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Rachel Rinaldo

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Volume 10, November 2002

Ironic Legacy: the New Order and Indonesian Women's Groups

Over the last decade, many Indonesian women became involved in political activism, establishing independent groups dedicated to issues of gender equality and human rights. These women's groups, some of which are overtly feminist, were a crucial part of the reformasi movement that ended Suharto's thirty year dictatorship in 1998. Since the end of Suharto's regime, newer organizations led by women have appeared around the country. Women's groups now run the gamut from small activist circles to large non-governmental organizations, with many being part of transnational activist and feminist networks.1

This varied network of women's groups is not without its critics, with some Indonesian women activists themselves complaining that the network is dominated by middle and upper-class women, and is centered largely around NGOs in Jakarta. Yet, given Indonesia's recent history of political repression and the New Order state's promulgation of a discriminatory and gendered notion of citizenship, it seems remarkable that there is something of a women's movement at all.

So what accounts for this rather vibrant women's activist scene in Indonesia today? Many scholars have assumed a major division between the state-controlled women's organizations of the 1960s and 1970s and the newer feminist groups and NGOs. These latter groups were established by university-educated women from the middle and upper-middle class, a growing force in the 1980s. Hence the growth of the women's movement stems partly from economic change. International organizations that disseminated ideas about gender equality, such as the United Nations, have also been cited as important influences.

While many Western and Indonesian feminists have condemned the state-led organizations, more recent scholarship has argued for a certain amount of continuity between the pre-reformasi women's organizations and the more recent women's movement. As Budianta notes:

Women's activism in the Reformasi movement points not to a radical break between Indonesian women's 'old selves' and 'new selves', but rather, to the upsurge of undercurrent processes of resistance, strategies of evasion and negotiation that have been going on within the existing structures (Budianta, forthcoming).

I wish to elaborate on the connections between the older state-controlled women's organizations and contemporary women's activism. To be clear, I do not claim a direct connection between the two formsãmore research would be necessary to locate possible links between members of independent women's groups and state-controlled women's organizations. Instead, I argue here that the New Order state's creation of mass organizations, which were meant to domesticate women, had the unintended consequence of producing a certain type of women's organizing rooted in the middle and upper classes. Not only does this conjecture help explain the existence and vitality of women's groups in Indonesia, but it also accounts for some of the fundamental problems they confront in building a broader, more diverse women's movement. Such issues, while rooted in Indonesian history, help illuminate more general challenges faced by women's movements around the world.

The Early Years of Women's Organizing in Indonesia

The Indonesian feminists who emerged in the 1920s approved of the domestic role that the Dutch colonial state espoused for women. Primarily middle and upper class, they were concerned with issues such as education and monogamy. They emphasized national unity rather than confrontation over gender issues, and, according to Locher-Scholten, defined themselves as wives and mothers. As the nationalist movement grew in the 1930s and 1940s, women's groups formed an important part of it, and were commended by male nationalists. Not surprisingly, however, the growing women's movement usually put Indonesian national unity ahead of women's concerns and issues that might cause conflict. Discussions of differences between Islamic and non-Islamic women's groups were discouraged. After independence, most women's groups withdrew from the political sphere (Locher-Scholten, 2000).

The 1950s and 1960s in Indonesia were marked by social instability, as well as increasing radicalization of politics. The Indonesian Communist Party was a rising force, and a sizeable women's organization, Gerwani was closely aligned with it. Gerwani represented a new form of women's organizing that was mass-based and staunchly anti-imperialist. Although Gerwani supported Sukarno as he moved further left, the group was not controlled by the state. By 1965, Gerwani was the largest women's organization in the country, with possibly 1.5 million members. Gerwani's views on gender were actually fairly conventional. As Wieringa notes, 'although the organization never questioned the primacy of women's motherly role, it propagated a model of militant motherhood, fusing women's maternal functioning with political activism' (Wieringa, 2000:137). Nevertheless, Wieringa argues that the fact that Gerwani brought women so clearly into the political arena was enough to antagonize conservative social forces.

