Winter 2007/2008

On the Ground in Asia: Lies Marcoes-Natsir

Lies Marcoes-Natsir, IndonesiaSenior Program Officer, Indonesia. Growing up in a small village in West Java, Lies Marcoes-Natsir went without shoes until junior high school, but when she became an adult, she ended up on the cover of Time Magazine. Her father and mother educated her in that small village and instilled the importance of religion and civil society in Indonesia. Lies’ earliest work on women’s issues was raising awareness of Indonesia’s high maternal mortality rate. She worked with a pesantren-based NGO on promoting women’s rights for Muslim communities. More than just a boarding school, pesantren is a sub-culture of Islam in Indonesia. “I came from a pesantren background, so even though I was a feminist, I was still acceptable to the pesantren,” she says. “Bear in mind that in those days, it was not considered such a ‘good’ thing to be a feminist.”

Working to improve gender awareness in an Islamic culture would influence her work for years to come. She had a unique and very effective perspective: “We feminists seemed to have forgotten a critical part of promoting improved gender relations – the need to consider the views of religion. Religion is actually a powerful resource to work toward greater justice.”

At the time, there was no precedent linking gender and Islam. So Lies encouraged feminist academics and ulama (Islamic scholars) to revisit classical Islamic texts from a gender perspective. This strategy helped boost the women’s movement in Indonesia, and inspired Lies’ current work: in tsunami-ravaged Aceh, she trains madrasah (Islamic day school) teachers about gender equality, and manages a program raising gender awareness among Shari’ah Court judges, who hold great influence in Acehnese communities. Thanks in part to her efforts, over 80 percent of Shari’ah judges in Aceh have received training on gender and family law.

One judge who took the training told her that he now often prays for forgiveness for treating women unfairly in the past. This persuasiveness was what landed her on the cover of Time in September 2004 when she led a demonstration in protest of the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. “We women activists were voicing our sorrow and anger, in various ways. I read poems about how sad we were as women, how we could not believe that these terrorists could have been born from the wombs of women.”

Lies was recognized with a 2007 Presidential Award for outstanding achievement from The Asia Foundation.

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