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Lyn Parker

Further information

About the author

Lyn Parker is Associate Professor in Asian Studies at The University of Western Australia. She teaches courses in Anthropology, Asian Studies, Indonesian and Women’s Studies. She is currently Team Leader of a major ARC Project on Adolescence in Indonesia, and for this she is conducting comparative anthropological fieldwork with teenagers in Minangkabau, Sumatra and Bali. Her books include From Subjects to Citizens: Balinese Villagers in the Indonesian Nation-State (NIAS Press, 2003), The Agency of Women in Asia (ed., Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2005) and Women and Work in Indonesia (co-edited with Michele Ford, Routledge, 2007).
Email: [email protected]

Publication details

Volume 17, November 2007

Of Faith and Feminism: Imagining Discursive Feminist Space for Muslim Women


This paper was triggered by some now-notorious comments of a Sydney-based Muslim cleric, Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali, and the public response to his words. In a Ramadan sermon in 2006, he suggested that the wearing of revealing clothing by women invited rape and adultery.1 He likened the flirtatious woman wearing a short skirt to uncovered meat, left out for a hungry cat to snatch. Newspapers in Australia had a hey-day with headlines: in Perth, the local newspaper dubbed him the “rape sheikh”2; there was great kerfuffle on talk-back radio shows, including much vitriolic anti-Islamic rhetoric 3; and Australia’s multicultural television channel, SBS, hosted a serious live television discussion on the topic, entitled “Asking for It”.4

Ordinarily, the Sheikh’s sermon would not have hit headlines nationwide or internationally. This imam of a major mosque in Sydney became “the rape sheikh” because he said those things at a particular historical moment in a local and international context in which the nature of Islam itself has been defined as a problem: his words seemed to prove it to the local (non- Muslim) audience. Further, one of the pillars of the so-called “Muslim problem” is the perception that women have a subordinate place in Islam – the Sheikh’s unwise remarks about “women asking for it” seemed to confirm a suspicion that Islam is both medieval and anti-woman.5 The position of women in Islam has been identified as an essential problem, perhaps not so much for Muslim women themselves as for Islam. The Sheikh’s words triggered an almost feminist response by normally conservative politicians, who defended women’s right to the freedom to wear whatever they liked in Australia.6

This hot media event presents an opportunity for public intellectual contribution, especially for those of us concerned about the decline of multiculturalism as government policy in Australia and the increasingly difficult position of Muslims in Australia, as elsewhere where they live as a growing minority. The possibilities for academic response are broad. My position as a feminist anthropologist who conducts research into Islam in Indonesia does not perhaps directly authorise my intervention in local disputes about Islam.7 Rather, for me it appears as an opportunity to show that there are different ways of being Muslim and of being a Muslim woman. Although this response is intended for public consumption, it is personal, in great part because it seems to me that my experience of being a secular anthropologist in societies in which the world is still, to use Weber’s phrase, “enchanted”, gives a presumably mainly secular and Western audience imaginative access to this basically religious world. In some respects, not least because of my religious childhood and secular adulthood, I have found that in writing this, I have been forced to clarify my subject position and thinking about Islam, about religion and religious faith in general, morality and moral authority, and different ways of doing feminism and being feminist.

My research on Sheikh al-Hilali’s and other recent representations of Islam in Australian public life has revealed an unlikely convergence between the views of some radical feminists and conservative politicians and commentators. They converge in agreeing that “the core of the Muslim problem… lies in the essence of Islam itself" (John Stone, 2006, italics in original) and that Islam is “harmful to women” (Winter 2001b). Bronwyn Winter, an Australian feminist academic, was actually writing in 2001, five years before the Sheikh’s sermon, and about Islamism rather than Islam, but at various points in her article she slides down the slippery slope of talking about religion in general: “The thesis of my article is that religion is male supremacist and as such ultimately harmful to women.” (2001b). These unlikely bedfellows do not directly engage with one another and would no doubt be horrified with the comparison. My interest is their conclusion: that Islam is harmful for women.

Not long after Winter had declared that Islam (along with marriage, the state, the family and some other key social institutions) is harmful for women, the American anthropologist, Lila Abu-Lughod, published an article entitled “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” in the prestigious journal, American Anthropologist (2002). She was asking if anthropology can provide a “critical purchase” on the justifications made for the American intervention in Afghanistan, i.e. in the name of liberating Afghan women from the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime. More recently, another American anthropologist, Saba Mahmood, has published a book on the women’s mosque movement in Egypt which begins with a chapter on “The Subject of Freedom” and the conundrum faced by liberal Western feminists: “why would such a large number of women across the Muslim world actively support a movement [i.e. Islamism] that seems inimical to their ‘own interests and agendas’, especially at a historical moment when these women appear to have more emancipatory possibilities available to them?” (2004: 2) In a footnote, she notes the added twist, that in many countries such as Egypt, Indonesia, Iran and Malaysia, it is upper- and middle-income (i.e. presumably better educated) women who particularly support the movement.

I would like to follow the path of these and other feminist anthropologists who use the approaches of their discipline to contribute to feminist understanding of religious belief, and particularly to secular feminist understanding of “faith-centred feminism” (Zine 2004). It seems to me that an outsider, secular, Western, feminist approach to fundamentalist religion can only lead to “Fundamental Misunderstandings” – indeed the title of Winter’s article. I suggest that anthropology, with its trademark methodology of immersion fieldwork, can make a worthwhile contribution to understanding the possibilities for women within Islam. Like Badran (2001: 47), in her response to Winter’s article, I cannot see how a condemnation of Islam as “bad for women” is going to help anybody get beyond “Fundamental Misunderstandings”. I too would like to “come in from another direction”. I seek to understand what Islam means to its believers, and to translate this into terms meaningful to a (probably mainly Western, educated and pro-feminist) audience.

Mahmood’s opening chapter analyses the problems for secular, Western feminists in coming to terms with Muslim women’s embrace of a revitalized Islam. She notes the common perception that these women must be deluded by false consciousness, unable to escape the chains of Islam and the strictures of family, community and mosque. She argues that at heart the Western feminist project locates women’s agency “in the political and moral autonomy of the subject” (2004: 7) and is animated by Enlightenment values that assume the universality of the desire to be free from relations of subordination. Liberalism (and, for my purposes, I would add Protestantism) contributes by linking the notion of self-realization with individual autonomy (2004:11). Feminists from the Western tradition cannot but assume that Muslim women must want to exercise agency and escape.

