The Jakarta Post
Rotua Valentina Sagala has broken all of the negative stereotypes female activists are associated with.
People can instantly understand this from their first encounter with the avowed feminist.
Valent, as she is fondly called by close friends and family, stood out among her peers who opted for tomboyish looks one day. Valent was wearing a matching white and red ensemble along with a pearl necklace, not to mention towering white stilettos.
And that apparent contradiction is not only on the surface.
Not only does Valent break the stereotype of feminists having bad fashion sense, the stylist lady also proves that all the negative labeling attached to women striving for gender equality is untrue.
Some in society think feminists are bitter, but Valent shows that feminists can be as loving as any others.
Her new poetry book proves that. After a series of serious essays, papers and publications, Valent has returned with collection of poems that many critics say has been penned with love.
The 34-year-old confirmed to The Jakarta Post in a recent interview that she was in love when writing the poems.
“I don’t hate men. I can fall in love with them, even though it is not wrong to fall for girls either. I also want to learn to cook, one of my passions. Do you think feminists can’t cook? We can, as long as we want to, and not because we are told to, the same thing with love,” she said.
The book Seperti Pagi (Like Morning), however, is not solely about her newly found affection. The writings, which won her the prestigious label of a “feminist poet”, fluently speak of gender equality in very intimate language. The melancholy still offers room for her to criticize a patriarchal world that has been unjust to women.
Putting the love affair aside, Valent remains a true activist, one who tirelessly strives for gender equality and human rights. Her day-to-day activities are filled with female empowerment work at the grassroots as well as government levels.
Valent is currently working on raising public awareness about the deliberation of a new bill on gender equality and equity soon to be passed this year.
“I realize some women’s movements have missed the process. They [legislators] will start the liberation this year. We need to keep an eye on the process, hoping it can turn into some sort of umbrella law for female protection,” she said.
The woman hopes the new law can protect women from unjust treatment, including from unnecessary remarks from government officials that she strongly believes promote misogyny.
“Others may view it as harassment, but I say it is hatred. This country simply hates its women. Hatred appears when you create a guilty feeling among victims,” said the law graduate, referring to a number of statements from government officials who blamed women for being raped or sexually harassed.
Her strong views represent the no-nonsense approach Valent applies in her struggle for gender equality and human rights.
“I can get so mad when facing injustice,” said the woman, who fellow Husein Muhammad of the National Commission on Violence against Women described as a persistent and uncompromising feminist.
Such a tough attitude may stem from her early exposure to feminism itself.
Valent has been familiar with the subject since high school.
Enrolling in the all girls Santa Ursula, Valent had the chance to digest the heavy topic through additional classes set up by the school for high achieving students.
“They gave us gender training and taught us to think critically, to know for example that being poor is not a given but a result of economic injustice,” Valent recalled of her enlightening days in high school.
However, the turning point in her life occurred when young Valent attended a seminar organized by women’s organizations in Jakarta.
“During the dialogue, they gave away leaflets and comics and I was amazed in my school uniform … It was just amazing to know that there are people who strive for women’s rights,” she reminisced of the day when she decided to commit her life to the women’s movement.
Such a serious pledge at a young age was no surprise in Valent’s case. She is someone who has had an interest in humanity since she began reading. She said she was easily moved by social injustices she observed around her.
Valent finally found a home to develop her interests in social issues further on campus, where she interacted with many student activists and organizations.
“I felt a ‘click’ with them [student activists] because I met so many critical persons, who question a lot of things,” Valent explained of the start of her involvement in student movements.
At one point, she found something missing in the social movements in Bandung, as she realized there were no organizations focusing on women’s issues, a fact that encouraged her to establish Institut Perempuan in 1998.
Discussing feminism in Indonesia, Valent recognizes the existence of different schools in the country. However, a self-proclaimed socialist feminist views them as different colors of the rainbow that complete each other instead of competing.
Valent likes to position herself as a facilitator that bridges different parties for having such beliefs.
“I have the ability to listen. I respect people. I usually listen to arguments first but when I know it is wrong, I will say it is wrong,” remarked the lady, who believes the habit came from her diverse educational background.
It was her family that prevented Valent from pursuing a degree in social and human rights, for her parents wanted their only daughter to study economics.
The brilliant woman, however, gave in to her parents’ wish as well as fulfilling her passion as she completed her education with two majors, economics and law, at two different universities, an experience which she says enriched her perspectives in the fight for gender equality.
“I had two different majors, which sometime conflicted with each other. But it helped me to learn to be humble, to always listen to people and I don’t easily judge people,” she explained.
After her book of poetry, Valent is set to realize her next project to establish the Seperti Pagi Foundation, which will provide assistance for women and children who have been victims of crimes through dance, poetry, drawing and cooking.
Valent’s poetry book and the foundation seem to come from the same seeds of love and passion, yet toward different objects — a man and feminism.
The woman, whose first name is Valentine and who admitted that her first love was feminism, said of love, “I believe love to anyone or anything should make someone better.”
Coming from a woman who has shown she is capable of turning love into things that benefit others, who could argue?