Down to Earth Special Issue, October 1999

Indigenous women

Although only 20 of the 208 Congress delegates were women, this small contingent made a much greater impact than these numbers suggest. Women from Kalimantan, Sumba, Timor, Sulawesi, North Sumatra and and West Papua who had never met before banded together and challenged other participants to recognise their place in indigenous societies and their values, problems and solutions.

Solidarity between women delegates was enhanced through the first day's workshop on indigenous women's issues. This began with a role play representing the obstacles which many women face in Indonesian society and encouraged participants to speak out about their own experiences. Any initial embarrassment was replaced by a growing confidence as friendships developed and women from widely separated geographical locations explored the similarities and differences of the position of indigenous women within their own communities and in the eyes of the state.

Throughout the Congress these women delegates drew attention to the importance of women's issues within the indigenous movement. This was no easy matter. Even the demand that women should be part of the 'platform teams' which chaired congress sessions was met by some initial opposition, from gentle mockery (that there should be special workshops for men) to outspoken criticism that such behaviour was 'unladylike', 'unIndonesian' and 'incompatible with adat laws and the mores of traditional societies'. But the outcome was that two women were appointed.

The most thorny issue was the relative importance of the State and adat systems in oppressing indigenous women. A prevalent attitude in Indonesian society promoted by government officials is that indigenous women have been kept down by feudal adat systems which only value the men in their communities.


What do women know?

We provide support for men, whether in the family or in government circles. Nevertheless, disparaging comments are often made about us, such as "Ah, What do you women know?"Or "If you've got any money, hand it over. I need it for something important". In actual fact, the man then goes out and gets drunk, gambles or gives it to his mistress.

Government officials behave just the same towards farmers, saying "What do farmers know?". But it is farmers who put food on our tables and we have cooked it too.

And it is increasingly men who sell the things we make. Just like government officials. If there is an exhibition, it is officials who staff the displays. They only know the theory; they can't make cloth. They don't know about the whole weaving process from start to finish.

We want the women who make the cloth to be the ones who sell or exhibit it.

Agustina K. Atanau, East Sumba, NTT (quoted in Gaung KMAN No.7)


(Male) delegates were quick to point out that the position of men and women in many indigenous communities is equivalent. They drew attention to matrilineal indigenous societies in Indonesia where property is passed from mother to daughter and women are decision-makers. The best-known example is the Minangkabau of West Sumatra. The traditional chief of Kei in SE Moluccas explained how men and women were valued equally in his society (albeit for different qualities) and that the proof was that girls could go to school and even become village heads. These examples would have been more convincing if delegations from these provinces had had at least one female representative.

The indigenous women did acknowledge the positive aspects of their traditional roles. Even where the men were the decision-makers, women were often valued in different ways they were honoured as mothers, as farmers; as providers; for their handicrafts; and for their knowledge of their environment and their culture. On the other hand, there were aspects of traditional culture which many indigenous women (especially those from West Papua) were no longer willing to accept. For example, that a man could drink or gamble away his home or even his wife's property. That adultery and violence towards women were tolerated. That women did not have the opportunities to take part in decisions that affected their lives.

The crux of the matter was that while the (male) majority of delegates was calling for the restoration of indigenous sovereignty and the right to manage communities and natural resources according to customary law as handed down from their ancestors, women delegates wanted to change adat to create a more equitable, democratic society.


The impact of government policies on indigenous women

"Before the government came, we Kamoro women could take decisions about land, husbands and other matters. Now at meetings it is only men who are the decision-makers. Furthermore, indigenous women's health has been adversely affected through the government's family planning programme. In the old days we could limit the number of children we had using traditional medicines which did not have side-effects. But since we have been forced to use the government's methods, many women complain they are not well."
                                                      Matea Mamoyau, West Papua

"In the past, marriage settlements were determined by adat considerations. But because adat law is no longer recognised by the government, this tradition is dying out. Instead dowries are measured strictly in cash. It is as if we Kata Deak women are being bought and sold, not married. So government policy has made our position in society worse."
                                               Anchi Manate Sin Laelue, Rote, NTT

"Since logging concessions and plantations came to our part of West Kalimantan, our culture has been eroded. Weaving skills are dying out as few young Dayak women want to practise them. They think it is old-fashioned. They got this attitude from government officials in the Suharto years who encouraged indigenous peoples to become plantation workers where they only earned the lowest wages as labourers. But not all Dayak women could adapt to this sort of work, so they eventually leave."                           Robiana, Bekati Dayak, West Kalimantan

Source: all quotes from Gaung KMAN No. 4


The plenary session at which the indigenous women presented the results of a day-long 'commission' produced some sharp exchanges. The most controversial of their twelve demands was for a separate indigenous womens' organisation. Since most of the women delegates took part in this discussion group, the others on 'Politics and Human Rights', 'Economics' and 'Culture' had bee predominantly male. Many delegates had great difficulty accepting the vehemence with which the women delegates expressed their views, let alone their analysis of the problems they faced as indigenous women. One observer commented that it was as if the theme of the Congress had become 'Challenging indigenous women's position vis--vis the adat community'.

There was a stunned silence before a few men ventured opinions such as "How can women talk about fighting for their own rights? This world was created for men and women. If we do not have both, then we are nothing". These views were not well received by the women delegates who regarded these statements as yet more evidence that some indigenous men were not taking their position seriously.

Nevertheless, attitudes did change. Men who had criticised the women's standpoint earlier in the Congress were to be seen accompanying the indigenous women's demonstration. Respect for the women's views had grown and developed into considerable support for their arguments from the majority of delegates.


The changing position of women in adat

"In all our adat meetings, we Kata Deak women now have the right to speak and the right to choose our representatives."
                                              Anchi Manate Sin Laelue, Rote, NTT

"In the old days it was true women were not allowed to go out and men took all the decisions in our community. But now things have changed. I have had a lot of contact with outsiders and always got lots of information from them which I then presented at adat meetings. Gradually adat is changing."
                                     Robiana, Bekati Dayak, West Kalimantan


Action for Indigenous Women

Among the specific problems which the women delegates identified were government programmes which change the position of indigenous women within their societies; compulsion within the government family planning programme; the marginalisation of women's customary values within indigenous communities; the portrayal of women and their use in promotions on TV and in the media in ways that conflict with women's traditional values; the location of authorised prostitutes camps; and violence inflicted by the Armed Forces on indigenous women.


Measures agreed for AMAN's Action Plan were:



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