‘The Silent Song of Genjer Flowers’: Against despair through storytelling

In her play “Nyanyi Sunyi Kembang-Kembang Genjer” (The Silent Song of Genjer Flowers), feminist playwright Faiza Mardzoeki captures how, for female survivors of the communist purge, the simple act of telling their stories is an act against despair.

What is it like to keep the secret of the most painful experience you’ve ever had from your own flesh and blood? What is it like to be emotionally alienated from your loved ones, separated by lies systematically spread and kept alive for decades?

In modern-day Indonesia, these questions are not hypothetical. For a long time, survivors of the 1965-1966 communist purge kept their traumatic experiences of torture, sexual violence and imprisonment from their next of kin for various psychological and political reasons. Many have carried them to their graves.

Playwright Faiza Mardzoeki, in her play Nyanyi Sunyi Kembang-Kembang Genjer (The Silent Song of Genjer Flowers), captures how, for women survivors of the communist purge, the simple act of telling their stories is an act against despair that carries with it the faint hope of healing.

It was a leap of faith to end their emotional isolation from the younger generation, who had been raised to fear and hate them. The play, first performed in the Goethe Institute in 2014 and recently this year at the Asean Literary Festival, is now available in book form, published by Bandung-based publisher Ultimus.

In 1965, after the failed putsch that killed six army generals and an officer by a group calling themselves the 30th September Movement, the military slandered the communists and their supporters, especially members of Gerwani, the women’s organization affiliated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), stating their involvement in torturing the generals.

As researcher Saskia Wieringa wrote in her book The Destruction of the Women’s Movement: Sexual Politics in Indonesia after the Downfall of the Indonesian Communist Party, horrific stories of communist women seducing the generals with lewd dancing, mutilating their genitals and gouging out their eyes, were circulated in military-controlled newspapers — the only press allowed at the time.

Soeharto, who grabbed the seat of power after the entire Indonesian left was eliminated, made sure the lies were repeated to the next generation, creating a specter of communism within Indonesian society.

In Silent, Mardzoeki took true stories of former prisoners at Plantungan, a prison for women in East Java where members of Gerwani, the female union workers, left-leaning journalists and communist sympathizers were banished.

The phrase Genjer Flowers is a metaphor for female victims of the communist purge. The folk song “Genjer-Genjer,” about a wild plant that was eaten as a vegetable during the Japanese occupation, was popular among Gerwani members and many leftist artists.

Mardzoeki, 43, grew up under Soeharto’s regime and was one of the first batch of Indonesian students to see the propaganda slasher-style film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI that depicts communists as violent and immoral.

In Silent, she incorporated her own experience of discovering in her 20s the unspoken violence against communists and their sympathizers. Originally an activist for worker’s rights and women’s rights activists, she encountered women survivors of the 1965 communist purge through her work.

She witnessed how difficult it was for the survivors, such as Sulami, former secretary general of Gerwani, and Sudjinah, who worked as a journalist and translator in the 1960s, to revisit their traumatic past and share their stories with her. Yet they did.

Silent tells the story of Minghayati Dayanina, a beautiful young woman in her 20s who is piecing together stories of her grandmother’s past. Her grandmother, Suhartini, 83, was a member of Gerwani.

Nini, as Suhartini is called, lost her beloved husband in the pogroms. Meanwhile, she was taken to Bukit Duri prison while three months pregnant with Ming’s mother Rachmanina. She later gave birth in prison, had to give up her daughter to relatives and was sent to Plantungan.

The death of Rachmanina due to a broken heart — her husband, upon knowing her family history, left her — brought Ming to Nini.

Like other children who grew up under the Soeharto dictatorship, Ming grew up fearing Gerwani. Even mentioning the word Gerwani felt awkward to her.

“You’re not afraid are you, to hear the word ‘Gerwani’?” Nini asked Ming. “I have to admit, it does feel strange in my mouth to say the word,” Ming replied.

But Nini, who is ageing and ailing, decided to set things straight about the slander against Gerwani. She also wanted to tell Ming a family secret.

But before she did she enlisted the help of her friends, who were also at Plantungan prison, to give her moral support on the day she decided to tell the truth. She invited her friends for a luncheon at her place and there she told Ming her deepest secret.

The Silent Song of Genjer Flowers is more than a play about the sufferings of women political prisoners that happened 50 years ago. It’s a play about our present time.

It’s a play about women survivors ending their silence and reaching out to the younger generation with their own narratives.

Faiza, heavily influenced by Egyptian writer Nawal El Sadaawi for her feminist views and Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in her style of plays, aims to tell a story of how women survivors share their narrative to express themselves in the last years of their lives and bestow their stories on the younger generation.

Silent then is a story about storytelling and the hope that their narratives, never acknowledged by the government, do not end with them.


This article was published in thejakartapost.com on Monday, August 22, 2016, with the title “‘The Silent Song of Genjer Flowers’: Against despair through storytelling”.

Click to read: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/08/22/the-silent-song-genjer-flowers-against-despair-through-storytelling.html.

On forgiveness, a response to GM and a call to action for Indonesia’s youth

A week after a groundbreaking national symposium on the 1965 tragedy, I received a message from my friend Febriana Firdaus. A journalist like myself, she lost her grandfather in the anticommunist violence in 1965-1966.

Febri and I are part of a new digital storytelling movement, Ingat65. We provide a medium for Indonesia’s younger generation to collectively remember the communist purges, a dark past that our nation for half a century has been forced to forget through propaganda and deliberate silence in official histories.

