Siti Faiza Hidayati Mardzoeki (Faiza Mardzoeki), 35, sat relaxed on a bench at a small cafe in Central Jakarta. Once in a while, she took a sip from her favorite drink — orange juice. She had just attended a meeting with the crew after concluding the three-day performance of Nyai Ontosoroh, for which she was the scriptwriter.
Nyai Ontosoroh is an adaptation of Bumi Manusia, a novel by renowned author Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The play was her second for the theater. In 2002, she produced Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman At Point Zero, during which almost 2,500 people saw the play.
Both plays have the same message: women’s issues.
“I believe that the struggle for women’s rights can be made through the cultural field, including theater,” she said.
Faiza was a sweet girl in her teens. She studied at night and, occasionally, went out with her peers to find things to read.
Her favorite material included pop teenage magazine Anita Cemerlang, one of the few texts available in her hometown, Purwokerto, Central Java.
After finishing senior high school there, she moved to Bogor, West Java, for higher education at a secretarial academy.
Persuaded by neighbors, Faiza worked at a garment factory in between classes. She found out later that the factory and the condition of women laborers inside were to change her life.
“It was this episode that changed the way I saw life. At the factory, I came across new concepts I’d never known before,” Faiza said.
At the factory, she met thousands of women laborers — in previously unimaginable numbers — and the problems they faced.
Faiza also acquired a vocabulary of terms that had never crossed her mind before, like “labor”, “low wage” and “subordination”.
“For a village teenager, those words were a new concept for me,” she said.
That experience, plus interaction with labor activists made her much more critical. “It was like a virus had affected me. It eventually opened my eyes,” she said.
Then, she quit the factory and joined Solidaritas Perempuan, a nongovernmental organization inJakarta that focuses on the empowerment of women.
She worked within the NGO sector for almost 12 years including six as head of Solidaritas Perempuan’s education and base organizing division and two years as program coordinator at Institut Ungu, an organization she cofounded that focuses on promoting women’s empowerment through cultural activities.
With Institut Ungu, Faiza organized April Festival, comprising cultural events, in 2003.
The same year, she moved with her Australian husband Max Lane to Perth because he became a research fellow at Murdoch University.
Used to activities back home, while in Perth, Faiza also built contacts with activists. There, she organized a festival of Indonesian films, an event that drew many visitors.
Lack of government support
Between 2004 and 2006, Faiza followed her husband to Sydney (Max Lane is a lecturer in Asian Studies at the University of Sydney.)
It was during this period that Faiza had the idea to put Pramoedya’s work on stage. After research, she decided to focus on Bumi Manusia and to highlight Nyai Ontosoroh.
Faiza had to squeeze Bumi Manusia (about 400 pages) to 60 pages of script. She also consulted with senior artists Slamet Raharjo and Jajang C. Noer to improve the script.
After it was finished, another challenge ensued. She had to find artists for the parts, plus money to finance the project.
“The government gave only a little help. Funding mostly came from nongovernmental organizations and foreign embassies,” she said.
(On government support, Faiza expressed deep concern. Theater directors, she said, have to submit an application at least one year beforehand to get financial support, which amounts to paltry sums.
In comparison, she said, the winner of last year’s Jakarta Theater Festival received only Rp 4 million, to be divided among crew members.
“The passion for people to develop theater is very high. But there is little support from the government,” she said.)
When eventually her team was ready to perform successfully, Faiza became excited.
Faiza said that she had never studied theater formally. She said she just loved it and watched many plays on different occasions.
“The reason why I decided to produce my own play is because I was often disappointed at the weaknesses in other plays I watched,” she said.
There were high expectations for a a play based on widely discussed novel Bumi Manusia. However, Faiza had her own tips for producing a strong play.
“The first thing I did is to understand the messages Pramoedya was trying to convey. I have to decide what I am going to convey. There are some important aspects but I have to choose one or two,” she said.
Fortunately, she had the support of crew members including director Wawan Sofwan from Bandung, West Java.
Born in a family of 10 children (six boys and four girls), Faiza got used to conventional values in which women are subordinated by men.
Her brothers often told her to do domestic work rather than do it themselves. Every time she protested, her mother would calm her down and tell her to just get on with it.
“There was different treatment for boys and girls,” she added.
These traditional values often make her uneasy anytime she visits her hometown. Her parents, grandparents and relatives ask her why she does not have children.
“They keep on asking me the same question as if a married woman without kids were abnormal. For me, whether a couple will have kids or not is all about life choices,” she said.
The country girl has a view on how to empower women. She has become a scriptwriter and a producer too. Will she keep on moving along the same path?
“I’ll write a book about the processes involved in the Nyai Ontosoroh project. I also have in mind some ideas for plays.”
“I’ll do something that I have passion for. I think I have great passion for theater,” she said.