Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Marilyn Porter (2001) 'Something Borrowed, Something Blue: Learning from Women's Groups in Indonesia'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 2, <>

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Received: 2001/5/18      Accepted: 2001/6/10      Published: 2001/8/31


This paper focuses on the way in which Jakarta women's groups responded to the crisis that preceded and succeeded the end of Suharto's regime in Indonesia. In particular it looks at the way in which the gang rapes of women of Chinese descent focused and united the feminist response to the turmoil of 1998. Women's groups developed a number of strategies and actions during this period, but this paper focuses on the way in which women's groups accessed and used international instruments, especially Human Rights instruments to challenge their own government and to develop a specifically feminist position on violence against women. This activity is described as a form of creative 'borrowing'. Seen in this context is can provide a new perspective on approaches to development that are genuinely indigenous and participatory.

Development; Human Rights; Indonesia; United; Women's Movements


Long ago, in the 1970s, when my children were growing up in UK, they used to watch a children's TV programme about a breed of tiny people who lived in the cracks and crannies of 'ordinary' people's lives and survived by scavenging unwanted items and transforming them into useful objects. These early re-cyclers were called 'The Borrowers'. The aspect of 'borrowing' that I want to reflect on in this paper is the creative and tranformative aspect; the laying claim to something and changing it to better fit one's own uses. In this sense, it is a concept that we can make use of to recognise and understand the processes whereby ideas, strategies, institutional mechanisms and so forth, are taken from their country of origin and applied in another cultural, political and economic context. In the particular context of development practices, it also helps to shift the emphasis from 'development' as something emanating from 'the North' to the process of selection and transformation that ideas and practices go through when they are taken over by people in 'the South[1]'. It denies the inevitability of particular (Northern driven) forms of development and restores control to the people doing the borrowing.

I have argued elsewhere that development as a concept is built on the assumption that there is a 'developed' which constitutes the 'model' to which the 'underdeveloped' should aspire (Porter, 1999). Despite an increasing emphasis on 'bottom up' approaches (Chambers, 1983), a respect for specific local cultures and contexts, and calls for 'partnership' and other more equal relationships in projects, the models that are based in 'western expertise' tend to take precedence[2]. It is not my purpose here to point out examples of duplicity, ambiguity and just plain bad faith in many dealings between northern donors and southern recipients. Instead, I want to examine one case of how groups in the economic South can and do 'use' materials, ideas, models and instruments from outside the country, in their own way, and for their own purposes to advance causes that they have themselves identified. I have framed the argument in terms of different types of 'borrowing' in order to highlight the ways in which such groups have developed an increasingly confident and autonomous approach to external influences.

This approach begins from the view that no nation is an island in an increasingly globalised world, and probably never was. But it is not divided into the rich and knowledgeable 'North' and the passive, recipient 'South'. Instead, for many groups in the 'South', the world outside is regarded as a possible source of ideas and mechanisms that can be drawn on at will. Outsiders can provide scenarios, projects or funds but they are not necessarily accepted as offered. This, I argue, is the way things actually happen in all societies. Influences can be serendipitous, often contradictory, sometimes useless. But social change rarely occurs in the false isolation of one nation state - it results from a patchwork of influences, triggers and individuals and groups coming together at a particular time. This is most obviously the case with groups who already hold positions of some power and authority within their own societies. The articulate, educated, largely middle class members of groups located in the metropolis are worlds away from the rural villagers or 'the poorest of the poor'. Similar processes of 'borrowing' from the outside, while retaining a clear sense of their own identity and needs, can be seen among rural groups, especially when energetic local NGOs are involved and cases of both resistance to external 'models' and the transformation of those models has been documented, (Porter, Smyth and Sweetman, 1999; Porter and Judd, 1999). In this paper, I am focusing on the ways in which particular groups of middle class women in Jakarta 'borrowed' ideas and concepts in order to address the situation they were facing. In particular, I want to document and analyse the use they made of 'outside influences'. It is one example of how, if we look more closely at how things actually happen, we can upset the dominant assumptions of Northern aid agencies, and this may, in turn, help us to develop more genuinely 'indigenous' development policies.

This paper looks at the way one set of women's groups responded to a particular moment in their history. In this process, the groups of Indonesian women I studied[3], came to see themselves as part of a series of global events, and to link themselves with the activities of groups, women, feminists and activists in other parts of the world. While the beginnings of this trend go back many years, the necessity of responding to the events of May 1998 led them to see themselves as part of a global movement, suffering similar oppressions and developing common strategies. Parts of these strategies are derived from Indonesia's membership of the global community, and especially their membership of the United Nations. I will argue that while in the North, we often underestimate the relevance and strength of the agreements and quasi agreements that emerge from the tortuous United Nations process, we are wrong to do so[4]. The actions and analysis of the Indonesian women's groups, described here, demonstrates how they can be used to support their own causes and to strengthen the connection between them and like minded women all over the world. While the groups I discuss here are nearly all based in Jakarta, or at least on Java, they have their roots in all the diversity that we can loosely describe as the women's movement in Indonesia.

