Thursday, February 22, 2024 | 11:23 WIB

The hopes of 1998 and some thoughts on freedom of expression in Indonesia today

IO – Article 28E paragraph 3 of the In­donesian Constitution guarantees In­donesian citizens freedom of expres­sion. After the fall of the New Order government there was an enormous euphoria with regard to democracy and freedom of expression, especially amongst the young. Two nights ago the President addressed the nation reminding us that we are a Pancasila (the five Indonesian principles of state which includes democracy) country and that the government will have no tolerance whatsoever for those who might wish to subvert the state motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika or Unity in Diversity or for those who are intoler­ant of others and of other religions. Nearly a month ago, the Minister of Finance, Sri Mulyani Indrawati made a similar speech declaring that there was no place within the Ministry of Fi­nance for anyone who did not support the Pancasila. It seems that democ­racy and freedom of expression have also brought some problems of their own.

“From Now On Everything Will Be Different” by Eliza Vitri Handayani. (photo: ANZ LitLovers LitBlog)

In 2015 the police in Bali instruct­ed the organizers of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival to cancel sever­al sessions on books involving politics including Eliza Vitri Handayani’s From Now on Everything Will Be Different. The book examines the question of how free Indonesia really is after 1998 as seen through the lens of a young woman and a young man dealing with the societal pressures around them. How free did Indonesia really become after the fall of the New Order gov­ernment. “I am part of the generation who came of age after 1998. So, in a sense it is the story of my generation. Growing up we were told that we can­not control what happens and that we should obey and not question things. After 1998 everything felt possible; that we could have a say in how our country is run. It was mind blowing! And I wanted to see how people were coping with that because it was not magic. There was still a lot of hard work to do and restrictions. I want­ed to explore in my book how free we really are and what does it mean to be free.”

The book was published by Vaga­bond Press in Australia and by Obor in Indonesia. In 2016 it was launched without incident in Jakarta and in Makasar. 2015 was the 50th anniver­sary of the 1965 Communist events and massacres that followed. Eliza thinks that certain factions were espe­cially sensitive that year to any books touching upon the events of 1965. “My book actually says very little about 1965. Then again, the Jakarta and Makasar launches were very low-key affairs compared to the Ubud Writers Festival which is far more famous and an international event.”

Eliza Vitri Handayani addressing the audience at the Fashion for Words. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

In 1998 Eliza was 15 years old. “I was born in Jakarta from parents of a humble background. My father was a Jakartan and my mother was from Madura. I went to public school and was sent to a Muslim school for my lower secondary school education. It was not a pesantren or what we think of as a religious school now. We fol­lowed the state curriculum and just had a few more religious lessons compared to other schools. I did not have to cover up my hair although now any girl going to that school probably would have to.”

For her upper secondary school education Eliza was able to get a place in a military school right next to the military academy in Magelang. “It was free and I needed a change for the situation at home left me very unhappy. It was the first time I saw Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Di­versity) in action: there were pupils from all over Indonesia. I met people from Papua and NTT and we really had to put Bhinneka Tunggal Ika into practice: to appreciate others and learn how to live with them without conflict.”

Eliza designed the dress she is wearing with excerpts from the proofs of her book. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Even then Eliza loved to write. Later she managed to get a schol­arship to a liberal arts college in Connecticut. “I had always dreamt of going to study in America and it was all I hoped for. I felt that I did not belong in Indonesia because I felt so different. Nobody else appreciat­ed my thoughts or my mind or my wanting to become a writer.”

In America she was encouraged to speak for herself and also her in­dividual thinking. There was a big appreciation for the arts there. Un­like people here who major in the arts, in America such people are not just considered people who could not make it in the sciences. In America she found it was considered cool to be a writer. “But after graduation I wanted to come home. I have a lot of questions about being Indonesian. Who am I? I want to find out if ev­erything people have been telling me is true.”

Eliza has all the idealism and hope of youth in her when she says, “And then I read Kartini’s letters! It was mind blowing! Someone else ex­ploring and saying, ‘It’s going to be so hard to change things. Its going to be so hard – but I’m going to try!’

She is now reading up on Indone­sian history, “Because I am curious and I want to find out more! I mean, what happened? It’s a story and it re­lates to my identity and what it means to be Indonesian. I could write about it all and do something useful here and so, not have to go away; do something meaningful because I am a person for whom meaning is important…”

Eliza (on the far left) stands with other artists of Fashion for Words with a mannequin bound in chains in their midst. (photo: courtesy Fashion for Words)

How can one’s heart not be touched when a young person who is searching says that with all sincerity? So far, Eliza has written many short stories appearing in such diverse journals as The Griffith Review (Aus), Asia Literary Review, Koran Tempo, Exchanges Journal (US) and other publications. Her best she says is “The Love Story of My Father and Me”. “It’s complex. It’s close to my heart. I love the story,” she says simply. Her editor says that it breaks new ground. IKAPI awarded one of her science-fic­tion books its Anugerah Adikarya award for best young adult fiction but personally Eliza does not think too highly of her book. So, far she has written two novels. “From Now on Everything Will be Different” was also launched in Oslo and at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The many artists, designers and young people who participated in creating Fashion for Words. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

In 2012 Eliza had already estab­lished InterSastra (InterLiterature) as a literary exchange platform. She had already begun to notice attacks on freedom of expression in things regarding women’s rights, religion, LGBT issues, big business interests, etc. After the launch of “From Now on Everything Will be Different” was cancelled at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival Eliza says that she became even more aware of the sit­uation with regard to freedom of ex­pression and especially the attacks on cultural events. She says she began to understand, “Freedom can never be taken for granted and we must take care of it and be prepared to struggle for it.”

