Sex remains a taboo subject in Indonesia, causing discomfort and a sense of panic when discussed in the public domain.
Lawyer and human rights activist Nursyahbani Katjasungkana is dead set on changing this state of affairs by carrying out research and policy advocacy.
In Yogyakarta last week, the former house member from the National Awakening Party (PKB) talked to The Jakarta Post on her way to Gadjah Mada University where she was scheduled to speak at the International Policy Dialogue on gender and sexuality.
The dialogue, organized by women’s/gender studies research network Kartini Asia and Amsterdam-base SEPHIS (South-South Exchange Programme for Research on the History of Development), was part of Nursyahbani’s endeavor to build a movement on sexual rights in Indonesia. It brought together Indonesian and international researchers as well as activists in the field of sexuality to find better strategies when carrying out advocacy work.
Soft-spoken, with intelligent and warm eyes behind her black-rimmed glasses, Nursyahbani explained why examining sexuality was crucial when defending human rights.
“Sexuality is not only about having sex. It controls human’s behaviors when they interact with each other. It encompasses people’s sexual orientation. Homosexuals, heterosexuals and bisexuals are within a continuum line in which the pendulum can lean either to the left or right,” she said. The control over women’s bodies in a patriarchal society also stems from a fear of women’s sexuality.”
In 2003, she co-founded Kartini Asia, a research network focusing on women and gender studies in Asia that aims to create synergies between women’s/gender studies and feminist activism in the region.
In 1990, she said, she had the harrowing experience of putting her six-month-old daughter under the knife for the Islamic tradition of female genital mutilation.
“The first time I saw clearly how female sexuality was oppressed was in the case of my own daughter. I knew that female circumcision was not compulsory – that it was a means to control women’s bodies and their sexuality. I read several hadith – which might be weak – that it [female circumcision] existed to control women so they would not be promiscuous, and have affairs.”
Nursyahbani and her sisters also underwent female genital mutilation as babies, she recalled.
“My mother, through my sister, kept pressuring me into continuing this practice. Both would always ask whether my daughter had been circumcised yet. I gave in after six months.”
Her mother who comes from a traditional Betawi community said it would be a sin not to carry out the circumcision.
“Finally, after six months, I brought my daughter to the doctor. I remember I had goose bumps walking into the hospital. My daughter was taken by the midwife and nurse inside, and I heard her screaming. When she came out, her diaper was covered in blood.”
Medical practitioners in big cities like Jakarta carried out the procedure until the mid 1990s. Nursyahbani said a doctor had performed the procedure on the baby of one of her fellow feminist scholars when she came to give birth in a prominent hospital in Jakarta, without obtaining her consent. Only in 2006 did the Health Ministry release a circular to end the practice of female genital mutilation.
Nursyahbani said she deeply regretted agreeing to her daughter having her female genitalia cut. As her daughter reached maturity, Nursyahbani told her about the genital mutilation and her own experience.
“That was my first experience — of seeing female sexuality shaped by a social construct and women perceived merely as sexual creatures. The regional bylaws on obscenity depicting women as obscene humans and the cause of rape stem from that way of thinking,” she said.
Her work as defending female workers and pregnant teenagers finally strengthened her conviction that sexuality and sexual rights had to be addressed as human rights issues.
She added that researchers and activists needed to keep collaborating to work on policy advocacy. Changing society’s perception on sexuality issues and eventually behavior will take a long time, Nursyahbani went on.
Nursyahbani, a renowned advocate for legal justice and the protection of human rights for Indonesian women, co-founded the Indonesian Women Association for Justice and became the first secretary general for Indonesia Women’s Coalition for Justice and Democracy.
“It took us seven years to pass the Domestic Violence Law,” she said. “Seven years,” she repeated in a whisper.
“Change does not come easily.”