Working-class women of the Muslim faith, who are among Indonesia’s most vulnerable and lack access to public healthcare and other services, have something to teach the powers that be about true Islamic governance.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo’s administration has undertaken several initiatives to boost the performance of the halal ecosystem and the sharia economy. Islamist proponents within the government are driving these moves to help the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery. As halal products and services take on a more capitalist slant, this might possibly exacerbate inequalities in Indonesia.
The idea of a halal economy, as an alternative to the Euro-centric or Western secular model of capitalism, is not new. Scholars have increasingly debated whether an Islamic conception of economy might be a suitable antidote for the ills of modern capitalism, which has arguably created a world rampant with inequalities. Whether described as a “sharia”, “halal”, “spiritual” or even “moral” economic model, this alternative must negotiate and co-exist with the reality and established structures of today’s global economy.
This commentary argues that, rather than solving the social ills of capitalism, the halal economy might unfortunately, be part and parcel of creating even more inequality. In Indonesia, this can already be seen in the way private enterprises use so-called Islamic values to increase the productivity of Muslim workers, how the government promotes the domestic consumption of halal products, and how policies are aimed at increasing exports of such products to other Muslim-majority countries. Nowhere in this narrative are concerns or information about the experiences of those made vulnerable by ambitions for halal economic growth. These include the subject of the present authors’ research, the stories of Muslimah (women) labourers.
Using unstructured digital interviews and photo diaries, the research reveals how these labourers aim to protect others in ways from which the government and scholars could learn. These women’s experiences must also be considered when discussing Indonesia’s halal economy.
The research subjects were nine female labourers, all employees or former employees of a textile factory in Solo Raya, Indonesia. The region has been a centre of activities of some radical Islamist organisations. From November 2021 to March 2022, the labourers used private ‘messenger’ chat groups to share their photos and stories on their daily lives. Their activities included paid work, household chores, caring responsibilities, and recreation.
Muslimah labourers actively participate in union activities and have built their own awareness of social justice issues. They have demanded that the government take responsibility to improve the labourers’ health and social well-being.
At the same time, these women labourers are the primary bearers of domestic and care responsibilities for family members and dependents. The unequal distribution of responsibilities within households means that women spend more time and energy on unpaid care work than men. This creates tensions in light of increased demands for more working-class women in Indonesia to enter the workforce.
In an unequal Indonesia, growing the market for halal products might inadvertently divert attention from the most pressing issue: the need to provide, in the best tradition of Islamic governance, for the most vulnerable citizens of all faiths.
Unlike their middle-class counterparts who are more likely to be the targets of the Indonesian government in the promotion of Indonesia’s halal economy and consumer products, the women of the Muslim working class cannot access predominantly privatised halal products like food and beverages, medicine, cosmetics and Islamic fashion, and services including travel or tourism, sharia-compliant hospitals and even Islamic housing compounds.
For the Muslimah working class, a halal life means the practice of making do with available Islamic resources. Halal consumption helps them deal with the double load of family care work and low-paid employment. For instance, the women rely on jamu (Indonesian traditional medicine) from street vendors for their family’s healthcare needs. They make Greco-Arab and Islamic herbal medicine at home, using simple ingredients like honey and seeds. Muslimah consider halal products, whether certified as such by the state or according to the street vendors who sell them, as safe to consume, without adverse side effects, because they come from natural sources (read: untainted by modernity).
In the Indonesian government’s view, jamu is a key product to be promoted in Indonesia’s showcase for halal products in its envisioned halal economy. For Muslimah labourers, buying jamu reflects a practice reconciling their Islamic faith and traditional medicine, as modern healthcare and health insurance are largely unreliable or inaccessible to them, given their precarity. One Muslimah, in a hybrid group interview with the authors, said that her company “prioritised” permanent staff rather than contract workers.
The Muslimah work in factories and stalls to contribute to household income or are primary breadwinners. They do this work without radically changing the patriarchal structures in their intimate spaces and also take on most domestic social and health care of their dependents, as public services are relatively inaccessible. Some have resorted to trade unions to channel their aggravations and aspirations into improving their working conditions and social security.
Their domestic roles and private Islamic rituals, however, tame the women’s frustrations. After participating in rallies, they rush home to put their children to sleep, to wash and soothe themselves during Maghrib (sunset) prayers and self-motivate through Subuh (dawn) prayers. Their Islamic rituals cue them in on how to organise their domestic and public responsibilities. More profoundly, these rituals are anchored in the notion of a “pious family” (keluarga Sakinah). Based on a certain Islamic interpretation of a harmonious family, parents in a Sakinah family aspire for their children to seek education, get better jobs, and imagine a more secure future that might not materially exist. A Sakinah family normalises the dual function of working-class women in public and domestic spaces; the concept allows them promises of an ideal Islamic afterlife since they are not incentivised in the present one.
In the authors’ view, the Indonesian government’s push to increase halal exports while working-class Muslim women and their families remain vulnerable is a contradiction verging on potential negligence. Perhaps, rather than insisting on halal certification, the government should make known to all the practices of how to make do with halal resources the way Indonesia’s Muslimah have done all their lives. In an unequal Indonesia, growing the market for halal products might inadvertently divert attention from the most pressing issue: the need to provide, in the best tradition of Islamic governance, for the most vulnerable citizens of all faiths.
Diatyka Widya Permata Yasih is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Deputy Academic Director at the Asia Research Centre, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Indonesia.
Inaya Rakhmani is an associate professor at the Department of Communication at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences and the Director of the Asia Research Centre, Universitas Indonesia.