Julia Suryakusumah, in her home in Jakarta. Photo: Jefri Tarigan Julia Suryakusumah. Photo: Jefri Tarigan
Police women on duty in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Michael Bachelard
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Jakarta: On April 21, Indonesian school girls will don the kebaya – a traditional blouse-dress – and firms will offer discounts to females, as the nation pays tribute to the woman widely regarded as its first feminist.
The story of Raden Ajeng Kartini, born in 1879 into an aristocratic Javanese family during the Dutch colonial era, is a seemingly contradictory one.
Kartini staunchly opposed polygamy but married a man with three wives at the behest of her ailing father.
She died after giving birth to her first child but was appropriated by the New Order regime (former president Suharto’s 32-year dictatorship) as the archetypal mother.
She established a school for girls and dreamed of women’s emancipation but Kartini Day, held every April 21, is largely celebrated with fashion shows and cooking competitions.
“To be honest I’m a little bit allergic to Kartini Day,” says one of Indonesia’s leading feminists, Julia Suryakusuma.
“I don’t want to be judgmental about someone who lived so long ago and is dead, but she went against her principles. We shouldn’t be focused on Kartini, we should be focused on gender equality.”
Ms Suryakusuma is a feminist pioneer in Indonesia. She coined the phrase “state ibuism”, an ideology that defined women as wives and mothers during the New Order.
Ms Suryakusuma says state ibuism was epitomised in Dharma Wanita, a state-sanctioned organisation for civil servants’ wives, whose positions within the organisation mirrored their husbands’.
Her thesis – the first gender analysis of the New Order – was later published as a book and is taught at universities throughout the world.
Some gains in women’s rights have been made since the fall of Suharto.
“At the beginning of reformasi (the post-Suharto era) the rape of many Chinese women led to the formation of Komnas Perempuan (the National Commission of Violence Against Women),” Ms Suryakusuma says.
She is inspired by Islamic feminists, including Kiai Haji Husein Muhammad, a Muslim scholar who has written a book about feminist reinterpretations of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).
“It’s very important for feminism to infiltrate religious organisations. If you look at western feminists they are always shouting from the rooftops but we have to go under the radar. It’s not a different feminism, it’s a different strategy,” Ms Suryakusuma says. “Western feminists don’t understand what being subtle is. We have to work with Islam. Islam is not the enemy, patriarchy is.”
Ms Suryakusuma says women’s issues of concern to her now include poverty, violence against women, workplace discrimination, the exploitation of female migrant workers overseas (many of them domestic workers who take care of other people’s children for years to support their own, whom they almost never see) and child marriage.
This month Lady Fast 2016, a cultural event held by female artist group Kolektif Betina, was disbanded by police and Islamic organisations in Yogyakarta.
“People came and insisted we stop all activities, reasoning we were bad girls because we dressed in miniskirts, had tattoos etc,” says Mila Deva from Kolektif Betina. “There was no dialogue whatsoever between us and the attackers, they just came and told us what to do.”
The feminist movement in Indonesia was only decades old, Ms Mila says, and some Indonesians still hold the misconception that feminism was an attempt by women to dominate men.
“Indonesian society is not so open, therefore the way feminism is addressed in Indonesia is through cultural performance. Some friends do it through legal advocacy which is also good.”
However Ms Mila believes awareness of women’s rights to education and health is growing in Indonesia. “More and more employers now understand that women need to take maternity leave.”
Ms Mila believes Kartini Day is still relevant in Indonesia. “However I hope it is not just celebrated but taken to a higher level with concrete actions.”
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