Following the murder of six generals in 1965, the military and anti-Communist forces bizarrely demonized Gerwani. News reports and official evidence claimed that Gerwani activists tortured, raped, and killed the generals, and then conducted a wild orgy with members of a Communist affiliated youth group. During the subsequent wave of mass killings in 1965 and 1966, Gerwani was outlawed and tens of thousands of its members possibly killed (Wieringa, 2002; Tiwon, 1996). The name Gerwani was soon associated with sexual depravity and lesbianism. Politically active women have, until very recently, been wary of being accused of being like Gerwani:

Since then, women's courage, their political and social independence and physical autonomy has been firmly associated with unspeakable acts of sexual debauchery and sexual perversion. ä The perceived 'immorality' of the women concerned is regarded not only as a threat to the moral fabric of society but also to the political stability of the nation (Wieringa 2000: 453).

In addition to crushing opposition more generally, the Suharto regime took pains to ensure that an autonomous women's movement would not re-emerge. Through various state programs in the 1970s and 1980s, the regime attempted to instill a gendered notion of citizenship, based around the idea of woman's role as domestic, and men's role as public.

The New Order and State Ibuism

This New Order policy of domestication has been referred to as State Ibuism (Ibu being the Indonesian term for mother and for woman). A widely cited state directive that formed the ideological basis of state programs geared toward women delineated women's five major duties: to be a loyal supporter for her husband, caretaker of the household, to produce future generations, to raise her children properly, and to be a good citizen (Sen 1998:36). Suharto's state planners insisted that women's primary contribution to the nation was as a wife and mother. Policies enforced this vision of womanhood through mass state programs, especially Dharma Wanita and the Family Welfare Movement (PKK). Both groups were strictly controlled by the state, and involved mainly in activities such as teaching rural women cooking, sewing, nutrition, and other 'feminine' skills (Blackwood 1995:137).

Dharma Wanita was mandatory for the wives of civil servants, and women participated in it according to the ranks of their husbands. Among Dharma Wanita's more popular programs were those aimed at instructing middle-class Indonesian women in proper femininityãincluding how to dress, choose jewelry, and appropriate etiquette. The PKK established local branches in nearly every town and village in Indonesia, and aimed to improve standards of living in rural areas through literacy programs and health services. The organization was voluntary, but led by the wives of state officials, and much of its membership came from the lower sectors of the middle-class (Marcoes 2002:189).2

The PKK has been widely criticized for helping implement the New Order's rather authoritarian family planning programs. Moreover, Robinson argues that the PKK acted as a vehicle for propagating New Order gender ideology: 'The Women's Group (PKK), constituted as a section of village councils, spreads the state ideology of natural patriarchal authority in the family and women's subordinate status' (Robinson 1998:209).

Not unlike the Dutch colonial government, the Suharto regime's housewife/ibu policies were tinged with class ideology and a concern with appropriate capitalist development. Brenner argues that the state hoped to redefine the household as a private sphere, and move production into the public sphere. The household, she claims, was 'increasingly repositioned as a domain of consumption, inhabited by a bourgeois family' (Brenner 1998:238). Moreover, she contends, the domesticated, bourgeois woman is a method of social control:

Concern over the morality and propriety of women's behavior deflects attention from larger and potentially more divisive social issues, such as those of class, ethnicity, and widespread political corruption. The propriety of women's behavior is presented as an issue that transcends all social, economic, or cultural divisions; the domesticated woman and harmonious New Order family become the representations of a pan-Indonesian, class-blind social and moral order (Brenner 1998:245).

It hardly needs to be reiterated that the housewife ideal was and remains unattainable for the majority of women in Indonesia.

