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Q&A with Rachel Rinaldo: Feminism and Religion


FILE - Indonesian Muslim women walk before Eid al-Fitr prayer that marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Jakarta, Indonesia.

FILE - Indonesian Muslim women walk before Eid al-Fitr prayer that marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Religion and women’s rights might be viewed in some parts of the world as incompatible, but some Indonesian women activists are drawing from Islam reasons to embrace gender equality and empowerment.

At age 17, American Rachel Rinaldo lived as an exchange student in Indonesia. She later returned to study social changes there, specifically Muslim and secular women activists in Jakarta. In excerpts from their conversation, she tells VOA’s Jim Stevenson that her book, Mobilizing Piety, show how feminism and religion can coexist and overlap.

RINALDO: We see Islam and feminism so often portrayed as opposites. What I found quite interesting about Indonesia is the way that for so many women, Islam and women’s rights were not at all incompatible, that they were able to interweave these things and without a lot of difficulty. The way they understood Islam and the way they experienced Islam as a religion is a religion about peace and social justice.

STEVENSON: Indonesia has gone through a lot of changes in recent decades, overall, how would you describe activism as far as women’s issues in Indonesia at the moment?

RINALDO: Well it continues, I think, to have quite a vibrant tradition of women’s activism. It’s something that started many decades ago, but certainly it picked up steam in the 1990s, and I think it really has a very interesting and diverse women’s movement where you have groups that define themselves as secular and that take on a very strong feminist position, you have many different kinds of Muslim women’s organizations - you have other religions that have women’s organizations as well.

STEVENSON: It has been suggested that Islam is not perhaps an appropriate framework for women’s rights because of Islamic law not being compatible with modern principles of individual rights and equalities. How do Indonesian women deal with those dynamics of rights and equality within Islam?

RINALDO: That was a question I also had when I began my research. I certainly assumed that Islam posed many problems for women. But what I found is that in Indonesia you have diverse ways of understanding Islam, and that some of the activists I met, although that those are often very conventional interpretations, that they felt that those actually might be wrong interpretations that might be actually through misunderstanding of the religion. They felt that if you go back to the text, and if you look at them in more of a sort of holistic way, that you can derive different kinds of interpretations, that there is a real movement at present, for trying to interpret Islamic law in ways that emphasize women’s equality with men.

STEVENSON: What are some of the big women’s issues that affect residents in Indonesia at the present?

RINALDO: The issues that many women face in Indonesia, are in many ways, not that different from what you see around the world. Certainly, there is poverty, health - particularly reproductive health. In poor areas, it’s still the case that families will sometimes prioritize their sons for education, so that’s something that women in Indonesia are also concerned about - violence against women, domestic violence. We have thousands of Indonesian women actually migrate overseas to work as maids, often in the Middle East, or often in eastern Asia. Often in that process, their rights are not respected; it’s easy for them to be exploited by their employers or sometimes the agencies that send them. And then finally you have some issues that are specific to Muslim religions. For example, the debate over polygamy has been ongoing in Indonesia.

STEVENSON: Women activists in Indonesia - how much do they draw from their western counterparts and how much do they draw from perhaps other women in the region specifically?

RINALDO: One of the things that has long fascinated me about Indonesia is that many Indonesians, and that activists are no exception, I think are very eclectic in how they draw from different cultural influences. And so many of the activists that I talk to, both whether they were religious activists or not, were certainly very influenced by ideas of feminism and equality and human rights, and that was very important to them.

They were involved in coalition and networks and groups in Malaysia and Thailand and elsewhere in the region. And that’s really important, because a lot of the issues that they are dealing with, are regional issues more than national issues. While they share much with women’s rights activists and feminists in the West or in Europe or in America, that certainly they their differences, they have issues that are specifically important to them as Asians.

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    Jim Stevenson

    For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.

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