A Discussion with Lies Marcoes, Senior Officer of the Fahmina Institute

With: Lies Marcoes Berkley Center Profile

November 14, 2013

Background: Trends in Indonesia for women’s rights are mixed; Lies Marcoes sees positive gains as well as dangers linked to the rising influence of radical Islam and the decentralization of government authority which leaves more decisions to the local level. In this discussion Marcoes reflects on her work and on her perception of the contemporary challenges for Indonesian women. She highlights her research in Bandung, with sex workers, and her growing conviction that poverty is a core issue, rather than religion per se. She also reflects on the special challenges that face women in Aceh, in the context of implementation of sharia. Marcoes highlights a growing trend of backlash against women’s issues in Indonesia. This includes family planning, which had been well established. She attributes this to the lack of room for dialogue around family planning under Suharto and views promulgated by Islamic radicals, with decentralization also providing challenges. The backlash extends to a rise in female genital cutting, performed today even in some Catholic hospitals. This piece is based on a conversation on November 14, 2013 in Washington D.C., with Katherine Marshall and Nava Friedman. Marcoes was in the U.S. for the Opus Prize Ceremony. The discussion draws on a 2011 piece about her work and life, by Clare Harvey.

You have worked in Aceh for many years. How far is the situation today a mirror of what is happening in Indonesia?

There are positive developments in Aceh, but others that make my heart stand still. I met recently with victims from the long conflict years of the DOM [Military Operation Area—the military action period during the Suharto era, which affected Aceh from 1989-1998]. I was a member of the community chosen by the KKPK [Justice Coalition for Victims’ Testimony], an independent institution one of whose members is Kamala Chandrakirana (a longstanding colleague and fellow board member of the Fahmina Institute), to hear the testimony of survivors. I went to Aceh last month as part of this activity. This year, KKPK is conducting a series of activities to hear the testimony of survivors; the theme this year is “the Year of Truth.” And because I’ve worked in Aceh for so many years, I’m also deeply concerned with the issue of violence, including violence during the conflict period. I was asked to hear the testimony of 10 women victims of violence during the DOM and during the Military Emergency (2000-2004).

In Aceh, I carried out programs in line with the mandate of the Asia Foundation, where I worked; I conducted gender training for religious court judges, teachers, women activists, men activists working on monitoring of government budgets, and local government officials. At such times, I often felt very optimistic about Aceh. I was able to meet many people, local religious figures, decision makers, and discuss with them openly and critically about the future of Aceh after the application of Islamic sharia. In that context, I also had my own personal project: I tracked down and interviewed women who had been subjected to the penalty of caning. I spoke with 12 women who had had this experience. And because this is such a sensitive issue, I had to approach them slowly and not bombard them with questions as one might do in usual research. I just visited and chatted with them, trying to explore their lives. But some of them have now simply disappeared; no one knows where they’ve gone. For me, this is evidence that the application of Islamic sharia has threatened women’s sense of security, and obviously the situation is even worse because they’ve been torn from their home villages. This means that the application of the penalty of caning has led to a process of impoverishment. But still to this day, I can hardly bear to open the file with my notes because of what I heard recently.

The story of a girl named Putri is so tragic that I cannot bear to think of it. On February 7, Putri, a 16-year-old girl, was arrested by the sharia police in Langsa, Aceh Timur. I happened to be in Langsa at the time, interviewing people about the prohibition on kindergarten children dancing. I met with teachers from Islamic schools who objected to and were protesting against this ban, issued by the Langsa Regency branch of the Aceh Council of Ulama. On the night in question Putri was attending a wedding party that went late into the night. She was arrested because there were men and women at the party together, and she was taken to the police station. The problem began because there were two or three journalists at the station who wrote an article about her. The next day the story was in the media. She was shocked, the more so as she then was bullied by her contemporaries. Days later, she hanged herself. She left a suicide letter to her father, saying how embarrassed she was, that she did not want to bring further embarrassment to the family.

