Religions distorted to harm women: Indonesian Religious affairs ministry

In a rare occasion that has signaled the government's shift from religious conservatism, a top official has said religions may have been used by men to justify horrendous acts against women.

The Religious Affairs Ministry's Islamic development director general Muhammad Machasin said on Friday that there were reasons behind the use of religions to harm women.

"The ones who formulated religions were mostly men. Religious heads are also mostly men," he said during a discussion on religions' responses to violence against women.

Moreover, most religions came about during an era when women were not treated as equals and respected as they are today, according to Machasin.

Provided with such a background, society often tended to ditch logic and abuse religious texts to rule over women, Machasin argued.

"For example, in Islam, if a husband is concerned that his wife will argue back [a sign of disobedience], he usually advises her, hits her or neglects her in bed," Machasin said.

"If we look at the situation when the text was composed, then it was probably a normal practice. But now if we want to hit [our wives], that is not okay. Our sense of justice would prevent us from doing so."

Rights activist Siti Musdah Mulia of the Indonesian Conference of Religions and Peace said that religious texts had been grossly misinterpreted to justify domestic violence against women for disobeying their husbands.

"The Arabic term used is 'dorabat'. But it doesn't necessarily have to be interpreted as 'beating' because there are 18 different meanings behind the word. Personally, I use a softer meaning such as 'educate', rather than 'beat'," she said.

Musdah also criticised how the texts discriminated against women.

"The texts talk about women who disobey their husbands, but what about men? Are there no men who disobey [their wives]? What is the punishment for them?" she said.

Besides texts from the Quran, Prophet Muhammad's sayings and deeds (hadith) could also be used recklessly to perpetuate the role of women as inferior beings compared to men, Musdah said.

"There's a hadith that says men should be careful not to be tempted by women, which is even stronger than the devil's temptation," she said.

Musdah also argued how religions were often used to keep women from entering the workforce.

"In terms of marriage, women are often told to take care of their children. That's still acceptable. But if they are told to take care of their husbands, can we conclude that their husbands are also babies?"

Whenever people say that a woman's nature is to be a housewife, they should be more careful about their definition, according to Musdah.

"The ones included in our nature are related to reproductive organs, such as birthing and breast-feeding. But when it comes to cooking, we don't use our breasts [to cook] right?" she said.

National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) deputy chairwoman Justina Rostiawati said religious leaders were the biggest hurdle to people shifting their mindset from discriminating against women.

"It's not only that they have certain interpretations [on religions] that could be harmful, but they also have a huge influence because their communities are really listening to them," she said.

Religious leaders also played important roles because women tended to seek protection from them in the case of domestic violence, Justina added.

In 2013, the number of cases of violence against women jumped 30 per cent to 279,688, as recorded by Komnas Perempuan.

To provide a better understanding of how religions could protect women, the commission started a project in 2007 in which it invited religious leaders and theologians to discuss the issue.

So far, the commission has produced six books, each based on the major religions' responses to violence against women.