FSE/ESF Forum social européen/European Social Forum - Women in Indonesia’s Violent Transition
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Women in Indonesia’s Violent Transition [en]
14 January 2004


Indonesia is the fourth most populated country in the world. With 90 % of its 220 million people as Muslims, it has the largest concentration of Muslims in the world. Indonesia’s Islam has a Southeast Asian Face, which is heavily influenced by specific histories and cultures of this particular region. It is a nation founded upon 300 ethnic groups and languages living in an archipelago consisting of 3,000 islands, covering a distance of more than 9,000km from east to west. While Islam is the religion of the majority population, other religions and belief systems have thrived in the nation’s distinct communities.

For the past 30+ years, Indonesians have to lived under this extremely repressive regime, which fully backed by powerful military, operated by a paternalistic, corrupt and unaccountable bureaucracy, funded by corporate empires (including state-owned)built through the exploitation of the country’s rich natural resources and its cheap labour force, and facilitated by a disempowered judiciary unable to enforce the rule of law. In 1998, this regime called “the new ordered” officially ended along with the resignation of President Soeharto. Many refer to the years 1998 and after as Indonesia’s period of transition.

The extended economic crisis and volatile political condition has meant that women continue to be vulnerable to domestic violence, trafficking, abuse in the workplace, various forms of sexual assault in the armed conflict situations. Most difficult to address is the different incidences of gender-based violence justified in the name of religion and tradition. Many Indonesians still believe that their religion give them the right to give physical punishment to their wife. In religious and traditional institutions, women often became victims of sexual abuse by their spiritual or traditional leaders. In regions where the Moslem Syariah Law is adopted, women are penalized for not observing the right dress code. The rise of religious fundamentalism and ethnic or racial primordialism, which have intensified group conflicts, has further increased women’s vulnerability to violence.

One of the key elements characterizing the rise of religious extremism in Indonesia is its interlinking with an historical and complex process of political transition. After more than three decades of authoritarian rule, Indonesian underwent a historical turning point when Soeharto stepped down in May 1998, after bloody mass rioting and devastating economic collapse. Since then, we have been witnessing the impact of 30 years of systematic disempowerment of civic life which is a general disintergration of the nation.According to data collected by a Jakarta-based UN Institution, between 1990 and 2002, 1093 incidents of social conflicts occurred in Indonesia.3 Current trends in the management of the economy indicates that real improvement in the livelihoods of the average Indonesian is not within sight. This means that more and more people will be desperate to find alternative solutions, including violent and extremist ones. The past five years, religious extremism has grown hand in hand with the general disintegration of the nation. The consistently poor performance of the government and political leaders of the nation in managing the conflicts, the economy and politics in general almost guarantees fertile ground for the continual spread of religious extremism in Indonesia in the coming near future.

Using Islamic extremists as a measure of religious extremism in Indonesia, we can gage its strength from the multidimensional of its penetration into the social, political and economic fabric of the society. Despite the vigilant media coverage of violent bombing attacks, abusive campaigns against guest in International hotels and noisy demonstration at the doorsteps of foreign embassies, these acts constitute only one aspect of wide spectrum of socio-politicalforces at play. Starting with the most violent form, a preliminary overview of these multiple forces-and their primary actors:

- Formation of paramilitary groups.

Along with the breakout of armed conflicts in some parts of Indonesia, Islamic as well as Christian paramilitary groups have been growing. Many of the Jihad groups were recruited in Java and their members sent out to the conflict areas, like Maluku, Central Sulawesi and reportedly in Papua. Some groups go beyond the national borders, into International conflict zones such as afghanistan and Paletine. Despite the recent disbandment of the jihad troops after the shock of the Bali bombing, the practice of creating militant extremist groups carrying out violent campaigns has spread.

- Adoption of party politics.

Currently, there are more than 200 political parties preparing for eligibility in the up-coming national election. A significant number of these parties are organized along religious identity, and some are explicitly struggling for a Islamic state. In regions with long histories of Islam based movements, conservative Islamic parties gain wide support. In several areas, this has resulted in the emergence of local government regulations promoting Shariah Law and socalled “Islamic ways”. One particular political party is known for its ability to mobilize young women, all in headcover (hijab), in mass demonstrations of support for the party’s agenda.

- Shariah Law and the regional autonomy.

Part of the democratization agenda in Indonesia is the push towards regional autonomy, away from the centralizing tendencies during the New Order Regime. In areas with strong Islamic identity, there has been much pressure towards local governments to formally adopt the Shariah Law, an agenda that has so far been defeated at the national level. Up to now,at least six local governments have codified the Shariah Islam into various forms of local laws, regulations and official executive instructions. These areas are spread from Aceh, Riau , West Java to Sulawesi. In areas where Sahriah Law has been adopted, either formally or informally, as the predominant point of reference, local governments have come up with specific local policies regulating dress code for women and conduct for civil servants. Female civil servants, for example, are obliged to wear headcovers. In some parts ares for example in Aceh, have been designated as “mandatory hijab zones”. Women’s dress and mobility has consistenly been among the targets of regulation in the regions adopting and/or advocatingfor Shariah Law.

