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Nancy J. Smith-Hefner
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.


Indonesia is a remarkably diverse archipelagic nation composed of twelve thousand islands and encompassing some three hundred ethnic groups. With a population of 246 million, 87 percent of which is Muslim, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. Despite this fact, until recently Indonesian women were excluded from most published academic collections on women and Islam. This was the case for several reasons, including Indonesia's marginal location relative to the Muslim world's historic heartlands and a tendency on the part of earlier generations of Western observers to see Indonesian Islam as a “veneer” under which lay a syncretic mixture of Ṣūfīi mysticism, animism, and Hinduism. As is the case elsewhere in the Muslim world, however, Indonesian Islam has undergone multiple waves of reform. The most recent followed in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The past several decades in particular have witnessed a visible shift toward more normative varieties of Islam, with an important focus on gender roles and the status of women.

Complementarity or Hierarchy?

Early visitors to the archipelago were impressed by the apparently high status of women, their relative autonomy, their high degree of public visibility, and their involvement in petty marketing and family finances. In a cultural paradigm widespread across Muslim and Buddhist Southeast Asia, men's and women's roles were viewed not as equal, but as complementary. Yet despite this idealized emphasis on complementarity, the status of Indonesian women has long been in tension with more patriarchal aristocratic and normative religious models, as well as the gender ideals of the colonial and postcolonial state.

Among the culturally and politically dominant Javanese (at 40 percent of the population, Indonesia's largest ethnic group), the complementary gender pattern is historically associated with abangan Javanese of nominal or syncretic Muslim persuasion. The pattern contrasts with both that of the santri (Indonesian, an observant Muslim, literally a student of an Islamic boarding school) and of the aristocratic priyayi (the traditional bureaucratic elite). Contrary to the stipulations of Shāfiʿī jurisprudence (the Sunnī legal school historically dominant in observant Muslim circles in Indonesia), in the complementary pattern, daughters inherit shares of family property equal to or sometimes even greater than those of their brothers upon the death of their parents or prior to death, according to need. In this model husbands and wives work cooperatively in the fields and in family-based business enterprises according to their talents and capacities. While it is the wife who oversees the household, the husband helps out by performing the heavier chores. Moreover he assists his wife with childcare and is especially attentive and affectionate when his children are young.

Among the aristocratic priyayi, by contrast, family relations are hierarchically ranked and the father is recognized as the undisputed head of the household. His superior position and status are expressed and reinforced by those ranked beneath him through appropriately deferential speech and behavior. He ideally spends little time involved in day to day household activities and in interactions with his children that could possibly diminish his dignity. Informed by a highly idealized model of feminine devotion, the wife's role in this model is to serve her husband selflessly and to sacrifice her own desires for the well-being of her family.

Women and Colonialism.

Rather than exercising a liberalizing influence, the Dutch rulers in colonial Indonesia reinforced the priyayi conception of gender roles and implemented a strict division between public and domestic spheres. On the model of the middle-class Victorian family, Dutch officials identified the husband as family patriarch and breadwinner and the wife as homemaker and mother. This emphasis was particularly strong during the period of the Ethical Policy, put into place in the early twentieth century when large numbers of men were recruited to work for the Dutch as clerks and petty administrators. One effect of this division of public and domestic domains was priyayi women's greater dependence on their husband's salaries and a corresponding diminution in their autonomy.

The hierarchical model of gender relations as developed under Dutch colonialism was vividly described in the published letters of the great Javanese priyayi writer Kartini, who later became a national heroine and model of Indonesian femininity. In her letters to Dutch friends, Kartini lamented the fact that young priyayi women were not allowed to continue their educations but were secluded (dipunpingit) within the household by age ten or twelve and could not go out unless accompanied by an appropriate chaperone and only with permission. During their time in seclusion, they learned to be modest young ladies and proper wives. They were taught to always be in control of their behavior: to walk slowly, to speak softly, and to avoid opening their mouths too widely when laughing or eating.

Notwithstanding ethnographic depictions of priyayi as nominal Muslims, many of the more patriarchal aspects of priyayi gender conceptions are consonant with, and have been informed by, santri interpretations of Islamic law. Priyayi drew heavily, for example, on the Muslim concept of kodrat (Indonesian) to legitimate the “naturalness” of the hierarchical gender order and women's inferior position relative to men. The term kodrat connotes “God's will” or “God's omnipotence.” It is related to the Arabic qadr/qadar/qudara-t, which means similarly “(God's) will or power” and has connotations of “fate” or “ability.” In its Indonesian usage kodrat provides a normative—and in particular, patriarchal—reference point for what are considered to be basic social and biological differences between the genders. According to his kodrat, the husband leads as well as provides for and protects his wife and children, reflecting the Islamic ideal of nafkah. By contrast, priyayi women conformed to their kodrat by providing sexual service to their husbands, giving birth to and raising children, and assuming primary responsibility for household chores and organization.

