Women Are Heroes
Stories of Resistance Behind the Beauty of Kain
By Nurdiyansah Dalidjo
Kain Kita honours women as weavers (also known as kain makers), for the role that they play in their communities, and for their struggle for recognition beyond their weaving.
Women in traditional communities experience gender-specific challenges in addition to prevailing environmental issues, the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights, state violence, access to clean water, and conflicts associated with land grabs. These women are fighting to defend themselves, their families, the community, and the state, so that they may ultimately gain equal rights. Given all these intersecting challenges, weaving lies at the heart of it all.
But women as weavers and as fighters for equality are often rendered invisible, and it’s easy to dismiss their work as trivial. This, of course, is a false assumption!
Through our #WomenAreHeroes series, Kain Kita is introducing women from across Indonesia who use kain as a means to reclaim their rights and authority over their selves and bodies, cultural identity, and their traditional territories.
In this article we highlight 10 women who play essential roles in preserving and advancing the tradition of kain in their respective homes. Their stories emphasise the fact that beyond the weaving process itself, their personal struggles feed into broader social issues.
Aleta Kornelia Ba’un (Mama Aleta), Mollo, NTT
Aleta Kornelia Ba’un (more commonly known as Mama Aleta) is an indigenous woman from the Molo community in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT). Her fame as an indigenous leader and activist has spread across Indonesia and internationally, largely due to her success in staging weaving protests against mining companies and preventing the destruction of her community’s sacred lands.
“When we began our protest, women realised that they could do more — take a stand and be heard,” said Mama Aleta in an interview with the Jakarta Post. “Women are also the recognised landowners in the Molo culture, and this [protest] reawakened in those women who hadn’t been actively speaking out a desire to protect their land.”
As part of the demonstration, Mama Aleta mobilised 150 women in her village to peacefully occupy marble mining sites for a year and quietly weave their traditional cloth in protest. The Molo people believed it was important for the women to be on the frontlines because they were most dependent on the customary lands for their survival. Weaving as an act of resistance therefore strengthened the bonds between communities and the women’s management of natural resources (for food, natural dyes, and medicines), and honoured the arts and traditions found in weaving.
“The men were fully supportive of us,” Mama Aleta said, “but did not position themselves at the forefront of the campaign because they would have likely had clashes or conflicts with the mining companies and been the target of attacks.” Increasing public awareness of the weaving protest led to Indonesian government officials taking an interest, and by 2010 the mining companies were pressured to abandon all of their operations within the Mollo territories.
In 2013 Mama Aleta was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in recognition of her efforts. She used this prize to establish the Mama Aleta Fund, which is intended to support women in their conservation efforts and to develop weaving as the means for economic empowerment.
Today, Mama Aleta continues her decades-long struggle through political channels and is now known as a respected indigenous politician. In the 2014 election, for instance, she won against candidates who engaged in money politics. By using betel nut during her political campaigning to show respect to community leaders, they in turn showed their support for her.
Rukmini P. Toheke, Ngata Toro, Central Sulawesi
Rukmini P. Toheke (also known as Bu Rukmini) comes from the Ngata Toro village in Central Sulawesi. Her struggle to reclaim space for the indigenous women in her community first began in 1994, when she revived a significant leadership role for indigenous women that had been diminished by the state. This role is called the Tina Ngata, which in the local language translates as Ibu Kampung or Village Mother, and it plays an important function in the traditional justice system of the Ngata Toro community.
In the late ’90s, Bu Rukmini’s struggle continued. During that time, she fought against the Ministry of Environment’s plans to seize indigenous territory to establish national parks. As a Tina Ngata, she and other indigenous women were involved in negotiations to reclaim the Ngata Toro indigenous territory. In 2000 the territories were formally recognised by national parks authorities, serving as an indirect recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples. Through Bu Rukmini’s persistence in organising the indigenous women in the village, they then held their first congress to discuss issues regarding gender and indigenous women. The recognition of the role of indigenous women in the community also created space for the revival of kulit kayu, a traditional fabric made from bark. For the indigenous people of Ngata Toro, kulit kayu is more than just a type of clothing worn by their ancestors, but also an important part of traditional rituals. The revival of this tradition was only possible once the Ngata Toro community were able to access their customary forests again and source the necessary materials.
Bu Rukmini has since shifted her focus to the realm of electoral politics, and is now advocating for greater changes for indigenous women through policy. Recently she has been nominated as a legislative candidate for Indonesia’s People’s Representative Council (DPR) in Central Sulawesi.
