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Recovering women's history

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Saskia Eleonora Wieringa, The politicization of gender relations in Indonesia: The Indonesian women's movement and Gerwani until the New Order state, Amsterdam: Universiteitsbibliotheek (PhD thesis), 1995.

Reviewed by LIZ MARTYN

Despite several decades of academic feminism, women remain hidden in mainstream Indonesian history. Writing the history of Gerwani, the women's organisation closely linked to the communist party PKI, was not only an exercise in recovering a hidden history, but in countering misrepresentation by 20 years of New Order ideology.

Former Gerwani members plead for their history to be returned to them, countering the military's construction of their organisation. One says: 'What really makes me sad is that my children learn such ugly things about Gerwani. I realised my son was holding something back from me. Finally he came to me and asked, "Ma, why did you become a member of such a group, so morally depraved, bringing ruin to the country? Were you a whore too? Everybody said that all Gerwani members were whores and bad women". How can I explain to him what we lived for, what our ideals were? I still see the confusion and shame in his eyes. How will he ever understand my life?' (p. xi).


Gerwani (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia) was one of the largest women's organisations operating in the newly independent Indonesian state. Formed in 1950 so 'politically conscious' women could fight for women's and children's rights and democracy, it had over 650,000 members by 1957. It took on a political role as well as the social work and educational roles of most Indonesian women's organisations.

The military account of the coup of 30 September 1965 is that Gerwani members were implicated in the sexual torture of the kidnapped generals. Wieringa shows this is a fabrication. In the transition from Sukarno's Old Order to Suharto's New it paid a heavy price in deaths, imprisonment, and exile. By 1967 the organisation had been destroyed.

Wieringa's main question in this doctoral dissertation is what Gerwani did in the 1950s and early 1960s that provoked the backlash from the New Order state. She notes the contrast between what she views as the regressive, docile, male-dominated women's organisations of the New Order and the more aggressive women's organisations of the nationalist and 1950s era.

Her central argument is that Gerwani became more drawn to Sukarno and the PKI's 'male' domain of politics. This demanded a political role for women, stepping outside accepted roles, and bringing themselves into conflict with other women's organisations and the community at large. Islamic sections in particular were relieved when Gerwani was destroyed. The new regime had issued its warning about the appropriate place for Indonesian women.

Feminist or socialist?

Wieringa highlights an internal power struggle between the feminist and socialist streams within the organisation. Gender issues important to Gerwani members could be in conflict with their political beliefs. In these cases Gerwani followed a PKI line rather than their gender interests. An important point in non-western women's organisation is that they view oppression as coming from sources other than gender only.

Although Wieringa tends to take today's western feminist interests as a measuring point for analysing Gerwani, resulting in a judgmental account at times, overall this is a very important contribution to Indonesian history and politics. It unravels a fascinating history that has been hidden from most, and ably demonstrates how gender can be used as an important tool of political and historical analysis.

Liz Martyn is writing a PhD dissertation on gender relations in Indonesia at Monash University in Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 50: Apr-Jun 1997

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