Can literature act as a
vanguard for gender equality?

Julia Suryakusuma, Jakarta

Literature, they say, reflects life and that includes sex. But rarely do commentators look at literature to assess social developments, even less sexual equality. Yet, the status of women is a key indicator of societal development. In the past few years, women writers have flourished, so their work (including the sexy stuff) rather than the usual socio-economic indicators, can be a good entry point to look at gender equality in Indonesia and its prospects for the future.

The New Order famously created an enforced and robust (if deeply stereotyped and inaccurate) national character and identity. Post-Soeharto, this is under challenge and the politics of identity has assumed center stage. The three reference points are ethnicity, religion and gender, with its attendant sexual component, naturally. In contrast with the New Order, when only one construction of national identity was allowed (and all others repressed), the so-called reform era has seen competing constructions of regional identity, ethnicity, religion and gender. The arena is now wide open, energized by regional autonomy.

Regional autonomy has been a double-edged sword for Indonesia, but there was no political alternative to opening Pandora's box and releasing social forces repressed for over three decades.

Old identities and forces were resurrected, oft primordial and conservative -- reactionary even -- but Indonesia's new political liberalism also opened it up to the world even more than in the last decade of Soeharto's rule. Notions of democracy, human, civil, gender and sexual rights are increasingly mainstreamed through the media, cable TV, Internet, pop culture, consumerism, free trade, activism and interpersonal relationships, as well as civil society groups -- NGOs, for example. Eyes are opened, consciousness raised; there is no turning back.

The end of the New Order also saw the struggle between conservative and progressive groups become increasingly tense, and the gap between radical left and right even wider. The reform era has only exacerbated this, but conflict is not focused solely in the formal political arena now. Instead, the state bows to social forces and arbitrates the various interest groups. What we see in the legislature, for example, is a reflection of conflict in the social arena, as in the case of the still hotly debated Pornography Bill.

One manifestation of this is in the war of gender constructions, or more specifically, the construction of womanhood (manhood will just have to be dealt with another time).

Visually it is clear, even striking: on the one hand, jilbabisasi or the compulsory use of the Muslim headscarf for Muslim women, has become increasingly prevalent -- whether due to religious choice, fashion, pressure or coercion -- but on the other hand, revealing, sexy attire is also increasingly popular. Many women feel freer than in the Soeharto era, but many much less, for example where regional regulations -- Islamic or otherwise -- have been implemented.

Openness about sexuality has also increased, but at the same time, tolerance of it has declined. Consider the recent Playboy and Miss Universe controversies. The protests are strange given the flood of semi-pornographic tabloids available in Indonesia. Playboy and Miss Universe, their attackers claim, are linked to Western imperialism and decadence. What? Is Eastern decadence better?

Diversity is not a new approach to understanding Indonesia, but the key to understanding gender construction is actually fragmentation, not diversity. Gender constructions today are competing offshoots of multiple value systems, including religious, adat (tradition), ethnic, liberal capitalist -- even lingering remnants of New Order gender ideology. Values regarding women are very ambivalent, even schizophrenic. They reflect the collective state of mind of Indonesia, mirrored in reform era literature.

Post-Soeharto, literature has flourished across the genres. There is regional, Islamic, community, children, chic-lit, cyber literature and more. Publishers are many and quality varied, but the group that has attracted the most attention are the young, intelligent, critical, creative and imaginative women writers, who have spearheaded literary development since 1998.

The so-called sastrawangi literature group has grabbed the most attention. This label is controversial and loaded with meaning. Some believe it implicitly embodies patriarchal values and is therefore self-deprecating. They say it implies the authors are secondary and unintellectual, producing inferior works popular only because of looks and sensuality. Some feminists, however, hail them as the ""destroyers of patriarchal values"".

Whatever the truth, the sastrawangi label is used to advantage by various parties, including the authors themselves: Ayu Utami, Djenar Maesa Ayu and Dinar Rahayu, among others. These are young, 30-something, attractive women, belonging to what I call the ""MTV generation"". They cross sectors of class, ethnicity and religion, do not bear the psychological, political and ideological burdens of the New Order and explore daring sexual themes -- taboo-breaking even.

The subject matter, writing style and language often employed by the sastrawangi writers is considered shocking, departing from the common view that women are the guardians of morality and that it is inappropriate for them to be writing explicitly about sex. Why is this so?

Traditionally sex is considered a masculine domain: the man as subject, the woman as object. In the works of some of the sastrawangi writers this is reversed and the woman becomes subject and relishing sex too. This is construed as rebellion against hypocrisy, and turns the prevailing patriarchal construction of women on its head.

This focus on sex is criticized by other women writers who consider it excessive and self-debasing, indirectly supporting male domination. Not all women writers are happy with the label, let alone that of sastrawangi, but the label has been launched and now has established the popularity of these young women writers, making them very successful commercially.

The obvious question is, how is it that society has become more conservative, but literature more liberal and free? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that readership of literature is still largely a middle-class or elite pursuit. And, of course, do not forget that there is still a great variety of literary genres catering to other segments in society, including the conservatives and those who just do not write much about sex. One writer, unique in her choice of subject matter, is Linda Christanty. Her collection of short stories based around East Timor, Kuda Terbang Maria Pinto, is clearly political -- another subject for women. Linda's background as a journalist and activist is definitely a factor for her choice of topic.

Other women authors write on general life issues with a woman's perspective, including Nukila Amal, Nova Riyanti Yusuf, Hely Tiana Rosa and Medy Loekito. They object to being referred to as ""woman writers"", preferring simply ""writer"" and are still dominated by the urbanites, but with often subtle differences based on generation, social class, religion, and naturally, life experience.

The work of women writers with a religious (usually Islamic) bent, usually didactic, is also booming. This is less apparent as unsurprisingly -- the media does not give them as much space as sex and the sastrawangi. Then there are also ethnic or regional genres and horror and mystical genres, as well as women writers from the 1970s, such as Marianne Katoppo, Mira W. and Marga T, usually placed in the category of ""pop literature"" -- who are still productive today.

Literature reflects life -- but not exactly: its expressive space is in the realm of imagination and creativity, a realm without boundaries, unlike mundane, ""real"" life.

The good news is that in theory at least this means that literature can have a greater democratizing potential than the political process. Like human rights, gender equality is part and parcel of democracy, and literature provides greater opportunities for its expression than in real life. Through literature, women can express themselves more freely and they have proven to be the vanguard of recent literary development in Indonesia. Women writers have in a way, reignited popular interest in literature and reading in general.

If gender constructions in Indonesia experience fragmentation, and reformasi is proceeding at a snail's pace, literature manifests true pluralism, the hallmark of democracy. This is not true in real life, where women's expression -- whether in clothes or politics -- is increasingly controlled and subjugated, their interests invariably overwhelmed by those of (male) politicians and religious and local rulers. But their resistance is clear -- and winning -- in the field of literature, and in the arts in general.

Can literature therefore act as a vanguard for gender equality in Indonesia in the future? Not in the short run, perhaps, but is certainly a beacon for those who choose to look up, and see the light.

The writer is the author of Sex, Power and Nation. She can be contacted at [email protected] or [email protected]

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