Fri, 03 Jan 2003

Dear 'Mbak' Megawati, we long for your voice

Gadis Arivia, Chief Editor, 'Jurnal Perempuan', Jakarta

Mbak (Sister) Mega, I hope you are safe and sound when reading this letter. It is indeed hard to maintain physical, let alone mental, health when Indonesia is embroiled in so many problems, most of which are beyond comprehension and sensibility. Take, for example, the violence that has swept many regions, widespread corruption and the Islamic fundamentalist movement that has caused lots of trouble recently.

One more thing that may have escaped your attention is what has befallen Indonesian women, who slightly outnumber the male population but whose problems are always considered insignificant.

We are used to this kind of attitude, but what is not usual is that this attitude has been demonstrated by respectable institutions like the People's Consultative Assembly and the House of Representatives, as well as your own leadership.

Honestly, mbak, we had so much hope when you became the first woman president in Indonesia's history. We held on to our hope despite the fact that your ascension to the presidency caused worry among women's non-governmental organizations, as your track record never demonstrated an amity, or at least enthusiasm, in responding to women's problems.

The biggest evidence of your indifference to the issues of Indonesian women was the failure to include in a law on political parties a clause stipulating that women should be allotted a minimum of 30 percent of seats on the executive boards of political parties. Various women's groups, including women from the House of Representatives -- who number only about 9 percent of the total House members -- fought hard and dear for the acceptance of this stipulation.

Unfortunately, on Nov. 28, 2002, the law was passed and the stipulation failed to be included. Sixty women sitting in the balcony of the House were ignored and the desires of Indonesian women went unheeded, again.

Mbak, you may argue that by stopping short of implementing affirmative action your government has actually shown great respect for women. This argument is exactly what the Star and Crescent Party said about the quota, namely that the party would provide equal opportunity to males and females.

You may also take pride in the fact that you have never begged for a quota and that you are in your present position thanks to your own capabilities. But you seem to have forgotten that you are Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of Bung (Brother) Karno, who once said: " ... there would never be any revolutionary victory if there were no revolutionary women and there would never be any revolutionary women if there were no revolutionary guidelines!"

Bung Karno's book Sarinah, which contains a lot of his ideas about women, has been widely read, particularly by women.

And when you campaigned during the 1999 elections for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan), quite a lot of Indonesian women supported you and pinned their hopes on you. How could they do otherwise as you dwelled in your campaign speeches on poverty, health and education -- areas inseparable from the lot of women, who still live in poverty, are left behind in education and have to face the grim reality of mortality when in labor. Just check the statistics from Sri Rejeki Sumaryoto, the woman you entrusted to assume the position of state minister for women's empowerment.

I am not writing to lecture you on feminism. Academically, feminism is not such a "horrifying" or "Westernized" term. Indonesian has many feminists of its own, such as Kartini, Roehanna Koedus, Dewi Sartika and the like. What have they fought for? Nothing but equality between men and women and the creation of a world characterized by gender-based justice.

Feminists hold it that women have had their rights taken away from them in an unjust manner because they are women, and that the oppression of women has continued from one generation to the next because the patriarchal culture has been sustained. It is undeniable that men have also suffered from oppression, but in the case of women they have been subjected to oppression simply because they are women.

Why don't you spend a little time talking to the women in Aceh, Poso and Papua? These women can tell you about their horrible experiences -- the violence they have had to go through, rape and sexual harassment -- just because they happen to be women. In a situation where violence prevails, women become very vulnerable.

Not only have their lives been threatened but their dignity and self-respect have been forcibly taken away from them and they have been made slaves to the carnal desires of both soldiers and non-soldiers. Women have heard and experienced these things: from the cases of the jugun ianfu (the comfort women for the Japanese occupation troops) in the 1940s -- cases which remain unresolved -- up to the cases related to the May 1998 Jakarta riots in which ethnic Chinese women were gang-raped.

When we talk about violence, don't you, Mbak Mega, realize that in its year-end report, the National Commission on Women recorded 3,169 cases of violence against women in 14 regions in Indonesia. While this number may seem small it must be remembered that quite a lot of acts of violence are never reported as criminal acts, such as domestic violence and rape.

Women groups have in the last few years carried out peaceful campaigns each Nov. 25, in connection with the observance of the International Day Against Violence Toward Women. Unfortunately, you have never take part in these campaigns or even shown your support for them. Similarly, you were not quick in coming to the defense of migrant Indonesian workers. You should have embraced the deported Indonesian migrant women in Nunukan and told them they were real heroines, at least for their families, as they sacrificed a great deal to feed their loved ones.

If you think that the cases of violence against women, the deaths of women when in labor, the death of migrant Indonesian women workers and the involvement of women in political affairs are merely personal choices or domestic problems outside of the public realm, you are wrong.

Separating the public from the private has only affirmed the exploitation of women and served as fertile ground for the ideology of patriarchy. Please, don't worry, Mbak, feminists will never wage a war against men, as they will only fight against the injustices they have been subjected to. It is these injustices that have often claimed the lives of women.

If I may take pride in Indonesian women in this reflection for 2002, it is in the fact that they are extraordinary: they have kept their families going at a time when the domestic economy has been chaotic and when many of their husbands have been laid off, they have restored social awareness and mental health damaged in the frequent violence and they have resisted all forms of violence by opting to care for their fellow women instead of resorting to aggressive acts.

Care, connectedness, closeness and peace are attitudes that feminists have adopted as tolerant and democratic attitudes of being. As a woman president, please, Mbak Mega, voice these attitudes, this mode of being, to the respectable members of the legislature and members of your Cabinet. We long to hear your voice.

The writer is also a lecturer at the University of Indonesia's School of Philosophy and Women's Studies Department.