This, of course, raises the question of how we define feminism and of “what counts” as feminism. Feminists have long argued the aims, nature and borders of feminism/s, and since the 1980s have been struggling to accommodate feminisms outside the West as well as the feminisms of minority groups within the West – black, coloured, postcolonial, Third World, etc. Strathern noted that feminism has the twin objectives of analysing women’s status and of improving the situation of women who are understood to be subordinated, marginalised or repressed (1987). She described a productive tension between these two goals, particularly in relation to anthropology. While I really would prefer to avoid the deployment of a definition of feminism, for the purposes of this paper I will follow Mohanty’s working definition: that feminism can be understood as “being conscious of being a woman and doing something about the consequences of being a woman” (cited Zine 2004 from a 2001 lecture by Mohanty). This definition has the virtues of not assuming universal patriarchy, of promoting diversity in allowing for multiple ways of being both woman and feminist, and of focusing on both the experience of womanhood and the conditions that might oppress or marginalize women. Perhaps most advantageously, it throws the spotlight on feminist agency: the ethos of feminism means doing something to improve the condition of women.

In an earlier work (Parker 2005a) I have argued that feminist scholars should resist the common tendency to seek and salvage women’s resistance in the shape of opposition to dominant forces (such as Islam) and instead should recognize women’s agency in terms of the cultural context in which the subject finds and creates identity and meaning. This is a similar conclusion to that of Mahmood (“agentival capacity is entailed not only in those acts that resist norms but also in the multiple ways in which one inhabits norms.” 2004: 15), though she arrived at the same point via a different route to me. In broad terms, this approach is not unusual in anthropology – that is, the goal is to make sense of cultures from within cultures, and anthropology’s trademark methodology of fieldwork and participant observation is designed to enable cultural immersion to occur – but it is clear that to many feminists this approach reeks of cultural relativism and lets the patriarchal oppressor off the hook (Winter 2001b).8 I will return to this problem later.

However, there are also fundamental problems entailed in the discipline of anthropology. Among these are its “secular premises of logic and empiricism” (Stewart 2001: 325). Of course these are common to most disciplines in the social sciences, but anthropology is particularly affected by its European Enlightenment source and secular orientation because its primary subject has traditionally been the non-European Other. Further, its primary methodology has been and still is the experience of immersion fieldwork. Recently, anthropology has often been on the back foot, defending itself against attacks of neo-colonialism; one result has been a trend towards doing “anthropology at home”. However, many of anthropology’s subjects have been and remain enmeshed in a religious world-view. The Enlightenment replaced God with Man as the architect of the destinies of human beings (sic; Kapferer 2001: 341); anthropology identifies all human beings as authorities on the “nature and meaning of being human” (Kapferer 2001: 341). At the same time, the anthropologist’s job is to experience the Other, suspending disbelief, and then to demystify and demythologize through radical scepticism, cultural translation and comparison. These days we are inclined to be more explicit about the anthropologist’s own “existential realities” (Kapferer 2001: 342) and the potential for multiple interpretations of the subject/data; nevertheless “the paradox of the secular” is at the centre of Anthropology’s marriage of “the Cartesian notion of radical doubt with the phenomenological recommendation of the willing suspension of disbelief” (Kapferer 2001: 342). Thus, Stewart is led to ask, “Must religious convictions be set to one side in order for one to engage in anthropological research? Must anthropology be secularist in order to proceed? Or can anthropologists begin to factor their own religious backgrounds, beliefs and experiences into their research and writing?” (Stewart 2001: 325).

It would seem that the anthropologist’s religiosity or secularism has largely escaped the navel-gazing, auto-positioning and confession of “cultural baggage” that is now commonplace in anthropology, at least in the early chapters of doctoral theses. Hay suggests that “the key to doing ethnography is often found in bracketing any reality of our own to appreciate and understand the reality of the other.” (Hay 2005: 33). “Time” is important here: while it is routinely acknowledged that the fieldworker brackets their own reality during fieldwork, it is not at all clear when the “end bracket” comes into operation. There is still an assumption that anthropological work proceeds by discrete stages: fieldwork (immersion) is followed by withdrawal from culture which is followed by (secular) critical analysis and writing-up. It is at this end of the process that anthropologists have traditionally stepped outside the system of meanings of the target culture and applied exterior tools of analysis and evaluation – the anthropologist advances functional explanations of what religious belief “does” for people or for a society, analyses structures of meaning within myths, or more recently discusses revitalisations of religious identity.

Further, the training and institutional practices associated with being an anthropologist work towards an interest in and positive evaluation of the autonomous individual: “anthropologists necessarily embody a radical individualistic agency and work ethic essential to being able to go off, usually alone, to the corners of the earth to gather data and then write it up, again alone. We literally, and often against great odds, make our destinies in the world of academia.” (Hay 2005: 33) Thus, there is an impressive intellectual and disciplinary legacy, as well as considerable personal investment, that converge in channelling the anthropologist to become a secular, non-believing sceptic, perhaps unusually committed to an ethos of individual freedom and effort. Such an ethos seems to fit very comfortably within the parameters of Western liberal feminism, which Mahmood was critiquing.

Against this collage of some of the epistemological problems that beset the secular, Western, feminist anthropologist, I want to use both ethnography and autobiography to explore the potential for faith-based feminism. My ethnographic material comes mainly from fieldwork conducted in the hills of equatorial West Sumatra, Indonesia, in 2004 and 2007, among the Muslim and matrilineal Minangkabau, and I also draw briefly upon my fieldwork conducted in a Hindu Balinese village intermittently from 1980. The sources I use are field notes, transcripts of interviews and discussions mainly with young women and upper school students, as well as local newspapers and magazines, tabloids and Islamic guidance literature. My autobiographical material is my memory of childhood faith and teenage scepticism and rejection, a secular adulthood and my experiences of doing fieldwork in the two sites in Indonesia.

Islam and Feminism in Indonesia

I need to preface the discussion by introducing Islam, and particularly the Islam found in Indonesia. Internationally, the representation of Islam, and in particular the representation of women in Islam, has been dominated by Middle Eastern and Northern African (MENA) versions of Islam. Although MENA societies are home to fewer than 20 per cent of the world’s Muslims, the image of Islam as practised in MENA countries has been assumed to be universal or at least definitive (Offenhauer 2005: 1). Indonesia has often been totally ignored in authoritative texts about Islamic societies.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation: in the 2000 census, 88% of its 206 million people identified themselves as Muslim (BPS 2000; Fealy, Hooker and White 2006: 39). Indonesian Islam has long been described as an unusually tolerant and syncretist version – a “tropical” Islam that contrasts with the “fanatical”, strict Islam of the Middle East and particularly of Wahhabism. However, since the 1970s, Indonesia has been in the throes of Islamization, a revitalization of Islam that received considerable state support from the Soeharto regime from about 1990 (Schwarz 1994, Chapter 7; see also Barton 2001 and Hefner 1997) and is flourishing in post-Soeharto, democratizing Indonesia.

