Between tradition and innovation, women ulama issuing fatwas in Indonesia

Women Islamic scholars in Java, Indonesia’s most populated island, are challenging male authority through fatwa-making, thus enriching Islamic jurisprudence, promoting inclusivity within Indonesian society, and marking a significant shift towards gender justice, writes Nor Ismah of Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Melbourne Asia Review (April 20). There has been a growing interest among scholars about the place of female religious leaders in Indonesia (see RW, April 2021). Besides Ismah’s doctoral thesis on women issuing fatwas, several recent articles have dealt with female ulama in Indonesia, a country currently reported to have the largest population of Muslims worldwide. In her article, Ismah shows that there is already a long history of women’s involvement in issuing Islamic legal opinions and guidance, known as fatwas, within organizational contexts. Muslim women’s organizations like Aisyiyah and Muslimat have played a crucial role in empowering women and promoting their participation in religious dialogue and fatwa-making. However, the participation of women in major fatwa-making forums remained very limited.


But this male dominance is getting increasingly contested. The inaugural Indonesian Congress of Women Ulama (KUPI) in 2017 was a landmark event that challenged male-centric and patriarchal authority within Islam, introducing innovative concepts like ulama perempuan (female Islamic scholars) and keulamaan (clerical capacity) of women. Ismah explains how KUPI has developed a fatwa-making methodology that integrates traditional approaches with a justice-oriented framework, emphasizing values like compassion, equality, and reciprocity. “At its inaugural congress, KUPI issued three fatwa addressing child marriage, sexual violence, and environmental disasters impacting women.” KUPI has welcomed approaches integrating “classical Islamic scholarship, modern methods, and feminist discourse to reinterpret texts in a gender-sensitive manner,” instead of choosing the path of feminist critiques directly challenging traditional scholarship. But Ismah acknowledges that such efforts have also had to face resistance from some male ulama who view the gender justice agenda as contradictory to Indonesian Islamic values, as well as challenges related to the legitimacy of female authority in fatwa-making. “They argue that existing Islamic women’s organizations in Indonesia…are adequate to support the empowerment of Muslim women.” To address these challenges, KUPI and its supporting organizations have implemented strategies to mainstream their knowledge and fatwas through grassroots programs, digital media platforms, and advocacy efforts.

(Melbourne Asia Review,; see also Arifah Millati Agustina and Nor Ismah, “Challenging Traditional Islamic Authority: Indonesian Female Ulama and the Fatwa Against Forced Marriages,” Journal of Islamic Law,; Nor Ismah, “Women’s Fatwa-Making in Indonesia: Gender, Authority, and Everyday Legal Practice,” International Journal of Islam in Asia,