Indonesian Feminism in the Social Media Era
Jakarta Feminist Discussion Group (JFDG) began as a Facebook group in 2014. In roughly 4 years, its membership has grown to more than 2,000 members and 50 volunteers, organizing talks, Feminist Festival, and initiating the Women’s March Jakarta last year. The second WMJ was held last Saturday—one of the 15 marches organized around Indonesia as part of the International Women’s Day event—attracting thousands of participants.
April Magazine talks with four Indonesian feminists from JFDG: Dea Safira Basori; Maria C.F.; Anindya Restuviani, WMJ project coordinator; and Naila Rizqi Zakiah, WMJ deputy organizer.
Q: How did you get introduced to feminism and interested in feminism?
Dea Safira Basori (Dea): I guess I have always been a feminist. There were a lot of things I questioned that really made me realize there were so many inequalities between the sexes, that a woman’s place was defined in ways that left them exploited by all means. I never stopped learning and seeking more, and feminism is also about finding a sense of spirituality and ownership of oneself.
Maria C.F. (Maria): It’s a long story, and my interest in feminism did not happen instantly.
I have known the term “feminism” since I was a teenager with some basic understanding. To be honest, at that time, although I agreed with the idea of equality, I found the idea quite absurd; to me at that time it was odd that feminism talked about equality, but focused so much on women (especially cis-women).
As I started to conform with my identity as queer, I began to understand what intersectionality and having privileges means. Even then I still found the idea of feminism quite absurd, as it seemed to be too cis-centrist for me—not to mention most feminists I knew were non-Asians and my only resource at that time was filtered through Western media.
Then I got deeper into multiple online and offline discussions and I met many Asian and queer feminists that I could relate with. They helped me to understand by putting feminist theories into an Asian context. It was not an overnight process, it took years for me to accept this idea and proudly call myself a feminist.
Anindya Restuviani (Vivi): I grew up in a very conservative Muslim Javanese family that believes women are second-class citizens, so I have experienced my fair share of gender discrimination. Since I was a kid, I always felt there was something wrong with how my family treated me.
The discrimination started to become more obvious when I entered a conservative religious boarding school, to the point that the school gave fewer facilities to the female students than to the male students; the school even forbid me from going on a student exchange to America just because I am a woman. I always had to fight for my rights, even when I didn’t yet know there was a word or ideology for it.
Naila Rizqi Zakiah (Naila): I was raised in a conservative extended family, where all the female family members had to wear the hijab and know how to cook. But I am grateful that within my main family, those obligations were not applied. My mom was the head of our family. She was an independent woman who married at the age of 32, which at that time was kind of taboo for a woman to be married so late. She also paid all our expenses because my father had a lower income. She was my feminist role model. Although she never really introduced me to feminism, for me, her life is a reflection of feminism.
Q: How has feminism affected your life?
Dea: I see things in a much more reflective way. I try to position myself in someone else’s shoes. And not only that, I get to understand what others might have gone through. It gave me more perspective about what other women face.
Maria: Feminism certainly makes a big impact in my life, and I do not think I will be able to turn back. It makes me more critical about my surroundings and knowing the overt and covert injustice surrounding me, it’s hard not to be emotional.
I believe with knowledge comes power, with power come responsibilities. I sought advice from senior activists on how systematic oppression exists. Overall, feminism has enabled me to think critically and at the same time be more knowledgeable regarding social issues around me.
Vivi: It has affected my life greatly. I believe without feminism I would not have come this far. I would never have earned my law degree without feminism. I would never have gotten out of an abusive relationship without feminism. And I believe it should and will greatly affect so many more lives if everybody understands what feminism is. It’s more than fighting for women’s rights. It acknowledges culture, racial, environmental issues, and many more. It’s about humanity.
Naila: Knowing feminism is empowering. It makes me unlearn what I’ve been told about being a woman, that we are second-class creatures, and it makes me more comfortable with myself and lets me fully accept myself as a Muslim woman. I had been in a situation where I believed in the teaching of Islam that objectifies women, such as polygamy, female genital mutilation. By learning feminism, I am allowed to criticize my belief and seek an alternative interpretation of my own religion. I met many feminist Islamic scholars and they told me about using feminism as a tool to interpret the teaching of Islam.
Feminism also helps me to criticize the social construct of women, especially in my work as a public defender. I use feminism to analyze legal cases, such as the death penalty or women drug-mule cases. It helps me to show the judge how vulnerable women are exploited in drug trafficking so the death penalty or harsh punishment wouldn’t be fair for them. For me, feminism is not only an ideology that I believe, but also a weapon to protect women and other vulnerable people.
