Sun, 08 Apr 2001

The difficult journey of Indonesian women

Indonesian Women: The Journey Continues; Mayling Oey-Gardiner and Carla Bianpoen, editors; Publisher RSPAS Publishing, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies. The Australia National University Canberra ACT 0200, Australia; 335pp.

JAKARTA (JP): To confine a woman within the four walls of a home and to restrict her role in life merely to that of a wife and mother is perhaps the greatest injustice done to half of humanity. For 'queen of the household' has proved to be an empty title given to women who may have been adored for centuries, but least appreciated.

The result is that all of the world's population finds itself imprisoned today in a patriarchal society, dominated by male values that define a kind of development which even women have come to accept as a norm. The solution lies in simply having as many women as possible at all top level, decision-making positions so that they are able to decide for themselves as to what they want instead of breaking down in tears of humiliation at the repeatedly asked masculine question: "What do you want?"

That seems to be the conclusion of Indonesian Women: The Journey Continues, a 335-page book edited by social science researcher Mayling Oey-Gardiner and Carla Bianpoen, a freelance writer.

The book, the first of its kind to chronicle the history of the Indonesian women's movement, has 17 chapters dealing with issues of continuity and change in the life of women living in a man's world. Before Independence, Indonesian women felt that they were part of the same struggle as men. They fought shoulder-to- shoulder with men against the injustices of colonial rule. In the post-Independence period, particularly during thirty two years under the rule of former president Soeharto, the role of women was depoliticized and an idealized role was propagated as a provider of services to men and as nurturer of the future generation.

The forward is by Toeti Heraty Roosseno, poet, philosopher and feminist whose most lethal weapon is her very femininity. Toeti writes that when women keep silent on being asked," what do women want?", men are all too eager to answer in their stead. But the past has shown that men come up with solutions that bear no resemblance to reality.

Since government is almost all male, it is not surprising that most government programs are gender blind. Developed by men according to what they think is good for women, the programs seldom address the real needs of women.

However the other question that all women must address today is whether they want protection or equality? Women have still to solve this dilemma themselves but they remain divided over the issue. Some women are happy to continue striving to live up to the ideal silhouette in order to conform to stereotypical images concocted by men of the mother, virgin, whore, career woman, spinster, tomboy, seductress or femme fatale. The tragedy is magnified as some of women's worst enemies remain women.

Toeti describes the success of any women's movement as one that is first able to change the hearts and minds of other women, before it can even attempt to articulate to men what women want. In Indonesia it has been a state ideology for three decades and more to push women as dependents or consorts of men under the suwargo nunut neroko katut (sharing heaven and hell) ideology.

Wives of bureaucrats and the armed forces have worked tirelessly to empower their husbands and thus to empower the state. Myths, uncontested ideal images of women and the desire for a better life continue to motivate even strong women to make it their life's mission to nurture and to support men. Most of them continue to believe that it is kodrat wanita (woman's nature) to protect the self-esteem of the men of this world.

Perhaps due to this garbled way of thinking the state of most women at the start of the new millennium remains an area of deep concern. Poor Indonesians, half of whom are women, are still struggling to gain access to basic services and facilities. In Indonesian Women between Yesterday and Tomorrow, the last chapter in the book, attendance of girls at primary school level is said to be fairly high, but the general educational level of most women is low. Only 1.5 percent of Indonesian women have had a university education and this unfortunate fact continues to underline sexual stereotypes, reinforcing among both girls and boys the traditional, domestic role of women.

If their health continues to be a cause for concern, with maternal mortality being one of the highest in the world, women will remain too feeble to stand up to the injustices that they face. The ongoing economic crisis has further affected the health of poor women hardest, especially that of nursing mothers.

Women's participation in economic activities has increased significantly in all sectors. That is the good news. The bad news is that gender inequalities remain in the labor market, with women earning much lower wages than men.

In the opening chapter Continuity, Change and Women in a Man's World by Oey May-Gardiner, it is pointed out that women's increased participation in economic activity has yet to be accompanied by the effective integration of women's interests and concerns in decision-making regarding development issues. For a large proportion of the female workforce remains in the informal sector where poor women face the double burden of being both poor and female.

The ideological constraints of the Soeharto era are gone and with them the official image of women as mothers and wives. Women participated in great numbers in the last elections and the country missed having its first woman President by a hairsbreadth.

The coalition that defeated a woman's rightful bid for the presidency remains powerful, united as it is by deeply rooted beliefs and interests. Despite that, a relatively small number of women, generally urban, educated professionals are proof enough that they are capable of much more than spending an entire lifetime hovering in the shadow of men.

However, it is uncertain when the majority of women will take their rightful place in society without encouraging men to act as their dalang (puppet master). This depends entirely on how fast women are able to educate themselves and to look after their health.

But whenever that does happen then perhaps this earth will have become the kind of place it was always meant to be.

--Mehru Jaffer