The silent voices of women

The course of Indonesia’s history has been put on its head by “historians” who serve the military. Women who have been tortured and defeated should not become desperate. We must fight to live.

The silent voices of women AFP Photo/ Anton Raharjo / NurPhoto

It has been 54 years since the dark events of G-30-S (the September 30th Movement) in 1965. Ever since, research on these events and their related issues has been an interesting academic exercise. One of the lesser-researched issues is violence against women in the post- G-30-S era. There were a lot of women whose lives were mortgaged due to political choices. This essay gives a feminist perspective on the 1965 period and the Indonesian Women’s Movement (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia, or Gerwani), through a framework of feminist sexual politics, and discusses how a women’s movement is depoliticized within that framework.

Gerwani: A historical account

Author Amurwani Dwi Lestariningsih documented Gerwani in her book “GERWANI: The Story of Women as Political Prisoners in Plantungan Camp (1969-1979).” According to her, Gerwani was a force in the Indonesian women’s movement, as its members were women with a good understanding of politics. Gerwani was previously known as Gerwis, or Gerakan Wanita Indonesia Sedar (the Movement of Conscious Indonesian Women), and was created to contribute to Indonesia’s independence.

In June 1950, a coalition of six organizations held its first congress and established Gerwis as a new organization. The congress also discussed political attitudes toward West Papua and Indonesia’s controversial marriage law. It also made the important decision to allow the Indonesian Communist

Party to contribute to Gerwis. However, Gerwis declared itself a nonpolitical organization, with a vision to liberate people and society from slavery and any other form of oppression, to reach equality. It underlined its understanding of the importance of women having a role in the fight against imperialism and capitalism by adopting Pancasila as its fundamental ideology. But Gerwis allowed its members to join any political party they wished, such as the Indonesian Communist Party and the Indonesian National Party.

During its existence, Gerwis–Gerwani organized five congresses, which resulted in a number of milestones. The second congress, in 1954, debated issues such as peace, children’s rights, education and women’s issues. Gerwis also worked to improve literacy rates in the country by establishing a number of schools, including kindergartens, across Indonesia. After the second congress, Gerwis transformed into Gerwani and changed from a cadreoriented group to a mass organization. Following this change, Gerwani saw its membership swell and the organization became increasingly involved in politics.

But Gerwani’s relationship with other women’s organizations, especially religiousbased groups, was not good. One such group, Wanita Katolik, said Gerwani was too communist and its policies tended to align with those of the Indonesian Communist Party. Gerwani’s communist principles also created tensions with Islamic women’s organizations. Moreover, Gerwani’s attitude was considered too harsh. For Gerwani, political objectives mattered above all.

During its fourth congress, in 1961, Gerwani’s political activities were adjusted to align with the policies of President Soekarno. And at the fifth congress, in December 1964, Gerwani became loosely affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party. Those who supported and those who opposed such an affiliation heatedly debated this decision. However, through Sept 30th, 1965, Gerwani was never officially affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party.

On that night, there was an attempted coup led by the G-30-S movement. The group, which included some Army officers and members of the Indonesian Communist Party, murdered six Army generals and one lieutenant. In the months that followed, there was a massacre of between 500,000 and three million “leftists,” concluding with Army General Soeharto taking power, later becoming president and ruling for 32 years. Gerwani, which was considered an ally of the communists, was also held responsible.

Women’s organization to women’s movement

In speaking of Gerwani as a women’s movement, Dutch sociologist Saskia Eleonora Wieringa argues that women’s organizations can be part of a women’s movement. However, in defining women’s movements, she argues that it has to be linked to efforts for women’s emancipation. She argues that women’s organizations do not necessarily share that goal, as they can be divided into two categories, as organizations of or for women.

Organizations of women (independent organizations) are formed in a process in which women’s emancipation may be one of the goals. Women can organize themselves for other purposes based on things such as class, religion and ethnicity. Organizations for women (dependent organizations) are usually created by other actors who want to mobilize women for their own purposes. This may involve women’s emancipation, but it is usually not the primary goal. These categories, however, are not mutually exclusive and there may be changes as organizations develop.

