Women's liberation and the struggle for socialist politics in Indonesia

By Sam King

The National Network for Women’s Liberation (Jaringan Nasional Perempuan Mahardika - JNPM) is an Indonesian women’s liberation organisation consisting of local women’s committees, coordinating bodies and women’s sections of labour, student, peasant and urban poor organisations committed to the liberation of women. JNPM aims to develop direct involvement of women in struggling against capitalism, patriarchal culture and militarism in Indonesia and argues there can be no separation between the generalised struggle of Indonesia’s majority poor population and the struggle for women’s liberation. On August 22 Direct Action interviewed JNPM national coordinator Vivi Widyawati, who will be in Australia in September and October speaking at public meetings organised by Direct Action. Widyawati is also an activist in the Committee for the Politics of the Poor-People’s Democratic Party (KPRM-PRD), a socialist party formed two years ago by expelled members of the leftist PRD.

What are the main campaigns JNPM has focused on since it was founded?

Since its foundation there have been many actions undertaken by JNPM such as organising rallies every March 8 for International Women’s Day, developing a program of feminist education, and publishing the fortnightly bulletin Mahardhika. We campaign very broadly on the need to build a nationwide, independent women’s organisation. We also strive for unity between the women’s movement and the broader struggles of the poor majority. We also respond to government decisions or political attacks on women as they arise.

Currently, our main program is aimed at developing women’s committees at the grassroots level in each sector. We run educational programs around the basic rights of women, the political movement, feminism, democracy and about how to organise. Secondly, we distribute as much feminist reading material as possible including distributing Mahardhika. JNPM is also actively involved in building an alliance of all democratic and leftist organisations in Indonesia and of course this includes women’s organisations. We are also currently running a feminist school across three universities in Yogyakarta.

What is the history of JNPM as an organisation?

We began as women activists involved in various pro-democracy organisations who met at a national conference in 2003. The conference involved 98 participants from eight provinces in Java, Bali, Sumatra and Kalimantan. This was a spirited one-day conference in which we discussed issues related to the liberation of women. We identified three key factors holding women back — the capitalist system, patriarchal culture and militarism. Secondly, we identified the importance of direct participation of women in the struggle for their own liberation and, thirdly, we decided to build a mass women’s organisation on a national scale.

In March 2006 we reconvened in a second national conference in Jakarta which also included representatives from Papua, East Java and East Nusa Tenggara and we were able to consolidate the national structure. In 2007 there was a split in the organisation. This originated from JNPM and some of its branches’ involvement in the National Liberation Party of Struggle (Papernas). This party, which was initiated by members of the PRD, attempted to register for the 2009 parliamentary elections in order to present an anti-capitalist program. The undemocratic electoral laws made it extremely difficult for Papernas to gain electoral registration. In addition, its members were physically attacked by right-wing militia organisations such as the Islamic Liberation Front and the Indonesian Anti-Communist Front.

That situation spawned two counterpoised trends about how to move forward. One prioritised the tactic of trying to gain electoral registration by merging with the Star Reform Party (PBR) or another pro-capitalist party. The second rejected subordination to any capitalist party, preferring to continue advancing an independent program. This was the position of the majority of JNPM members. We preferred to break our involvement with Papernas if this involvement meant merging with the PBR because from its inception the PBR has been a party opposed to a democratic program for women. Moreover, the politics of the leadership of Papernas, who entered into the PBR, had already become the opposite of the original ideas of the party.

The split in Papernas also affected all of its founding organizations. However, for JNPM the split did not result in the formation of two competing groups because those in JNPM who supported political cooption by the PBR were only a small minority and they have not attempted to build a new women’s organisation. They became busy as candidates for the PBR.

How possible is it for a serious women’s liberation movement to develop in the objective conditions in Indonesia today?

The objective potential for the development of the women’s liberation movement in Indonesia is enormous. It can be said that the conditions the majority of women endure are well short of what is reasonable. Domestic violence is rising. Sexual harassment in the workplace is rife. Unsafe abortions kill many women — a 2008 study found that of 2.5 million abortions performed in Indonesia each year, 70% are carried out in conditions that can potentially cause death.

The reason why the women’s movement is still small today is because consciousness about the need to organise is still weak — the result of over 30 years of repression during General Suharto’s New Order regime. Since democratic space has opened up after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, the development of women’s organisations has been slower than other sectors. However, I am optimistic that with the development of a poor people’s movement, we can utilise the objective potential that exists to build a strong women’s liberation movement.

Can you comment on the role of the key socialist organisations, including your own grouping, the KPRM-PRD, towards women’s rights and the women’s liberation struggle?

