Currently known as one of Indonesia’s leading and most outspoken opinion-makers, Julia Suryakusuma – columnist, author, activist, feminist, cultural critic – is hard to pigeon-hole. Being Indonesian, but born in India and raised in Europe (UK, Hungary, and Italy) following her parents who worked as diplomats, she was always a foreigner abroad and a stranger in her own country, which made it possible for her to constantly look at things from different perspectives.
As a columnist (writing for the Jakarta Post, the International Herald Tribune, The Daily Yomiuri, NRC Handelsblad, among others), she always tries to “generate a debate” on the most pressing social, political and cultural issues affecting Indonesia.
She is the author of “Sex, Power and Nation: an Anthology of Writings, 1979-2003 (Metafor, 2004), and “Julia’s Jihad” (Prunsoop, 2009, in Korean, and Mizan, 2010 in Indonesian; in English, forthcoming in 2011), and lives in Jakarta.
How and when did you start dealing with the relationship between sex and power in Indonesia?
In 1981 I was asked to be a guest-editor for Prisma (at the time the most prominent Indonesian social science journal), to do an issue on women. It was the first time that women’s issues were addressed from a feminist perspective in my country. Then in the mid-eighties I started doing research on the social construction of womanhood in New Order Indonesia which eventually became the first gendered analysis of Suharto’s New Order (1966-1998).
What was this social construction about?
The way that women were defined, i.e. constructed, was in such a way to buttress state power. At the time we had an authoritarian, militaristic government and the entire society was supposed to obey it. One of the things that had not been done by then was to show how the state created an ideology and structures that allowed the control of women. This was done first by defining them as wives and then by creating women’s organizations that paralleled the hierarchy of the male bureaucracy. The most important one was Dharma Wanita, the civil servants wives organization, which was in fact controlled by the State.