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A Reflection on the socio-political, cultural,
and religious implications on women’s identity
in Indonesian context

by Anna MarsianaAnna Marsiana

In order to honor women and to protect them from any disrespectful acts by men, the provinces of Aceh, Padang, Tangerang, Garut, Batang, Bulukumba came up with the regional regulations for women to be implemented in 151 districts. Some regulations are directed to control women’s body and mobility. For example, one regulation prohibits women from going out in public areas after 7PM. One also directs women on how to dress in “respectful manner” —meaning covering her whole body because women’s bodies are “aurat” (objects of sexual desires). It prohibits women to wear trousers and jeans. These are a few examples from the regulations found in 151 regional regulations being applied in 151 districts all over Indonesia.

On the Socio-Political Aspects

In an international ecumenical gathering held in Bali, where I was asked to speak on the topic—Women’s Situation in Asia in general and in Indonesia in particular. I asked the participants how they perceived the women’s situation in Indonesia. The general impression they got after being in Bali for five days was that Indonesian women have freedom in almost everything. They enjoy the public sphere as much as their fellow men and seem to be given equal rights to education and in jobs. According to their observation and experience in the country, they did not observe much of women being oppressed and discriminated in this country. The same impression was also shared by most of the Indonesian participants of the WSCF AP Women Doing Theology workshop, held in Jakarta in November 2009, where I took a session on the topic mentioned for this article.

The impression grew stronger when I shared with them that the Indonesian constitution guaranteed women to have equal rights and opportunity for education and jobs; that women are protected by the law from any forms of domestic violence; and that political participation is guaranteed by the legal system (Act on political party & Act of Election System—guaranteed minimum 30% of women are in the executive committee of a political party while minimum 30% of women to be named by political party for legislative election). We have the National Commission on Violence Against Women, the National Commission on Child Protection, and the Minister of Women’s Empowerment Programme. It does sounds like Indonesia is the perfect place for women to live.

Women are forced to reconcile of two contradictory facts between reality and the (religious) teachings: between their dreams of what they wanted to be and the image of what good women and good wives should be.

Unfortunately, that is not the real picture of women’s situation in Indonesia. Being the biggest Moslem populated country in Asia, the government and many Indonesians like to claim that Indonesia is a secular state and yet a religious nation. All religions are competing to show to the world that they are breeding faithful and devoted religious communities. Unfortunately, the easiest way to show this to the world is by imposing some rigid rules and laws on women. Worse, not only are they trying to impose it within their own religious communities but also at the wider context to the nation through the legal system. As I mentioned earlier, there are 151 regional regulations (at district level) influenced by religious beliefs (Islam in most cases but also Christian in minor case) targeting women as the main subject of law.

The laws imposed by the regional governments of this non-religious country are clearly trying to limit the movement and space for women by setting the time for them to be allowed to stay outside the house and restricting their bodies through dress codes. As a result, women are sent back to the domestic sphere and confined in the house in the name of protection and honor.

A woman teacher was once arrested (2007) while waiting for her husband to pick her up one evening. She was mistakenly arrested on the basis of “showing gesture that can be interpreted as inviting and/or signing for casual date” which was considered violating the perda (regional law) in Tangerang. This perda is just one of the 151 perda in the country and Tangerang is just bordering Jakarta.

At the national level, such a way of thinking is also present. The bill on Anti-Pornography which criminalizes the woman’s body was passed last year. So far, two female singers have been arrested as they were accused arousing sexual desire in men through their performance and is considered porn.

Some women’s organizations and other civil society organizations have submitted their request for a judicial review to the Constitution Court, but the Court has rejected it on 25 March 2010. What was interesting is a number of women’s organizations, mostly religious based organizations, supported the passing of the bill on anti-pornography. In the name of morality and religious nation the minister of women’s empowerment also supported the law to be approved and passed by the law makers.

Cultural & Religious Aspects

Just like their fellow Asians in other parts of the continent, the Indonesians are deeply rooted in their traditions and cultures. We are so proud of our cultures. It is commonly understood that one of our big tasks as Indonesians is to preserveourculture(s). Generally, cultures are understood as sacred traditions. They are called “adat”. When one is against his own culture, he is called “Tidak beradat”, literally meaning a person with no respect for his own culture. But the term “tidak beradat” in Indonesian language can also be applied to a person who violates the social norms. That is why in many tribal/ethnic groups/communities when somebody is called “tidak berada”, s/he is considered as the lowest human being and deserves to be excluded from the community. This explains why many people are so cautious not to cross the line because of the fear of being excluded from the community. In big cities like Jakarta, though, such a practice is not observed closely anymore.

At a bigger scale, we deal with the issue of religion. Being uprooted from the traditional community and finding it difficult to form the same traditions-based community that preserves all the adats, people in big cities have searched for other means to bind them together and this meant re-rooting themselves in religion. This is not difficult to imagine given the social-political confusion stated earlier.

Basically, Indonesians have been made to believe that they are very religious people. That is very true as there is no place in this country for “non-religious” people. One has to state his/her religious belief (one of six legally recognized religions) in his/her ID card.

Religious teachings are everywhere but those in Indonesia have the big impact on the people in general and women in particular. Though one can find some new and more liberating interpretations of religion including feminist interpretation, the dominant patriarchal sexist teachings and interpretations against women and other gender-minority groups overshadow these initiatives.

In many cases, many religious teachings have created self-split images for many women. They are forced to reconcile two contradictory facts between reality and the religious teachings; between their dreams of what they wanted to be and the image of what good women and good wives should be.

Moreover, religion in this country have been used for political reasons and mainly for the benefits of men at the cost of women. Religious teachings have been instrumentalzed to domesticate, confine and even criminalize women in this country.

Women’s Identity is Imposed on Indonesian women

What can you say now on women’s situation in Indonesia? What kind of identity the women in the country have or claim to have? The identity crisis of women or the dual images of women in the country is the reality which many of us experience here.

Women in Indonesia have reacted differently to this. Some decided to identify themselves either by ethnicity or religion. Some do not know how to deal with all conflicting elements and just try to get along. A small number of women have decided to use their bodies as political instruments to counter these biased laws and policies during protest rallies and in their daily lives.

This is just to show that talking about women’s identity in this country is unveiling layers of socio-political, cultural and religious aspects and contexts. I cannot but agree that this is a very important issue to discuss because otherwise, we will simply accept to live a self-split life.