The Long Road to Equality

Title : Women in Shackle: The Male-Biased Interpretation (Perempuan dalam   Pasungan: Bias Laki-laki dalam Penafsiran)

Author : Dr. Nurjannah Ismail

Publisher : LKIS Yogyakarta: the first edition 

Length : xv + 361 pages


Move or stepped on, change or extinct! The two imperative sentences might be appropriate to illustrate the spirit of this book. Don’t you believe it? Just pay attention letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, so neatly in discussing the problem of woman. Even more than that, sheet by sheet is presented in an orderly manner and simple, so readable.

The book that takes the basic idea of womanhood is based on a critical study of Surah An-Nisa of the Qur’an. Although the book is based on the dissertation of a writer from IAIN Sunan Kalijaga Yogyakarta, it does not mean that this book is unfit for public consumption, just the opposite.

This book actually deconstructs the studies of Quranic exegesis that have been around in the midst of society, which are considered to shackle women. Because it was found that many previous Muslim commentators (especially related to verses on women and misogynist Hadiths) are subjective. So no wonder if in describing each issue, the author often quotes the statement (read: the commentary) of the previous Muslim commentators (mufassir), then the author gives her argument or commentary.

Like other books derived from the dissertation, this book has its own advantages, namely the number of references and a lot of analysis from the previous commentators. Not only that, the way of the book presentation is very comprehensive. Readers can find different perspectives, not just readers from interfaith perspectives, many things are presented in the socio-cultural and historical contexts etc.

As for the scope of discussion in this book, there are four main discussions. First, the origin of women (Surah An-Nisa/4: 1). The classical commentary that women were created from Adam’s ribs seems to be a serious discussion for the author who was born in Krueng Panjoe, Aceh. To her, the verse is still general, widely opened for reinterpretation. While many commentators are still in different opinions, who exactly is meant by “one self” (nafs wahidah), whom is referred to by pronoun (dhamir) “himself” (minha), and what is meant by “couple” (zaujaha) in the verse. For example, Fakhruddin ar-Razy in Tafsir al-Kabir, he quotes Abu Muslim al-Asfahani who asserts that “ha” in the word “minha” is not “from the Adam’s (ribs)” but “of Adam’s kind” (minjinsiha), p. 240 & 254.

Second, the leadership in the household (Surah An-Nisa/4: 34). In this section, readers are invited to explore more about the leadership of women, especially on the commentary of Islamic scholars who place women lower than men. So is the role of women in a leadership in the public sphere. In fact, an-Nisa verse 34: “ar-rijalu qowwamuna ‘ala an-nisa” was revealed in the family context, so it cannot be used in the context of the state (page 10). In this case, the author adopts many opinions of Nasaruddin Ummar and other commentary opinions such as ath-Thabari, ar-Razi, Muhammad Abduh, and Rashid Rida. Not to mention the opinion of Muslim feminists, such as Asghar Ali Engineer and Amina Wadud Muhsin. According to the author, the meaning of the word qowwam lies in the assessment of the advantage or superiority of men.

Even the Qur’an does not mention explicitly what the superiority of men over women is, so it is reasonable that the commentary is diverse and controversial. For example, Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Ridha who put forward the advantages of men in detail, which are essentially on the physical, intellectual, and religious advantages. The verse applies only to the family sphere rather than to governmental affairs. While feminist views, such as Asghar Ali Engineer and Amina Wadud argue that male superiority is only of functional superiority alone. (pp. 274).

Third, regarding the formula of inheritance (Surah An-Nisa / 4: 11). Muslim commentators and feminists agree that the 2:1 inheritance formula (two for a son and one for a daughter) is not discriminatory against women. This formula is based on a fair balance principle between rights and obligations. Herein lie equality and justice, justice does not mean all must be exactly the same in the legal aspect, due to the difference in functions, socio-economic status, rights, and obligations become another consideration. (pp 285).

And fourth, polygamy (Surat an-Nisa / 4: 3). According to her, the dominant method of commentary in the intellectual history of Islam is tahlili (analytical) method and uses more textual approach, so the commentary of verses related to women cannot be separated from the Middle Eastern tradition, where the commentators live and interact socially. Reading this book, readers are indirectly exposed to the weaknesses of modern and classical commentators who are inclined to the style of textual and arrogant commentary. For example, the commentary of the polygamy verse that has been understood by men to be free to marry more than one woman. Apparently now what happens is only as a slave of lust (sex oriented), while the values to sympathize orphans aground by the waves of lust.

Hence, the latest commentary approach (maudhu’i method) should be the reference for the commentators. Where this commentary uses thematic interpretation methods and tends to pay attention to semantic and hermeneutic approaches, it is more likely to place women equal to men. The Quranic suggestion of polygamy has now been misunderstood.

Finally, the writer who is a lecturer of Tafsir (Quranic Exegesis) at the Faculty of Adab IAIN ar-Raniri Aceh wants to invite readers to explore further the problems of women who are fairly classical but have not yet gotten into common ground. So, it is expected that the commentators and female activists to examine further the existing commentary, because there are many things that have not been revealed behind the verses of the Qur’an. It includes partial commentary, subjective or biased commentary, and also the commentary which is still within the grasp of patriarchal ideology and power interests.

Strictly speaking, the research on the holy texts of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet that Islamic Shari’ah is built for the benefit of mankind and other universal humanitarian goals, namely benefits, justice, and wisdom. These principles should be the basis and substance of the entire matter of Fiqh. It must always be in the mind of the Fiqh scholars when deciding legal cases. Violation of these principles also means violating the ideals of the highest Islamic Shari’a, because common benefit is the basis and main purpose of Islamic law itself.


*Yudiono, an alumnus of UIN Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta


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