Jul 22, 2018 Last Updated 2:43 AM, Jul 19, 2018

Maria Pakpakhan: 'Feminism is a choice of life'

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Maria is a programme officer at INFID in Jakarta. She speaks of her student days, of mass action and specialised lobbying. And of feminism.

How did you become an activist?

It started when I was a student in an elite Catholic senior high school in Jakarta. It had a programme where students they thought were talented were introduced to other parts of society. Every week we went to visit prostitution and slum areas. This is how I began to learn about the facts of our society.

Then in 1988 I moved to Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. At that time, student activism was starting again, first with a commemoration of Universal Human Rights day in late 1988. There was a great atmosphere on campus in those days. Kusnadi was the rector. He was sympathetic to students and didn't allow the military to intervene on campus.

The campus press was very lively. There was a lot of interaction between students on all the campuses. Then the Kedung Ombo Dam issue came along, and that triggered the development of a big student movement. We formed a student action group to protest the dam development and the ousting of the people from their land.

I still remember all the demonstrations we held very well. In the years that followed, Yogyakarta students held some big demonstrations, against plans by the local government to demolish a gathering place of local artists, or against the government's attempts to introduce a new student senate.

At the same time, I also became increasingly interested in feminism, which I had also first come across at senior high school. In 1989 we set up the Yogyakarta Women's Discussion Forum. This mainly involved students, but also a few housewives. We did some consciousness raising work, held seminars on feminism, produced some comics and other publications, and held an advocacy campaign defending women petty traders from the Beringharjo market which was being demolished. This went on until 1991.

There was a really exciting atmosphere in the Yogyakarta student groups at that time - we discussed feminism, Marxism, anarchism, liberalism - all the isms. This gave us a strong ground in theory. Later when I went to Holland after I had to flee because of the 'Land for the People' calendar, I took development studies and got a stronger grounding in feminism.

Now you have been working for INFID for about a year. Do you see a tension between the aims of the student movement and the NGOs, or are they the same?

The aims are more or less the same: a better society, especially for the poor, the workers, peasants and so on. I think students and NGOs have many similarities, but there are some differences.

Students are more militant. Students feel: 'We can do anything if we just work on it'. NGOs believe in lobbying, they carry out more organised international advocacy, especially through INFID. Students believe more in mass action. NGOs do not believe in mass action, that is one of the main differences.

Also, I think the student movement is more transparent, more accountable. It is more difficult to talk about the accountability of NGOs to the rest of society, because of the issue of their funding by overseas agencies.

So do you think the student movement and the NGOs are complementary?

They are complementary, but there is also the question of balance. There are times when mass action should be bigger. There is also a time when NGOs can form a real community and play an important role. Like in the Philippines now, where NGOs have both the ability to lobby and a very strong mass action base. The problem for the Indonesian NGOs is to transform themselves into something like that, a movement with a mass base. I think very few NGOs really do have a mass base at the present time.

How compatible are your aspirations as a feminist with the world of NGOs in which you now find yourself?

There's a great difference. Feminism is a struggle of your whole life. I think feminism is more revolutionary than anything else, because you aim at changing not only society, but also human beings, the relations between men and women, getting them to accept each other. Feminism is still evolving, it's still unfinished, it's changing. It's not a trend, it's a choice of life, an ideology.

Do you find the ideology of feminism well expressed in the NGO movement in Indonesia?

Oh, completely and absolutely not. I think because of the Women's Decade and because many funding agencies have emphasised women's issues, now many NGOs do understand the question of gender, which is a product of feminism.

But people don't want to call themselves feminists. They don't mind being called 'gender sensitive', but gender is only one aspect: feminism is the mother, gender is the child. In NGOs I think the changes have so far been very superficial and artificial. You can't change attitudes simply by three days' training.

Inside Indonesia 47: Jul-Sep 1996

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