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Women on the move

Published: Sep 22, 2007
After three decades of patriarchal conformity under the New Order, women are once more a force for change

Krishna Sen

On December 15, 1998, 500 women from 26 provinces of Indonesia met to take stock of the legacy of the New Order and to chart future directions. As so often in the NGO movement during the last decade of the Suharto regime, the planning was done in Jakarta, the money was sought abroad, and the contradictions bred by 33 years of repressive rule surfaced to dampen the optimism with which the women had come to Yogyakarta. But that so many women came to talk and listen and assert themselves in all their differences was itself a triumph.

When the Suharto regime came to power in 1965, it not only destroyed the communist mass organisation for women Gerwani (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia, Indonesian Women’s Movement), but transformed the whole basis of women’s participation in politics. New Order propaganda damned Gerwani as an organisation of whores and legitimised the brutal massacre of 1965-66 in large part by constructing a litany of crimes by women. In prisons across the country, women were molested, raped and tortured. These stories, long suppressed, began to emerge in the last years of the New Order. Old women in their 60s and 70s, released after years of imprisonment, became martyrs in the eyes of the new women’s movement that emerged in the 1980s.

What happened to the dozens of other women’s organisations which once flourished in the political turmoil of the Sukarno years has yet to be documented. But in the early New Order autonomous women’s organisations disappeared. Women’s representative bodies became ‘wives’ organisations. Wives of civil servants were obliged to join Dharma Wanita (literally, Women’s Duty), and duty-bound to support their husbands’ work. The PKK, the village level institution through which many of the government’s family welfare measures were implemented, was committed to the five duties of a woman, which started with her role as wife and mother. Women, politicised in the nationalist struggle and mobilised in Sukarno’s populist politics, were domesticated in a state controlled by the military.

While women were politically reduced to the status of men’s appendages, economically they were pushed and pulled out of homes into the work place. As the Indonesian economy expanded, vast numbers of women joined the workforce, largely in the low-paid manufacturing sector, but also in white collar middle class professional jobs. The New Order’s dependence on global financial institutions ensured that development policies, particularly from the early 1980s onwards, had to take gender issues into account. This created women bureaucrats with an interest in promoting the discourse of women’s equality.

The new women’s non-government organisations (NGOs), which emerged from 1983 and grew rapidly in the 1990s, drew on all of these women who were not primarily wives and mothers. They were working class women, middle class professional women, and femocrats within government and semi-government institutions.


Not just in Indonesia, but in Asia generally, women’s movements are often seen as an urban middle class luxury. The earliest women’s NGOs were established in Jakarta and other cities in Java. The first women’s NGO was Yayasan Annisa Swasti (Yasanti), established in 1982 in Yogyakarta, followed in 1985 by Kalyanamitra in Jakarta. But in the 1990s the movement is no longer restricted to either Jakarta or the middle class.

Many of the workers’ strikes in the early 1990s were led by women. Two of the most prominent organisers of the recent Indonesian labour movement are women: Marsinah, who was raped and killed in 1993, and Dita Sari, still in prison for organising massive strikes in Surabaya in July 1995. Marsinah’s politics were born out of her experience as a working woman. Dita’s activism was inspired by her reading of Leninism. Neither perhaps would see themselves as acting for women as such. But they represent the diverse paths of women’s politicisation in the late New Order.

Nor did the so-called urban middle class women’s organisations pursue a middle class agenda. Kalyanamitra’s earliest work was with domestic servants. Yasanti started its work among rural and working class women facing domestic violence. Solidaritas Perempuan (Women’s Solidarity for Human Rights), one of the earliest of the new breed of women’s associations, concentrated on the rights of migrant workers.

Post-graduate student Yanti Muchtar argues in her thesis that the women’s NGOs were by the 1990s not primarily led by urban middle class women. They were established and led by first-generation migrants to cities. These women had the intellectual capital of the middle classes, but not the access to consumer goods that defined Indonesia’s new middle class. Some of these women were influenced by peoples movements overseas. Others were radicalised by their work among labourers, peasants and prostitutes.

By the end of the New Order, the women’s movement in Indonesia was a broad-based social movement. Its various factions were articulated across the breadth of Indonesia’s socio-political spectrum.

The Indonesian National Women’s Coalition for Justice and Democracy was established the day before Suharto resigned. Forty one prominent women intellectuals, mainly from Jakarta, signed the declaration. It was sent out to women’s groups throughout the country. The Women’s Congress in Yogyakarta in December 1998 was the result of the commitment of this group of women to come together and to confirm the political power of women across the nation. Not surprisingly, the congress did not end in the creation of a singular women’s movement speaking in a national monotone. It was a triumph of the diversity of Indonesia and of its women over 33 years of state-controlled uniformity.

Krishna Sen teaches at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

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