Women make good leaders. Can more of them rise to the top?

As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of female state leaders are managing this historical crisis in their respective countries better than their male counterparts.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s clear, direct and empathic communication style got the country to come together to contain the new coronavirus. German Chancellor Angela Merkel based her response on science and has been blunt on how COVID-19 will stay in our lives for a long time. Under the leadership of President Tsai Ing-wen, China’s neighbor Taiwan prioritized public health and managed to keep the number of cases below 500 and the death toll to seven people.

Meanwhile, strongmen such as presidents Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in Indonesia underestimated the coronavirus in its early stages, dragging their feet in taking action and downplaying the health risk of COVID-19 on the people in their countries.

Many scholars have argued that the world is safer and more humane where women are in charge. Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman wrote in the Harvard Business Review that research shows women score higher than men in most leadership skills.

Women leaders not only show effective leadership capabilities that are IQ-based, such as having technical or professional expertise and the ability to analyze problems and come up with solutions; they also more commonly show behaviors that stem from high emotional intelligence, such as displaying high integrity and honesty, inspiring and motivating others, and collaborating and developing relationships — behaviors that build trust.

Yet despite this, when we look everywhere, few women are in decision-making positions. Nearly half of the world’s population is women. But in 2020, out of 193 states that are members of the United Nations, only 12 are led by women.

Around the world, legal discrimination against women, unfair social norms and attitudes, and the controlling of women’s bodies by patriarchal communities and governments continue to create structural barriers to gender equality.

For example, according to the UN’s Economic, Social and Cultural Organization, more girls than boys are not getting an education. And according to the World Bank, in 2019 less than half (47.7 percent) of all women participated in the labor force. Of those who have survived these hurdles, completing their education and securing jobs, many don’t rise to leadership positions.

In 2019, the world saw women holding only 29 percent of senior management roles in corporations. In addition to the gender inequalities in education and labor participation, women dropping off from the labor force after marriage and motherhood and low confidence among young women over their leadership capabilities contribute to this gender gap in leadership positions.

So what can those who are already in leadership positions do to make sure more women sit in the top positions? I am among few women who hold a top position in an organization.

I lead The Conversation Indonesia, a nonprofit media startup that shares expert knowledge to help the public make informed decisions.

Learning from my journey as a woman leader as well as from the experience of my female peers who are raising children, I believe leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors can provide at least three things to enable more women to reach senior positions in organizations.

First, create a work culture that promotes work-life balance. Organizations can provide a flexible work arrangement, allowing workers to decide where to work and, if possible, when they start and end their work hours. COVID-19 social restrictions show that many work tasks can be completed anywhere with an internet connection, making office attendance unnecessary.

Flexible work arrangements will not only support more women, who disproportionately take on the bulk of domestic duties in the family, to stay in the workforce; it will also provide opportunities for men to contribute more to domestic chores and parenting.

In urban areas like Jakarta, female labor force participation rates are highest in women between 25 and 29 years — reaching nearly 67 percent. But when women enter their 30s, the rate drops to 53.82 percent.

According to research by economist Diahhadi Setyonaluri 53 percent of women who have been married cite marriage, motherhood and family as reasons for their decisions to quit their jobs. Having to forgo long commutes and long hours at the office will help women avoid having to make the difficult decision of giving up their careers.

Second, sponsor competent women workers to take on projects that can build their leadership skills. A lifetime of being told to be dutiful often makes women reliable workers. But this might also stop them from believing that they deserve to take charge.

Many women often don’t apply for a position unless they convinced that they are 100 percent qualified. Meanwhile, men are more confident in trying out for higher positions even when they are underqualified. Zenger and Folkman’s research also compared how men and women assess their confidence. They found women under 25 have lower confidence than their male peers, and that this gap closes at 40.

Having someone believing in their abilities provides the initial boost for young women to increase their confidence.

Third, after identifying emerging women leaders, provide them with resources, such as mentorship, coaching and training, to improve their leadership skills. Some people show leadership traits from a young age, but for many people, it’s a learned skill acquired through experience.

Mentor them along the way and watch them learn from their mistakes. We have seen enough men without principles running the show.

We need more leaders with humility, self-awareness and empathy, traits commonly found in women. Imagine if more leaders — regardless of gender — exhibited these traits. Society would be better off as a whole.

Executive editor, The Conversation Indonesia and a 2019 Asia-Pacific Obama leader

This article was published in thejakartapost.com on Saturday, June 13, 2020, with the title “Women make good leaders. Can more of them rise to the top?”. Click to read: https://www.thejakartapost.com/academia/2020/06/13/women-make-good-leaders-can-more-of-them-rise-to-the-top.html.

By the way … Putting men in a tight spot

I propose that men be banned from wearing tight pants that leave little to the imagination. Those pants are often provocative and distracting. Let’s ban tight pants because they are — to use the words of our Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali — pornographic.

The minister heads the anti-porn task force and has to make a list of criteria of what is considered pornographic to effectively ban it.

