The Story of an Indonesian Feminist
How learning about postcolonial and black feminism has opened my eyes to the possibilities and power all women have.
We don’t often think about other people’s oppression when our own lives seem to be oppression free. However, the harsh reality is that nearly all women, regardless of where they live, are, in one way or another, oppressed. Those that say “but I’m not oppressed!” are either lying to themselves or are ignorant of the oppression against women in their own country and in others. I want to share the story of my feminist mother and how taking Professor Tanya Rawal’s gender studies course has made a positive influence and change on my thoughts on feminism.
My Mother — an Indonesian Feminist
My mother grew up in a rural part of Jakarta, Indonesia. She was born in 1957, lived with 2 brothers and 7 sisters, and was supported by a stay at home mom and a dad who worked as a salesmen. Her brothers, while outnumbered by eight other sisters, received better treatment than any of the women in the house. My mother and her eight sisters did all of the household chores: cleaning, cooking, tending to crops, and caring for the many farm animals that their family had. The men in her family never had to work on household chores because her mother reminded them that it was the “perempuan tugas” or “women’s duty.” My mother immediately knew she wanted to escape the patriarchy that was going to oppress her freedom and creativity.
Instead of coming home after school to do house cleaning and chores, my mother would stay after school at as many programs that she could attend. She would barely make it back in time to catch dinner on most days and spent her time doing “manly” activities like fishing, playing sports, and catching bugs. She would often get scolded by her own mother, sisters, and even father who all said she was becoming too manly and needed to settle down with a husband. Through her childhood rebellion, she became determined to rebel against any kind of patriarchy that wanted to oppress her, but she still took pride in her femininity. My mother always told me you can be a feminist and look damn good while being one.
My mother and other like minded women at her school would often speak up against their mistreatment both at school and at home. The women would speak up about the lack of a women’s center and support for young girls and the difficulty in having tampons and pads available to young women. My mom and her 7 sisters often had to reuse small towels during their menstrual cycles because their dad refused to buy them pads. So what did my mom do in order to rebel against her dad? She got a job at 16 as a waitress and began to earn enough money to buy pads and feminine products for her sisters and herself. Her dad was furious, but my mother continued to work hard to show that she could do anything a man could do, if not better.
My mom is a beautiful feminist. Many men tried to court her, but she refused all of them, preferring to have her freedom instead. When her dad tried to force her into an arranged marriage, what did she do?
She secretly earned her bartending license and left to work on a cruise ship in the Caribbeans. She held onto the freedom that so many people in her life were trying to take away. My mom always tells me stories on how many men would tell her she was acting wild and needed to be tamed by a man. Not just Indonesian men would tell her to calm down either. Working on a cruise ship exposed her to many different islands in the Caribbean. White men, black men, brown men — all told her she needed a man to settle with so that she could live at home and do house chores while he worked to earn money. My mom hated that idea and stuck with her decision to support herself.
It wasn’t until I was born in 1994 that she decided to take a break from working. She married my dad, a German man she met while on vacation in Bali, Indonesia. He wasn’t as controlling as all the other men she had met on her journey through life. She only lasted five years before feeling the need to return to work and in order for this to happen, someone had to stay home to take care of me. My dad retired early and took over the job of a “house wife.” He did all the cleaning and cooking, dropped me off and picked me up from school, and did all the grocery and household shopping.
Growing up in a household where the gender roles were switched has really impacted my views. I knew about feminists, I knew my mother was one. But I didn’t really know how I could be one and not turn into the scary “feminazi” that people keep complaining about. Having a dad that did all the house hold chores was considered weird by many of my friends growing up. They would call my dad lazy, a freeloader, and unmanly, but I never saw it that way. He worked hard at home and did his best to keep my mom and I clean and well fed. Even when he got sick he still tried his best. My dad passed away during my junior year of high school. My mom was working two jobs and now had the second (or third) shift at home. My mom supported me throughout my remaining high school years and throughout all of college. She’s the strongest woman I know and her story keeps me inspired as I find my place in the world as a feminist.
College has been a great experience and taking gender study classes has helped me to understand the different perspectives of feminists.
Black and postcolonial feminists share similar views when compared to the white feminism that is common in America. It’s not just about being equal, but thinking beyond equality. bell hooks is a black feminists and activist who wrote about the oppression and inequalities that black women face in America. Her piece Homeplace — A Site of Resistance relates well to what my mother attempted to do in her home in Indonesia. Many women can resist their oppression in the homeplace and more often than not, this is the only place women can resist.
I’ve learned that white feminism that is most common in the United States isn’t the ideal form of feminism, yet many consider it the only form of feminism there is. Chandra Mohanty wrote Feminism Without Borders: Sisterhood, Coalition, and the Politics of Experience and discusses how it’s important to have sisterhood and solidarity in feminism. Location also plays a huge role and Mohanty discusses the term “politics of location.” Regardless of where you live or where you originally came from, women face similar types of oppression and we need to stand together to defeat our oppressors.
Similar to the Women’s March that happened in America, the Women’s March in Jakarta, Indonesia happened on March 4th. I shared with my mom an article about the event and her eyes lit up. She immediately called some of her family and found out that some of her nieces participated in the event. My mom was proud that young women and men in Indonesia continue to fight against oppression because it is as much of a problem today as it was when she was young.
At the Indonesian women’s march, they used the slogan Perempuan Bersatu, which means women unite, to get their voices heard against the patriarchal injustices and hatred that continues to happen in Indonesia.
I believe feminism is important and necessary for change. With all the scary things that are happening in Trump’s administration it is especially important now for all races of women to unite and fight against their oppressors. I want to continue learning about feminists and feminism from different perspectives and I believe it’s important for other women and men to educate themselves as well, because women are oppressed across all nations and we need to continue the fight against it.