That night, throughout the nine-hour drive from Langsa back to Banda Aceh, I was crying. I was full of remorse that I’d been in the same city, even been at the place where the incident occurred two nights before, but I couldn’t do anything to help her. I felt there was no point for me to be working in Aceh, that all my efforts had been for naught. This was an overreaction, but if you had been in that situation, that night, I’m sure you would have felt the same way. I felt so close to this victim whom I should have been able to help, just like I feel so close to Aceh; I should be able to help to find a solution for the problems faced by my friends, the scholars and activists in Aceh. But I felt powerless.

That night I spoke to a Professor Alyasa Abubakar, one of the architects of the sharia reform, telling him about the story. I said, “Sir, now what? The application of Islamic sharia has taken another victim. Are you satisfied now? Isn’t the purpose of applying Islamic sharia to embarrass violators? To whip women who commit adultery, or men who drink and gamble. It’s been proven now—without a trial, a woman, a girl of 16, has hanged herself from shame.” Professor Alyasa is a good intellectual, a devout Muslim who truly believes that Islam can contribute to civilized behavior with a legal system that takes off from the experience and teachings of Islam. I can speak openly with him; we’re good friends, and we often discuss the issues of gender in Islam. We concur in many things. But that night I wanted to blame him for everything that had happened in connection with Putri’s death. I sent him a text message saying I didn’t want to return to Aceh. Obviously, this was completely unfair, because he’s not responsible for the investigation process by the sharia police. But it is related to the policies of the Aceh government.

The current situation for women in Aceh is quite striking. During the conflict, no one could mention that a woman was raped by the military, though this happened all too frequently. After the tsunami and the peace settlement, this changed. When the UN came, they opened opportunities for women to be witnesses; they encouraged them to speak about how they had been victims of the military. As the realities of the situation were recognized by men and the women were supported in their claims, they finally had some recognition. But after peace building talks began, the situation changed again. No one wanted to hear about what had happened to women anymore. GAM [Free Aceh Movement], the independence movement, is now ruling in Aceh. Women victims are not recognized because the tension is now an internal Acehnese one. The tension is no longer between them and Jakarta as the perpetrator of crimes (as it was during the time of the conflict), but between the elite within Aceh itself. Recognition of women who were victims during the conflict will affect the budget, involve costs, and will certainly backfire on them, because during the conflict it was not just the Indonesian military that committed crimes against women, but GAM members as well. They don’t want to talk about issues from the past, from the time of the DOM. So now it is very difficult for women survivors to complain or to seek reconciliation and to be recognized.

Things are also difficult in connection with the application of sharia in Aceh. The situation now is that no one wants to talk about the issues around sharia. There is a limbo situation. It is accepted by some people and rejected by others, but there’s little real discussion about it. I had hoped that Jakarta would be eager to use the judicial review process against the application of Islamic sharia in Aceh. Many of my friends had really hoped to find a way to stop the implementation of sharia law when it has effects like those that led to Putri’s death. But you don’t see much openness or willingness to discuss it because of the hold and political influence of the Islamist groups and Islamist politicians who use the issue of sharia to negotiate with the central government or the local government.

The government under President SBY [Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono] is weak in the face of radical Islam today. Even if there is frustration, no one is able or willing to do anything to stop the trend. Maybe it will be a possibility after elections. For the time being, I don’t think so. The presidential elections are in July or August, so we will see.

Where did you come from and where did you grow up?

I come from West Java, from what was truly a mixed culture. My parents had emigrated from central Java. My mother came from Yogyakarta, with the background of Muhammadiyah (a prominent modernist Muslim movement), and was a batik trader, while my father had a more traditionalist Muslim background. His father was a member of the sufistic ulama in Banyumas, and my grandfather’s pesantren still exists. Thus, two schools of thought were blended in the household. My mother was the breadwinner and my father was initially involved with local political organizations that saw Islam as a way of life. He saw sharia Islam in this light, and this was the view of his political organization, the Masyumi party. But in time my father came to support Muhammadiyah and my mother’s religious opinions, because he strongly believed in education.

