The Jakarta Post
Do you know what your mother wanted to be when she was young?
It was only after watching Kim Ji Young: Born 1982 recently that I realized that I do not.
My mother and I love each other dearly, but I never had the urge to ask her what she wanted to be before she had me. My mother, Suciati, takes care for us while running a small kiosk in front of our house to help support the family.
One memorable scene in the film is when little Ji Young was doing her homework on the floor while her mother was folding clothes beside her. Her mother said that, when she was younger, she wanted to be a teacher; she was smarter than all of her brothers. But then she gave up everything, including her dream, to work at a garment factory to help her brothers enter college. She got married and had Ji Young.
The little girl looked up and asked, “Mother, was it because of me you gave up to be a teacher?” Her mother smiled and caressed her daughter’s hair without answering.
But we knew Ji Young’s mother had made her choice — or did she really have one to begin with? She left her dream for her brothers, then her children, just as her mother had done before her, and what Ji Young would also do when she has her baby. Just as my mother did.
So, if one day I have a child, will I also have to abandon my dream? Will my daughter have to abandon hers, too? Do we only have those options, to have or not to have?
Kim Ji Young is about postpartum depression, about being a mother, a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a wife, and most of all about being a woman. She went to college, graduated, became excited with her first job, got married and had a beautiful daughter. She is just like any woman I meet. She is just like me.
This is why the film hits too close to home. We grow up believing the limitations, harassment and discrimination is normal and that it’s somehow the consequences of being born a woman.
In one scene, Ji Young is stalked by a male student, and we feel her fear, then her frustration and sadness when her father angrily tells her to dress more cautiously; she was wearing her school uniform.
We witness how she wasn’t promoted because her boss preferred men, and she had to resign and stay at home after her daughter was born. At public toilets she checks every corner for hidden cameras.
Questioning such “normal, everyday incidents” often makes women sound impertinent.
Is the whole idea of being a woman to follow what society wants us to choose, to wear, to act and to be for the rest of our lives? Do we have a choice, or has it already been written for us?
Unsurprisingly, a heavy backlash greeted Kim Ji Young the novel and the movie in South Korea, a strong patriarchal society like Indonesia. Imagine how such questions disturbed a society that has largely accepted the “ordinary” experiences of women.
Recently Najwa Shihab, a popular TV host, was asked whether she preferred being a journalist over being a mother: “Why does a woman always have to choose?” she shot back. Can’t she have both? Asking this question makes woman look helpless.
Even though Ji Young took care of her baby and husband full-time amid her postpartum depression, she was regarded as a woman who “only” takes care of her household and who can easily ask money from her husband whenever she wants. But when she finally gathered the courage to continue her career, her mother-in-law was angry as she would risk her husband’s career.
In balancing and juggling the two worlds, women are expected to excel in both. The work place is rife with sexism and sexual harassment, with no daycare, short maternity leave and no breastfeeding room.
And when a child experiences sexual violence, often it’s the mother who is blamed for not taking care of her child well.
Last September I met Indhira (not her real name). We were sitting on the floor in front of a closed-door meeting of the House of Representatives as lawmakers were deliberating the bill on ending sexual violence (RUU PKS). Indhira had joined dozens of activists to support the bill.
It turned out she is the mother of a rape survivor. In 2016 Indhira’s then-husband raped their youngest, 15-year-old child. The father was sentenced to prison for 15 years, but Indhira had to leave home because her former husband’s relatives blamed her for the rape and her husband’s incarceration. They blamed the working mother for leaving her daughter alone at home.
Indhira finally had to leave her job to focus on the recovery of her daughter who had been suicidal and depressed; she had to pay for her daughter’s antidepressants and her sessions with psychiatrists all by herself.
Listening to her was suffocating. I could not picture the horrifying days she and her daughter had to endure. Why was she at the House? Where did she get her energy from?
But to Indhira, fighting for the bill is important at least to help ensure no one experiences what she and her daughter went through, to ensure survivors have more chances to be protected and supported.
Article 39 of the bill, for example, says the government provides rehabilitation services for victims to overcome the physical, psychological and social effects of the crimes. Without this bill, their fight will be very hard and lonely.
For such an important bill that could protect so many survivors, why is it so hard for the House to immediately pass the bill amid increasing cases of sexual violence? Some insist the bill is too liberal, pro-sexual minorities and pro-adultery when nothing in the bill even implies such.
Is the resistance coming from people who cringe at the idea that the bill will give women choices to live safer, to fight their perpetrators and to heal themselves from sexual violence? Are such people used to seeing women oppressed, that the idea of them having choices is unacceptable for them?
After finishing my reports on Indhira and sexual violence victims and activists, I hope anyone exposed to their stories will feel devastated, angry but moved. We need that rage, so we all can help end sexual violence and push the House members to pass the bill.
Kim Ji Young, Indhira, my mother, and I too one day, are not just anyone’s daughter or someone’s wife or someone’s mother, we are beyond that. This is our story, too. The government and employers must push for supportive regulations and environments for women to thrive, and a small way to start to support women is from our closest circle, in our home.
I picked up my phone and called my mother. I asked her how she was doing and finally I asked her what she wanted to be before she had me. She went silent for a moment.
“That’s the first time anyone ever asked me for the past 31 years after I got married,” she told me; the line went silent again.
“I always wanted to be a successful businesswoman,” she said finally. I don’t know why, but I cried after we hung up.