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Alumni Spotlight: Nor Ismah

Our Second Spring 2023 Alumni Spotlight is Nor Ismah. Ismah received her MA degree in Asian Studies in 2012 from University of Hawaii at Manoa and her PhD from Leiden University, Netherland in January 2023. Currently Ismah is a Director of the Institute of Research and Community Service and Development at Nahdlatul Ulama University in Yogyakarta.

Read more about Nor Ismah!!!

Ismah is from Yogyakarta, Indonesia and she is currently living and working at Nahdlatul Ulama University in Yogyakarta as the Director of the Institute of Research and Community Service and Development. At UH Mānoa, Ismah researched young adult literature related to Islamic boarding schools or Pondok/Pesantren. This topic also remains part of her ongoing focus, and she was recently the only woman to present at a national conference on pesantren literature in Indonesia. Ismah received her PhD degree from Leiden University (Netherlands) on 12 January 2023. The thesis is entitled “Women Issuing Fatwas: Female Islamic Scholars and Community-based Authority in Java, Indonesia.” 

Research Interest

Her research interests focus on the intersection between Islam, gender, anthropology and media, particularly on the topic of religious authority, women’s knowledge production, and Islamic feminist movement. She began carrying out studies on women and social development in 1999. Ismah worked as a field observer for research on Female Domestic Workers coordinated by Tjoet Njak Dhien Foundation, and as a reporter of MITRA newsletters published by Fatayat Welfare Foundation in 2000. Both organizations were located in Yogyakarta. Since then, she developed her research interest in qualitative study and narrative analysis especially on women and social justice.

Her interest in gender analysis and anthropology has been growing. One research that led her to pursue PhD study was a research on community-based authority of female ulama entitled “Destabilizing Male Domination, Building Community Based Authority among Indonesian Female Ulama”, in 2014 that she presented at the KITLV workshop on female Islamic authority in Leiden, in January 2015. While conducting research on female ulama, Ismah found out that women actually have been engaged in issuing fatwas in their everyday life for their community. Their practices take place in many majelis taklim (religious lesson) each day, each week, and each month in villages, cities, sub-districts, regencies, and provinces. Muslim women are also issuing fatwas collectively in the public sphere of Indonesia, for example in the Indonesian Conference of Women Islamic Scholars (Kongres Ulama Perempuan Indonesia/KUPI) which was held on 25-27 April 2017 at Pesantren Kebon Jambu al-Islamy, Cirebon, West Java. So, how can we understand these two practices of fatwa-giving by women? To answer the question, she decided to study the everyday practices of women in issuing fatwas for her PhD thesis at Leiden University. Before she did her PhD study, and then now after she graduated, she has been working as a training, writing, and research consultant for government and NGOs at national and international level. Although this is out of academia, she can develop her skills that are related to academic works such as research, teaching, and her skills of analysis applying gender studies approaches and ethnographic fieldwork. 

Current Research Project

Currently she is involved in the writing project on the biography of Munjidah Wahab, the Regent of Jombang District, in East Java. It is an important project because Munjidah Wahab is among the very few female Regents in Indonesia who come from pesantren (Islamic Boarding Schools) background where women are usually playing roles only in the pesantren such as teaching and managing the education of pesantren. They study mostly Islamic knowledge by which they are trained to become female ulama (Muslim scholars) in the pesantren. So when Munjidah Wahab finally held the position of Regent, it was an extraordinary phenomenon. 

Other Academic and Non-academic Work

Ismah’s Google scholars link

Ismah engages with the relatively progressive Muslim women movement namely the Kongres Ulama Perempuan Indonesia / KUPI (Indonesian Congress of Women Ulama). She manages the repository of KUPI’s knowledge production called KUPIPEDIA.ID as managing editor.

Ismah also established a platform namely Ibuku Sekolah Lagi aiming at encouraging women to pursue higher education by conducting seminars and short courses on English language, research methodology, and proposal writing. 

Ibuku Sekolah Lagi

Channel resmi Gerakan Ibuku Sekolah Lagi.

Fun Fact:

I am a fiction writer, and because my imagination works very well (maybe) I often see dreams while sleeping with stories that I can remember when I wake up. I can say, no sleep without dreaming.