That morning, Febri forwarded to Ingat65’s Whatsapp group Goenawan Mohammad’s essay in Tempo magazine, entitled “Maaf” (Forgiveness). In his essay, GM, as the renowned essayist is commonly known, is not convinced President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should apologize for the 1965 violence.

“For what? For a crime that’s not his, on behalf of a state that’s not his to represent?” Febri highlighted that part with a yellow marker. I see her point.

The symposium, the first official dialogue on the issue since the fall of Soeharto, who rose to power on the back of the 1965 violence, has sparked a discussion on truth and reconciliation. GM’s essay adds to this discussion. But his reasoning, I argue, is unsound.

A man of letters, he referred to many thinkers, including Marx, to reinforce his point that the crime of the “state” in 1965-1966 was not of the current “state” that Jokowi now leads.

“For me, Marx is more correct: The “state” can never be a place for anyone, at anytime. The “state” is always “particular”; it’s merely a tool for those in power in a certain time and certain space. It is not permanent,” he wrote.

The irony is lost on GM when he quotes Marx, whose methodology of socioeconomic analysis was banned in 1966 as part of the systematic destruction of the left.

The “state” that Jokowi leads, one that GM says is not the same with that of 1966, still maintains that ban.

Marx was right. The state is a tool for those in power in a certain time and certain space.

But GM is dreaming to suggest that in 2016 we have broken completely with the New Order.

Even though Jokowi was a mere toddler when the violence happened, he has nonetheless inherited a legacy of impunity that still operates in Indonesia’s politics.

But let’s talk about the subject of GM’s piece: forgiveness. An element for reconciliation, forgiveness is important in post-conflict resolution.

Letting go of resentment is crucial to restoring friendly relations between offenders — perpetrators, accomplices, bystanders — and victims.

GM talks about the kinds of forgiveness that he admires: the martyr-like “pure forgiveness” of Wolter Monginsidi, who forgave his wrongdoers ahead of the offending deed (his own execution), and the unconditional forgiveness of political prisoner Oey Hay Djoen.

According to GM, Hay Djoen, commenting on his peer Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s distrust in the apology issued by the former president and leader of Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) Abdurrahman Wahid, for NU’s involvement in the violence, wonders what moral right they have to deny forgiveness.

In Hay Djoen’s attitude to forgive unconditionally, GM sees something nobler than Pram’s rejection. Hay Djoen’s forgiveness, GM argues, defies Jacques Derrida’s fear of “conditional forgiveness” that placed “the victim” on a moral high ground.

However, GM failed to note that neither Hay Djoen nor Pram, nor other victims of the 1965 violence, were standing in a position of superiority.

Derrida’s warning that GM quoted on the dangers of “conditional forgiveness” being reduced as a tool for trade for national stability — as in the case of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process — referred more to an amnesty and not necessarily genuine forgiveness.

Neither Hay Djoen nor Pram had such power to pardon. Unlike in South Africa, where the victims of apartheid went on to hold political power and started the process of truth and reconciliation, in Indonesia the offenders are still in power and have yet to cease their wrongful deeds.

Philosopher Charles Griswold, in his book Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, notes that to gain true forgiveness from victims, there are several actions that the wrongdoer should do: acknowledge and repudiate the mistake, express regret, promise not to repeat the mistake, express sympathy and understanding for the suffering of the victim, and lastly, present an honest narrative that is not an excuse that can provide context as to why they carried out the offense.

Only then may the victim regain trust, let go of resentment and see the former enemy in a new light. These acts of apology should be made public on a national level to ensure an end to the injustice.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, Griswold notes, should be given on an individual level, lest what Derrida and GM feared might happen — forgiveness that doesn’t serve its genuine goal of renewal of bonds but acts as a form of forced peace-making.

How far are we from seeing these acts of apology in Indonesia? We don’t know yet.

The 1965 tragedy is still a deeply divisive issue. In an explanation about his essay on Wednesday, GM said he would like the state to apologize, if doing so brought about greater national harmony.

The 1965 symposium was an experiment to find out if we can start the process of reaching a national consensus that include all parties — victims and offenders — in the 1965 tragedy, according to one of the initiators, Agus Widjojo, the newly appointed National Resilience Institute chief, whose father was of one of the generals killed in the apparent abortive coup that rose the curtain on the violence.

In a way, in Ingat65, we are conducting an experiment too. We are opening a space for personal reflection to gauge how our generation feels about this issue and how we want our future to look.

Will we be a generation of bystanders (staying silent) or, worse, perpetrators (attacking gatherings of 1965 victims), and continue to perpetuate injustice? Our call now is not to Jokowi (just yet), but to our peers.

The voice of youth is crucial, especially now, when half of the country’s population is under the age of 30. We should find out what happened by talking to our elders.

We should read the many studies by academics and watch documentaries on 1965.

Let’s reflect on our history, decide what we want based on that reflection and together tell our leaders our desires for the future.

For too long, leaders of this country have been servants to themselves. Let’s peacefully bring power back into our hands and make GM’s dream come true.

Let’s make the state represent a new moral identity and really break away from the old guard, whose power came on the backs of extreme violence and the suffering of victims.


The writer, an editor for The Conversation, is the initiator and chief editor of Ingat65. The views expressed are her own.

This article was published in thejakartapost.com on Friday, April 26, 2016 with the title “On forgiveness, a response to GM and a call to action for Indonesia’s youth”. Click to read: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/04/29/on-forgiveness-a-response-gm-and-a-call-action-indonesia-s-youth.html.

Indonesians in Queens Are Beginning to Learn About Film on Genocide


A prayer meeting at Grace Indonesia Baptist Church in Woodside, Queens. Credit Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times
A prayer meeting at Grace Indonesia Baptist Church in Woodside, Queens. Credit Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times

Every Friday afternoon, Mas Pratomo, 83, sips tea at Fay Da Bakery on Justice Avenue, in Elmhurst, Queens, and catches up with fellow Indonesians. He never forgets to list the day’s attendees in his journal.


