Not a Wave, a Tsunami!—Part 8

Minangkabau women in ceremonial dress, with traditional extended family house behind them.

In the previous post, we looked at women’s rights (or the lack thereof) as defined by the three Abrahamic religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Today I want to focus on Indonesia, the only predominantly Muslim country that I have actually visited. I spent the summer of 1983 on three of the islands, Bali, Java, and Sumatra.

Indonesia is over 87% Muslim, around 10% Christian, and 1.7% Hindu, with a scattering of other faiths.  The country is divided politically into 38 provinces, five of which are majority Christian. One province (Bali) is 82% Hindu-animist.

An Increasing Conservatism

I don’t remember seeing any women wearing hijab in 1983. That changed after the death of Suharto in 1998, with a growing Islamic conservatism.

Now, per Human Rights Watch, girls who won’t cover their hair have been bullied or forced to leave school. Female civil servants, including teachers, school principals, and doctors, have lost their jobs for refusing to cover up. They—and men who support them—have faced threats, violence, and eviction from their homes. The campaign has been successful. As Sheany, an Indonesian journalist, wrote in 2022,  “About 75% of Muslim women in Indonesia today wear the hijab, up from only 5% in the late 1990s.”

In 1999 the Indonesian government imposed Sharia law on one province, Aceh, to quell a separatist movement.

The provincial government enforces this law, flogging people for violations, including “same-sex relations, premarital sex and other sexual relations outside marriage, consumption of alcohol, gambling, being alone with someone of the opposite sex who is not a marriage partner or relative, sexual abuse, rape, and accusing a person of adultery without providing four witnesses.”

In January 2022 a woman in Aceh was caned 100 times for adultery. “Women’s rights activists say victims of sexual violence and rape are sometimes punished for adultery if the perpetrator states the encounter was consensual.”

Reproductive Rights

In 1970 Indonesia established a National Population and Family Planning Board, pushing contraception to ward off a population explosion that would outstrip resources.

I remember seeing a billboard, when I was there, with a picture of a family of four and the legend Pak! dua anak cucup (Daddy! two children are enough). However, many women discontinue using certain contraceptive methods because of side effects, so unintended pregnancies are common and—no surprise here—so are abortions.

Abortion is legal in medical emergencies or if the fetus is severely malformed. It is also allowed in cases of rape, but only up to six weeks.

According to a study cited by the Guttmacher Institute, the estimated abortion rate in Java in 2018 was “43 per 1,000 women aged 15–49. By comparison, the regional abortion rate for Southeast Asia is 34 abortions per 1,000 women. The vast majority are illegal and many occur under unsafe conditions. As a result, Indonesia has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Southeast Asia, 405 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

Violence against Women

According to a March 2002 report by the nation’s Commission on Violence against Women, “At least three Indonesian women experience sexual violence every two hours.” In April the government passed the Sexual Violence Crimes Law. That law isn’t enforced often, though, and apparently not at all in some areas of the archipelago.

Matrilineal Muslims

In the town of Padang, West Sumatra, I stayed with a Minangkabau family. This ethnic group is the largest matrilineal society in today’s world, yet they have been devout Muslims since converting to the faith in the 16th century. Houses and land pass from mother to daughter.

The women I met in Padang seemed prouder and walked taller than their counterparts on Java–no surprise, since they own the land. The Minankabau brag about their matrilineal system, saying it protects women.

But men still have the upper hand. Minangkabau males are expected to obtain an education. Their professional earnings are bequeathed according to Islamic law, with boys receiving a double share. Per Lestarini et al of the University of Indonesia, male relatives are expected to manage the family’s finances, even doling out money for necessities. Conflicts often result in domestic violence, which is traditionally “resolved” within the family so as not to bring shame in front of outsiders, or the case is taken to a religious leader, who of course is male. If the issue does come before the police, they kick it back to the religious leader.

Polygamy is legal in Indonesia, and according to Benar News it is rising along with conservative Islam. In order to get a permit from the court, a man must have his current spouse’s consent and be able to support additional wives equally. In addition, the first wife must be infertile, disabled, or have an incurable disease.

Many more polygamous arrangements, however, are sanctioned by Muslim clerics but not by the state.  Benar News quotes the Commission on Violence against Women, which says that “Polygamy [keeps] violence against women behind closed doors.”

My Minangkabau hostess told me that if her husband took a second wife, she’d throw him out. It was her house, after all. I didn’t think about it at the time, but now I wonder how she would support herself and her three children if she dumped him. Her husband was an engineer, and she had a little side business cutting hair.

On evening at dinner my host taught me to say grace in Arabic. On a separate occasion, while we were out for a walk, my hostess suggested that I convert to Islam. I would just have to undergo a minor surgery. “They just take a little piece,” she said. I wasn’t sure whether she meant the clitoral hood or the entire clitoris, but I replied by crossing my hands over my crotch and giving her a horrified look. She was amused.

Recently I learned that, according to a 2021 survey, around 21% of Indonesian women have undergone female genital mutilation.

*          *          *

Next stops on our tour are Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. And then, as I promised, we’ll consider how we can raise a worldwide tsunami.

3 Responses to Not a Wave, a Tsunami!—Part 8

  1. Aiyana Stern June 21, 2024 at 6:54 pm #

    learned so much

    it’s matrilineal yet the men have the power?

  2. Martha Shelley June 21, 2024 at 7:51 pm #

    Men don’t have all the power. It was a matrilineal society for millennia. Women had a lot more power back in those days, but their power has gradually been eroded since the coming of Islam. The women still own the houses and the land, and many of them farm the land and earn a living that way. I was worried about my hostess, because she wasn’t a farmer. Perhaps, though, if she threw her husband out, she would have an extended family that would help her. I just don’t know.

  3. jason victor serinus June 30, 2024 at 10:23 pm #

    Thanks as always, Martha.


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