Researching on Female Islamic Leadership in Southeast Asia

On Friday April 7th 2017, Institute of Southeast Asian Islam (ISAIs) cooperating with Center for Gender Mainstreaming and Children’s Rights (P2GHA)  UIN Sunan Kalijaga invited David Kloos, Ph.D, a postdoctoral researcher specializing in the history and anthropology of Islam in Southeast Asia at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV). He presented his main research project, titled ‘Seeing is believing: Female Islamic leadership and visual rhetoric in Southeast Asia’, which explores the ways in which female Islamic authorities in Malaysia and Indonesia make use of visual images to communicate with their audience.

Through a two hour restricted discussion Kloose presented that the primary object of his research is the visual communication between the female preachers and the audience through what is so called the personalization of religious authority. It is the personalized way of communication which brings the preachers in close contact with the audience through how the preachers address social problems through their personalized perspective and personal experiences.

The inception of this research interest arose when he conducted a research on Female Ulema in Aceh and was burned with a sudden curiosity upon the existence of such powerful female Ulema in Indonesia. This question makes him wonder about his own bias views about how the West perceive Islam as a religion dominantly hegemonized by male conception. His long term dwelling with the female Ulema in Aceh brings up more questions about the way the female Ulema in Malaysia directly communicate with the public through some popular media. It is interesting to note that such popular female Ulema has got religious authority that enables them to speak before the public either in television, radios, or in some Mosques. However, more interestingly this authority does not let them change gender norms in Islamic laws.

The case study was limited based on the popularity of the Ulema and public acceptance towards the Ulema since the popularly received female Ulemas are given religious authority. Charisma and gifted skill to attract people are two primary factors which brought them to the spotlight. Some of such popular preachers are sometimes born out of the formal religious background such as Pesantren, and some others even come from professional backgrounds such as medical practitioners and psychology without having the ability to write many Islamic books.

The research theoretical framework is based on the influential sociologist, Max Weber, whose notion of authority is classified into three types namely the traditional, charismatic, and legal-rational authority. The existence of authority is solely attributed to the willingness of the people to be subjected by the authority.

Meanwhile, the visual rhetoric concept is based on the existing data on how female authorities are formed out of non verbal and non textual features such as gesture, tone of voice, facial expressions, clothing style, and so on. In fact there are countless interpretations on women’s position in religious texts, meaning that it is a discursive issue. Some of such interpretations are conservative whilst some others are more contextual. Apart from these interpretations, particular style of communication involving non verbal features is attributed to the popularity and fame of certain figures.

Take for instance, a female preacher Ustadzah Hafiza Musa in Malaysia who is popularly recognizable from her sweet but firm voice. Other example of popularly received female preacher would be Fatimah Syarha who combined between her psychological acknowledgements with religious notion.

Taking the form of phenomenological research, the order of the research is classified based on three categories namely preachers, professional or experts, and politicians. Such classification is based on the existing condition in Malaysia.

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