Q: What are the main challenges for women and feminism in Indonesia?
Dea: I guess it is hard to challenge the authority or anyone in power, be it a man or a woman. A lot of women internalize misogyny and when we challenge such normalized norms, we are considered rebels. This has become one of my many concerns when addressing older people who have held power and positions for so long.
Maria: I notice that society at large thinks Indonesian women are being empowered, when actually they are being oppressed. For instance, they think encouraging women to cover themselves and not come home too late at night would protect them—these are just the small examples. Another would be microfinancing initiated by the government for impoverished women in Indonesia—it was created to encourage women entrepreneurship and strengthen their economic standing. However, this too is often proven to be a failure, since in the end it is the husband who has the ultimate power to give the wife permission to take the loan and what to do with the money. I find this extremely ironic and oxymoronic at the same time.
Vivi: I must say the lack of understanding and ignorance of what the situation really is. Many people simply do not care and do not know that most of the issues that happen in Indonesia are closely related to gender inequality.
Religious extremism also plays a very big role in this growing ignorance. The worst is that people are starting to be intolerant towards diversity, and this somehow closes the room for discussion.
Naila: Besides the patriarchal culture, we still have laws and policies which discriminate against women.
Laws and policies play a crucial role in contributing to the discrimination and violence against women and vulnerable groups. If the parliament agreed to criminalize zina [non-marital sex] and homosexuality, that would be a major setback of human rights and democracy in Indonesia. Women and LGBT people will be the most persecuted people in the future.
Q: Last weekend, the second Women’s March Jakarta was held in the Indonesian capital, and there would be other Women’s Marches in other cities. What impressed you the most?
Dea: I was impressed with the number of young women and men marching together. I was impressed with friends in hijab showing solidarity and support for LGBT rights. I was impressed with domestic workers who showed up. Moreover, with Women’s March being held in 15 different cities, I am also impressed by the enthusiasm coming from all over Indonesia.
Maria: I was impressed with how inclusive and safe the space was. Everyone, men and women, could just express themselves freely either through their clothing, posters, flags, and other attributes that they brought. There was so much energy there, it felt like one big family—one big nation even.
I was happy that the event was neither heteronormative nor cis-normative. Trans people were given opportunities to be represented, plenty of people carried transgender flags and rainbow flags and proudly waved them. After all, we are sisters not cis-ters!
There were also domestic workers, women factory workers, sex workers, etc. It was such an excellent event to get out from our comfort zone—whilst still feeling safe. I was also happy to see the amount of heterosexual cis-men attending the march and showing strong support for feminism.
Vivi: Like last year: the crowd. The Women’s March has always been a safe space for me, everyone can be whoever they are without being judged.
Every time I look at the people and see that many people showed up, it always makes me feel emotional. It makes me realized that we are not alone. We are all in this together.
Naila: I was impressed with not only thousands of people who joined the march but also with the diversity of issues that we raise and of the people. There were the young, the elderly, babies, people with disabilities, domestic workers, LGBT people, migrant workers, sex workers, people living with HIV, people who use drugs. I was impressed with their anger, high spirit and hope. I was impressed with all the genius posters.
Q: Why was the Women’s March Jakarta important?
Dea: It was very important especially in the light of discriminatory laws and policies. It was a safe space for women, especially the young ones who are afraid to take to the streets and protest. It was about democracy. It was to show empathy, to educate, to learn from one another, to show others about the struggles of women from all layers of society.
Maria: Visibility is always important, it encourages others to stand up as well. Just look at how many women in other cities in Indonesia decided to form their own regional feminist groups and organize their own Women’s March.
There was so much energy there, thousands of people attended in Jakarta alone, even the president [Joko Widodo] mentioned us on his social media accounts.
Unfortunately, not so many of my friends cared enough to attend, some of my queer friends think the Women’s March is merely a futile “demo” or protest. Although I explained to them that WMJ was more like a parade, they were still afraid they might get backlash from the public just for attending.
Vivi: This year’s Women’s March was very important because we used the momentum to advocate for three main policies: rejecting the criminal code revision [that would criminalize non-marital sex and gay sex], calling for the anti-sexual-violence bill and the domestic workers’ protection bill. All three concern the protection of women (and marginalized groups). It is also a great momentum to work together on the #TimesUp and #MeToo movement to raise awareness about gender-based violence in Indonesia.
In a turn of events, our president responded, with an Instagram post dedicated to women of Indonesia and congratulated those who joined the Women’s March. I hope it will open a further discussion with the president so our demands can be fulfilled.
However, I get so many hate-speech messages through social media because my pictures with my signs are spread among hard-line religious groups. But it will never make me stop whatever I am doing. On the other hand, it convinces me that feminism is something that this country desperately needs.
