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Jakarta Post

Julia'€™s War On Almost Everything

  • Roy Simson

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sun, June 30, 2013   /  03:43 pm
Julia'€™s War On Almost Everything

When Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono came to power in 2004, the general consensus was that he was the best thing to happen to Indonesia since the fall of Soeharto.

Today, it is hard to find anyone with much praise for SBY. Many Indonesians are yearning for a '€œstrong-man'€ president and believe that ex-general Prabowo Subianto, whose troops oversaw the abduction, torture and '€œdisappearance'€ of pro-democracy activists, is the best man for the job.

One of the people who did not buy into the SBY fan club nine years ago and spurns the current '€œIndonesia needs Prabowo'€ baloney is Julia Suryakusuma, a joyously outspoken feminist, humorist and columnist. She is also a Muslim, passionately lambasting the hypocrites who misuse Islam for political, sexual and financial ends.

She has been writing for decades, but only in 2006 did she begin producing regular columns in English. These have now been collected in Julia'€™s Jihad, which was launched on Wednesday in Jakarta.

Earlier versions of the book were published in Korean and Indonesian, while a French translation is in the works. The book'€™s subtitle is Tales of the Politically, Sexually and Religiously Incorrect: Living in the Chaos of the Biggest Muslim Democracy.

To say Julia is not shy is akin to saying founding president Sukarno was not a celibate. '€œWhat makes a guy horny? In Aceh, it'€™s women straddling motorbikes.'€ Thus starts a typical column.

Even for long-term expatriates, who arrogantly think we know it all or know better, there is much to be learned from Julia'€™s Jihad. Not least that there'€™s a phallic symbol lurking within the traditional bouffant hairstyle favored by matronly Indonesian women. Or that Indonesia'€™s nascent government raised funds by selling opium to Singapore in the 1940s.

There'€™s also a wealth of data to back up things that we had long suspected, such as 87 percent of the antibiotics prescribed in Indonesia are unnecessary.

There are several laugh-out-loud moments in the book, including the story about a charity collection box for SBY being placed in the House of Representatives building.

Behind the humor and frequent punning, there is a serious desire to see Indonesia changed for the better, to see justice for those murdered by the state, to see an end to judicial corruption. If only mainstream Indonesian journalists and TV networks had the same inclination to constantly fight for what'€™s right.

The first column in Julia'€™s Jihad is an attack on rigorous adherence to Islam, while the final one decries members of the ruling elite for being above the law.

In between, Julia covers just about everything that I find frustrating about living Indonesia: from state-sanctioned gangsters to corrupt police and belief in black magic. Much of her venom is for the '€œdecades of repression and systematic '€˜stupidization'€™ imposed by the Soeharto regime'€. Yet, she also explains what has gone wrong since SBY came to power.

There are almost no sacred cows in the book. All former presidents, including Gus Dur, are criticized for their failings. One of the few politicians spared criticism is former finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, '€œwho has bigger balls than SBY'€ and was ousted from Cabinet because she went after Golkar Party'€™s powerful chairman, Aburizal Bakrie, for his unpaid taxes. It is clear that Julia would like to see Sri Mulyani return from her position at the World Bank and run for the presidency.

There are other writers who complain about what is wrong with Indonesia, such as Russian-born Andre Vltchek, whose latest cheery offering, Archipelago of Fear (Pluto Press, 2012), is a liberal serving of doom and damnation in the finest style of weaving an agenda out of juxtaposed observations and generalizations.

Julia writes with greater authority, avoids unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and uses humor to make her writing so much more palatable.

Julia has described herself as '€œan insider and an outsider at the same time'€. She is proudly Sundanese from West Java, though she was born in India, the daughter of an Indonesian diplomat. She was raised in England, Hungary and Italy. This obviously shaped her world outlook. It also seems she was determined not to end up like her conservative mother, who was the epitome of a dutiful wife, as enshrined by Dharma Wanita '€“ the Soeharto regime'€™s organization for the indoctrination and control of women.

Indonesian women have played an underappreciated role in reforming Indonesia. When street demonstrations helped to bring down Soeharto in 1998, the first protests were staged by mothers concerned about the rising prices of basic commodities.

Since then, most street rallies are just rent-a-mobs. Yet, women still come out to demonstrate against what is wrong '€“ such as statements by male politicians that females are inviting rape if they wear short skirts.

One of the biggest surprises of Julia'€™s Jihad is the illustrations. These are political caricatures by Julia'€™s husband, Tim Lindsey, a law professor at Melbourne University. He is perhaps best known in Indonesia for his book The Romance of K'€™tut Tantri, a fascinating unraveling of the fact and fantasy in the life of a Western woman in revolutionary Indonesia.

It will be interesting to follow Julia'€™s future columns, especially if Indonesia should next year elect a president not fond of press freedom or criticism. If her columns are ever banned, it would be great to see her tackle a longer narrative '€“ such as a biography of Marsinah, a factory worker who was raped, tortured and murdered because she had the temerity to demand a fair deal for women workers.

Julia'€™s Jihad
Julia Suryakusuma
Komunitas Bambu, 2013
524 pages