Indonesian feminists: 'Don't blame the victim!'


Around 100 women and men took part in a rally, Miniskirt Protest – Women against Rape, at the Bundaran Hotel Indonesia in Thamrin, Jakarta, on Sunday, September 18. Dozens of women, including several activists from Perempuan Mahardhika (Free Women), wore miniskirts, as a statement that rape has nothing to do with the way women dress.

The demonstration was a protest against the words of Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo (nicknamed Foke) regarding a young female student, Livia, who was raped and killed on public transport. He said: “Imagine if someone sits on board a mikrolet (minivan) wearing a miniskirt; you would get a bit turned on”. Women, he said, “must adjust to their environment so that they don’t provoke people into committing unwanted acts”.

Vivi Widyawati leading chants, September 18.

A call for action by dozens of activists under the banner of Women’s Alliance against Rape was able to gather women from various backgrounds for the demonstration. The protesters shouted and chanted, brandishing posters with slogans such as “Don’t tell us how to dress, but tell them not to rape” and “My miniskirt, my right, Foke you”, "My miniskirt is not wrong, but your mind is”.

The alliance issued a statement saying, among other things; “Rape is a sexual attack on a citizen, a woman. Rape is never wanted by any woman, no matter the socioeconomic background. Victims of rape need solidarity from the whole of society as well as physical aid and care. The statements of incapable public servants have been providing no support, but rather humiliating and dumping the burden on the victims.”

In addition, they demanded that law enforcement protect the victims and that officials take all cases of rape seriously. Local governments should ensure the safety of public transportation and public space and improve the transportation system in the capital.

National Commission response

Three cases of rape on public transport had been reported during a single week before the protest. The National Commission on Violence against Woman (KOMNASPER) has recorded 3753 rapes in 2011, while the Jakarta police have received 41 complaints so far, compared to 40 for all of 2010. KOMNASPER has also received 105,103 complaints of violence against women. In response to the protest, the commission on September 23 outlined recommendations that ranged from improving security for women on public transportation to harsher punishment for sexual assault under the Criminal Code.

The head of the public participation section at the commission, Andy Yentriyani, said the legal system did not provide sufficient protection for women against sexual assault. The law “is insufficient, because sexual assault is categorised as social misconduct”, she said. "In one clause, [the penalty] can be 12 years. In another, it can be two years, eight months. For children, it is classified only as abuse, which reduces the seriousness."

It is men's behavior and misogynist culture that is the problem.

Sexual assault is not a specific crime under Indonesian law, and is treated only as an "unpleasant act", with an accordingly mild law enforcement response. KOMNASPER hopes its initiative will help fix this with new legislation.

KOMNASPER's data show that from 1998 to 2010, a quarter of the total of 295,836 cases of violence against women involved sexual assault. These are only the reported cases; many more are probably left unreported. Every day, 28 women are sexually assaulted in Indonesia, the agency said. “The solution is not to allocate special women-only spaces, such as on trains – which has been done already – because there is no guarantee that segregation will prevent assaults", Andy said.

She also voiced concern that if a woman was assaulted while travelling in a mixed space, she could be accused of looking for trouble. “It also feeds into the idea that men can’t control themselves”, she said. “That assumption is just as bad as the assumption that women’s actions or dress are the cause of violence against them.”

Class and gender

Fauzi Bowo’s statement followed similar remarks by other public officials in different parts of the country, including one by a local administrative head in West Aceh who stated that women who did not dress according to religious norms could only blame themselves if they were raped. These statements sparked outrage among activists because they are nothing but misogynist accusations against the victims and a form of verbal violence against women. They are the product of a way of thinking rooted in patriarchy.

In Atas Nama (On Behalf Of), a documentary movie made by KOMNASPER, one woman from Aceh – wearing a scarf herself – put it well: “In general I don’t think any woman likes to be told how to dress”. This is the basic idea of the miniskirt protest: women have the right to their own body, to express themselves and feel good, free from prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination and violence. This is a foundation of women’s liberation.

Don't blame the victim.

Several far left activists (mostly men) in Jakarta felt uneasy with the statement or the form of the protest, which they considered to be advocating the wearing of miniskirts. Objections were made that the protest “too liberal”, “had insufficient class content” and might provoke “antipathy from the majority of women who are still conservative – the ones feminist activists should try to reach”. Some even went as far as suggesting that the choice was “class struggle or sex struggle”. Still, these comments were better than the major parts of the far left that didn't say anything at all. The campaign was supported by only a handful of male left activists.

This lack of attention is not very surprising since there have been very few left movements and organisations that take up issues of sexuality and gender. Most of the left groups in Indonesia subordinate the issue of women’s oppression to so-called class issues, which are defined as the purely economic side of class oppression, such as wages and poverty. That is why, so far, they are still unfamiliar with issues such as a woman’s right to her body, sexuality, sexual orientation and so forth. Our experience building the socialist-feminist women’s group Perempuan Mahardhika confirms this view.

We should fight against class oppression, patriarchy and sexism, since in class-based societies patriarchy and sexism play an important role in the reproduction of the social system. There will be no socialism without women’s liberation, and there is no true class consciousness without considering and understanding the very complex nature of patriarchy and sexuality and their relation to class. If the September 18 protest was considered as merely liberal, that would mean we have even more responsibility to intervene in the campaign so that its demands will not be ends in themselves – not merely the freedom of each individual but rather the freedom of each individual as the foundation for the freedom of all.

The fact that many Indonesian women, religious or not, agree with the demands and slogans of the protest, particularly on the fact that rape has nothing to do with dress, is encouraging amidst difficult and worsening political circumstances, including 154 sharia laws and a growing intolerance fuelled by several reactionary religious groups.

We are happy to have taken part in this campaign – and also happy to wear miniskirts, because most of the time we are defensive and forget to challenge the minds of men.

[The writers are members of the national committee of Perempuan Mahardhika (Free Women) and members of People’s Liberation Party, Indonesia.]

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