Islamic Feminism in Indonesian History: Examining Wives of Muslim Leaders and Women’s Participation in Pilgrimage (Hajj)

Being a wife of ‘ulama opens a sufficient opportunity to pursue social and religious power. Within Indonesian society, since ‘ulama have greater social-religious authority, their wives will possibly be viewed the same by the society. Wives of ‘ulama can learn Islamic knowledge from their husbands. Hence, they should have the greatest chance to develop an academic milieu centering in their ‘ulama husbands’ intellectual authority. In many cases, wives of ‘ulama become female ‘ulama. They are called nyai. I am interested in elaborating how wives of ‘ulama in the history of Indonesia sought for Islamic knowledge and earned social-religious authority to have a very close relationships with their ‘ulama husbands. Furthermore, how did this situation lead them to develop ideas of feminism? In examining the figure of wives of ‘ulama, I want to discuss a life story of Nyai Hajjah Siti Walidah Ahmad Dahlan and Nyai Hajjah Sholihah A. Wahid Hasy

I also want to explore how participation in pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca gave Indonesian Muslim women during the development of Indonesian feminism a chance to access Islamic knowledge. It is also interesting to elaborate how their participation in pilgrimage provided them social-religious power. Finally, in the context of the development of Islamic feminism in Indonesia, how I intend to examine their knowledge and social-religious power inspired their involvement in feminist movements.

Siti Walidah was born in Yogyakarta in 1872.  Her father, Kyai Pengulu Haji Muhammad Fadhil, was a distinguished ‘ulama in Kauman, Yogkarta. She was a wife of Kyai Haji Ahmad Dahlan, the founder and the leader of the Muhammadiyah. After she married with Kyai Ahmad Dahlan, she was more popular as Nyai Hajjah Ahmad Dahlan. Her background of religious family and the educational environment in Kauman were an important foundation to develop her academics and activism. However, her academics and activism became more-developed after her marriage to Kyai Haji Ahmad Dahlan.

Kauman society was a Javanese religious society (sentry) (Alfian, 1989: 144). They fulfilled their hometown with studying Islam (pengajian). Pesantren and mosques were the center of Islamic studies for people of Kauman. Some richer families sent their children to bigger pesantren in other cities, such as Tebuireng and Gontor in East Java. Some wealthier families even sent their sons to study Islam in Mecca and Egypt. In this academic circumstance, Kauman produced many ‘ulama (Suratmin, 1990: 14). Kyai Haji Ahmad Dahlan was a native Kauman who experienced studying in Mecca. Siti Walidah was born and raised in this situation. Her parents did not send her to pesantren out of her hometown because she was a woman. At that period, women did not have an opportunity to go to schools. One of the reasons, the Dutch ruler only provided schools for boys. Kauman society even restricted their daughters to be active outside their homes (Wahyudi, 2002: 43). In this limitation, Siti Walidah still could develop her social-academic accomplishment.

Her father trained Siti Walidah to be a matured in Islamic studies. He taught her some basic knowledge of Islam, mainly reading the Qur’an and textbooks written in Arab-pegon (Wahyudi, Ibid). Additionally, he gave Siti Walidah a chance to apply her Islamic knowledge by being a teacher for younger female students in her parents’ house (Suratmin, Ibid, 19). On one hand, this experience developed Siti Walidah’s capacity of public communication and, on the other hand, this played an important role in opening Siti Walidah’s mind toward the needs of providing public education for girls. She realized that there was still a huge problem of illiteracy among girls in her hometown. Being aware with this problem, Siti Walidah encouraged her students to study hard. She was trained as a great public motivator. Sometimes, her father asked her to open a larger pengajian. This contributed to developing her leadership skills (Ibid, 21).

Siti Walidah married Kyai Haji Ahmad Dahlan when she was still very young. Siti Walidah became more popular as Nyai Hajjah Ahmad Dahlan. This was an arranged marriage that was still very common within Kauman society at that time. This marriage was gave a significant impact to lead Nyai Ahmad Dahlan to think more actively and intensively about the condition of Muslim women’s groups. She even started her activism in women’s movement after her marriage to Kyai Haji Ahmad Dahlan (Wahyudi, 57). She oftentimes accompanied her husband in many public forums and pengajian (Abdullah Puar, 1989: 60).

Firstly, her marriage to an ‘ulama and the leader of an Islamic movement made her more aware about the primary needs of Muslims in Indonesia, specifically in her hometown. As her husband worked hard establishing the Muhammadiyah as a medium to organize his ideas of Islamic reform, Nyai Hajjah Ahmad Dahlan learned a lot from this situation to follow her husband’s idea by establishing a Muslim women’s organization called ‘Aisyiyah as her vehicle to work on empowering Muslim women in Indonesia. Indeed, in the beginning of the Muhammadiyah, Nyai Hajjah Ahmad Dahlan was the only person to help her husband in improving this organization (Suratmin, Ibid, 30). This trained her with a skill of organization.

