What Identity Do We Carry?

A Reflection on the Socio-Political, Cultural, and Religious Implications on Women’s Identity in Indonesia[1]

By Anna Marsiana


“In order to honor women as one of the pillar of the country, to protect them from any disrespectful acts by men, …..therefore……we require women in (Aceh, Padang, Tangerang, Garut, Batang, Bulukumba, … to observe as follows:

(1) not to go out in public areas after (7 pm, 8 pm, 9 pm unless….

(2) to dress in respectful manner…..

(3) to cover her whole body because the whole women’s body is “aurat” (objects of sexual desires)…

(4) not to wear trousers especially jeans because…


The above quotation is found in 151 regional regulations being applied in 151 districts all over in Indonesia.


On the Socio-Political aspects 


In an international ecumenical gathering held in Bali, I was given a topic on Women’s situation in Asia in general and in Indnesia in particular. I asked the participants how they perceived the women’s situation in Indonesia. The general impression they got after being five (5) days in Bali was that Indonesian women are very free in almost everything. They enjoy the public sphere as much as their fellow men, and seems to be given equal right to education and job. According to their 5-day oberservation and exprerience in the country, there is no slight sign of women being oppressed and discriminated againts in this country.


The impression was also shared by the participants of the WSCF Women Doing Theology workshop, held in Jakarta some time ago, in November 2009, where this paper was originally presented and discussed.


The impression grew stronger when I shared with them that constitution guarantee equal rights and opportunity for education and job in public sphere; that they are protected by the law from any forms domestic violence; and that Political participation is guaranteed by the legal system (Act on political party & Act of Election System—guarantee of minimum 30% of women in the executive committee of political party, minimum 30% of women to be named by political party for legislative election). Wait, that’s not all… We have the National Commission on Violence Againts Women, and the National Commission on Child Protection. We also have the Minister of Women’s Empowerment Programme. Wow.., what a perfect place for women to live..

Unfortunatelay that is not the only picture of women’s situation in Indonesia. Being the biggest moslem populated country, the government –and many of Indonesians as well—like to claim that Indonesia is secular state and yet a religious nation. All religions are competing to show it to the world that they are breeding faithful and devoted religious communities. Unfortunately the easiest way to show it to the world is by imposing some rigid rules and laws to the women. Worse is that not only are they trying to impose it within their own religious community, but also to the wider context as nation, through the legal system. As of to date, when this paper was written, as I mentioned in the beginning of this paper, there are 151 regional regulations (at district level) influenced by relious beliefs (Islam in most cases but also Christian in minor case) targeting women as the main subject of law.

The laws, imposed by the regional governments of this non-religious state, but using religious language and symbols, are clearly trying to limit the movement of and space  for women by setting time for women to be allowed outside the house in the evening, coding women’s body through dress coding.As a result women are being sent back to the domestic sphere and confined in the house in the name of protection and honor.

A woman teacher was arrested (2007) while waiting for her husband to pick her up in one evening. She was mistakenly arrested on the basis of “showing gesture that can be interpreted as inviting and/ or signing for casual date” which was considered violating the perda (regional law) in Tangerang. The perda was just one of the 151 perda in the country, and Tangerang is just bordering Jakarta, the metropolitan and capital city of this country.

In the national level,  such way of thinking is also present. The bill on Anti-Pornography which criminalizes women’s body was passed last year. So far already 2 female singers were arrested, they were accused as performing something that can arise sexual desire of the men and therefore can be considered as porn.

Some women’s organizations and other civil society organizations submitted their request for a judicial review to the Constitution Court, but the Court has rejected it on 25 March 2010.

What was interesting was to see the fact that there are quite a number of women organizations, mostly are religious based organization, especially Islam, that supported the passing of the bill on anti-pornography. In the name of morality and religious nation, the minister of women’s empowerment at that time also supported the law to be approved and and passed by the law makers.

Cultural & Religious Aspects

Just like their fellow Asians in other parts of the continent the Indonesians  are deeply rooted in their traditions and cultures which. We are so proud of our cultures. It is cCommonly understood that one of our big tasks as Indonesians is to preserve our culture(s), especially that of our very own culture.

Generally cultures are understood as sacred tradition and unchanged. They are in the form of traditions or “adat”.  Against your very own culture is then named as “Tidak beradat”, literally means person with no respect of own culture. But the term “tidak beradat” in Indonesian language can also be applied to a person who violate the social norms. That is why in many tribal/ethnic groups/communities when somebody is called as “tidak berada”  s/he is considered as the lowest human beings, and therefore deserves to be excluded from teh community. That explains that many people are so cautious and so careful not to cross the line, because otherwise s/he will be excluded from the community. Although in big cities like Jakarta such thing is not observed closely anymore.


But in big cities we are dealing with other issue, i.e., religion. Being uprooted from the tradition community and finding difficult to form the same –traditional, traditions based–  community that preserves all  the adats the people in big cities have searched for other mean to bidn them together and to give them roots, and that is religion. This is not difficult to imagine, given the social-political confusion Imentined earlier in this paper.

Basically Indonesians have been made to believe that Indonesians are also very religious people. That is very true as there is no place in this country for “non-religious” people— people with no religion– . You have to state your religious belief  (1 of 6 legally recognized religions) on your ID-card.

As we know, religious teachings everywhere, but especially in this country,  have big impacts on the people in general and women in particular. While in all religions in this country now you can find some new and more liberating interpretations including feminist interpretation, however the dominant teachings and interpretations are those of patriarchal and sexist, againts women and other gender-minority groups.

In many cases, many religious teachings  have contributed in creating self split for many women. Women are forced to make peace of two contradictory facts between reality and the teachings; between their dreams of what they wanted to be and the image of what good women and good wives are imposed by the religions.

Secondly, religion in thsi country has been used in many ways as instrument for politic –or to be precise–  for the men’s benefits, on the cost of women. Some examples cited earlier on the religious influenced Acts are clear example on how the religious teachings have been instrumentalized to  domesticate, confince, and even criminalize women  in this country.

Women’s Identity Amidts the Socio-Political, Cultural, and Religious Aspects Imposed on them

What can you say now on women’s situation in Indonesia? What kind of identity can you expect the women in the country to take or claim? I think it is not difficult to see that for women to live in this country they have to be ready to experience identity confusion or  even worse , identify split.

Women in this country have reacted differently. Some decided to take one strongest identity (ethnic, religion) as their identity.  Usually this creates inconsistency due to conflicting traditions or traditions & the modern situations that are not getting difficult to make peace with many traditional adats. Strickingly surprising for me is that the fact that many chose to pick up the more strict/conservative tradition either from their cultures or from their religious tranditions/teachings.

Some just do not know how to deal with all those conflicting elements or don’t bother at all. Some simply try to get along and when it does not meet their practical and pragmatical ideas, they just manipulate it as much as they can and whenever they see a chance  for it. One example is the teaching that requires Moslem women to wear jilbabd/abaya that cover all their bodies from head to toe and show their face only. Many young women while trying to observe this at the same time are also manipulating it by wearing it in a very fashonable way including showing their navel or butt when their make small movement. They would respond: Well, we are covering our body and head.

A small number of women have decided to use their body as political instrument to make counter action of those stupid policies or regulations both in big event like rally and in their daily life.

This is just to show that talking about women indentity in this country is unveling quite layers of socio-political, cultural and religious aspects and contexts, and requires lots of efforts to do that. However, I cannot but agree that this is a very importatn issue to discuss and pick up in workshop like this, because otherwise, we just take it for granted in live in self-split.

[1] Originally was a paper presented during the Workshop and Women’s Doing Theology: Women Liberation and Transformation


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s