My father was the head of Muhammadiyah where I was born, in Banjarsari, Ciamis, until the end of his life. He almost never worked to support the family; my mother took care of everything. My older brother, a bachelor of engineering, has replaced our father as the Muhammadiyah leader in our village. He tends to be far more conservative than our father. This is understandable, because he never went to a religious school, and he doesn’t understand the differences between the madhabs [Muslim schools of law], which my father did study. My father attended Mambaul Ulum in Solo, which is considered both modernist and puritan. This is why Muhammadiyah was a good match for him. But my brother has become very “textualist.” He feels that whatever is written in the Qur’an is right, with no context, no interpretation.

For the issue of gender, that approach is very difficult for me. I feel like I’m in a battlefield at my parents’ house. As a feminist Muslim, I’ve explored deeply about justice in Islam, much more than my brothers, who are all educated as engineers, but in the traditional Islamic culture, in Javanese culture, males come first. My eldest brother’s voice is considered more legitimate than mine, or my other female relatives. Honestly, I failed in fighting for reform of inheritance law in my parents’ own home. It’s totally clear that our mother was the breadwinner; she was the one who paid for all her children to attend university. But when she died, it was as if she had nothing. Everything she left behind was considered the property of our father, and it was divided among the children in the traditional way: two portions for each son and one portion for each daughter.

So I grew up in the Muhammadiyah tradition, though it was not very strong in the region where we lived. My father ran a madrasa school within the Muhammadiyah tradition. I went to a Muhammadiyah school, and later, in high school, to a government school in another city. These were times when we were very remote from the outside world. I remember well when in 1975 electricity came to my village.

What path did you take in your studies?

During high school, I became very ill and collapsed. My sister, who worked in Jakarta, brought me there to consult with a psychologist. I realized then the deep conflict that I felt. In my family, the good children were expected to be attracted to the hard sciences: engineering or medicine. I did not like the hard sciences, but the environment was such that I could not admit it. I would read novels and social science books secretly in my bed in the middle of the night because my father would not approve and saw such works as a waste of time. I did not want to study science, and my father would not send me to study social sciences. With my sister’s help, I found a way in between. My father sent me to study Islamic studies at IAIN [the State Islamic Studies Institute]. There I was able to explore the social sciences that interested me. My time in university was especially important, because the early 1980s (the period of my years there) was a turning point in the political approach of students. The university was becoming a center of student movements with Islamic ideas, strongly inspired by the Iranian Revolution. That situation really forced me to study not only Islam but sociology and politics.

While I was at the university, I became heavily involved in the Islamic Student Association group. I also got involved with social research activity with mentors from LP3ES [Institute for Economic and Social Research, Education and Information], which was working with alumni and senior students. Nurcholish Madjid was a scholar there, and other brilliant and influential people were also there at that time like Gus Dur (also known as Abdurrahman Wahid). I was very lucky that at that time IAIN had a lecturer from the Netherlands, Dr. Karel Steenbrink. I learned a lot about research from him. The prestigious journal, Prisma, was published monthly from this center, and I became involved with that as well. We were able to discuss important, live sociological issues through this journal.

What turned you into the researcher you have become?

Just as I was about to complete my studies, Pak Karel introduced me to Martin van Bruinessen, an anthrophologist from the Netherlands. He was looking for a research assistant. I found a connection to him because of the work I had done for my B.A., using a methodology that was becoming popular at the time—“grounded research.” I had gone to study and live in a very small pesantren [Islamic boarding school] in West Java; it was unique because it was made up of Sufis in a tradition originating from Libya—Tarekat Sanusiyah, also known as Idrisiyah. It was quite different from the majority of Sufi pesantren in Indonesia, and I could not even tell my father what I was doing because he would have disapproved of their beliefs. I lived with the girls there because I saw that as the only way to come to a full understanding of their lives and approach. I got an ear infection because the water was really dirty.

