Indonesians are familiar with a proverb that goes “surga di bawah telapak kaki ibu” (heaven is under a mother’s feet), which implies that a mother has a very high position in a family and in society and we should love, care and respect her.
The narrative following the proverb usually relates to a woman’s biological role, such as a mother’s struggle during pregnancy and giving birth. Other roles immediately following after birth, such as breastfeeding, are sometimes quoted to further emphasize the importance of respecting a mother.
Religious leaders, teachers and the media contribute to promoting this point, which is why the proverb and its underlying values are accepted almost without reservation, at least normatively.
Yes, we should love, care for and respect the woman who gave birth to us. The question is, is a mother the only woman we should pay respect to? This question comes to my mind when considering the many violation of women’s rights, such as violence against women.
Data from the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) compiled from service providers across Indonesia reveal that 11,105, or 75 percent of 14,719 reported cases of violence against women in 2019, were domestic violence. Among domestic violence cases, 6,555, or 59 percent are violence against wives.
In the last decade, the number of domestic violence cases in Indonesia has been consistently higher than violence against women in other spheres, and violence against wives has remained the most common form of that violence for most of the decade.
The high prevalence of domestic violence is contradictory to the notion that we should respect our mother, as implied by the proverb. It is not uncommon that we find a man adopting values of respecting his mother and at the same time abusing his wife.
Misleading religious interpretation is often used to justify such abusive behavior. I wonder if the perpetrator of such crimes realizes that his wife is also the mother to his children and that she deserves respect as the proverb implies.
In the public sphere, Komnas Perempuan’s data show the most common form of violence against women is rape, which accounted for 715 or 20 percent of 3,602 reported cases in 2019. Sexual harassment ranks second with 520 or 14 percent of the reported cases.
Rape and sexual harassment are forms of violence against women that in the eye of the perpetrators imply that a woman is no more than a sexual object. Such types of violence are rampant, the perpetrators and the victims come from various ages and backgrounds.
Take a case of sexual harassment on the street; news on such cases can be easily found in the media. I wonder if, say, a man who sexually harassed a woman in a public transportation vehicle realizes that his victim could be a working mother who is on her way home from work to feed her children. Again, she deserves respect as mandated by the proverb.
And what about public officials who make sexist jokes? A young woman who is sexually harassed while studying at campus? A girl who is raped when going back home from school? A woman who becomes a victim of kawin tangkap (capture and wed) a traditional form of bride kidnapping on Sumba Island? The list could go on.
To my knowledge, there is not yet any official data on violence against women during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, reports from some service providers indicate a rising prevalence of domestic violence during the pandemic, triggered by, among other factors, the pressure of lockdown and the economic downturn in many families.
Does a perpetrator of whatever type of violence against women realize that his victim could be a mother who, according to the proverb, should be respected? Or does he accept the values implied by the proverb, with some sort of reservation, such as that such respect applies to his (biological) mother only?
The prevalence of violence against women indicates how society views woman, how much it respects them and whether it sees women as human beings with rights and dignity.
Regardless their status, all human beings, men and women, do not deserve to be treated badly.
Maybe we do not need the beautiful proverb “heaven is under a mother’s feet” and other praises if they are only lip service and have little impact on improving women’s life, including by eliminating violence against women.
The writer teaches at Parahyangan Catholic University’s School of Social and Political Sciences in Bandung.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.