By tracing out various examples, I hope to demonstrate that the use of external influences after the fall of Suharto was the culmination of a long process of 'borrowing'. While it is not possible to make the case fully in a short paper, there are various forms of 'borrowing' that develop over time. Indonesia, like many other countries of the South, experienced a long history of colonial subjugation, under the Dutch, the Portuguese, the British and the Japanese. Colonialism imposes alien cultures and ideas, often obliterating the local culture in the process (Said, 1978). But in some cases, colonial ideas and institutions are taken up and used by the local population. Sometimes, indeed, resistance and revolution can be built by taking the ideas of the coloniser and using them against them. The very idea of 'nation' is often inherited from the coloniser (Anderson, 1990). Certainly, after national independence, the models the new nation adopts are often clearly descended from the models of colonial rule. The 'borrowing' process, is therefore, complex and contradictory.

In this paper, I want to use a framework that describes three different kinds of 'borrowings'. The first I call neo-colonial, and entails taking ideas that clearly originate in another culture, and importing them into the local situation, with only such changes as are necessary to 'make them fit'. This is the model most familiar to international development projects or to 'advisors' based in local government bureaucracies. The second type is where there is an indigenous need or movement or process, but where the activists feel the need for more sophisticated tools, or for the support of examples taken from elsewhere. In this case (and it only differs from the first in degree), the 'borrowing' is much more piecemeal. The 'borrowers' already have a clear idea of an indigenous form of the idea, or institution, and use the foreign import to strengthen in their own terms. The result is more likely to completely transform the original idea. It also leaves the 'borrowers' with a greater sense of ownership over the transformed ideas. While many academic linkage programmes fall into the first type, ones that originate in the South, and which focus on developing partnership as their main rationale are more likely to fall into this second type (Sadli and Porter, 1999). It is the third type that is the focus of this essay. This is where the borrowing is from a common resource. The ideas or institutions originate in a common pool, to which everyone has access, and which does not 'belong' to any one region or part of the world. While both Islam and Communism can be seen to have aspects of a 'world movement' both originate in a particular region, and have to be imported as a foreign ideology. The United Nations, on the other hand, for all its faults and weaknesses, can be seen to be an international resource. Its Conventions and Conferences are created by a world body, and nations can sign on to and ratify these instruments without being seen to conform to any alien ideology. This is, of course, a naive oversimplification. We need to keep in mind the relative powerlessness of the United Nations, especially in exerting influence in the internal affairs of a member state. However, the point I want to make in this paper, is that it allows groups within the member states of the United Nations to 'borrow' ideas that will be useful to them in a fundamentally different way. My framing of three kinds of 'borrowing' looks like a typology, but I should emphasise that there are no clear-cut or unambiguous boundaries between the three 'types'. Instead, it offers us a framework in which to understand a gradually developing process of relating to, and taking possession of, outside influences and concepts.

The Indonesian Women's Movement in International Context

While there is still much to do, there is an increasing body of literature documenting the contribution of women to Indonesian history, and the effect of that history on them (Wieringa, 1992, 1999; Suryochondro, 1994; Poerwandari, 1999). Indonesian history, like that of all but the most isolated nations, is made up of a rich tapestry of external influences. The most notable of these, is perhaps, Islam itself. Before the coming of Islam in 15th century, Indonesia had been home to a variety of religions. Then Islam swept in from the northwest with missionary zeal, and with such success that even today 95% of the population is Muslim. However, it was not a simple takeover, and many authors have discussed the 'syncretic' nature of Indonesian Islam (Geertz, 1960, 1973; Bartib and Fealey, 1996). At least on the main islands of Java and Sumatra, it established a precedent of radical transformation of 'borrowings'[5].

Islam was already well established and integrated into the culture by the time the Dutch established their colonial domination in the 18th Century, and the next two centuries saw both forced assimilation of Dutch ideas and institutions, and sustained resistance to them (Anderson, 1990, 1996)[6]. One of the best documented, if not necessarily the most significant, forbears of the current women activists was Raden Ageng Kartini. Coming from the aristocracy of Java, she was hardly typical of Indonesian women of the late 19th century, but in some ways she reflected the aspirations of a much wider circle. In the restricted social world that she was confined to, it is not surprising that Kartini turned to her correspondence with various Dutch friends to work out her ideas and keep her sane. And, of course, we can find the 'influence' of these Dutch friends, although, in the end, Kartini took her own decisions. What I want to notice here is her critical reading of the books that she could get her hands on. Here is her response to reading Moderne Maagden[7].

"I have read several other books, among which Moderne Maagden impressed me the most, because I found in it much that I myself had thought and experienced. Marcel Prevost has spoken the truth, and knows how to express his ideas, I think his book very beautiful. Nowhere have I seen the aim of the 'woman's movement' expressed with so much truth and power. Still I am just as far from the solution of that great problem as I was before making the acquaintance of M.M", (Kartini, 1964:98).