The two central meanings of “Islam” are submission to God and the acquisition of peace; the word “Muslim” means “one who through submission to God enters into peace” (Hulmes 1989: 31, cited Parker-Jenkins 1995: 24). The Qur’an is the holy book of Islam, and Muslims believe that it was revealed by God or Allah to his Prophet, Muhammad, in the seventh century AD. Islam is famous for its five pillars or basic duties which practising Muslims should perform: the declaration of faith, i.e. that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His prophet; prayers five times daily; the payment of zakah (social welfare tax); fasting during the month of Ramadan; and the pilgrimage to Mekkah (dependent upon means).

Islam in Indonesia is commonly portrayed as having a great division into modernist and traditionalist Islam. Although the situation is now so complex that such categorization is probably simplistic, my fieldwork experience was among Muslims who fall neatly into the modernist camp, so some explanation is likely to be helpful. It is mainly a doctrinal divide, but has social and political ramifications. Traditionalists are typically keen to preserve the authority of medieval scholarship and are tolerant of local, pre-Islamic customs; they usually follow the Sunni law school known as Shafi’i. Modernists follow the movement begun in the Middle East in the late nineteenth century and regard the theology and ritual of the traditionalists as impure and as a deviation from the original teachings of Islam. Modernists critique “blind adherence” to medieval dogma. They emphasize that empty, ritualistic following of the five pillars does not make one a good Muslim. They talk of awareness, knowledge and understanding of Islamic values, and believe that putting these into practice in everyday life is intrinsic to being a good Muslim. The good Muslim has a Muslim consciousness: “The goal of Islam – of its concepts, worships and teachings relating to values, attitudes and behaviour – is to create an Islamic personality within the Muslim individual.” (Haneef 1979: 63, quoted in Parker-Jenkins 1995: 25). Modernist Islam requires that good Muslims do not just live in a Muslim environment according to the five pillars: it aims to renew devotion within the individual. Devout modernist Muslims desire to develop into a mukmin – “a person with a conscious and embodied desire to submit to God’s will” (Frisk 2004: 177).

The women’s movement in Indonesia has long been influenced by both Islamic and Western feminisms, though Syamsiyatun claims that “religious feminism” only emerged in public as a separate and systematic discourse in the 1990s (Budianta 2002; Martyn 2005; Robinson 2006; Syamsiyatun 2006, 171). Feminism is not a term that many Indonesians use – as in many parts of the non-West (not to mention the West), feminism is the discredited “f?” word, which connotes not only a neo-colonising Westernization, but also undesired sexualities such as lesbianism and inappropriate social practice such as wearing mannish clothing, man-hating or outlandish individuality. The women’s movement, on the other hand, is a respected and respectable social movement (Martyn 2005). Indonesia’s first and best-known feminist, Raden Ajeng Kartini (1878-1904), is a state-declared national “hero” with a national holiday in her name; many women who would in other societies be called “feminists” have held and hold prestigious academic, political and religious positions – for instance, Indonesia is unlike many other Muslim-majority countries in having female judges in Islamic courts (Srimulyani 2006); many universities, including state Islamic universities, have Women’s Studies Centres; there is a thriving sector of women’s NGOs; post-Soeharto Indonesia enjoys one of the freest presses in the world and there is an abundance of books and journals devoted to the empowerment of women. The recent democratization process has not meant unfettered gains for women (e.g. see Brenner 2006), but an important element in that process has been a new quota system wherein 30% of the parliamentary representatives of political parties have to be women. A striking aspect of this newly energized movement is the brave terminology: “empowerment” is the key word.9

Some of Indonesia’s women’s activists are liberal, Westernized, highly educated and also Muslim (sometimes called secular Muslims); they usually talk of women’s rights within a discourse of human rights, gender equality and emancipation. Others are motivated by their religious faith, seeing gender inequality as injustice; social justice and equality are the “pillars” of their struggle (see, for example, Swara Rahima 2006; Bowen 2003). Many of these women (and men) see Islam as an egalitarian religion, which has been corrupted by local social and cultural conditions prevailing during the process of Islam’s transmission. A salient feature of the Islamic women’s movement in Indonesia is the identification of gender bias in the interpretation of Islamic texts (Robinson 2006: 172-3) and the strenuous efforts being made to reinterpret meaning in these texts. This scholarly process is proceeding with reference to the historical context within which Islam developed, rather than according to literal translation. As Bowen remarks, the fact that Islam was “revealed” in Arabic, and in a particular place and historical context, has led many to question the extent to which the revelations took account of that context and should therefore be interpreted differently in a different place and time (Bowen 2003, Chapter 7). Modernist Islamic scholarship in Indonesia turns on the question of ijtihâd – interpretation. Many of these women’s activists are struggling for the same rights and over the same issues as feminists in the West. For example, domestic violence is one issue which has come dramatically out into the open since the downfall of President Soeharto, not least because of the willingness of these explicitly Muslim women to address the issue.10 On the other hand, the issue of polygamy, allowed by Islam under strict conditions, continues to be an issue that Muslim activists cannot agree on.

Religious faith, auto-biography and anthropology

Since the post-modern “turn”, it has become fashionable for anthropologists to reflect in public upon their fieldwork experiences. In part this move was necessary in order to combat the idea that the anthropologist was a neutral, objective collector of facts in other societies, and indeed that there were objective facts standing there waiting to be collected. It was thought that if something of the fieldwork experience could be conveyed to the reader of anthropological texts, this myth would be deconstructed. It would become obvious through auto-ethnography that all knowledge is partial and subjective, contingent upon personal experience and for ever in flux. Furthermore, it was thought that intimate revelations would help to break down the Us/Them, Subject/Object, First World/Third World, and other, divides. These asymmetrical binaries support a global knowledge structure that enabled anthropologists to access the powerless, subordinate or marginal groups who typically form the object of the anthropologist’s project. By extension, it was hoped that this new epistemological framework would enable “subalterns” to speak for themselves.

I must admit to some reservations about some of these auto-ethnographies.11 After one has read a couple, they become repetitive, and tend to be less than revelatory, particularly since most of the revelation is about the preoccupied self rather than the target society. “Self-indulgent” is the word that often comes to mind. For these and other reasons I have until now avoided the practice. This time, though, it strikes me that what I am asking (most of) my audience to do is to imaginatively go through the same process that I went through in experiencing fieldwork. It is my hope that the “confessional autobiography” can “bring into being social awareness and acceptance” (Ihsan and Haidar 1990, cited in Watson 2000: 208).