So, as of 2016 InterSastra began to do events that would encourage and promote freedom of expres­sion. They began to translate and publish a series of banned literary works known as “Defiant Voices” so that people could read and judge the books for themselves. Later the se­ries became “Unrepressed” opening a space to write about taboo or margin­alized subjects. Then they began to experiment with different mediums in order to reach a larger audience.

A dress by Kolektif As-Salam. Its many colours symbolize different interpretations and the beautiful narratives used to make women accept restrictions. (photo: courtesy of Fashion for Words)

Ayudilmar in collaboration with the Inter-Factory Workers Federa­tion (FBLP) created 8 outfits based on conversations with workers about their worries, strengths and who they saw themselves as. Here the under­lying thought was that thousands of workers create millions of cheap ready-to-wear cloths but never get to wear them or are invited to the fash­ion shows or receive credit for them. Meanwhile, Wangsit Firmatika fo­cused on men’s wear which he says is very limited in its form, variety and colours whereas in fact men have di­verse of ways to express themselves. They do not all have to be rugged and strong. Some may like to cook or cry and their clothes should express that.

This year as part of the Creative Free­dom Festival (an international cultur­al festival association with themes of empowerment, activism and the po­tential of community) InsterSastra with the support of Inter Seni Indo­nesia (Indonesian Inter-Arts Associ­ation) and the Norwegian Embassy held a fashion show at the Cemara Galeri 6 in Menteng called “Fashion for Words”. According to the curator of the fashion show, Ika Vantiani the four fashion designers whose works were being modelled were chosen for the humanist element in their cre­ations.

As written on the wall behind this model, women are given so many restrictions about how they should look. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

More controversial were A. An­damari’s designs which tried to ad­dress the limits placed on women’s clothing because their bodies are all too often seen as objects: loose weight or you’ll never get a husband, dress like that and you deserve to be raped, you’re too old for that, you’re too skinny!”

Kolektif As-Salam focused on Muslim women’s wear. Febri Sast­viani Putri Cantika better known at Uti to her friends is from Jogjakar­ta and studied community planning at Institut Pertanian Bogor or Bogor Agricultural Institute. She founded a group known as Kolektif Betina or (Female Collective). Its members were musicians, artists, curators and ac­tivists representing all sorts of life styles. They tried to hold a festival in Jogjakarta celebrating all forms of women’s expression called Lady Fast. It was intended to have bands, feminist workshops, handy craft lessons, discussions, a bazar – but was closed down by people accusing them of being Communists. “We are not Communists. All we wanted to do was to celebrate women’s freedom of expression.

Kolektif As-Salam focused on Muslim women’s wear. (photo courtesy of Fashion for Words)

So, I have seen the limits on freedom of expression,” says Uti. “In this fashion show we designed clothes with Muslim women in mind. Something has happened to our so­ciety for such a radical and conserva­tive Islam seems to have sprung up in so many places. And we cannot even have a dialogue with them, not even when they are our own family mem­bers. These groups claim that women have to cover all their hair and their bodies and society puts pressure on women to do so. So, what we tried to convey in this fashion show was a progressive, peaceful and tolerant Is­lam that looks upon men and women as equal. A Pancasila Islam.”

From left to right: Amanda Suharnoko of MADIA (Society of Interfaith Dialogue), Dr Amina Wadud an African American Muslim feminist, Eliza Vitri Handayani and Prof Dr Siti Musdah Mulia. (photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Prof Dr Siti Musdah Mulia, an Indonesian Muslim intellectual and teacher who has received various international awards attended the fashion show and agrees with Uti. When asked why she was there she responded by saying, “The young artists who created the fashion show are active members of my pengajian (Qur’an study group) and it was they who asked me to participate. If you study it you will in fact find that Islam is a very liberal and rational religion. I always say to them that religion should not be exclusive in nature but rational and always responsive to hu­man needs. These young artists often hold fashion shows where they try to insert their ideas as artists. They are trying to counter a trend in society that is becoming less and less ratio­nal: demanding that all women wear chadars for example; at an ice cream parlour the other day they were de­manding a special room for women to eat ice cream and a special shariah hospital.

There are different views in Islam for example about what the Qur’an means by the word aurat. Some inter­pret it in such a way as meaning that a woman must completely cover her­self with only her eyes showing. Oth­ers interpret it differently. I cover my hair because I am a religious teacher so I need to do more than an ordinary person just as nuns in Catholicism also wear habits and cover their hair. I may not agree with everything the LGBT movement does for example, I find somethings vulgar but neverthe­less, I feel that we must treat them in a humane manner and Islam is a tolerant and humane religion.”

Democracy is not an easy system, especially in a land such as Indonesia with thousands of islands and hun­dreds of languages and traditional cultures and beliefs. Governing dem­ocratically requires a very fine bal­ancing act with both a determined as well as adroit leadership but as Eliza Vitri Handayani puts it, “Free­dom of expression is essential to both democracy and one’s personal life. With freedom of expression we may criticize the government, we are free to create and we can feel safe to truly be ourselves.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Febri Sast­viani Putri Cantika better known as Uti (far right) stands with her friends and fellow artists. (photo courtesy of Fashion for Words)


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