INDONESIA: The Ups and Downs of Indonesian Women's Movement

Monday, December 20, 2010
The Jakarta Post
South Eastern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Peace Processes
Human Rights

The modern Indonesian women's movement began in the early 1900s, hand-in-hand with the growing nationalism in the country marked by the establishment of nationalist organizations initiated by a small number of educated Indonesians.

Important events occurred in line with this nationalism, such as the Youth Congress on Oct. 28, 1928, which resulted in the famous youth pledge, Sumpah Pemuda.

The first women's congress was held the same year on Dec. 22-25 in Yogyakarta. This marked the beginning of a more organized women's movement in Indonesia.

In her book Kongres Perempuan Pertama (The First Women's Congress), Susan Blackburn (2007) compiles documents from the first Indonesian women's congress. According to the documents, the congress was attended by approximately 1,000 participants from 30 women's organizations, and was considered one of the biggest events of colonial era during the early 1900s.

The first women's congress in Yogyakarta was followed by other congresses in Jakarta (1929), Surabaya (1930), Jakarta (1935) and Bandung (1938). The congress in Bandung decided that Dec. 22 — which was the starting date of the first women's congress — would become Mothers' Day, which we will observe on Wednesday.

As reflected in the congresses' documents, the women's movement in the colonial era discussed issues of concern at that time, such as polygamy, discrimination against women at work places, women's limited access to education, child marriage and women trafficking.

After independence in 1945, the women's movement in Indonesia was marked by Gerwani, a prominent women's organization during the old order period.

Saskia Wieringa (2002) in her book Sexual Politics in Indonesia writes that the values Gerwani promoted most among its members were independence, hard work and dedication to their struggle, for which education was a necessity.

She further writes that the organization strongly opposed the notion of women as appendages of their husbands. Gerwani also worked on practical issues such as family welfare.

According to Wieringa “Gerwani was neither a full blown women's wing of the Communist party. Gerwani may be best described as semi-autonomous, with triple loyalty to the discourses of feminism, nationalism and socialism”.

The 1965 tragedy known in school history books as G30S PKI, or the Indonesian Communist Party's Movement of Sept. 30, 1965, “destroyed” Gerwani. The tragedy involved the killing of prominent generals, for which the Communist party was held responsible. In the years following this tragedy, another bloodbath of a far greater scale occurred when large number of people suspected of Communist party affiliation were killed or imprisoned.

Gerwani — which was often associated with the Communist party — was no exception. The organization collapsed. Gerwani was accused of involvement in the killing of the generals, and was also charged with running an organization that promoted prostitution. Wieringa's investigation does not find evidence of such accusations.

Soeharto's New Order regime after 1966 brought a new era of the women's movement with a picture contrasting those of previous eras.

The women's movement during this era was dominated by the notion of domestication of women, or “ibuism”.

Julia Suryakusuma (1996) in her article The State and Sexuality in New Order Indonesia writes that ibuism refers to the domestication of Indonesian women as dependent wives who exist for their husbands, their families and the state.

At a practical level, ibuism was implemented by the organizations of the wives of civil servants, military officers and the Family Welfare Empowerment Program (PKK). As these organizations were mainly concerned with women's domestic role, they paid little attention to problems faced by women in the public sphere.

The fall of the New Order government in 1998 led to the new era of reformasi, decentralization and growing fundamentalism, all of which pose new challenges for the Indonesian women's movement.

According to the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), since reformasi there have been 154 regional bylaws passed which discriminate against women. As off early this year, seven provinces and 16 regencies across Indonesia still enforce the discriminative bylaws.

Current trends in globalization also pose other challenges for the women's movement in Indonesia today because some gender-based problems, such as poor protection of female migrant workers, can no longer be limited within certain geographical boundaries.

Sumiyati, who was badly abused by her employers, and Kikim, who was raped and died while overseas, are only two cases of poor protection of women migrant workers.

What are the lessons learned from the course of the Indonesian women's movement from the beginning of the 20th century until today?

It appears that the women's movement cannot be separated from the social, economic and political constellations of the time when each stage of the movement took place. These constellations give different colors to the women's movement in each respective era.

Another lesson learned is that some problems persist over time, such as trafficking of women, discrimination at work places and child marriage. This poses a challenge for the women's movement today as they may require application of new strategies to solve the problems.

What is the agenda for the future? There is no other way than to unite and continue the struggle to eliminate gender inequality and discrimination. A better future for all will not be realized if half the population still suffers from discrimination.