Take a brief look at the history of Indonesia’s long struggle for independence and you will see that women have occupied a prominent place since the early days. Most notable is the name of Kartini, hailing from an aristocratic family, who in her short life - she died in 1904, aged 24, giving birth to her first child - promoted the right of women to receive education and espoused the idea of equality for women. At the beginning of the 20th century, this was a revolutionary idea.
Another figure of note was Tjut Nya Din who took over the leadership of the Acehnese people’s struggle against the Dutch after the death of her husband, also in the early part of the 20th century.
Then there was Sulami who was jailed for twenty years in the late 1960s by the Suharto government in the crackdown against Indonesian communists and activists. After her release, she launched a movement to unearth and re-bury the remains of people who had been murdered during the massacres which swept Indonesia after Suharto came to power in 1965. This infuriated Muslim groups which physically attacked her and her supporters, forcing them to abandon the campaign to avoid bloodshed.
During the Suharto era from 1965 till 1998, women were put firmly in their place; they were expected to devote their energies to looking after the children and keeping house for their husbands. A number of women’s organisations came into being which organised women in accordance with the work or professions of their husbands.
Before 1965, the most active women’s organisation was GERWANI, which by the time the dictator took power had several million members. It was banned along with many other mass organisations that were branded as fronts for the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party. In the crackdown that followed the events of 1965 during which an estimated one million people were killed, members or suspected members of GERWANI were singled out and subjected to horrific abuses. Even today, most of these abused women prefer to hide their sufferings, even from their children, but a few months ago, accounts of their experiences were recorded in a book that focused on the experiences of thirteen women.
In January this year, Indonesia’s leading political weekly, Tempo, devoted a special issue to ‘Women of Substance’ featuring fifty women known for their involvement in a variety of professions, from rock climbing to skydiving, from piloting aircraft to structural engineering as well as being peace-makers in places of ethnic conflict. In the introduction to the special issue, Tempo said it was meant to serve as a reminder ‘that women have yet to reach equal status with men and that everyone must contribute to turning that around’.
When Indonesia’s first directly elected president, former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, assumed office with a pledge to undertake reformasi, it was hoped that all sections of society would benefit. However, women have not fared at all well and are facing new threats to their personal freedoms and dignity.
Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, and until recently Muslims have been known for their tolerance and ability to collaborate with traditional belief systems and other faiths. Unfortunately, in the past couple of years, there has been an upsurge of fundamentalism in some parts of the country, promoting the adoption of syaria law, in violation of Indonesia’s secular constitution. According to the Indonesian Women’s Coalition, as many as 50 ordinances based on syariah law have been adopted in no fewer than five provinces. These ordinances prohibit a woman from being out at night alone or in the company of a male with whom she is not related, and ban any form of dress which exposes ‘sensual’ parts of the body.
Women have been arrested for failing to wear a headscarf, or failing to ‘wear it properly’. Caning and other kinds of brutal punishment are being meted out by so-called syariah police. Their prime targets are invariably women. Women have been arrested for being out at night and accused of being prostitutes.
A regional autonomy law adopted five years ago was welcomed as a move towards decentralisation but the downside is that some regions have used these powers to adopt syaria by-laws. Human rights organisations have lobbied the government to revoke these unconstitutional laws but the government, while promising action, has shown reluctance to act for fear of antagonising Muslim zealots.
To date, according to Tempo, 22 cities and regencies have put into effect syaria-based regulations. Some are anti-immorality regulations, others for instance require schoolgirls to keep their heads covered at all times.
Soon after syaria was adopted in Aceh, several years ago, there were reports of women being caned or imprisoned for violating the dress code. This may soon change following the election last November of a new governor and deputy who have rejected these ordinances, but they have admitted that they will need to move carefully , so as not to antagonise hardliners and appear to be anti-Islam.
Women’s rights have come under attack from another direction, with the drafting of an anti-pornography law for which Islamic parties in Parliament having been pushing hard. The bill would regulate the distribution of pornography and much more, potentially changing the lives of all Indonesian women. The law has provoked anger among dancers and entertainers, especially from ethnic groups whose dress habits could become unlawful.
An outspoken woman activist from the Unity and Diversity Alliance said that it not only regulates pornography but also ‘the way we behave, the way we dress’. It’s considered a criminal offence if a woman shows her navel, her thigh or too much of her legs. ‘If I wear a miniskirt, or a skirt that is higher than my knee, the fine will be about 200 million rupiahs (about $200) up to 1 billion rupiahs or be imprisoned for up to four years. This is even higher than the punishment for corruption or rape. She said that women feel offended because the draft law makes women out to be responsible for destroying the nation’s morals.
Women’s organisations have recently rallied against polygamy which is all too common in Indonesia. Some men claim that Islam permits them to take four wives while prominent women Muslims have disputed this as a flawed interpretation of the Koran. When a popular Muslim cleric announced to audiences of 150 local radio stations that he had decided to take a second wife, the President was inundated with emails and text messages from housewives and female activists protesting. This led to the President extending as earlier ban preventing civil servants, members of the government and heads of regional and local administrations from taking a second wife. However, polygamy is widely prevalent particularly in rural areas.
Women in Indonesia are disadvantaged at all levels of society. With poverty so widespread, millions of Indonesians travel abroad to seek work. More than 75 per cent of these migrant workers take jobs as domestic servants. In January, the Jakarta Post wrote: “We keep hearing from government officials and community leaders that the women who go overseas to work as domestic helpers are ‘national heroes’ and ‘foreign revenue heroes’. We even see placards honoring them in public places like international airports.” However, many women returning home or setting out for jobs in the Middle East are treated dismissively at best, and with contempt and downright rudeness at worst. Many face bullying and extortion. Their low status makes them vulnerable to anything from physical abuse from their employers to corrupt practices by immigration officials on their return home. In a well-research report last year, Human Rights Watch said poorly trained domestic workers ‘often understand little about the terms of their employment, leaving them open to forced labour, debt bondage and human trafficking.
Last year, the National Commission on Violence Against Women announced that it was seeking a revision of the Criminal Code Procedures to make them more gender-sensitive. The commission chairwoman, Karmala Chandrakirana, complained that articles on rape require women to prove penetration ‘whereas under international law attempted rape is already a punishable offence’. The director of the International Women’s Rights Law Clinic, Rhonda Copelon said: ‘In many cases in Indonesia, women are blamed if they do not present evidence. Many rape cases here could turn victims into defendants because they cannot bring evidence to court.’
Efforts to change discriminatory laws are hampered by the low proportion of women in Indonesia’s Parliament. Women’s organisations have for years been calling for a 30 per cent quota for women in legislative bodies nationwide as a way to strengthen women’s political bargaining position in national and regional assemblies. However, the country’s major political parties have failed to show commitment to this endeavour.
After the 2004 general elections, women held only 64 seats or 11.6 percent of the 550 seats in the current House of Representatives, compared to 65 seats, or 13 percent, in the 1987-1992 period, the largest percentage of women in the history of the House, still way below the 165 seats that would achieve the 30 per cent quota.
Perhaps the ultimate indignity for women came with a remark made last June by the country’s Vice-President, Jusuf Kalla, speaking at a conference to promote tourism from the Middle East when he said that tourism propaganda should highlight the availability of attractive women. "The marketing needs a better campaign based on the visitor's appetite," he said. He capped his offensive remark by saying the tourists would bring numerous benefits to the women and their offspring, as well as the country's entertainment community.
Indonesia’s fledgling democracy clearly has a long way to go before it takes firm action to promote women’s rights.