By : Nina Nurmila

In normal conditions, the validity of women’s leadership has been frequently questioned and even harder when they become leaders in conflict areas. In conflict situations, activities often rely only on two things: attack or protect themselves from the attack. The attacks are usually followed by sophisticated weapons with massive destructive impact, so that as a result self-protection effort is not easy. Especially in the condition when women bear reproductive burden such as pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. Therefore, women have big interest toward the realization of a peaceful situation  in the society with strong patriarchal value, because in the moment of peace they are vulnerable to get a physical violence, moreover in the conflict period. There are so many stories about the women who are raped and murdered in peacetime, moreover in the time of war or in conflict area.

Ideally, women are able to play significant role, even take position to lead efforts on   peace making. The leading process can be done indirectly or directly. In a society where patriarchal value is still too strong, women’s leadership can be manifested indirectly, for example by influencing their husbands or their children in order to be peaceful, do not invite conflict with others and treat each member of family, neighbors and friends well. Convenience and peace that are created at home will greatly influence the family members, both husband and children when they behave outside the home. Women can also be the leaders directly in the conflict areas, by involving in the negotiation process in to realize peace, to end conflict, to minimize destruction and victims. It is expected that female leaders can be more empathetic and have better understanding to the special needs of female victims in the conflict, whether during the conflict, rehabilitation or reconstruction after the conflict. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles and challenges for women to become leaders in the time of peace, especially in the conflict areas. One of them is the strong patriarchal system in our society.

Patriarchal Interpretation on Women’s Leadership

Patriarchy is a system that has been firmly embedded mostly in all places in the world, only a few communities that adopt bilateral and matriarchal system. Patriarchy is a system that puts men in a privileged position, while others like women and children are placed only on marginal or subordinate position or in the relation to the men’s interests. For example, women are positioned as a servant, devotee and supporter for their husband and the children as an entertainer and the next generation of the patriarch (adult males). On the contrary, matriarchal system puts women in a privileged position, while men are only positioned as a guest in the wife’s home. While bilateral system puts men and women in equal position or more egalitarian. But the both systems (matriarchal and bilateral) are rather rare. For example, in Indonesia, the matriarchal system exists in Minangkabau society and a bilateral system exist in Sundanese and Javanese society, but the both have been influenced by a patriarchal system that implanted through the law of state that tends to be patriarchal.

Because the patriarchal system is strongly influential and has been firmly embedded in all parts of the world, so many people do not realize that their view upon men and women is patriarchal that tends to favor men and demean women as if men are already predetermined to always be superior than women and women are predetermined as they’re always lower than the men. For example, there are many Muslims community who are being antipathy towards women, especially women leaders. Their disagreement toward women’s leadership is often proposed by reciting two following verses of the Quran, Surah (QS) 4: 34 and 2: 228, which are used to legitimize, that only men who are considered to have a higher degree than women, who can be the leader. The aforesaid verse in Suurah An-Nisa is often translated as follows:

“Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand” (QS. An-Nisa ‘: 34)

Meanwhile, in Surah Al-Baqarah: 228, It is often interpreted as:

“Divorced women remain in waiting for three periods, and it is not lawful for them to conceal what Allah has created in their wombs if they believe in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands have more right to take them back in this [period] if they want reconciliation. And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them [in responsibility and authority]. And Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise”  

If we look at the previous works of Tafseer which were very influential to Muslims, mostly all commentators like Zamakhsyary (died 538 H), Ar-Razy (died 606 H), Al-Qurthuby (died 671 H), Al-Baydhawy (died  685 H) and Ibn Kathir (died 774 H) view that men are naturally born to be superior than women both in terms of physical strength and intellect so that only men are deemed capable of being a leader, as if women are naturally born, can not be changed, that will always be lower both physically and intellectually than men. This can be understood because in the context of Arabian people that was strongly influenced by patriarchal culture at that time (12-13 century AD), generally men were more superior and culturally favored than women, both in terms of knowledge and physical strength that they use to made a livelihood. This case is apparently different from the current context, in the era where technology, computers and internet are easily accessed, women are able to get easy livelihood, no longer just rely on physical strength and the opportunity to seek knowledge is widely opened for both men and women. In the present era, both men and women, if they make effort, may have advantages in the field of education and earning. 