Our Pornography Law doesn’t help him much as it has a sweeping definition on pornography: “Sexual materials made by people … that can arouse sexual desires and/or violate public moral values”.

So far, skirts that are worn above the knee have made it onto his list. By that logic, tight pants would be on that list, too. They are not only highly suggestive but also troubling.

Everyone, from punk rockers to corporate workers and men in uniform — whose tasks are, among others, to maintain public order — wear tight pants. It’s hard to do your job well when your derriere is the source of public curiosity.

See, I — and maybe some other women out there — get aroused by what those pants hide, or rather, emphasize. When those cops are waving their hands on the street, they think they’re helping the traffic to flow better. But we don’t! At least, I’m too busy checking out their cute butts.

For public decency and men’s own safety, no visible contours of a man’s behind in the streets should be available for public consumption. This is a matter of great importance.

Tights pants are so disturbing; they make me want to rape those beautiful men. Rape is bad. It’s awful. But it’s not entirely my fault to have such a desire to dominate and emasculate men when they dress so outrageously.

I’ll stop being a wisecrack and address some serious questions to my male compatriots. How did you feel about a sexual fantasy of raping you because of your “provocative” clothing? Do you find that normal and acceptable? Unless you’re into some dominatrix sex, it’s safe to say many of you will feel disgusted, offended, hated, objectified and violated.

Think about those feelings. Think about the shock, anger and shame that swells inside of you when you read my comments.

This is exactly how many women feel when they walk the street and get wolf-whistles, or when men in power try to control what women should wear in the pretext of protecting them women from rape.

Many of our male politicians seem to condone the hostile behavior of men toward women.

When a spate of sexual assaults on Jakarta’s public transportation system happened late last year, Governor Fauzi Bowo’s first reaction was to tell women not to wear miniskirts on buses.

When sexual assaults hit the House of Representatives, Speaker Marzuki Alie moved to ban mini-skirts in the legislature, adding an irresponsible comment along the way: “You know how men are.”

I beg to differ. Let’s suppose that not all men are weak-willed creatures who are helpless at keeping their sexual urges in check.

A man confident in his sexual behavior would never see a woman wearing a miniskirt as an invitation for rape. Real men would know how to appreciate beauty and to enchant a woman with his personality. A real man does not rape — he charms.

Only very frustrated men would object to seeing women wearing miniskirts. Their frustration stems from knowing they have no chance of wooing these women, either by virtue of their lack of confidence or by being in a committed relationship with another person.

Well, tough luck. As Mick Jagger sang to his then lover, “You can’t always get what you want”.

But, in a world where men have a sense of entitlement over women, it is difficult to get across to them that women are individuals and not sexual objects nor reproductive machines.

Sexual assault is a degrading crime. Humiliation comes when the offender takes away the victim’s control over his or her body, robbing them of their autonomy and dignity as free human beings.

The suffering of rape victims is horrendous enough without other people putting the blame on the victim for how they dress.

No one has the right to violate another person. There are no excuses. The danger is in the eye of the beholder, not in the object of beauty. The culprit is the rapist, not the victim’s torn clothes.

— Prodita Sabarini

The Jakarta Post | Headlines | Sun, April 22 2012

A short dress is not a yes

The message: Marchers take on the streets of Sydney with banners.
The message: Marchers take on the streets of Sydney with banners.

The rain was just starting to subside as hundreds of people — men and women alike — assembled at the Sydney Town Hall to march in an anti-rape rally dubbed SlutWalk, last Monday afternoon.

The SlutWalk has become a global movement since April — spreading across North America, Europe and Australia, and soon to New Delhi — after a police officer in Canada said women should avoid dressing like sluts if they don’t want to be victimized.

Melbourne was the first city in Australia to hold the march, with thousands of people taking to the streets there. The crowd in Sydney wasn’t as big, despite more than 7,500 people showing their support on the SlutWalk Sydney Facebook page.

The Sydney organizer Samadhi Arktoi told reporters at the rally that the rain had deterred many from attending.

Despite the gloomy weather, the participants marched from Town Hall to Harmony Square, shouting “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes, and no means no!”

Most of the marchers wore winter jackets and coats. However, a few people who were brave enough to withstand the cold came in tank tops and slip dresses. One woman wore a black slip dress, with black feathered wings, while a man had a short black dress on, holding a sign “Yes means yes, and no means no”.

The ratio of men to women at the rally was equal. Mathew Lee, a 25-year-old student from Sydney, said the assumptions underpinning “slut-shaming” and “victim-blaming” were as hurtful to men as they were to women.

“They [victim-blamers] make certain assumptions about male behavior,” he said.

“It is assumed that if women dressed like sluts, men will be unable to control themselves; these assumptions assign us these kinds of instinct that men can’t help but rape women,” he said. “And I think that’s nonsense. I’m a man, I have never raped a woman. It’s just garbage. People use these kinds of excuses when it’s really about their own inability, their unwillingness to control themselves,” he said.

Lee said he joined the walk because it pushed a feminist agenda.