Having left his home country four decades ago, the teatime ritual is his way of connecting with his roots, as he and friends converse in their native Indonesian.


On a recent Friday, the conversation turned to “The Act of Killing,” the recent documentary film about Indonesia’s 1965 genocide.


The film, released last year, features two notorious figures in the mass killings discussing and even re-enacting some of their actions in the anti-Communist purge. The killers’ boastfulness has shocked some viewers, and the film has brought new attention to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of suspected Communists across the archipelago nation in Southeast Asia.


But in Indonesia, where the anti-Communist campaign remains a sensitive subject, defended by some powerful figures, the film was not widely seen or embraced. And in New York’s small but growing Indonesian enclave in Elmhurst, word of the film has spread slowly.



Joshua Oppenheimer,  the director of “The Act of Killing,” participated in a discussion after a recent screening of the film in Brooklyn. CreditKatie Orlinsky for The New York Times


Many of the estimated 7,000 Indonesians living in the city came to the United States hoping to make a new life here after the bloodshed of 1965 or the upheavals of the late 1990s.


For Mr. Pratomo, the film awakened him to the brutality of the killers and the scale of the massacre. “I was appalled when I found out about the truth,” he said.


At the time of the anti-Communist campaign, he was living in the capital, Jakarta, while much of the bloodshed was carried out in small towns of East Java, on the Hindu island of Bali, and in North Sumatra, where the film is set.


A year later, in 1966, he encountered a hint of the violence. An architect, he went to Bali to manage a hotel project. But he could not find workers, he recalled. In hushed conversations, he was told that all of them had been killed.


It was a fearful time in Indonesia. Government propaganda had demonized the Communists, who were alleged to have staged a coup. Many Indonesians accepted the government line or were too scared to challenge it.


Mr. Pratomo left for New York a year later and he had put that era behind him, he said, until friends told him about “The Act of Killing.” He watched it on Netflix with his wife.


“How could it come to this — murdering people as if it were a feast?” he said.


For some among his generation, the film evoked difficult memories about the years leading up to Suharto’s rule. For some younger Indonesians who have come to New York, the film has been an eye-opening window on a period still shrouded by fear and trauma.


Among those living here, word of the film has spread slowly. Many Indonesian immigrants working busy blue-collar jobs have little time for films.


At Grace Indonesia Baptist Church in Woodside, Queens, none of the congregation members at a recent prayer meeting had heard of the film, except for the church’s leader, the Rev. Sutoyo Sigar, 65, who was a witness to the bloodshed.


The two-year-old church is one of the 32 Indonesian churches that have sprung up in New York in the past decade, partly to accommodate the influx of Chinese Indonesian immigrants that followed the upheaval in the late 1990s.


Anastasia Dewi Tjahjadi, 45, owner of Java Village, an Indonesian restaurant on Justice Avenue, was not aware of the genocide. “I heard from my parents that a lot of our relatives returned to China at that time, but we didn’t talk much about it,” she said.


Curious after hearing about the film, she played it a couple of days later on her restaurant’s big-screen TV. But she found herself struggling to watch it while attending her restaurant, she said.


Mr. Pratomo said the film had helped him realize how much his homeland was scarred by the events of 1965, and he hopes it spurs a search for the truth and justice.


“There should be a tribunal, there should be reconciliation, there should be an apology,” he said. “And the apology should be accepted and everyone can continue to live together side by side.”


MARCH 27, 2014

Director calls for US to acknowledge its role in 1965 killings

The killer: Former death-squad leader Anwar Congo (center) re-lives his savage past in The Act of Killing. (Dogwoof.com)
The killer: Former death-squad leader Anwar Congo (center) re-lives his savage past in The Act of Killing. (Dogwoof.com)


Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer on Tuesday called on the US to acknowledge its role in Indonesia’s communist purge after screening The Act of Killing, his film on 1965 death-squad leaders, for US Congress members and staff.

“Fifty years is a long time to not call a genocide a genocide,” he said. “If we want to have a constructive and an ethical relationship with Indonesia moving forward, we have to acknowledge the crimes of the past and we have to acknowledge our collective role in supporting those crimes, in participating in those crimes and ultimately in ignoring those crimes,” he said.

The Army, with the help of civilian death squads, killed 500,000 to 1 million people between 1965 and 1966 after the assassination of six army generals in an alleged communist coup attempt. The US government, which at the time was waging a war against Vietnamese communists, was reportedly pleased with the crushing of communism in Indonesia, and saw it as a success in their containment policy. Declassified CIA documents and investigative reports by journalist Kathy Kadane have showed that the US supported the communist purge by providing a list to the Army of around 5,000 people to be killed. The US then supported the Soeharto regime, responsible for orchestrating the massacres, as the new regime took over the country.

Despite the enormity of the crime, the International Criminal Court could not try the perpetrators of the 1965 genocide as it happened before the signing of the Rome Statute that founded the court. “What can happen is a special tribunal like the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia can be formed and that usually happens at the level of the UN Security council,” Oppenheimer said. “Before that can happen, probably the countries that were involved with supporting this, will actually have to say ‘Hey enough time has gone by for us to become comfortable with acknowledging what has happened here, in the name of addressing impunity and corruption in the fourth most populous country in the world’,” he said. “We need to pursue this because this was in fact a crime against humanity,” he said.

