May 28, 2017 Last Updated 4:12 AM, May 24, 2017

Women's Congress

Published: Apr 01, 1999

The Women’s Congress was held in Yogyakarta 14-18 December 1998, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the first All-Indonesia Women’s Congress (Kongres Perempuan Indonesia), which was also held in Yogya in 1928.

A committee of five from Jakarta were the main organisers. Among them were Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, Indonesia’s foremost feminist lawyer, and Australian-trained political scientist Chusnul Mar’iyah.

The congress was replete with historical resonances. The organisers wanted to hark back to the Kongres Perempuan of 1928, seeing a particular strength in the term perempuan (woman) over wanita (lady, the common New Order term for women). They also wanted to distinguish themselves from Kowani (Kongres Wanita Indonesia), which replaced the original Kongres Perempuan and which was later so thoroughly co-opted by the New Order.

Among the historically important figures in attendance was the octogenarian S K Trimurti, a nationalist, the first woman to hold a ministerial position in Indonesia (1947-48), and a national treasure. More remarkably, the first speaker at the seminar was Sulami – a former leader of Gerwani, incarcerated for almost two decades and speaking publicly for the first time since 1965.

Chusnul Mar’iyah in her opening speech stressed that the issues of most concern to women

should be placed on the political agenda of all the parties that will contest Indonesia’s first real election since 1955 this year. Nursyahbani Katjasungkana spoke of the need to recognise differences between the various groups of women.

Three particularly divisive issues surfaced on the second and third days of the congress. These were the inclusion of Gerwani and thus the legitimisation of communism, the inclusion of lesbians, and finally and most contentiously the centralism of Jakarta. There were strident debates and several disruptive tactics. A walk-out aimed to register a protest against what some saw as the Jakarta feminists’ overly radical and ‘fashionable’ agenda. It became so difficult for the Jakarta committee that an alternative committee of three non-Jakarta delegates had to be elected to chair the congress proceedings.

At one point in the proceedings a labourer, baby at her breast, took the microphone demanding to be heard, despite question time being over. Very eloquently she drew attention to the struggle of workers to find a voice in such a forum. This was not to be just a talk-fest for the Jakarta elite.

Many felt disappointed that the congress was unable to fully express the feeling of solidarity with which it had been originally conceived. But most felt it was an achievement to have come together as women from all over Indonesia and from all walks of life. For the first time in a generation they were able to express their views without constraints. The networking that went on was probably of far greater importance than the congress itself.

A presidium consisting of 14 representatives was elected with Nursyahbani as the Secretary General. This presidium, responsible for implementing decisions of the congress, comprises all groups represented at the congress, including farmers, labourers, lesbians and prostitutes. This is the first time that the claims of some of these groups as women have been recognised.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

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