May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Tubuh Tanah Air

Published: Apr 16, 2022
Versi Bh. Indonesia

In this conversation we borrow an indigenous expression from the Mollo people in Timor on the human and nature relationships to conceive what we call Tubuh-Tanah Air. Literally, this means Body-Land Water. Tanah Air means the living spaces, islands, the village; it also means the homeland, Indonesia. In this dialogue, we keep the original term tubuh-tanah air. It is a way of understanding the violence against women´s bodies, and against the body of nature, that has caused the climate crisis. It reminds us how essential it is to transform Indonesian civil society, now split into various sectors, to become a united movement against the destruction of the living spaces and in support of its healing.

SM: Indonesia is entering a new phase of continually rising sexual violence. Two years ago the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) recorded more than 2.7 million cases of sexual violence against women in the preceding ten years (2010-2019). In 2018, Indonesia was the second most dangerous country for women out of fourteen Asian Pacific nations.

Does this indicate that the women’s movement is going backwards?

HRS: On the contrary. The more open the access to information, the more people feel free to report sexual violence against women. It shows the rising awareness among women and growing solidarity within the women’s movement and civil society to seek for justice.

But are these reports of violence against women something new?

SM: Not really. Violence against women has coloured political dynamics ever since independence, marked every time by many violent incidents including sexual violence. The violence of 1965 included massive killing against the women’s movement, as well as bodily disciplining of women in the household. Eventually the door of violence against (the body of) nature opened again – resuming the colonial pattern, through pro-investment regulations that facilitated huge exploitation of nature. When the New Order collapsed, sexual violence returned to strike women belonging to the Chinese minority. This led to the birth of Komnas Perempuan in 1998. All this shows that the body of the woman and the body of nature have long been connected arenas of violence.

Shouldn’t this interconnected violence be seen as a political problem? They are connected through relations of power, political regime, and the economy.

HRS: Surely, yes. That’s why, even before the Indonesian state was established, there were the educated women who confronted the power of patriarchy and colonialism. R.A. Kartini set up a women’s school in colonial Rembang; Dewi Sartika started one in Bandung in 1904; Walanda Maramis in Manado in 1918; and Aminah Syukur in Samarinda in 1928. Women were active in the struggle against the Dutch coloniser. They held the First Indonesian Women’s Congress in 1928. Women’s organisations grew up and trained themselves as part of a consistent political movement in defence of women’s rights and against imperialism. Ironically, considering it was the biggest women’s movement ever seen in Southeast Asia, the national parliament today was far too slow in passing the Sexual Violence Eradication Bill (RUU PKS) and the legal draft on Domestic Workers in Indonesia (RUU-PKRT).

SM: We need to learn from history, including understanding how the death of the women’s movement is connected with the trajectory of capitalism in Indonesia. The massive killing of 1965-1966 is the key moment in the history of capitalism in Indonesia. It became the basis of New Order militarism and shifted Indonesia’s political-economy orientation towards a patriarchal-capitalist system. About 500,000 people were slaughtered, with another 1.5 million detained under suspicion of holding communist beliefs. Through the 1965-66 anti-communist operations, women’s organisations like Gerwani became a target of systematic state violence. It went on with intervention against the remaining women’s organisations, including the organisation of wives of soldiers and civil servants called Korpri. It ended by shifting the function and role of women as ibu (mother), through the slogans called the Five Responsibilities of Women (Panca Dharma Wanita). The slogans disciplined women to be helpmates to their husbands, to give birth and care for children, to run the household economy, to provide supplementary income, and to be members of social organisations. The ideology of State Ibuism (Ibuisme negara), as described by Yulia Suryakusuma, was practised through the Guidance for Family Welfare program (Pembinaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga - PKK). Power relations placing men above women became part of the disciplining in the smallest social unit, the household. Together with the dominant religious interpretations favouring men, these methods made the household into a place of subordination that saddled women with a double burden, where even sexual violence was considered normal. That’s the reason why these cases of sexual violence are just the tip of the iceberg.

But is it true that all this put a brake on the women’s movement?

HRS: My answer is No. Women have always been at the forefront of the struggle against the state and the corporations that destroy the body of the earth and women. During the New Order, indigenous women such as Satariah in Murung Raya Central Kalimantan, Aleta Baun in Nusa Tenggara, and Werima Mananta in South Sulawesi were just some of the women who resisted the destruction of the forest. In 1996, Yosepha Alomang became the first indigenous woman to sue the Freeport company – which owns the world’s biggest gold mine - in an American court. Even in the urban area of Samarinda in East Kalimantan, Rahmawati and her group have been demanding justice for the children who have died by drowning in abandoned coalmine pits. Meanwhile, in East Java, Harwati has been leading the struggle of women to demand compensation and access to medical care connected with the Lapindo mud-flow disaster. The women of Kendeng have been protesting a cement mine and smelter by blockading the road, planting, and cementing their feet. Women’s resistance takes many forms. It is sometimes even considered less than heroic because it is hidden, everyday resistance, rather than being integrated with an organised local resistance. It thus has the potential of being marginalised by groups of men and NGOs.

All in all, the problems of women and the environment have become more complex since independence, haven’t they?