The Act of Killing was recently nominated for an Oscar Award in the Best Documentary category. The chilling film that follows death-squad leader Anwar Congo happily re-enacting the killings of 1965 has picked up awards in film festivals around the world. In Indonesia, the film has been shown in thousands of underground screenings across the country and as of Sept. 30 last year has been available for download in Indonesia. It has become a catalyst for national conversation on a topic that was largely buried under government propaganda during the Soeharto regime and self-censorship after reformasi (reformation).

“Bringing it here [Washington] is a new step in that journey for me,” Oppenheimer said. “I’m just pretty moved sitting here talking to you because it has been our hope that this would start a conversation everywhere about this past and about who we are as human beings in some deeper ways as well,” he said to the audience.

US Senator Tom Udall, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, organized the Tuesday night screening. “When I heard about this film, I thought that this should be given an opportunity for members of congress and staff and everybody to see,” he said.

Some 60 people, mostly staffers of Senators, attended the screening held at the Library of Congress. The audience was silent for a couple of moments after the film ended before giving a somber applause. After watching the film, Udall called Oppenheimer an artist. “Artists sometimes tell us stories that we don’t want to hear, that we don’t want to face. They open a reality to us,” he said.

Udall said it was significant that the film was screened here. “This is our nation’s capital. This is the seat of government. As you heard from his [Oppenheimer’s] interview, we [the US] were involved. So it’s important that this space be created to have a discussion also,” he said.

Prodita Sabarini, Contributor, Washington, DC | Entertainment | Sun, February 16 2014, 11:25 AM

Published in The Jakarta Post

Behind ‘enlightenment’: Arrogant bigotry

The good news came a few months ago when villagers in Sampang, Madura, who were caught in a deadly faith feud last year reconciled with their Shiite neighbors and invited them to return to their village.

On Sept. 12, dozens of villagers from Blu’uran and Karang Gayam, Sampang, signed a peace pact stating they were “ready to live side by side, respect and love each other as taught by our esteemed Prophet Muhammad”.

The peace pact flies against the claims of political elites who refuse to let the Shiites return to their land under the pretext that the local community will not accept them and that their return would create new violent conflicts. They were driven from their homes in Sampang after a Sunni mob attacked them and burned down their houses in August 2012. From the local regent to the religious affairs minister, all claim that unless the Shiites share the same beliefs as the rest of the community, deadly violence will occur.

Despite the peace pact, many remain wary. That the people of the villages are fed up with the animosity, want to end the conflict and want to live in peace is heartwarming, but is it enough to solve displacement and discrimination against the Shia community?

The answer is no. Even when people of Blu’uran and Karang Gayam, including those who participated in the attack, extended an unconditional invitation to the Shiites to return to their homes, the Religious Affairs Ministry continued to place prerequisites on the Shiites to be able to return home.

Recently, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, who views the solution as conversion — though
his choice of wording is “enlightenment” — reportedly requested the Shiites to agree to stay in the haj dormitory for “reeducation” (pembinaan) before returning to their homes. Why the Shiites, who are only practicing their right to their beliefs, should be reeducated instead of those who set houses on fire, explains the nature of those flames.

There is something more to this Shia persecution than a group of villagers being intolerant toward their neighbors with different beliefs. The dubious reasoning of political elites to sacrifice victims of violence to prevent violence tells of something menacing within the system.

The portrayal of local animosity toward Shiites is merely an excuse for an abuse of power by certain political elites who are part of mainstream Sunni Islam to impose their beliefs.

Consider the events leading up to the attack on Aug. 26. Starting from 2004, religious cleric Ali Kharar started to give sermons with warnings against the “defiant” Shia teachings being spread by Tajul Muluk. Following Ali’s request, Sampang administrative leaders along with local clerics pressured Tajul to “repent” and embrace Sunni teachings.

In 2006, hundreds of people intimidated Tajul and his followers into returning to Sunni teachings. In 2011, the leaders ordered Tajul to move from Sampang to Malang.

After his house was attacked in 2011 by a mob, he was taken to court for blasphemy and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Even before the Aug. 26 attack against the Shiites, the local religious and political establishments in Sampang were systematically pressuring the Shiites to renounce their faith for Sunni teachings.

After the attack, which is plausibly the result of the demagoguery of hard-line clerics, the state ignored the Shiites’ wish to return home and instead has taken their land in exchange for allegiance to Sunni teachings. The only members of the Shiite community that have returned to their villages are those who have signed a pledge in front of the local authorities to condemn Tajul’s teachings and to return to “the true teaching of Islam”.

The peace pact between the Sunni representatives and Shiites should signal that the people can and are willing to live among neighbors with different beliefs. But in a regime that promotes bigotry, this gesture toward tolerance and peace could almost mean nothing.

A peace pact signed by the very people the political elites say are hostile toward the Shiites would not suffice to end the persecution, precisely because the state, with its deep entanglement with the Sunni religious establishment, is the intolerance force. And this condition extends to not only the persecution of Shiites, but also the Ahmadis, the Christians and non-believers.

There is a paradox of arrogance and insecurity in religious intolerance. Those who practice intolerance claim to hold the monopoly on truth and believe they have the authority to pass judgments on who are “defiant” or “misguided”. On the other hand, they feel threatened by these “lesser” beliefs so much so that they feel the need to silence, contain and even eliminate them.

The minister’s “enlightenment” project is an insult to the Shiites. It is disrespectful and is a violation of their freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedoms clearly guaranteed by our Constitution. The idea that the Shiites (or followers of Tajul Muluk, the misguided, the deviants) need to be “reeducated” is uncomfortably and dangerously similar to justifications of many history’s violent conquests to “civilize” the savages.

