Lailatul Fitriyah’s Dec. 15 article in The Jakarta Post that questioned the absence of women in the narratives related to the Dec. 2, or 212, protest raised several important issues pertaining to women’s political activism and liberation from discrimination.
She criticizes the narratives that dominate our society as having discounted the presence of women, who did contribute to the protest. Furthermore, she defines these narratives as “patriarchal politicoreligious”.
Within this kind of narrative, she further explains that the protest had systematically excluded the female participants. An example that she provides is the inequality of the Friday prayer space, most of which was prioritized for men, such that many women were asked to give up their space to men.
Finally, she claims that Islamic movements will potentially fail if these movements continue to marginalize Muslim women.
There are at least three caveats to Fitriyah’s critical analysis that merit our attention. First, investigating the mobilization of women in the 212 protest without fieldwork is an ambitious undertaking.
In order to understand what role women played in the 212 protest, observing — and not interpreting — how these women organized or contributed to the protest in the field is absolutely necessary.
Second, movements must not be conflated with protests. Movements organize protests. Protests are necessary tactics of a movement to achieve its political agenda. In other words, the two terms cannot be used interchangeably.
Third, Fitriyah is exercising precisely the action that she is critical about: presenting Muslim women as passive subjects. Thus, she reinforces the patriarchal politico-religious narrative that she is against.
Rather than determining a better answer to Fitriyah’s question, I prefer raising our awareness to learn about the success of the 212 protest in attracting many Muslim women to participate. Especially for those of us who contend with patriarchy and aspire to advocate for women’s rights or social parity with men, the question we need to reflect on now is how we can organize a political protest that emulates the success of the 212 protest in uniting and mobilizing that many women.
Reifying patriarchal narratives and practices is unproductive because such a move only obscures the real issue at stake. Julia Suryakusuma’s book State Ibuism ( 1998 ) demonstrates how Indonesian women are deeply divided by class as a result of the New Order’s political legacy.
One major success of the 212 protest, nevertheless, was that it united and mobilized women of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
These women could be living in one of the four household models: a single-woman household, husband as-sole-breadwinner household, dual-earner household, or singlemother household. Consequently, each household model generates different sets of social and economic challenges.
Hence, uniting women as a group to mobilize politically is not an easy task because diverse socioeconomic backgrounds do not guarantee that all of these women embrace a singular political aspiration. The 212 protest, however, attracted these women to leave their paid work in offices or unpaid work at home, bring along their children and mobilize for the protest. It successfully converged the political aspirations of women across different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Religious piety alone cannot be the driving force of the Muslim women who joined the 212 protest because there were still some devoted Muslim women who did not participate in, or agree with, the protest agenda.
To end the perpetuation of patriarchal politico-religious narratives, we need to move beyond making assumptions about women, as those Fitriyah made. We should instead acknowledge and examine the autonomy of women as social actors.
As autonomous social actors, women are capable of making choices based on their own political aspirations. In this sense, we should not be indulging ourselves in the assumption that all of the Muslim women participating in the 212 protest and Friday prayer experienced subjugation when giving up their spaces for the Muslim male participants to pray.
Unless these women were evidently coerced physically or verbally, their action to give their spaces to their male counterparts may actually be one part of their many true aspirations for joining in the protest.
In Politics of Piety ( 2005 ), which discusses the women’s mosque movement in Turkey, Saba Mahmood shows how a woman’s aspiration to submit herself to a recognized authority for the common good is also a form of free will in its own right.
In this sense, the relationship between the patriarchal politico-religious narratives and the action of women who are willing to submit to others is less causal and more mutually constitutive.
A so-called patriarchal politicoreligious narrative does not simply shape the Muslim female participants’ submissive behavior, but is also constituted and perpetuated by the very actions of some women.
To clarify, this article does not align itself with the existing patriarchal narratives that tend to marginalize or disregard the role of women in the 212 protest. Although I believe that completely annihilating patriarchy is a utopian notion, I am confident that delinking from patriarchal ideas and narratives is possible.
However, grumbling about already longstanding and robust patriarchal practices is unproductive and will only hinder dialogues between the ruling and the ruled.
Organizing a successful political protest, such as the 212 protest, within a patriarchal narrative necessitates offering an alternative to patriarchy — that is extremely difficult work that contenders of patriarchy and women’s rights activists need to undertake.
The work that has yet to be finished and requires our attention now can be broken down into two important points for reflection.
First, how has dialogue between women and men about social status parity been pushed?
Second, at a more fundamental level, exactly how has the dialogue among women with contending views about politics and social norms been going?
Ultimately, disunity among Indonesian women is fuel for patriarchal and misogynistic practices. Therefore, prior to demanding any political movements for the inclusion and recognition of women in their mobilization, addressing the autonomy of every woman as a social actor and uniting the aspirations of women across different socioeconomic backgrounds must first be resolved.