So, as Brenner indicates, State Ibuism was not merely about control of women, but part of the New Order state's effort to exercise control over Indonesian society as a whole. For instance, Dharma Wanita regulated the lives and sexual activities of both husbands and wives. The 1974 Marriage Law made polygamy illegal for civil servants, and in addition, Dharma Wanita required male civil servants to get permission from their superiors to divorce their wives. Dharma Wanita expected women to be faithful, supportive companions to men, who were supposed to be monogamous to their wives and obedient to the state. Suryakusuma asserts:

The state controls its civil servants, who in turn control their wives, who reciprocally control their husbands and their children and the wives of junior officials. The purpose is to propagate a conforming society, built around the nuclear family, instrumental to state power (Suryakusuma 1996:100).

By emphasizing women's place in the household, the Indonesian state endeavored to override alternative gender discourses and produce citizens gendered in a particular way, as well as to restructure the domestic and public spheres. The beginnings of the gendered state can be seen with the Dutch colonial state's introduction of housewife/breadwinner ideology, and continue up to the present. (Current President Megawati has made speeches exhorting women to serve the nation by taking good care of their families and households.) But the gendered state reached its apotheosis with the New Order, during which the state utilized all its resources to construct properly gendered citizens through mass propaganda, institutions, bureaucracy, and organizations.

In the past, scholars linked such gendered productions to the state's overriding concern with appropriate economic development. More recently, many have begun to see it as part of the New Order regime's relentless concern with control and stability. New Order practices are the logical conclusion of the politics of protection and regulation described by feminist scholar Wendy Brown in her depiction of the welfare state. The vilification of Gerwani points to a discourse identifying women with social chaos and uncontrolled sexuality. Women thus required regulation by their husbands, the state, and each other.

As Brenner (1998:245) notes, even in the more stable decades of the 1970s and 1980s, the severe social, economic, and ethnic inequities in Indonesia had explosive potential. 'In such an environment, the domestication of women and the family becomes not incidental but crucial to the establishment of order and stability'. Further, concern over women's behavior and discipline distracts the public from dangerous political issues like religious differences or reform. 'The New Order family becomes the representation of a pan-Indonesian, class-blind, social and moral order' (Brenner 1998:245).

Until Suharto stepped down in 1998, the state strongly discouraged women or any other group from establishing organizations that were autonomous from the state. As late as 1993, a young female factory worker who had begun trying to organize her coworkers was abducted, tortured, and raped by assailants, most likely linked to the military, which has historically used thugs and vigilantes to terrorize dissenters. After the tumult of the 1960s and fearing the military and the police, many Indonesians strove to stay out of politics. As Blackburn (1999:443) notes the New Order by no means offered the security of known ways; it always harbored an element of arbitrariness and terror that made it dangerous not only for those who defied it but also for innocent bystanders who might be sacrificed to carry a message to those who resisted or might contemplate resistance.

The End of the New Order

The legacy of state repression of independent women's organizing during the New Order, coupled with the association of progressive or activist organizations with communism, is part of the reason that there is no mass women's movement in Indonesia today. This situation would appear to correspond with the insistence of many recent scholars that states produce dependent, disciplined, and gendered subjects, whose needs and concerns (public and private) are configured by state discourses.

Given such history, the vibrancy of women's groups in Indonesia today is surprising. There are at least twenty different women's organizations and NGOs in Jakarta alone, working on issues ranging from domestic violence, to electing more women to the parliament, to educating women about voting rights, to advocating for the rights of women who go overseas to work as domestic laborers. A number of women's organizations call themselves feminist, sometimes using the term 'patriarchal' to describe the Indonesian state and military. There are also Muslim groups who are attempting to reinterpret Koranic texts and Islamic practices in ways that emphasize gender equality.

Indonesian activists frequently complain that many women's groups are too middle-class. Indeed, it is probably no accident that these movements draw members and staff largely from the university-educated middle-class. But simple explanations about affluent people being more likely to participate in activism are insufficient, because they posit a deterministic link between socio-economic status and political participation. What is much more worthy of note is that middle-class women were one of the social categories most targeted by Dharma Wanita and PKK. Indeed, Wieringa (1988) contends that these organizations used middle-class women to subjugate poorer women, while keeping their own members in check as well.