A result of the experience was that I came to feel that there was something wrong there in relation to religion between the Syeikh Akbar (the head of the pesantren) and the students: the way the women stayed within this group, how they had to treat the Syeikh Akbar like a god. In effect, the women were treated like slaves. Some of the girls were so young and poor, and they had to surrender to the Syeikh. He was always marrying the girls, four at a time, but the rest were ex-wives who also continued to serve him. There were many things that were kept secret. One of the girls was 16 and pregnant and hated the Syeikh. I asked why she did not run away, but she said that she felt she had no choice but to stay because she and her family depended on him. From this study, I emerged with my first sentiments that led me to explore feminist ideas.

What lessons did you take from your early experiences as a researcher?

Martin brought me to Bandung for our research, and there I studied the implications of urbanization, migration of people from outside the city into slums area in Bandung. Martin had a theory about finding radical Islamists there, but what we found to be a more significant factor in shaping ideas was a culture of poverty. Our study tried to make a comparison between the situation of people who were adopting radical ideas and Oscar Lewis’s observation of the culture of poverty in North America. I spent a year immersed in this work and went back to this area frequently.

For the first time I met with sex workers there. It was a shocking experience, and after the first time I interviewed several of them, I did not want to meet with them again. Martin told me that for the time being I didn’t have to, but that this is a real part of society, the reality of my country, that I needed to understand. Martin has been a very influential mentor for me, even now. He taught me how to be a patient, persistent researcher and to get everything down in writing. Martin knew I enjoyed writing, and that’s very advantageous for an anthropology researcher. From Martin, I learned about social analysis, class analysis, and discourse analysis. On campus, I never gained knowledge about how to relate one phenomenon to another, to relate an event to another event in the past. I learned about the connection between the urban poor in the slums and the Darul Islam movement in West Java, or about the link between the “Green Revolution” project and urban poverty, by living in the slums in Bandung. But Martin didn’t introduce me to feminist analysis.

I was interested in the living impact of Islam on people’s lives. When I was first doing research with the sex workers, a lot of them believed in the work of dukun [traditional healers], as they were very superstitious. Now you see a change. They no longer go to traditional healers. Now, some of them are involved in pengajian [religious study groups], and one former sex worker has become a coordinator of religious tours [to local pilgrimage sites]. But for me, it’s still the same: they’re trying to find a way to escape their poverty. They used to go to dukun, now they go on pilgrimages to ancient or supposedly sacred mosques, but the purpose is still the same—to find a solution to their poverty. But either way, they have no real hope. The government never pays any attention to them. To me, their situation is dire. The reality is that there is no way out for these people.

After I had been working for a time with Martin, I met Julia Suryakusuma, a famous feminist academic in Indonesia. She was doing research about women workers in rubber plantations. From her I came to know about feminist research. Another anthropologist I met was studying workers in tea plantations in Goalpara Sukabumi, West Java: Mies Grijns from Leiden University. I learned a lot about a feminist approach and methodology from these people. And I learned how to interview, interact, and understand the day-to-day living of the workers.

How did you pursue this early understanding of feminist research?

My field work led me to a combined involvement with academic research and work with NGOs. I started working with a secular NGO in Indonesia called Kalyanamitra. With the NGO, for the first time I got a grant to organize meetings for community training on gender issues. I invited trainers from Malaysia and Holland who introduced the issues to NGO activists. I published in both academic journals and media outlets, with stories of the lives of the people I had lived with.

I came to realize in the process how far gender is socially constructed and that one element of its construction is religion. The more you talk about gender without talking about religion, the more there is likely to be rejection from communities of feminist ideas. I thus realized that it was important to learn about gender and Islam. Talking about gender without talking about religion is nonsense. The more we talked about gender without religion, the more rejection we met. And I had a background in Islamic studies. I asked if the NGO could invite Professor Riffat Hassan, a feminist scholar of Islam, to come to Indonesia and discuss gender and Islam. She brought a book, Equal Before Allah, and we translated it into Bahasa Indonesia. I appreciated how important it was to use religious teaching as an approach to gender studies.

