Indonesia: 100 years of women's struggle for liberation

Women are not just housewives. They are not second-class citizens. History shows that in the beginning, the world progressed because humanity (men and women) succeeded in managing nature by creating, using and modernising the tools of labour, resulting in abundant production (surplus). This was done in a way that was equitable — there were none that had more than others; there was no domination by one gender over the other.

Widespread inequality, oppression, domination, discrimination and the subordination of women were developed and formalised by the private ownership of surplus production and the means of production (class). And this did not occur all at once (by nature or predestination). Injustice against women is a human creation because of class and patriarchy, so it can also be changed by humanity itself.

Women (and men) have struggled for more than 100 years for equality and justice. The result we now enjoy is that women have the right to vote, work, be active outside the home, attend school, have acknowledged rights over their bodies and sexuality, have obtained legal protection against violence and so forth. The reality, however, is that most of these rights are unable to be enjoyed by all women under an economic and political system that serves the interest of capitalism. Only a handful of upper-class women (the rich) are able to enjoy these rights.

Women’s enemies: capitalism, imperialism and its puppet government

Capitalism, as a system built by the property-owning class, is said to provide a basis for women to return to the productive arena. However, this cannot be consistently implemented for humanity as a whole because life under capitalism is based on the exploitation of human beings (the prosperity of a handful is the result of the exploitation of many). So capitalism will not, and cannot, have an interest in developing massive and productive job opportunities for humanity as a whole — including women.

Because of private ownership, capitalism will continue to experience internal contradictions, on the one hand driving down working-class incomes for the sake of profit, and on the other hand simultaneously driving production through technological development, or accelerating the accumulation of profit through non-productive activities (speculation). It is this that is more prevalent at the moment, so productive job opportunities are becoming smaller, prices continue to rise, and ordinary people’s incomes further decline. It is this that we refer to as the capitalist crisis, which occurs periodically within the capitalist system.

The capitalist crisis (or what is better known as neoliberalism) has been occurring since 1997, and has re-emerged in this latest global financial crisis, further driving back women’s welfare. According to the United Nations, of the 1.3 billion poor in the world, 70% are women. The infant and maternal mortality rate in Indonesia is the highest in Asia. According to the 2008 Indonesian Health and Demography Survey, the maternal mortality rate is 390 per 100,000 births. National Education Department data indicate that out of the 9.7 million illiterate people in Indonesia, 65% are women. According to Women Development Survey data, as many as 111 million women live in poverty, and data from the Jakarta regional National Statistics Agency indicate that female unemployment is as high as 88% of the total.

This is not to mention the impact of the Foreign Investment Law and what we will see when the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement comes into effect, with the number of dismissals certain to rise, and the majority of victims certain to be women, who are considered as non-skilled labour (simply as a source of additional household income) who can be paid cheap wages. The rising cost of education is already pushing young and poor women (in huge numbers) out of schools, not to mention universities. They are the future workers who will fill the gap of non-productive and exploited labour, such as domestic workers, migrant workers, sex workers, petty street traders, vagrants, street buskers and the like.

Capitalists, of course, have no interest in increasing Indonesia’s human resources as a whole. They have only three interests: expanding markets, natural resources/raw materials and cheap labour. In this case, Indonesian women represent cheap labour that can more freely be exploited in the interest of capitalism. At the same time, Indonesian women represent a potential consumer market for the purchase of capitalism’s products. Women’s bodies, from the tips of their hair to their toes, are not exempt from capitalist exploitation in the form of the mythos of beauty. Advertisements for consumer products, Indonesian soap operas, fashion magazines, infotainment events and the like are all means by which women become an important commodity for capitalism.

This is the real picture of the destruction of women’s productive labour as a result of capitalism.

Fighting patriarchy and the obstacles to women’s participation

The reform movement that began in 1998 was the basis for the broad development of women’s organisations and groups. A number of women’s organisations, from non-government groups to campus discussion groups, women’s urban poor groups, rural women’s business collectives and the like have emerged — although there are still many more women who are not yet organised. Democratic space opened the door for the women’s liberation struggle.

With the opening up of democratic space, campaigns and guarantees of women’s rights began to be realised, such as the law on domestic violence and the 30% political quota for women. On the other hand, however, the number of policies that discriminate against women has in fact increased greatly at the regional level with the emergence of shariah (Islamic)-based by-laws, Bible-based by-laws in Manokwari (West Papua), regional anti-prostitution by-laws, the Anti-Pornography Law and the involvement of the Indonesian military in family planning programs, which have all culminated in the criminalisation of women. The arrest and violence against women have been inevitable, such as rape of a woman in Aceh after arrest by the shariah police. Now there is a draft law on prohibiting contract marriages that is currently being deliberated and will also end in the criminalisation of women.