In addition, education was among the important agendas of her husband’s Islamic reform. Nyai Hajjah Ahmad Dahlan also learned from this situation to provide education for Muslim girls. She understood that her marriage to an outstanding ‘ulama served her more social power to implement her idea of educating Muslim girls. She pioneered in creating the program of reducing illiteracy among Muslim girls. Her interest in women’s issues was empowered by her husband who said that Muslim women had equal “right” to take advantages from the Muhammadiyah (Suratmin, 30).

Kyai Hajji Ahmad Dahlan who was also actively involved in the nationalistic movements had many colleagues from the leaders of the movements, such as General Sudirman, Bung Tomo, Soekarno, and Kyai Haji Mas Mansyur. In this situation, Nyai Hajjah Ahmad Dahlan also could broaden her social-intellectual milieu with her husband’s colleagues. Her knowledge about nationalistic movements improved and her skill of organization as well as her leadership increased (Wahyudi, Ibid, 45). This was an important experience for her in empowering the ‘Aisyiyah. After the death of her husband in 1923 (Suratmin, 36), Nyai Hajjah Ahmad Dahlan still maintained her social-intellectual power to struggle for Indonesian women’s rights and became a key figure to organize the first Indonesian women’s congress in 1928.

Another important figure is Nyai Hajjah Siti Sholihah, the wife of Kyai Haji A. Wahid Hasyim, a distinguished ‘ulama from the NU, an activist of the nationalistic movements and the minister of religious affairs during President Soekarno’s era. Siti Sholihah had clearer experience about the transformation of being a wife of an ‘ulama toward an activist of feminist movements.

Siti Sholihah was born in Jombang, East Java, in 1922. Her father named her Munawaroh. Her father was Kyai Haji Bisyri Sansuri is the founder of Pesantren Denanyar, Jombang. Her uncle from her mother was Kyai Haji Wahab Chasbullah who with Kyai Hasyim ‘Asy’ari founded the NU (Dahlan, 2002: 101). She was surrounded by a number of great ‘ulama from the NU even before her marriage to A. Wahid Hasyim. Her mother, Siti Chadijah, the younger sister of Kyai Wahab Chasbullah was among Indonesian Muslim women who went to Mecca for pilgrimage (Dahlan, Ibid).

She lived and grew up in pesantren social-academic traditions. She sought for Islamic knowledge in Pesantren Denanyar where her father became the leader. However, sometimes she went to other pesantren in her hometown that was in fact overwhelmed by many pesantren (Dahlan, 105-106). In the Pesantren Denanyar, she learned some basic Islamic knowledge, such as the Qur’an, hadith, Arabic, and fiqh. Her father gave her extra lessons to be more knowledgeable in Islamic studies, so she could be a teacher for female students of the pesantren (Dahlan, 107).

Before her marriage to A. Wahid Hasyim, she married Abdurrohim, a son of Kyai Cholil who had a pesantren in Malang, East Java. Abdurrohim was a khafidz who memorized the Qur’an. This marriage was arranged by Kyai Hasyim ‘Asy’ari (Dahlan, 108). This marriage was possible since Munawaroh was viewed to have equal spirituality (kufuw) with Abdurrahim. This marriage was a short relationship as Abdurrahim passed away only a few of months later (Dahlan, 110).

Two years after the death of her first husband, Munawaroh married A. Wahid Hasyim, a son of Kyai Haji Hasyim ‘Asy’ari. After this marriage, she became more popular as Siti Sholihah or Ibu (Mrs.) Wahid (Dahlan, 117). This marriage tied her closer to the leaders of the NU, more specially to Kyai Haji Hasyim ‘As’ary’s family. This gave her a social privilege since the NU community applied a hierarchy and expressed a higher honor to their leaders. Even until recent time, the NU community places Hasyim ‘As’ary and his family in the top level of society.

After this marriage, she lived her husband’s family in Pesantren Tebuireng, Jombang. In the beginning of this relationship, she did not have a sufficient room to run her interests. She stopped teaching female students. She lived under the control of her stepmother. However, she pursued greater opportunity to deepen her Islamic knowledge from her husband who gave her special Islamic lessons from classical Arabic books (kitab). She was also interested in learning Latin letters. Her husband strongly encouraged her and anytime he went out of town, he brought for Sholihah a lot of magazines and books, not only in Indonesian, but also English and Dutch (Dahlan, 118). The access toward wider knowledge was opened for Sholihah.

The change blew over Sholihah’s life when her son was born. She and her husband lived separately with her husband’s family. She had a greater room to participate in any public activities. She was involved in the Nahdlatul Ulama Muslimat (NUM) and was active in attending public pengajian (Dahlan, Ibid).

Sholihah also learned about politics from her husband who was actively involved in political arena. She became more aware to her husband’s political activities. Once, her husband went home to save a lot of secret documents from the Dutch force, she took the documents and pretended to be a maid who was washing the dishes and hided the documents under her seat (Dahlan, 123). Sholihah also kept her involvement in the NUM to work on empowering Muslim women, especially the members of the NU. She transformed all social and intellectual accomplishment to her activism in empowering women. She expressed her great interest in women’s issues mainly through the Muslimat NU.

