More than half of working-age women in Indonesia are in the labour force and many have achieved leadership positions both in the public and private sector, yet there remain voices that question women’s role outside the home.
Arguments that the role of women is to care for the home—and that it is contrary to Islamic teaching for women to seek economic self-determination—are common in social media platforms in Indonesia.
Messages like this limit women’s economic participation in Indonesia, and policy research organisation Rumah Kita Bersama (Rumah KitaB), an Investing in Women partner, seeks to counter this narrative through its book Fiqh on Working Women. This study into the interpretation of religious texts provides an alternative perspective and a methodology for supporting working women based on the values of essential justice in Islam and demonstrating that it is not forbidden for women to work outside the home.
“There are many opportunities for women to work because of both the acceleration of education and the demands of the labour market. In the past few years, however, narratives that criticise women working outside the home and question women’s leadership have arisen. Sadly, narrow religious arguments related to gender-biased norms are used to argue against women working,” Rumah KitaB Executive Director Lies Marcoes, M.A., said during a webinar to launch the Muslimah Bekerja (Working Muslim Women) social media campaign on 24 March.
More than 250 participants joined the webinar, including leaders from the public and private sector, Muslim clerics, social media activists, researchers and academics.
Dr. (HC). Dra. Hj. Sinta Nuriyah Abdurrahman Wahid, M.Hum., former First Lady of Indonesia, delivered the keynote speech, where she highlighted the need to expand “a narrow and shallow understanding of religion” so that women can act on work opportunities.
“Some working women had already held strategic positions but quit because of religious commands, and because they want to seek what is halal (lawful). This kind of view has closed the door of opportunity for women to work to develop themselves, which is also a command of religion,” she said.
Echoing these sentiments, Bintang Puspayoga, S.E., M.Si., Minister for Women Empowerment and Child Protection, said Indonesia’s patriarchal culture is perpetuated by conservative ideologies legitimised by religious interpretation.
“These ideologies seek to reassert the different roles of women and men, whereby a woman is considered ‘good’ only if she stays at home and cares for the family—the outside world is not for women. Such views further reduce the potential of women and the importance of their economic contribution,” the Minister said.
How is religion tied to women’s issues?
Journalist Savic Ali noted that much of the narrative about women in Indonesia is reinforced by religious arguments. Ali is founder of Rumah KitaB partner Islami.co, which identifies as a “friendly and enlightening Islamic media,” and director of NU Online, the portal of mainstream Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).
“Indonesian society is deeply religious, so the issues of women are strongly influenced by religious views, as well as cultural factors and traditions. Indonesians consider religion extremely important, so reference is made to religion in all affairs,” Ali said.
Ali cited research findings that show several ultra-conservative websites are popular among audiences in Indonesia. “If a Muslim woman only reads what she gets on the first page of Google search results about the law on working women, she may be hesitant about working, because all the articles on the first page of Google have the narrative that women should not work,” Ali said.
How can diversity change the prevailing mindset?
The key to addressing the proliferation of religious-based views arguing for women to stay at home might be through offering alternative religious-based narratives supporting women in the workforce on social media. This is one of Rumah KitaB’s assumptions as it promotes counternarratives supportive of working women through the Muslimah Bekerja campaign. With funding from Investing in Women, Rumah KitaB is developing Islamic narratives supportive of working women, training progressive clerics in using these narratives in their teachings, and injecting these messages into the social media discourse through engaging content.
“Women’s active use of social media can be an entry point for Muslimah Bekerja to amplify narratives supporting women’s right to work,” said panelist Diar Zukhrufah from Commcap, noting that women comprise about half of the 173 million Facebook users and 82 million Instagram users in Indonesia—including young professionals, newlyweds, young mothers and experienced mothers. Zukhrufah is from Commcap, Rumah KitaB’s digital campaign partner. Citing Commcap research, Zukhrufah said there is lot of discussion on social media about women, careers and the household.
“These include messages that women work not just to fulfil their financial needs but also for self-actualisation,” she added.
The Muslimah Bekerja campaign primarily targets women, arguing they are the ones who need to hear the messages that support their right to work. “Women need this reinforcement. Many Indonesian women are aware of their abilities and their right to work, but they have a sense of fear when they encounter religious interpretations which say that women are not allowed to work,” Zukhrufah said.
By targeting women with religious interpretations supportive of women’s right to work, including through ulamas and religious leaders, the campaign hopes to highlight for women how criticism for their decision to work is reducing.
The campaign also seeks to establish strength in numbers. “Women we are reaching through the campaign do not know each other, yet they can move together. When Muslimah Bekerja is able to voice the issues of Muslim women who wish to work and participate meaningfully in society, we will be able to reach more people in the community—not just Muslim women, but all women,” Zukhrufah said.
The campaign also targets men, noting evidence that men, too, benefit when women participate in the economy. “When Muslimah Bekerja promotes women’s rights to work, we are not inviting just women but also their fathers, brothers, colleagues and workplace leaders,” Zukrufah said.
Rumah KitaB conducts policy research in two fields—social/religious research and research on texts—using a gender perspective for advocacy through production of knowledge. Since 2005, Rumah KitaB has been fighting for the righs of people in marginalised conditions, including women. The resource center organises campaigns for public education to develop critical Islamic minds as agents of change.