This is not the place for an exegesis of Kartini's thought as expressed in her letters to non-Indonesians, but we can notice both that Kartini is open to outside influences and that she does not simply 'receive' them, but actively processes them. In this case she is looking for sources of resistance to patriarchy rather than colonisation, but while she is searching European sources, the way she is understanding these sources is as a universal resource of progressive thinking. I would position this example, therefore, between my second and third kinds of borrowing[8].

During the early part of twentieth century, women's organisations grew in scope and scale (Wieringa, 1999; Lindsay, 1997). The form that they took, the way they were constituted and run and even their names all indicate that this type of organisation owed much to the western models imported by the Dutch (Dobbin, 1980)[9]. The period was dominated by the need to struggle for national independence. Women took active, if often supporting roles in this struggle (Poerwandari, 1999; Wieringa, 1999; Suryochondro, 1994). Clearly, again, the form of this struggle was expressed in ways that were 'borrowed' from the colonialists. I would see this as a classic example of the second type of borrowing. For example, while the idea of 'nation' itself had to be imported and re-made, it looked, in the end, very like the Northern nation state on which it was based (McVey, 1996; Anderson, 1990).

After Independence in 1949 a rich mixture of internal and external ideas began to gel into the mix that would become the Indonesia of Sukarno's Orde Lama (1949-1965). In this period the most interesting example of external influences on an Indonesian women's organisation is that of Gerwani, the women's wing of the Indonesian Communist Party. While the many other women's organisations that flourished during this period[10] could all claim to represent a mixture of Indonesian and external ideas, the Communist Party was the only one to be based so completely on an ideology formed outside, and representing a world wide organisation. Gerwani, as the women's wing, developed policies and ideas that were quite different to those of more mainstream women's groups. They also established a measure of independence from the parent body, PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia). Apart from their efforts to reform the marriage law, an issue they shared with other women's groups, they focused more particularly on economic issues and on establishing organisations that would help poor women, especially in the countryside. They lobbied to allow women to be elected as village heads, and supported particular struggles between workers and peasants and capitalists and landlords (Wieringa, 1992). In view of one of the key issues taken up by women's groups at the end of the Suharto regime, Gerwani's insistence on the importance of food prices to women seems prescient. While Communism originated in the North, it can be seen as, in some ways, a 'universal resource'. So while much of Gerwani's work represents the second type of 'borrowing', that is, of forming a local (and distinctive) form of a world organisation, Communism's more universal aspects enabled the Gerwani members to radically adapt and transform the ideas and policies so as to be more applicable to the problems they faced. While I cannot develop the point here, I would like to suggest that the existence of a 'women's movement' also helped Gerwani to establish some autonomy inside PKI. 1965 Suharto came to power in confused circumstances, but was able to use the situation to wipe out the PKI, and with it, Gerwani (Anderson and McVey, 1971). For the whole of Suharto's regime, any mention of communism was illegal, and anyone supposedly connected with it was persecuted. As a result Gerwani's achievements became almost invisible. Wieringa, among others, has successfully recovered some of their history and achievements (Wieringa, 1992,1999; Poerwandari, 1999), and in the post-Suharto period, the women's movement is beginning to recapture this part of their history.

With the advent of the series of United Nations conferences on women, the form of external influences takes a new direction. Several influential Indonesian women attended the first Conference in Mexico in 1975, but many more went to the Conference (or rather the unofficial NGO Forum) in Nairobi in 1985. It is arguable that Nairobi saw the beginning of an organised and recognisable women's movement in Indonesia. This seems to have been the moment when significant numbers of Indonesian women realised that they were not alone; that women all over the world, and especially in the economic South, were encountering the same problems that they were; that 'feminism' was not simply a construct of the dominant countries of the world, and that accepting it was not simply another form of being colonised[11].

The United Nations instruments can be divided into the Declarations that come out of the Conferences or Summits, and the Conventions, which produce much 'harder' legal instruments (Charlesworth, 1998). In the case of women, all the four World Conferences on Women (Mexico, 1975; Copenhagen, 1980; Nairobi, 1985 and Beijing, 1995) produced Declarations, of which the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies and the Beijing Platform for Action are the most substantial and the most used by women. However, while it is useful to use these documents to bring pressure to bear on governments that have signed on to them (and not 'reserved' on the particular paragraph) they are, in legal terms, 'soft' instruments. There is no mechanism to force compliance, and they are not even considered formally legally binding. The Conventions, on the other hand, are considered binding on those nations that have ratified them, and - in most cases - there is a mechanism for reporting compliance and for bringing United Nations pressure to bear in the case of breaches. In extreme cases, it may even be possible to bring cases under international law[12]. For women, the most relevant of these 'harder' instruments are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights (1976) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981)[13]. Indonesia has ratified all these instruments, and shortly after Nairobi, women's groups began to use them to bring pressure to bear on the Indonesian government. The most systematic of these groups was the Convention Watch Working Group. This group undertook to pay particular attention to Article 11 (concerning employment) and Article 14 (concerning rural women). They undertook a major programme of research, which identified numerous breaches of CEDAW and Indonesian laws out of line with the Convention. Since their inception in the early 1990s they have held numerous workshops and seminars all over Indonesia to educate women in their rights under CEDAW and to pressure the government to comply. All this was in the last years of Suharto's regime, when any critique of the government was very difficult. This group had found and used an effective way of mounting a critique and lobbying for women[14]. It laid the basis for the response to the situation before and just after the fall of Suharto in May 1998. We should note, however, that despite this sustained pressure, very few changes were made to the legal system as a result, although some policies were improved, especially with regard to women's rights at work[15].

