Mon, 08 Mar 1999

'Marsinah' part of International Women's Day revelry

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): Joyous sounds are expected to echo around the world as International Women's Day dawns Monday.

Jakarta will flag off the day with a talk on the emerging role of women in Asia by Louise Williams, author of Wives, Mistresses and Matriarchs.

At a seminar on the wellbeing of women, the International Community and Activities Center (ICAC) has invited participants to discuss a variety of topics from Islam and women to hormone replacement therapy. And all the hustle and bustle is justified. After all there is much to celebrate after a nine-decade struggle by women for equality, justice and peace.

The day is also spent in remembering all those women who have made history by participating in different battles to improve their lot within the family and society. The oldest story told of a mother courage is perhaps that of Lysistrata who called for a sexual strike against men in ancient Greece in order to end war.

Libraries are loaded with information about the French revolution and Parisian women who had marched into Versailles crying liberty, equality, fraternity and demanding women's right to vote. It was in 1909 that the Socialist Party of America declared the first national women's day on Feb. 28 that was observed throughout the U.S.A. On the eve of the First World War Russian women tried to prevent the fighting by holding anti-war rallies but after the death of two million of their soldiers in the 1917 war they took to the streets once again on the last Sunday of February asking for bread and peace. According to the Gregorian calender, it was March 8 when the Czar of Russia was forced to abdicate and women received on that day the right to vote. The rest, as they say is history.

With so many trophies collected in the past the international women's movement looks back only to go forward at a time when it is backed by four global conferences organized by the United Nations, insisting on the equal participation of women in all political and economic affairs.

It is repeatedly said although yet to be put into practice that enduring solutions to society's threatening social, economic and political problems can be found only with the full participation and full empowerment of all the world's women.

Today provides a moment to reflect on so much that has already been achieved and much more that remains to be done. Also to take time off to rejoice in all acts of courage shown by ordinary women in the 90-year old history of women's rights.


Ordinary women like Marsinah of Indonesia, for example. Jakarta based author-actress Ratna Sarumpaet's play on the murder of Marsinah is perhaps a grim but apt way of commemorating women's day in the city.

For director Tom Schulz the discovery of the English translation of Marsinah, A Song from the Underworld has been a blessing. It has stirred his soul and charged his conscience. His association with the play has been full of meanings and coincidences. Schulz, a drama teacher, discovered the play not here in Indonesia but was introduced to the script by a colleague who found the English translation in a bookstore in Texas!

After reading the play a sense of responsibility was aroused in him towards other expatriates here and towards his Indonesian friends. He insists that he cannot pretend that he has no part to play in what is happening in his host country. Apologizing for the lack of humor in the play of his choice, he says that it is so because there is little to laugh about in Indonesia today.

Besides his interest in the play is not to entertain himself or his audience but to enlighten, if possible. The one ray of hope he clings to is the recent renaissance here in the arts, especially theater as this can serve many purposes. One of them being, to quote the great Bertolt Brecht, "Not as a mirror to reflect reality but as an axe to shape it."

Marsinah was a young factory worker who annoyed the powerful so much for daring to speak out, for dreaming of improving her lot that she was made to pay with her life.

When Ratna heard about the incident that occurred six years ago she was repelled at the depth of degradation faced by the helpless factory worker.

For Ratna the issue is not only about the strong against the weak, about factory owners against workers but about the ultimate humiliation of one human being at the hands of another. What still gives goose pimples to the playwright is the apparent feeling of utter contempt the murderers harbored for Marsinah not only because she was a poor nobody but because she was first and foremost a woman.

"Otherwise why rape? Why put on public display the mutilated and murdered body instead of burying it in dignity?" questions Ratna.

By having raped her and humiliated her, even in death it is like saying, this is what you deserve, you big-mouthed woman. Serves you right for talking too much. For Marsinah's only crime remains that she insisted on speaking up.

Seventeen-year old Emma Woodhouse, who is half-Indonesian and plays the role of Marsinah in the traveling production, is proud to have this opportunity to be able to spread the word around. Just as it is difficult for Ratna to disguise her pride as she sits cross-legged on the floor of the stage discussing the play with the youthful cast of international high schoolers.

Emma added that she is outraged at the rape. She is pained every time she has to repeat on stage,"Where is my voice?" a line that hangs over the entire play like a dark cloud. But the silver lining is the thought that with the performance, Marsinah continues to speak out even in death.

She will continue to speak out as long as injustice and brutality stalk the world.