“I guess it falls under [the banner of] feminism, where you don’t have to be a woman to be a feminist. I’m quite proud to call myself a feminist,” he said.

Student Phillip Hall, 25, also joined the rally, donning red heart-shaped shades.

“I think there is a massive culture of victim blaming in this country and other countries, which is absolutely disgusting. The way the media portrays these cases and things enables that culture to thrive,” he said.

“I’m here because I think we need to stop blaming victims, stop blaming how they present themselves, what they do or what they don’t do, because the only person responsible for sexual assault is the person doing it,” he said.

The walk has sparked a debate here about whether the movement is really helping campaign for women’s rights or whether it’s a step back because of the campaign’s controversial name.

Mariana Amirudin, a Jakarta-based women’s rights activist and editor of feminist journal Jurnal Perempuan, is more concerned about another aspect of the walk.

While she acknowledged that campaigning for women’s rights over their bodies was an important cause, she was also concerned that women in the West still had to fight for their rights over their bodies.

“The campaign for women’s bodily rights in developed [Western] nations was supposed to be over, with radical feminists in the 1970s often campaigning about it,” she wrote in an email.

“I’m concerned because this means, even in Western countries, conservatism that rejects the freedom of individuals and is degrading to women is creeping up again,” she said.

Indeed, in many parts of the world, including in the West, which is considered more liberal and where modern women’s rights movement started, women are still seen as objects.

Sydney-based performing artist Emma Maye, who came to the rally dressed as former child star Betty Grumble, said that she experienced sexual harassment almost every day.

“It doesn’t matter what I’m wearing. I will get a wolf whistle, a snide remark,” she said.

Maye insisted it was important to understand why these things still happened in 2011.

Megan McKenzie, who also joined the rally dressed in a 1950s outfit, said that she had been “groped, grabbed all sort of things that are completely unwarranted and completely uninvited”.

They both joined the rally as independent individuals hoping to make a difference.

“I think it’s important for people to participate in these events, to start a conversation and bond with like-minded people,” Maye said.

McKenzie hopes the campaign will change people’s behaviors.

“Unwanted touching, unwanted sexual advances, unwanted comments are not acceptable. And the way someone dresses should not be seen as encouraging sexual assault. It’s [sexual assault] actually [driven by] something else inside the perpetrator,” she said.

Back in Indonesia, Titiana Adinda, a woman’s rights activist who has worked with victims of sexual assault at the Women’s Crisis Center at Cipto Mangunkusumo Hospital in Jakarta, said it was common for law enforcers to blame the victims in sexual assault cases, saying they had “asked for it”.

“They think victims invite violence by the way they dress or by being flirty,” she said.

Similar campaigns on women’s rights over their bodies have been carried out in Indonesia, Mariana said — albeit under a less controversial name. Mariana alluded to the thousands of people who took to the streets to protest the pornography bill between 2004 and 2006. However the bill was still passed.

According to her, Indonesia went through a period of enlightenment in women’s rights between 2004 and 2006, but that religious groups had since used religious symbols and moral claims to trump these campaigns.

The government, Mariana said, also paid more attention to radical religious groups than to women’s groups. Riding the wave of SlutWalk might be a good time for Indonesia to revive its own campaign.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Sydney, australia | Life | Tue, June 21 2011

HIV-positive women resent sterilization advice

Sharing a nice moment: D’Tri (left), Miss Indonesia’s finalist from Jakarta, and Inka, another Miss Indonesia finalist from East Kalimantan, talk to Asti and Yuli, two women with HIV/AIDS who are undergoing treatment at the Darmais Hospital in Jakarta. JP/J.ADIGUNA
Sharing a nice moment: D’Tri (left), Miss Indonesia’s finalist from Jakarta, and Inka, another Miss Indonesia finalist from East Kalimantan, talk to Asti and Yuli, two women with HIV/AIDS who are undergoing treatment at the Darmais Hospital in Jakarta. JP/J.ADIGUNA

Her eyes welled up at the thought of her late husband who died four months ago. At 25, Cahaya is a single mother who runs a small store in front of her parent’s house in Jakarta.

She is uncertain about her future. She said she was not sure whether she would find another man in the future who would ease her lonely struggle.

The small-framed woman is HIV positive. But no one in her family knows she is, she said. “It was just between my husband and I. We used to be able to talk about it together.”

After giving birth to her second child two years ago, a doctor in a central hospital in Jakarta advised her to undergo a sterilization procedure because she is HIV positive. And so she did.

“The doctors said that I should be sterilized because my husband and I were both [HIV] positive,” Cahaya said, despite the existence of the PMTCT (Preventing Mother-to-Child Transmission) program that enables mothers to give birth to children without transmitting the virus to their child.

Cahaya, a homemaker before her husband died, contracted HIV from her husband. She did not know he was a former drug user when she married him. A month after they tied the knot, she fell pregnant. Nine months after the birth of her first child, the baby died of severe diarrhea. The doctor told her to get her blood tested. She found out she was HIV positive.