The pro-democracy or leftist organisations do not yet play much of a role in fighting for women’s rights and for women’s liberation. However, some effort has been made from those quarters to strengthen the women’s liberation struggle. The KPRM-PRD is able to bring a socialist-feminist perspective to the women’s movement and the democratic movement as just happened in June and July this year when the KPRM-PRD, together with the Political Union of the Poor (Persatuan Perjuangan Rakyat Miskin, PPRM), organised a series of education classes in 16 cities. These included material on the liberation of women. The KPRM-PRD also helps to organise the grassroots level women’s committees and supports the feminist school in Yogyakarta.

When Suharto’s military dictatorship came to power in 1965, the centrepiece of its anti-communist propaganda campaign was to demonise Communist Party women who were said to have cut off the penises of military generals during the alleged Communist-led coup. Can you comment on the role of women in the overthrow of Suharto and what changes have  there been for Indonesian women in the 11 years since?

It’s true that Suharto’s New Order era destroyed the women’s and people’s movement and, more than that, wiped out much of the people’s memory of these movements. The New Order propaganda was savage towards the women’s movement, such as the example you mentioned. According to all historical investigation it is all lies. There was no attack by communist women in 1965 like that propagandised by Suharto.

Many other historical lies were told by the New Order regime to create an anti-woman politics. However, to this day no post-Suharto government has corrected the historical record. The rupture in historical memory is a barrier to the development of the women’s movement today. The women’s movement before Suharto took power was far more advanced organisationally and politically than today’s movement.

Women’s role in the overthrow of Suharto was not insignificant. While it was not channelled through a single organisation, many women were involved in the demonstrations. At the time of rising anti-dictatorship sentiment, during the final moments of the regime, resistance among women rose to the surface and gave a strong shot to the popular movement as it became more audacious in its overthrow of the regime. For example the organisation Voice of Caring Mothers (Suara Ibu Peduli, SIP) organised an action for the supply of cheap milk during which the leadership was arrested. This protest action gave massive inspiration to the popular movements, including women, to consolidate their struggle to overthrow Suharto.

Today, after 11 years of the reformasi era, there have been some advances for women. The opening of democratic space has provided a massive opportunity for distribution of feminist literature, for the development of women’s NGOs and for the beginning of a discussion about women’s issues in the public sphere. While the women’s movement is not large, Indonesia has already passed some laws for the protection of women such as those addressing domestic violence, trafficking and the establishment of a 30% quota for women representatives in parliament. In practice, many of these laws are not applied. But in our view they still represent a step forward for Indonesian democracy.

However we think it is not enough. The section of the political elite that identify themselves as “reformist” in reality do not consistently advance a program of progressive reform and have not concluded legal cases concerning human rights abuses carried out in the Suharto era. The elite reformists and elite political parties have no interest in advancing a program for the liberation of women.

The legal umbrella for the protection of women is “merely decoration”, but has never been implemented. On the other hand, the reformasi era has also brought about a multitude of laws that protect foreign capital and impoverish the people such as the oil and gas law, banking law, water privatisation law and the food law. These are buttressed by regional laws that directly impoverish women. Under reformasi there has still been no significant change for women.

Since the fall of Suharto there has been a massive increase in the number of NGOs operating in Indonesia and a lot of foreign money goes into them. Can you comment on the sorts of women’s rights issues the NGOs address and how effective they are?

Women’s NGOs raise a great many issues, both in a coordinated way and as individual groups. NGOs are still the form of organisation that most often gives voice to women’s interests. They most commonly advocate changes to government policy. This framework is effective in helping to raise basic feminist ideas in society. However, it is unable to push for maximum activity of women themselves. It has become clear that the most effective method of gaining women’s participation is by building a women’s movement that is supported by a unified organisation and method of mobilisation. But this approach is generally ignored by the NGOs, so it has been hard to get NGO support for a national conference to organise a unified women’s movement despite what we have done in this regard with minimal funding.

At the time of the 2009 elections, the NGOs generally focused on the issue of fulfilling the 30% quota for women in parliament without looking at the politics of the parties these women were using to enter parliament. JNPM also supports the quota as an affirmative-action measure, but the number of women in parliament does not guarantee policy expanding the rights of women if these women MPs are members of parties that do not have programs for the liberation of women. For example, in the New Order era the number of women MPs was greater than the number after 1998, but women suffered attacks and discrimination under Suharto’s rule.

What sort of international support and collaboration does JNPM have?

In terms of developing the women’s movement in Indonesia or in other Third World nations, there is always a need for support from women’s organisations internationally, primarily by increasing solidarity for struggles being carried out by the women’s movement. In a situation of limited democracy, the feminist movement in Indonesia needs international support, particularly when repression is levelled against us — messages of protest against the illegal detention of feminist activists or against right-wing militia attacks. Also, I am happy to have been invited to Australia to discuss these issues. As a representative of JNPM I will take every opportunity to develop relationships with feminist and democratic organisations in Australia. Perhaps we will be able to find concrete ways to carry out mutual solidarity between the feminist organisations.