Sexual politics

Within the feminist framework, the Italian author and professor of the history of consciousness, Teresa de Lauretis, argues that “feminism defines itself as a political instance, not merely a sexual politics, but a politics of experience, of everyday life, which later then in turn enters the public sphere of expression and creative practice, and it has located epistemological priority in the personal, the subjective, the body, the symptomatic, the quotidian, as the very site of material inscription of the ideological.”

In praxis, the German-American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt observed that governments exist with supporting power through consent or enforcement. Supporting this idea, the late American feminist writer Kate Millett argued that sexual politics gets consent through the socialization of both sexes – men and women – to basic patriarchal politics relating to temperament, role and status. As to status, it determines the stereotyped ideas of the superior status of males and inferior status of females. Temperament refers to human personality in accordance with the gender categories of masculine and feminine, which lies in the needs and values of the dominant group and is dictated by what its members favor toward subordinates: aggression, intelligence, force and efficacy in men; passivity, ignorance, docility, virtue and ineffectuality in women. This is supported by a second factor: the sex role, which pronounces a consonant and highly elaborate code of conduct, gesture and attitude for each sex. Hence, male supremacy, like other political doctrines, is not merely physical, but in the acceptance of a value system that is not biological. Consequently, superior physical
strength is not a factor in political relations,
such as race and class.

In speaking about sexual politics, I also refer to American philosopher Judith Butler’s theory of performativity and precarity to support and give detail to Kate Millett’s theory. According to Butler, performativity is an account of agency, while precarity focuses on the threatened condition in ways that are outside of one’s control. She also states, in saying that gender is performative, that the “appearance” of gender is often mistaken as a sign of internal truth: that gender is constructed by certain norms to be one gender or the other (usually within a strictly binary frame), and the reproduction of gender is always negotiated with power. Hence, there is no gender without the reproduction of norms that risk undoing or redoing the norm in unexpected ways, thus giving a chance for the possibility of remaking the gendered reality.

Precarity is therefore directly linked with gender norms, since those who do not live within their genders in understandable ways are at risk of harassment and violence. Accordingly, gender norms have everything to do with how and in what way we can appear in public; how and in what way we are known in public and private and how that difference is instrumentalized in the service of sexual politics; who will be criminalized on the basis of public appearance; who will fail to be protected by the law; and more specifically, who will be stigmatized. So, these norms are not only instances of power.

Accordingly, power cannot stay as power without reproducing itself in some way. Every act of reproduction of power risks going unclear, or producing effects that are not fully foreknown.

In terms of the subject in this context, it is not a “subject” that independently leads to action and thought. Rather, it is a socially produced “agent” and “deliberator” whose agency and thought is more likely made by a language that leads the “I.” Hence, the “I” is produced through power, although it is not merely the effect of power. Power depends on a mechanism of reproduction that can go awry, undo the strategies of power and produce new and even subversive effects. Therefore, performativity becomes linked with precarity. The performativity of gender has everything to do with who counts as a life, who can be read or understood as a living being, and who lives, or tries to live, on the far side of established modes of intelligibility.

In accordance with Judith Butler’s ideas of performativity, it does not just refer to explicit acts of speech, but also to the reproduction of norms. Therefore, there is no reproduction of society that is not at the same time a reproduction of those norms that govern the intelligibility of the body in space and time. Thus, the theory of gender performativity assumes that norms are acting on us before we have a chance to act at all, and that when we do act, we recapitulate the norms that act upon
us, even in new or unexpected ways, but still in relation to norms that engage us and exceed us. In other words, norms upon us, work upon us, and this kind of “being worked on” makes its way into our own actions. Mistakenly, we sometimes announce that we are the driving force of our actions without knowing what appropriate norms of gender want of us, and yet we find ourselves moved and oriented within its terms.

Depoliticizing Gerwani

In reading the history of Indonesian women in 1965 via Gerwani, I categorize the analysis into two acts. The first one is sexual slander. As previously mentioned, Gerwani was a women’s organization that originally focused on social issues. Its close relations with the Indonesian Communist Party made it switch its focus to political issues. At that time, Gerwani was the only women's organization involved in politics. And its relationship with the Indonesian Communist Party helped propel some of its members into the country’s Parliament.

