When I was a small child, I adored my mother. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I ever knew, and loved her more than anything in the world.
As I got older, my love did not diminish, but I became more critical of her, especially after my brother was born and her focus naturally shifted to him. Apart from being a baby, he was also a boy — the preferred sex.
And when she saw a man cry, she would mock him and say that he was cengeng (a crybaby), kawas awewe (“like a woman”, in Sundanese). If he gossiped, she would also put him down for being “like a woman”, unaware that she was belittling herself and her own kind.
When my dad treated her unfairly, and I asked her why she took it, she said, “It’s the fate of a woman”. She was the ultimate konco wingking (backseat companion), firmly believing in being the “second sex”.
She embodied all the patriarchal values prescribed by tradition. If I confronted her about her attitude, she would only say in her defense, “I am not you”.
It’s 2012 now, but it seems there are many women in Indonesia who still embrace these profoundly patriarchal values. They’ve demonstrated this by voicing opposition to the gender equality bill currently being drafted (see “Gender Equality Bill Opposed by Women”, The Jakarta Post, June 19).
Empowering women, they say, could “empower women to the point where it could jeopardize the moral fabric of society [and] endanger the traditional division of labor between men and women.”
These sentiments were voiced by a range of women’s groups, including women members of the Assembly of Indonesian Muslim Young Intellectuals (MIUMI), and Aisyiah, the women’s wing of Muhammadiyah (the second-largest Islamic organization in Indonesia). Once a Gender Equality Law is passed, they say, women will have a legal basis for shirking family responsibilities, and divorce (already very high in Indonesia anyway) will skyrocket. Yeah, right — and the sky will probably fall in too.
I spoke to Dewi Motik Pramono, the chairperson of KOWANI (Indonesian Women’s Congress), whose only concern about the bill is that it might lead to same-sex marriage (because it gives women the right to choose their partners).
As for gender equality, she’s (otherwise) all for it. Dewi, who wears a jilbab (headscarf), said that the Koran is very clear about gender equality, which she practices in her own family. She told me how one of her kids once fell sick just as she was about to leave for a meeting in India, chaired by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi. Dewi was worried, but her husband urged her to go, saying, “This is also my child, don’t you trust me to take care of my own child?” Reassured, Dewi left, and had her meeting with Indira.
So what exactly are women’s Muslim groups worried about? Strange that none of them mention the millions of Indonesian female domestic migrant workers (TKW) slaving abroad to support families they are forced to leave behind. No one’s questioning what’s happening to the “moral fabric of society” and “traditional division of labor” here.
Could it possibly be because the TKW help out with the unemployment problem and, through remittances, provide a great source of revenue for the Indonesian government (as much as US$ 7.1 billion in 2010, according to a 2011 World Bank Report)?
Indonesia signed CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) in 1980 and ratified it in 1984. For 28 years, Indonesia has been legally bound to stick to the principles contained in the Convention. So why draft a gender equality bill now?
Because, we need a law to actually implement the gender mainstreaming principles of CEDAW, and because gender discrimination remains rife in Indonesia. In fact, in some respects it is getting worse.
It was the Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry that kick-started the campaign for the bill. But after controversy and protests from conservative Islamic groups, their initial fervor wilted. Alarmed, members of women’s groups, including the Komnas Perempuan (National Commission on Violence against Women), lobbied Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Minister Linda Amalia Sari to keep up the fight.
Losing out on a gender equality bill would be bad enough, but it would also greatly dilute the value of other victories women have won.
These include the amendments to the 1945 Constitution, which inserted human rights provisions in Chapter XA (and led to the ratification of the Migrant Workers Convention on April 12 this year) and the Law on Domestic Violence (No. 23/2004).
Real reform takes time and effort, I guess, and attitudes are very slowly changing. In her old age, even my mother finally came to realize that life might have been much happier and more fulfilled had she not accepted traditional ideologies so unquestioningly.
It’s frustrating enough for women’s groups to have to keep fighting male conservatives and Islamic hard-liners, but to have to fight our own mothers and sisters as well makes the battle even harder.
How sad for the sisterhood, how sad for Indonesia.
The writer (www.juliasuryakusuma.com) is the author of State Ibuism.