The Focus on Violence: the May 13th and 14th 1998 Rapes

The end of Suharto's 31 year regime dates from July 1997, when the Asian financial collapse that had begun in Thailand hit Indonesia. The effects were immediate and drastic. Because of the levels of corruption and incompetence much of the 'economic miracle' on Indonesia turned out to be illusory. When the rupiah collapsed from an exchange of Rp. 2000 to the US dollar to Rp. 15,000, prices rocketed. In particular, the prices of basic foodstuffs and other necessities went up by 300% over a matter of a few weeks. This, in turn, triggered the most serious criticisms the Suharto regime had faced, and in a matter of a few months, the revolt had spread from the universities to a much broader section of society.

The immediate cause of the collapse of the Suharto regime was the severe riots of May 13/14 1998 that took place in Jakarta. What precipitated those riots is still shrouded in mystery. What is certain is that four students from the elite Trisakti University were shot while they were returning to their campus after one of the increasing student demonstrations. That night Jakarta erupted in violence which, after 3 days, left 1500 dead and the population traumatised. Soon after, Suharto stepped down, and his Vice President, B.J. Habibie became interim President. This very brief account provides the background to the aspect of the riots that galvanised the women's movement in Jakarta, and later in the rest of Indonesia. A few days after the riots, stories began to circulate among the women's groups that there had been large numbers of systematic gang rapes during the riots, particularly directed against women of Chinese descent (the ethnic group that had been the principal target of the riots in Jakarta, and in other parts of Indonesia). While the circumstances of the rapes mean that we will never have exact figures, informed estimates give figures of victims in the region of 200[16].

The rapes of women of Chinese descent May 1998 did more than unite women's groups in Jakarta - it forced them to develop a strategy that they would go on to use powerfully in the next few months. Their initial problem was the climate of disbelief that met the first news of the rapes[17]. For example, an article in Kompas 24th May reported Ibu Tutty Alawiyah (the Minister for the Role of Women) as claiming that 'there was not yet accurate data about the rapes' and insisting on witness accounts from the victims. This and the many other expressions of doubt led feminists to develop counter arguments. One was about the issue of 'proof'. An early example of this occurs in an Open Letter published by Prof. Dr. Saparinah Sadli on August 3rd 1998.

Reactions casting doubt on the truth of the mass rapes during the 13-14 May riots recently published by the mass media have taken the discussion to a level that is bound to have a negative social impact. In particular, the article 'Did Mass Rapes Actually Happen?' by Sri Muryono/Antara suggests a systematic effort and political interest behind the widespread media coverage of the mass rapes targeted at tarnishing the image of Indonesia abroad. Comments of this kind are dangerous, as they tend to shy away from the horrifying reality. Countering this requires our joint efforts to heal the wounds hurting a nation that has otherwise highly respected the principle of social justice. Given the grave implications this could have on our already vulnerable society, immediate action by the government is a must.

The article, among others, reports the views of Mr. Eddy Noor, an observer of social development, who states 'he could hardly believe that mass rapes did happen as it was not logical. He goes on to suggest that may have been a onesided story by activists of NGOs without any courage to show the victims or report them to the police'. He bases his skepticism on the reality of the mass rapes on two stereotypes (i) the impossibility for men, spurred by an erection, of having sexual intercourse in the face of others, and (ii) that rapes are induced by sexual drives. It seems that Mr. Noor is neither a student of history, nor of relevant theory on human behavior. His views, which are unfortunately held by others as well, reflect a conventional way of thinking in terms of stereotypes that simply do not represent the latest developments in understanding of just what creates hatred and how people can be motivated to act in an otherwise seemingly irrational manner.

Let me explain why.

First of all, there are numerous examples of mass rape, such as those which occurred in China (the Nanking Rape), Pakistan, and more recently in Bosnia and Rwanda, which happened in public and in the absence of any known 'sexual drive' on the part of the perpetrators. Mr. Noor should explain why Indonesia is different, particularly in the face of a past history of violence against ethnic minorities.

