Monday, March 9, 2009

The Unspoken - My Women's Day Notes

Nothing special happened to my life yesterday, March 8, 2009. Nothing much happened around me either, so quiet, so silent like an ordinary day, even yesterday should have been a special day for the human of my kind - the women. It's the day that not many people knows, not because they are ignorant, but simply because they don't know, the day where we are stricken by skeptics questions of "what does it really mean?", "what more do you want?", or else. It's the widely unknown observance: it's the Women's Day.

The home of the official website of International Women's Day (IWD) wrote that IWD is a "global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future." Every year organizations, governments and women's groups around the world choose different themes each year that reflect global and local gender issues. In some years global IWD themes honored around the world, while in other years groups have preferred to 'localize' their own themes to make them more specific and relevant. The followings are the global United Nation themes used for International Women's Day in the last one decades to date:
- 2009: Women and men united to end violence against women and girls
- 2008: Investing in Women and Girls
- 2007: Ending Impunity for Violence against Women and Girls
- 2006: Women in decision-making
- 2005: Gender Equality Beyond 2005: Building a More Secure Future
- 2004: Women and HIV/AIDS
- 2003: Gender Equality and the Millennium Development Goals
- 2002: Afghan Women Today: Realities and Opportunities
- 2001: Women and Peace: Women Managing Conflicts
- 2000: Women Uniting for Peace
- 1999: World Free of Violence against Women

I cannot fully agree to the notion of "celebration" on this day. I feel that there is really nothing to celebrate that day, as the struggle is not yet over, the voices are still silenced, and the eyes out there are still blinded, not able to see that there are still unfinished - not only discourses - but also business about putting women as human. Human who possess the free will, whose rights are well-acknowledged, whose voices are heard, whom existence is respected.

You might call my above statement as cliché. But if you really open your eyes to see the answers of some questions and propositions that I would propose after, I hope you would find that my clichés are the cliché state of being of the world, even until only 2 years before the first centennial commemoration of the day.

There is a nice piece of Elizabeth Janeway's "Between Myth and Morning", where she shared her experience of being interviewed by Esquire magazine. She was questioned, "Why does the women's movement have no sense of humor?"

This question sounds similar to, "why are you girls too serious about it?", the kind of questions that I often encounter, when by a chance, I and my friends became so passionate - and somehow emotional when we talk about woman issues.

Janeway's answer to that is, "do you burst into peals of laughter reading Malcolm X or the Thoughts of Chairman Mao?"
Just like the story of Malcolm X (I won't refer to Mao's book as I haven't red it), the women's movement is a SERIOUS business. It's a business about the very basic human rights that's still UNFINISHED. And, look at the theme in 1999, 2007 and 2009. There are some similarities there, as 3 of the themes focus on violence against women.

Born in a considerably modern family in Indonesia, I still bear the burden of, for instance;
"being a woman, you shouldn't have too high education, otherwise, men will be scared to propose you", or
"you're a girl, you're not supposed to talk that loud",
"don't go home too late - you're a girl, it's not appropriate!", or,
"oh my God, you're almost 30 and you're still single?"

I guess have deal with most of those questions, not in the way that I accepted them as it is, but in the way that I have shown my stance toward those issues. The stance that I own is that not every woman possess, out of the null awareness - due to the inexistence of concept, that as human, they are not bonded to those limitations by nature, but more by culture, out of the inexistence of discourse of basic rights. I grow up seeing unhappy girls around me, bouncing back and forth between their personality and culture, crying out of "... but I'm just a woman...", scared of being above 25 and still single, depressed, frustrated, unwilling to confront people - because they would be seen as rebel, bad girl, or whatever negative connotation possible for off-mainstream attitudes...

And for those simple examples, that I am sure, at least you, my fellow Indonesians see so obviously present around you, would you still say that we, the women are free enough? Are our wills accommodated enough?

Now, let’s look up to an interesting case of sexist vocabulary:
“Payudara”. That’s the Indonesian word for women’s breast. Through etymology we can analyze that the word constructed from “payu” and “dara”. “Payu” literally means “sold out” – it’s a common term in merchant scope, for example, “bayeme wis payu” means, “the spinach is sold out”. While “dara” means “girl”. I can’t help but thinking (but please do correct me if I am wrong), that “payudara” means “a girl’s property that define the sold – out-ness of a girl?”

And for God’s sake, payudara is not a slang word! It’s formal word used when we refer to the organ, in medical term when we discuss the bra size up to the breast cancer awareness campaign!

The most prominent memory about my Indonesian language teacher when I was 11 year-old junior high school student was when he explained about some roots of our words, pertaining that our language is relatively new language that absorbs many foreign influences. He explained about “wanita”, Indonesian word for “woman”, and my class that was of course packed with early puberty teenage, burst into laughs as he explained that “wanita” is rooted from Arabic word of “wanit”, that means “lust”. And again, “wanita” is not at all slang, nor a dirty word!

