Hundreds of activists, academics, experts and observers also flocked to Cirebon to witness the proceedings of the congress. (Photo by SETARA Institute)

The Importance of the World's Largest Gathering of Female Islamic Clerics


APRIL 29, 2017

On April 24-27, the Indonesian Women’s Ulama Congress, or KUPI, was held in Cirebon, West Java.

The congress was a historic event, the first of its kind in the world. In attendance were over 570 registered participants from over 16 different countries, the vast majority of whom were ulama, or Islamic religious scholars.

Hundreds of activists, academics, experts and observers also flocked to Cirebon to witness the proceedings of the congress.

The congress aimed to acknowledge, celebrate and empower women’s ulama, whose contributions to civilization have been largely ignored throughout the years because of gender-biased historiography that has resulted from the dominance of patriarchal culture.

Through the series of events the participants discussed, debated and searched for solutions to some of the current pressing issues that are facing women in Indonesian society and throughout the world today. Issues included environmental degradation, child marriage, religious extremism, sexual violence and protections for migrant workers.

At the close of ceremony, official recommendations were presented by the committee. These recommendations detailed the roles that women’s ulama, society and the government can play in working to combat three key issues: Child marriage, environmental degradation and sexual violence.

In attendance at the closing ceremony was Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakmin Saefuddin, who voiced his appreciation and pride for the congress.

The minister received the recommendations made by the women’s ulama, and promised to raise the issue of child marriage with the government. Child marriage in Indonesia remains widespread with around one in five girls being married before the age of 18.

While the vast majority of ulama in attendance at the congress were in fact women, the term "women’s ulama" is gender neutral.

The word "ulama" is mentioned throughout the Koran and a number of Hadith texts. Linguistically, ulama is the plural of the Arabic word "alim," meaning a knowledgeable or learned person.

Socially, the term ulama refers to religious leaders who have an advanced understanding of the sources of Islam and act to enlighten people in the community.

Building on this the term, "women's ulama" refers to ulama who work towards gender equality and the empowerment of women, utilizing gender perspective in their teachings and day to day lives.

As a part of the series of events being held, the International Seminar on Women Ulama took place on Tuesday (25/04). Seven inspirational guest speakers from six countries – including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Indonesia and Nigeria – shared their unique experiences as female ulama fighting for humanity and gender equality in diverse corners of the Muslim world.

Among the guest speakers was Mossarat Qadeem, an internationally renowned expert on countering violent extremism from the Peshawar region of Pakistan. Mossarat told of her experience engaging in grass roots deradicalization efforts and her struggles to promote a tolerant form of Islam in the community.

Mossarat, through her organization Paiman, works to save youth on the brink of joining militant groups, many of whom are recruited as suicide bombers.

The organization works through approaching and engaging people – especially mothers – in the community to counteract harmful religious interpretations spread through villages by radical clerics, who act to encourage violence.

Recognizing the importance and the historical significance of the congress, a number of commissioners from the Indonesian National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) made the trip to Cirebon.

Yuniyanti Chuzaifah, vice chairperson of Komnas Perempuan, said, "KUPI is taking place at a crucial time to encourage healthy, productive religious dialogue that can help to empower women and reduce violence against women in the community.

KUPI not only draws on the sources of the Koran and Hadith, but also the Indonesian Constitution and international human rights instruments. The congress is also committed to pushing for environmental sustainability.”

The Indonesian Women’s Ulama Congress has been developed as a forum for women’s ulama to gather and produce solutions to the problems facing Islam, the nation and humanity.

It that has succeeded in bringing together women from all corners of Indonesia and the globe to share their experiences, form networks and strengthen tolerance in the community.

In a time in which international media has begun to frame Indonesian Islam in a context of rising fundamentalism and intolerance, events like KUPI are important to work towards renewing Indonesia’s reputation as a harmonious and moderate Muslim majority country.

Jack Britton is a writer and volunteer with Komnas Perempuan in Jakarta. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Komnas Perempuan or the Jakarta Globe.

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