Do RI women want sharia, too?

by Fitri Bintang Timur

The Pew Research Center’s research World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society published last month caused controversy in Indonesia, particularly the result that found 72 percent of Indonesian Muslims wanted sharia law.

Surely, Pew has much to explain about how 1,880 participants can represent over 200 million Muslims. Further explanation is needed about the questions posed to participants, including the chapter dedicated specifically to “Women in Society”.

First, regarding sharia law, the report tried to accommodate various interpretations of the law “in its broadest definition, [sharia] refers to the ethical principles set down in Islam’s holy book [the Koran] and examples of actions by the Prophet Muhammad”.

Muslims have different definition of sharia and this varies depending on the country, participants’ social-economic status or their proximity to powerful ulema, who decide how the law is implemented. This is because sharia is loosely defined as a set of guidelines that regulate many things from prayers to family inheritance to personal hygiene.

Sharia does not always mean implementing harsh punishment such as stoning or honor killing; or having an authoritarian ruler because that person has the only say on how the Koran is interpreted. Those who think the law is ruthless are clearly mistaken between sharia and authoritarian law. Those that apply sharia principles but act despotically are only utilizing Islam as pretext to misuse power. Amaney Jamal, special adviser for Pew research from Princeton University, noted that Muslims in poor and repressive countries tend to define sharia with equality and social justice.

As the law is very much open to interpretation, the high statistic of Indonesian Muslims wanting to instill sharia law should not set off alarms. The percentage of Indonesian Muslims that support a single interpretation of sharia law is not too far off those who would prefer multiple interpretations (45 percent to 44 percent, subsequently). Furthermore, not every Indonesian Muslim in the survey demands sharia to be implemented to all-citizen (only 50 percent) and even less agree with corporal punishment, stoning, the death penalty for leaving Islam and honor killing (under 50 percent).

Acehnese Sharia Police (1)

The research actually shows Indonesian sharia law is lenient rather than stringent. It is worth noting that 92 percent of Indonesian Muslims do not agree with suicide bombings and there is high demand for a review on how religious judges should have power to decide family law and property disputes (66 percent), which is already included in Indonesia’s Islamic Law (Kompilasi Hukum Islam), Articles 58, 197 and 229.

Second, regarding the section about women in society. This research is flawed because of its one-sided research questions, particularly in regard to obedience. Pew only asked whether a wife should always obey her husband and failed to ask husband’s responsibility to his wife. This limits Muslim men’s opportunity to show how they treat women with respect and that women’s obedience cannot be simply requested without fair return.

While the topic of the hijab was approached, men’s dress was not although in Islam an apparel guide is imposed on men, but this is less controversial for the western world. With this in mind, it can be said that the research was undertaken with a limited knowledge of Islam and bias toward how Muslim women and men act. According to Edward Said there is a tendency in western literature to depict the East in derogatory ways (Orientalism, 1978). In this case the East refers to Islam and the fairness of the Islamic population is already regarded non-existent.

Islam has often been accused of assigning women a secondary role, as Kathryn Robinson mentioned in Gender, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia (2009). However, this perception is not right as women in Islam minority areas are also subjugated, such as in Bali and Papua. Islam is not the problem and not quite the solution, especially for citizens with different beliefs. The attitude of perceiving women as second class citizen whose roles are attached to their men (fathers, husbands, brothers and sons) is, and it needs to be revisited. Fairness is the key.

According to Pew’s research, 76 percent of Indonesian Muslims agreed that sons and daughters should have equal inheritance rights there are demands for fairness. Almost 80 percent of Indonesian Muslims agree that women themselves should decide whether they use a hijab (and 77 percent of men). This large number demonstrates that Indonesian Muslims sees women as able to make rational choices without the need for imposed regulation.

Admittedly bylaws exist that force women to wear hijab, such as in Tasikmalaya and West Sumatra. Arguably, the regulation was made to garner votes — as the legislators and political parties supporting the regulation would be perceived to be more pious, clean from corruption and able to be trusted. However, this image must be reconsidered as in court there is trend of female suspects attending trial using hijab.

Is this the sign of Indonesian women want sharia? It might. But what is happening is that religion is used in politics as identity symbol, including hijab and peci (male headwear).

Let us remember that it is what is inside that is difficult to calculate and it cannot be seen simply by using survey.

The writer is an associate research fellow at S. Rajaratnam school of international relations, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Published in Jakarta Post, 8 May 2013

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