At that time, I started to study the methodology of interpretation of texts using a feminist approach. We later developed this at Fahmina, with a slightly different approach. We felt that in the world, Muslim women face problems with their religion, but the contexts are different. Here we’re not faced with the problem of honor killing, for example, or (back then) with the issue of female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM or FGC); rather, we were, and still are, faced with gender-biased interpretations that legitimize the domination of men over women.

Working primarily with Kalyanamitra, a secular organization, came to be a burden, given my growing research interests. I also felt that Indonesia needed theological arguments to talk about gender. Kalyanamitra was a leading feminist institution at that time, but they didn’t have the ability to use religious arguments to discuss the issue of gender injustice. And I couldn’t develop this issue there, because Kalyanamitra is a secular feminist organization. I therefore moved to an organization called P3M [Centre for the Development of Pesantren and Society] and through them embarked on a project that focused on reproductive health rights in Islam, supported by the Ford Foundation. This project started at the same time that the ICPD [International Conference on Population and Development] in Cairo of 1994 was going on.

But in those days, the ideas about gender departed from a secular feminist paradigm that saw religion as one of the causes of oppression. They weren't really wrong, because they spoke on the basis of reality—the practice of polygamy, unequal inheritance, or other social practices that have their basis in religious views but place women in a subordinate position. But because the secular feminists didn’t have any sound religious arguments, their critiques were taken as attacks on Islam.

When I started at P3M, we too did not have a methodology for critiquing texts on women, which were in fact discriminatory and subordinating. After discussions with Riffat Hassan, we felt that it wouldn’t be quite right if we wholeheartedly adopted the methodology she had developed using a hermeneutical method. We recognized that the problem in Indonesia was the dominance of a highly legalistic perspective; the problem lay in the interpretations of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. We came to realize that one useful way to talk about gender was in the context of the Kitab Kuning, the Yellow Books, that is, the instructional texts used in the pesantren. In that way, people could feel that the discussion and links were “relevant to our world; it is our issue.” Thus, we would talk about gender and feminism indirectly, by means of ideas drawn from the Kitab.

We worked above all from an understanding of lived experience in relation to the text. Let me illustrate with an example. We asked a leading scholar (a man, naturally) questions about menstruation, as it appeared in the texts. The context was certain prohibitions linked to women who were menstruating, which affects a woman’s purity. According to the law, if after two weeks you get menstruation, and the blood still comes out more than 24 hours into the third week, that you consider menstruation, but if it’s for less than 24 hours, it is considered a disease. We asked him, “do you think we can feel it, exactly when the blood is coming?” He said yes, according to the text you can feel it, it’s like feeling you’re going to pee. But no, we said, we cannot—we cannot know if it’s before or after 24 hours! He was really shocked about this. Thus he realized that some of the teachings must be open to question based on women’s knowledge from their own lives.

The methodology offered by P3M in the book we compiled, Fiqh An-Nisa, or Fiqh on Women, was an important contribution to the feminist movement in Indonesia. Since that time, the issues of gender and feminism are no longer “controlled” only by the secular feminists, but also by activists and students from IAIN, other religious universities, or pesantren. When we speak about violence against women, we talk about how the texts have mistakenly interpreted the verse in the Qur’an about “hitting.” When the issue of polygamy was discussed, we contributed a new interpretation that polygamy is haram, forbidden.

After three or four years with P3M, the political situation in Indonesia was getting hard and I felt burnt out. The Ford Foundation then sent me to study medical anthropology in Amsterdam.

So what was the next stage? How did you come to work at the Asia Foundation?