The damage done by intolerant religious elements hijacking the state apparatus is clearly felt by those being persecuted. But it does not stop there. In every persecution of religious minorities in this
country, those actively impinging other’s rights to religious freedom are creating an arrogant and insecure image of Sunni Islam. Bullying people into submitting to “the true teaching of Islam” is not in line with the image of a peaceful and loving religion they champion.

Hopefully, the next time they open the Koran they will come across the verse that came when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers were the ones being persecuted in Mecca: For you is your faith, and for me, my faith.

Prodita Sabarini, Cambridge | Opinion | Tue, November 19 2013

Published in The Jakarta Post


The legacy of passing husbands

Memento mori: Magdalena Sitorus, Widyawati and Suciwati pose with Magdalena’s book Semua Ada Waktunya (All in good time).

When human rights defender Munir Said Thalib was murdered on a plane en route to Amsterdam in 2004, late former secretary-general of the National Commission on Human Rights Asmara Nababan investigated the killing and urged president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to release the report his team made to be used at trial.

Six years later, Asmara died in Guangzhou, China, from lung cancer. The mastermind behind Munir’s killing remains unknown.

Women’s rights activist Magdalena Sitorus, Asmara’s widow, share her connection with Munir’s widow, Suciwati, through Munir’s death. They have also been sharing their experience of grief from losing loved ones in a book by Magdalena.

In an attempt to make sense of her grief, Magdalena interviewed Suciwati and four other women: Widyawati, the widow of former actor and lawmaker Sophan Sophiaan; Shinta Nuriyah Wahid, the widow of former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid; Damayanti Noor, the widow of singer Chrisye; and Saparinah Sadli, the widow of late professor Sadli.

Magdalena published a book Semua Ada Waktunya (All in Good Time) last year based on her journal and the interviews with the five women.

She said she was worried about her psychological state after Asmara’s death and writing became her refuge. “I’ve always wrote in my journal, it’s a long-time habit,” she said at a talk at the @america cultural center in June.

“I write as if I’m telling a story to him [Asmara], I tell him what happened in my days. I would write ‘Do you still remember so and so? I met him today…’ Just as if I were talking to him,” she said. “Perhaps, my healing process is like that.”

Magdalena, Suciwati and Widyawati sat in front of an audience to talk about their experience in facing the loss of their husbands. “It’s not easy to talk about something that’s unpleasant. But if by this I can share my experience, motivate people and make them aware that there are unpleasant things and that we should improve them in the future, I don’t mind,” Suciwati said.

Suciwati has relentlessly fought for the murderers of her husband to be found and tried. In December, in advance of Munir’s birthday, Suciwati launched a new campaign calling on the public to sign a petition asking President Yudhoyono to bring Munir’s killers to justice.

Former Garuda Indonesia pilot Polycarpus Budihari Prijanto has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the death of Munir. Polycarpus has appealed the verdict.

Suciwati, who lost Munir while their children were still very young, said she faced some challenges in explaining the assassination of Munir to their children. She said that several years ago, her children would say that they would not want to become activists. “’I’ll be murdered like my dad’,” Suciwati recounted her son as saying.

“I tell them that what their father did was amazing, how he humanized people and fought for humanity. Those are the things that we should remember,” she said. “It’s not easy when they ask why their father was murdered or when they are angry with Polycarpus. In these situations I present them choices: ‘Will you choose to be like Polycarpus or will you choose to be like your father? What your father has done is meaningful, remembered, the values that he brought should be continued’,” she said.

Now, when family friends ask her son Sultan Alief Allende about his aspirations, he answers that he wants to be a film director to promote human rights through film, Suciwati said.

Suci now lives in Malang with her children and is working on a museum to celebrate his life and values. Suci said that advocacy work is tough, due to the corrupt system in Indonesia.

“We can see the state of law enforcement in Indonesia, how the officers are like, how the top ranking officials are like. When we talk about the law we can be heart broken,” she said.

Widyawati shared the similar feelings after losing Sophan Sophiaan, who died at 64 in a motorcycle accident while participating in a motorcade across Java in celebration of the National Awakening Day centennial.

“I never thought or expected to talk here about my husband who has passed a way. It does hurt. And like mbak Suci, I still have a question mark until now,” she said.

Widyawati said that the years of being spoiled by Sophan’s love left her unprepared in living independently. “I just didn’t know what to do,” she said. Luckily, her family guided her in the minutiae of paperwork, taxes, bills and such.

Magdalena said that she faced undulating emotions while writing her book. “It has been a roller coaster. Even when I came home from [interviewing] Widyawati, I could only stare at my computer screen. I could not write down what I got from them because it’s heavy. But behind that, it’s a healing process.”

Magdalena’s book also touches the stereotype placed on widows and how society perceives women. “I live in a society that doesn’t appreciate women or have a negative view on women,” she said.

Magdalena gave an example of a male friend who was also a Batak who stopped keeping touch after her husband died. “He said he’s protecting me because I no longer have a husband and it was not good for me to speak to him. I wonder who is he protecting? Is he protecting himself or protecting me?”

Suciwati said that a Muslim cleric told her to stop her public activity and to stay at home and pray and take care of her children.

“I wonder whether he knows that I work or how would he know if I prayed or not.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Feature | Tue, July 02 2013
— Photos By JP/Nurhayati

A transgendered person goes on ‘umrah’


During the Islamic fasting month of Ramadhan last year, Maryani, a transgendered woman living inYogyakarta, had a revelation. She would go on umrah, the minor haj pilgrimage, to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

The 53-year-old went to a travel agent in Yogyakarta, her hometown, who specializes in arranging trips for Muslim pilgrims. The agent rejected her application. As a prominent transgendered woman, Maryani does not hide her gender identity from her friends and neighbors. Nor did she with the agent.