After her husband passed away, she continued on going for some political positions. She joined a political party and became a member of Indonesian parliament and was also active in many organizations. Moreover, while she spent a lot of her time in political arena, she still could raise her children (Dahlan, 125). Some of their children become leaders of political and Islamic movements. Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) even served as a President of Indonesia and is a distinguished ‘ulama who actively struggle for religious freedom and pluralism as well as freedom of expression.

Finally, many women married an ‘ulama and a Muslim leader, yet they could not transform their experience to earn greater social and intellectual power. Self-reflection played a very significant role in leading a wife of an ‘ulama to take a lot of social and intellectual advantages from her ‘ulama husband and used this experience to contribute to empower women. Life story of Nyai Hajjah Dahlan and Nyai Hajjah Siti Sholehah Wahid Hasyim displays a crucial fact about wives of ‘ulama who could benefit this status for pursuing greater social-intellectual power and used it for the sake of women’s empowerment. Their experience also displays an important lesson about the reconstruction of motherhood values by Indonesian Muslim women. From them, we learn that being a wife does not mean to limit their social-intellectual accomplishment.

Pilgrimage to Mecca played a key role in providing access to Islamic knowledge. Some pioneers of Islamic movements in Indonesia developed their idea of Islamic reform after their visit to Mecca. Indeed, their visit to Mecca was not just for a pilgrimage to the Prophet Muhammad’s grave. They also sought for Islamic knowledge to a number of distinguished ‘ulama there. However, it is not easy to study about Indonesian women participating in pilgrimage and how this experience contributed to developing their Islamic knowledge and inspired them to work on Islamic reform through women’s rights issues.

Many pioneers of Muslim women’s movements in Indonesia had title hajjah, a Muslim woman who participated in a pilgrimage to Mecca. Rahmah al-Yunusiah, Rangkayo Rasuna Said, and Nyai Ahmad Dahlan were among those who had the title. However, the data about their experiences of going to Mecca is very limited. Therefore, in this paper, I only want to raise several important topics and questions regarding Indonesian Muslim women’s participation in hajj that need further studies.

An important data based about Indonesians who participated in pilgrimage to Mecca during the period of 1927-1948 was made by Jacob Vredenbregt (1997: 1).  This data is an important cornerstone to study about women’s appearance in hajj in its impacts to women’s movements in Indonesia. The data includes women that show a great number.

Year                               Men (%)         Women (%)               Children (%)

1927-1928                      68                    32                                -          

1928-1929                      69                    28                                3

1929-1930                      65                    27                                8

1930-1931                      69                    28                                3

1931-1932                      69                    28                                3

1932-1933                      67                    29                                4

1933-1934                      68                    29                                3

1934-1935                      66                    30                                4

1935-1936                      67                    29                                4

1936-1937                      66                    29                                3

1937-1938                      66                    30                                4

1938-1939                      65                    31                                4

1939-1940                      65                    33                                2

1947-1948                      63                    27                                10

Even though the women’s participation in pilgrimage was high, it was difficult to search for the impacts of their participation to the development of Islamic knowledge and women’s movements. However, in fact, in this period, the spirit of women’s movements within Muslim women in Indonesia strongly emerged.

Vredenbregt studies about the functions of hajj for Indonesian Muslims. The Dutch ruler viewed the adventure of hajj as politically danger. Raffless as quoted by Vredenbregt documents that every Javanese returning from hajj showed up like a holy person and common people gave their great honor. Because they were really honored, it was easy for them to provoke the people to oppose the government (Vredenbregt, 7). Did this situation also apply to women hajjah? Did their visiting to Mecca gave these women bigger spiritual honor in the society?

Another important point is about the muqimin Indonesian community in Mecca. They were Indonesians hajj groups who stayed (muqimin) in Mecca even though their hajj activities were done. They sought for Islamic knowledge from many distinguished ‘ulama. They also established some organizations, such as Jami’ah ar-Rafiqiyyah Li Jalbi al-Mashlahah ar-Ra’iah al-Hulandiyah (the Association for Netherland Indies’ Aids) (Putuhena, 2007: 349).  In 1927, the educational system of the muqimin Indonesians shifted toward more modern one. King Ibn Saud provided schools for them and introduced secular knowledge. Haji agus Salim, a key figure in the Indonesian nationalistic movement, also initiated to build a school and establish organization for the muqimin to awaken their nationalistic spirit when he live there for a year (Putuhena, 359-360). Did muqim women also have the same opportunity with men to study Islam? If yes, how did they implement their knowledge? Were they interested in applying their knowledge for women’s empowerment? Did they develop any activities related to women’s issues? What were the impacts of their muqimin status to women’s movements in Indonesia when they returned home? The knowledge from that research questions will greatly contribute to enriching our understanding about the functions of women’s hajj in the development of women’s movements in Indonesia.(FB)

Oleh Farid Muttaqin, cendekiawan Muslim dan kandidat PhD di  SUNY Binghamton, New York