Q&A: You Can’t Change Things in the Flick of a Moment

Sita Van Bemmelen, 55, is a historian and gender and development specialist who has given lectures at universities across Indonesia through a Strengthening Women and Development Studies in Indonesia programme from her native country, Holland.

Van Bemmelen has been in Indonesia since 1991 and moved to Bali 14 years ago. Carla Albertí de la Rosa spoke with her about Indonesian women and their struggles.

What’s the percentage of women in Indonesia receiving an education compared to men?
Primary education is almost 100 percent for girls and boys in most parts of the country.

With junior high school it varies a lot between provinces and rural and urban areas. In Bali, on average 75 percent of children go to high school and there is a disparity of 20 percent for girls.
At university girls have the tendency to go to certain fields of study, such as economics, compared to the Netherlands, where it’s normally languages. Compared to women in my country, more women study economics. Many women also study dentistry.

Maybe one third of those going to university are women, but it also depends on the faculty.

What percentage enters the labour market and what positions do these women cover compared to men?
That differs very much between provinces. Here in Bali the participation of women in the labour force is very high: 42 percent of the labour force is women, but it’s concentrated in particular fields, such as in the markets, street stalls. Women in Bali are also expected to support the family income.

In semi-rural areas in Java they have large factories that you don’t have here and the labour force consists mainly of young unmarried women [making] textiles or shoes.

Millions of women employed as domestic workers in Indonesia have no labour rights and run the risk of serious abuse and even death. What is it going to take for lawmakers to ensure that legislation guarantees domestic workers’ rights in line with international standards?
There is a law on domestic violence that includes violence to domestic servants; it’s punishable by law. But the domestic sphere is so hard to intrude. There is a legal tool available that was not there before. If somebody wants to help, then it gives you the power and legitimacy to go to the police. The problem is there are so many female domestic servants working abroad.

One idea is to be strict on the age of domestic servants because the younger the girls, the more vulnerable they are to domestic violence or any kind of abuse.

There’s a law from 1994 that obliges parents to send their children to school from the age of six to 15, but that law is not yet really enforced. This law could give them some protection but they’re often not informed about it. There is no measure that you can introduce and solve the problem completely; it’s always a package. Education plays a big role too.

Indonesian lesbians place a strong emphasis on their careers, largely because they’re not married and don’t have children. If they are “out” to their colleagues and bosses, do they face obstacles that men, including gay men, do not?
Heterosexuality is the norm and another norm of society that you confront is that you don’t want to raise a family and that you won’t have children. I think that is a more basic objection of most Indonesians. In a male-dominated society of course they see lesbian women as a rejection of masculinity and men, and that’s more obnoxious.

What significant advances have there been in Indonesian women’s rights in the past 10 years?
The law issued in 2004 on domestic violence was one of the issues that women had fought for. Also, you can see there are a lot more women activists than they used to be. There is the Institute for Legal Aid, which is opening a branch in Bali, LBH-APIC.

One of the other big issues was to get more women into parliament but it hasn’t given a significantly higher percentage of women in local assemblies. But I see they’re starting to work now to get more women in parliament in 2014, when in 2004, after the election, everyone thought it was over.

What is your assessment of women’s situation in European countries compared to Indonesia?
In Europe there are also many differences between countries. The way people talk about women’s issues here is still very biased. Stereotypes have a negative influence on creative change. The affiliation of women and religion is very strong here. Women here work more – I mean, they consider it something normal and they feel the need for an income for themselves.

In what ways does the Koran shape the way women are seen in Muslim countries and what do you think is the biggest problem for Indonesian Muslim women?
I don’t feel competent to talk about this. I’m competent to talk about Bali because I live here. I can just say the influence of Islam on women’s lives and norms for women has increased a lot. When I worked for a university in Jakarta, only one woman wore a veil; now I’m sure they all wear it.

What’s the situation like in Bali compared to the rest of Indonesia?

Of course Bali is the only island where the majority of the population is Hindu. Balinese women are busy doing their offerings. It takes a lot of their time and money. It makes them less interested in fighting for women’s issues also because Bali is richer than other parts of Indonesia. If nothing out of the ordinary happens they feel life is reasonably OK, so they feel: Why make a problem?

How do you compare the rates of pay for women and men?
It depends on the job. In agriculture, for example, women get 70 percent of what men get. In construction it’s the same. There is a difference of about 25 percent less for women. But women also work fewer hours a week on average.

Indonesia’s top Islamic body has said France and Belgium’s plans to ban the wearing of the burqa in public will restrict the rights of Muslim women to fulfil their religious obligations. Italy recently fined a Tunisian-born woman for wearing a burqa. What impact will this ban have on the Muslim female population who live in those countries and on the way they practise their religion?
I can only guess they will not like it. They identify with it. By wearing that you say “I’m Muslim” and that’s something they want to express. You cannot enforce a mentality change by law.

Why there aren’t more women in politics, even though Indonesia has had a female president, Megawati Sukarnoputri?
Megawati became president because she is part of a powerful elite that wants to stay in power. Megawati was not at all interested in women’s issues. Her party is male-dominated.

With Suharto, Indonesia had a history of 32 years of military regime. In which country is the military dominated by women? You can’t change things in a flick of a moment.

What will Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati’s appointment as managing director to the World Bank mean for Indonesian women?
She’s an extremely bright person. But with positions of women in business, Indonesian men say, “Women are clever with money; we are stupid.” It’s a tremendous success on the one hand but it also reinforces stereotypes that have been there for ages.

In traditional societies such as Bali, women are often seen as second-class citizens, and many keep to subservient roles to their husbands. Is this attitude changing?
It’s not useful to think of women as sub-citizens. There are more modern-minded men in Bali as well. Women are not seen as equal in the world; it’s not just something particular about Indonesia.

There is a division of roles which is often interpreted in a hierarchical way. But for women to make offerings, for example, is seen as a positive activity as it’s related to religion. Women are seen as different in roles but it doesn’t mean women are seen as less important. There are more women aware of the opportunities that are available to them outside the traditional sphere.

Women also have fewer rights than men in Bali, especially in terms of custody of children in the event of a divorce. Under local laws, children automatically go to the father.
Indonesia has a dual system of law. There is a national law and there is customary law, which doesn’t have the same level of authority as the national. But the government says in family matters the judge should take into account local customary law.

If you have a lawyer and you have the money and your husband is obviously at fault, then you can get custody. But you can’t expect customary law to change overnight. An achievable target now is to get the judges to give women custody if the husband has mistreated her. It’s a breakthrough in a very basic principle in this society, so you have to go bit by bit.

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One Response to “Q&A: You Can’t Change Things in the Flick of a Moment”

  1. kadek Says:

    Go SITA, please help those poor peaple ,Make them realize man and women have equal right . Women got not much rihgt in their lifes it is prety amazing how the goverment just let it go.Horable things just happened in my family my sister just got divorsed and losted all her three kids custody, I am beyoned upset but it is not much i can do. Especially i am living in the west right now , She was abused and cheated . So i pray this steupid rool will change so it whouldn’t happen to other family.

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