I thought it might be helpful to briefly trace the thorny path I took to imagining faith-based feminism. I do not mean that I have become a convert to Islam. Rather, I mean that despite the apparent patriarchy of Islam I can now imagine how female Muslims can be feminists within their faith and using the resources of their religion.12 I have come to this position because of my personal biography and my construction of self in relation to “the Muslim Other”. My life history, the nature of anthropology and my identity as a professional anthropologist and scholar mean that I am committed to entering the world of the “Other” and, coming out of that world, to making sense of it to outsiders, to explain it as meaningful in accord with its own logic, values and system of meaning.

My own self construction during adolescence involved a process of growing away from my own childhood faith and my parents’ religiosity as Methodists (a branch of Protestantism). I eventually decided that their religiosity boiled down to having faith that the teachings of their religion were true. I questioned the facts of Christian religious history and some of the key tenets of Christianity (such as the resurrection of Christ, the nature of the Trinity and the reasons God allows suffering), explored other religions and read comparative literature and philosophy. I could not see that there was evidence that my parents’ god was any truer than any other. I think now that I treated religion then as a monolithic and too-systematic body of knowledge amenable to rational testing and a process of validation. However, my parents’ faith and religiosity had not come about through a similar process of rational questioning, comparison and contrast. I came to understand that my sceptical approach to religion was not one that they had taken. Gradually, through formal study of “Asian Studies” and then through doctoral studies in Anthropology, I came to understand that most people follow the religion that they are brought up in. This does not mean that their religion is not personally experienced or deeply felt – indeed, some Christians and Muslims who live in Christian and Muslim communities refer to their conversion or “reconversion” to indicate the nature of their religiosity and to distinguish themselves from their fellow-citizens who have not experienced a spiritual awakening.

I now recognize that a great deal of my teenage angst about religion was also a rejection of my parents’ moral authority, i.e. parental authority and their version of Christianity were all rolled up together for me. I was rebelling against Puritanism and what I saw as narrow-mindedness; I was aching for sexual, intellectual and other freedoms, tolerance, open-mindedness and opportunity. For instance, I could not see with what authority they rejected the right to enjoy pre-marital sex or supported participation in international wars.

Through study I came not to reject the idea of religion, even while I puzzled over the harm that religion can do. Religion is ubiquitous among human societies and has shown remarkable resilience in societies where it has been suppressed over decades. It serves a worthwhile function for individuals and societies, such that it would be silly to deny its power and usefulness. I did reject the idea that any one religion was ultimately right or “the best”, or that there is only one god and that his [sic] name was X or Y; and I have never been comfortable with proselytizing, particularly Christian, mission work. It always seemed compromised by global inequalities of power and wealth and world history over the last 300 years. My training as an anthropologist in my twenties and fieldwork in Bali softened my teenage rejection of organized religion, enabling me to see the ubiquity and functional utility of religion cross-culturally, and building my understanding that religion is important to people’s construction of the meaning of their place in the social, natural and supernatural world.

Working as an anthropologist in Bali, my impression of what religion meant to villagers was that it was both everything and nothing. I marvelled at the sheer amount of time and work women devoted to ritual; I wondered at villagers’ lack of knowledge and curiosity about the meaning of their ritual and the doctrines of their religion; I was fascinated at their frequent recourse to sorcery for explanations about events such as “accidents” and sickness. My fieldwork corroborated Geertz’ conclusion: that Balinese village religion is characterized by “orthopraxy” rather than orthodoxy (Geertz 1973: 177): “The Balinese, perpetually weaving intricate palm-leaf offerings, preparing elaborate ritual meals, decorating all sorts of temples, marching in massive processions, and falling into sudden trances, seem much too busy practicing their religion to think (or worry) very much about it.” (Geertz 1973: 176). I probably should also add that I came to an appreciation of ritual and the beauty of religion on several occasions in Bali, an appreciation that contradicted my teenage rejection of what I saw as empty ritual. Later, during travels in Europe, experiences of choral evensong, of Gothic cathedrals and such, led me to wonder afresh at the importance and beauty of religious expression. I have also come to understand the importance of religion as a source of identity, for groups as well as individuals, and to see how it is often indistinguishable from “culture”. I now think of religious traditions and knowledges as contextualized, historicized paradigms of thought, made real and true for people through faith, spiritual experience, community and family religiosity, artistic and ritual expression, as well as their efforts to lead good lives according to religious precepts.

So training and fieldwork as an anthropologist in some ways and to some extent caused me to be more tolerant of religious belief, though I was never tempted to even consider religious conversion. On the other hand, as described above, there are ways that training in social science, including, and perhaps even particularly, anthropology, teaches secular scepticism. Further, as Hay noted (2005: 33), the training and institutional practices associated with being an anthropologist work towards an interest in and positive evaluation of the autonomous, individual, follower of freedom: when I think about my unintended career in the context of the career and living choices of my high school cohort, I am very unconventional. There is a danger here of constructing the anthropologist as hero, but the anthropological career, particularly with its exotic fieldwork component, can be seen as a search for alternative ways of living. Hence, there is an impressive intellectual and disciplinary legacy, as well as considerable personal investment, conspiring to channel me as an anthropologist to be a secular, non-believing sceptic.

Auto-Ethnography among the Muslim Minangkabau

I had been doing intermittent anthropological fieldwork in Indonesia, among the Hindu Balinese, for twenty-odd years when I switched to studying the matrilineal and Muslim Minangkabau. I could think of no more clearly different culture in Indonesia, except perhaps a highly urbanized secular group, and had always harboured a dream of studying this ethnic group: the combination of matriliny and Islam had always seemed an intriguing paradox; their traditional lineage long-houses, with their picturesque buffalo-horn roofs, inhabited and inherited by generations of women, appealed; and I wanted to work in the beautiful equatorial highlands of Sumatra. I need to stress at the outset the indivisibility of Islam and adat (culture), an entanglement that the Minangkabau constantly acknowledge and are proud of. Here I discuss some aspects of being female in this profoundly and enthusiastically Muslim society, including some of my personal experiences of being female and non-Muslim. I focus on two aspects in some detail: the issue of tight veiling and how this affected me, and young women’s dreams and aspirations for their lives after school.

