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Women’s liberation through the elite political parties, impossible!

July 17, 2008

[The following is an interview with Vivi Widyawati, the national coordinator of the Perempuan Mahardhika (Free Women) National Network, and the Indonesian National Front for Labour Struggle-Political Committee of the Poor (FNPBI-PRM). Translated by James Balowski.]

Question: Currently there are many circles that have begun to talk about the need for greater women’s participation in all aspects [of social life], the latest being on the issue of the 30 percent quota of women in parliament, which all of the political parties are obliged to fulfill [by law]. How does your organisation see this?

Answer: First, of course we do very much support efforts to continue supporting women’s participation in all aspects of social life, including affirmative action like the 30 percent quota, or better still if this could reach 50 percent, and not just within the structure of political parties but also in government and society. But it needs to be emphasised that the kind of women’s participation that we mean is the direct participation of women, women being involved in all aspects of the social reform process, activity involved in changing political policies and actively involved in populist organisations, not just representative participation.

In our view, the 30 percent quota is not enough to advance the direct participation of women, above all if women are still relying upon and are being coopted by the fake reformist political parties, the parties of former Suharto’s New Order regime, the religious based parties, and the political parties established by the retired generals. Why? History has demonstrated that following the period of reformasi under the previous administrations of the fake reformists (Abdurrahman ‘Gus Dur’ Wahid, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Amien Rais) and the current administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla, efforts to advance the direct participation of women have been minimal or perhaps nonexistent. The proof being the marriage law, which clearly discriminates against women, yet nothing has been done about it, the labour law, which is yet to provide protection to women workers, the still high maternal mortality rate, the high illiteracy rate among women, a growing work force [of women] that isn’t accompanied by support facilities such as free child care, free schooling, free healthcare, adequate nutrition for children. We want a government that sides with the poor and is at the same time feminist, now, it is impossible for this to happen under the Yudhoyono-Kalla administration or the rotten political elite and their political parties. The 30 percent quota must be accompanied with efforts to build a women’s movement, providing the impetus for women to build their own organisations and together with other people’s movements continue to be active in pushing for social reforms.

Question: Aside from those who agree with the issue of women’s participation or equality, other groups have emerged that oppose equality, even using specific religious arguments to justify their conservative position. What is your organisation’s view of this?

Answer: These organisations obstruct the growth of democracy and the advance of women, and because of this therefore we strongly oppose all their efforts to push back democracy and hinder the advancement of women. If indeed the Yudhoyono-Kalla administration supports the advancement of women they should have acted firmly against such groups long ago, the fact is they didn’t, they just let them be with their ideas against women’s liberation. The Draft Law on Pornography for example is still before the House of Representatives, religious rulings that attack women are spreading, bylaws that paint women as bad and even result in criminalizing women, continue to be passed, and the government does absolutely nothing! The political parties, the parliamentary political elite have followed along with and played a role in all of this, so they are just the same.

Question: Given the current situation in Indonesia, it’s said that the country is experiencing a crisis, a government that is anti-people, parties that are busy with their own interests and the like, what then is the basic problem for Indonesian women at the moment?

Answer: The basic problem for women at the moment is poverty and inequality. Poverty is a consequence of neoliberal economic policies that have consistently been pursued by different administrations since reformasi, starting with Gus Dur, then Megawati, and now Yudhoyono-Kalla. The impact of pro-foreign policies is very tangible for women and the poor in general, the jump in the price of basic commodities, the cost of healthcare, the cost of education, is obstructing advances in the productive power of women. The government has no interest in increasing and advancing the productive power of women, women are still considered as second-class citizens, whose voices are only required when elections come around, or they are needed as low-wage labour or to be sold to foreign countries [as cheap migrant labour], there is no end to the continued exploitation of women. The state budget should be prioritised to pay for the needs of the poor – subsidies for education, healthcare, fuel, but the truth is that is not and the state budget is largely prioritised to pay off the foreign debt. Indonesia is a country that rich in natural resources, it has everything, anything can be grown, Indonesia is a country whose land contains huge reserves of oil and gas, we should be a rich nation, the people should be able to live affluently, but the truth is that our government prefers to and is proud of giving all of our natural wealth away to foreign capitalists, so we have become a nation of coolies, a nation that can only contribute cheap labour, and all of this is the responsibility of the government, the big political parties, the rotten political elite, the members of parliament, all them are dragging the nation further into poverty and collapse!

