My Indonesian Sisters Are Lost

This article was first published on The Asian Feminist on 5 September 2019.

One evening, I was waiting for a group of undergraduate students who wanted to see me. As usual, I assist a lot of students who are doing research for their undergraduate or postgraduate thesis. Most students who sought my help are cis women; they belong to the majority group — the middle class and Muslim. They had a common interest in research, which was to understand the phenomenon of internet feminist.

I run one of the biggest social media platforms on feminism in Indonesia. I also founded The Asian Feminist, which covers feminist issues across the Asia region and beyond. At first, my aim was to give space for women and other marginalized communities to talk about feminism, women’s and LGBTIQ issues, but it later became an act of activism. My activism focuses on discussing various social issues with feminism as its ideology, including topics that affect marginalized groups.

In today’s age, it is more often than not, young women, especially educated, middle-class young women, are exposed to feminism through the internet. Young women are learning about feminism through popular culture and ideas of women’s empowerment. Although many feminist resources are available online, they are often centered on whiteness, and written by white women, for white women, and about white women. The ideas of feminism tend to focus on self-empowerment with no, if not little, acknowledgment on structural and systemic injustice.

Because of this, Indonesian women are often lost. They cannot relate with the feminist history they are exposed to. For example, many have read or known about the American suffragette movement, but they are not aware of the Indonesian women’s congress, which fought against colonialism before the Proclamation of Independence. They are not aware of women’s contribution to the founding of Indonesia’s ideals and principles.

Indonesia’s history is largely men’s history because the history of Indonesian women isn’t very well documented. Sure, we have Kartini (1879–1904), a rebellious Javanese noblewoman, who had the ambition to emancipate women with education. But the Kartini we learn at school is the sanitized version of her. Many of us don’t know about her progressive thoughts and sharp criticisms on issues ranging from patriarchal traditions, colonialism to religious faith.

One of Indonesia’s biggest women’s movements in the 1960s was an organization called Gerwani, which was aligned with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). However, along with the anti-communist pogrom in 1965–66, Gerwani was banned, its members were hunted, tortured, jailed and even killed. There was also a black campaign against Gerwani members, falsely accusing them of immoral and cruel acts against kidnapped generals. Their legacy has been erased and destroyed by late President Suharto, whose ascension to power was supported by the US fearing a communist “takeover” in Indonesia.

Not only we barely know about the fight of our ancestors, but we also barely talk about the struggle of women from marginalized groups like Mama Aleta Baun and the Women of Kendeng who fought for the environment. Mainstream feminism tends to still revolve around self-empowerment, sexuality, and autonomy. While these issues are important, we also need to be mindful of the structural, multiple oppressions that shackle women, even more so those who belong to marginalized groups.

I have to admit that it took me a while to reclaim feminism through understanding and learning about Indonesian women’s history and women’s struggle in my own culture and society. There is so much work to be done to reach out to our fellow sisters. We all have space to grow and understand better. Equipped with more knowledge and grounded with our cultural roots, let’s walk together on our path of sisterhood, as it is the only way to defeat the patriarchy.