During her second pregnancy, Cahaya followed the PMTCT program, taking Anti Retrovirals (ARV) and undergoing a C-section, which was free under a government and National Aids Commission program. Her two-year-old daughter is healthy and HIV negative.

“We were concerned the hospital would make it hard for us to access the PMTCT program if we did not agree to the sterilization,” she said.

Two months ago, Cahaya met a fellow HIV-positive patient at the hospital when she was about to get her ARV.

The woman had just given birth to a baby and Cahaya asked whether she had been sterilized. “She said she hadn’t. I was so shocked. Why did the doctor tell me I had to be sterilized?” she said.

“I still have a long future ahead of me. If I meet someone, he will probably want to have children,” she said. “I am even thinking I might stay alone for the rest of my life and not remarry.”

Despite the implementation of PMTCT program some doctors in Indonesia are still advising HIV positive women to get sterilized. Oldri Shearli from the Indonesia Alliance of Positive Women (IPPI) said patients and doctors’ lack of awareness about women’s reproductive rights is the main problem.

There were 21,770 reported cases of HIV and AIDS in 2010, according to Health Ministry Data.

Around 25 percent of the people affected are women. More than 70 percent of HIV-positive women are in their reproductive age. The rate of mother-to-child transmission in 2010 is 2.9 percent.

The most common way HIV is transmitted is through sexual relations between heterosexuals (50 percent). HIV can also be transmitted by sharing needles or injection equipment with an injection drug user who is HIV-positive (40 percent), and 3.3 percent of HIV cases are transmitted through men having sex with each other.

Head of the National Aids Commission Nafsiah Mboi said doctors should no longer be advising HIV-patients to be sterilized.

Oldri said when HIV and AIDS had just entered Indonesia and the services for ARV treatment were not yet in place, doctors were advising HIV patients to get sterilized to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the disease. But with the publication of PMTCT guidelines from the World Health Organization, doctors should have stopped giving such advice by now.

Nafsiah said current studies have shown that normal delivery was recommended for HIV positive women who have undergone an ARV regime. “Unless there are signs the mother’s health is poor,” she added.

However doctors are still using their authority to advise HIV-positive women to be sterilized, not only in Jakarta, but also in Bandung and Bali.

In Bali, the Sprit Paramacitta Foundation, an organization focusing on HIV and AIDS issues, stumbled upon a woman whose pregnancy was terminated and who was sterilized.

At the time, the foundation was carrying out a survey on the PMTCT program in Bali. During a focus group discussion, a woman became emotional and told her story about her abortion and sterilization.

“Hani” was pregnant in 2007 and was distraught because her husband was having an affair with another woman while she was pregnant with his child.

The doctor suggested she abort her child and be sterilized, because she was HIV positive and already had two children.

“She was given a form to sign stating she agreed to be sterilized. She said she was so distraught at that time that she signed without really realizing what was happening,” Spirit Paramacitta director Putu Utami said.

The hospital representative told the foundation the doctors did so with the best intentions. “They said they wanted to prevent more children being born with HIV,” she said.

Her organization recommended the hospital inform its patients of all the choices available to them, and make sure their patients were in a stable emotional state when they made a decision.

Cahaya feels her rights as a woman to make informed choices about her body were violated. Instead of asking her opinion on getting sterilized, doctors talked to her husband.

“I was being examined and we were setting a date for the C-section.”

The doctor then called her husband to talk in private and told him Cahaya should be sterilized because they were both HIV positive.

Her husband was concerned they would face difficulties accessing the PMTCT help so he signed the consent form without her in the room.

“Later, I was summoned and they explained it to me,” she said. “My husband had already signed the papers.” While the doctor talked to Cahaya’s husband a week before the labor, “Diana”, in Bandung, said the doctors had only asked her husband to sign the consent form when she was about to give birth.

She said the doctors had suggested she should get an abortion at first. “The doctor said I had a moral obligation because I am HIV positive.”

Andi Yentriyani from the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) said the doctor’s advice to get sterilized could be considered as violence against women.

“This can be considered as violence when the information given is not complete and is conveyed in a way that scares people or makes them feel intimated, which in the end result in the loss of the feeling of safety,” she said.

“Everyone has the right to complete information so they can make an informed decision and be responsible for their decision. Every doctor should carry out that responsibility,” she said.

Nafsiah said doctors should be informed about PMTCT guidelines through the health ministry and professional associations.

The Health Ministry’s director general for disease control and environmental health, Tjandra Yoga Aditama, said there were no regulations stating doctors had to advise HIV positive women to be sterilized.

“The government guarantees that all programs related to HIV and AIDS are accessible for free,” he said.

Tjandra added that the government continued to inform the general public and doctors on how to handle HIV and AIDS cases.

“For example, there is a meeting today at Sulianti Saroso Hospital about HIV. Hundreds of doctors are attending. This is an effort to continuously inform doctors about the issue,” he said.

Cahaya hopes women in the future will never have to endure her ordeal. “Don’t force women to be sterilized. Women have the right to have a family, children and grand children,” she said with a quivering voice.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Feature | Wed, November 10 2010

Nani Zulminarni: Dare to be a woman

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Women’s empowerment activist Nani Zulminarni had a few reasons to be angry in the late 1990s.