I remember that I didn’t laugh at all. I felt humiliated, and since then I prefer to identify myself as a “perempuan”, also means “woman” but rooted from totally different meanings of word that is more respectful in a sense.

I was still so young when I realized that society treated me wrong, hostile and unpleasant just because I was a girl. I knew, empirically and by instinct, that “if I were a boy, it would never happen to me”. However didn’t really learn about woman empowerment issues until I started volunteering for a youth center that works on reproductive health issue when I was 18. Before that I didn’t know what harassment was, what dating violence, domestic violence, sexual abuse and harassment and so forth… even I had experienced all of those unpleasant situations, as a victim, of course.
I was victim for many harassments and abuse, including in relationship but I was silent because I didn’t know how to share my pain. I had a mental picture that people wouldn’t believe what I said. I was terrified of being blamed – and I don’t know why society tends to blame woman for everything, even when they are the ones tortured. I was afraid of humiliation. I was afraid of many things, that I decided to keep silent and it put me into more vulnerable stand.

But let’s think why I was silenced? Why it was so worrisome for me to share my pain?

After having loooong… journey of understanding myself, learning about gender, sexuality, human rights with wonderful people I met on the way of my further life, by the end I realized it’s my awareness about the structure around me that “told” me, that those issues of harassment and abuse are not the appropriate things to share. There is funny limit between public and private space in my culture where things that should be (in common sense) public become private, and the opposite. At the other hands, I found it surprising that last week in one of my readings I learned that EVEN in Western society, the victims “didn’t have the words” to describe their experiences in intimate aggression! (Lloyd and Emery, 2000).

The existing discourse of intimate relationships and the discourse of aggression do not accommodate the concept of “aggression in intimate relationship”, mainly because the “intimate relationship” is portrayed as fairy tales of romance, that brings with it the notions of loving, caring, forgiving, and so forth, and the understanding that men have higher level of sexual needs than women. At the other hand, the discourse of aggression, sadly, consists of four arenas: excusing the aggressor (my personal comment: non-guilty pre-assumption is so not in, in terms of intimate aggression!), blaming the victim, defining aggression (in which, for example dating rape is viewed as oxy-morons as dating is considered as a context that implies consent for sexual interaction), and the worst is, rendering the intimate nature of aggression invisible – where intimate aggression is rendered invisible by our culture and it’s considered to be more likely to occur in the hand of strangers…

Ah. Who constructed those discourse if not our own society? And who are the members of it? Who has the voice so loud to legitimate those discourses?

I was lucky that in my NGOs I learned about my rights. I built the discourses of gender, sexuality, and human rights that helped me to make sense of what goes wrong around my life. I developed myself from a victim into a survivor. I decided to strike back and speak up to show the people that the case is real, and it is not easy at all, even just to get people understand that violence is a serious issue…

I was laughed by some audiences when I spoke in a seminar on dating violence in front of around 200 students of a teaching institute in Semarang. Some students did think that being threatened by a blade - my experience when I was 18, was hilarious. And those who laugh are, by the way, men.

Also,sadly, the second arena of common discourse of aggression occurred. I, the victim, was blamed by some religious students – “…as dating and having intimate interaction with men is prohibited by our religion, you should be aware that it was your own fault that you were abused, because you are committed to the sin, because you, yourself, broke the God’s rules. So, I don’t think that it’s appropriate for you to complain…”

But you know what? I believe that there is actually spiral of silence under the surface of those voices. And just like me when I was younger, they were silenced, not completely by their own will, but by the realization that the society is pretty ignorant toward them.

Yet I still believe that there is a way to break the silence, modify the discourse, and de-marginalize women from the blindness. My word is simple. “Let’s talk about it” and those who are silenced know that they are not alone. Those who live without the problem would have a knowledge – an alternative concept in their mind, when they, at least have ever heard it, and as almost - skeptical Janeway believed, that “inside every Chauvinist Man Pig there is a human being struggling to get out” (sorry if it sounds rude but I swear that she wrote it exactly that way on page 148), I am a believer that men are not as bad as what is portrayed in general. I have abundant amount of male friends who are willing to listen and understand, and living the life as good friends, good husbands, or good boyfriends to their significant others, and I believe there are a lot more others out of my circle.

Men are our PARTNERS to develop our better world, because as much as we don’t want to live in men’s world, it won’t be fair either if we consciously or unconsciously trying to build our own women’s world...

Wishing you an inspiring Women's Day!

Janeway, Elizabeth. Between Myth and Morning - Woman Awakening. 1974. New York: William Morrow anf Company, Inc.

Lloyd, Sally and Emery, Beth C. The context and dynamics of intimate aggression agains women. 2000. Thousands Oaks: SAGE Publications.


  1. You write very well Asri..I loved it.It was a very honest description of everything you have been through.Many of us will agree on that.I
    wish you luck in everything.

  2. Why did u write this?Do U really follow and believe in what u wrote here?