A Summer Spent Advocating for Women’s Rights

August 10, 2017
MTS candidate Waskito Jati
MTS candidate Waskito Jati in Indonesia. Photo courtesy Waskito Jati.

This summer, thanks to several generous gifts in support of Dean David N. Hempton’s campaign initiatives, HDS continued its ongoing effort to provide students with financial support so that they can serve communities locally and abroad through organizations unable to offer paid summer experiences.

The Dean’s Summer Internship Awards are $5,000 stipends that enable several MTS students to make positive contributions through internships with nonprofit or public service organizations, and then take those experiences with them back into the classroom in the fall.

Below, one of the award recipients, Waskito Jati, explains in his own words how the stipend allowed him to work for Solidaritas Perempaun in Indonesia, a women’s rights group.


I arrived at Harvard Divinity School in 2016 as an MTS degree candidate with a focus on Islamic law and its applications. Thanks to the Dean’s Summer Internship Award, I was able to apply the knowledge I have gained so far at HDS and participate in hands-on advocacy projects while interning for a women’s rights advocacy organization in Aceh, Indonesia. It is the only region in my home country where Islamic law has been interpreted, codified, and is currently in effect.

My host organization, Solidaritas Perempuan (Women Solidarity), works extensively at the grassroots, regional, and national levels to further the rights of women in Indonesia. Its branch in Aceh focuses on two urgent problems facing women, namely the exploitation of natural resources and the implementation of Aceh’s version of codified Islamic law, which many view as discriminatory toward women.

For many years, the Acehnese has identified their region as deeply rooted in Islamic values. The devastating tsunami in 2004 that killed more than 100,000 of its residents and decades of violent conflicts in an attempt to secede from Indonesia have led to the decision on the part of the national government of Indonesia to grant Aceh its right to implement Qanun Jinayah, the Acehnese government and politicians’ interpretation of Islamic law. The result is a law that was poorly written, full of inconsistencies, and passed with very little participation of the Acehnese people, particularly women. My host organization works hard advocating for women who became victims of the law and attempting to change the law by submitting a judicial review to the Indonesian Supreme Court. My role was to help prepare for many of the organization’s efforts over the past two months by researching Islamic law, aiding in outreach to rural areas, conducting village discussions, and participating in legal advocacy.

Upon the first week of my stay in Aceh, I witnessed the lashing of 10 people who were accused of violating the Qanun Jinayah codes. Eight of them were heterosexual couples accused of committing promiscuous activities and were punished with 20 to 30 lashes on their back. One gay couple was accused of committing sodomy and was punished with 85 lashes each. The first problem in the application of the law was evident in the case of these 10 people. None of them had lawyers to guide them through the court process, and it was suspected that they were forced to sign papers admitting their offenses. Some of us from my host organization had tried to meet with the gay couple at the jail, hoping to get their point of view and possibly delay the punishment. Nonetheless, the Sharia police officials refused our request to see the two men.

Knowing the difficulty of dealing with the law enforcement, my host organization develops a more preventive strategy by conducting numerous discussions every month with Acehnese from all walks of life. I was able to join in these discussions during my internship. They were geared toward the populations most susceptible to the laws young people, particularly university students, and women in villages. During these discussions, I helped other officials from my organization conduct dialogues where we analyzed and scrutinized the law.

The lessons I learned while taking a course taught by Professor Baber Johansen on maternal filiation were particularly useful in these discussions. As we discussed in class, Islamic law is and has always been a complex system that requires tremendous effort and wisdom on the part of the judges in order to deliver a just decision. Court judges throughout history have produced a tremendous collection of studies on Islamic law to accommodate the changing situation of their surroundings. The Islamic law in Aceh, however, is a simplistic form of this wealth of knowledge that has been summarized into 82 articles. This leads to the law’s inability to deliver a just and sound punishment on both the substance and the due process of the law.

An example of this would be a court case that my host organization is currently working on, along with several lawyers and other activists. I was fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to be a part of the team for the case, which focuses on the marriage between a woman and a man that is not recognized by Sharia law. They are also accused of adultery, and are facing a punishment of up to 85 lashes. In an effort to support the defendants, we organized a meeting of legal and Islamic scholars from the region to help build the case. Additionally, we did our own in-depth investigation of the case by meeting the defendants, finding witnesses, and discussing the best possible argument for the defense. I was glad that I still had Professor Johansen’s reading materials on marriages from the spring semester. They came in handy in this particular case.

Another project that I have also been given the opportunity to be a part of is an Aceh-wide youth conference. My host organization invited 100 young Acehnese to a two-day event during which they wrote a formal recommendation for the newly elected governor. I was part of the team that created a video about differing opinions on the implementation of Qanun Jinayah in Aceh. I was given the chance to lead the interviews with women in the villages, university students, local scholars, and religious leaders, as well as fellow activists. From this activity, I was able to gauge the complex sociological, social, and theological aspects that contribute to the overall phenomenon of the implementation of Qanun Jinayah. The information that I got is far from sufficient to deduce any sort of conclusion, but it does give me numerous paths for my future study.

The experience that I have gained from this internship has been invaluable. I was able to find and meet those with practical wisdom, a skill that I have come to understand from my class “Histories of Christianity” with faculty members Dan McKanan and Emily Click. This is the skill that has enabled the local activists to navigate the treacherous and often dangerous work of criticizing the government and its religious interpretation and to strive for the innate value of justice in Islam that has been ignored for the sake of politics, egotism, and personal gain.

I thank Dean David N. Hempton for sponsoring this program and Professor McKanan for recommending me. Because of this experience, I will return to HDS for my second year with a better sense of the world and clearer goals for my future endeavors. I also hope that I can have the bravery and strength that the people of Aceh have shown and honor their effort to invigorate the innate spirit of justice and compassion of Islam.