After finishing my studies in Amsterdam, I went home in 2000. I was asked then by Douglas Ramage to help with the gender program of the Asia Foundation (Ramage was then the Foundation’s Country Representative for Indonesia, Malaysia, and East Timor). The decision was not an easy one for me. I wanted to be an activist and not a bureaucrat in a funding agency. But he promised me that would not happen. I ended up spending a long time with the Asia Foundation, around 11 years. During this period, I was able to spend time in Aceh supporting women in different types of activities (economics, law, media, marriage registrars, etc.) Throughout that time, I was using gender as a tool of analysis.

During my time with the Asia Foundation, I had the opportunity to meet many different people. I was impressed in particular by two men, Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir and Kiai Husein Muhammad, who came from the pesantren tradition in Cirebon. They had formed a group that was active in dialogue with Muslim and non-Muslim religious communities. I asked Doug if the Foundation could support their project, because I felt that it had great potential. Over the next few years, the Foundation provided considerable support for the founding of the Fahmina Institute. I was then asked to be on their board. The three of us, Kyai Husein, Faqih and I, started working on training secular activities on gender and Islam, and we also worked on other reports and projects on the issue. Based on that experience, we then compiled a training manual—Daurah Fiqh—concerning gender and Islam. Many Muslim feminist groups thought our training was good. Fahmina was asked to publish and to use it in Malaysia, the Philippines, etc. as a module.

I think my role as trainer has been to help people easily understand gender issues, using gender as tool of analysis to promote more equality. I use games, media, songs and other interactive methods in my training.

What are you doing now?

Last year, I resigned from the Asia Foundation. I have a scholarship that allows me to write book on gender, poverty and law enforcement, supported by AusAID. At first, I only intended to focus on the application of Islamic sharia in Aceh and its implications for the impoverishment of women. But as I mentioned earlier, I feel the issue is too difficult to comprehend right now; the current situation is not conducive to thinking clearly about the future of Aceh. So this book is about women and how they face the processes of their impoverishment due to gender-based discrimination. I hope to publish it on March 8, International Women’s Day. It will be a combination of narration and photography. The idea for the book is that despite my many experiences with travel and work, I never had a chance to write them down. This is my opportunity. I chose eight provinces to revisit and spent three to four weeks in each place, to see what was going on in these places with women and poverty. I am finding that resilience is very strong in these places, helping women to reject poverty and the challenges it brings.

I want to talk more about resilience and agency among women in each of these places—not necessarily to solve poverty, but to try to find ways out of it.

I am almost done with the book. This is not a “heavy” book, and I want it to be simple, without oversimplifying things. I want more people to understand gender analysis in development from this book, and for governments to use it too.

What are your future plans for your work?

I am thinking of focusing my attention at the university level. I might become a researcher in a university. I’m not sure of the future. For now, I am simply focusing on the book and working with Fahmina.

What do you see happening with Indonesia’s family planning program? Are attitudes associated with it changing? What are the political dynamics around the issue?

Soon after I retired from the Asia Foundation, I was asked by a small NGO to support the organization’s study on family planning and fundamentalism. That study is now complete. What it has documented above all is a trend of rejection of family planning. In rural areas, this trend and the reasons for it are very clear. Regional autonomy is a part of the story. If local governments are not interested in being involved with family planning, then we don’t see initiative on the community level, and both distribution and use of contraception flag. This can be true even when supplies of contraceptives are available and accessible. Similar trends are showing up even in some urban areas. The number of children women are expected to have and are actually having is usually more than three.

I see Islamic fundamentalism as a possible factor in this trend. There seems to be a correlation between attitudes linked to Islamic teaching and contraceptive use. Fundamentalism seems to be focusing on an ideology that good family values means having families with a lot of children. And the increasing strength of fundamentalism is also having an impact on resistance against family planning.

The rate at which rejection of family planning is growing now is scary. Fundamentalist leaders are very clever in making the argument that there is no correlation between family planning and prosperity. It is very easy for fundamentalists to suggest a line of argument that family planning has no relation to better welfare because many families that do use family planning are still poor.

