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Islamists Stall Gender Equality Bill

A protest rally against the gender equality bill.  Credit: Ormas Islam

A protest rally against the gender equality bill. Credit: Ormas Islam

JAKARTA, May 9 2012 (IPS) - The fate of a gender equality bill pending in Indonesia’s parliament and aligned with the United Nations convention on the elimination of all forms discrimination against women (CEDAW) has become uncertain after falling afoul of powerful Islamist groups.

No fewer than six major Islamic organisations have formally objected to the equality bill on the ground that some of its articles go against Islamic values in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation where 80 percent of its 238 million people are followers of the faith.

Organisations opposed to the bill include the influential Indonesian Ulema Council, the Indonesian Consultative Council for Muslim Women Organisations, Aisyiah, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Islamic Community Party.

Iffah Ainur Rochmah, spokeswoman for HTI, said after an important consultation with parliament’s commission on religion and social affairs held on Mar. 16 that gender equality and policies that encourage women to seek employment could only lead to conflicts within marriages.

According to Rochmah, divorce rates among female teachers were high because “wives with better earnings may feel superior to men leading to conflict.”

The bill goes against the grain of the Islamic Shariah law on inheritance which favours males. It also allows a man or a woman to freely choose a marriage partner regardless of religious persuasion and seeks to legalise homosexual or lesbian marriages.

Many ordinary women now accuse non-government organisations (NGOs) such as the international Women Against Shariah (WAS) of creating confusion in Indonesian society that has set notions about the place of men and women in it.

According to WAS, Shariah law imposes second class status on women and is incompatible with the basic principles of human rights that include equality under the law and the protection of individual freedoms.

“Indonesian women have no problems with men, but there is a tiny group of people which is out to create problems,” said Salwa Amira, a young Muslim woman who is an environmental consultant to a South Korean firm in Jakarta.

Amira said feminist groups and NGOs were promoting the bill. “These are small groups of women who talk a lot,” she said. “Their campaigns attract some women who happen to be going through some crisis.”

“Yes, some Indonesian women are excluded from job positions, but so are men,” said Muhammad Abas, a regional head of the country’s religious affairs department. “Sexual abuse, trafficking and labour conditions are not problems of gender, but of the law,” he added.

Some analysts believe that it is only a matter of time before the bill, originally due to have been passed on Apr. 15, becomes law. There is no official word on when it will be taken up again in parliament.

“The Indonesian government has already ratified CEDAW as government regulation in 1984,” Nining Widaningsih, a well-known commentator on women’s affairs, told IPS. “The bill is meant to amend this regulation, which still leaves a lot of disadvantages for women.”

The 2011-2015 United Nations Population Fund’s programme in Indonesia has plans to address gender-based violence “through improved policies and social protection systems, in alignment with the CEDAW, the International Conference on Population and Development’s programme of action and national legislation.”

Indonesia’s women empowerment and children protection ministry reports that the number of domestic violence cases has increased during the last two years – 105,103 cases in 2010 and 119,107 cases in 2011.

But, what irks many ordinary women is allegedly hyped up data on gender violence released by some NGOs. “It’s amazing how these NGOs can collect data so easily in a large and diverse country like Indonesia. We are a society that keeps domestic affairs out of public view,” Amira said.

Yeni Huriani, a lecturer at the State Islamic University of Bandung, says many NGOs have no credibility. “Let’s be honest, there are some NGOs who attempt to draw public attention by creating controversy and may possibly be trying to attract donor funds,” she said.

Recently an obscure NGO, Keadilan Jender dan Hak Asasi Manusia (Gender Justice and Human Rights), published a survey alleging that students of Islamic boarding schools in Central Java have become the victims of sexual abuse by their teachers.

Although the survey did not cite any responsible teacher, student or manager of any Islamic school, it found its way to the popular ‘Solopos’ tabloid, sparking outrage among Muslim leaders, academics, and students.

“How can such unreliable information be spread among the public? Sadly, this is the kind of information that is used by feminist lobbyists to press their agenda,” Huriani said.

“This is the work of radical feminists who are fed by the West,” Kirana Andilycia, a housewife, commented in the Facebook group ‘No to Gender Equality Bill’. “It has been stamped in their minds that Muslim women are oppressed, beaten, and excluded from public positions, although the facts are different.”

Andilycia said it is not difficult to see that the real aspirations of Indonesian women are not reflected in the bill. “I think freeing women from breastfeeding and demanding 30 percent of (parliament) house seats are a bit much. That is not what Indonesian women want.

“We will stick to Islamic teaching in women’s affairs. God created women different from men. Our duties and responsibilities are different. Our tendencies and inclinations are different. But we are equal as human beings, as God’s creatures.”

Figures from World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2010 show that 21 percent of parliamentary legislators and 15 percent of government ministers in Indonesia were women. The same report shows 20 percent of Indonesia’s senior officials and managers are women.

Similarly, the World Bank’s ‘World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development’ says Indonesia has made good progress in improving health outcomes among women and girls, and has also managed to increase women’s access to finance and justice.

Said Coen Hikmah, a Muslim businesswoman: “It is sad to see that while more and more European and American women are turning to Islam as an alternative way of life, we are promoting this bill.”

“The problem in Indonesia is not the absence of gender equality but poor law enforcement. Abusing women, children and human beings in general is a crime,” Hikmah said.

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