Photo by Rumah Kitab.


Where were you when you first heard Soeharto had resigned?
I was at the office of the Indonesian Society for Pesantren and Community Development (P3M), a nongovernmental organisation that was active in promoting women’s reproductive health and human rights discourse within the Muslim community at the time. During Soeharto’s final days I joined friends and colleagues from Suara Ibu Peduli in helping to provide supplies to student protestors at the legislative complex in Senayan and packaging donations of formula milk to be distributed among women who could no longer afford to buy it because of the disastrous state of the economy.


What has been the most significant reform of the post-Soeharto era?
Undoubtedly the most significant changes have been reforms to provide for freedom of expression and the development of a free press. Bureaucratic reform and efforts to promote democracy at the village level, for example through the 2014 Village Law, have also been significant.


What has been the biggest disappointment of the post-Soeharto era?
Over the years, the meaning of democracy has narrowed to become procedural democracy, with a focus on elections but little accountability of elected representatives to their constituents.


The second major disappointment has been the explosion in corruption. While it was originally conducted behind closed doors, and was concentrated among the Soeharto family and the ruling party, now it is conducted more openly and has spread down to the village level.


Third, over recent years, infrastructure development has been prioritised at the expense of other development. Infrastructure was desperately needed of course, after being left out of the reform agenda in the years following the fall of Soeharto. But I worry that issues like health care and poverty reduction have suffered. Not only does this affect poor and marginalised Indonesians but it has provided an opportunity for conservative groups to offer shari’a law or ideas about a caliphate as the solution. Poor Indonesians who are fed up with the struggles of poverty may find the notion of a utopian caliphate particularly appealing.


Do you think that the reform process has ended? If so, when?
The reform process is still ongoing, or at least there is still hope for further democratic reform, but reformers must now compete with other groups and individuals who feel that they have the right to impose their vision for Indonesia’s future on the wider population, such as the conservative groups who advocate for the application of Islamic law.


Yet I believe that Indonesia’s diversity is a strength that will ensure that these efforts will never be successful. Indonesia may be home to the largest Muslim population in the world but I don’t believe we will ever end up like Pakistan or certain African countries that have allowed Islamic fundamentalist groups to determine the political agenda.


This of course does not ignore the fact that populist politicians have sought to exploit growing Islamic conservatism, even politicians from non-religious or so-called “nationalist” parties, such as Gerindra, Golkar, and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). But because Indonesia is a multicultural country, I am confident that its diversity will always frustrate efforts to impose a monolithic ideology over the population, just as there was resistance to the New Order’s attempts to impose a narrow interpretation of Pancasila.


Islamic fundamentalists will face opposition from the Muslim population itself, as Islam in Indonesia has rich and varied traditions that will never be subsumed into a single, rigid understanding of Islam promoted by fundamentalist groups. Second, Indonesian Muslim women will play an important role in our future. If political Islam in Indonesia seeks to become a repressive force or threaten democracy, it will face resistance from the female members of the Muslim community who now enjoy greater space in the public sphere than they did under Soeharto.


What has been the greatest surprise/unexpected outcome of the democratic era?
It is not necessarily a surprise, but I don’t think anyone suspected the depth of the response to Soeharto’s decades of suppression of the Muslim community.


The New Order was not willing to engage in dialogue with any ideology that was not in line with its vision. Only Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah were able to find room for dialogue under the New Order, while groups that sought a greater role for Islam in the Indonesian state, such as the political party Masyumi, were disbanded. These groups were forced underground and consequently there was no room for dialogue with secular or moderate Muslims.


In the turbulent period after Soeharto fell, they re-emerged, and offered alternatives to New Order ideology based on conservative Islamic understandings of law and leadership. Because they had been isolated, their proposals were not based on an experience of Indonesia as a diverse and plural country. Their negative experiences of repression under the New Order and ideas about the dominance of corporations managed by Chinese businessmen has led to suspicions and mistrust that is difficult to refute, despite the facts. Many Muslims believe that Islam will always be repressed by the state, and that means it is hard for them to trust democracy or systems of government outside Islam. This is why the revitalisation of Pancasila is so urgent.


Is the average Indonesian woman better off now compared to under Soeharto?
After the fall of Soeharto, grassroots women’s organisations supported by the New Order, like the Family Welfare Movement (PKK), also collapsed. Although it was initiated by the New Order, the PKK came to play a critical role in development, in particular in women’s reproductive and infant health. The asset of its broad organisational reach has now been lost, and has been replaced by hundreds of prayer recital (pengajian) groups that show more concern for the afterlife than the development challenges faced by contemporary women in their everyday lives.


Attempts to tackle childhood stunting, child marriage, poor nutrition, and reproductive health have failed or stagnated because women are not actively engaged, and because under the New Order their participation was based not on self-awareness but on compulsion. In areas where village-level organisations exist, women continue to participate in efforts to improve their lives but now their participation is based on feminist ideology in which they are empowered to take control over decisions affecting their bodies, whereas PKK groups tended to stress that a woman’s role was as an assistant to her husband. The problem is that the growth in critical and aware feminist women has been limited to areas where women’s organisations, such as PEKKA, Kapal Perempuan, Koalisi Perempuan, Fatayat (NU) and Aisyiyah (Muhammadiyah), have a presence down to the grassroots. Outside these areas women’s only option tends to be pengajian activities that only serve to make them less informed.


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