Photo essay: women march in face of anti-feminist backlash

Women’s March Jakarta 2019 was themed #beranibersuara, or #daretohaveavoice. Photo by Gavin Height.

 

Following the recent International Women’s Day march, the Women’s March Jakarta, held on 27 April, saw even greater numbers turn out for action against sexual violence.

 

The 2019 legislative elections were marked by a growing backlash against gender activism, influenced by the rise of religious identity politics. Resistance to feminism is nothing new in Indonesia but of concern to activists has been the increase in anti-feminist discourse by female candidates, many of whom campaigned against the proposed bill on the elimination of sexual violence. The election period also saw a group of conservative women launch the “Indonesia Without Feminists” social media campaign, which framed feminism as western and blasphemous.

 

With this as a backdrop, thousands gathered in Central Jakarta for the third annual Women’s March Jakarta on 27 April, with the theme of #beranibersuara, or #daretohaveavoice. The march has grown in size every year, with an estimated 4,000 people taking part this time, double the number who marched in 2018.

 

An estimated 4,000 people took part in 2019. Photo by Gavin Height.

 

In previous years, Women’s March Jakarta was held in early March to coincide with International Women’s Day but this year organisers decided to postpone it until after the election to prevent it being “politicised”. While what the marchers were doing was a political act, they felt there was a risk of provoking a backlash against feminism and sexual and gender minorities during the campaign period, which would draw attention away from the very political issues they were fighting for. A smaller International Women’s Day (IWD) march went ahead regardless on 8 March, and did not face significant resistance. Many ended up participating in both marches.

 

As with the IWD event, one of the key issues for marchers was the stalled deliberations on the bill on the elimination of sexual violence. There were also calls for the decriminalisation of sex work, prevention of child-marriage and reduction in discrimination of sexual and gender minorities.

 

Organisers said that they aimed to reclaim Kartini Day (held the week before, on 21 April), “as one of the most important days for women’s rights”. Kartini is recognised as a feminist icon for her struggle for girl’s education, but march organisers lamented that Kartini Day is often marked by cooking competitions or displays of traditional dress. Photo by Gavin Height.

 

Devi Asmarani, managing editor of online feminist magazine Magdalene, said the postponement of Women’s March Jakarta was the right decision. She said some issues that marchers campaigned on, such as gender and sexual minority rights, “could have been weaponised by political actors”, making their efforts counter-productive.

 

Devi Asmarani (right), and fellow participants from Magdalene. Devi, who has been involved since the first Women’s March Jakarta in 2017, said that many participants “expected to have won some changes by now”. Photo by Gavin Height.

 

Stacey Nikolay, head of communications for LGBTI-rights organisation Arus-Pelangi, said that despite concerns that visibility of sexual and gender minorities could endanger the event, more were participating every year. Noting that the day before the march, 26 April, was International Day of Lesbian Visibility, Stacey said it was “very important for lesbians to be visible in the current environment”.

 

Visibility at events like Women’s March Jakarta is all the more important given growing restrictions on how sexuality and gender issues can be discussed in traditional media. Film director Andri Cung said that “we are in a critical condition”, as censorship becomes more rigid. Cung’s 2018 film Kenapa Harus Bule? was rated 21+ and faced calls to be banned because a side character was gay and the main character did “not represent Indonesian women” because she liked foreign men. Photo by Gavin Height.

 

One of the noticeable differences between the IWD event and the Women’s March Jakarta related to the demographics of participants. While organised labour unions accounted for more than half of marchers on IWD, participants in Women’s March Jakarta were more youthful, and most attended independently of formal organisations.

 

Neqy, from PerEMPUan (Women), an organisation focused on fighting sexual harassment on public transport, said that the “movement is gaining momentum… we have more new faces and more younger people involved in today’s march, and that is a very good indicator.”

 

Neqy from PerEMPUan. Photo by Gavin Height.

 

Some first-time marchers said they were marching over concerns about rape and victim blaming. University of Indonesia student Tashia said being a part of the march had “restored her faith in humanity… All of these people I would only usually see or read about on the internet, and it’s good to know that lots of us actually exist.”

 

Along with first-time marchers were seasoned activists, such as field coordinator Ririn Sefansi, who became involved in activism as a university student in the late New Order and early reformasi period. Ririn, who works for the Partnership for Governance Reform (Kemitraan), told marchers that it was important to push for reforms in political parties “to bring women into the political process”.

 

Photo by Gavin Height.

 

Devi was also buoyed by the large turnout, saying “the change-makers will be young people.” She acknowledged, however, that not all young Indonesians are progressive. “Increased religious conservatism affects young people also,” she said. “There is a tension over what kind of Indonesia they want, we want.”

 

It remains to be seen how these tensions play out in the legislature, especially in relation to the bill on the eradication of sexual violence, but also gender issues more broadly. From the growing numbers of those taking to the streets for Women’s March each year, however, it is clear more citizens want their voices heard and for progress to be made following the election. This is crucial in a time of extreme use of identity politics and growing hostility toward the word “feminism”.