The mass mobilizations of Dharma Wanita and PKK may have helped construct the broad category of middle-class women as a group distinct from other (presumably poorer) women. These were women dedicated to serving the nation-state as well as their families, and who had important feminine skills to teach their less fortunate sisters. Such a category, once constructed, can become a basis for identity and collective action. Ironically, then, the nation-state's endeavor to domesticate women may also have produced the middle-class woman as a social identity. Even women whose circumstances are technically not middle class may gravitate to such an identity.

Certainly, the category of middle-class women was not politicizedãthe purpose of Dharma Wanita and PKK was to keep women out of politics. Yet, in an odd way, both groups also brought middle-class women into the public sphere by encouraging them to be active in their local communities, even if their activities always revolved around women's concerns, and by constantly invoking their obligations to the state. Dharma Wanita, PKK and state ideology have helped construct a gendered identity for middle-class women in a way that is de-politicized but somewhat public, in terms of having a duty to the broader society. In fact, a recent dissertation argues that middle-class identity is increasingly salient for many Indonesians, particularly women (Jones, 2001). Though there is no automatic connection between identities and agency, I suggest that the public components of identity as middle-class women have enabled or even inspired some women to join organizations working on issues of gender equality and democratic reforms.

Brown (1995) is insightful about the ways state power produces gendered, disciplined state subjects who are never outside of state discourses. But if that is always the case, given that modern states are often deeply engaged in regulatory practices regarding their subjects, then how do social movements and oppositional groups arise? Moreover, gendered identities have frequently been a basis for collective action of various kinds. Here, it is worthwhile to consider Gal and Kligman's (2000) recent theorization of the relationship between gender and the state as one in which the state's inhabitants interpret their constraining context, and respond in a variety of different ways. Just because an identity or social category has been produced by state power does not mean that it cannot be adapted and transformed.

For example, Blackwood (1995:147) describes how in the Minangkabau region of West Sumatra, the PKK attracted many elite women. But because the PKK-mandated activities did not always conform with the needs of women in the villages, its members organized other activities, such as helping with food preparation and service at local ceremonies. Blackwood argues that, 'through its involvement in ceremonial affairs, PKK in Taram has turned the domestic policies of the state to broader purpose, creating new practices that incorporate both state directives and adat' (1995:147). Despite the domesticating practices of these state programs, some women are able to adapt them to their local contexts.

Much of the scholarship on the New Order and State Ibuism has focused on examining the conservative and authoritarian discourses propagated by the Indonesian state from the 1970s onward (Siegel, 1993; Brenner, 1998; Wieringa, 2000 & 2001; Suryakusuma, 1996; and many others). But the disciplines of cultural studies and anthropology have long warned that we should pay close attention, not only to the content of ideas and practices, but also to how they are received and possibly negotiated.

In this vein, Weix's ethnographic study of women's Islamic prayer groups on Java's North Coast questions earlier arguments that such groups acted as public vehicles for state-sponsored ideals of femininity. Noting that such an argument construes religious discourse and scriptural text as intentional messages and readers as willing recipients, Weix (1998:406) contends that Indonesian Muslim women are active readers who interpret what they hear in local cultural terms:

Women in these urban neighborhood groups did listen intently to the sermons, but they did not abdicate their ability to speak as they listened. In so doing, they defined personal strategies to live as good Muslims. They also questioned the religious and gender ideals presented as textual interpretation and conversed with each other before and after the didactic messages were delivered.

Expanding Weix's claim to the broader social arena, one might suggest that the relationship between State Ibuism and women in Indonesia has been similarly characterized by adaptation, questioning, interpretation, and perhaps even resistance.