Ferawati, Pandai Sikek, West Sumatra
While traveling through West Sumatra, the centre of songket production, we passed through a village called Pandai Sikek that was filled with songket art galleries. We stopped at one pioneering gallery called Rumah Tenun Pusako (the Pusako Weaving House). When we said we wanted to meet with the weavers directly, a staff member drove us to the home of one of the weavers, where we were introduced to Ibu Ferawati.
Ibu Ferawati is a prodigiously skilled weaver and a prominent figure in the community, having witnessed the transformation of the village into a commercial textile hub. She shared stories with us about how weaving was once considered a traditional practice, but has increasingly turned into an economic commodity. In the past, weaving carried a high economic value. However, social relations have gradually changed. Weavers no longer have access to the gold and silver thread that are necessary for making songket, and the distribution of thread is controlled by the art galleries. Weavers have become home factory workers known as anak tenun, who work at home using ATBM (non-mechanical looms) and thread supplied by the galleries. They earn a small wage based on the number of pieces they make to fulfil orders.
As a widow and sole breadwinner for her household, Ibu Ferawati supplements her wages from making songket by moonlighting as a tailor. When asked why she keeps on weaving, her response was simple:
“It’s our tradition, it’d be a loss if you couldn’t weave!”
Mania (Cik Mia), Jambi, Sumatra
Ibu Mania (also known as Ayu Mia or Cik Mia) is a songket weaver, weaving group organiser, and successful entrepreneur who has helped to revive the tradition of songket in Jambi, Sumatra. If anyone were to say that there is no such thing as Jambi songket, they would be sorely mistaken. You are very welcome to stop by the house managed by Cik Mia, which serves as a workshop and gallery at Jl. Serunai Malam III.
Cik Mia first learned to weave songket when she was in elementary school, but stopped when she married. As a housewife, she was too busy taking care of her family, but she was determined to return to weaving. In 1999, armed with starting capital of IDR 3 million (AUD300), Cik Mia bought weaving equipment and the materials to start weaving at home again. Since then, she has also taught other mothers in her neighbourhood to weave. What about the motifs? She went to the Jambi Museum in search of inspiration and to familiarise herself with the ancient motifs and techniques from old songket textiles that are unique to Jambi.
When asked why she wanted to start weaving songket again, Cik Mia says:
“I can pour my feelings into weaving and can show my personality.”
Not only did Cik Mia return the cultural identity of the people of Jambi that had faded to the point of near disappearance, but she also succeeded in empowering a group of women weavers to become economically independent, and to support their families through songket.
M. Yovita Oleta, North Timor Tengah, NTT
Mama Yovi is an ikat weaver from Biboki in the North Central Timor Regency, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT). When she’s not busily organising the indigenous women weavers in her village, she’s also visiting various cities in Indonesia to promote the creations of Biboki weavers.
Biboki ikat is remarkable for its complicated motifs and for the techniques used in the weaving. Biboki weavings contribute to the identity of the Biboki indigenous people: the motifs belong to certain families within the community, and wearing kain containing these motifs helps others to recognise your clan suku or marga. While kain is worn in everyday life, the special motifs are only used during ceremonies.
Mama Yovi told us about the different types of motifs. One of them is called an pua kebi, and references the betel chewing tradition that still exists in the region: “It imitates the pattern of a dried betel nut that has been split in half,” says Mama Yovi. Another motif called niknoo is inspired by the leaves which locals believe can cure disease. She told us that the leaves contain certain patterns that are replicated in the kain.
Mama Yovi believes that preserving Biboki kain means the community must also respond to the challenge of how outsiders can appreciate and support the work of their women weavers. To that end, she and other Biboki women work tirelessly to promote and develop designs for other people to buy and use.
Rosina Wonga (Mama Ros), Nagekeo, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT)
Are you aware of what is happening and is being faced by the indigenous women in Rendu? We once met an indigenous woman called Mama Ros who smiled broadly and whose joy was infectious to those around her. However, it was hard to continue smiling when listening to her story.
“The cotton we used to make thread is now gone,” she said. “Our grandmothers used to (weave) using cotton thread… (it’s now) lost to the changing of times, and no longer developed. The water spring in Rendu is in danger of being lost.”
