Last week, nine women from the Samin community in Rembang, Central Java, set their feet in cement blocks in front of the Presidential Palace and demanded a meeting with President Joko Widodo. The women were protesting against the construction of a Semen Indonesia cement factory near their village, which they argue will disturb the delicate balance of water supply in the Kendeng Mountains. The dramatic protest followed years of demonstrations, which have included sit-ins and establishing a tent city to block the construction of the factory.
The Samin community, also known as Sedulur Sikep, has distinct characteristics that can be traced back to its birth during the Dutch colonial era. The founder of the community, Samin Surosentiko, advocated non-violent resistance to colonialism. The community practised their own form of civil disobedience, refusing to build roads, pay taxes or participate in forced-labour. In the independence era they have continued to push back against the state. They do not send their children to government schools and have refused to adhere to one of the six state-sanctioned religions. Their primary source of livelihood is farming, and the porous rocky lands of the Kendeng range are home to water sources that provide irrigation for their farms.
It is significant that the protesters outside the Presidential Palace last week were women and that they called themselves the “Nine Kartinis of Kendeng”. On Thursday, Indonesia will recognise the birth of Raden Ajeng Kartini, long considered the symbol of women’s empowerment in the country. Born on 21 April 1879 to an aristocratic family, Kartini attended a Dutch-language primary school. She dreamt of studying teaching in the Netherlands and establishing a boarding school to further the education of young women. But because of Javanese traditions that prohibited young girls from accessing education, Kartini was forced to leave school at 12 and was confined at home in preparation for her marriage. She continued to read voraciously, however, and famously wrote letters to Dutch friends in which she shared her thoughts on her country and the status of women.
Although Kartini has been hailed as a champion of women’s emancipation, her “feminist” thoughts put great emphasis on the role of women as mothers and partners to men. In a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon on 21 January 1901, she wrote: “Man receives from woman his very earliest nourishment, at her breast, the child learns to feel, to think and to speak; and I see more and more clearly that the very earliest education has an influence which extends over one’s whole after life. But how can the native women teach their children when they themselves are so ignorant?”
Despite being subjugated as “the second sex”, throughout Indonesian history women have often been the drivers of social change. Classical feminist theory criticises the gendered construction of the public and private spheres. The public sphere is seen as the domain of men, providing them with benefits such as access to capital, self-development and progress. Women, meanwhile, are confined to the private sphere, with their identities conflated to their bodies and reproductive capacity. The history of women’s movements in Indonesia suggests, however, that while motherhood discourse may often limit Indonesian women, it can also provide space for resistance.
During New Order era, Soeharto’s military regime glorified motherhood, depicting mothers as guardians of family and national morality. The domestication of women was perpetuated structurally by the state, which promoted the idea of a women’s kodrat (destiny) to be a wife and mother. As Julia Suryakusuma has explained, through “State Ibuism”, women were seen as supporters of their husbands, for example through organisations for the wives of civil servants like the Family Welfare Movement (PKK) and Dharma Wanita. But the discourse of motherhood was also manipulated by women’s activists calling for democratic change.
At the time of the Asian Financial Crisis, in early 1998, a group of women activists formed Suara Ibu Peduli (SIP, Voice of Concerned Mothers) and staged a demonstration at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout about skyrocketing milk and food prices. As mothers, who, according to the traditional gender norms espoused by the Soeharto regime, dealt with daily domestic issues, they argued the high prices made it impossible to balance the household budget and fulfil their families’ basic needs. As a result of their protests, three women activists, Gadis Arivia, Wilasih Noviana, and Karlina Leksono, were arrested and charged with holding an event in a public place without prior permission.
Although their demands initially focused on lower milk prices, their initiative encouraged more Indonesians to join the reformasi demonstrations for civil and political freedoms. The SIP movement demonstrated how the glorification of motherhood — which ensured women were respected because of their roles and sacrifices — provided space for resistance. Arguably, their position as mothers made it easier for them to gain sympathy and support. This space for resistance, through a gradual and incremental process, was exploited and expanded to advocate for broader social change.
While the western women’s movement might encourage “the burial of traditional womanhood”, in Indonesia, traditional womanhood (or motherhood), has sometimes been used as a vehicle for empowerment and to bring about social and political change. When mothers stage protests, it shows that something big and significant is to be won or lost.
The Samin women appear to have got what they wanted. Although Jokowi did not meet the women personally, he sent Presidential Chief of Staff Teten Masduki and Secretary of State Pratikno, who promised to arrange a meeting with the president. More than 24 hours after the protest began, the cement blocks were chipped away from the women’s feet. Separately, Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo also offered to act as a mediator between the community and Semen Indonesia.
No doubt the dramatic and media-friendly images played a part in the success of their protest. But the fact that they were women and mothers helped to “legitimise” their protest and garner broader public sympathy. The Samin women were demonstrating to protect the local ecosystem, which is crucial for the livelihood of their children and community. And as mothers, the Samin women were assumed to know what was best for their community.
Whether the women will actually be able to stop the factory from opening is another story – it is due to be finished in August.