Her marriage broke down, her husband married another woman, and to top it off, she was discriminated against at work for being a divorcee.

So she resigned from her job as the director of the Center for Women’s Resources Development (PPSW).
But when one door closes, another one opens. And sure enough, in 2001, Kamala Chandrakirana, the head of the National Commission on Violence Against Woman (Komnas Perempuan), asked Nani to work on a project documenting widows in conflict areas, starting in Aceh. The project morphed into a comprehensive program she is now heading called Pekka, or Women-Headed Household Empowerment.

Nani successfully turned her anger into a relentless source of energy for the next decade, helping women who are the sole breadwinners in the household — widows, women abandoned by their husbands, and unmarried women who have dependants — organize themselves into self-reliant groups.

These women, who just like Nani carried the burden of providing for a family without a husband, were at the bottom of the system, Nani explained.

It is for this work that Nani received the Saparinah Sadli award last month. The award, named after the 83-year-old feminist scholar who founded Indonesia’s first women’s studies program at the University of Indonesia, is given to women who play an influential role in empowering women.

More than 1,000 Pekka self-reliant groups of women have mushroomed across eight provinces, with the program reaching 10,000 families. Pekka is planning to create groups in nine more provinces in Indonesia.

Sitting in her office in East Jakarta, Nani said she felt the award was an acknowledgement of the struggle of thousands of widows in Indonesia.

According to the 2007 National Economics Census, 6 million households in Indonesia are headed by women, covering more than 30 million citizens.

Nani explained households headed by women were generally poor and in many cases, the poorest among the poor in Indonesia.

Women joining the program are usually between 20 to 60 years old, more than 38.8 percent are illiterate and have never received formal education. They have up to six dependents and mostly work as farm laborers or in other informal sectors including small trade.  Upon joining, they usually earn less than one US dollar per day.

For Nani, Pekka has been a spiritual journey that helped her find the meaning of her life.

When she started Pekka, she was at the lowest point of her life.

“Pekka is a healing process. That’s why it feels like I didn’t fight for other people [but I fought for myself],” she said.

The incredible spirit of Pekka women constantly facing hardship inspired her, she went on.

As part of her work empowering women economically and socially, Nina trained Pekka members to save up for business ventures, and taught them the basics of micro-financing.

Financial aid, provided by Pekka and funded by the Japanese government through a World Bank trust fund, was channeled through a government program at the district level. “We made sure the money was not embezzled,” Nani said.

It was hard work to train the women at first, Nani said, as many of them had never finished school.

“At the beginning [of the training], members would sometimes write Rp 100,000 with four zeroes,” she said.

The training, estimated to run for a year, was carried out over 18 months.

Some groups were very successful, with one growing its capital from Rp 50 million to Rp 300 million.
“We didn’t want the money to just be handed over to the women and then spent.”

After coordinating Pekka for three years, Nani finally forgave herself and her former husband. “After I let go of my anger, I felt so good and happy.”

She explained discrimination toward women stemmed from people’s interpretation of religious texts, which places the woman as a subordinate and defines how good women should behave.

“Women are always defined in relation to other people. A woman is a daughter at first. Then she becomes someone’s wife, and after someone’s mother.”

Women in today’s society are still brought up to be wives, she said.

“Ask any parent in any part of Indonesia. They will be ashamed if their daughter does not marry,” she said, adding that if a marriage ended, society still blamed the woman.

Nani recalled suffering from discrimination on several occasions. During her divorce trial, for instance, the judges stated she was to blame for her husband remarrying. During a meeting with women in Aceh, a village leader asked her how she could organize Pekka if she couldn’t hold a marriage together.

Nani believes there should be a new way of interpreting religious text that is more egalitarian. She said women should have choices and be able to make smart decisions in life.

Her advice to women? “Cross the line and get out of the box.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Mon, September 13 2010

Tesa Casal de Vela: A fine line

JP/Prodita Sabarini
JP/Prodita Sabarini

As Theresa “Tesa” Casal de Vela and her daughter joined a rally organized for Manila’s gay pride two years ago, they heard Christian fundamentalists shout at marchers that they were going to burn in hell and needed to repent.

Casal de Vela, a Filipino feminist scholar and activist, recalled her then five-year-old daughter asking: “Why are they shouting at us mama? Why are they angry with us?”

“I said ‘You know, because they think that God does not like us and that’s not true because God loves everybody’,” she went on. So when the fundamentalist groups yelled at them, her and her daughter shouted back: “God is Love”. Later on, her daughter started singing the Barney I love you song, which goes: “I love you / You love me / We’re a happy family.”

It wasn’t the last time Casal de Vela witnessed rejection from religious fundamentalist groups toward Lesbian Gay Transexual and Bisexual (LGBT) individuals. The former director of Isis International Manila — an organization that promotes women’s human rights by facilitating networking as well as information sharing between women’s movements — attended the International Lesbian and Gay Alliance (ILGA) conference in Surabaya earlier this year, which was cut short by radical groups’ disruptive behavior.

