Profile: Asia Foundation’s Lies Marcoes, A Top Islam and Gender Expert in Indonesia
January 26, 2011
Lies Marcoes Natsir is one of Indonesia’s foremost experts in Islam and gender. She has played a pioneering role in the Indonesian gender equality movement by bridging the divide between Muslim and secular feminists and encouraging feminists to work within Islam to promote gender equality. Lies is a passionate and talented trainer and has used these skills to change people’s attitudes to the status of women in Islam. With her strong leadership and commitment Lies has empowered countless Indonesian women and brought gender into mainstream parlance in Indonesia.
Lies (pronounced ‘Lis’) grew up in a small town in rural West Java as the seventh of ten children. Her mother was a member of Aisyiyah, the women’s wing of the modernist Muslim organisation Muhammadiyah. She was a vendor and the backbone of Lies’s family. Lies’s father came from a traditionalist Muslim background but later supported Muhammadiyah and the religious activities of Lies’s mother. Lies says she “wasn’t interested in the things that children of a middle class Muhammadiyah family should be interested in such as science and medicine.” She enjoyed scouts, camping and playing by the river. This is not to say she lacked scholarly curiosity. At an early age, in fact, she spent hours in the evenings reading novels by Buya Hamka (the famous Minangkabau religious scholar 1908-81) and social studies books in her father’s library. No other family in her town had a library in their home.
In 1978 Lies left her home town and, following her older sister, entered the IAIN (State Islamic Studies Institute) Syarif Hidayatullah in Jakarta. Lies found university life very stimulating and she threw herself into extra-curricular activities. She was lucky to be there when campuses in Indonesia still had a strong democratic atmosphere, just before the NKK policy (Normalisation of Campus Life) quashed political activity on campuses. Students traditionally came to this university to study Islam, but when Lies began her degree students and lecturers were also beginning to investigate social sciences as a way of understanding the world. A key proponent of this change was Lies’s theology lecturer, Professor Harun Nasution, who had a great influence on Lies. She says he taught her “how to think freely and [to see] that Islam could be understood from many different perspectives.”
Clare Harvey is a program officer at The Asia Foundation in Jakarta.
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