Sun, 23 Apr 2000

Why is feminism still a dirty word for us?

JAKARTA (JP): Oh, no, the time to say the "F" word has come again. Kartini Day, which fell on Friday, is the day when arguments about feminism get their annual airing.

Feminism is a dirty word here, carrying negative associations with rebellion and radicalism. The common view of the feminist, among both men and women, is of a big, hairy woman who burns her bra and hates men. She, like the few women who rise to the top of the business world, is dismissed as a bitch.

The Kartini celebrated on Kartini Day is not to be confused with her contemporary namesake, an Indonesian migrant worker in the news in recent weeks. She is in a United Arab Emirates jail after being convicted of adultery -- a big crime, punishable by death, in that country.

Beauty salons are usually packed on Kartini Day with women who need help with their hair and makeup. Many schools oblige the students to wear traditional costumes and then sing Ibu Kita Kartini (Our Mother Kartini), a song dedicated to Ibu Kartini. Some offices also have their women employees don similar attire.

To highlight the Kartini Day celebration, contests are organized for best flower arrangements, cooking and Kartini look- alikes. Sometimes, males are encouraged to take part, for cooking at least, although the look-alike pageant is off-limits.

A few years ago, a friend of mine who worked as a customer service officer in a private bank complained that her boss told all of the women employees to wear traditional clothes on the day. "How could I say no? I could be punished if I refused," she told me.

Like many Indonesian women, I also had my own excruciating Kartini Day experience about 20 years ago when I was a teenager. I woke up early in the morning and, barely awake, went with my teenage sister to have our hair done.

It was not of my own free will. If Kartini really was a hero of women's emancipation, I thought, why couldn't we girls wear pants on that day like the boys? All the girls in my class would have been happier to wear something which allowed them to move freely instead of being bundled up in tight, constricting outfits. Granted, it was not the footbinding which enslaved generations of Chinese women, but the clothes made it difficult for us to walk at a normal pace, let alone run.

I felt like a fool, but I knew that refusal would mean punishment from my authoritarian teacher (I just realized why most teachers behave that way after watching news reports about their demonstration in Jakarta in demand of a salary hike).

We learned from our school textbook that because of R.A. Kartini, who was born in Jepara, Central Java, in 1879, women could now go to school. We are told that because of her, there are women doctors, engineers and politicians. In short, we are told to be proud because today there is equality between men and women.

We are meant to understand, though, that it is case closed, no questions asked. Who would dare to ask why, if there is now a level playing field for all men and women, about the few women in top positions in their companies. Why are people like Rini Soewandi, Emmy Hardjanto, and Miranda Goeltom still the exception, not the rule?

Or why are there so few women legislators when women constitute more than half the country's population. There are a few exceptions, but it must also be conceded that many of those women, like in other parts of Asia, rode the coattails of their male relatives to prominence.

Kept out of our lessons are that Kartini's aristocratic father had two wives, and that she was forced by her parents into an arranged marriage with an older man with three wives. We seldom learn that Kartini died at the age of 25 from complications from childbirth, or that she was in fact a product of the ruling classes. Her famous letters, written in Dutch to a penpal in the Netherlands, touched on greater freedoms, but she was talking about people of her own rank and class.

Ironically, if Kartini disobeyed her parents and went it alone, maybe she would not be recognized today as a national hero, as declared in Presidential Decree No. 108 dated May 2, 1964. Her birthday would not be celebrated as a benchmark in women's emancipation in the country; she would have been a troublemaker, going against the grain of society.

Kartini was no rebel. She was a good girl, and Indonesian women are taught to be like her. In observing Kartini Day, women celebrate her feminity, not her feminist spirit.

I know many men who are feminists, in the sense that they have the gender awareness that there should not be female subordination or male supremacy. But there are many others who hate feminists and feel threatened.

Face facts -- this is still a man's world. Patriarchy has been the root of society for ages and it is not easy to change. Many still regard women as objects to be exploited, evident in our tabloids full of steamy photos of women. The naysayers argue that the women look happy in the pictures, that they made the choice to be photographed. Well, of course they will grin and bare it when sexuality and beauty are still prime ways for women to earn a living in this country (and, no matter what the self-righteous say, it's better than scrubbing floors).

The glass ceiling and women treated as objects will only disappear when all of us, men and women, judge women on their personalities and achievements instead of a beautiful face or voluptuous body. We have come some way toward this goal, but we still have a long, long way to go.

-- Kho Junsim