Redefining the role of women in Indonesia

After being suppressed for so long, the women of Indonesia are finally finding their voices again.

by Abdul Razak Ahmad

THE stereotypical, traditional role of the Eastern woman goes thus: She is the stalwart of the household, deeply pious, succumbing to the unquestioned authority of her husband, and sacrificing everything for the children. She is a demure wife, great cook, endless source of maternal wisdom. Full stop.

See how she thrives in a society where everyone is content, a society overwhelmed by economic progress.

Now throw everything off-kilter: put in a political revolt, mass rape, spiralling crime, loss of her husband's livelihood and extreme financial difficulty.

In short, throw out all the traditional 'societal protection' afforded to her and consider: Shouldn't the role of the woman be redefined to deal with the new challenges facing her?

It's now happening in Indonesia, and is the primary force motivating many women's groups and non-governmental organisations. If anything, women are becoming prime victims of Indonesia's economic and political difficulties.

Well-defined has the woman been for so long in Indonesia: in order of importance, she is firstly wife, then mother, then household economic supervisor. Only after these three responsibilities have been discharged does she become a member of society. Last and least, she is citizen of the state.

This is the role of women as dictated by the state. The ideology, enshrined in Indonesia's National Gender Ideology, has long governed policies regarding women's issues. 'We totally reject this ideology because any woman living outside this limited scope is considered deficient,' says Ita Fatia Nadia, director of Kalyanamitra, a women's issues NGO based in Jakarta.

Women - prime workforce

Kalyanamitra, Sanskrit for 'friend of woman', was founded in 1984, one of the few NGOs at the time that dealt with women's issues. 'Independent organisations were outlawed under the New Order administration,' and the government-sanctioned bodies set up to deal with the plight of women, 'were too politicised to be of any use whatsoever,' Ita said.

Since the 1970s, when Indonesia opened up to foreign investment, women became the prime workforce for factories set up by the multinationals. Working for relatively low wages, 'women were reduced to cheap labour', said Ita. The economic collapse that preceded the end of the Suharto administration has led to the loss of one out of five jobs.

'More women are now forced to seek employment to keep the family going and to bear the rise in the increased prices of most items,' she said.

'But there are still no laws to protect against sexual discrimination in terms of unfair wages and lack of proper employment benefits for women in Indonesia,' she added.

The economic crisis has resulted in a weakened and volatile local currency. This, added to the International Monetary Fund's insistence that subsidies be scrapped, has resulted in an escalation in the cost of basic food items. To this end, Kalyanamitra recently established a food cooperative, providing essential items at low prices for poor urban women. The co-op now has 6,000 members.

Although the crisis began as an economic problem, it soon sank into the political collapse of the Suharto administration. The gaping vacuum has resulted in violence, some of it targeted at women.

Women from certain ethnic groups (mainly Chinese) have become the targets of mass rape. Ita rejects the notion posed by critics that the push for greater freedom in Indonesia is a dangerous luxury which will only lead to chaos in terms of ethnic conflicts, as the rapes seem to indicate.

'The rapes were not racial. They were targeted at Chinese women, yes, but investigations have shown that such a planned and systematic mass rape of the women was part of a strategy to plant fear in the Chinese community.'

Ita claims that since the fall of the New Order administration, certain 'parties' have been out to create chaos, 'so they can step in with the excuse of restoring order'. And while 'certain parties' is a familiar term which denotes the ubiquitous anonymous bogeyman, Ita is more specific with the culprits responsible.

Elements within the military

A team was recently set up to offer help to the victims of violence. In the course of its investigations, the team - consisting of Kalyanamitra, the Jakarta Social Institute, the Nadhatul Ulama Muslim Organisation and the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM, or Komisi Nasional Hak Asasi Manusia) - found similarities between the rape of Chinese women last May and other mass rapes which occurred in Acheh and East Timor.

'We found that, in most cases, the likely suspects consisted of elements within the military,' said Ita. 'We concluded that the rape of Chinese women last May was part of an organised system of terrorism. In fact, most recent human rights violations in Indonesia are part of desperate efforts to preserve the status quo.'

Kalyanamitra is now lobbying for compensation for the victims, witness protection and bringing the guilty parties to justice.

A phone call temporarily disrupts the interview. The distraught mother of a student activist shot dead by the military during last November's demonstrations is on the line, seeking help and support.

The softspoken Ita later apologises for the disruption. She reasoned that the crisis has resulted in a widening of the scope of activities which organisations like hers have had to deal with, such as offering solace and comfort to mothers who have lost their sons due to the violence.

'Pressing issues, you understand,' she says feebly, with a tinge of sadness in her eyes.

Almost every student activist interviewed has had a friend either shot dead or arrested by the authorities. Some journalists have either been imprisoned at some point of their career for 'subversion' (which in Indonesia can mean eight years for reading the works of banned authors), or had colleagues or friends who have suffered equal, if not worse, treatment.

I make this observation and ask whether this is worth the cause being fought for.

She does not answer the question directly. Instead, she tells me how Kalyanamitra, along with another organisation called Kaum Ibu, set up mobile kitchens to prepare meals for the university students during the demonstrations which led to Suharto's downfall.

'The response was beyond our wildest imaginations. Mothers would drive to our logistics centre and donate their time and money for the project.'

She remembers one mother who couldn't afford to donate, but offered to help man the kitchen.

'She told me that she could not be with the student demonstrators, so her effort was her little contribution in restoring justice to Indonesia.'

It reveals a political awareness, long repressed, but one which finally manifested itself in almost every citizen fed up with decades of oppression.

It explains why the movement has been successful so far, and why there is still hope in Indonesia. 'The students are at the forefront of the changes we are demanding, and they would never have succeeded if not for our support.

'They know they can rely on us in times of trouble. After all, we are their mothers,' she said.

From mothers to housewives to farmers to entrepreneurs to workers to social activists to students, the women of Indonesia are finally finding their voice again. In doing so, they are reasserting their role as nation-builders. (Third World Resurgence No. 103, March 1999)

Abdul Razak Ahmad is with the Malaysian daily, the New Straits Times, in which the above article appeared (29 December 1998).