Thu, 10 Mar 2005

Reflecting on Women's Day

Marianne Katoppo, Jakarta

So March 8 has come and gone again! What a nice excuse to hold award ceremonies, fashion pageants, cooking contests and other such feminine events. For that is what women are all about, right?

In fact, it was not so long ago that the mere mention of International Women's Day was an anathema. For the observance of this day is linked to the labor struggles, political rights of women, and other "leftist" abominations. After all, it was the Socialist International group, meeting in Copenhagen in 1910, who established International Woman's Day with the purpose of honoring the rights of women and achieving universal suffrage for women.

Ten years ago, one of Jakarta's leading newspapers invited a friend and myself for a discussion on the origins of International Women's Day, the general situation of women in Indonesia, the rights of women and the like.

My friend who worked with rural women, talked about women trafficking, child prostitution and the increasing incidence of HIV/AIDS among women.

The editors listened solemnly, nodded wisely and at the end of the session asked each of us to write an article. Both articles were published on March 8, but any actual mention of International Women's Day was carefully edited. Still, I think the good editors let out a collective sigh of relief when there were no disapproving phone calls, no discreetly delivered memos, nor any other of the usual tactics employed by the powers-that-be at the time to intimidate the media.

The came the Reformation (the 1998 Indonesian political uprising, not the 1517 European ecclesiastical one), and hurray! It was suddenly allowed to talk about International Women's Day, and better still, to arrange all kind of truly womanly activities in its wake.

Scores of women's coalitions, groups, journals, organizations, sprouted "like mushrooms after the rain", as the saying goes. Everybody and their sister seemed to jump on the feminist bandwagon. It was "in" to be feminist and pay at least lip service to the lofty ideals of the women's movement: Equality, justice, peace and development.

As an observer, albeit a subjective one, I regret to say that I have noted several serious flaws in Indonesian feminism. Having said that, I hasten to say that I have the greatest respect for women like Ibu Supardjo Rustam, who has made invaluable contributions to education and welfare through the groups (PKK) that she organized. Also Nafsiah Mboy who has campaigned for better women's health and crusaded against AIDS. Mely Tan, Mayling Oey and Nursyahbani Kacasungkana are also women who have devoted their lives to the betterment of their sisters.

I also admire women like Butet Manurung reaching out to teach the people in remote areas, or the twin sisters who do a lot of work to educate deprived children, as well as many others.

This is the essence of International Women's Day: Sisterhood. In true sisterhood we strive to share one another's burdens, and to make life worth living for those who are not so fortunate. We empower one another.

However, this is not my experience in Indonesia. Many women who consider themselves feminists -- after 1998 -- display all the symptoms of the Queen Bee. It is said that in every hive there is only one Queen Bee. When the old one dies, the worker bees in charge of the nursery ply the special eggs, which will bring forth the new queen with royal jelly and the like to speed up the process. When the first one hatches, her first response to this brave new world is to kill all the other potential queen bees. There can be only one queen, after all.

When I was first drawn into the maelstrom of Asian feminism, way back in 1977, I was exhilarated. It was at the first Asian Women's Forum organized by the Christian Conference of Asia in Penang, Malaysia. The women who met there came from all over Asia as well as Australia and New Zealand, and it was a real celebration. A meeting of the minds to address some of the very serious problems faced by Asian women today. Migrant women workers, militarism and sex tourism were high on the list.

So too were the environment and dumping.

What role could Asian Christian women play?

We were off to such a great start. There were other meetings, conventions and seminars. Everybody seemed so excited and had so much to contribute. We must save Asia and Asian women from exploitation and pollution.

And 35 years later how far have we come?

The plight of women has worsened, as far as I can see. Sure, more is written about it, mostly about grants given by Western donors. More is said about it (again, see previous comment). But what is really being done, or has been done about it?

Many NGO's are very good at making up proposals, and sometimes, something good does come out of it. Very often, however, energy and costs serve mainly to keep the project going, not to achieve real results.

Look at the problem we are having with women migrant workers. How many come home in boxes, and as rumor has it, with organs missing? What has really been done to demand justice for them? Or for those who have never received any compensation for their work?

Let us remember that the first Women's Congress in 1928 -- on Dec. 23 -- which has since been perverted into "Mother's Day" -- was convened mainly to address such grave problems as trafficking in women and children. Seventy-seven years later, what can we tell our foremothers? "Excuse me, Grandma, it's actually on the rise!" And the record is held by my home area, Minahassa in Sulawesi.

In 1979, I wrote a book called Compassionate and Free, An Asian Women's Theology. It was published by the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. It was also published in the USA and translated into Swedish, German, Dutch and Tagalog.

It was used as a textbook in several countries, and people seemed to like it. Having drawings by the Sri Lankan artist Vincent Liyanage must have added to its appeal.

Alack and alas, not in Indonesia, where it was blacklisted. Hopefully, not on account of Vincent's drawings.

Those were the bad old days, so what to do but grin and bear it.

Well, never underestimate the Queen Bees. My name -- and here I had been so proud at having been branded "the first Asian feminist theologian" -- was completely obliterated from the records. A module on feminist theology at my Alma Mater never made any mention of myself or my work.

Perhaps to truly be able to enjoy the spirit of International Women's Day I will have to return to one of those cold Arctic places where I once taught. Maybe Copenhagen.

In Indonesia, it seems to me that there is still too much Queen Beeism and too little sisterhood. Queen Bees have no sisters.

Equality, justice, peace and development?

They surely look nice on paper, don't they?

The writer is a woman activist.