Not only is it crucial to investigate how discourses are received, but it also important to consider the contexts of their reception. Culturally and socially diverse nation-states like Indonesia contain within them multiple, sometimes competing, ideologies of gender. Some of these ideologies are marginal or highly localized, but state discourses may often be filtered through them. Blackwood (1995:151) argues that in the case of the Minangkabau, women operate within several alternative discourses:

In the process of nation-building, states actively create homogenous categories of male and female bodies. ä How these new categories of gender are received depends in large part on the particular historical and social circumstances in which people are located. ä Although the Indonesian state has the power to create and instill new definitions and identities for its citizens, the Minangkabau rework these definitions within their ideologies of gender and rank, kinship and matriliny.

Thus, gendered state discourses and practices are never total in their effects, and may even have unintended results or interact in unique ways with alternative discourses.

This is not to say, however, that current forms of women's organizing in Indonesia are direct descendents of State Ibuism. Certainly, the constitution of contemporary feminist identities was bolstered by economic and political changes, such as the entry of larger numbers of university-educated women into professional jobs in the 1980s and 1990s. Additionally, the closing years of the New Order saw the growth of transnational feminist networks and the adoption of some features of feminist ideology by international organizations. Robinson (1998) observes that toward the end of the regime, Indonesia's engagement with international bodies such as the United Nations resulted in the implementation of a discourse of gender equity and rights within state policy. Robinson states that this adjustment helped launch new modes of social action and also empowered women activists by giving them leverage against the state.

During the 1990s, the Indonesian government also established a number of women's studies research centers at state universities. It is not surprising that these developments would feed the growth of activism and produce women ready to lead organizations and act as self-identified feminists. However, they do not fully account for the numerous less-politicized middle and lower-middle class women who joined women's organizations during and since the Reformasi period.

The Legacy of the New Order's State Ibuism

The constitution of middle-class women's identity during the Suharto era has significant implications for the current Indonesian women's movement. The legacy of state Ibuism can be see as at the root of the two common critiques of the women's movement in Indonesia today: 1) a middle and upper class bias and 2) a regional bias focusing on urban Java. As Blackburn (1999:444) observes, 'the longstanding aversion to politics as a male domain dies hard, and feminist women's groups have little experience in coordinated activity; rather they continue to be dominated by their history of ethnic, religious and personal differences compounded by their predominantly urban, middle-class base and lack of resources'.

The perception of middle-class domination of women's organizations is partly a legacy of the New Order's concentration on the control and development of the middle class. Although the New Order attempted to depoliticize the growing middle class, women grew restless under its restrictions, according to Blackburn. 'Especially better-educated middle class young women chafed at the dominance of stuffy 'wives' organisations. Lower-class women were deprived of any way of voicing their aspirations and grievances' (Blackburn, 2001). This group of educated, middle-class women thus began establishing independent women's organizations, some of which are still in existence.

Moreover, as Budianta (forthcoming, 2003) points out, women's groups in Jakarta have depended on a relatively small group of women activists who have multiple organizational affiliations. 'This condition often rendered unused a bigger pool of middle and lower class women who had been awakened by the political climate of the crisis and were ready for activism when properly organized'.

These class issues are connected to the second major challenge for women's organizing in Indonesia, namely overcoming a regional basis toward Java. This problem emerged partly from the close relationship between women's organizing and the state in the New Order era. Critics of the New Order often commented that it positioned Java as the central culture of Indonesia, to the exclusion of minorities. The Suharto regime also developed Jakarta as the capital of government, media and entertainment, and business, ensuring that it would become the focus of national attention. Further, as a result of uneven development as well as population imbalances, the preponderance of Indonesia's middle and upper class people are in Java. Independent organizations established by middle-class women seem to have inherited some of these same problems. Though the network of women's groups has become much more regionally diverse, in the first few years after 1998 women's groups were often accused of incorporating a Java/Jakarta bias into their work. Thus, in a 1998 article summing up the women's movement's response to the May 1998 rapes in Jakarta, one activist warned:

Most attention (and resources) are still centred on Jakarta. ... Focusing interventions on one ethnic group with a particular religion or one geographical area only serves to support the divide-and-rule politics of the New Order regime. ä By highlighting the rapes in Jakarta without addressing the same abuse of women from ethnic minorities in faraway places, we are unwittingly guilty of that same racial discrimination (Wandita 1998:41).