Qur’anic Exegesis with Gender Justice Perspective on Women’s Leadership

Some of Islamic communities try to oppose the concept of gender based on the assumption that this concept is imported from the West. Indeed literally, the word “gender” derived from English Language (The West), but the substance of this concept has already existed in the Quran and all people in the world, yet it has not recognized yet because there is no study about it. The concept of gender in the Qur’an has been studied and found for instance by Nasaruddin Umar in his dissertation which was later published entitled Argumen Kesetaraan Gender dalam Alquran or “The Arguments of Gender Equality in the Perspective of Quran” (1999). In this book, it is stated that when Quran explains about man and woman in the term of biological (nature), Quran uses the word dzakar (male) and untsa (female), but when explains about gender Quran uses the word rijaal (the masculine), nisa’ (the feminine) and mar`ah (woman). Rijaal, according to Nasaruddin Umar (1999: 153) is a particular type of human being, whether for male or female that is the one who has primacy and certain criteria. In the household, for example, someone is called as rijaal who is qawwaam [the bearer of household economy or a leader] if he/she can fulfill at least two criteria mentioned in Shurah 4: 34, those are: (1) having primacy than his/her partner and (2) spend out his/her wealth partially to the interests of the family. These primacies can be in the form of education or income of the husband/wife which is higher than the other.

By distinguish the term of nature and gender (not nature), leadership in the household / family is no longer dominated by male (dzakar), but also can occupied by female (untsa) who fits with these two criteria. Without fulfilling these two criteria, dzakar will remain dzakar. This understanding gives justice position for both men and women. That is being a leader is has to be achieved by trying to meet these criteria which have been determined, not given just because someone is born with a male sex. Similarly, in the process of becoming a leader of the society and the state, someone must have / meet certain criteria desired by the society and the country. In conflict situations, the criteria to be a leader is possessing (1) expertise in developing strategies in order that the conflict can be ended soon with win-win solution and gives mutual benefit for both parties; (2) the ability to negotiate so that physical violence can be minimized; (3) the ability to protect the people in order to be able to avoid many victims by providing them the ability to safe themselves (self-defense). Anyone who has these criteria, then he deserves to be a leader, regardless of sex consideration.

The  distinction of the aforesaid two terms by ​​Nasaruddin Umar, that is between dzakar (male) and rijaal (the masculine), not only useful in understanding the Qur’an Surah 4: 34 in gender justice, but also in understanding Shurah 2: 228. That rijaal who has a higher degree is not always having male sex (dzakar). The one who gives livelihood,  automatically has a higher degree than the one who is given  (yadul `ulya Khairun min Yadis sufla). Similarly, the leaders of the country, both in a peacetime and in a conflict, are not necessarily the man, but those who own the determined criteria.

If we want to learn in order to get deeper understanding about the Quranic verses, the result  will surprise us because Islam is not a religion that supports patriarchal culture, rather it deny patriarchal culture. It is stated, for example, by Asma Barlas in his book, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran. Asma Barlas argues that Islam is the religion that is anti-patriarchy. This argument is based on his understanding about the case of the Prophet Ibrahim. To obey Allah and believe in the oneness of god, Ibrahim not only disobeyed his father, he even destroyed the statue made by his father and left him (see Surah Maryam [19]: 41-50). This action, according to Asma Barlas, is a kind of harassment and opposition to the system of patriarchy, which demands an obedience to father.

Another example of the Islamic teaching which opposes the existing gender stream which is patriarchal can be seen in the story of Imron’s family. In the Qur’an Shurah 3: 35-37, it was told that during her pregnancy, Imron’s wife promised to dedicate her child to be pious and faithful servant who devotes his life to Allah (in Baitul Maqdis). But in fact, her baby was girl and named as Maryam. Unexpectedly, Allah still received the vow of Imron’ wife, though it was not a baby boy. This story deconstructs the existing gender thought at that time that the person who was able to devote himself in worshiping Allah was not necessarily male. Allah accepted human sacrifice, regardless their sex.  

Both the story of Maryam and Ibrahim can be used as wisdom that Islam is the religion that is anti-patriarchy. Rather Islam is the religion that supports equality and justice among men and women as stated in Surah 9: 71; Surah 2: 187; Surah  4: 124; Surah 16: 97; and Surah 49: 13.

