‘About time’: Indonesia’s NU welcomes women to top leadership | Women News

Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia – Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim organization, welcomes women into top leadership roles for the first time since it was founded nearly 100 years ago.

NU has put more than 150 members, including 11 women, on the central board for five-year terms.

Among the women appointed to the most senior roles in February, Alissa Wahid told Al Jazeera that while the change was “timely and inevitable”, it was also the result of a process and ongoing discussion about the role of women in NU, which has some 90 million members.

Joining 48-year-old Alissa is incumbent East Java Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa.

In their new roles, the two women will contribute to the movement’s policy.

“I am really pleased with this change,” said Alissa, daughter of the late Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur, who led the NU for 10 years before turning to politics. “Until now, NU has reserved more space for women in public spaces [in the organisation]but now, for the first time in history, it’s giving way to women at the top. “

The appointment is a sign that NU Secretary General Yahya Cholil Staquf, who was elected last December, plans to modernize an organization that was founded in 1926 and has long been seen as a fighter. fight for religious tolerance in the archipelago.

Alissa Wahid, wearing a traditional dark pink ao dai and light pink headscarf, is currently the senior leader of NU
Alissa Wahid is the daughter of the late Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, commonly known as Gus Dur, who led NU for a decade before entering politics. [Courtesy of Alissa Wahid

In a speech to mark the launch of his book ‘The Big Struggle of NU’ ahead of his election, Yahya argued that NU must work together with other Islamic organisations and different religious groups to shape a better world.

“We are all in the same boat on earth in search of a new form of civilisation that is better for all mankind,” he said.

In recent years, there has been growing concern about increasing religious conservatism and the appeal of hardline groups in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.

In 2017, Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok, and a Christian of Chinese descent, found himself jailed for two years on blasphemy charges after he was accused of “insulting Islam” for referring to a verse in the Quran during his campaign for re-election.

Last year, about 20 people were injured after two suicide bombers attacked a cathedral in Makassar on Palm Sunday.

And in September, hundreds of people calling themselves the Muslim People Alliance attacked and burned a mosque used by the minority Ahmadiyya community in Sintang, West Kalimantan.

Wasisto Raharjo Jati, a political researcher from the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), told Al Jazeera that NU’s campaign for a moderate and inclusive Islam was crucial to counter more hardline discourses.

“NU as the world’s largest Islamic organisation needs to take part in providing an alternative view … by presenting a moderate and inclusive narrative of Indonesian Islam,” he said, noting the organisation’s strategy of tolerance and support for interfaith dialogue.

“The challenge for NU in the future is to become a ‘big house’ for Indonesian Muslims, which currently are still fragmented. It is important that Indonesia’s Islamic orientation is more grounded and contextual rather than just based on Islam in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Yahya, who was a spokesperson for Gus Dur and more recently a member of current President Joko Widodo’s advisory council, has also expressed the need for a separation between politics and religion after a divisive 2019 presidential election between Widodo and former general Prabowo Subianto.

During the campaign, Subianto’s supporters accused Widodo of being anti-Islam and a sympathiser of the long-banned Indonesian Communist Party.

Widodo’s supporters, meanwhile, accused Subianto of being in the thrall of hardline religious groups and claimed he was promoting the establishment of a caliphate in the archipelago.

“The wounds from this past polarisation must be healed immediately and there must be no new wounds,” Yahya said in an interview to mark the 12th anniversary of Gus Dur’s death last year, saying that he would not support candidates for president or vice president from NU.

Subianto is now defence minister in Widodo’s government.

‘Meaning and purpose’

Women in NU have always had pivotal roles in the organisation, leading NU’s strong female wings, Muslimat (for women) and Fatayat (for young women), and many other social movements.

Badriyah Fayumi in a black top with orange headscarf
Badriyah Fayumi, a Muslim leader, says the appointment of women to NU’s board underlines its commitment to moderate Islam [Courtesy of Badriyah Fayumi]

NU Women also initiated the first Indonesian Women’s Ulema congress in 2017, which issued a historic statute that included requiring all political parties to take a stand against the child Mariage.

Alissa, who is also the country director of an NGO that supports Gus Dur’s ideas and values, said she hopes that having women on the board will allow NU to improve welfare. benefit of women throughout the archipelago.

“I hope we can eliminate activities that are harmful to women,” she said. “We now have women in NU at the leadership level to fight for these issues.”

Badriyah Fayumi, an appointed Muslim leader to A’wan, a scholarly group that supports NU’s Supreme Council, said the inclusion of women in leadership was an example of the spirit of Islam. moderate of NU.

The 50-year-old said that as groups become more conservative, it is often women who are targeted and find themselves marginalized.

“We can see that NU has taken a completely different path from that,” Badriyah told Al Jazeera.

“The difference between moderate Islam and conservative extremists is the way they treat women. Extremists see women as objects, as reproductive machines, while moderate Islam considers women as objects that can build this civilization along with men. That is why it is important for women to be in the leadership structure alongside men”.

A portrait of Yahya Staquf, wearing a traditional oval black songkok on his head
Yahya Cholil Staquf says that letting women play a more prominent role in decision-making is key to the reforms he is implementing at Nahdlatul Ulama [File: Caron Creighton/AP Photo]

In one recent talk show on Indonesian TV station KompasTV, Yahya echoed that point, emphasizing that women are crucial to the organization’s future growth.

“I really need them at NU. Their abilities and positions are relevant to the strategies I’m thinking of,” he said.

With women now in a more prominent position, their views will begin to have a more meaningful impact on organizational policies.

Badriyah noted that at NU’s last national congress, there were discussions about climate change and specifically how it will affect women and children.

“Women on central boards don’t just exist,” she said. “There is a meaning and purpose in their existence.”

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