“Are you proud of being born a woman?” – interview (2009)

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This is an interview for a student bulletin at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Indonesia, 2009. Please check Happy’s (the interviewer) blog here.


We cannot choose a person of which sex we are to be born. Are you proud of being born as a woman? Why?

I’ve been asked this question so many times and honestly I get bored. Yes I’m proud of being a woman, but if I were born as a man I would also be proud – insofar that I could be certain a type of man, that is, an intelligent, witty, edgy man who’s not obsessed with masculinity. A man who’s not threatened by a woman’s intelligence, who doesn’t mind being called a geek, who’d be glad doing drag shows and those sort of things. What matters is what you become, not what sex you are born into. And so far I’m happy being the woman that I’ve become.


In your view, is being a woman a strength or a weakness?

Well, being a woman is certainly an advantage if you apply for a scholarship, especially if you’re poor and marginal – just kidding. I think it’s not enough to just be a woman. Let’s stop romanticizing the word “be” (being a woman, being born as a woman) and think of specific verbs. For me, a woman’s strength derives from “doing.” She should not be someone to fight for, or to speak for. She speaks, thinks, reads, writes, fights, steals, dances, builds, destroys.


You often write and speak out for women empowerment. What drives you to it?

Part of it can be traced back to my own experience growing up in the 1990s as an urban middle-class girl ‘who did not fit in.’ Some people think that women’s problems are located ‘somewhere out there’ (i.e., problems happen to poor women outside the urban space). Some others pose a question, “Why so much fuss? Men and women are already ‘equal.’” In various circumstances women are in fact still forced to fit themselves into the glass slippers (in simple terms, these are standards set by the society to define how a good, desirable woman should act). Those glass slippers are amorphous, sometimes unseen. Sometimes you don’t realize that you are wearing them until you see your own blood.
By the way, I think we need to be critical of the word “empowerment” as it’s often detached from specific political and historical contexts. Empowerment for what? Who defines the state of being “disempowered”?


So much compliments addressed to you regarding to your skills as a speaker for public seminars that are related to the issue of women. Could you tell us what seminars you have spoken for so far?

I think other people have been more actively engaged with women’s issues than me. The seminars that I attend are mostly academic, so I’m not sure how much they affected the public. I had a memorable experience, though, when the British Council asked me to talk about gender in cinema in front of high school students in different cities in Indonesia. I was surprised to discover how — in year 2005, mind you — these teenagers were really curious, and to some extent anxious, about ‘taboo’ subjects such as homosexuality. Another exciting experience was when Jurnal Perempuan invited me last year to give a talk in their event, ‘Celebrating Women’s Diversity.’ It was really nice to really engage with the public since I left Indonesia four years ago.


Among all the writings you have made, which one do you think shows woman’s power best? Why?

The way I think about gender and how they intersect with other issues (nationalism, capitalism, Islamism, and other isms) is reflected in both my essays and fiction. They involve different creative processes, geared towards different kinds of audience, but the concerns are similar. My fiction gives me satisfaction in a different way as it reaches people I’ve never thought of. I didn’t expect that high school students would read Sihir Perempuan, let alone to know that they could relate to the characters while engaging with the book critically.


How is your view toward the position of women in our country?

Which women, specifically? Indonesia is huge and women deal with different issues. In one place, what people deem as ‘religious practices’ might be a big issue. In another place, women still have to deal with the capitalism – patriarchy duet (the two-headed beast, to evoke the old-school Marxist feminists’ term). A woman’s body has always been subjected to the state’s disciplinary regime, and I think what’s really pressing for me right now is the intensifying desire to control bodies and sexuality. Our new pornography law is an example of how bodies (especially women’s) are turned into a public arena, deployed by different national actors to assert power. And when our policy makers talk about women’s bodies, women’s subjectivity is the last thing in their minds.


What should Indonesian women of this era learn in the first place?

We’ve been silenced for more than 30 years, and today it’s completely the opposite. Everybody talks – screams even – to be heard. The challenge for women is to invent a language so that they can be heard. Ayu Utami’s Saman is an influential feminist text because of the context in which it emerged – it broke the silence. But now with so many voices coming from different directions, including so many texts being produced on behalf of “women” and “feminism,” people start to become hearing-impaired. Many people are reluctant to understand the complexities of women’s issues, viewing them as either exclusively women’s concerns or simply banal. Issues such as rape, domestic violence, and polygamy are concrete – they don’t go away. But if we were to speak about them, a new language – a language that creates intervention on the noise rather than silence — must be invented. While some people (mostly men) are allergic to the word ‘feminism,’ people who are ‘pro-women’ tend to be too celebratory when they seek refuge under its umbrella. So another dimension to look at is feminism as a framework. In Indonesia, it has a problematic status as it is rejected on the one hand and romanticized on the other. When speaking about women, those who claim themselves as feminists need to be critical of themselves, of their speaking positions, and of feminism itself.