Hot off the Press: Review of ‘Sex, Power and Nation: An Anthology of Writings, 1979–2003’ - Dédé Oetomo

Julia I. Suryakusuma
Jakarta: Metafor Publishing, 2004

Dédé Oetomo

Since the Indonesian change of regime on Ascension Day, May 21, 1998, which opened the floodgates of freedom, many books have been openly and freely published on sexuality. Quite a few others discuss and reflect on the terrifying abuse of power during the Soeharto regime (and the previous one). Still others are concerned about the state and unity of the nation, some with a new spirit yearning for peaceful relations between social groups, while others retain the old spirit of maintaining territorial integrity at any cost.

However, very few books raise issues around sexuality, power and nation in the Indonesian context in their complex and mysterious tangle, all in one volume. By doing so clearly and appropriately, this anthology by Julia I. Suryakusuma—intellectual, feminist, activist, but also hard to pigeonhole—is a rare one indeed. It describes, discusses, analyses, and questions different phenomena, thereby making us unsettled, anxious, even disgusted at the self-portrait of our society which comes out in the pieces collected therein.

Here’s an anthology of Suryakusuma’s writings spanning the period from 1979 to 2003, beginning with a summary of her Honours thesis in Sociology at the City University, London (‘Odd Bedfellows: Creativity & Politics: Literary Debates in Indonesia 1950–1965’) about the fierce debate between the proponents of the universal humanistic Cultural Manifesto and the Left-leaning Institute of People’s Culture, and ending with another article on literature (‘The Sacred, Mundane and Profane: Women’s Literary Writings in Indonesia’ [translated from ‘Yang Sakral, Duniawi dan Profan: Karya Sastra Tiga Perempuan,’ Horison, Juni 2003]).

Some of the pieces were written and published under the repressive conditions of the Soeharto era. In my opinion, what is special about Suryakusuma’s writings is her persistent courage to be an intellectual with integrity: continuing to describe conditions such as she discovered during research and to analyse them with an elegant combination of subjectivity and objectivity, all the time being fully aware of the risk of repression that might befall her.

In her own introduction to the anthology, ‘Julia’s Passion,’ she recounts her bouts with the terror apparatus of the New Order State, particularly in 1988 when it got wind of a conference on Indonesian women in Leiden, The Netherlands, in which one of the papers presented compared the Left-leaning Indonesian Women’s Movement, Gerwani (since 1965 vilified as connected to the later banned Indonesian Communist Party and as consisting of wicked, sex-crazed, man-hating women), to the State-sponsored corporatist women’s organization, Education for Family Welfare, PKK. Suryakusuma beautifully narrates blow by blow the terror she went through at the Office of the State Minister for Women’s Affairs (at a meeting in which were present officers from the State Intelligence Coordinating Body), her fear, but at the same time, her undaunting resistance. She wrote two versions of her paper, a more subdued one for public circulation, and the original one for personal circulation. She is honest about her fear, the dilemma between her intellectual integrity and the demands of her family, especially her son, in such a terrorised situation.

In the introduction by Wimar Witoelar, an intellectual in his own right and presidential spokesperson under President Wahid, ‘Thinking Between the Boxes’, we are introduced to a Julia Suryakusuma who can never be boxed in when thinking, speaking, writing or acting, but who is clear about her previous boxes, so that, as Witoelar writes, as readers we are at least tempted to jump from box to box or even lose ourselves in Suryakusuma’s invitation and accept it.

In her writings we’ll be challenged concerning our nationalism which could turn into bigoted jingoism. As the daughter of a diplomat raised in various countries, for example, she has always been perceived as ‘foreign’, both in Indonesia or in the countries where her father was posted. But she makes use of this ‘foreignness’ and expressly destroys (don’t get me wrong, elegantly and beautifully) the boxes we thought were solidly established, such as in the piece ‘A Marriage of Inconvenience: Indonesian Perceptions of the West’ (originally published in Van Zorge Report, February 2002).

She admits that she has a love-hate relationship with Indonesia. Which Indonesian or observer and lover of Indonesia has not gone through this? Suryakusuma shows her affection for Indonesia without losing her critical objectivity about the ugly side of our society. She thoroughly deconstructs many writings about events around the change of regimes in May 1998 and the ensuing restructuring of democracy with passion without losing her soft spot for the country. Benedict Anderson describes in his introduction to his Language and Power (Cornell U.P., 1991) his realisation that after 1965 Indonesia is as if one’s lover turns into a murderer. In the same vein, Julia sees her Indonesia as a good-looking, vain, naughty lover, sometimes giving her a hard time, but always drawing her to him.

When Indonesia was beginning its democratisation process, particularly in the 1999 Elections, she draws a clear map of the dozens of political parties that took part. She can be cynical in her political writings, but is also objective about conditions as she captures them, such as when she describes the leadership crisis in the country, including under President Abdurrahman Wahid (1999–2001). She’s unique here, since we Indonesians too often either adulate him or vilify him, sometimes on no ground at all.

As a feminist intellectual, Suryakusuma is a rare breed indeed, since she does not only think, reflect and theorise about the position of women in our society, but puts those thoughts, reflections and theories into practice in daily life and social activism. In her own introductory chapter, she confesses to being a free spirit. She will never give up her freedom, even under the threat of terror, such as we saw earlier.

Her pieces on plantation workers, women workers in the economic crisis, the ideology of state motherhood, whose vulgar manifestations are the organisation of civil servants’ wives and female civil servants, Dharma Wanita, PKK and the Government Regulation No. 10/1983 on (monogamous) marriage and divorce of civil servants, are classics that are still worth reading, if only to remind us that the New Order is still alive and kicking around us.

Julia Suryakusuma does not mince words when she describes the rapes of ethnic Chinese women or women perceived to be ethnic Chinese in May 1998, which to her is just a tip of the proverbial iceberg which is violence against women practised by the militaristic State. Titles like ‘Bayonetting the Vagina’ have their own linguistic aesthetics, at once making us shudder with anger but also pushing us to take action to stop such violence.

Suryakusuma is fully aware of her position as a writer. She cites Stalin to Cisoux to convince us that writing is a tremendously and extraordinarily powerful act, since we can thus change the world as well as ourselves.

How do her writings affect me? I want more: I want to read more such writings by her on prostitution and the trafficking of women in connection with State power, for instance, which I’m sure she’s capable of doing, or on sexual orientation, which always comes up in personal discussions. I think we can look forward to such, because in this anthology, which was published to celebrate Suryakusuma’s 50th  birthday, she states that life begins at 50 (not 40, she writes).

Dédé Oetomo is Founder, Trustee and Head of the Division of Research and Education of GAYa NUSANTARA Foundation, Surabaya, Indonesia. He is also on the Advisory Committee of The South and Southeast Asia Resource Centre on Sexuality.