/Nurhadi)

Sociology Lecturer, UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta, Dr. Dzuriyatun Toyibah in the screenshot. (Photo: Mouab/Nurhadi)

Lecturer of Sociology, UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta, Dr. Dzuriyatun Toyibah broadens the meaning of ulama, according to the explanation given by the Muslim thinker, Prof. Azzumardi Azra in 2004. He said that there were ulemas on campuses, Islamic boarding schools, community organizations, and tabligh scholars. In a broad sense, a Muslim scholar can actually also be called an ulama. Recently, with the advancement of the internet, there are also scholars who have received recognition because of the help of social media.

In the university environment, the conditions are not much different. According to Dzuriyatun, the ratio of female and male scholars is unequal.

“Generally, the best students are women. But then very few take it seriously. This is not the fault of the official, because from the beginning the woman was not highly expected from her family to pursue academia,” said Dzuriyatun, Tuesday (26/10).

But this is the impact of a long history. The world’s leading philosophers were all men, because they had access to education thousands of years ago. Women only entered the academic world around the 17th century.

The problem is the same, namely the inequality of power relations. Men in general, said Dzuriyatun, are easier to take part in, than women, both in the sphere of religion and education.

“I interviewed women who were looking for a master’s degree. That’s all her husband is afraid, later women are smarter than husbands, later they will not respect. It is still happening today,” said Dzuriyatun.

Role Long Track

Female activist Yuniyanti Chuzaifah in the screenshot.  (Photo: Mouab/Nurhadi)

Female activist Yuniyanti Chuzaifah in the screenshot. (Photo: Mouab/Nurhadi)

The female activist, Yuniyanti Chuzaifah, who tried to summarize the two-day discussion, said that the trail of female clerics in Indonesia had actually been very long. Since hundreds of years ago, the role of women ulama in Aceh, for example, has been recorded.

According to Yuni, in the history of the archipelago, female clerics have always been in a position to negotiate regarding authority. In a more modern period, what happened within the Muhammadiyah women’s organization, namely Aisyiyah, could be an example. In an old document in Suara Aisyiyah magazine, Yuni found an incident that described this condition.

When Muhammadiyah held congresses in the organization’s early periods, there was still an interpretation that women’s voices were aurat, so women could not speak at the congress.

“But the female scholars from Aisyiyah do not want to lose their minds. So they published Suara Aisyiyah, which became a channel to amplify their progressive thinking, “said Yuni.

Suara Aisyiyah is the oldest women’s magazine in Indonesia, which was first published in 1926. Aisyiyah itself was founded by Nyai Ahmad Dahlan in Yogyakarta in 1917.

Through this media, female clerics in Aisyiyah are serious about working on a number of issues, especially education. Efforts to modernize the pattern of education are carried out at the domestic level. [ns/ab]

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