Women and Nationalism.

As Indonesia's first president, Sukarno (r. 1945–1966) instituted a form of neo-priyayi tradition as the dominant culture of the new republic. “Familism” was enshrined in the 1945 constitution and further elaborated during the Guided Democracy period (1957–1965) when the president abolished the elected parliament and instituted a centralized, executive-driven government. In this model, the bapak or “father” was the ultimate governmental authority, just as he was within the family. Conversely “the priyayi ideals of women as dedicated housewives became the ideal type for Indonesian women as a whole” (Dzuhayatin, 2001, p. 258). The irony, as Dzuhayatin points out, is that this tradition of women as middle-class housewives and no more was an ideal originally introduced to the archipelago only in the nineteenth century by the Dutch.

In fact Indonesian women had been active participants in the early twentieth-century struggle for national independence and had remained politically active in the early years of the republic. As Japanese control was lifted at the end of World War II, several large and active women's organizations emerged. Among these groups were the non-religious Union of the Women of the Indonesian Republic (Perwari); the nationalist-oriented federation of women's organizations, the Indonesian Women's Congress (Kowani); and the Indonesian Women's Movement (Gerwani), which was associated with the Indonesian Communist Party or PKI. In the early years of Sukarno's presidency, Perwari, Kowani, and Gerwani actively debated issues of women's education, marriage reform, and polygyny, with their Muslim membership often taking a more conservative position. The situation for women changed considerably, however, during the period of Guided Democracy, when Sukarno's agenda focused on nationalism and anti-imperialism and his presidency became increasingly authoritarian. Even the communist-linked Gerwani, the most vocal of women's organizations, had to subordinate its agenda to Sukarno's nationalist and anti-imperialist project.

In the aftermath of an attempted left wing military officers’ coup on 1 October 1965, the Communist Party was blamed for the attempt and targeted for destruction. Over the months that followed, several hundred thousand communist supporters were rounded up and executed. Gerwani was vilified and attacked as well. In her analysis of the Indonesian women's movement, Sexual Politics in Indonesia, the feminist scholar Saskia Weiringa argues that the young General Suharto, who took up the reins of government during the chaos following the failed coup, used a campaign of sexual slander against Gerwani to justify his takeover of the presidency from Sukarno. In the process he succeeded in linking the idea of women's political activity with sexual and moral depravity. Weiringa views this moment as essentially ending the women's movement in Indonesia. In describing gender roles under the New Order (the regime that succeeded the Sukarno government in a prolonged transition from 1965 to 1967), Weiringa writes, “the gendered nature of this state is best described by the forcible return of women to an Indonesian model of meek womanhood contained within a hierarchical male order” (Weiringa, 2002, p. 5).

Women and the New Order State.

Suharto's New Order reinstated the “family principle” or azas keluarga, the ideology that affirmed the family as the foundation of state and society. Although in practice there was a measure of contextual flexibility to the system, the formal model was one in which Indonesian women were unambiguously subordinate to men within the family, public life, and political affairs. In official pronouncements the New Order presented a highly conservative gender ideology through its own neo-priyayi elaboration of kodrat wanita. In this ideology women were positioned in the role of the middle-class housewife selflessly serving her husband, family, and the nation. Men, conversely, were identified as natural actors and leaders in the public sphere as well as in the home.

Two state-sponsored women's organizations played a central role in the propagation and acceptance of the government's gender ideology: the Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga (PKK) or the Family Welfare Movement and the Dharma Wanita or Women's Good Work. Established in 1974 for non-elite women, the PKK had a pervasive presence across all of Indonesia, from the most remote mountain villages to big cities. The organization had multiple functions. The first and most important was to promote pembangunan development, an integral component of which was the state's conservative gender ideology. This ideology emphasized above all, women's “responsibilities as custodians of the household and for bearing and nurturing the next generation of Indonesians” (Robinson, 1999, p. 248). The PKK actively and enthusiastically promoted the five duties of the Indonesian woman (the panca dharma wanita) as: producer of the nation's future generations, wife and faithful companion to her husband, mother and educator of her children, manager of the household, and citizen.

The organization also implemented the Family Welfare Program and its many related projects in neighborhoods and villages, including important programs for maternal and child health, many of which brought significant social benefits. The PKK was especially active in promoting the state's family planning program, which proved to be one of the more successful implemented in a Muslim country.

The elite women's organization Dharma Wanita was founded originally under Sukarno (with precursors under the Japanese) but took on an expanded role during the New Order when membership became compulsory for all women civil servants and civil servants’ wives. The organization's objectives in this case were to encourage women's civil service and participation in national development in accordance with their “natural” roles as wives and mothers. For the good of national development, women were expected to subordinate their own interests and careers to the careers of their husbands. In both the PKK and Dharma Wanita, the woman's position within the organization reflected her husband's rank and position within the government bureaucracy, not her own.

