Muslim Feminism in Indonesia


A review of A Postcolonial Inquiry of Women’s Political Agency in Aceh, Indonesia: Towards a Muslim Feminist Approach?, by Reed W. Taylor.

Reed W. Taylor’s dissertation offers a postcolonial feminist approach to understanding the dynamics of women’s agency in the post-conflict and post-tsunami context of Aceh. The dissertation is written with the aim of speaking back to the ‘binaristic’ literature drawn between the juncture of religious (Islamic) feminisms and secular (non-religious) feminisms. Furthermore, he offers a conceptualisation of ‘Muslim feminism(s)’ as an alternative approach to this divide.

Chapter 1 introduces the main arguments of the dissertation and the author’s research methodology. The chapter offers three main points of departure. First, it offers a localised understanding of agency that is sensitive to intersubjective and non-state-centric ways of being, and an understanding of Islam as embodied practices and values. Second, it offers an analytical frame that reflects colonial legacies through which Acehnese women position themselves in the intersections of Indonesian, and Acehnese, nationalisms, colonial feminism, and Islam. Third, women’s active relationship with the deconstructing and reconstructing of religious laws is juxtaposed with the human rights-based approaches to women’s agency vis-à-vis religion.

This chapter is of particular interest as it problematizes the research on a disciplinary plan, as the author locates the thesis at the intersection of several disciplines: anthropology, sociology, history, political science, women’s studies, religious studies, and Southeast Asian studies. An entire section is indeed devoted to discussing what a multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary approach does, not only for the research process, but also to the dialogue it aims at having across disciplinary boundaries: finding new and innovative ways of understanding complex social, political, ethical, and cultural dilemmas, and suggesting that an interdisciplinary study allows for a more holistic approach to understanding questions of political agency/subjectivity as well as feminist politics (pp. 9-12). The author cites in particular three contemporary scholars whose works have contributed to theoretical as well as methodological understanding: Judith Butler’s understanding of subjectivity and performativity; Saba Mahmood’s widely cited criticism of liberal-secularist feminist notions of agency and freedom (including that of Butler’s); and Jaqueline Siapno’s ethnographic research on gender and religion, construction of women’s lives through space, and time and sociality (pp. 5-7).

Reed then makes a distinction between a postcolonial feminist approach (where postcolonial frameworks inform feminist practices) and a feminist postcolonial approach (where feminism informs the postcolonial approach). He does so with the aim of challenging the conceptual boundaries imposed by secular-liberalism on Muslim women’s subjectivities (p. 3), and providing instead an indigenous-localized understanding of agency for Aceh’s women that is egalitarian, non-state-centric, and grounded in local customs and norms (pp. 3-4). The author clarifies that the main aim of the dissertation is to learn from Acehnese women, from their own perspectives. In so doing, Reed puts forward the main argument: that Acehnese women’s political engagement, or their conceptualisation of everyday politics, is primarily located within informal political arrangements along the periphery, outside of the state (p. 8), and that their understanding of Shari’a should be framed as heterotopia.

Chapter 2 focuses on the question of Muslim women’s agency. It takes as its starting point the notions of agency that draw from liberal-secular understandings of individual choice and rationality. Illustrating the critique posited towards these understandings, the chapter proceeds to elaborate the ways in which the interviewed women narrate themselves in the world through Islamic values and local customs and norms, and suggests the emergence of pluralistic understanding of Muslim feminisms that are embodied within the socio-political space of Aceh.

Chapter 3 pursues a postcolonial feminist reading of Acehnese history, analysing the effect of disciplinary rifts between the study of Islam and the study of Southeast Asia. The chapter analyses two cases in order to understand the historiography emerging from women’s experience: namely, a comparison of historical heroines Raden Adjeng Kartini (from Java) and Cut Nyak Dhien (from Aceh), and argues for acknowledging patriarchal state-centrism within colonial historical narratives of Aceh.

Chapter 4 aims at reconceptualizing the understanding of ‘politics’ in Aceh as non-patriarchal and non-state-centric. The chapter does this through the concepts of muslihat (achieving one’s goals through ancillary or indirect means), ṣabr (perseverance in spite of adversity), and al-haya (reticence or modesty), thus aiming at mapping informal and intersubjective forms of political engagement, which are elaborated through the narrative of two women.

Chapter 5 focuses on the multiplicity of understandings of Shari’a in Aceh and discusses this situation through the concept of heterotopia introduced in chapter 1. Reed investigates how Aceh’s women inhabit, transform, construct, and deconstruct Shari’a allowing a move beyond the dichotomy of utopic/dystopic representations –which is furthered by breaking the secular/religious binomial already dominant in academic literature on Islamic feminism. In so doing, Reed identifies three views on shari’a: shari’a as a blueprint utopia, shari’a as state-centered iconoclastic utopia, and shari’a as communally-centered iconoclastic utopia.

Chapter 6, the concluding chapter, provides a synthesis of the previous chapters, addressing the themes that emerge from the research as well as relating them back to the theoretical and methodological aims of the dissertation: understandings of agency, feminist politics, and Islamic ethics.

Much of the existing literature on Islam and women in Aceh focuses on the institutionalised, or state-led, ‘sharitization’, possibly due to widespread interest –particularly in Political Science – in Aceh’s post-MoU state-building process (2005), and the strengthening of Shari’a law implementation. Taylor’s dissertation provides an important addition to the study of Islam that focuses instead on the everyday practices of religion, and on ethnographic literature that challenges this state-dominated approach, focusing instead on the processes of meaning-making at the level of the everyday lives of Acehnese women. Thus, the main contribution of the dissertation is in outlining an alternative approach to Shari’a, one that is based on an understanding of intersubjective (or communal, as the author calls it) non-patriarchy and non-state-centricity.

Reed’s dissertation is an important addition to the existing literature focusing on the intersection of women, state, and Islam in Indonesia, as well as to an emerging scholarship on gender and agency in the context of post-tsunami and post-conflict Aceh.

Marjaana Jauhola
Postdoctoral Researcher
Gender Studies
Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Arts
University of Helsinki

Primary Sources

67 semi-structured interviews with self-identified Acehnese adult women, conducted on the East and West coast of Aceh in 2009 and 2010

Dissertation Information

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. 2012. 220 pp. Primary Advisors: Peter Schmitthenner and Rachel Scott.

Image: Photograph by Author.

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