Examining the Impact of Islamist Feminism in Indonesia’s 2024 Presidential Election

Muslim women praying during Idul Fitri celebration. Credit: Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images.

Islamist Feminism in Indonesia

Islamist feminism has become increasingly visible and popular in Indonesia. It possesses a great potential to shape the country’s political landscape in ways that are yet to be fully understood since they have only gained significant momentum in recent years, especially compared to the conventional, predominantly male Islamist movement.

As Indonesia is gearing up for the presidential election in 2024, examining how Islamist feminism may influence the political dynamics in this country is timely and of utmost importance. 

The emergence of Islamist feminism was first observed in the Middle East and North Africa in the 1940s when women started to assume political roles openly within male-dominated societies. As opposed to Islamic feminism, which concentrates on reviving the feminist discourse within the Islamic paradigm through challenging masculinist hermeneutics, Islamist feminism moves one step ahead by carrying such ideas into the political sphere through activism and advocacy.

Moving beyond the former’s intellectual debates surrounding religious reinterpretations, the latter plays an active role in introducing such discussions to the sociopolitical space as the alternative understanding of the role of women in Islam. In other words, the difference between Islamic and Islamist feminism lies very much in the presence of political activism.

Islamist feminism in Indonesia is not necessarily a new phenomenon as it had started to flourish after the fall of Soeharto’s New Order regime in 1998 through the then-rising Tarbiyah movement.

In contemporary Indonesia, Islamist feminist movements have become even more prevalent and thus deserve further evaluation. Its role and involvement encompass issues concerning women’s rights and freedom of expression while at the same time trying to fit such themes within the Islamic framework. 

Although this may sound attractive to many Muslim women, Islamist feminism has the possibility to cause sectarian tensions among Muslims in Indonesia as its ideology may sound too progressive, if not heretical, for many male-dominated Islamist groups.

In addition, Islamist feminism may also face a repudiation from the traditional female Islamist groups, which conform to the patriarchal interpretation of women’s roles and responsibilities. Nevertheless, the speed of its growth and popularity suggests a promising place for this movement in Indonesian politics.

Islamist feminism has its ideology, goals and strategies that have future implications for Indonesia. Its followers perceive Islamic values inherent in Islamist feminism as a means to embed morality in politics, which are also useful to combat corruption and promote social justice. More importantly, it provides ample political space for Muslim women, who often see themselves as a marginalized political segment, to express their political interests. 

Significance and Potential Impact

Defining Islamist feminism loosely as a movement that advocates for women’s rights and empowerment within the context of Islam has brought us to several instances, including Yayasan Fahmina, Rahima, Nasyiatul Aisyiyah, Fatayat, Alimat, and Tarbiyah group.

Yayasan Fahmina, Rahima and Alimat claim to be independent and non-governmental.  Meanwhile, Nasyiatul Aisyiyah and Fatayat are affiliated with the two biggest Islamic groups in Indonesia, Muhammadiyah and Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), respectively. On the other hand, the Tarbiyah group is a female operational wing of the Islamist political party, Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).

The truth is that those Islamist feminist organizations frequently intermingle as their visions and missions are somewhat aligned. It then makes more sense that their roles and activities are intertwined since they all fight for similar causes. For example, many Islamist feminist organizations are involved in the periodic gatherings held by the non-partisan Kongres Ulama Perempuan Indonesia (Indonesia Women’s Ulema Congress – KUPI) to discuss issues pertaining to gender mainstreaming to Islam. 

It is also crucial to note that NU and Muhammadiyah have announced a neutral political position for the upcoming 2024 presidential election. Regardless of the neutrality, their association with the Islamist feminist movements amplifies the latter’s significance in Indonesian politics, specifically in the forthcoming election.

Such an alliance, while adding to the growing influence, visibility and popularity of Islamist feminism, will also paint this movement as a credible agency to mobilize the masses and persuade a substantial portion of the electorate. On many occasions, Islamist feminist organizations have effortlessly gathered public sentiments by emphasizing religious and social values. Therefore, they are able to shape the political discourse that prioritizes women’s role in family, education, morality and social welfare. 

Revisiting the Neutrality Claim

There are two highlighted arguments with regard to the Islamist feminists’ political impact on the 2024 Indonesian presidential election.

Firstly, due to the nature of Islamist feminism, this movement is expected to support the presidential candidate who works towards encouraging the active participation of women in sociopolitical space, strengthening emancipation and enhancing women’s political representation. The first point helps to deliver valuable insight into which candidate is perceived to be the most capable of guaranteeing such pursuits.

Secondly, they will likely vote for the candidate who is favored by their affiliated Islamic organizations. This second one, however, offers us the opportunity to revisit, if not to problematize, the idea of “neutrality” by NU and Muhammadiyah. 