“They say that some of the other congregants who were going to take the trip as well were scared and uncomfortable that a waria would be in the group,” Maryani, who is popularly as bu Mar or mbak Marshe, said on the telephone.

Maryani described herself as a waria, a portmanteau of the Indonesian words for woman (wanita) and man (pria) that is often used to describe transgendered women.

However, finally, Maryani’s dream to make the pilgrimage came true. She flew to Mecca on April 26 and returned May 5, and performed all the pillars of the umrah, covered from head to toe as a woman.

Status: Maryani, as a waria, was granted an identification card listing her gender as a woman, enabling her to make the minor pilgrimage as a woman.

Status: Maryani, as a waria, was granted an identification card listing her gender as a woman, enabling her to make the minor pilgrimage as a woman.

“In the holy land, they don’t differentiate between a waria, a real man or a real woman. There was no problem. I wore a mukena and went to Haram mosque and to Mecca and Medina,” she said, referring to women’s Islamic garb.

Maryani has received local and international media attention since 2008, when she transformed her home in a small alley in Notoyudan hamlet in Yogyakarta into a place for transgendered women to study Islam.

Rully, the program manager for the Yogyakarta Transgendered Women’s Organization (Kebaya), said that Maryani’s trip to Saudi Arabia had important meaning for members of Kebaya.

“There has been a stigma that transgendered people are identical with people who have no morals,” Rully said. “Maryani’s pilgrimage shows that there are waria who are religious and who have good spirituality.”

Maryani’s pilgrimage to Mecca as a transgendered woman was made possible when Anis Kurniyawati, the owner of the Yogyakarta office of the Arminareka Perdana travel agency, offered her a spot on a pilgrimage tour that she was arranging..

Anis said that Arminareka Perdana was a travel agency that aimed to help relatively low-income people perform the haj or umrah rituals by encouraging the customers to become part-time sales person for the agency.

Those who book a pilgrimage with Arminareka make a down payment of Rp 3.5 million (US$353.5) for the Rp 20 million cost of the tour. Anis said that potential pilgrim could pay for their tours in installments, or receive a commission for each person that they brought to the agency that could be applied to the total cost of their trip.

After finding a willing travel agent to sponsor her pilgrimage, Maryani dodged another problem. Her identification card now lists her gender as female, as does her passport.

“I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m a waria. I didn’t ask for female status on my ID card,” she said.

The solution to this potential problem was simple: The village head in Yogyakarta where Maryani lives offered to issue a card identifying her as a woman, which the head felt was more appropriate. That opened the door for Maryani to get a passport listing her gender as female as well.
All in the family: Maryani poses with her granddaughter.

All in the family: Maryani poses with her daughter.

The flexibility of Maryani’s village chief allowed her to perform religious rites as a woman. However, other transgendered woman have not been as lucky as Maryani, and have had to identify themselves as men to perform the pilgrimage —as men.

“I was given a female ID card and I’m grateful for that. But I don’t claim that I’m a woman. If there’s a status of female, male or transgendered person, I would chose transgendered,” she said. “Can Indonesia accept that?”

Raised Catholic by adopted parents, Maryani converted to Islam as an adult, and said that religion could be helpful in leading a person to a better life.

“It can help waria think for the long term and help them make better decisions.”

She explained that being in touch with their spirituality helped transgendered women to make good life decisions, saying that many transgendered women live from one day to the next as sex workers.

Countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia recognize three gender options with “X” as a choice for intersex people.

While Indonesia has yet to recognize other gender identities than female and male, the acceptance of transgendered people has increased.

Last year, a transgendered woman, Yuli Rettoblaut, became a candidate for the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM).

Maryani said that she hoped her experience in carrying out the umrah can open the door for other transgendered women who would like to practice the rites.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Feature | Fri, July 05 2013
— Photos courtesy of Maryani and Hartoyo/OurVoice

Govt to revoke concessions in customary forests

The government has said it will revoke business permits it has given to companies operating in customary forests after the Constitutional Court annulled its ownership of customary forests.

Forestry Ministry’s secretary general, Hadi Daryanto, said on Monday that the government would rescind all plantation and mining concessions that have been granted to businesses in customary forests that have been legally recognized by the local administrations.

“We’ll get them [businesses] out. Even if there’s a concession for HTI [industrial forest permits] or HPH [production forest concessions] as long as there’s a bylaw then the businesses will have to leave,” Hadi said.

However, as of now, no regional administration has issued a bylaw on customary forests.

The court last week decided to scrap the word “state” from Article 1 of the 1999 Forestry Law, which says “customary forests are state forests located in the areas of custom-based communities”.

The court also ruled that the government had to recognize indigenous communities’ ownership of customary forests, saying that “indigenous peoples have the right to own and exploit their customary forests to meet their daily need.”

The ruling has been seen as a victory for the indigenous people, who have long had their rights to make a living by making productive use of their forests denied by the state.

Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) secretary general Abdon Nababan said that relying on regional administrations to issue a bylaw on customary forests without a directive from the central government will risk reducing the court’s ruling to that of a paper tiger.

He doubted that it was financially feasible to have customary forests recognized through a bylaw.

“There can be dozens of customary forests in one regency. Will this regency have dozens of bylaws on customary forests? The cost to stipulate one bylaw in a regency is between Rp 400 million (US$40,850) to 700 million. If there are around 10 identified customary forests, it would cost between Rp 4 billion to Rp 10 billion to recognize customary forests in one regency,” Abdon said.

“And it’s proven that for 14 years since the passing of the Forestry Law, not one customary forest has been recognized,” he said.