Naila: This year we have 15 Women’s Marches in Indonesia. It shows that there are problems and there is hope. We still have problems, such as the increased incidence of sexual violence, the criminal-code revision bill, the rise of intolerance, women trafficking and many others. But on the bright side, we still have hope on women’s movement to fight against any oppression, discrimination and inequality towards women and other vulnerable groups.
Q: How has social media influenced feminism in Indonesia?
Dea: Feminism on social media is a big thing. We need a place for women to feel safe, empowered, and to tell them that we exist and that there is a support group for women and LGBTQIA people. A lot of the social media users doesn’t know where to find solution when they are going through a problem, so the social media is the easiest way to to seek help. Social media is like a bridge that connects people.
Maria: Social media has a huge influence in Indonesia’s feminist movement. JFDG was started from Facebook and it already gathered the critical mass to march.
It is hard for Indonesians living outside Jakarta to gain access to quality information and feminist communities—hence, social media plays an important role as an outlet to brainstorm feminist issues and connect like-minded people. Social media can act as a safe space to reach out to people from these small collective communities and unite us all.
Vivi: I learned a lot from social media. I received a lot information from it too, and we also use social media as our main platform to advocate and educate society about feminism.
Naila: The Women’s March would not be this successful without social media. In the Internet era, social media plays a critical role as a campaign and advocacy tool.
Q: In Asia, feminism is often seen as a Western import. What is your response to that?
Dea: I call it BS. Obviously, these people do not know anything about Asia’s rich history of women. Without women passing on knowledge and traditions through generations, we wouldn’t reach the point of diversity today. Western imperialism has been exploiting women and giving a false narrative. Women who were warriors and leaders in their time were forcibly domesticated by the beginning of colonialism. For example, women in Bali who even didn’t wear any tops and went bare-chested used to take up public space, but since the Dutch came, they told the women to cover up. The Dutch imposed their own moral standards on us. Since then the misogynistic treatment towards women and their enforced values has been inherited and kept on by most of the Asian countries and now they are calling it Eastern values? That is just so ignorant and politically demeaning.
Maria: I find it hilarious that in Asia many argue that feminism does not fit Asian values, while in the West many argue that feminism is not needed there. In the end, saying feminism does not fit into X society just indicates ignorance and apathy.
The term might be a “Western import”, but the mind-set is not. I have met a handful of Asians who have a strong feminist mind-set but refuse to identify as feminist because of the strong stigma society imposes on the term due to lack of understanding about feminism. In fact, there are even plenty of strong female historical figures in Asia such as Ching Shih, Kartini and Cut Nyak Dhien, so I do not see how feminism is a Western import. The jargons maybe but the values are not.
Vivi: I have always been a feminist, but I just did not know the word for it. And just like Indonesia, some of our culture is very progressive, but maybe we just see that as something normal that happens on daily basis that we did not call it feminism.
Kartini, our women’s emancipation icon, was a feminist. Without her feminist values, all of us women would never be able to get an education. And gender issues are not limited to an “Eastern problem”. It happens everywhere. It’s a global issue.
Naila: Feminism as an idea is rooted in our culture, which is Asian. In Indonesia, we have many women heroes such as Kartini, Cut Nyak Dhien or Dewi Sartika, who fought for gender equality and freedom. It is the social construct which obstructs the role of women and the idea of feminism in Asia.
Q: What is your message of solidarity to other feminists in Asia?
Dea: Listen to other feminists from all over Asia, acknowledge and recognize their struggle, don’t speak over others, and lift each other up.
Maria: Be kind to your sisters, give them a safe space to lean in, never stop learning, never stop growing; nobody is perfect.
It takes time for everyone to process the idea of intersectional feminism, some may take less time than others; it is not easy to deconstruct the mind.
Always put things into context; what might work in other places might not necessarily work where you reside. Plenty of feminist movements in Asia follow the feminist movements in the West, but the movements in the West are not perfect. Remember that different countries have different cultural dimension as well as political ideologies and economic standing.
It’s good to be idealistic, having life principles is important, but do not forget to be pragmatic. Most importantly, be empathetic.
Vivi: Never give up! I know that we live in a society where many believe that feminism is not our value, but it is our value. We all are fighting for the same rights, human rights. We all are in this together.
Naila: We are not alone. This is our time to stand hand in hand to fight injustice, oppression, and discrimination against women and other vulnerable groups. This is the time to develop an intersectional movement under feminism.
April Magazine thanks Dea, Maria, Vivi, and Naila for speaking to us, and for being an inspiration to women around the world, and to everybody invested in a free and fair society.