- Contestation of “ womanhood” as social identity.

The concept of womanhood is being contested by conservative and extremist groups, through the various distinct means. The points of contestation has focused on women’s dress and conduct,freedom of mobility, public role and political leadership. Paralel to the idealized role for women promoted by the New Order State, religiously conservative/extremist groups also promote the domestication of women. In the conflict region of Aceh, where the Shariah Law has been officially adopted as a strategy to appease a deeply dissatisfied population, women who do not wear headcovers have been targets of abusive campaigns. Youth groups have attacked these women by throwing paint on their hair, forceably cutting their hair or clothes, and other acts of intimidation. In Maluku island, a women was a victim of forced circumcision in attempt to impose domination over a non-moslem community.

Religion remains the strongest organizing force known to the majority of Indonesians (as a result of the New Order regime’s “floating mass”policy) and, at this moment, it is being politicized by the old guards to become amunition in their power struggle.

For women, this is a dangerous mix. On one side, the government is losing its hold on the political leadership of the country and unable to force the rule of law, while the military seem to be maintaining their power. On the other side, the dominant choice for popular response to the social and political disintegration is religious militancy and organizing to become “civilian troops” in the name of protection and defense of their respective communities. For women, this means the strengthening and spread of the cultural of violence-fertile ground for violence in the homeand streets, even in areas where open conflicts does not exist, let alone in the communities where mass violence is a daily reality. This also means that marginalization and opression by religious fundamentalism is becoming more and more a real threat to more and more women.

The government continues to use a security approach to address urban poverty and women have been particularly victimized by this. In land- or housing-related conflicts, especially cases of forced eviction, women become victims of violence from the males of both sides. Women have been the first targets of forced eviction campaigns by municipal authorities. In the meantime, women are also the first to be put forward as a shield for her community in their physical defense against attacks to evict.

State violence against women continues in various circumstances. In armed conflict situations, such as Aceh, Maluku, Central Sulawesi, there continues to be reports of sexual assault - ranging from sexual harassment by military officials towards young women in refugee camps to rape by military and armed civilians in Aceh. Unfortunately, despite the so-called ‘reformasi’, the cycle of impunity for the prepetrators is still fully in tact in Indonesia. The recent decision of the human rights court on the East Timor cases clearly indicate this sad reality.

The Indonesian government also fails to give protection to the thousands of women are working in other countries as migrant workers. This failure invovles the inadequacy of protection measures, poor sanction regime, weak and flawed international agreements, institutionalized exploitation of returnees, no legal protection of rights, lack of means for redress and recovery and a dysfunctional social insurance system. Women migrant workers have also been one of the main victims of trafficking practices. Women’s vulnerability to continued violence cannot be separated from the reality of the feminization of poverty. Economic policies continue to marginalize women from the access and control of resources. Indeed, Indonesia’s overseas labour program escalated as a response to mass unemployment and poverty at home.

It can be said that Indonesia’s labour export economy relies almost entirely on the deployment of female domestic workers. The main reason for this was Indonesia’s late entry into the labour market, particularly in the case of Saudi Arabia, which was then experiencing the end of their construction boom. Consequently, the competition for the domestic helpers labour market was not as severe as in other labour markets.

Since the early 1990s, Indonesia has gradually increased its share of the international labour market. For example, in 1993, Indonesian workers were the third largest group employed in Hong Kong, but by 1994, their numbers were second only to the Filipinos. What is most dramatic is not only the rapidity of the rise of numbers of overseas migrant workers, but the total reversal of the gender balance. During the 1970s, men outnumbered women by a ratio of 3:1. By the early 1990s, there were almost twice as many women placed overseas. Currently, over 70% of Indonesian migrant workers are women. In Hong Kong, Indonesian domestics are now the fastest growing, increasing by 29% from 24.700 in 1997 to 31.800 in 1999.

Globalization and its impact on the environmental degradation and the rise of resource-based conflicts in the major islands of the country has affected women, especially indigenous women. Along with the rest of their community, women have lost their sources of livelihood and access to land; women have had to take up the burden of more difficult access to their sources of water, medicinal plants and other natural resources and become victims of pollution created by mining industries; and, finally, women have also been subject to sexual exploitation by these large companies. In some areas, multinational mining companies have begun to negotiate with local communities on compensation and profit-sharing, such as in the case of Rio Tinto in Kalimantan and Freeport in Papua. Women victims of sexual abuse have had only marginal access to these negotiations.

In this context, government accountability and opportunity for redress on cases of gross violations of human rights are clearly long term endeavors in Indonesia. Civil society continues to be the main source of fundamental cahnge, although not without serious cahllenges. The challenge as comes from the trend towards militarization and religious militancy. This means, women’s voice and struggle become even more crucial to ensuring that the new society of Indonesia is currently building is trully democratic and just, respecting the fundamental rights of all people.

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