Abdon said the president should release a decree for a registration mechanism of indigenous people communities and customary forests to start the restitution process of indigenous peoples’ forests.

Currently there is no official government data on the number of existing indigenous communities and the size and territory of their customary land and forests.

A civil society led mapping of indigenous land by The Participative Mapping Working Network (JKPP) has documented 3.9 million hectares of indigenous land, of which 3.1 million hectares are forest areas, JKPP coordinator Kasmita Widodo said.

JKPP has submitted their preliminary mapping of 2.4 million hectares of customary forests to the Presidential Working Unit for the Supervision and Management of Development (UKP4), currently working on an integrated map of Indonesia.

Nirarta Samadi, the UKP4 Deputy and Chair of the REDD+ Task Force Working Group on Forest Monitoring, said that the reason there have not yet been any bylaws recognizing customary forests was due to the previous status of customary forests as state forest. “Now we have an opportunity for a new process,” he said referring to the MK ruling. “It feels right now to use the avenue of bylaws and a political decision is indeed needed to create a positive atmosphere,” he said.

Hadi said that it was the ministry’s task to draft a government regulation to force local administrations to acknowledge customary forests in bylaws.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | | Wed, May 29 2013, 9:17 AM

Religious minorities unite for freedom

Iron: Pondok Gede sub-precinct head Comr. Dedy Tabrani speaks to an Ahmadi behind the locked gate of the Al Misbah Mosque in Bekasi on April 5. (Antara/Widodo S. Jusuf)
Iron: Pondok Gede sub-precinct head Comr. Dedy Tabrani speaks to an Ahmadi behind the locked gate of the Al Misbah Mosque in Bekasi on April 5. (Antara/Widodo S. Jusuf)

Next to a sealed Ahmadi mosque in Bekasi is a plot of land with leafy trees and damp earth. To get in one has to squeeze through a gap between a tall iron gate and the wall of a residence on the other side.

From this bit of land, Ahmadiyah members send food over the gate to the 19 Ahmadis staying inside the mosque, which was sealed in early April by Bekasi public order officers.

When the officers put up the corrugated iron fence to seal the Al Misbah Mosque, about 40 people were inside, including women and children. The women and children have since been taken out.

The remaining 19 stayed behind, giving away their freedom for an indefinite time as a symbol, an
act of protest, toward the Bekasi municipality and the central government for meddling with their freedom to worship.

The lot became a gathering place on Saturday night for Sobat KBB, a solidarity group of victims of religious intolerance and violence, a collective of minority groups — Christians, Shia Muslims, Ahmadis and those of other beliefs — that have experienced discrimination and persecution. Sobat translates as friend in English.

The national coordinator of Sobat KBB is Palti Panjaitan, the Filadelfia Batak Christian Protestant Church pastor whose church in Bekasi was also sealed by the Bekasi city administration.

Palti said about 10 people came to the gathering. Liberal Islam activist Mohammad Guntur Romli, who in a pluralism rally that turned violent in 2008 had his nose and cheekbone fractured by blows from members of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), and Nong Darol Mahmada were among the attendees.

Over grilled fish, the group shared their thoughts about the state of religious minorities in Indonesia.

Rahmat Rahmadijaya, an Ahmadiyah cleric who remains inside the shuttered mosque, joined the discussion through a small opening in the mosque’s black iron door.

Ahmadiyah spokesperson Firdaus Mubarik said they wanted to bring Palti into their campaign because they saw the creative ways the Filadelfia church had promoted their cause, such as holding mass in front of the presidential palace.

Firdaus said the Ahmadis collaborated with Filadelfia for the Saturday night gathering — aimed at becoming a regular meeting — to continue to voice their cause.

“We don’t want the people remaining in the mosque to be forgotten,” he said.

Palti, meanwhile, said they might make the gathering more regular, not only in the lot next to Al Misbah but in other places where religious minorities are persecuted.

The group was established in February after a workshop by the Setara Institute, a human rights organization that monitors religious freedom across the country, and is also open to agnostics and atheists, the priest said.

“Sobat KBB is open to any victims [of persecution] including atheists. We fight for all victims who have been victimized or discriminated against in the name of religion, either those who adhere to religion or those who do not. We will fight hand in hand, to support each other,” Palti said.

Local and international organizations have criticized Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration for the increasing religious intolerance and violence in the country, even as he recently received the World Statesman Award from the US-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation. The award has been deemed a publicity stunt by rights groups who say the president does not deserve the award because of his track record in dealing with religious minorities.

Setara has documented 264 cases of violent attacks against religious minorities, up from 244 cases in 211 and 216 cases in 2010. Meanwhile, non-believers are criminalized, as in the case of atheist Alexander Aa, who broadcast his thoughts about the non-existence of God and was put behind bars in 2012.

“We want to enlighten people that religion should not be used to judge other religions or beliefs,” Palti said of Sobat KBB.
Struggling: Nineteen Ahmadis are staying inside the Al Misbah Mosque in Bekasi, which was sealed by Bekasi public order officers in April. (JP/Prodita Sabarini)Struggling: Nineteen Ahmadis are staying inside the Al Misbah Mosque in Bekasi, which was sealed by Bekasi public order officers in April. (JP/Prodita Sabarini)
In the case of Ahmadiyah, a 2008 joint ministerial decree banned the sect from proselytizing and the decree became the base for the regional government to ban Ahmadiyah outright. The West Java administration banned Ahmadiyah activities in 2011, the same year the Bekasi mayoralty announced its ban.

From across the corrugated iron fence, Rahmat, 33, who has been living on the grounds of the mosque for a decade, said Islamic hardliners from the FPI started to intimidate and harass Ahmadis at Friday prayers after Bekasi mayor Rahmat Effendi announced the ban.

