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Women Ulama for Humanity: Historical Narrative of the Struggle of Indonesian Muslim Women

Title : Merintis Keulamaan untuk Kemanusiaan: Profil Kader Ulama Perempuan Rahima   (Pioneering Ulama for Humanity: the Profile of Rahima Women Ulama Cadre)

Authors : AD. Eridani, Mawardi, AD. Kusumaningtyas, Maman Abdurrahman

Editor : Nor Ismah

Publisher : Rahima, 2014

Number of Pages : xlviii, 2364 pages

Etymologically, ulama (plural) whose singular form in Arabic is ‘alim is defined as a religious figure whose job is to protect, foster and guide Muslims both in the matters of religion and daily issues that are needed both in terms of religion and social community. Its real meaning in Arabic is scholar or researcher, but it changes when absorbed into Indonesian, which means a person who is expert in the Islamic Knowledge. This is the meaning commonly adopted by our society when defining ulama.

In this sense, it can be seen that the term ulama is in broad-spectrum and can be attached to either men or women. But in reality, the term ulama commonly refers more to men. This assumption becomes established because the facts show that those acknowledged as ulama by the public are almost all men. Such a view is also constructed in relation to the understanding of mainstream religious texts that give religious authority to men as their special area. 

Agree or not, so far the tendency to place men in the public affairs and women in domestic affairs occurs almost in every human civilization. This myth has given rise to prolonged social inequalities between the sexes. Women are considered superior in household activities (domestic territory), while men are considered the most superior in the public domain. Even if we examine the theological grounding in the Koran as the main reference for Muslims, we will find evidence that the Koran tells a lot of women who are active and successful in both domestic and public areas, including in the Surah An-Naml Verse 23: ” Indeed, I found [there] a woman ruling them, and she has been given of all things, and she has a great throne.” This verse implies that there is a woman who is very capable of holding power, she is Queen Bilqis. 

Meanwhile, the historical study will open our eyes to see the condition of women during the time of the Prophet PBUH. At that time, women gained independence and a positive spiritual atmosphere. Their confidence was very high, so some of them got brilliant achievements, especially in the public sector. There is no doubt that there were women who were successful in the public domain during the time of the Prophet PBUH. Our history records and perpetuates their big names in intellectual development. During the time of the Prophet, religious studies were a favorite field for women, so many Muslim women became prominent figures among hadith and legal experts. Siti Aisyah, the wife of the Prophet ranked in the topmost. She was a famous scholar of her time. Aisyah is believed to memorize thousands of hadith received directly from the Prophet. And to this day, she is still considered to have high authority in the Islamic jurisprudence. Another well-known name is Nafisah, a descendant of Ali, who became a prominent legal expert and theologian. Shuhdah is the youngest name in traditional knowledge, especially hadith, which becomes the Islamic scientific discipline that is taught exclusively to men.

This theological and historical appreciation for women has brought the spirit of women’s liberation from various forms of oppression. Unfortunately, this spirit faded after the death of the Prophet PBUH and continued to fade in the following years. Even now we will find demeaning perspectives and attitudes toward women in the name of Islam. In religious life, indeed patriarchal domination and hegemony are almost unshakeable. However, this does not discourage some women who still believe that Islam is present as a blessing for the whole universe. This includes women who continue to struggle for the realization of a civilization that is friendlier to women, a civilization that creates equal relations among humans.

The spirit of women’s liberation with a theological and historical basis as above is what we can find on the profiles of women documented in the book entitled “Pioneering Ulama for Humanity: the Profile of Rahima Women Ulama Cadre”. What is interesting about this book is the new signification toward the term ulama. Rahima maintains the meaning of ulama in the traditional sense, i.e. having the qualifications of ulama as it has been known so far, but with the addition of the ability to organize the community and the ability to impose women’s interests in state policies and authoritative religious institutions in Indonesia. With this signification, the ulama are not individual figures but groups of people (ulama community), given their increasingly complex role in the midst of the reigning patriarchal culture. 

For me personally, this book is a historical witness to the process of struggle carried out by women ulama to build a friendly world for humanity. There are around 40 (forty) women ulama whose effort with various roles in their respective communities is documented in this book. In general, most of the profiles of these women ulama are relatively the same (with priyayi –noble class- pesantren backgrounds, or at least santri who have ever studied in pesantren), facing a culture that is not much different for women in society. So, these women ulama choose relatively similar ways in building friendly and gender-equal society.  

This can be seen from the issue of education that they prioritize. It is perhaps because most of them are from the pesantren or education field, so their real struggles are also carried out in this field. For them, education is believed to be the inheritance and internalization of noble values so that through this education, the internalization of values that are friendly to humanity is easier to incorporate. However, they also play other social roles such as advocating women victims of domestic violence and migrant workers, and also as policymakers (Local Parliament members).


The profile of women ulama in this book has colored how a life that is friendly to humanity is seen from a gender perspective that considers women’s experience as part of an effort to understand the teachings of Islam itself. Thus, the understanding of Islam which has a negative effect on women must be reinterpreted, because it is impossible for Islam as a religion of grace to treat its ummah inappropriately. 

The presence of this book certainly enriches our insight. We can especially learn about what has been done by these women ulama in their respective communities. And what is no less important, this book is a historical narrative of the struggle of Muslim women in a country called Indonesia. Wallahu’alam {} Ai Sadidah, Rahima’s Partner in Pesantren Nurul Huda, Cisurupan, Garut 


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