Except from the support of Quranic verses about the equality between men and women, which show the posibility that women can and should be the leaders, Muslims can also reflect in the past history. In Islamic history, we have examples of women who are brave and have a good strategy in facing conflict situations. For example, Asma bint’ Abu Bakar who bravely take a risk by going out in the night secretly to bring food supplies to the prophet and her father when they try to save themselves from the persecution of Makkah people who wanted to kill the Prophet Muhammad. Besides, in the Middle Century, precisely on May 2, 1250, Shajar al-Durr was appointed as Sultanah (woman ruler) in Egypt. He was well known as the beautiful and intelligent woman leader. Before she became Sultanah, he was the wife of Sultan as-Salih Ayyub. In the time of Crusade, her husband was died due to the wound infection in his thigh. And to support her troops, Shajar al-Durr hid the fact about the death of her husband by asking her servants to keep providing a food to her husband’s tend. He just announced to the people about the death of her husband just after the troops of Crusade defeated and King Louis IX was arrested. Unfortunately, the reign of Sulatanah Shajar al-Durr only lasted three months because she did not get permission from the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, al-Musta’sim, who was very patriarchal.

In the context of Indonesia, we know some of women leaders in a conflict situation, such as Admiral Malahayati (in the late 16th century and early 17th century) and Cut Nya’ Din (1850-1908) who led the war against the Dutch. Thus, no doubt that theologically (which is supported by the Quranic verses above) and empirically (which is supported by the story about the involvement of Muslim women in the past history) women can be a leader, whether in peacetime or in conflict areas.

Muslims’ Role in Creating a Peaceful World

Islam means “peaceful” so ideally someone who follows Islam (Muslim / Muslimah) should strive to create peacefulness, or avoid and resolve a conflict. Many Quranic verses support all Muslims and Muslimahs hand in hand in creating a peacefullness and prevent conflict. One of those verses is Shurah Al-Maidah / 5: 2

“O you who have believed, do not violate the rites of Allah or [the sanctity of] the sacred month or [neglect the marking of] the sacrificial animals and garlanding [them] or [violate the safety of] those coming to the Sacred House seeking bounty from their Lord and [His] approval. But when you come out of ihram, then [you may] hunt. And do not let the hatred of a people for having obstructed you from al-Masjid al-Haram lead you to transgress. And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is severe in penalty” (Surat. Al Maidah: 2)

The paragraph above shows that we should not do anything which might invite conflict, but Muslim, whether male or female must help each other in goodness in order to create peace among human beings. The emphasis that the believing men and women are helpers for each other in goodness and prevent a wrongdoing is also stated in the Shurah At Tawbah (9): 71 as following:

“The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those – Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise” (At-Tawbah: 71) 

Some examples of wrongdoing acts are making destruction on the earth, whether in the form of war that able to destroy not only human beings and animals, but also lands and trees that exist on earth, or in the form of over-exploitation of the natural resources, so that the nature becomes damage. As the result, the damage will return to human, such as floods, landslides, erratic weather and global warming. The destructive act also can easily invite the conflict. For example, due to the hot weather, people tend to be impatient and easily hostile. The limited natural resources that have been destroyed a lot will cause starving that can easily ignite a conflict, for example in the struggle for limited food. The damages and conflicts that occur due to human activity are described in verse, Shurah Ar-Rum / 30: 41:

“Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness]” (QS. Ar Rum: 41) 

In fact, Quran has clearly and firmly forbidden human to make destruction on earth, as stated in Shurah 2: 60 as following:

“And [recall] when Moses prayed for water for his people, so We said, “Strike with your staff the stone.” And there gushed forth from it twelve springs, and every people knew its watering place. “Eat and drink from the provision of Allah, and do not commit abuse on the earth, spreading corruption.” (Surat. Al-Baqara: 60)


Women’s leadership is often debated because in the patriarchal society women are seen as inferior and considered incapable to be a leader. These assumptions can influence women’s view or the lack of confidence of the women whether they are capable and deserve to be a leader. However, the understanding toward the aforesaid verses with gender justice perspective is expected to give confidence to the women that they are complete human beings that are able to lead, whether in the household, state, or in the time of peace and conflict. To be a leader in the area of conflict, women must have courage to break the gender structure that has ben set up and strive to have the criteria set by the society to be able to lead.

It is expected that with the leadership of women, peace can be realized and the victims of conflict especially women and children can be fulfilled their rights and their particular needs during rehabilitation and reconstruction of post conflict. Both conflict and peace is the effect and the result of human’s effort (kasab), male and female. Women, as the creatures who have big interest in the realization of peace, should ideally be able to lead and provide role models for peace building effort by helping each other in goodness and prevent a wrongdoing act. Wallahu a`lamu bish-shawab.


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