People

Saparinah Sadli: A feminist
transformation

Courtesy of Bachren Lukskardinul

When you hear the word “feminist”, what’s the stereotype that comes to mind? Is it something negative like a man-hating, unattractive women with hairy armpits screaming aggressively about imagined insults?  

If you met one of Indonesia’s leading feminists, Saparinah Sadli, 84, you’d laugh out loud at the absurdity of this stereotype. If anything, I associate Bu Sap (as she is usually known) with warmth, smiles, laughter and modesty — she is someone who never pulls rank.  

I didn’t always find her that way, however. When I was her former student in the psychology department at University of Indonesia (UI) in the mid-1970s, I found her imposing and strict — and certainly not a feminist. So imagine my surprise when, 15 years later, I discovered that not only had her demeanor totally changed, but she had opened a postgraduate women studies center at UI. My God, I thought, Bu Sap’s become a feminist!

Saparinah Sadli, born in Tegalsari, Central Java, on August 24th, 1927, was the daughter of a Javanese aristocrat. As in most traditional families, her brothers were given greater freedom, making Sap wish she’d been born a boy too. Instead she was steered by her parents into a suitably feminine profession: assistant pharmacist.  

Sap was initially inspired by Marie Curie, who discovered radium and did pioneering research on radioactivity. But like Margaret Thatcher, who was a research chemist for a while before becoming the “Iron lady” and running England for years, chemistry proved to be just a starting point for Sap. She soon decided psychology was more interesting and enrolled in the psychology department at UI, studying until she received her Ph.D. in 1976. She became a professor of psychology in 1980.

Strangely, it was a man who prompted Sap to begin her gender studies. In fact, Prof. Sujudi, then rector of UI, asked her to open a women’s studies section at the university.  Sap hesitated at first, afraid to risk her academic reputation as a psychologist in an area then considered marginal by many. Eventually, however, she agreed, and found herself formally pioneering gender studies in Indonesia.  

Since opening in 1989, women’s studies at UI has produced 168 graduates. This may not seem like many for 21 years of teaching, but because so many have been so active in academia, politics, the women’s movement, journalism and, in one case, even in military analysis, the multiplier effect has been great.

Originally named the Women’s Study Center and renamed the Gender Studies Center earlier this year, Ibu Sap’s institution has served as a model for many universities across Indonesia.  

Her scholastic excellence has earned her several awards, but Saparinah is no ivory tower academic: she is equally committed as an activist. She had been involved since the 1970s in women’s reproductive rights, working with BKKBN (the National Family Planning Board). She is currently an advisor to the Women’s Health Foundation (YKP) established in 2001.

At UI she also helped establish the Convention Watch Working Group, a group of academic, professional and activist women dedicated to ensuring full implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified by Indonesia in 1984.

Bu Sap was also one of the key people pushing for investigation of the rape of women — mainly ethnic Chinese — during the riots of May 1998. From July to October 1998, she was a member of the Joint Fact-finding Team set up to conduct the investigation. This led to the formation of the National Commission on Violence against Women — an historic victory — and she became its founding chairperson from 1998 to 2003.

And don’t think Saparinah limits herself to gender issues. Between 1996 and 2001 she became a member and subsequently vice chair of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), although she later resigned due to a disagreement on basic principles.

It’s not surprising that with all her illustrious achievements, Ibu Sap has earned both great stature and much respect – and influence to go with it.  

I was once lucky enough to have benefitted from this. In 1988 I was called in by BAKIN (the state intelligence agency) to be interrogated about my research on State Ibuism, the first gendered analysis of the New Order. They (rightly!) suspected my work might be somewhat subversive.  

Experts were called in to attend my inquisition and Bu Sap was one of them. I was very scared – who wouldn’t be, facing one of the most powerful and oppressive institutions in the country?  In a very calm, cool and convincing way Bu Sap spoke in my defense, and BAKIN let me go, albeit with warnings of dire consequences should my work prove to be too critical. I have always felt grateful to her for saving my skin!

With her achievements and dedication to women’s rights, Saparinah is a true democrat, a pluralist and a bridge between academics and activists, between state and civil society institutions, between young and old and even between spirituality and social practice.

That is why on her 75th birthday, friends established the Saparinah Sadli Award to honor other activists advancing the cause of women in Indonesia.  

And today, Wednesday Oct. 12t, she is being given the Nabil Award, granted to social scientists who contribute to “nation-building”. I couldn’t think of a better recipient.

Bu Sap, congratulations!

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