One main criticism of the feminist movement in Southeast Asia is its exclusivity, which has been dominated by the perception of the white, liberal biological female.
During the Isyarat Feminisme Dekolonial (Gesture of Decolonial Feminism) session of the Etalase Pemikiran Perempuan(A Window to Women’s Thoughts) online feminist festival, which ran from July 24 to 26, Indonesian feminists brought this criticism into a discussion.
Led by writers Martha Hebi, Erni Aladjai, Citra Hasan and anthropologist Rhidian Yasminta Wasaraka, this session addressed the various experiences of women across the Indonesian archipelago.
The topics covered varied greatly, providing insight into different viewpoints and methods of cultural preservation.
Martha exposed the fragile state of the feminist movement in Sumba, brought about by years of patriarchal domination in social systems and ongoing feudalism, while Erni presented her findings through Project Ramuan Nenek, a compilation of methods of women’s post-birth body care, from the traditional practices of different regions of Indonesia.
Other topics included Rhidian’s presentation of the Papuan Korowai peoples and the sensationalization and exoticization of their culture forged by Western media, as well as an introduction to Citra’s organization, Sirkulasi Kreasi Perempuan (Women’s Creation Circulation), a Medan-based community within which women express themselves through art and literature.
The panelists highlighted that it was important for feminism to be contextualized within the framework of non-Western values and experiences in order for it to be inclusive and applicable to women regardless of racial, socioeconomic or bodily differences.
In defining decolonial feminism, moderator and organizer Intan Paramaditha took a look at issues lingering within “mainstream” feminism.
Intan explained that “universal feminism” sees women’s experiences as uniform, and does not acknowledge the power relations between the different backgrounds of the individuals that encompass it, giving rise to “colonialism under the guise of female solidarity”.
“There are power relations and different privileges between first-world and third-world feminism, or even within the context of Indonesia alone, between urban Java, or Medan”, she stated.
Meanwhile, another session, titled Perempuan Meretas Sastra (Women Hacking Literature), discussed the issue of exclusivity and marginalization of women in the field of literature.
The written arts have remained Java-centric and hetero-patriarchal in nature, excluding minority groups, and erasing or discriminating against their contributions. This gatekeeping has led to a literary world devoid of many feminists’ works and opportunities for female creatives.
Discussing this were five female writers; Raisa Kamila, Sartika Sari, Isyana Artharini, Indah Darmastuti, and Lily Yulianti Farid.
Isyana noted that the works of female Indonesian writers were often publicly perceived as “thematically monolithic”, or inflexible, solely and simply covering female problems. She explains such authors are treated as a “new phenomenon”, due to the lack of publication and contextualization of historical pieces.
“From that comes the assumption that what is written is domestic, personal, specialty, and do not talk about ‘big’ problems or ‘important and universal’. However, reading these works, I know that these domestic and personal writings have become a way for women to respond to the times, and criticize the social values that prevailed at the time”, she said.
A deeper look into women’s issues within the literature was presented in the Bongkar Kata (Deconstructing Words) session, which discussed how words may affect a general way of thinking.
During the Bongkar Kata session, moderator Cecil Mariani talked about the importance of questioning the undertones of words, as to not misinterpret, as to not be conducive to an oppressive and inaccurate power play of the general population’s perception.
“Sometimes we assume words through personal bias, public opinion, or solely from the definition of a particular authority that we do not question anymore. And then, unconsciously are repeatedly trapped and make the same mistake of perpetuating this”, Mariani said.
“Deconstructing words can also deconstruct one’s way of thinking, the condition of society, how the social structure works and the building of reality.”