Mama Ros refers to the planned construction of the Lambo Reservoir, which would affect indigenous communities and their territories in Rendu, Ndora, and Lambo in NTT. “If the reservoir is built, then our rituals, customs, traditions, ancestral graves, springs, waterfalls — everything will be gone.” This includes the women’s natural dye gardens and their weaving traditions.
Mama Ros and the indigenous peoples do not necessarily oppose the development project, but they reject its construction on customary lands that house ancestral graves. Ongoing negotiations with local government on alternative locations for the dam have stalled and tensions continue to escalate.
Mama Ros shared stories about the protests carried out by indigenous women’s groups, who attempted to conduct weaving demonstrations on the project site. However they were forcibly removed from the site by police, and were hit and trampled in the process. Some of the women exposed their breasts to remind the soldiers that, through their mothers, they too were born from a woman’s body.
For now, Mama Ros and the other weaving mothers continue to fight for their lands. Through their weaving, they have the awareness and strength that connects them with the Creator, their ancestors, and their indigenous territories.
Nenek (Grandma) Panggau, North Toraja, South Sulawesi
We have so much appreciation for Nenek Panggau, an elder of the weaving traditions in Toraja. You can find Nenek Panggau and her weaving work in Sa’dan, a village in North Toraja through which a river runs from the hills of South Sulawesi.
Although she’s advanced in age, Nenek Panggau still actively spins cotton by hand. Her fingers tremble slightly as she does it. However from the spun cotton she produces perfect strands of thread.
She tells us that this process is the most difficult of the weaving stages, and few weavers can do it, even those who are very skilled. You can read more of our conversation with her in our story Weavings from the Land in the Clouds.
Maratri Kontestiani, Bantul, Yogyakarta
More commonly known as Ibu Kontes, Maratri Kontestiani is a batik maker and batik entrepreneur in Imogiri, Yogyakarta. Her home, workshop, and gallery are located right near the Cemetery of the Javanese Kings. Once you enter the gates and climb the stairs towards the cemetery, you can find a row of shops, one of which has simple signage reading: “Batik Tulis Asli Ibu Hj. Sardjuni.”
Ibu Kontes is a fourth generation Imogiri batik maker. What is it that makes her batik so special? In addition to maintaining the distinctiveness of Yogyakarta’s fine batik, where the motif is mirrored on both sides of the cloth, Ibu Kontes also uses natural dyes such as sogan (for brown colours), and indigo (for blue colours).
Interestingly, the use of indigo (tarum) in batik is a long-standing tradition in Imogiri despite the lack of indigo gardens or dyeing industries. Previously the indigo dyes were obtained from nearby Pekalongan, although nowadays you can find indigo natural dye producers in Yogyakarta city.
Ibu Kontes is a collector who keeps homemade batik around her house. She’s not alone in her passion: her gallery is a hub for the work produced by home batik makers. These women have always sold the batik they’ve created at Bu Sardjuni’s shop, the mother of Bu Kontes. Each piece of batik is special, as they contain the name of the maker and their unique identifier.
So, if you are ever in Imogiri, please stop by her shop (at Pajimatan, Girirejo, Imogiri, Bantul) for local souvenirs from this sacred region.
Evi and Teno, Silungkang, West Sumatra
“Tenun Sisters” — that’s the nickname for these two women. They’re sisters, and they work as weavers. But they’re not your average weavers. Bu Evi and Bu Teno are the fourth generation of a family of indigenous weavers from Silungkang, located about 30 minutes from the city of Sawahlunto in West Sumatra. Both have been weaving since childhood, although their success has not always been prosperous.
In its heyday during the New Order era, tenun from Silungkang was made into shirts and blazers and widely worn by Jakartan officials as a status symbol. When the 1997–1998 financial crisis decimated the value of the Indonesian Rupiah, many weavers couldn’t afford the gold thread that was imported from Singapore and India. In this financial environment, tenun weaving groups dispersed, and few were willing to try given the uncertain income it generated. Just when they were about to try setting up weaving groups again, large textile factories began copying Silungkang motifs and mass-producing cheaper fabrics. This contributed to the extinction of the weaving practice.
Despite these challenges, Bu Teno and Bu Evi still weave, assisted by their respective children and husbands. They have actively organised groups of women in the village to form a co-op as a forum for weavers to source thread and distribute their products. In Bu Evi’s warehouse, she has kept dozens of looms in the hope that one day weaving in Silungkang will rise again.
“I still keep the looms,” said Bu Evi. “They can still be used if the women want to weave again.”