SM: They certainly have. Civil society, and especially women, are facing a new chapter, where the power of patriarchy and of capitalism is carrying us towards a social ecological crisis called the climate crisis. Forest degradation and the opening up of new agro-industrial land (known as Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry – LULUCF), together with the burning of oil, gas and coal, are the main contributors to the climate crisis in Indonesia. In the coal exploitation area, the problems are multi-layered. In Samarinda, women face subordination within the family and society, are forced to live in a polluted and dangerous environment, while also having to absorb rising living costs and health expenditures, as well as regular flooding. On top of that, an impact of the changing climate means that the air is hotter and the rainy season has become uncertain, which in turn affects agriculture and hence family food security. Ecofeminists remind us that we are confronting a patriarchy that walks hand-in-hand with the capitalist system. It is so obvious that violence against women and violence against nature occur under the same political economy regime, isn’t it? Doesn’t this regime both nurture violence against women and draft regulations intended to make the exploitation of nature easier?

The women in the protest to a coal mine in Sanga-Sanga, East Kalimantan / Jatam East Kalimantan

What are the experiences of women in East Kalimantan in this situation?

HRS: It is like having to deal with repeated, cumulative violence. The exploitation of the island of Kalimantan since colonial times was carried on after independence by the regimes in power. The connection between the destruction of nature and violence against women in the New Order turned this province into a centre for the exploitation of the people and nature. We learned the experiences from gold and coal mining operations. In the late 1990s, about 17 women reported sexual violence, ranging from unwanted sexual advances to rape, by mining workers at the gold mine owned by Rio Tinto. This mine left behind 77 million tons of tailings waste. By 2021 at least 40 people had died in abandoned coalmine pits, most of them children. In fact, the victims were born from a woman’s womb, the responsibility of raising them rested mainly on women, yet when their child dies they blame women.

Yet instead of restoring Kalimantan along the lines of social ecology, it is being prepared for the relocation of the nation’s capital. The development of extractive industries all around the new capital is part of the packet. Experience in East Kalimantan shows that violence against women in the rural and urban areas are closely connected.

SM: Another important fact: coal is the biggest source of global greenhouse gases. It is hugely important to connect the violence against women, the destruction of nature, and the climate crisis. The extractivist economic system is an economic model that rips out raw materials from the soil, the forest, or from monocultural agriculture, for export. This not only rips open the mine but also exploits the living space and the caring practices within the community – most falling under the burden of women’s unpaid labour, including the food gardens, sources of water, women’s knowledge, other economic activities and embodied local wisdom within those activities.

Most of the exploitation of coal in Kalimantan is intended for coal-fired power plants, both in Java and importing countries. Both the coalmines and the power plants have negative impacts on those living around them, as well as contributing to climate change. And climate change after all impacts all of humanity. This cycle shows how inseparably humans are part of nature.

As a reflection on our conversation, I would like to borrow a perspective from the Mollo people in Timor island, who understand that ‘the human body is like the body of nature.’ Our body is part of the body of nature. It is important to expand the way of viewing our bodies - as part of a collective body: ‘Tubuh-Tanah Air.’ To understand all forms of exploitation as attacks on the common, communal living space, such as the village, the city, the margins, as well as on the farmer, the woman, the indigenous people, and so on, and to merge violence towards someone’s body and towards the earth as violence on the collective body. This way of looking at the world will change our thinking of interconnectedness between women and nature, under a political economy regime led by the national oligarchy and a global economic system of extractivism. It will help us to understand the link between violence towards the tubuh-tanah air with the global crisis, which is the global climate and the pandemic.

HRS: In addition, we need to learn from the feminist movement in Latin America, which uses the similar idea of ‘body-territory’ to unify civil society involved in women’s issues from the village to the city. ‘Territory’ can be seen as the collective body in tubuh-tanah air, and this helps us in two ways. First, every woman can become a victim, but she can also become an agent of resistance for healing the tubuh-tanah air from the social ecological crisis. Second, the tubuh-tanah air point of view brings together the experience of women and welds them into a unity. Now it is urgent as we are facing the same political economy regime: a patriarchal and capitalist system working together. Their latest acts have been to release the revised Law on Mineral and Coal Mining (UU Minerba) and the Omnibus Law on Job Creation (UU Ciptaker) – both will worsen the climate disaster.


In the ‘Manifesto: Towards an Ecological Civilisation for Indonesia’ (Manifesto: Menuju Peradaban Ekologis untuk Indonesia), Gerry van Klinken called for big, radical steps to save ourselves and the planet (2021). These radical steps need to be taken from the experience of the tubuh-tanah air, by acknowledging and making visible knowledge, experience, and bodily resistance as a plural ‘minifesto’, that can build a ‘manifesto’ from below. A minifesto creates something new from the varied experiences of women, and shapes their response to the everyday life of women, their family and community. A tubuh-tanah air minifesto could become a way of decolonising knowledge and energising women’s resistance as it confronts the patriarchal capitalist system in Indonesia, which has a colonial historical dimension, with diverse geographies and cultures.

Siti Maimunah (Siti.Maimunah@Uni-Passau.De) is completing her doctoral studies at the University of Passau in Germany. She receives scholarship funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 764908. Haris Retno Susmiyati ( lectures in the Law Faculty at Mulawarman University in East Kalimantan. Both are active in the Working Team for Women and Mining (Tim Kerja Perempuan dan Tambang - TKPT), and in the Puan Reading Room Collective. 

Inside Indonesia 148: Apr-Jun 2022

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