Women, Islam, and Modernity.

Despite these conservative gender projects, important legislation and social programs were put into place during the New Order, which dramatically improved the status of women. Women benefited from the 1974 marriage law, which set the minimum age of marriage at sixteen for females and enshrined the right to self-choice of marital partner. The law made divorce more difficult for Muslim men, requiring the involvement of a religious court. The law also declared that a man must obtain the permission of the court before taking an additional wife and provide a letter of consent from his current wife or wives indicating their agreement. Women also benefited from the educational policies of the New Order government, which succeeded in achieving near-universal primary education and dramatically increasing women's participation in secondary and tertiary education. As important, these educational developments have been accompanied by the substantial movement of women into the expanded civil service and professions.

Although the New Order generally kept a tight rein on political Islam, educational expansion as well as improvements in transportation and communications laid the foundation for the Islamic resurgence that began in the late 1970s and increased in momentum through the 1980s, culminating with the fall of the Suharto regime in the spring of 1998. This period saw a proliferation of mosque building, increased numbers of men attending Friday services, a rise in the popularity of religious study groups (pengajian), and a visible increase in the numbers of women in Muslim dress and headscarves. The period also witnessed a proliferation of Islamist groups, many but not all of which were conservative on gender matters. Groups like the Laskar Jihad, the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), the Indonesian Liberation Party (HTI), and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) espouse strict-constructionist interpretations of the Qurʾān and sunnah; most also seek to establish an Islamic state based on Sharīʿah law. They resist the active participation of women in public life and seek to limit women's interactions with unrelated (non-maḥram) men. Their rhetoric emphasizes the religious obligations of women rather than their rights, and extols the evils of globalization and the threat of western cultural decadence and consumerism.

The same social and educational developments achieved during the New Order era, however, have also supported the rebirth of an Indonesian women's movement and the rapid expansion of NGOs and other institutions dedicated to advocacy and research on gender issues. Some of these organizations work within a secular paradigm and some are associated with the young women's wings of the long-established moderate Muslim mass organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. NU's Fatayat NU and Muhamadiayah's Nasyiatul Aisyiyah are both actively working to further a rights-based agenda. They seek to change attitudes by challenging traditional Islamic teachings on gender and offering contextualized interpretations of key religious texts. Muslim gender activists place a lesser emphasis on matters of individual autonomy and choice than their secular counterparts in Indonesia. But they have otherwise joined with the secularists in promoting improvements in the situation of Indonesian women.


  • Blackburn, Susan. Women and the State in Modern Indonesia. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Traces women's activism and the policies of the Indonesian state in the twentieth century.
  • Brenner, Suzanne A. “Islam and Gender Politics in Late New Order Indonesia.” In Spirited Politics: Religion and Public Life in Contemporary Southeast Asia, edited by Andrew C. Willford and Kenneth M. George, pp. 93–118. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Southeast Asian Program.
  • Dzuhayatin, Siti Ruhaini. “Gender and Pluralism in Indonesia” In The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, edited by Robert W. Hefner, pp. 253–267. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.
  • Geertz, Clifford. Religion of Java. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960. The foundational work on Javanese social categories and varieties of religion.
  • Geertz, Hildred. The Javanese Family: A Study of Kinship and Socialization. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961.
  • Hefner, Robert W. Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Traces the history of Islam and democracy in Indonesia with an emphasis on the Suharto regime and its aftermath.
  • Kartini, Raden Adjeng. On Feminism and Nationalism: Kartini's Letters to Stella Zeehandelaar, 1899–1903. Translated with an introduction by Joost Coté. Monash, Australia: Monash Asia Institute, 2005.
  • Reid, Anthony. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680. 2 vols. Vol. 1: The Lands Below the Winds. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988. A history of life in Southeast Asia on the eve of western imperialism and colonialism.
  • Robinson, Kathryn. “Women: Difference versus Diversity.” In Indonesia Beyond Suharto: Polity, Economy, Society, Transition, edited by Donald K. Emmerson, pp. 237–261. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1999.
  • Sen, Krishna. “Indonesian Women at Work: Reframing the Subject.” In Gender and Power in Affluent Asia, edited by Krishna Sen and Maila Stivens, pp. 35–62. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • White, Sally, and Maria Ulfah Anshor. “Islam and Gender in Contemporary Indonesia: Public Discourses on Duties, Rights and Morality.” In Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia, edited by Greg Fealy and Sally White, pp. 137–158. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008.
  • Wieringa, Saskia. Sexual Politics in Indonesia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Analyzes the interaction between nationalism, feminism, and socialism in Indonesia beginning in the twentieth century with a focus on the communist women's organization Gerwani.
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