The growth of such attitudes is not due solely to the transnational fundamentalists who reject the very idea of family planning, but also to the political context in the time of Suharto. For the 35 years under the Suharto regime, the Muslim community seemed to be forced to accept family planning; there was no room to discuss it. Muslims were not allowed the space to state their fears that the imposition of family planning was associated with their beliefs. Since the Suharto regime collapsed, the fundamentalists now have the space to propagate their views, but the government is not presenting an opposing position. And the moderates also seem to feel this is a matter for the state to deal with. So we’ve been robbed. The government fails to recognize that the rejection of family planning comes from people who are taking advantage of the democratic reforms. Many publications about the dangers of family planning, and about how it is not effective in decreasing family size or how it comes from the West, have appeared since the political reformasi era [the period of reforms following the fall of Suharto]. Another danger is the rhetoric that is appearing now actively encouraging families to have as many children as possible.

These radical Islamic societies call children jindi, which in Arabic means soldier, and recognize only boy children. They encourage women to have more boys because they want more “soldiers of Allah.” They are encouraging women to keep having children until they have boys, and the more boys the better. These leaders are not poor; they are from rich families, educated in colleges, and they are promoting these types of ideas. You can see there is a gender issue here. Good Muslims have as many children as possible to increase Allah’s soldiers in fundamentalist movements. This showcases the critical situation around family planning in Indonesia.

This is really striking because Indonesia is considered a success story by much of the world, but we are still seeing such attitudes and issues raised. And this is a result in part of the fact that during the Suharto regime, no room was allowed for dialogue or discussion, including on family planning. We are now seeing a backlash against that policy.

Do you think this will have an effect on the country level with respect to fertility rates?

Yes. The problem is also not just growing fundamentalism. It is also a result of regional autonomy. If there is insufficient attention or sensitivity to issues such as family planning at the local level, it will only become more of a problem at the country level. We need more emphasis on this program to slow down fertility rates on a national scale; we also need less decentralization when it comes to family planning so that adequate funding can be channeled to the areas where it is needed.

Corruption in local and regional governments is extremely worrying; just look at the number of officials being arrested by the KPK [Corruption Eradication Commission] for corrupt practices. This is another issue that affects efforts to provide services. There is active discussion about this in Indonesia right now.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a growing problem because of a lack of attention by regional governments to these health issues and programs. It reflects the general trend towards lower attention to health-related development. Not long after the reformasi, I interviewed some people who said it is difficult to get pills for TB. It made me anxious. There is a clear separation and disconnect between national and local priorities in handling the eradication of TB. Medical treatment for TB has to be continuous, taking the pills non-stop for six months. If the treatment is interrupted, it can be dangerous. But because of the dualism between the central and local governments in dealing with this, the people suffer.

It is the same with AIDS. As long as local governments pay little attention to health, these types of infections will grow and spread. Local governments have separate agendas now, rather than the national approaches and agendas that we saw under Suharto regime.

We understand that many feminists in Indonesia are concerned that the country is going backwards on gender rights and equality. Things that were taken for granted are now open to question. One issue appears to be that women leaders lack an idiom or religious language to argue for their cause. Do you agree with this perception?

It’s true. During the Suharto period, we had considerable freedom to discuss feminist ideas without being personally or ideologically attacked. Now I see a lot of local parliaments rejecting notions about gender equality, raising a host of doubts. They argue that there is no problem with women, that they already give women enough opportunities, that Islam already provides full protection for women.

The problem is that Islamic groups and other political parties claim that feminism and gender issues are coming from the outside and will destroy family dynamics and national identity. They use the language of Islam in ways to reject feminism, as I noted earlier with the example of the exhortation to produce jindi. This is something very new that we are seeing. They use Islamic words and ideas (like hijab) to create a sense of identity that separates feminists from other groups. There is less room now than before to discuss the condition of women, gender issues, and movements. This is especially the case for issues that relate to religious matters. Take, for example, women as leaders. In Aceh, two district heads were removed in response to alleged complaints from the public on the grounds that in Islam, women are not allowed to be leaders. This is weird, since Aceh has a long history of being led by sultanas—female sultans.