I must acknowledge that while much feminism in “the West” is “done” by intellectuals and scholars, in this section I am perhaps unfairly “seeking feminism”, or at least imagining the possibilities for an Islamic women’s consciousness, among ordinary women and girls in Minangkabau. It would be interesting to seek a similar consciousness among, say, ordinary Australian women and girls and conduct a parallel investigation.

I began fieldwork in West Sumatra in 2004, in the middle of a moral panic about the socializing of young people, especially teenage girls and young women. As my research topic was female teenagers, this was like finding gold. Everybody I spoke to was surprised when I told them that this was my research topic, then they would nod sagely – they could instantly see why it was important: their culture was under attack (from “the West”), and it was young people who were vulnerable. Free seks and drugs were the main weapons of the attack. Minangkabau identity and Islamic morality were at stake. The solution, I was told by young and old alike, was to fortify (membentengi) young people with the teachings of religion and culture. The Minang struck me as an enterprising, open and vibrant people; they insisted on the indivisibility of Islam and their local culture (adat), were utterly religious in their worldview, enthusiastic about their religion and fervent in their faith.

No sooner had I started fieldwork than I found myself in a discussion about the position of women in Islam. In my first week, I visited a famous state senior high school.13 Education levels for girls are very high in this province, among the highest in the country and in the Muslim world. A delightful and animated group of bright young women, taking the prestigious science stream in this top school, invited me to come again to their school on a Sunday morning, and we would have a discussion about the position of women in Islam, in English (for this was to be educational for them). In a discussion conducted in a mix of English and Indonesian, they claimed that there was no problem for women in Islam. On the contrary, they claimed that women are respected and honoured (mulia) in Islam; that people are equal (sama rata) before Allah; that women are mothers and therefore responsible for the moral education of the next generation and are to be highly respected. Furthermore, Minang culture protects women by making provision for the livelihood of women and children through the matrilineal inheritance system.

After initial surprise, I took their claim that there was no problem for women in Islam seriously, i.e. as an earnest declaration of Islam as an ideal religion, for both men and women. I quickly became interested in the phenomenon of tight veiling (i.e. wearing the jilbab), which was new in Minangkabau, particularly because many schools had recently made the jilbab compulsory as part of school uniform (Parker 2005b; Parker forthcoming). Since the jilbab was now compulsory at school, the material question for teenage girls was whether or not they would wear the jilbab out of school. My junior female informants explained how the jilbab not only showed their piety and commitment to Islam, it helped them become more devoted by its disciplining of the body. They were concerned that I understand that the commitment to wear the jilbab should come from the heart, and could not be imposed from outside. Those who chose not to wear the jilbab mostly explained their non-wearing in religious terms: that their religious practice was not yet virtuous enough for them to make the claims that jilbab-wearing entailed. I took these earnest expressions of devotion and submission at face value, whilst noting deviations from the piety camp: it was definitely fashionable; some girls thought the jilbab made them look pretty and feminine; some girls did not wear it because it was too hot, or made their cheeks look fat, and so on. I made no attempt to wear the jilbab or anything resembling a head scarf, assuming that my non-Islamic affiliation would have made such an attempt ludicrous.

Imagine my surprise when, near the end of my fieldwork, upon entering a pesantren (Islamic boarding school), the principal asked me to wear the jilbab. He made it clear that I would not get past the guest room without a jilbab. I immediately said that I was not a Muslim, to belay any misapprehensions on that score; nevertheless, he insisted that upon my return I wear a jilbab. I agonized over it: not because I was a Western feminist who refused to wear the veil as a symbol of submission to patriarchy, but because I had so completely absorbed my student teachers’ lessons about the jilbab as an expression of Islamic devotion that came from the heart. I was embarrassed to be seen apparently taking the jilbab so lightly: my earnest teachers had impressed upon me that once donned, the jilbab should never be taken off, and some had claimed that taking it off was like being naked in public. Because I was a professional anthropologist who needed to collect data, I donned the jilbab, but I felt that he had cheapened his religion. Although these are my words, many Minang people to whom I told this story agreed with me, explaining his point of view as that of “orthodox” Islam, or due to his position of power as school principal.

On the other hand, during subsequent fieldwork, I came to understand that some people were not so tenacious or “pure” in their thinking about the meaning of the jilbab. I attended a ceremony at my neighbourhood mosque, which was to celebrate the “graduation” of children from their Qur’an-reading courses, held at the mosque. There was a display of their reading in the mosque, and a colourful and noisy parade around the community, which proud mums and dads, family and friends followed. Beforehand, my host mother had suggested I wear a jilbab for the occasion, so I did, without any qualms or angst. Many people in the community were pleased with my adoption of the jilbab on this occasion, seeing it as a polite sign of respect by a guest.

My first disappointment over the apparent dominance of men in public life in West Sumatra – as governor, as regents and heads of government at lower levels, as heads of universities, colleges and schools – gradually gave way to a realization that the local, ethnic group gender and kinship system could not be disentangled from notoriously patriarchal state and Islamic gender ideologies. As fieldwork progressed and my understanding deepened, I was impressed by the mobility, activity and leadership of women in schools and in the community, by the loud voices of mature women, and their easy assumption of leadership positions. When I went to weddings, it was women who were clearly hosting the event; when a family moved house, it was because the woman decided that the old place was no longer suitable; women were capable, respectable, honoured, senior members of parliament, of local community groups and clans. Women came and went on their motor bikes and by public transport at will, sometimes chauffeured by brothers or husbands; women bought fridges, motor bikes or plane tickets to Jakarta, accompanying their sons or daughters to strange cities to see them safely settled in before university classes started; young women moved away from home and family to continue their education, often boarding with strangers in boarding houses. I was instructed (and often made uncomfortable) by an ustadzah, a female preacher, who travelled all around town and beyond, preaching, teaching and trying to convert the population (and me) to a more deeply-felt, Islamic consciousness. I was impressed by the self-possession of women leaders in clans, schools, mosques, the community and the provincial parliament – women who took it upon themselves to organize major events, to chivvy their lazy male colleagues into action, to initiate programmes such as sex education in schools and to establish women in the reinvented nagari (institutions of local government). What was most instructive was their air of “It is right and good that I am doing this leading”.