These laws and polices are a reflection of a patriarchal culture that obstructs women’s advancement. As well as mirroring these discriminatory policies, patriarchy is also reflected in the form of religious rulings (fatwa), which are issued by the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) and other fundamentalist groups. One example is the recent fatwa prohibiting hair-straightening and pre-wedding photographs issued by the leaders of East Java Islamic boarding schools. Prior to this, the MUI has issued rulings that intervene in women’s rights and even threaten democracy such as the fatwa against pluralism, golput (not voting or failing to mark the ballot paper) and the Ahmadiyah religious sect. To a degree, religious leaders and fundamentalist groups still have an influence on society and reinforce the culture of patriarchy.

Building unity between women and the poor

We can no longer hang our hopes on those who make liberal promises (the rotten political parties) and only take advantage of the people and women’s sympathies during the elections; nor on the remnants of the New Order regime (the Golkar Party and the military) that closed off democratic space over the 32 years of former President Suharto’s  rule; nor on the fake reformists who broke all their promises during the reform era; nor on the rotten political elite who are opportunist, greedy and little more than brokers who perpetuate the capitalist system. The only hope for the ordinary people and the women of Indonesia lies in mobilising their own power, building unity between women and the poor as a whole. It is because of this that there is no other choice but for women and oppressed people to build their own independent political vehicles (including political parties): revolutionary political organisations that are built by the mobilisation of organised women, and by continuing to unite with other democratic movements, which have not been co-opted and do not cooperate with the people’s enemies (imperialism, the imperialist puppet  government, the remnants of the New Order, the fake reformists and the military). It is time for women to emerge from domestic darkness, to unite their forces with the weapon of organisation and strategic mobilisations. Let us reawaken the hopes of millions of Indonesian women before the New Order seized power.

Let us reawaken hope through the women’s movement. Let us reawaken hope by clearly asserting: We do not want to continue living under a capitalist system that impoverishes and discriminates against women. We want fundamental change, so that we, our mothers, and our successive generations can live in a better world — and provide opportunities to all women to develop and become a progressive productive force. The Perempuan Mahardhika (Free Women) National Network is therefore calling for:

The 15 urgent demands of Indonesian women

  1. Education that is free, scientific, democratic, feminist and pro-people;
  2. Health care that is free and modern for all Indonesian people;
  3. Productive employment opportunities for women;
  4. Wage increases, equality and work safety for women;
  5. Revision or repeal of all legislation that is discriminatory and oppresses women (the marriage law, the Anti-Pornography Law and sharia-based by-laws);
  6. A 50% quota for women in all public positions;
  7. An end to the criminalisation of prostitution;
  8. An end to polygamy;
  9. Lower prices;
  10. Public housing, clean water, mass transportation and energy that are affordable and healthy;
  11. The straightening out of the history of the Indonesian women’s movement;
  12. Children to be the responsibility of the state; playgrounds and childcare centres that are affordable and of good quality;
  13. An end to discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people;
  14. Land, capital and modern technology for farmers in agricultural collectives;
  15. An end to pollution and rehabilitation of the environment.

The solution for Indonesia’s oppressed women

  1. Fight the enemies of women and the poor (the foreign colonialist agents in government, the remnants of the New Order regime, the military and reactionary civil militia groups and the fake reformists).
  2. National industrialisation by and for the people.
  3. Centralise domestic funding for national industrialisation and the emergency needs of the poor and women (repudiate the foreign debt until prosperity is achieved; seize the assets of the corrupters from Suharto until now, a tax on speculative transactions).
  4. Build an organisation and women’s movement for people’s power with gender equality.
  5. Build a new culture that is progressive, productive, modern and feminist.

In order to realise all of the above demands, the only solution is:

  • Women must leave the home.
  • Fight capitalism, struggle for prosperity and equality.
  • Replace the SBY [President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono-Vice-President  Boediono] capitalist government.
  • Abandon the rotten political elite.
  • Unite, for a united government of the poor.

Perempuan Mahardhika National Network National Committee (JNPM-KN)

Yogyakarta, March 8, 2010

Spokespersons: Sarinah, Linda Sudiono, Jumisih, Vivi Widyawati

JNPM-Medan, JNPM-Yogyakarta, JNPM-Jakarta, JNPM-Ternate, Femme-Progressive Palu, the Makassar Free Women’s Movement (GPMM), LISMI-Ternate, the Jakarta Cross-Factory Labour Forum, the Bandung Association of Concerned Labour Youth, University of Gajah Mada-Yogyakarta Mahardhika, KDPD-Yogyakarta and the Superstar National Development University Yogyakarta.

Supported by: The Politics for the Poor-National Student League for Democracy (LMND-PRM), the Union for the Politics of the Poor (PPRM), the Indonesian Labour Movement Union Preparatory Committee (KP-PPBI), the Political Committee of the Poor-Peoples Democratic Party (KPRM-PRD) and the Indonesian Cultural Society Union.

[Translated by James Balowski.]