Second, there is ample evidence of the power of hate and prejudice in motivating human behavior. Equally important is the evidence of the ability to instill such prejudice through conditioning or 'brainwashing'. The latest theory, based on psychological behaviorism[18], tells us that with sufficient effort, virtually anyone can be trained to do virtually anything imposed by another person. In short, people can be conditioned to believe that mass rape against certain people is acceptable behavior even to the point of having no feelings of guilt or sin after the act.

Third, the argument is based on the conventional usage of proof as evidence, something that is absolutely obsolete in the modern world of dealing with cases of mass rape. International authorities dealing with war crimes in Bosnia and Rwanda explicitly allow victims to bear witness anonymously to protect their own safety. Such protection is critical in the case of Indonesia where victims have been directly threatened with further harm if they 'go public' with stories of what happened to them. The testimony accumulated so far by various NGOs, along with the evidence presented by doctors who treated victims should be sufficient for agreement that crimes have occurred.

With this in mind, we must put a stop to further debate and controversy on whether or not mass rapes are conceivable, as well as, whether or not they occurred in conjunction with the May riots. Not to do so, is likely to have a damaging effect on all parties and may well induce international intervention. We should not lose sight of the fact that our own Law no. 7/84 included ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination towards Women. If we do not take a clear and credible stand on this issue, a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women might not be out of the question....(transl. Sadli)

A more thorough going intellectual analysis was written by Julia Suryakusuma, entitled 'Bukti' (Proof) and published in Kompas, 12th September 1998. She takes up what Saparinah had called 'the conventional usage of proof...(which is) absolutely obselete...'. In this searching piece, Suryakusuma shows how fast Indonesian feminist thinking had developed. It looks at both the philosophical and political underpinnings of the notion of 'proof' and of 'evidence', and demonstrates conclusively that unless there is a political society 'free of fear, threats, prejudice and vested interests, with an independent judicial system, in a society that is free from KKN (collusion, corruption and nepotism) in a culture of openness, justice and democracy, and with a government that is pro- people' the very notion of 'proof' in the context of recognising the reality of the rapes is impossible.

What is noticeable about both these pieces is the way in which the authors tie their arguments to both the reality of mass rapes in other parts of the world (including the key phrase 'why should Indonesia be different?) and to the international instruments specifically designed to address global problems, including mass rapes. I would argue that what we are seeing here is quite different from the earlier forms of 'borrowing' I have mentioned. Both Sadli and Suryakusuma situate themselves, as Indonesians, on a world stage, and Indonesia as a member of the world of nation states. This is not a case of borrowing or making use of procedures already established in another context, but of tapping into a common resource that they have as much right to as anyone else, and can make use of in whatever ways seem appropriate to the circumstances. The state of Indonesia is no longer a law unto itself, and its practices must be visible and accountable in the world court of opinion, if not in an actual world court. Furthermore, both Sadli and Suryakusuma do not see themselves as isolated, but as part of a growing world movement of women, dealing with issues of violence in their own countries. This approach opens up much more radical possibilities for women's groups.

From Tactic to Strategy: International Instruments in Practice

Indeed, this is the point at which the threads come together. The women's groups, building on their sense of connectedness with like minded women around the world and their previous use of international instruments begin to develop a fully fledged strategy of pressuring the government to conform to commitments made under various United Nations conventions and conferences.

Organisationally, it began with Komnas HAM, (National Commission on Human Rights) which is based in the ideology and legal structures of Human Rights instruments. This encouraged the two women on the Commission to situate what they said about the rapes in the context of Human Rights. For example, on 29th June, less than two weeks after the riots, Mitra Perempuan held a panel discussion entitled 'Tuntutan Penyelesaian Tuntas Tindakan Kekerasan terhadap Perempuan dan Pertanggungjawaban Kemanusiaan' (The demand for a complete solution to violent acts towards women and the responsibility of humanity)(Kompas, 1st July 1998) While the title is couched in broad, almost philosophical terms (the responsibility of humanity) in fact nearly all the speakers pinned that responsibility onto the government. Saparinah tied it firmly to the issue of Human Rights, Nursyahbani to the existence of international conventions. Garuda Nusantara even suggested that, in the light of the disappointing response by the Minister for the Role of Women, that the case might be an appropriate one for the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women[19]. (Suara Pembaruan, 30th June).

But government denials continued, and were compounded by threats of violence against the victims and their families if they spoke out as well as the volunteers trying to help them[20]. At this point, pressure from a wide coalition of women's groups, led by Saparinah Sadli, effectively pressured Habibie into establishing a National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), to be headed by Saparinah. This group has continued to represent the broadest spectrum of active women's groups and has spearheaded both actions and policy making around the issues of violence against women. Their work and references are firmly based in a sense of being part of a global struggle. They constantly seek out models developed in other countries, and participate in international discussions about how to address the problems of violence[21]. Both their documents and their campaigns illustrate their growing awareness of their position as focal point between the global struggle, of which they feel an integral part, and both the government and population of Indonesia, which must be made aware of the possibilities and responsibilities for violence against women.

