What Men Have to Do with Women's Position in Freedom of Religion: An Hour of Truth with Nelly van Doorn-Harder

1 August 2022

Written by Athanasia Safitri
Professor Nelly van Doorn-Harder, who teaches in Wake Forest University (North Carolina, USA) and the Vrije Universiteit (Amsterdam, The Netherlands), attended an international conference hosted by Universitas Gadjah Mada in July 2022 titled Religion and Human Rights: Pedagogical Challenges and Opportunities in Higher Education in Indonesia. Van Doorn writes and edits books and articles on religion with regard to gender, leadership, interfaith engagement, and issues pertaining to freedom of religion, and shared her insights in a session of the conference titled “Emerging Discourse on Freedom of Religion and Belief in Indonesia”. Her inaugural lecture last March was entitled “Strong Rights, Fragile People: The Politics of Freedom of Religion or Belief” talks about child marriage in Indonesia, where it relates with the Muslim religious practice and its consequence on women in Indonesia. The article shows the way Van Doorn learns about the influence of Indonesian Muslim religious practice during her close observation in the last five years with several groups, especially on gender issues and freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Indonesia.  

Child marriage to reflect the women’s position in FoRB

During a lunch break at the conference, Van Doorn shared her thoughts on the practice of FoRB in Indonesia. She had mentioned during her lecture that child marriage in Indonesia is an issue that should be discussed regularly to ensure a better implementation of FoRB, especially with regard to the position of women in the Muslim community. She particularly presents the term of shaming men as a way to teach the next generation that child marriage is not beneficial, especially to young women who are subject to child marriage. The idea is to educate men in the environment of child marriage to understand the consequences it causes. Problems arise when the unprepared and mostly uneducated girl gets married against her will. She will go through a wedding that she did not want in which eventually she will divorce resulting in additional hardships. Society will see how she suffers and blame the men in the family, mostly the father since the weddings were approved by the father as wali. The shame the father feels is also shared by the brother of the young woman. It may not affect the father directly, but her brother or other male relatives will start to see the effects of the child marriage and avoid doing the same mistake in the future. It is hoped that shaming men will make the men within the circle in the next generation learn and treat their young women relatives differently, and somehow lower the number of child marriages.

Regarding child marriages, the economic background can be one of the reasons, among other things, including the religious, cultural, and social environment. Physical and psychological points should also be considered. Poverty, religiosity, social status in the society, local tradition, and dependency can be the cause of child marriage.  When these young women do not have the choice, some adults must stand up and protect them. Moreover, when there has been discussion that child marriage is carried out based on religious grounds. One of the helps coming in the way is the research institution called Rumah Kita Bersama (Kitab) which interprets texts in Qur’an to provide supporting means for these women from a religious perspective. Together with Komnas Perempuan, there has also been an educational campaign for the public using mass media, digital platforms, local meetings and private Qur’an study groups, to introduce the concept of freedom of religion for women. There has also been discussion to advocate the fiqh for children, to facilitate the realization of human rights for children in regard to Islamic teaching. This process may take a long time, but it offers the opportunity and the choice needed by these young women and children.

Many child marriages are forced due to pregnancy. And there is also a group who are modern, but they do it to show the obedience to their religious teaching. It happens as a way for them to conduct their religiosity, or as a part of the society norm when they live in a remote area or villages. Rumah Kitab works together with groups from the local government, youth groups, and pesantren which are against child marriage. Sometimes they hold meetings for children, and there is someone who talks and encourages their peers not to get married at such a young age. When these young women are given options, then they will make other choices. Even so, there are still the fathers, or the old fashioned females who are against prohibition  of child marriage. If some experiences of child marriage are shared, people start to see how they can better protect the young women.

A shifting paradigm supported by men

When this sort of education takes place over time, there will gradually be a different situation in the future. The paradigm will shift when there is a different course in the system, or there is a different system that enables the changes. Situations in some areas can change if there is support to make the system work. Besides that, there must also be a strong will from the women's side. This is the gap where society should encourage the shift. And it can only happen when the religious community and the leaders give the opportunity which encourages the desire of the women to rise up. When the system and the environment around them change, they can live their life freely. The elevated knowledge and changed societal system will enable different roles for women, for example education opportunities and independence in many areas in life. This can occur when the males of society begin to lend their support.

Sometimes, the solution cannot be gained in an instant due to the existing rule, the local culture, and the tradition that most communities have at the moment. But like most scholars and activists of FoRB understand, they all are fighting for the basic principle of human rights and also religion, not for the benefits of their generation since the result can definitely take longer, but for the generation to come. Van Doorn also thinks that not only should we have the next generation in mind when striving for a better implementation of human rights but also remember the generation before us since they began down the path for us. As experienced in today’s world and practiced before since the beginning of religion, men play an important role in life, and therefore it is time men are directing their course in life to help achieve equality for women. When we bring up the subject of opportunity, desire, and choices for women rights for life in general, there must be a follow up discussion as well on how women can obtain their freedom in religion. And it is a path that every human being should be striving for, both men and women.

One of the discussions nowadays related to FoRB are the social problems which hide behind the issue of religion. For example, the avoidance of divorce within Christian marriage and polygamy in the Muslim tradition. Not only the economic reasons but also the psychological background play an important role in these practices. This is why, in the field of education, van Doorn states that society needs to be in a sort of kindergarten since we have to always learn continuously. Especially with religion and human rights as the topic, priorities and systems can change that make differences appear and create interfaith, interculture, and intersocial relationships in the society. The role of men becomes pivotal for the actions made within history, and the change must also be initiated by men to support this type of freedom.  

There should also be a contribution from the academic scholars on the issues of gender equality and  FoRB for women in Indonesia must create proper and appropriate materials for distribution. Educational material does not stop only with texts, but also recording in radio talk shows, short movies or podcasts so people can engage in as many different ways as possible. The problem of inequality in terms of religion, especially in the Muslim tradition in Indonesia, does not necessarily center on the interpretation of the text from the historical era in the early years of Islam, but so much more. Van Doorn makes her remarks on how the economic, social, cultural, and even psychological background influence the practice of FoRB, and also the equality of Indonesian Muslim women. Furthermore, a better implementation of FoRB can only occur when men actively participate along with women to seek a new paradigm that is in favor of the practice of equality between men and women.