This female confidence and assurance, the female ownership of some businesses and of houses, and the female occupation of leadership roles, were refreshing. However, they were contradicted at an ideational level by the (Islamic and state-promulgated) gender ideology. This discourse assigned leadership positions to men, by virtue of their presumed greater strength (of mind as well as of body), and associated maleness with rationality and femaleness with susceptibility to emotion (perempuan itu pemikirannya lebih berat kepada perasaan, kalau laki-laki pemikirannya lebih berat kepada rasio, rasional – FGD 13/2/2007). Informal as well as focus group discussions with female students at various institutions (Islamic boarding schools, state and private schools and colleges) revealed a discourse that had naturalized these gender constructions: men are “naturally” less likely to cry than women, women would be weaker as leaders because they are more emotional, more persuadable, more plastic, more easily tempted (labil, mudah tergoda); men are more logical, more just (adil – FGD 2007), more wise (bijaksana). At the same time, there was unanimity in proclaiming that women are highly respected and honoured in Islam (as was proclaimed at that first discussion), that “women who are Muslim are fortunate because Islam looks after them” (wanita yang beragama Islam beruntung sekali, karena Islam menjaga diri mereka - FGD 13/2/2007). At a more concrete level, young women were able to see that the particular case could contradict this ideology: for instance, in a 2004 discussion about women as leaders there was a debate over whether or not a woman, in this case the female presidential candidate, Megawati, could preside over men. The students were clear that this was not a problem in Islam or for them – they dismissed those who ranted against her candidature as people who wilfully made politics out of religion.

The aspirations and dreams of young Minangkabau women reflect their religiosity, their nationalism, their class backgrounds and the feelings of love, obligation and gratitude they have towards their parents and families. Their ambitions for life after school largely differ according to the type of school they attend: academic, vocational or Islamic, public or private. The state academic senior high schools, which were considered the best schools where I was working, were dominated numerically by girls. These young women clearly relished the opportunities afforded them by education, and had great ambitions for the future. They wanted to become psychologists, to work in international companies, to become doctors and medical specialists, journalists and interviewers, PR experts, CEOs, diplomats - even the President. They knew where they wanted to go for university, and many aimed for the top universities in the country and overseas. For students at these “favourite” high schools these were not unrealistic dreams.

The vocational schools, both private and state, were mainly chosen by those in lower socio-economic levels. Students in the vocational schools had usually chosen this type of school in order to enhance their prospects of getting a job straight from school. The student population mainly followed preconceptions about the ways different occupations are ideally gendered: girls predominated in the business/secretarial schools and boys predominated in the “technical” schools which prepared students for the building and automotive trades. At a high level of idealism, students in all schools hope to become doctors; in more realistic mode, they tend to choose occupations and life ambitions that reflect class positions: thus, many boys at technical schools aim to become mechanics or to own their own automotive workshops. Girls in vocational schools typically aim for work in the tourism industry, as public servants, accountants or other office work.

At Islamic schools, young women’s responses to questions about aspirations and plans for the future were often very idealistic but also more vague and unrealistic. Although it is generally acknowledged that the Islamic schools cater to less advantaged socio-economic groups, I found significant differences among them. Girls would often say that they wanted to be useful to their families, to society, to the country and to Islam; many said they wanted to make their parents proud and happy. (Such sentiments were common across the board, and not by any means restricted to students of Islamic schools.) Many expressed the desire to spread a deeper consciousness and greater commitment to Islam in society, as a contribution to dakwah (missionizing Islamic reform). Some students in Islamic schools had boiled this down to actual occupations such as teachers, lecturers or preachers; one student in a private modernist Islamic boarding school saw Islamic banking as a field where there was need for religious knowledge and commitment; another young woman in the same school had an ambitious set of plans that included getting a doctorate, working in government to make better laws and establishing a school for poor children.

Apart from occupational plans and aspirations, I asked female students more generally about aspirations for their personal futures: all but one of the girls that I interviewed (37 in 2004, 35 in 2007) wanted to study and find work, get married and have children, in that order. Often this projected schedule was the answer to my question, Do you want to get married?, which I followed up with the question, When? The answer to the first question was so naturally yes, that many found it a ludicrous question; likewise, questions about did they want to have children and how many were considered silly: naturally, all people would want to have children. However, it is noteworthy that many young women expressed their dreams for the future in the same way as Dada, a student at a private pesantren: Do you want to have children? “Yes, after I’ve realized my dreams”.

These personal dreams and ambitions were held not in spite of religious devotion but rather within religion; indeed it was often a desire for stronger personal religiosity and greater religious knowledge that motivated these young women. This was a desire to improve the self – for this was a modernist, “Protestant” Islam – often in combination with religious missionary zeal (dakwah) – not to convert non-Muslims to Islam but to motivate the Islamic community to become more sincere (ikhlas) in their faith and more moral in their everyday practice.

Sometimes, with one eye on Western liberal and radical feminism, I specifically asked about “freedom” and personal expression, and was assured that Islam enabled personal freedom and expression. Using the obvious example of women’s dress, young women described how they felt more comfortable, freer to carry out any activity or movement, and free of the male predatory gaze when wearing loose Islamic clothes, which are more “polite”, than if they were wearing tight hipster jeans or a skimpy top. “So there is no feeling of lack of freedom”, one participant declared in a FGD, 2007. When pressed to consider if this did not indicate a prevailing male sexual power, my teenage informants claimed that females were responsible with males to ensure that sexuality morality was upheld. My young teachers were articulate in explaining how personal freedom without religious ethics, social responsibility and morality can lead to overweening egotism, materialism and all the vices associated with the secular West: “free seks”, “broken homes”, drug abuse, and a litany of other “vices”. My sense of their lack of knowledge of the cultural context with which such accusations were levelled often cut in at this point in discussions. For instance, many Indonesian young people assume that young people in the West have a total freedom that includes, for young women, multiple boyfriends and sexual partners, not living at home, no consideration of parental desires or authority, unlimited finances, and so on. Even my simple statements explaining that most high school students in my home city in Australia have to wear a school uniform elicited expressions of surprise and disbelief; similarly, I would sometimes describe my daughter’s emailed requests to attend parties or be allowed to go out on Saturday night and discuss with them my quandaries and worries, much to their amazement. Although most Minang teenagers side with the voice of authority in such discussions, there is also an ambivalence about the hedonism of the West: on the one hand, the West is the source of evil, but on the other it is the admired and the desired.

It has struck me that this moral panic about “free seks” is something like a re-run of my teenage years spent in the so-called “Bible belt” of north-west Sydney in the 1970s. My fieldwork in high schools in Indonesia has sometimes put me in an awkward position: for instance, school teachers not infrequently invite me to address classes or participate in seminars where it is assumed that I am concerned about the moral degeneration of the current generation of Minang teenagers. Sometimes I am asked what I see as the antidote to the temptations of sexual hedonism, the increasing frequency of “broken homes” or other perceived social problems. As I have no particular desire to discourage or outlaw sex outside of heterosexual marriage nor to see women back in the kitchen in order that homes are not “broken”, I sometimes have to resort to the classic politicians’ ploy of not really answering questions. Nevertheless, I do also feel discomfort when young Muslim women point to the display and objectification of the female body in the raunchy video clips that accompany Western pop songs, televised uncensored into the more comfortable of living rooms in Indonesia via satellite television channels such as MTV.

