Muslim Men Supreme

Jul 10, 2012
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Activists work to change men’s interpretations of Islam that justify their superiority at home.

A movement takes shape

Many of Indonesia’s Islamic leaders do not give any support to the idea that Islamic doctrine allows men to act violently towards women. But conceptions such as the righteous wife are widely supported, and activists at Rifka Annisa believe that these interpretations are important for understanding the formation of a superior and sometime aggressive male identity. Islamic teachings on family and marriage have been understood as a framework for the disciplining of women. It is this way of looking at men’s position and identity that emerges in the crises faced by the abused wives who seek assistance with Rifka Annisa. Male counsellors dealing with cases of wife abuse have frequently attempted to challenge men’s beliefs about their right to ‘discipline’ women, but are yet to make significant progress.

For Rifka’s counsellors, the lesson is clear. A substantial effort to deal with domestic violence must include consideration of the dominant values of manhood, large parts of which reflect interpretations of Islam that Rifka Annisa considers to be unduly biased towards men’s dominance. Since 2007, the ‘Men’s Program’ division in Rifka Annisa has taken steps to promote non-violence as an ideal of manhood, running a series of campaigns addressing a wide range of audiences, men and women alike. Rallies, talk shows and talk programs on local radio and TV have been organised, including contributions from local and national public figures, artists and Islamic leaders. These activities are intended to provide a public space to explore new values encouraging non-violent masculinity, and to introduce new meanings of concepts such as bravery, virility, toughness, superiority and leadership. A research report was published and T-shirts, brochures and banners created, all to display concern about the culture of violence. Promoting interpretations of Islamic doctrine that support equality and disapprove of violence are parts of that agenda.

Although Rifka Annisa is the first organisation in Indonesia to shape this novel perspective into a systematic working program, it shares this concern with other Indonesian NGOs. These NGOs have been involved in women’s activism for a long time, but are now turning their attention to men’s needs also. In 2009, Rifka Annisa joined with these organisations to initiate a national network named The Alliance of New Men (LLB). The Alliance promotes Rifka Annisa’s perspective that men should be substantially involved in addressing the issue of violence against women, and encourages the idea that values of non-violence should be promoted as genuine elements of Indonesian culture.

This initiative has been widely appreciated, and the ‘Men’s Program’ is steadily receiving more and more positive feedback. However, because the program attempts to address long-established values and cultural concepts, great energy and time will need to be expended before satisfactory results appear. In Java, attacking the serious problem of domestic violence against women involves a fundamental reassessment of men’s comfortable position as family heads.

Rachmad Hidayat is a PhD candidate at Monash University. He worked with Rifka Annisa in 2009 and 2010. The research from which the data of this article was taken was sponsored by AusAID and Monash University. The author would like to express his gratitude to all Rifka Annisa activists, especially those of the Men’s Program Division, and to all his friends in the LLB.

This article was first published in Inside Indonesia.