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Reviewed by:
  • Women Shaping Islam: Reading the Qur’an in Indonesia
  • Victor Sensenig (bio)
Van Doorn-Harder, Pieternella. Women Shaping Islam: Reading the Qur’an in Indonesia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. 324 pp.

The Indonesian women leaders profiled in this book proclaim their commitment to the fundamentals of Islam while working tirelessly to improve their economic and social condition. Many of these “Islamic feminists” accept the holy scriptures’ establishment of male authority and hold that men and women are complementary rather than equal. Van Doorn-Harder’s book asks, “Can their quest to liberate women within the framework of Islam be considered a feminist pursuit, or should we call it something else?” (7). Focusing on Indonesia in the 1990s, when an intensification of Islamic religious practice coincided with an influx of new notions about gender, this book proceeds to make the case that a vital struggle for women’s rights can emerge from an Islamic frame of reference.

Van Doorn-Harder’s study adds to a wealth of recent work on Islam and gender but focuses on two extensive networks that have received little attention. Women Shaping Islam is based on fieldwork in Central Java beginning in 1994 and draws [End Page 176] on a range of materials, including sermons, publications, and interviews. Van Doorn-Harder divides the book into three sections, the first, “Indonesian Islamic Landscapes,” providing an overview, and the second and third profiling women leaders, preachers, and activists from Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the two Islamic mass organizations that dominate Indonesian Islam. The book is remarkably accessible, providing all the necessary background to understand the way Javanese culture, hierarchies of age, and the ideology of Suharto’s New Order regime have shaped Indonesian Islam.

With twenty-five and forty million followers respectively, Muhammadiyah and NU represent two different streams of Islam. The reformist Muhammadiyah emphasizes independent reason, education, and selfdiscipline while adhering to the original sacred sources. The traditionalist NU gives more credence to the long tradition of Islamic scholarship and tends to tolerate local culture, including the mysticism of pre-Islamic Javanese religion that permeates Indonesian Islam. Set up in 1917, the women’s branch of Muhammadiyah, ‘Aisyiyah, focuses on teaching and social activism with particular attention to the “harmonious family” as society’s central unit and the most powerful tool to empower women. Observing the topics of the sermons that form the core of ‘Aisyiyah’s mission, van Doorn-Harder notes, “Little overt gender-awareness building takes place, yet the preachers’ references apply to the daily lives of most women. It is the only level on which their empowerment can work if all other structures fail them” (101).

Unlike ‘Aisyiyah, which van Doorn-Harder describes as succumbing to a “bureaucratic and protectionist machinery” (81), NU women have had more space to advance progressive views. In the NU organizational model, pesantren leaders, or kiai, inherit the Prophet’s charisma and are thus more autonomous. In addition, because Fiqh texts carry most authority within traditionalist circles, scholars in these circles have long practice in the intricacies and ambiguities of interpretation. These factors conspire to enable the most progressive interpretative techniques. The NU methodology “can become very rigid when scholars insist on choosing certain opinions or following one school of thought only, but it can also be flexible precisely because of the wealth of resources” (227).

According to van Doorn-Harder, the women of NU and Muhammadiyah work mainly on two levels: “they interpret and reinterpret the sacred texts that lend authority to certain points of view concerning women’s rights, and they work at the level of the lived experiences of individuals and local communities” (18). Islamic feminists participate in the process of interpreting the Qur’an and other authoritative texts by synthesizing Qur’anic principles and considering the context of revelation, the text’s grammatical composition, and the worldview or thematic totality of the text (Munir 198). They recognize that interpretations derive from particular social contexts and are thus fallible, and they assert that readings rather than the holy texts themselves may be misogynistic, though van Doorn-Harder acknowledges the “hermeneutic acrobatics” necessary “to create a spouse who complements her husband, yet is...


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pp. 176-178
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