May 20, 2024 Last Updated 3:23 AM, May 20, 2024

Women and the nation

Susan Blackburn

For most of its history the Indonesian women's movement has been framed, energised and constrained by two dominant paradigms: nationalism and developmentalism. In the last couple of years we have seen the movement emerge from the straitjacket of these ideas and spreadin many new directions. It has gained its autonomy at last in the 'malestream' mainstream of politics, albeit in circumstances that make the leadership of the movement anxious and insecure. Such is the price of liberation.

The Indonesian women's movement, seen broadly as a social movement to express the concerns of Indonesian women, emerged early in the twentieth century at the same time as the nationalist movement. They were fed by similar forces of socio-economic growth (especially urbanisation), modern education, improved communications and contact with international ideas. Early feminism's (or proto-feminism) best-known exponent was Kartini, a woman whose life was transformed by ideas derived from a Western education, ideas that generated discontent and aspirations for greater autonomy for women. Women began to form modern organisations to pursue their own concerns, and to air new views in the press.

Barely had the women's movement got under way than it was captured by the nationalist movement. This was obvious at the first women's congress in 1928. The very notion of an 'Indonesian' women's congress foregrounded its nationalist drive. Most participants framed their speeches in nationalist terms, linking the pursuit of women's interests to those of national unity and independence.

This was not always a comfortable combination. Some speakers were more preoccupied with issues of particular interest to women, such as schooling and early marriage, than they were with nationalism. Others were at loggerheads with one another, undermining any pretence of national unity. The divisions were mainly religious.

However, many women's organisations persisted in trying to create a united nationalist women's movement. Various federations and umbrella organisations dominated the movement in subsequent decades. The current federation, Kowani, the Indonesian Women's Congress, is part of this history. These bodies were always based on the ideal of Indonesian national unity, which frequently came before women's concerns. Issues that created disagreement among member organisations were discouraged, notably differences between Islamic and non-Islamic women's groups.

In the 1930s the most radical women's organisation of the day, Isteri Sedar, left the women's federation over issues perceived to be sensitive to Muslims. It saw the need to provide greater equity in marriage for Islamic women as more important than anything else. In particular it opposed current practices in the Islamic courts which permitted child marriage, arbitrary divorce of wives by their husbands, and husbands' unrestricted right to marry up to four wives. The Indonesian women's congress, however, preferred to downplay this issue in order to keep the peace with religious groups that opposed changes they regarded as undermining Islamic family law.

Accepting nationalism as a foundation plank not only meant subordinating some women's concerns in order to preserve unity. It also gained the women's movement the hostility of the Dutch colonial government, which was otherwise quite sympathetic towards its cause of improving the situation of women. Life was made difficult for a number of prominent women leaders of the day. S K Trimurti was imprisoned, while others found it hard to work and organise.

On the other hand, adopting nationalism also served the women's movement well in many ways. It won the support of the male-led nationalist movement, which was important in the longer term, when Indonesia finally gained independence, proclaimed in 1945. Women's support for the armed struggle for independence in the period 1945-9 won it further favour. The democratic government of the new Republic easily granted all sorts of legal rights to women in areas like constitutional equality, the right to vote, and equal pay in the civil service.

Yet the main concern of the women's movement in independent Indonesia, a uniform marriage law, was ignored by the male-dominated political system, which feared (quite legitimately) that focussing on that issue would arouse the wrath of Islamic parties.

As President Sukarno gained in power in the late 1950s and early 1960s, nationalism became increasingly strident and overwhelmed the women's movement. One of the few mass-based women's organisations of the time, Gerwani, sold out its specifically women's concerns in favour of wooing Sukarno's support through a strongly anti-imperialist orientation, as directed by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) with which it was aligned.

Some regions of the country had been so alienated by increasingly centralised rule from Jakarta that they revolted, and women's organisations in those areas became preoccupied with the consequences of rebellion.

New Order

When Sukarno's rule disastrously collapsed, the New Order that succeeded it maintained an equally strong nationalist ideology imposed through an impressive state apparatus of control.

President Suharto undertook not only to restore the country's economy from the disarray into which Sukarno's exploits had plunged it, but also to embark upon an ambitious program of socio-economic development. This had considerable advantages for the women's movement, since women benefited from greater order (at least after the initial massacres of 1965-6), from growing employment opportunities in the expanded economy, and from greatly improved education, health and other services.

The price they paid, however, was the mobilisation of the women's movement by the state. The regime set about 'cleansing' the women's movement by outlawing and demonising radical groups like Gerwani. It exerted strict control over the women's federation, Kowani, exploiting it for its own development purposes. The New Order boosted the role of the 'wives' organisations', such as Dharma Wanita (the wives of state employees), and created a new mass-based organisation, the Family Guidance Welfare Movement or PKK.

Apart from strictly non-political religious groups, the PKK was the only organisation permitted to sign up village women as members. PKK helped implement official development plans like the family planning program, which arguably brought great benefit to rural women by providing them with cheap or free contraceptives, albeit accompanied by considerable pressure and lack of adequate information or a wide range of choice.