I hope this far from comprehensive ethnography shows something of the discourses in play for young modernist Muslim women in urban environments in Indonesia. I hope it also shows that modernist Islam can be said to provide young Minang women with ambition, self-awareness, confidence, opportunity, and motivation to improve their own lives, and to serve their family and community. In some cases, Islamic education inspires young women to enhance the religious motivation and sincerity of their Muslim fellow-citizens. Islam can also be said to constrain their sexual freedom, to prohibit some types of social intercourse (such as male-female dating), and to impose moral authority.

In some ways, I have come full circle, meeting in contemporary West Sumatran modernist Islam similar constrictions to those I experienced as a teenager in 1970s Protestant Sydney. However, between my adolescence and my recent fieldwork I imbibed the secular scepticism and religious tolerance of anthropological training, experienced the alternative Balinese way of “doing religion”, learned painful lessons from parenthood and now once again find myself coming to grips with a Puritan version of a religion of The Book. I hope that these intervening years have not produced another straight rejection, but a more mature understanding and critical appreciation of what constitutes “religion” for followers of religion.


While some feminists condemn religion as “bad for women”, and claim that cultural relativism lets the patriarchal oppressor off the hook (Winter 2001b), I want to argue that secular scholars have a prior duty: to understand the meanings of religion for women who live within a religious worldview and want to experience religiosity or to improve their own and others’ religiosity. The condemnation of Islam at the outset closes off possibilities for feminist interpretation and agency and is not a helpful or productive way to proceed, particularly when a secular worldview is not available in the discursive habitus, when women live their whole lives within an Islamic epistemological and moral framework and when women feel that religion offers an enriching resource. Anthropology’s principle methodology – immersion fieldwork – forces the (secular) scholar to enter an alternative reality and value system. It is expected that the anthropologist attempts to suspend disbelief and scepticism while in the field, and then to apply critical scepticism and the tools of comparative analysis in the effort to translate that alternative reality in a way that is meaningful to an exterior academic (and sometimes more general) audience. This process forces the anthropologist to present the “native’s point of view”. In working through this process, I have come to critically appreciate the way religion, in this case, Islam, can enable women’s agency in doing something about being female in an Islamic society.

I am forced, I discover through my auto-ethnography, to discuss not just Islam but “religion” in general. My experience of religion as it has been practised and experienced in different ways by different followers has alerted me to the many ways in which religion can operate and in which human beings can be religious. Religion can be a blueprint for a way of life, as Gellner claimed for Islam (1981); this way of following religion provides easy answers. In my Protestant upbringing and in the assumption of Minang authority figures that the loose sexual morals of young people were a bad thing, religion was thought to provide a clear moral authority. In village Bali, religion was a total discourse, such that it was enmeshed in all aspects of life, was unquestioned and bound all people in a working religious community. Religion can provoke a life of good works; religion can be experienced as spirituality to the point of religious ecstasy; religion can be a philosophy or intellectual system subject to validation and testing; religion can provide an identity that provides its followers with a secure and valid self-representation in society. It is also the case that religion can be mobilized by the powerful to enhance their power – the schoolmaster’s insistence on my wearing the jilbab is a case in point; we can gaze upon the great Gothic cathedrals in Europe to understand that religion can be inspirational, but at the same time provide the justification for the mobilization of labour to have great works built or wars waged. Religion can also be “up for grabs” – its practitioners can argue, interpret, change their minds, try to come to grips with grey areas, and agree, or not, to differ. Although Islam is a revealed religion, it should not be essentialized and fixed; Islam is a “flag over disputed ground” (Eliot 1967 [1876]: 527).14

The ethnography above shows how Islam shapes the lived reality of young women in Minangkabau; how, through religious devotion and sincere submission, they create an identity for themselves as good Muslims; how Muslim women are active shapers and leaders of society; and how Islam provides young Muslim women with inspiration to build productive and successful lives. Indeed, when we consider that many of the women who have led the Islamization movement are the best educated women, and the sincere and often fervent way they have created their identity as leaders, we can see that there is no possible way to proceed but to take this lived reality into account.

I am not claiming that the world-view of Minangkabau Islam is feminist, nor is this a “matriarchal” society, as has been recently claimed (Sanday 2002). The acceptance of a patriarchal gender ideology and justification for male leadership (even in the face of obviously capable, actual leadership by Minangkabau women) presented above should be enough to indicate some of the contrary, explicitly anti-feminist discourses that also shape Minang women’s understandings of women’s place in Islam. These young women do not often express a sense that they experience patriarchy, including religious patriarchy, as an inequality or injustice, though such forces are clearly present in the society. However, young Minangkabau women do find in Islam the inspiration and religious resources to advance their own lives, to shape their own religiosity and to try to improve society. There is feminist space here: there is potential for a faith-based feminism to open these young women’s eyes to inequalities and injustices for women and others, and to encourage a more critical gaze on the religion that is lived in this society.


1. His words were part of a Ramadan sermon. He used the word zina, which was widely translated as adultery, hence my use of it here, but zina refers to fornication outside marriage – thus it can refer to pre-marital as well as extra-marital sexual intercourse. The story broke in newspapers on 26 October 2006. See, e.g. from The Australian, “Muslim leader blames women for sex attacks” by Richard Kerbaj. Accessed 19/12/06. https://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,20646437-601,00.html
A translated transcript of the sermon appeared online very quickly (28th October) “Revealed: the Mufti uncut”. Accessed 19/12/06. https://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,20656690-601,00.html

2. The headline was “Muslims defend the rape sheikh”, The West Australian 2 November 2006. This Perth headline was seen by some to “say it all”, e.g. an opinion piece printed in the Melbourne Age newspaper picked it up in an article by Waleed Aly, director of the respected Islamic Council of Victoria, entitled “The Hilali row has fuelled a siege mentality” on 6/11/06:

“Muslims defend the rape sheikh” screamed the headline in The West Australian. There, in one hysterical splash, is distilled the mass of confusions surrounding the latest controversy of Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali. The narrative is simple: man justifies rape, Muslims justify man.