Ideas arising from the rapes were developed and were forged in discussions among many groups, but a few people came to express them most clearly. One of these was Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, an activist lawyer and founder and leader of LBH APIK (a feminist Human Rights group). Nursyahbani had been working for some years on using the Indonesian signatory to various instruments to call them to account (Katjasungkana, 1995). When she turned her attention to the specific possibilities of holding the government to account for the rapes, and for other incidents of violence, her analysis entered a new phase. The crispest expression of her ideas at this early stage comes in a brief document entitled 'Menuju Masyarakat Tanpa Kekerasan "Hapus Kekerasan Negara" (Towards a society without violence "to completely eliminate state violence"). This is a call for collective action to raise awareness in Indonesian about women's Human Rights, in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, and to campaign for reforms in Indonesia. However, the arguments she makes in this brief statement are worth careful attention, for they explicate several themes that were becoming common currency among Indonesian feminists.

She begins by listing various events in the recent past that have involved 'state violence' against groups or individuals. This includes independence struggles in East Timor and Aceh, political demonstrations throughout Indonesia and various unsolved murders and disappearances of political or trade union dissidents that are generally attributed to the military or police forces, with government connivance. These she associates with the May events, thus placing them firmly in the same context of a regime characterised by violence against its people. This is important because it sets the stage for her ensuing argument that the state is directly responsible for all forms of violence carried out by its servants, even if it has not explicitly ordered them. It also makes clear that there is a consistent theme (benang merah) that runs through the entire history of Suharto's Orde Baru (New Order), which carried out and justified violence against its citizens.

Nursyahbani then broadens the definition of 'victim' to accord with the principles of justice for victims of violence laid down in the United Nations Declaration of Basic Principles for Justice for the Victims of Crimes and Abuse of Power, 29th November 1985. Nursyahbani uses the broader definition of victims to insist that they remain 'victims' until the perpetrators are brought to justice, and that their immediate families and those who help them are also included in the definition. It is then clear that the events of May, and especially the sexual violence directed against ethnic Chinese women fall under both the definition of 'victims' as far as the United Nations is concerned, and that they were victims of what Nursyahbani calls 'state violence'. She goes on to make the connections with the 'ethnic cleansing' that took place in Bosnia and elsewhere, as well as with an idea she takes from Phyllis Chesler of 'gender cleansing'.

Thus set up, Nursyahbani focuses on the particular problem of government recognition of and responsibility for the rapes. Her argument is compressed, but essentially she points to the inherently skewed position of the army in the Indonesian constitution, which gives it a 'monopoly' over discussions about issues of violence (and security) because of their Dwi Funksi (dual function) as protectors of the 1945 constitution as well as their normal military function (Vatikiotis, 1993). This has not only led to abuses in the past, but to a dangerous situation whereby it seemed that Habibie and Wiranto (Chief of the Armed Forces) were locked into continuing the same regime of violence as that of Suharto. This was in contradiction to the growing desire in Indonesia to confront and overcome the issue of violence in society, and plainly contradicted United Nations Declaration's intention to eliminate all forms of violence. At the same time, Nursyahbani hammered home the point that the government is accountable under the terms of the Declaration to address the issue of the rapes and other incidents of violence[22].

There are a number of points we can make about this article, as an illustration of the process whereby Indonesian feminists were 'borrowing' and then transforming ideas drawn from international sources. The first is how the specific feminist struggle is situated in the general resistance and reformation movement developing in Indonesia. This is done without in any way losing the focus on women. Secondly, international, especially United Nations, instruments are used fully and directly. It is because Indonesia is a signatory to Beijing, CEDAW and the Declaration that Nursyahbani can hold them accountable, even to the extent of suggesting that the army's role in the constitution is in contradiction with their obligations under the instruments. We should also note that the only other outside source that Nursyahbani quotes is a Northern feminist, Chesler[23]. Finally, the arguments and the framework are 'conventional', in the sense that they are rational and well founded arguments - but that does not mean that they are not radical. A year previous, the kinds of suggestions made in this short piece would have been unthinkable. It is astonishing that so soon after the fall of Suharto's regime such sophisticated and radical demands could be made. It places feminist demands right at the forefront of the development of new forms of political action and organisation in Indonesia. It also illustrates that when ideas are 'borrowed' from a universal source, the sense of ownership and applicability is much stronger than when the source is simply 'external'.

Nursyahbani's argument soon became part of the arsenal of the Indonesian feminists. For example, Julia Suryakusuma argued 'State VAW (Violence Against Women) is defined not only as direct acts of violence by the state-cum- military apparatus, but also violence condoned by the state as well as violence that women have to suffer due to neglect or oversight. The state is also responsible for domestic violence (against wives, daughters, female servants), violence against migrant workers, and VAW in the workplace. By not providing adequate legislation and protection for women, and by helping to perpetuate sexism in government policies, the state is also responsible for the victims of VAW in these sectors.' (Suryakusuma, 1998b). In a radio discussion commenting on the release of the TGPF (Consolidated Team to Discover the Facts) report on the rapes, Myra Dyarsi made the point that the phrase 'mass rape' is a technical term. It implies deliberate actions, which brings it within the purview of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, as well as bringing the name of the government into international disrepute.