Three candidates are currently expected to run for the Indonesian presidential election next year. Anies Baswedan is primarily supported by the National Democratic Party (Nasdem) and other coalition parties. Ganjar Pranowo hails from the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), which coalition consists of both parliamentarian and non-parliamentarian parties. Lastly, Prabowo Subianto from the Great Indonesian Movement (Gerindra) party boasts the biggest coalition size (at 261 seats) while also receiving support from non-parliamentarian parties.

To obtain a sufficient understanding of the competing political parties within the context of this article, we may have a look at some surveys done between 2017 and 2018 by Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) that reveal several useful findings, among all on how Islamist they are, in which political spectrum their ideologies are based, and demographics of their followers.

According to the survey, Gerindra is the most Islamist and has greater room for political Islam to thrive among the three parties. In terms of the political spectrum, Gerindra’s ideology has placed it on the right wing, widely known to be conservative. Interestingly, the highest number of Muslim followers is found in PDI-P, which happens to be the third most secular party in Indonesia. PDI-P is also the most popular among female followers. For such counterintuitive outcomes, it is still difficult to predict which contesting party will accumulate the most support from the Islamist feminists at this juncture. 

The subsequent layer to examine is the individual candidates themselves, primarily on the image they sell to win the hearts of potential voters. In his book The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media, John B. Thompson, a Professor of Sociology, provides an extensive discussion of what he believes is the most influential embodiment of political communication, which is personalization of politics. In this process, political parties reconsider stepping back to perform only as a background and instead emphasize individual representatives triumphing over public sentiments. This win-win strategy enhances the political significance of the candidates while ensuring victory for the parties. 

Notwithstanding the parties’ religious ideologies and political spectrum, Anies, Ganjar and Prabowo have depicted excellent political personalization to the public by constructing certain images on television and social media. Anies’ Instagram account is mainly filled with community engagement, public talks, grassroots participation and snippets of religious personal life. It is comparable with Ganjar’s digital image-building, except he substantiates the interfaith element in his public engagement. Meanwhile, Prabowo’s social media posts are distinguishable from the other two as they mostly portray meetings with the officials and political elites, somehow suggesting more impactful actions, if not an inherent distance from the people.  

In August 2023, Indikator Politik Indonesia released a survey on the electability of the three candidates among Indonesian Muslims. It indicates that Prabowo holds over 50% of the votes, followed by Anies and Ganjar. It is intriguing to see how Prabowo is highly favored by Indonesian Muslims when he does not project himself as an Islamic puritan.

His followers may actually buy into the ideology of his party or the fact that it receives a tremendous backup from the two well-known right-wing parties, the Party of Functional Groups (Golkar) and the National Mandate Party (PAN). In this case, the public seems to put more weight on Gerindra than Prabowo. If this is true, it will put the political personalization theory discussed earlier in a compromised position.

Undermining political personalization through fronting political parties leads to revisiting the neutral stance of NU and Muhammadiyah in the presidential election. Since many Islamist feminist communities operate under NU and Muhammadiyah, they naturally support political parties with the strongest connection to these two giant establishments.

In September 2023, LSI disclosed its most recent survey result that PDI-P is the most favored by NU among the three contesting parties, with Nasdem being the last. It is speculated that for this very reason, Anies has become the first among the three candidates to officially announce Muhaimin Iskandar, the chairperson of the National Awakening Party (PKB), an NU-pioneered political entity, as his vice-presidential nominee. 

As for Muhammadiyah, its close affinity with PAN may benefit Prabowo in amassing electoral votes. It is now easier to forecast that the Islamist feminist movements and their followers will support their two most preferred candidates, Ganjar Pranowo and Prabowo Subianto, followed by Anies Baswedan.

The forecast can nonetheless be inaccurate, especially since Anies has secured an NU-based vice president. This dynamic underlines the roles of NU and Muhammadiyah in influencing electoral votes in the Indonesian presidential election. Visualizing them as neutral agencies may obliterate their protracted political involvement and deny their political impact. 

Islamist Feminism in Indonesia’s Future

As a Muslim-majority country with multifarious segments in its society, Indonesia has long relied on the principle of “unity in diversity” to safeguard the wholeness of its nationhood. Even though Islam plays a powerful role in Indonesian politics, it must harmoniously interact with broader religious and social elements in the country. The rise of female Islamist movements is part of global development that should be embraced as a political reality in today’s society.

Islamist feminism will inevitably affect Indonesian politics in many possible ways that must be further examined. The process of its interaction with various political and religious ideologies in Indonesia deserves a comprehensive evaluation as it concerns oneness, harmony and social cohesion in the country. Understanding their goals, strategies and potential consequences in the 2024 presidential election is essential for voters as well as policymakers as they navigate the evolving political landscape in Indonesia.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Raneeta Mutiara is an Associate Lecturer at the School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). She graduated from the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Indonesia and obtained her master's degree from the National University of Singapore. Her research interest revolves around religiopolitical movements in Southeast Asia.