She joined ILGA in 2005 as part of Isis, one of the feminist organizations that became a member of ILGA. Her aim since 2005 has been to foster what she calls “intermovement” or collaboration between the feminist and LGBT movements. She was about to promote her message at the failed ILGA conference in March, themed “Moving Forward”. “But, in fact we weren’t allowed to move at all,” she said.

She was recently in Indonesia for an International Policy Dialogue on gender and sexuality in Yogyakarta, which ran from Aug. 9 to 11. Casal de Vela talked to The Jakarta Post about LGBT rights in the Philippines, discovering her sexuality, and the need for several levels of activism for sexual rights.

According to the 41-year-old senior lecturer at the International, Humanitarian, and Development Studies of Miriam College in the Philippines, one could argue her home country has a strong LGBT movement, with LGBTs in academia and prominent jobs in public office.

“This [state of affairs] — co-exists with a situation where we can’t get an antidiscrimination against LGBT bill passed. We have Christian fundamentalist groups protesting against a gay pride march,” she continued. There are incidences of police raiding gay bars to extort money from bail. “And if you don’t know your rights, you will let them arrest you.”

She recalled her journey in discovering her sexuality as “strange”. A heterosexual until college, Casal de Vela explored her sexuality after she became involved in feminist movements. After college, she was in a relationship with a woman and told her parents she was a lesbian. They were shocked by the news — but only for a couple of hours.

Once her family and community accepted her sexuality, she fell in love with … a man. “So I had to tell my family again. And they were like ‘Wait, we already accepted you as a lesbian’.”

So she explained to her family that she was in love with the man. “I still like women, but I fall in love with a person’s soul. You know whatever that outer part that person looks like is not my main concern.”

She eventually married the man and gave birth to her daughter. The marriage then dissolved. Casal de Vela said that she had been with her current female partner for seven years.

In the research she is currently carrying out on sexuality, preliminary findings show discrimination against Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (LBT) women differs depending on the group or particular identity. A bisexual woman who looks “straight” or heterosexual, will experience less discrimination in the workplace compared to “butch” or “masculine-looking” lesbians and transgender women, she added.

“For instance, my partner and I are both feminine [looking] and teachers in a school. And we’re OK. I think it’s because we’re ‘feminine-looking’ lesbians, so people can also accept that easily,” she said.

“Two feminine women with a baby, [will stimulate this kind of thought:]‘ Isn’t that nice; that’s so sweet; that’s so cute’. But people have a problem when they see the butch [looking woman] and a femme.

“It’s worse for transgender individuals,” She explained, especially for those entering the workforce.

“It’s easier to get work if you can pass as a straight person,” she said. For her research, she interviewed transgender women with PhDs who could not find jobs. “Because the only work available is in entertainment, or hairdressing, you know that kind of thing. But, they have PhDs in psychology.”

When advocating the rights of women and LGBTs, she said there should be several levels of activism, campaigning for matters which may be seen as trivial, such as the use of female public toilets for all women, including “butch-looking” lesbians and transsexuals, to promoting the involvement of LGBT individuals in political organizations.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Thu, August 19 2010

‘Jurnal Perempuan’: Facing off against fundamentalism

The stronger sex: Jurnal Perempuan is currently one of the leading publications on gender, women’s rights issues and feminism in Indonesia.
The stronger sex: Jurnal Perempuan is currently one of the leading publications on gender, women’s rights issues and feminism in Indonesia.

The Jurnal Perempuan Foundation (JPF), which launched the country’s first feminist journal Jurnal Perempuan, has come a long way from distributing photocopied newsletters on feminism writing as complementary material at university.

Entering its 15th year, Jurnal Perempuan has significantly contributed to the development of women and gender thought in Indonesia. It is now reaching a larger audience, as the JPF is producing work in more media forms — radio, TV documentaries and a youth magazine.

At the same time, the journal is facing a new challenge in its pursuit of enlightenment and equality: The rise of religious fundamentalism.

In her public lecture on July 30, Gadis Arivia, a feminist scholar and the founder of Jurnal Perempuan, said the idea of publishing the journal, which germinated 15 years ago, generated two types of responses.

“Some people assumed Jurnal Perempuan was a magazine about cooking. So bookstores offered to place the journal in the cooking book section. Others, such as magazine vendors in the Senen area, assumed it was a magazine that published pictures of women in provocative poses,” she said.

“It’s difficult to explain [what] a feminist magazine [is about] when the spectrum on offer is either food or erotica.”

When Jurnal Perempuan first hit bookstores, around 500 to 1,000 copies were sold, said JPF director Mariana Amirudin. Today, the journal has 6,000 subscribers and sells 5,000 copies in bookstores.

The foundation then branched out to produce radio shows to reach a larger audience, partnering with 191 radio stations in Indonesia. “The journal’s content was analysis and in-depth writing about various women issues. It has become very intellectual and now caters to the academic world,” she said.