The culture of patriarch, which is still strong in Indonesian society, is in itself also a problem for women, women still experience discriminatory treatment. The strong culture of patriarchy is most reflected in government policies that are related to women’s rights. We can take the example of the marriage law that is in effect at the moment, a law that does not provide an equal place for women, such as Article 3 Paragraph 2, which state that a court can give permission to a husband to have more than one wife if it is desired by the parties concerned, or Article 4 Paragraph 2 which reads:

“The court as referred to in Paragraph 1 of this Article can only give permission to a husband to have more than one wife if: a) the wife cannot undertake her obligations as a wife; b) a wife has a physical defect that cannot be treated and; c) the wife is unable to give birth to offspring.

It is very clear that this law has absolutely no respect for the independence of women to choose what is best for their lives and the sexuality of women. Or the draft pornography law, or the widespread [Sharia based] bylaws, all of this is evidence that our government is sexist. The government’s efforts to protect women have been very minimal or can be said not to even exist. I mean, up until now there is still no guarantees that women are safe (free from sexual harassment, sexual violence, rape) at work, free in their own homes, free in public, cases of domestic violence are still high, the maternal mortality rate is still high, there is malnutrition, and still many other problems.

Question: So how do we overcome the problems that women are facing?

Answer: Buy building our own force, our own political vehicle that is not coopted by the bourgeois, the political elite, the elite political parties, the parties in power. Currently, women hold any hope in or surrender their voices to the elite parties and political elite, because they have proven themselves incapable of bring prosperity to and liberating women.

Building independent women’s organisations, which are not coopted and on a national scale is an urgent need for women at the moment, and cannot be put off any longer. Don’t dream that a 30 percent quota with the fake reformist political parties, the parties of the New Order, the Islamic and the military parties, will change women’s future in a fundamental way. The 30 percent quota will only benefit women who have their own political vehicle working together with the poor people’s progressive movements, to form a government that sides with the ordinary people and feminists. One which will undertake programs to nationalise the oil and gas industries, which will prioritise the state budget for the welfare of the people, which will build an infrastructure to support women such as childcare centers, playgrounds, free education, free healthcare. And we already have the example of this in Venezuela, where all of this is possible, providing the people’s forces a whole can be united. The women’s movement must be actively involved in the political struggles of the poor.

Question: What role have other organised movements (trade unions, farmers unions, students, the urban poor and even the progressive parties) played so far in raising women’s consciousness? What should they be doing?

Answer: So far the role of the organised movements in increasing women’s consciousness has been minimal. Although many of their members are women there are still few women who lead non-women’s organised movements. Not all of the organised movements have women’s sections within them.

Education is the most important issue for advancing women’s consciousness and also advancing the consciousness of the male membership, because the issue of women’s liberation is not simply a women’s issue but must also become a part of the movement’s struggle. The women’s question is not a secondary one, which will automatically be resolved when victory by the oppressed classes has been won.

Thus, from this we can see that it is important for each movement to begin to first, educate its members about the women’s question, discuss the problems that are confronting women, understand the roots and the origin of women’s oppression. Second, the movement must provide real opportunities to female members to hold strategic position in the organization: chair people, educational specialists, organisers, propaganda experts and so forth. Third, they must hold actions that support women’s liberation, have extensive propaganda about women’s liberation, recruit as many women members as possible. Forth, they must love and respect women members, provide a sense of safety and comfort for women members in the organization, abandon sexist practices and listen seriously to women if they have an opinion. I think that we all have a responsibility to continue to struggle for the liberation of women.

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