This story is not yet concluded. Even after the democratic election of Abdurrahman Wahid in 1999, Indonesia remains troubled, with several parts of the country in a state of civil unrest. At the time of writing (July, 2001) it seems likely that Wahid will be impeached and deposed within the next couple of months. Meanwhile, women's groups are having to put most of their energy into practical work to help the victims of violence, but at the same time they becoming more sophisticated in their use of international instruments and are spreading the idea across the country.

They look for very specific help from friends and funders in the north. They want specific models and examples that they can make use of in their own context. They want technical help in both accessing material, such as interpretations of legal instruments, and in using it to influence government policy. But above all, they want the international women's and Human Rights movements to continue to work for and develop stronger international instruments. They want the United Nations to develop effective mechanisms to ensure complainance, and they want the resources to ensure that they can keep careful watch on their own government.

All this is a far cry from conventional development work. Yet, it fulfils much of what we say we want development to be. In his critique of PRA (Participatory Research Approach) methods, Mosse says 'Consciously or unconsciously, project workers impose ideas of 'relevance' and determine what is accepted as knowledge. But do we adequately differentiate the different ways of knowing or articulating knowledge which may exist?' (Mosse, 1994:517). What is critical in the example I have presented here, is that the relevance is determined by insiders, and not by outsiders. The 'knowledge' that they need to solve their problems is defined from inside the situation, although that same knowledge must be gathered from various sources, including international ones. I have argued that the kind of 'borrowing' I have described here, from a common, universal resource, provides greater opportunities for the confident possession (and transformation) of ideas. The activities of highly educated, well connected and relatively affluent middle class women differs from many typical 'development project' situations - located far from the metropolitan centres and serving less educated and poorer people. But the principles that we can learn from this example will serve to enrich our efforts among less confident and articulate people. Standing back, listening and waiting are much under-rated virtues in development work. So too, is genuine respect for the ability of people to understand and solve their own problems. This we can learn from the Jakarta feminists. But more importantly, they teach us that we are all in the same boat. We do share common problems, and there are ways in which we can work together as equals to address them. The women in Jakarta, struggling with violence on a horrifying scale, are more aware of their place in a global world than many development specialists locked in the insularity of apparent northern safety. Northerners, as well as southerners need to perfect the art of creative borrowing.


1 With some reluctance I make use of the terms 'north' and 'south' to refer to, on the one hand, the rich, fully capitalized countries of Europe, North America and Australasia, and on the other, to those countries that receive development 'aid' from the first group. While not perfect, the terms are less loaded than others in use, such as 'developing', 'Third World' and so on. For further discussion, see Porter, 2000; Miles, 1996.

2 For example, David Mosse, 1994, discusses the subtle ways in which PRA methods can reinforce existing social inequalities, as well as the 'solutions' preferred by the powerful and the developers. Other critiques pointing to the limitations of such participatory methods include Guijt and Shah, 1998; Porter, Smyth and Sweetman, 1999; Jackson and Pearson, 1998, Sen and Grown, 1987.

3 This study is based on material collected during the course of several university linkage projects carried out since 1990. During this period, I have been able to record the growth and development of a number of women's groups in Jakarta and elsewhere, to conduct numerous focus group discussions and interviews, and to collect written material - in short to carry out long term participant observation. I was in Jakarta during the period of the May 1998 riots, and for several periods during the aftermath described here. While the interpretation presented in this paper is my own, I have discussed all the material and ideas recorded here with the women I quote and many others in Indonesia.

4 See Charlesworth 1998, for a brief but useful defense of United Nations Conferences for women. Merry discusses various cases where universal Human Rights instruments have been used by local movements and the problem of 'relativism', (Merry, 1997) Among the many efforts to describe United Nations instruments to a broader feminist audience, we can notice Steinstra and Roberts, 1995; Pietila and Vickers, 1994 and Steinstra, 1994.

5 A classic example is the way in which the Javanese retained the traditional puppet theatre (Wayang), which was based on Hindu mythology, while incorporating features of their new religion. Many observers have seen the persistence of the wayang tradition as a form of resistance to the dominance of Islam (Brandon, 1970; Geertz, 1960)

6 One of the most profound and fascinating accounts on this period occurs in Pramoedya Ananta Toer's magnum opus, the Buru Quartet of novels. These rich and detailed sagas were first told by Toer to other political prisoners confined with him on the notorious Buru Island jail from 1965-1979. They were banned in Indonesia up to the end of Suharto's rule, but have been translated into English by Max Lane, and are available in Penguin.

7 The Dutch version of Les Vierges Fortes, Marcel Prevost

8 For more thorough and critical examinations of Kartini's life, thought and significance see Marlita, 1997; Sari, 1997; Dahlan, 1979; Zainu'ddin, 1980.