Similarly, bloggers picked up the catchy nomenclature, e.g. the blogger, “The Raving Wingnut, Crazed fatwas of a dangerous lunatic” titled his/her blog on Thursday, November 02, 2006, “The West Australian calls al-Hilaly the “rape sheikh”. See  

Another weblog borrowed the title unacknowledged, able to assume that the audience knew by now to whom he was referring, so notorious had the sheikh become: “Rape Sheikh Praised Jihad”. See https://littlegreenfootballs.com/weblog/?entry=23137&only

3. The comments by al-Halali followed rather similar public comments made the previous year by another Sydney Sheik, Faiz Mohamad. See the report titled “Muslim leader's rape comments under fire” in The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April, 2005. Accessed 19/12/06. https://www.smh.com.au/news/National/Muslim-leaders-rape-comments-under-fires/2005/04/27/1114462095594.html

At that time, usually-dour, suited, grey men not known for their feminism made sensational remarks, e.g. the NSW Opposition Leader, John Brogden, described the Sheik's comments as prehistoric and said, "This guy ought to go back to the cave where he belongs" SMH report, as above.

The link between the two comments was also made by Judy Lattas in a feminist blog, Punchin’ Judy - A Women’s Studies blog, Monday, 6 November 2006. Accessed 19/12/06. https://wpmu.innovation.cfl.mq.edu.au/talkingpoint/category/feminism/

4. The Insight programme headed “Asking For It”, was screened on Tuesday, 7 November 2006 at 7.30pm (Asking For It 2006).

5. John Stone, “The Muslim Problem and What to do About It” Quadrant Magazine Australia, Sept 2006, vol. L, No. 9. Available online at https://www.quadrant.org.au/php/issue_view.php?issue_id=79.  Accessed 22 November 2006.

“We need to understand that the core of the Muslim problem – for the world, not merely for Australia – lies in the essence of Islam itself. It is the problem of a culture that, for the past 500 years or so at least, has failed its adherents as its inward-looking theocracy has in it falling further and further behind the West. …women, while respected so long as they stick to their appointed place in the Islamic scheme of things, are less than equal to men generally.” (pg 4 of 11, emphasis in original)

6. The Prime Minister is reported to have said: “I totally reject the notion that the way in which women dress, the way in which women deport themselves can in any way be used as a semblance of a justification for rape.” Transcript titled “PM condemns Hilali rape comments” PM radio program, broadcast around Australia on the ABC, on the radio program PM - Thursday, 26 October , 2006 18:31:00. Reporter: Kathryn Roberts. Transcript available at https://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2006/s1774556.htm. Accessed 19/12/06

Back in 2005, the Federal Treasurer, in response to Sheik Faiz Mohamad’s similar comments, Peter Costello said: "Australian women are free to dress in the western style and nothing gives an excuse for them to be molested in any way. This is Australia. Women are free to dress as they choose and they deserve to be safe on our streets and in our parks and they are entitled to respect." “Muslim leader's rape comments under fire”, reported in The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April 2005. Accessed 19/12/06. https://www.smh.com.au/news/National/Muslim-leaders-rape-comments-under-fires/2005/04/27/1114462095594.html

7. There is no doubt that there were particular local issues summonsed by his comments. The comments were widely interpreted to refer back to a gang rape in Sydney, which was interpreted by some as having been inflected with inter-religious/ethnic antagonism.

8. In a useful recent review of the literature on women in Islamic societies, Offenhauer notes the “explosion” of writing on women in Islam since 1970 and divides the work into two camps: the more positive accounts, often by feminist Muslim scholars, often argue that it is not Islam that is to blame for the subordinate position of women in many Islamic societies, but other social, economic or historic conditions, e.g. in many oil-based Middle Eastern economies the gendered division of labour is more to blame than Islam (Moghadam 2003); the protagonists in the second, more negative camp are often quite unqualified in blaming the misogyny of Islam per se for women’s low status and ill treatment in Islamic societies (2005: 14-15). There are also sensationalist films and novels such as Not Without My Daughter that fall into this second camp. They typically describe “escape” from Islam, as a misogynist religion, or present an Orientalist view of Islam as exotic but patriarchal. Interestingly, Offenhauer notes that anthropologists predominate among scholars working on women and Islam and they especially dominate the first, positive camp, emphasizing the heterogeneity of Islamic societies and usually focusing on the ways in which Muslim women manage to negotiate and achieve their own desired ends within a circumscribed context.

9. For instance, Ibu Khofifah was appointed Minister for Women’s Empowerment under President Abdurrahman Wahid.

10. For example, the latest edition of Swara Rahima, a journal which describes itself as “Islamic Media for the Rights of Women”, is devoted to “Islam Rejects Violence Towards Women” and includes articles on sexual violence within marriage, the theology of “anti-violence”, and on making Islamic schools (pesantren) a medium for the empowerment of female victims of violence.

11. Some of these objections are rehearsed in Jolly, 2005.

12. Incidentally, I do not think that in my experience of fieldwork I was ever able to break down the quite substantial boundary that divided me from my research “objects”/participants. My non-native tallness, whiteness, blue-eyedness, my age (fifty-odd), my non-Islam, my status as “professor”, my inability to speak the Minang language, my assumed wealth and some other more minor differences conspired to construct me as eternally and fundamentally different from my Indonesian, Muslim, student, teenage and young adult research participants. Nevertheless, I do think they often found me a safe repository for secrets and confided in me, sometimes as a mother and sometimes as an intimate friend (kawan curhat), and sometimes as a safe outsider – some more than others, of course, because I was able to spend time with them, to exchange confidences, to have fun with them, and just because we liked each other. Also, I had the feeling that many of them felt a sense of responsibility to have me understand the true nature of Islam. This was no doubt partly a response to the international situation, and particularly to the Australia-Indonesia relationship. For instance, I was at a pesantren the day after the Australian embassy in Jakarta was the target of an Islamicist terrorist attack, and the same principal who had insisted I wear the jilbab was at great pains to assure me that Islam is a religion of peace and to make me feel safe at his school. Some young friends told me things that they said they did not tell their friends, and asked for my secrecy; others gave me their diaries, and asked me not to tell their friends their secrets. Sometimes I felt that this requirement of secrecy was implicit in the relationship.

13. Secondary schools in Indonesia are at two levels: junior high schools (sekolah menengah pertama) are for students aged 13-15 years; senior high schools (sekolah menegah atas) are for students aged 16-18 years. Senior schools in the province of West Sumatra can be divided into three types: “academic” or general, vocational and religious. In each of these categories there are both private and public (state) schools.

14. With this phrase George Eliot was referring, in Daniel Deronda, to “second-sight” rather than Islam. Given her great interest in, and formidable intellectualization of, “religion” and its relationship to science, knowledge and personal experience, it does not seem inappropriate to apply the phrase to Islam.


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