The New York Times recently published an article titled “With Joko Widodo’s Re-election Indonesia Bucks Global Tilt Toward Strongmen.” Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, just as the U.S. is the largest Christian-majority country. But while the U.S. head of state is a narcissist and compulsive liar who is taking his country in the direction of fundamentalism and intolerance and giving aid and comfort to extremists around the world, Indonesia’s leader is a moderate, self-effacing reformer who favors a syncretic, locally-inflected version of Islam and equal rights for women and ethnic minorities.
President Widodo’s cabinet of 34 boasts eight women, including the Foreign Minister and the Finance Minister, and he supports microfinancing programs that benefit large numbers of women in the informal sector — small traders, farmers, and market gardeners, such as the sellers in the floating market pictured below.
Indonesia’s Lok Baintan Floating Market
President Widodo is far from perfect — he’s a politician, after all, and is no stranger to the vacillations and reversals characteristic of the breed. But observers are cautiously optimistic. He no longer has to worry about re-election, and has a fairly strong mandate for reform, since he defeated a right-wing Muslim fundamentalist on a platform of fostering pluralism.
Despite President Widodo’s opponent’s claims that Widodo’s platform is a betrayal of Islam, in fact it reflects the dominant beliefs and practices of Islam throughout its history. For example, Moorish (Muslim) Spain was an intellectually vibrant and religiously tolerant region for centuries. Only with the ascendancy of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella did Jews, Muslims, and other non-Catholics face persecution and expulsion from the realm.
Islamic traditions of tolerance have also extended to women’s reproductive concerns. As I explain in the first chapter of my book, Sex and Herbs and Birth Control, the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence (historically the most influential interpreters of Islamic principles) accepts abortion until ensoulment, which for them takes place 120 days after conception. Other schools of jurisprudence, such as the Shafi’i and Hanbali, have debated when ensoulment occurs, but traditionally Islamic jurists never put it earlier than 40 days after conception. Thus, abortion before this time was no one’s business but the woman’s, and abortion has been widely practiced and condoned throughout the Muslim world from the time of Mohammed.
Since 2009, the only circumstances in which abortion is legal in Indonesia are to save the life/health of the pregnant woman, or (up to six weeks) in the case of rape. Of course, as in many (if not most) countries with restrictive abortion laws, illegality has little effect on frequency. Estimates are that approximately two million illegal abortions are performed in Indonesia each year. Although complications from illegal abortions are estimated to cause about 16% of all maternal deaths, it is interesting to note that an Indonesian woman is twice as likely to die in childbirth as from an illegal abortion.
President Widodo could enhance his reputation as a friend of women and opponent of fundamentalist extremism if he joined Indonesian health rights advocates in pressing for liberalization of abortion laws. That way, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country could honor the pluralistic, women-friendly traditions of mainstream Islam, while casting further into relief the misogynistic and backward-looking policies of the Christian-majority U.S.