Jakarta took part in the global Women’s March on March 4, waiting for the hotly contested Jakarta gubernatorial election to pass. The march in front of the State Palace focused on several issues affecting Indonesia, such as respect for diversity, a proposal to pass a sexual violence bill, public service support for transgender and disabled women and public attention for international women’s rights. The peaceful march involved thousands.
The backlash began online, focusing on a university student. Like in many other cases, it began not as an insult against her politics but as harassment. Apparently, a Facebook group focusing on online memes discussed a picture of the student and thought she was an adolescent. Vulgar comments were made, and when she responded to the comments, the commentators dug in.
Some maintained their cheeky attitudes, while some others became defensive and attempted to debate her in logic and semantics. Eventually, group members grumbled about how “feminazis” spoil everything, and some women argued that the true bad guys out there were radical Muslims, not guys engaging in friendly banter.
This was just one instance of troubles feminists in Indonesia dealt with after the Women’s March. Days after the incident, a journalist reportedly resigned after asking his source to send a picture of her in sundress to “lighten up the topic.” Some people defending him said such a demand was normal in the media business, and with feminists politicizing everything, it’s no wonder that Donald Trump won the United States presidency.
Feminism is growing in Indonesia, like in so many other countries worldwide. It is a range of political movements, ideologies and social movements that seek to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. The first wave of feminism hit the world in the early 20th century, often in a package with other Industrial Age ideologies such as nationalism, liberalism, and socialism.
While the second wave of feminism arrived in the West in the late 1960s, in Asia it was repressed by both communist and anti-communist governments, which believed that civil movements harmed the nation’s mission to industrialize and to build a morally strong society. The third wave of feminism began in the 1990s, and in the 21st century, it has grown to include the perspectives of women of color and sexual minorities.
Indonesian feminists believe that wearing hijab is a matter of personal choice — a person has the right to wear it or not. Indonesian feminists learn the concept of intersectionality — that injustice against women is strongly related to injustice against minorities and the poor. Indonesian feminists believe that empowerment is political, not merely a corporate slogan.
The most obvious opponent to feminism to Indonesia and other countries is conservatism, which believes that traditional values work best. Conservatives believe that the best role for a woman is to be a mother who bears children, looks after them, and educates them with “traditional” values. Many feminists are parents who nurture their children, but don’t necessarily teach them socalled traditional values.
But there are many other opponents of feminism, from different political spectra. Even many people who consider themselves apolitical dislike feminism, arguing that gender equality had been achieved, since Indonesia had a female president, many female ministers, and several female executives. So many people think that feminists are angry sex-obsessed women who hate all men and are not grateful for the benefits of life they have enjoyed.
Most feminists subscribe to left-wing politics and are skeptical about capitalism, meritocracy and organized religion. There are, however, many disagreements between feminists and other leftwing believers.
Many male socialists in the US still blame feminists for supporting Hillary Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders in last year’s Democratic Party presidential election primaries, and believe the war against patriarchy is a foolish illusion, as the real fight is against capitalism.
Many Marxists dismiss intersectionality as a liberal fad, and are astonished that feminists refuse to focus on the classics of left-wing philosophy. On the other hand, feminists believe that the writings of 19th and 20th century European men should be complemented, or even challenged, by the writings of modern women from the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
I have heard Indonesians saying or writing that feminism is needed in Indonesia, but no longer in the West. Feminism, in fact, is needed worldwide.
In Indonesia, it is needed not only to foil religious intolerance but also to fight sexism on the street and in the boardroom. It is needed to fight racism and homophobia. After all, many bigoted people are well-educated and have good access to international travel and media. They are bigoted not due to lack of education or experience, but due to lack of sympathy.
When I started writing for this newspaper 10 years ago, my primary interest was overseas Chinese identity. The evolution of my primary interest into feminism has improved and enriched my political view. I understand how systemic racism prevents Chinese-Americans from being fairly represented in Hollywood and the music industry, just as I understand how sexism and misogyny contribute to serious economic and societal failings across East Asia.
Racism is not excusable, whether it’s racism against Chinese-Indonesians or racism by ChineseIndonesians. Chinese men don’t need to prove their heterosexuality and masculinity to fight homophobic stereotyping held by other ethnic groups. I understand better that “caring about other groups, not just my group” is a way of life, not merely a slogan.
Despite critics from all sides, feminism is a valid and necessary political view. It has made visible impacts worldwide, hence the current backlash against it. The cause is clear — affluent men worldwide are afraid of losing their privilege.
A group of women was behind the revelation and the shutdown of an online pedophile ring in Jakarta this week. Media and rivals dubbed them emak-emak, housewives. They are mothers and also feminists.