Montaigne Centre Blog


The Rainy Season in Java: Researching the Role of Islamic Law and Institutions in Promoting Women’s Right to Family Planning in Indonesia

blogFraserJulie Fraser

Six weeks of melting humidity, spicy food, tropical vegetation, and endless traffic. I was in Indonesia to research how women’s reproductive rights and family planning are protected, with a particular focus on the role of Islamic laws and institutions. This is a complex topic, requiring expertise in matters of women’s rights, public health, demographics, and Islamic law. My visit to Indonesia was part of a crash course in all these fields – a type of sink or swim scenario. My experience there highlighted the role of non-state actors in the promotion and protection of human rights, and the need for domestic constituents working within their communities to secure such rights. I chose Indonesia as my case study as it is the largest Muslim state in the world, has strong plural legal systems and Islamic institutions, and has faced barriers in promoting and protecting women’s reproductive rights. As it turned out, Indonesia was an excellent choice, and a good teacher.

The purpose of my research visit to Indonesia was to gain access to locally available information and expertise. I wanted to gain insights into practical issues surrounding the delivery of reproductive rights and to learn from local experts. As such, I met with Islamic law scholars and Ulamas (senior Islamic scholars), government officials, representatives from international organisations, civil society groups, and academics from anthropology, human rights, and population studies. These interactions were always insightful and enjoyable, and sometimes surprising. I was overwhelmed by the openness and generosity of people to meet with me and share their views and experiences. I spent hours with some participants, visiting their home, sharing meals, and even meeting family members.

Of course, not everything went to plan and there were hiccups throughout the visit. This included the challenges of cross-cultural communication and working with interpreters, as well as the logistics of big cities, jam-packed traffic, and torrential tropical downpours. However, actually getting permission to undertake research in Indonesia was my first hurdle. The Ministry of Research said that my proposed topic of “reproductive rights” was too “sensitive”, and that my research permit would only be approved if I changed the title to “family planning”. This was a strong indication of the Government’s hesitation regarding human rights and especially reproductive rights, which is particularly contentious due to ongoing debates about LGBTI issues. Scholars like Dr Irwan Hidayana commented on the backlash against sexual rights, with another expert noting common misunderstandings of reproductive rights. Having resolved the difficulties with my application, I was finally granted my research permit and travelled to Indonesia for six weeks, staying with the law faculties at Universitas Indonesia near Jakarta and Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta.

Human Rights and Indonesia

Indonesia has ratified several international human rights treaties that guarantee the right to health including reproductive health, and the Government provides universal healthcare and promotes maternal health and family planning as a priority. Despite these laws and policies, women in Indonesia continue to face certain barriers to enjoying their reproductive rights.

One of the first issues I came across was that human rights are typically perceived as Western concepts in Indonesia, foreign to the local values and beliefs. As such, human rights are often treated with suspicion (likely due in part to the 350+ year history of colonialism in Indonesia). A representative of the NGO Rahima noted that human rights is seen as part of the “Western agenda” and that those promoting it – including Indonesians – can be criticised as “Western agents”. Representatives of organisations like Fatayat emphasised the need for dialogue around human rights based on Islamic texts, and cautioned against referring too much to Western sources or scholars. As this shows, it is not so much the content of human rights that is suspect, but its Western packaging. In this situation, international human rights norms and actors do not enjoy widespread resonance or acceptance in Indonesia, where local counterparts have more legitimacy and connection to communities.

As the country with the largest Muslim population, it is not surprising that Islamic law and institutions are very influential and popular across Indonesia. For example, Indonesia is home to some of the largest Islamic (non-governmental) organisations in the world: Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. Both of these organisations predate international human rights treaties by around 50 years, and boast memberships of approximately 50 and 30 million people respectively. These organisations issue religious rulings (fatwas) on reproductive rights, as well as provide health services directly to the public. Fatayat, the young women’s branch of Nahdlatul Ulama, advocates women’s rights based on progressive interpretations of Islam. Representatives of the NGO Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association highlighted that religious leaders and organisations play a very important role in Indonesian society, with many people looking to them for guidance and following their teaching.

In this way, such organisations can play an important role in accepting or opposing human rights. Where the values and policies of these organisations align with human rights, much can be achieved. This is the case regarding family planning, where several fatwas have been made in support of contraceptive use. Indonesia has seen the fertility rate decline from over 5.5 to around 2.3 children per woman. However, when there is a conflict, human rights are typically the underdog. For example, the Government withdrew its ban on female genital mutilation/circumcision when faced with backlash from religious organisations and a fatwa supporting circumcision by the Indonesian Ulama Council. Therefore, it is important to have support for human rights from within these Islamic organisations. This is, of course, the case around the world, where human rights require strong domestic constituencies in order to be upheld.

Pursuing Human Rights Goals through Islam

In Indonesia, many actors are involved in resolving any (perceived) conflict between Islamic norms and human rights. And these actors use various strategies. For example, Rahima, the Centre for Education and Information on Islam and Women’s Rights, teaches that human rights are sourced in Islam and were introduced when the Qur’an was revealed. They claim that the human rights principles of dignity, equality, and justice can all be sourced from the Qur’an. As such, Rahima seek to find solutions to contemporary women’s rights issues through the religion. Similarly, Fatayat take an Islamic and gender equality approach, where gender is blended into all parts of their work. They use Islamic teaching in their approach to gender, relying upon their own interpretations of Islamic texts as well as engaging in consultation and dialogue with other religious scholars and leaders. Their strategy is to maintain “moderation”, pursuing progressive approaches without overstepping the boundaries of what is socially acceptable.

Another organisation (which is not religiously affiliated) uses a culturally sensitive approach and evidence-based advocacy. This involves providing facts (rather than opinions or political statements) and engaging an expert who is acceptable to the target audience who can convey the message with the facts. In the case of Muslim communities, such an acceptable expert may be an Islamic scholar or a senior religious figure in the community. The organisation’s strategy is to build trust, provide data, avoid confrontation, and engage in dialogue. Lies Marcoes, one of Indonesia’s pre-eminent Muslim feminists, also uses an approach stressing facts and evidence to engage in dialogue. She emphasises the need for solid research in order to demonstrate and discuss the problem of certain positions, such as the permissibility of child marriage in Islam.

There can be a lot of space for dialogue and debate in Muslim communities, given that there is great plurality within Islam and that anyone with the requisite skills and knowledge can interpret Islamic texts. This is also the case given the dynamism within Islamic law, and the fact that certain aspects can (and do) evolve based on new information and contemporary circumstances. Furthermore, while some interpretations may be seen as more authoritative than others, Sunni Islam (the majority in Indonesia) does not have a hierarchy of leadership (like in Catholicism). This creates an environment that can support reasoned discussions, exchanges of views, as well as a diversity of views. Human rights advocates and others seeking to achieve gender equality in Indonesia are using this space to spark discussion and gain supporters. While this route may be less direct than the state passing legislation protecting human rights, it can be more effective for achieving human rights compliance. This demonstrates the vital importance of non-state actors in the promotion and protection of human rights, and the need for domestic constituents working within their communities to secure human rights.

My visit to Indonesia taught me many things, including the sheer complexity of human rights in context. While international human rights treaties set out vital minimum standards to be enjoyed by all humans in the abstract, the current challenge lies in their implementation and realisation within each particular setting. A multiplicity of actors is required in this endeavour, depending on the context in each state. This can include government actors, NGOs, businesses, as well as social institutions like religion and religious organisations. As this Indonesian example shows us, each actor can contribute to human rights and their potential to do so meaningfully should be recognised and welcomed.