For example, when we talk about underage marriage, something many feminists are against, these fundamentalists refer to Muhammad marrying Aisha. They say, “Are you rejecting this Islamic teaching and practice? In the Qur’an, there is also a verse about polygamy. Are you going to reject this as well?” That is what they say when we observe that polygamy is illegal under Indonesian law.

Last year, the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs released a draft of a gender equality policy, called the “regulation for gender and equality.” It was rejected by several Islamic organizations. Even people from universities put forward counter analyses on the draft, including a professor from the Bogor Agricultural University. “You are with us or against us” has emerged as a dichotomy regarding gender equality in Indonesia, tying it to belief in Islam. In some respects the word “gender” has become a dirty word in Indonesia.

Internationally renowned feminists who previously admired Indonesia’s situation have recently been attacked for their work. A feminist from Iran, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, who loves Indonesia very much, is worried about the growth of anti-gender sentiment in Indonesia.

Another feminist from Canada and Pakistan, Irshad Manji, wrote about her admiration of Islam in Indonesia, but her subsequent experience in Indonesia showed her how bad the situation has gotten. It is really unfortunate. Her book was translated into Indonesian, and several NGOs and her local publisher invited her to a discussion and book launch. But in Jakarta and Yogya, these events were physically attacked by the FPI [Islamic Defense Front]. And we were disappointed, because in order to “protect” us from the FPI attacks, we had to give in, and the events were broken up by the police. It’s as if there was no protection. So it’s not surprising that we suspect the police are no longer neutral; they side with the fundamentalists, or at least they’re afraid of them.

You are a medical anthropologist, and you describe worrying signs and trends in respect to family planning in Indonesia. How solid is the evidence? Are the trends clear, or do your observations represent likely trends?

The picture is still largely based on anecdotal evidence. It comes from the observations of researchers and also journalists. They describe a general picture of declining public health services. They also see a rise in practices little seen before. They include FGC/FGM. Some radical Islamists are actively advocating the practice and it appears to be increasing substantially and rapidly. We have heard journalistic reports that it is quite frequent in hospitals, not just Islamic hospitals but also Catholic hospitals. There is a “package deal” where a baby girl can have her ears pierced and her genitals cut for a price of 500.000 rupiahs ($50) in the hospital.

FGC is still not at the level it is in Africa. Generally, it involves just a small nick or cut on the clitoris, more a symbol than major cuts. But there is a danger in even entertaining such an idea in any way, with its implication that women are wild so that their sexual libido needs to be controlled.

But overall, I see this as not a threat but a challenge. It challenges us to work harder, and to help the government if that’s considered necessary. In the issue of family planning, for example, their harsh rejection should make us introspect; we need not find arguments about how family planning is halal, but religious arguments that link the implementation of family planning with the fulfillment of human rights, achievement of prosperity, how to oblige the state to fulfill this responsibility.

I still have many friends who approach the issues of poverty and its links to gender discrimination in a very rational manner. They are in government institutions, in the parliament, in universities, in research institutes. This is very encouraging. I have colleagues like Kyai Husein and Faqih (of the Fahmina Institute) who work to contribute to transformative thinking on religious issues. Close friends like Nana (Kamala Chandrakirana) offer an incisive social analysis that helps us in the religious (and non-religious) movement to defend the oppressed. Even in Aceh, I enjoy friendships with religious court judges—not many, but they remain rational in their thinking, and they need us to help find solutions through religious thinking that is contextual and relevant; such thinking is being increasingly challenged by the growth of fundamentalism. If the state can at least remain neutral, that would be a great help. And I’m not at all pessimistic; I just feel we’re facing greater challenges. That’s all…

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