“They threatened us, roaring their motorcycle engines, disturbing our prayers,” he said.

Except for Rahmat and a resident living next to the mosque, the neighbors of the mosque are not Ahmadis.

Ahmadis from other parts of Bekasi come and pray there on Fridays. But a resident living nearby said people were nonplussed with them. “For us here, to each their own”.

Rahmat said the Bekasi administration’s sealing of the mosque was the latter’s idea to protect the Ahmadis from religious hardliners. “But they did it without consulting us first, there was no dialogue,” he said.

The mosque is now guarded by three police officers, who take shelter from boredom in the house in front of the mosque where they can watch television when nothing is happening. The police presence ensures no-one enters the mosque, either Ahmadis or hardliners. A number of times after the mosque was sealed hardliners have arrived, but were cordoned off by the police.

“We feel shackled, it’s tough being here,” Rahmat said. The young cleric is living separately from his wife and two children. The youngest was born in February.

His days are used to pray, he said. They also entertain themselves with badminton and ping pong.

Rahmat said they have sent letters of protest to the president and the mayor. The Ahmadis are also taking their case against the Bekasi administration to the administrative court.

Even though the government is not keeping the Ahmadis inside the mosque, Rahmat said he would stay locked inside until the government reopened it.

“Forever, we will stay here forever,” he said.

But, he doesn’t wish for that. Rahmat is instead hoping for divine intervention to help the embattled Ahmadis win their case.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Bekasi | Feature | Fri, May 24 2013, 2:48 PM

Mixing prayer and Maroon 5: Students dare to face the odds

“God Forbid, Toli-Toli high school students make fun of Islamic prayer!” shouts the title of a YouTube video. I clicked the link and was amazed.

I saw five teenage girls, bangs, long hair and all, one of them in a headscarf. They wore track suits and were in a classroom, lined up like a group of dancers.

Their arms, folded in front of their solar plexus’ were in poses just like salat (daily Islamic prayers). A girl chants Arabic at a beautiful pitch until American band Maroon 5’s poppy tune “One More Night” begins. Then the group breaks into a dance.

I find the video amazing and with 500,000 clicks and counting, it seems like many others do too. But the reasons for this interest differ. While Islamic vigilantes say: “How dare they?!”, pressuring the school principal to expel them and call for them to be jailed for blasphemy, I say: “How daring!”

Challenging authority, especially when that said authority rules heaven and earth, is not for the faint hearted.

The girls’ dance, switching turns between mimicking Islamic prayer and dancing to a song about “making love for one more night”, has a mischievous quality in it and they would be lying to themselves if they say it did not.

Juxtaposing the sacred and the profane is sacrilegious. However, they most probably did not intend to provoke.

Perhaps it was just for the laughs and the thrill, like when the class clown mimics the most feared teacher. They are testing the boundaries, knocking down the door that is the exit of innocence. What is it like on the other side?

They have shown incredible guts, unknowingly practicing a Nietzschean rejection of religious authority. Some, if not most of us have done it before: playing tag between girls and boys in the mosque before prayer, slipping in funny words in our Koran recitation, stealing sleep during the priest’s sermon or secretly bringing an iPod to mass. We know it is wrong, but we cannot help it. We are only human after all.

The difference between the girls’ mischief and the mischief of others lies in a smartphone, Internet connection and a lack of sensible judgment about posting it online.

The dance we see on YouTube shows two things. First, it shows a performance that reflects the lives of Indonesian Muslim teenage girls in a globalized world.

The girls took two things that are close to the lives: their daily religious rituals and pop music, and created their own version of art. Media studies majors might say they are practicing bricolage, creating something from various elements of their lives.

Second, it shows a lack of understanding of Indonesia’s youth about the power of the Internet. In Indonesia, with conservative, moralistic laws in place such as the Anti-Pornography Law, Internet Transaction Law and the Blasphemy Law, uploading information to the Internet can change someone’s life.

It is unwise to store incriminating materials on your hardrive. Unless one plans on making a political statement like Pussy Riot, then it is best to keep it to yourself.

The uproar from Islamic hard-liners as the video went viral did not come as a surprise.

This is Indonesia after all, a country where cops are on friendly terms with Islamic vigilantes, where Sunni mobs can chase away Shia minorities by burning their houses and get away with it, and where people have to hold their mass on the street because the majority does not allow the minority a place for worship.

But should the girls be sacrificed because their dance offends some people? Should these individuals, who are supposed to be preparing for their national exams, pay with their futures for the silly mistake of putting their mischievous dance on YouTube? Do the pious seriously consider dancing girls so dangerous to have them imprisoned?

The Blasphemy Law, once unsuccessfully challenged by activists at the Constitutional Court, has notoriously impinged on the rights of our religious minorities.

Now, it is going to be used to crush the futures of these young girls. The Central Sulawesi office of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) wisely said that the girls should not be expelled and sent to prison, but the girls’ school principal said he felt forced to expel them because the Muslim community was angry.

We cannot dismiss the role of parents and teachers in this conundrum. The reason why the students got into this mess in the first place is due to poor education.

Whether you view that teachers have not taught the students proper religious morals or whether they failed to teach the girls the consequences of posting stuff on the Internet, adults have a part in the mishap.

Instead of taking responsibility for his students’ future, the principal has stepped aside and allowed these girls to swim into a predatory ocean. It seems the principal lost his guts amid the uproar, but he could learn something about courage from the young girls he was supposed to educate and mentor.

Prodita Sabarini, Jakarta | Opinion | Mon, April 29 2013