“We chose radio programs as the medium of choice in 1996. Radio can be a means to reach people in the lower-middle class bracket who do not necessarily read, but listen.”

The JPF also produces documentaries and has a website. In 2008, the foundation launched a youth magazine called Change.

Women studies expert Sulistyowati Irianto said the journal helped deconstruct the rigid image people have of women and their role in society. It grew alongside the development of women’s movements and feminist thought after the reform era.

“Indonesian women had their own movement but the New Order controlled and silenced it,” she said.

Under the New Order regime of president Soeharto, the women’s place in society was institutionalized through the marriage law, which defines the role of the husband as the head of the household, and the wife as a homemaker.

In her lecture, Gadis said the image of women broadcast by the state and the state-controlled media during the New Order was that of Dharma Wanita — a group of wives of officials who spent their time organizing many charity — not empowerment programs.

Gadis explained the Ibu-ibu (motherly woman) image prevalent during the New Order was not without a design or ideology. “It was ideal to erase from the public’s memory the image of a more radical, empowered woman active in civil movements.”

The Indonesian Women’s Movement (Gerwani), the largest women’s organization before the New Order, had played a big role in women’s empowerment during the Old Order regime. It was also one of the organizations that helped build Indonesia, Gadis said.

“Gerwani had a clear ideological line and was affiliated to the communist party. When the pogrom
of the communist party took place, and people sympathized with the communists, Gerwani was also annihilated especially as its members were accused of killing the generals,” Gadis said.

The journal aims to deconstruct the image of women having limited roles in society. Mariana said the road to equality between genders was a change of mindset, which is what the JPF attempts to nurture.

Sulistyowati said Jurnal Perempuan’s continuity contributed significantly to the development of women’s thought and movement. “The issues discussed are those women talk about. The [Jurnal Perempuan] writers know their fields and understand feminist perspectives,” Sulistyo said.

“Their contribution is huge because many other journals don’t survive,” she said. “Jurnal Perempuan has succeeded in maintaining its presence in print media. The people behind Jurnal Perempuan have done a very good job [of maintaining this presence].”

But it is not without difficulties, Mariana went on. In the first years, Gadis had to sell her car to cover the cost of publishing the journal.

She said Jurnal Perempuan measured its success against the number of people subscribing to the journal. “That’s a few steps to what we call enlightenment and equality in society.

“It will take a long time to produce an enlightened society.”

Jurnal Perempuan changed Mariana’s life. A former Islamic fundamentalist, Mariana joined Jurnal Perempuan in 2003, after studying women’s studies. She used to be a member of the NII, a group advocating the creation of an Indonesian Islamic state.

“I read the journal and began going through books written by Nawal El Saadawi,” she said, referring to the Egyptian feminist. Mariana enrolled in women studies at the University of Indonesia. “My mindset changed radically,” she said.

She became a feminist because she put a critical thinking cap on and used common sense. “I knew I still had a brain and I could tell something didn’t make sense,” she said. “I was very uncomfortable with
my past. By learning about feminism, human rights and social science, I regained confidence in myself.”
Gadis’ lecture at the Antara building in Thamrin was the first of what Jurnal Perempuan hopes will be a long tradition of yearly lectures.

Attending the lecture was Constitutional Court judge Maria Farida Indrati, the only woman in the court and the only judge voicing doubts about the necessity of the Pornography Law, as well as gay rights activist Hartoyo.

Gadis’ lecture, titled “Media, State and Sex” is a timely issue. At a time when the state and the media cannot differentiate between the public and private domain, and view women’s sexuality as a moral threat, Gadis’ lecture delved into the issue of how the media depicted women in rigid, limited roles, how the state was controlling women by defining their roles and even their sexuality in the form of various legislations — such as the Marriage Law that states a husband is the head of household and the wife a housewife, the “vague” Pornography Law and the revised Health Law controlling women’s reproductive rights.

Jurnal Perempuan grew in the freedom experienced during the reform era, Mariana said. “We were the agent of change that was partying with the freedom we had.”

The challenges the journal are facing today, Mariana added, was the political standoff between the progressive liberals and the religious fundamentalists.

“There are many setbacks in our society, be it the state of democracy and the rise of fundamentalist groups that hate women,” she said.

Gadis ended her lecture by asking how to improve the state’s attitude toward sex. “A state smart about sex will create a smart society as well.”

“It’s proven that ignorance in sex education has brought ineffective policies, creating a society
that has a phobia of women’s bodies, has ensured children misunderstand [what] sex [is about] and provided an environment for violent, scary and radical groups that can only create harm.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Feature | Fri, August 13 2010

Nursyahbani Katjasungkana: A new perspective on sex

JP/Prodita Sabarini
JP/Prodita Sabarini

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.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Mon, August 16 2010

Papua series: Laboring mamas, chopped fingers

Taking a breather: Weldemina Mora looks at a waterfall in Serui, Yapen Islands regency. In Serui, some Papua vanilla vineyards are located on customary land belonging to the Yawaunat people. (JP/ Prodita Sabarini)

A mama walks barefoot under the skin-burning sun in a hamlet in Piramid district, Jayawijaya regency. With their traditional woven bags (noken) dangling from their heads, Papuan women, lovingly called mama-mama, dig into the earth to harvest sweet potatoes.

