The rise and fall of Indonesia’s women’s movement

Women’s voices: Four women perform a play titled Kartini’s letters for the opening of the April Festival at Goethe-Haus in Jakarta, on April 3. The four-day festival themed “Raising Women’s Voices” celebrated Kartini Day. Courtesy of the Institut Ungu/Aji Baskoro
Women’s voices: Four women perform a play titled Kartini’s letters for the opening of the April Festival at Goethe-Haus in Jakarta, on April 3. The four-day festival themed “Raising Women’s Voices” celebrated Kartini Day. Courtesy of the Institut Ungu/Aji Baskoro

Girls are made of sugar and spice, and everything nice. Boys are made of snips and snails, and puppy-dog tails.

The famous lines — made popular through an old nursery rhyme — might sound nothing but funny to us. But if we look beyond those amusing words, we will soon realize they are ridden with gender stereotypes.

Yes, like it or not, the rhyme assumes that women should possess loving, kind and sweet personalities – as opposed to the tough, rough and aggressive traits said to belong to men.

And poor Kartini. Although she has been hailed as Indonesia’s first feminist, the Javanese aristocrat, who was born in 1879, was actually the “victim” of this kind of gender construction. Over the past decades, her image has been “remodeled” to reinforce the country’s patriarchal culture, as revealed by feminist scholar Saskia Eleonora Wieringa.

As far back as Indonesia’s colonial period, “Kartini was actually depicted as a brilliant and rebellious woman who fought for women’s right to education,” said Wieringa, who currently visited Jakarta to attend the April Festival, a celebration of women.

During the Old Order regime under former president Sukarno, she went on, Kartini symbolized the struggle against Dutch colonial arrogance, as her mother come from an oppressed working class background.

But then, “the New Order regime tamed [the image of] Kartini and narrowed her to a woman with a domestic role,” said the professor at the University of Amsterdam. “Her spirit and fight against male domination were thus erased,” she added.

So thanks to Soeharto’s New Order regime, we have until today acknowledged Kartini as nothing but a graceful Javanese aristocrat, with decent manners. And because of that, every year when we celebrate Kartini Day on April 21, we witness children marching in colorful traditional costumes and women slaving over cooking contests, flower arrangements and fashion modeling. The essence of Kartini’s struggle, thus, has shifted away to irrelevant issues.

So, what makes this changing image of Kartini important today? Well, realize it or not, it has marked the rise and fall of the women’s emancipation movement in the country.

Mariana Amiruddin, director of Jurnal Perempuan Foundation, explained how powerful the image of Kartini created by Soeharto remains until today, with women still trapped in the New Order’s “motherly” concept of “good women”. Exacerbating this, she went on, were religious doctrines of fundamentalists reinforcing this perception of the role of women.

So today, the concept of the ideal woman has been reduced to the following: “Indonesian women are supposed to embrace Eastern and Islamic cultures, where they dress in appropriate clothing that covers their aurat [parts of the body that are mustn’t be showed], as well as become good mothers who serve their husbands, nurture their children and support the family,” as stated by Mariana, also during the April Festival.

This kind of narrow perception on the role of women, Mariana said, has hampered the efforts of today’s feminists to fight for women’s rights. When these feminist groups fought against the recently passed Pornography Law, for example, they were accused of being immoral, while they actually tried to protect women from being criminalized by the law.

“Today, we [feminists] are no longer perceived as the guard of the Reform Era,” Mariana lamented. “Instead, we’re known as groups of girls who are out of control.” Feminism, on the other hand, she added, was seen as a doctrine preached by immoral liberal activists.

“No matter how many times we told them about Kartini, they still think feminism came from the West,” Mariana said.

Parallels can be drawn between today’s Indonesian feminist movement and Gerwani, the Indonesian Women’s Movement that was destroyed by former president Soeharto following the 1965 tragedy – which was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

“Although we haven’t been jailed or murdered like Gerwani members, we feel the old New Order’s practice of barring [women’s] freedom has now been revived,” Mariana argued. “While Gerwani was besmirched for being PKI’s affiliate during that era, feminists today have been accused of being part of Western movements aiming to destroy Indonesia.”

Gerwani – a mass women’s movement with millions of members from the grassroots and global community – was known as group of young and brilliant women activists fighting for women’s rights in the fields of ideology, education, politic and economy – all inspired by Kartini’s progressive ideas.

An expert in Gerwani history, Wieringa, said the destruction of the organization marked the worst setback for the Indonesian women’s movement. Yes, while there once was a progressive and influential women’s movement, Indonesia today has turned into a breeding place for kuntilanak wangi, or perfumed female ghosts – a term Wieringa used to depict women groups carrying out Soeharto’s patriarchal agenda.

These kuntilanak wangi, Wieringa explained, were groups of women wearing fashionable clothes and perfume.

Instead of voicing women’s rights like Gerwani did, these women worked on “diverting” women’s focus on domestic issues such as “dapur – sumur – kasur” (kitchen, bathroom and bedroom).

Under government-controlled organizations like Dharma Wanita, Dharma Pertiwi and PKK (Family Empowerment and Welfare Movement), these kuntilanak wangi had buried women’s critical thinking on violence and oppression.

And as mentioned before, we can see how successful they were from the way we narrowly celebrate Kartini Day.


April Festival’s director Faiza Hidayati Mardzoeki said that a number of feminists like herself were concerned that Kartini’s inspirational ideas had been lost along the way, and all she would be remembered for was her politeness and her dress sense.

“Kartini, thus, has lived among us only as a myth – a polite Javanese aristocrat, who finally had to accept the fact that she had to share her husband with other women – although she never agreed with polygamy,” Faiza said. “No one will remember her as a rebellious figure with progressive ideas.”

Of course, like the feminists have suggested, the Reform Era in 1998 has given women opportunities to revive the real spirit of Kartini. However, as Mariana suggested, the Reform Era was nothing but “a short-term honeymoon” moment for women’s movement.

When the late former president Abdurrahman Wahid changed the name of the ministry of women affairs into the ministry of women’s empowerment, for example, feminists felt very confident about their cause. In addition to that, the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) was given full support to continue its investigation into the May 1998 tragedy, where many Chinese women were sexually abused.

“During Megawati’s era, we were more enthusiastic because the first woman was finally installed as a president amid opposition from some religious leaders,” Mariana said. “Megawati then also succeeded in passing the law on domestic violence.”

Celebrating women’s achievement even more, she added, was the policy of granting women a 30 percent quota of seats in the Parliament.

However, this celebration of women’s movement had to end in 2005, when Susilo Bambang Yu-dhoyono won his first presidential term.

“The year marked the introduction of the pornography bill, which was mentioned by President SBY during his first [presidential] speech,” said Mariana. “He even took the opportunity to comment about women’s belly buttons!”

And from that moment on, she went on, the women’s movement in Indonesia started to lose its ground. While battling against the criminalization of women, feminists have been labeled as “Western devilish agents”, gaining a bad reputation in society.