Indonesian Muslim Women’s Lives In The Era Of Neoliberalism and Islamic (Neo) Conservatism: A Case Study Of Indonesia

1 December 2023

Written by  Maurisa Zinira

Women frequently encounter complex circumstances in the realms of religion, culture, economy, and politics. The absence of appreciation of women's roles results in their perpetual subordination. This phenomenon is not limited to private or personal spheres but also extends to the public domain where patriarchal ideologies form the foundation for societal norms, rules, legislation, and many forms of governmentalities that discriminate against women.

In her presentation at the Wednesday Forum on November 1, 2023, Yuyun Sriwahyuni from Universitas Negeri Yogyakarta (UNY) argued that the subordination and marginalization of women can be attributed not only to local culture and neoconservatism that are grounded in patriarchal norms but also to the utilization of these values by neoliberalism. For her, the intersection of the three pose challenges for women’s life and create problems of social reproduction. 

The Problem of Household Division of Labor

Despite several initiatives to promote the position and role of women, they nevertheless remain in a marginalized position. In Indonesia, the promotion of gender issues is frequently impeded by the prevailing patriarchal local norms that are perceived as natural and unquestionable. Women in Java for instance, are still perceived as konco wingking (friend of behind scene) who primarily fulfill traditional roles like as macak (dressing), manak (giving birth), and masak (cooking). These principles are acknowledged as cultural indicators and serve as a model for society's perception in evaluating women's gender roles and positions.

Within Muslim societies, these patriarchal views are sustained by religious justification. Diverse religious interpretations are reinforced to sustain the hierarchical gender dichotomy, with men assuming the role of leader (imam) and women assuming the role of follower (makmum). This point of view is widely accepted, advised, and sustained, even by some women who perceive this segregation of status and responsibilities as innate. Due to this viewpoint, women are not credited for their contributions either at domestic or public life.

Sri Wahyuni explains that during the New Order era, the government implemented initiatives that focused on promoting the ideology of state-ibuism (motherism) and housewifization. Ibuism is a phrase coined by Suryakusuma to elucidate the New Order government's policy that prioritizes the role of a mother and wife. While housewifization refers to Maria Mies, which means restricting women's movement in social spaces and only doing activities at home. These two concepts regard that women's positions and responsibilities are determined by the conventional perception of women as being inherently caring and nurturing. This agenda was manifested in the Indonesian 1974 Marriage Law, which specifies the idea that "The husband is the head of the family, and the wife is the housewife," leading to the problem of social reproduction.

In her research on female workers and lecturers at universities in Yogyakarta, Sriwahyuni discovered three distinct levels of experiences and views on the division of home labor and gender ideology among her research participants. Those divisions include gendered hierarchical, semi-equal, and equal. The first type of household division of labor is based on the hierarchical position of men and women. In this model, males assume the roles of leaders and providers, while females assume the roles of followers and beneficiaries. Because of these roles, women frequently lack the authority to express their opinions and make decisions. Within the context of such a gender relation, women who are employed do not experience any better, as they frequently encounter double burden and excessive assignments, which hampers their overall productivity.

The second form of household division of labor is characterized by a semi-equal arrangement. That is when the husband shares household chores although facing certain limitations. In this kind, the distribution of household chores occurs without altering the hierarchical gender ideology. The husband is still superior to women despite the accomplishments of the wife in public life.

The third category of household division is the equal Islamic feminist model. The division of household chores is conducted in accordance with the principle of egalitarianism. This philosophy stems from an awareness of gender ethics, as it is seen in religious texts that promote the practice of dialogue and compromise between partners. Nevertheless, despite the adoption of equality in the family, the position of women continues to be hindered by several forms of governmentality that are enforced in the social sphere and/or workplace.

Neoliberalism at the Intersection

Sriwahyuni contends that the unequal share of responsibilities between men and women arises from a combination of neoconservatism, patriarchal local traditions, and the influence of neoliberalism. For her, Indonesian women find themselves at the crossroads of two opposing narratives. On one hand, they are expected to adhere to traditional gender roles as submissive wives and mothers, both politically and socially. On the other hand, due to various factors such as the need to continue long-standing practices of participating in informal waged work, increasing economic pressures on families, and the pursuit of women's empowerment, they also take on public roles as workers. Unfortunately, the work climate in Indonesia is not yet friendly towards women. Wherever they work, whether in transnational factories or universities, women experience a common feeling of being consistently treated as invisible reproductive social workers. This is because Neoliberalism instrumentalizes and appropriates the established patriarchal gender hierarchy in accordance with capitalist principles.

At the university that was the locus of Sriwahyuni’s research, he found that gendered division of labor persists, and women often being relegated to lesser roles. Since the university itself employs neoliberal principles, women frequently face unfavorable stereotypes. They were often assigned administrative tasks due to the prevailing notion that such job required no specialized expertise. Likewise, they are still ignored due to the perception that they are mostly homemakers confined to domestic roles.

In the midst of these contradictory circumstances, Sriwahyuni asserts that it is essential to discuss and understand the viewpoints and experiences of women in order to enhance their circumstances in diverse geographical, cultural, religious, and political contexts. She thinks that addressing issues stemming from intersectionality requires an interdisciplinary perspective. Islamic feminism alone is insufficient to comprehend the challenges that emerge as a result of neoliberalism. However, addressing these issues should not be confined to universalization or a singular approach based on the tenets of secular feminism. She proposed the integration of these two viewpoints in feminism to deliberate on the most effective remedies for women, taking into account the specific circumstances and contexts they encounter. She refuses to give a single solution to the problem. For her, engaging in a fair and realistic dialogue to thoroughly examine suitable solutions in light of the specific challenges encountered by women is what truly matters.