In 1974 the authoritarian New Order gave the women's movement what it had long craved, a uniform marriage law that offered women more legal protection and certainty in marriage than the vast majority of them had previously had under the largely unsupervised and exclusively male-run Islamic legal system. Since 1974, the religious courts have been closely controlled by the government. Women have frequently been appointed as judges, and decisions, particularly about divorce and polygamy, are less arbitrary and weighted against wives.

Of course the Marriage Law was also useful to a government seeking to base its development plans on small, stable families. It could also be seen as a trade-off for getting the women's movement to provide unpaid labour for the government's development strategy.

By the last decade of the New Order, women, like many other sectors of society, grew restive under the restrictions enforced by an authoritarian regime relying on a nationalist and developmentalist ideology.Especially better-educated middle class young women chafed at the dominance of stuffy 'wives' organisations'. Lower-class women were deprived of any way of voicing their aspirations and grievances.

Middle class women began setting up new and often overtly feminist organisations, that sometimes claimed to defend the interests of poor women like overseas migrant workers, a growing category in recent years. They used support from international sources to their advantage to carve out a niche for their concerns. The fact that international conferences, supported by the Indonesian government, were trumpeting ideas like participation, empowerment, and opposition to domestic violence, gave the new organisations some legitimacy. Reluctantly, New Order discourse began to shift towards this rhetoric and to create official bodies like the Ministry for Women's Role that gave the new ideas a toe-hold in government.

However, the gradual adjustments the New Order was making in its final years were overwhelmed by the avalanche of reformasi that followed the economic collapse of 1997-98. The ideological edifice of the old regime was demolished. First Habibie and then Wahid recognised that the old ideas of tightly centralised nationalism and rapid economic growth were no longer viable. These two presidents were conciliatory towards the rising tide of regional dissatisfaction with Jakarta, tolerant of pluralism, and unable to buy off opponents with the fruits of economic growth.


The atmosphere is heady. In some ways the situation reminds us of the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, when women began exploring a range of new ideas, before any ideologies had begun to gel and become exclusive. Enjoying the new freedom, innumerable new women's organisations have blossomed, based on local concerns as well as international ideas ranging from religious revivalism and reform to human rights and feminism.

Virtually unrestricted, the media expose the new trends freely. The ranks of government provide sympathetic niches such as the newly created National Commission on Violence Against Women and the renamed Ministry for the Empowerment of Women.

In a climate where foreign aid has become more important than it has been for years, international influence on behalf of women has gained increasing clout. Aid agencies support women's organisations working in previously neglected areas, such as reproductive health amongst Islamic women.

For many women, however, the end of the New Order's grip must feel as painful as abandoning foot-binding did for older Chinese women! There is no structure, no order. Violence has proliferated in new forms, and women and children suffer disproportionately among the refugees from military repression and separatist and communal strife. Women's organisations in places like Aceh, Maluku and Papua are called on to patch up the wounds of violence, to work for peace, to provide subsistence support for displaced people. This resembles not liberation but misery.

The women's movement, like everything else, is in transition. Ideologically, nationalism and developmentalism have lost their grip. Regional diversity and even separatism assert themselves. The Jakarta cliques, also within the women's movement, have to backpedal to avoid accusations of dominance. These differences surfaced at the women's congress of December 1998, which some saw as an attempt to bring together women's organisations under an alternative umbrella similar to that of Kowani. Triumphalist developmentalism has taken a beating. PKK and the wives' organisation Dharma Wanita, its main channels within the women's movement, are struggling to regroup.

No universalising ideology looks likely to gain dominance.Rather, there are competing paradigms, including human rights, Islam, and international feminism. The movement is fragmented, and any effort to manufacture a strong umbrella organisation looks likely to fail.

In my view, however, this is no cause for concern. A women's movement does not need to be united It needs rather to represent women in all their diversity. Shifting and temporary alliances have been and will continue to be formed between organisations on particular issues like opposition to violence against women.

Rather than relying on an umbrella group that has the ear of the government at the expense of being tied to it, as Kowani has been, women's organisations will need to learn how to build a mass base and be more politically effective in rallying support from local, national and international allies. Some already have these skills, and can be expected to hone them further in the future, taking advantage of the democratic space provided since the fall of Suharto.

At a time of considerable uncertainty and even peril for many women, the Indonesian women's movement has thrown off the bridle into which it was forced by adopting increasingly hegemonic versions of nationalism and developmentalism. It is now facing its new freedom with a mixture of exhilaration and trepidation.

Dr Susan Blackburn ( is senior lecturer in the Department of Politics, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. She is writing a book on the history of the women's movement in Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 66: Apr - Jun 2001

Latest Articles

Labouring in vain?

May 03, 2024 - HASNA A. FADHILAH

The Labour Party (Partai Buruh) was revived in the wake of opposition to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, but failure in the 2024 election shows they failed to connect...

Book review: Uncovering Suharto's Cold War


Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.