Orina, 30, is one of the mama-mama. Last week was harvest time in her village, Yonggime. Carrying her 3-year-old-son Samuel to the field on her shoulder, she steadies the weight of her noken on her head.

“It’s hard work,” she says. “We sweat a lot and we dig using shovels,” she said. The shovels that the women use are made from thin long metal with flat tips. Most tiring, she said, was that they had to carry their noken and their babies or toddlers with them to the field. Sometimes women carry three bags on their head, one for their offspring and the others for collecting the harvest.

The bulk of the work on farms in Papua falls to women. Most indigenous Papuans in the mountainous highlands such as in Jayawijaya regency live from farming. Families grow sweet potatoes for their daily meals, as well as for their pigs. The rest, they sell in the markets. Women are usually the ones who travel to the markets carrying heavy loads on their heads. The sweet potatoes, or hipere in the local language, can grow as big as a newborn baby, weighing around 5 to 10 kilograms each.

“Men open the fields, build the fences and dig irrigation channels, but that’s it. The people who tend the fields, plant and toil, harvest and feed the cattle, are the women,” Patricio Wetipo from the organization, Humi Inane (Women’s Voice) Foundation, said in Wamena recently.

In Indonesia’s easternmost province, indigenous women are marginalized and often become victims of violence both from outside and inside their communities. The security approach in the restive province has seen many women suffer sexual violence at the hands of Indonesian Military (TNI) personnel, as documented in a 2009 study by the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan).

Women are also second to men within their communities. Besides having a heavier workload, they were not included in decision-making in tribal communities, Patricio said. Polygamy and adultery was rife, he added, and with Papua being the Indonesian province with the highest rate of HIV/AIDS, a lot of women contract the virus from their husbands. Patricio said that his organization had documented 370 reports of violence against women in Jayawijaya alone.

One can see the stark difference between men and women with the grieving customs of communities in the central mountains. Women in those tribes cut off the phalange of a finger as a sign of grief when a member of their family passes a way. The men, meanwhile, make only a tiny slice in the tip of their ears. The government has banned this particular practice, but one can still see many women with short, stumpy fingers, including younger women.

But conditions for women are changing — albeit slowly; development programs that incorporate gender equality are opening up access for women to become community leaders.

In Wamena, Sarlota Itlay, 42, stands out as the head of a farmers’ group in Musaima village, a position that she’s proud to hold. The single mother of four describes her position as “one that’s rare in Papuan custom”. When development NGO Oxfam started a Papua Enterprise Development Program (PEDP) in Wamena in 2009, the single mother joined the group of 55 farmers that opened 10 hectares for sweet potato cultivation.

She was the only woman that spoke a lot during discussions with Oxfam and the Independent Business Foundation (Yapum), Oxfam’s local partner, she said. In 2010, she was appointed head of the farmers’ group. Her leadership caught the eye of the local Hubikiak district administration and she was appointed as the village secretary, giving her a role in the day-to-day administrative affairs.

Rio Pangemanan, Oxfam’s PEDP manager, said that when devising programs to support entrepreneurship within indigenous Papuan communities, they ensure that women’s ideas and roles are clear. They separate discussions between women, men and community leaders to ensure that women’s aspirations are heard before planning the program.

Patricio also uses this technique in his awareness-raising campaigns.

“We talk with the women in the communities about women and men’s positions in customary law, whether there is violence or not and, if so, what forms of violence they experience,” he said. Patricio then talks with the men on the same topics. In the end, the men and women gather for a dialogue about women’s roles and violence against women in their community.

Change was slow, he said, but women were becoming more confident and courageous in expressing their objections about things they felt were unfair.

In Wamena, religious institutions are also playing a role in empowering women. In a Catholic boarding house for girls in Wamena, some 30 girls sit on a carpeted floor and discuss their rights as women. Led by Deacon John Jonga, a Catholic priest and human rights activist, the girls, who are in junior high and high school, shared their stories of how they felt having a lower status compared to their brothers. They also said they had to work harder on the farms during their school breaks compared with their brothers.

Deacon John had the girls laughing when he cracked a few jokes about how hard it must be for them having been born girls. But he was very serious when he asked them what they wanted when they grew up.

“Do you want to be the young wife of an old tribal leader?” he asked. “I know a woman who used her savings to pay the dowry for her husband’s new wife. Would you like that?” he asked. The girls giggled and shook their heads. Marcela Logo, 17, said that if her future husband treated her badly and had another woman, she would leave him.

“You are worth it, you’re equal to men, and you deserve to be free from violence,” Deacon John said. The girls’ eyes grew wider, and an optimistic glint showed in their smiles.

— JP/Prodita Sabarini, Wamena, Jayawijaya

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post | Reportage | Wed, March 27 2013