9 This brief reference omits all mention of the many and powerful women's organisations that were devoted to issues other than politics. There were many active religious groups, such as Aisyiyah, Muslimat NU and Badan Musyawarah Organisasi Islam Wanita Indonesia. (Mulyati, 1999). There were also long standing organisations devoted to women's education.

10 Pasundan Istri (previously Partai Kebangsaan Indonesia bagian Wanita), Persatuan Wanita Murba (Perwamu), Wanita Demokrat Indonesia) as well as Gerwani were all affiliated to political parties. Persatuan Wanita Republik Indonesia (Perwari), which had been formed specifically to continue women's role in the struggle for independence, lost some of its support and position because of its adamant opposition to Sukarno's polygamous marriage (Wieringa 1999: 239-241)

11 After Nairobi, there is a noticeable proliferation of references to the Forward Looking Strategies in academic articles, for example, those included in Tan, 1991; Ihromi, 1990 and this rose to a crescendo after the 4th United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing ( various articles in Notosusanto and Poerwandari, 1997; Oey-Gardiner et al, 1996, Ihromi, 1995, Tan 1997)

12 We must be careful not to overstate the case. The existence of legal mechanisms does not necessarily mean that they can be employed. The number of cases brought under the Conventions is miniscule, and those that succeed in actually changing things are even fewer. The United Nations remains at its weakest in interventions within nation states. Conventions, like other United Nations agreements, are mostly effective at the political level - to enable both internal and external groups to bring pressure to bear on national governments, and to embarrass them about their failures.

13 Although it should noted that the Optional Protocol for bringing cases under this Convention were only finally agreed in 1999. There are, of course, numerous other iinternational legal instruments that might be relevant to women in various situations.

14 Their activity alerted other women's groups to the possibilities of international instruments. An issue of Jurnal Perempuan (Edisi 7 Mei 1998) opened a discussion of the issue of whether the president could be a woman (which some muslims were raising as an issue in Islam in an effort to disqualify Megawati Sukarnoputri)with an extract from the Conventions on the Political Rights of Women, pointing out that Indonesia ratified this Convention 12 December 1958.

15 Some reforms can also be documented in change to successive State Policy Guidelines (GBHN) and Five Year Plans (Repelita).

16 See Laporan Akhir: Tim Gabungan Pencari Fakta Peristiwa Tanggal 13-15 Mei, 1998 (the official report of the Fact Finding team set up by the government); Early Documentation No. 3 The Rapes in the Series of Riots, Tim Relawan Untuk Kemanusiaan (Volunteer Team for Humanity).

17 This topic has been covered from another perspective in Siegel's Early Thoughts on the Violence of May 13 and 14, 1998 in Jakarta Indonesia 66 (October 1998)

18 Anonymous reviewers asked me to reference this point. The author of the letter, Saparinah Sadli is a psychologist: I am not, and I do not know the references. But in the context of this paper, it is relevant that firstly, I am prepared to rely on a Southern colleague in a different discipline to refer to a global body of academic literature and secondly that Saparinah is using globally recognised academic work to support her political point about a specific situation in Indonesia.

19 In fact, the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (Radhika Coomaraswamy) did visit Indonesia at the request of the women's groups. Her high profile visit lent support to the women's groups, and to the newly formed National Commission on Violence Against Women. It added to the political pressure on the government, but did not accomplish anything we could describe as concrete. Ms. Cooaraswamy appears to be able to deal with the frustrations of a United Nations position that operates by persuasion rather than compulsion, unlike Mary Robinson, who resigned her position as Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission because of the constraints and lack of effective implementation mechanisms.

20 Nor were these empty threats. On 9th October, a young volunteer with Tim Relawan, Marthadinata, was brutally raped and murdered in her home. An ethnic Chinese she had been working alongside her mother in the campaign to support the victims and to publicise the rapes. She was also due to testify before a United States Human Rights group.(Kompas, 10th and 12th October). While it was tragically clear to everyone that the murder was associated with Marthadinata's activity with Tim Relawan, the police insisted that it was an 'ordinary crime', and later arrested a neighbour.

21 It is interesting that when they accepted help from 'the north' in the form of a woman seconded from the British Columbia Human Rights Commision, the task that they regarded as most important was that she check through the many offers of help from outside and establish the credentials and utility of what they had to offer.

22 There are interesting parallels with the argument made in the 'Jane Doe' case in Canada. 'Jane Doe' was raped by a serial rapist in her home in Toronto, one of the notorious 'balcony rapes'. The police already knew about the rapist and the pattern of his attacks, but failed to warn women in the neighborhood because they were trying to trap the rapist. 'Jane Doe' brought an action against the police for failing to warn her of the risk. She won, and the judge's summation makes it clear that the state has a duty to protect its citizens.

23 We should also note how old this reference is, quaintly dated in the context of the sizzling contemporary nature of the rest of the piece. This tendency to quote very old northern sources is visible in many of the Indonesian feminist academic articles.


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