The inordinate attention given to Jakarta occurs because many of the best-known women's groups, like other activists, are headquartered in Jakarta, the only Indonesian city that can provide them with a national and international platform. More recently, Jakarta-based women's groups have made significant moves to establish branches in far-flung areas of the archipelago and/or to incorporate issues important to women in those areas. Local women's organizations and NGOs dealing with gender issues have also emerged on islands other than Java, such as Sulawesi and Sumatra.

While the importance of challenging regional or urban bias is obvious, it has become increasingly essential in the post-Suharto era. A major component of the reformasi movement has been to make the central government more accountable. In response to such pressure, the government has allowed for greater regional autonomy, as an attempt to rectify the New Order's Java-centric policies. But, according to Budianta, the intensification of local and regional cultural identities has proven somewhat problematic for women's organizations. Not only do major socio-economic disparities between various regions create difficulties in communication and understanding among activist groups, but local cultural identities may now compete with broader political affiliations. Even more complicated, the return of autonomy to regions does not necessarily advance women's democratic freedoms: 'Indonesian women in the twenty-first century are yet to see whether the shift towards local culture also means the return of patriarchal traditional customs that are more often than not justified by religious norms' (Budianta, forthcoming). As an example, Budianta cites the likely adoption by several provinces of aspects of Islamic law that restrict women through curfews or requiring them to wear headscarves.

Thus it has become increasingly important for women's groups to be able to respond to the local problems produced by regional autonomy. To their credit, Indonesian women's organizations are also making serious efforts to deal with the issues provoked by regional autonomy and cultural differences, and many groups are particularly devoted to promoting religious pluralism (Budianta, forthcoming 2003). However, as products of a centralized state and beneficiaries of the construction of universalizing categories such as 'women,' many activists may lack experience dealing with these issues.


Yet the fact that these activists exist, and are contending with class, ethnic, and religious difference should be a source of optimism. Although gender hierarchy was fundamental to the post-colonial state in Indonesia as a means of controlling and domesticating a restive population, the gendering of the New Order regime may have had unexpected consequences. The New Order promulgated particular notions of gender and family, reliant on a construction of male and female as binary opposites, belonging to separate spheres. Nevertheless, by establishing the social category of middle-class women, the state's mobilization of women may have laid the groundwork for renewed women's movements in the 1990s and beyond.

But a social category so deeply inflected by the New Order state also carries the burden of class and regional bias. Indonesia's vast geography and history of Java-centric control render local-national-global relations more tendentious than usual, and have the potential to produce real conflicts between local identities and cross-cutting identities like gender or nationality. Yet Indonesian women's groups are not alone in these circumstances. As globalization theorists have noted, global processes frequently drive a renewed emphasis on the local (Appadurai 1996). Regional autonomy is an increasingly common response to globalization in places as different as Canada, Nigeria, and India. How middle-class women activists in Indonesia respond to the challenges posed by regional autonomy, then, has much to say about, not only women's movements in Indonesia in the 21st century, but across the globe.


1. In this article, I use the terms women's movement, women's groups, and women's activism to refer to women organizing as women (primarily) around gender issues and/or rights. I occasionally use the term feminist to describe groups or individuals who would self-identify as such. There are also many political activist organizations that involve large numbers of women or are led by women but are not mainly concerned with gender issues; these groups are not included in my discussion.

2. Dharma Wanita still exists, but is no longer mandatory and appears to be in serious decline. The PKK also still exists, and is now known as the Family Welfare Empowerment Movement. There is evidence that though many local PKK branches are no longer functional, others have become somewhat more autonomous and are actively participating in community development (Marcoes 2002).


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