Reproductive Rights Advocacy Among the

Muslim Community in Indonesia

Lecture by Masdar MAS'UDI

Unit 2 (A joint presentation with Unit 1)


Date: February 28, 2000

Location: The University of Tokyo


On February 28, 2000, Unit 2 had the privilege to host a lecture by Masdar MAS'UDI from Indonesia. MAS'UDI currently serves as the Director of the Indonesian Society for Pesantren and Community Development, or P3M, as well as the Vice Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the NU. The NU is Indonesia's largest Muslim organization in which the current president of Indonesia, President Wahid, formerly served as president.

There were approximately twenty participants who attended this lecture. After the introduction made by Yasuko KOBAYASHI of Aichi Gakusen University (she transferred to Nanzan University ), MAS'UDI began his lecture entitled "Reproductive Rights Advocacy Among the Muslim Community in Indonesia".

MAS'UDI first identified that Islam in Indonesia is a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, and the native religion that originally existed prior to the introduction of Islam. For this reason, the morality of the Indonesian Muslim is not rooted in a single rigorous discipline, but rather is sanctioned by the internal belief of each individual. MAS'UDI also stated that disputes with the reformist Muslim organization Muhammadiyah arose regarding differences in ritual styles for religious services and funerals.

MAS'UDI notes that much is written in the Koran regarding gender relations. Whereas the Koran cites the relationship between God and humanity in thirty passages, the relationship between men and women is cited in ninety passages. However, MAS'UDI advocates that it is important to redefine the words used in the Koran according to present societal values rather than interpreting the Koran's words literally. This is partly due to ambiguous implications seen in some passages of the Koran as well as due to the fact that some of the words in such passages may actually hold more than one possible meaning.

In order to examine the above-mentioned premise, MAS'UDI seeks to draw a clear distinction between two principles under the Fundamental Islamic Law, namely the qath'i, or "absolute" principles, and the zhanni, or "hypothetical" principles. MAS'UDI cited the famous Islamic law which states that theft is to be punished by the severing of the thief's hand as an example. This, he said, illustrates such distinctions between the "absolute" and the "hypothetical" principles. Preventing theft through this law relates to the "absolute" moral ethics, in other words "the protection of rights". On the other hand, the question of how the theft is to be prevented embodies the "hypothetical" part in connection with a particular technique, in other words "the method of protection".

From the above theory of two legal principles, it could be concluded that a hand does not necessarily have to be severed in case of a theft since the prevention of the theft is the absolute objective and other alternative methods could be applied to achieve such objectives. Such methods could arguably differ, depending on time and location.

MAS'UDI's research aims at applying the above theory of two legal principles on issues surrounding women's issues. In 1997, he published a book entitled "Islam and the Reproductive Health of Women" and introduced this theory in the first chapter of this book. His ideas have been received favorably by graduate students of IAIN (State Institute of Islamic Studies) and 'ulamas. Consequently, MAS'UDI believes that a long term commitment to this research could help Islamic laws to be gradually interpreted in a more flexible manner rather than based on strict applications of Koranic verses.

Certainly, MAS'UDI's theory is not safe from criticism, and conservative ulamas remain unconvinced. In the past five years, the above-mentioned P3M in which Mr. MAS'UDI plays an active role has been rigorously holding discussions concerning women's issues and has been inviting women leaders, or Nyai (wife of Kyai[male Ulama in posession of pesantren] )across the country. Nevertheless, despite P3M's invitation, attendance by kyai continues to be low.

In the latter part of his lecture, MAS'UDI dealt with issues relating to women's rights by referring to specific stipulations from the Koran and the Hadith. Such rights include: the rights relating to women's gender and reproduction; the rights to security and health; the rights to nafkah and social welfare; inheritance rights; the right to dowry (mahr, or the contractual price for marriage); the right to earn individual income; the right to manage assets; the right to make decisions for oneself; the right to select a spouse; the right to enjoy sexual intercourse and the right to refuse sexual intercourse; and the right to make decisions regarding pregnancy and abortion.

There were some interesting questions raised from the participants at the lecture, including what MAS'UDI thought of a situation where a woman was forced into an arranged marriage but cannot obtain a divorce because she cannot pay back the dowry; or of what the difference is between a wife and a prostitute if the wife has the duty to please her husband sexually. In response to these questions, Mr. MAS'UDI pointed out that the Madzhab Syafi'i has its own rules governing forced marriages, and that the fundamental difference between a wife and a prostitute lies in the institution of marriage. MAS'UDI further explained that a wife and a prostitute can certainly be seen as similar in the mystified Islamic notion that they both have a duty to serve the man, but that, considering the fact that women have the right to enjoy sex, women's human rights could be deemed respected.

Moreover, MAS'UDI has emphasized that a long-term endeavor is required to improve the position of women, particularly because this matter needs to be tackled by examining various complicated factors, which overlap across the cultural, religious and societal spheres. Additionally, MAS'UDI stated that as requested by the Women's Committee of the NU, it was officially decided at the 1999 national conference that two women members must be appointed among the currently appointed fifty Syuriah members. This decision could be perceived as a significant milestone for the promotion of feminism in the present Muslim Community of Indonesia.