Gerwani’s relationship with the Indonesian Communist Party was later used as an excuse by Soeharto’s New Order regime to make it complicit in the murders of the Army generals. Gerwani was accused of castrating the six generals and a lieutenant, although there was probably no possibility of the group’s members being involved in the event. Cited from D & R magazine (“Center of Information Analysis, Gerakan 30 September: Antara Fakta dan Rekayasa, 2005”), Prof Dr Arif Budianto (Liem Joe Thay), one of the doctors on the autopsy team, stated that the victims were not castrated.

The second term is the stigmatization of Gerwani in a relief at the Pancasila Sakti Monument near where the bodies of the six generals and a lieutenant were disposed in a well near Halim Airport in South Jakarta, known infamously to this day as the “Crocodile Hole.” As documented by Lestariningsih (2010), the reliefs illustrate Gerwani members as putting up resistance. The Gerwani members are illustrated as dressed in military clothing with their waistlines exposed and trying to look sexy. On the other side, there is a relief illustrating women of the New Order exhibiting polite, obedient behavior, espousing images of good women.

Sexual slander and stigmatization used as methods to depoliticize women’s movements are fueled by the patriarchal system in Indonesian society. Referring to the definition of patriarchy by Chris Weedon, a German professor and author, in her 1987 book “Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory”: “The term ‘patriarchal’ refers to power relations in which women’s interests are subordinated to the interests of men. These power relations take on many forms, from the sexual division of labor and the social organization of procreation to the internalized norms of femininity by which we live. Patriarchal power rests on social meaning given to biological sexual difference.” Therefore, political acts using sex symbols to subordinate women will work where any patriarchal system lives.

After sexual politics are constructed, the next step is taking political action. So Gerwani members were arrested and sent to the Plantungan camp, a women’s only prison camp in Central Java Province, as political prisoners. As Gerwani were considered immoral due to sexual slander and stigmatization, the New Order established the Plantungan camp to re-educate and rehabilitate them, and also to educate them about the state ideology, Pancasila. Yet, Gerwani members said they were sexually abused by the male military officers running the camp (Lestariningsih, 2010).

A hermeneutic recovery

After the massacres of leftists in 1965 and 1966, there was nothing left but trauma. Over the decades, there have been progressive efforts to heal this dark history, including advocating for the rights of the victims. The late President Abdurrahman Wahid, who served from 1999 to 2001, apologized for the events of 1965-66. He took steps toward reconciliation, such as removing the code on the state identity cards of former political prisoners that had denied them public services.

Efforts at reconciliation as well as advocacy to restore the rights of victims remain a work in progress. The latest effort was the International People’s Tribunal (IPT) 1965, in The Hague, in November 2015. The IPT was a civil society initiative to expose the truth of what happened after the G-30-S incident, in which many people were killed, exiled, imprisoned or discriminated against due to their political affiliation or alleged leftism. This “people’s court” was held under the coordination of Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, a veteran Indonesian lawyer. Although the event was like a trial in court, as it involved the testimony of victims, it had no legal authority. Rulings were nonbinding. However, the tribunal allowed the public to see from the testimony of victims what happened in 1965 and in its aftermath.

This essay aims to give a hermeneutic recovery for repressed voices. Feminism offers a new privileged status for women, especially minority women, and its insights can trigger a new value system of ethics and equality (Dewi Candraningrum, 2016). Thus, this essays aims to insist that readers understand the return of the repressed voices of women from the 1965 period, and does not suggest that women’s writing is a symptom of some historical disease. Rather, it proposes a hermeneutic recovery of women’s voices. Moreover, feminism imagines the world in new ways. It has the power to change social relations by giving a microphone to repressed voices to re-establish Indonesian women’s places to achieve gender equality.



"Isyfi’afiani is an English teacher at Lembaga Bahasa International at the University of Indonesia, and an alumna of the School of Government and Public Policy-Indonesia."

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