In 2001 Gay Rights activist Dede Oetomo had a book opening in Yogyakarta closed by the police. In 2003 a novel about a lesbian couple was launched before more than 500 at a State Islamic tertiary education institution (Institut Agama Islam Negeri – IAIN) in the same city with no bans or protests.
A sign of growing tolerance, or just a storm delayed?
Dede has long been a controversial public figure in Indonesia, an academic and an easy target. But the author of Garis Tepi Seorang Lesbian (The Margins of Lesbianism) is too new on the scene to be labelled, and in interviews steps adroitly around the question most Indonesian journalists ask: ‘Are you a lesbian?’
‘That is not the point,’ said Herlina Tien Suhesti ‘I may love a woman or a man or be bisexual. It could be a him or her. It doesn’t matter whether that person has a penis or vagina. The important thing is that I love them.
‘You don’t have to become pregnant to be a mother. Society has to accept that there are multiple ways of loving.’
In Australia such comments would be ho-hum. But not in Indonesia and particularly when coming from a 21 year old undergraduate who wears the Islamic jilbab (head scarf) and is outside the Jakarta intellectual set. In Indonesia this is heavy-duty rhetoric undermining the national ideals of a family headed by a man and served by a dutiful wife who produces heirs. What’s love got to do with it?
In her novel, which is now in its second print run, two contemporary women in their late 20s are harassed by their families to perform as dictated by State and culture. The lovers are split and one marries a man to please her mother, but the care and concern felt by the young women for their families is not returned.
The women believe they can follow their religion and express their lesbian love, but not surprisingly, their views are rejected by the community. They feel betrayed and damaged when they are labelled sick and abnormal.
In a foreword University of Amsterdam academic Saskia Wieringa says the book is ‘a powerful cry for the right of every human being to love the way they do … it’s a rage against injustice.’
Herlinatiens (her pen name) says she’s met people like the characters in her book, though she claims her life and upbringing have been conventional. She was born in the East Java town of Ngawi where her father works for the railways and her mother is a traditional housewife. The family has a pesantren (school of Koranic studies) background. Although her parents were ‘shocked’ by their daughter’s book, she says her upbringing allowed free discussion of issues. When it was suggested she was a feminist, the intense and rapid-talking author flared: ‘I don’t see myself as a feminist because the women’s group I was associated with in Yogyakarta did not support disadvantaged women.’
Herlinatiens has become something of a cult leader among many young women and was mobbed by teenagers wearing jilbab at the University of Airlangga during her Surabaya launch. She seems undisturbed by the fame and unpretentious about her talent, admitting to writing the novel in five days and four nights. She says the book resonates with young Muslims because homosexuality is a real issue in the sex-segregated pesantren.
She has written three other books but this is the first to be published. Her next novel is likely to be about prostitutes. ‘I’m an observer, and I want to report on the lives of marginalised people,’ she said. Her model author is Mochtar Lubis whose 1960s book Twilight in Djakarta reported on the poor and oppressed.
There are few novels featuring alternative lifestyles available in Indonesia. Dede, who assists the activist organisation Gaya Nusantara, is trying to get the works of overseas gay writers made available in Indonesia.
‘The lack of quality translators and timid publishers has hampered the development of gay literature,’ he said. ‘However I think all this is going to change now with Herlinatiens’ book. This is a major step forward.’
The possibility of condemnation by the powerful Islamic establishment seems not to faze the young writer. She takes heart from the experience of dangdut singer Inul Daratista whose allegedly erotic gyrations on stage have been damned by religious groups and traditional dangdut singers.
However the wowsers have been trounced by widespread public support for Inul who continues to twist and turn on peak time TV programs and may yet feature as a warm-up act in next year’s election campaign.
And although there has been sweeping of some bookshops by radical Muslims seeking to purge shelves of leftist literature in the post-Suharto era of literary freedom, there’s been a general reaction against censorship in Indonesia.
‘I’m relaxed,’ said Herlinatiens. ‘So far there have been no problems. No one has the right to tell others how to love. Life is choices. When one decides not to choose, that is also a choice.’