Women Accuse: an art exhibition and book to correct the position of Indonesian women in history

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Book review with Peter Carey and Rosalia Sciortino Sumaryono (with the black and white shawl). (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)
Admiral Keumalahayati of Aceh who killed Dutch Admiral Cornelis de Houtman in a naval battle. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

IO – It is a commonly known fact that the first Dutch fleet arrived in Indone­sian waters in 1596 under the com­mand of Admiral Cornelis de Hout­man. How many people know though, that during De Houtman’s second voyage to Indonesia, he was killed in a sea battle by an Indonesian admiral in 1599 and that the admiral was an Acehnese woman named Keumalaha­yati? She was one of the first female admirals in the world. Malahayati as she was also known was the daughter of an admiral and studied at Ma’had Baitul Maqdis, the Acehnese Royal Military Academy. Later, some of her soldiers were to consist of Acehenese widows who came to be known as the “Inong Balee” army.

When Sultan Alauddin Mansur Syah of Aceh began building a power­ful navy he made Malahayati his First Admiral. In 1600 she succeeded in capturing Admiral Jacob van Neck as revenge for the carnage caused by the VOC fleet. The Dutch ended up send­ing a diplomatic mission with a letter apologizing and paying 50,000 gulden as compensation to the Acehnese sul­tan. It is amazing to think what Aceh­nese women previously accomplished for history shows that she is only one of a host of heroic Acehnese women of the past from the like of Cut Nyak Din and Cut Nyak Meutia to the four queens under whom Aceh experienced its golden period. It is disheartening when we compare that to the position of Aceh­nese women today under Shariah Law which controls so much of their clothing and their actions and which has destroyed so much of the original Polynesian matriarchal culture that forms the base of much of Indonesian culture.

Artist Seruni Bodjawati together with writer Esti Susanti Hudiyono (Left to right). (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

There are many heroic Indonesian women in history who are rarely if ever mentioned in the history books or in the history lessons at school and who receive far too little government recognition. This thought is what inspired Esti Susanti Hudiyono to write a book about such Indonesian historical figures and to organize a collection of events at the Cemara and Galeri Museum in Menteng, con­sisting of an exhibition of paintings of extraordinary Indonesian women in history, discussions, film viewings and a book review all under the ti­tle: Perempuan Mengguggat Literasi Rupa Sejarah Perempuan Indonesia or Women Protest the Narrative of Indonesian Women’s Historical Role. The week-long package of events was a celebration of Indonesian feminism. In preparing this Esthi approached artist Seruni Bodjawati to paint a selection of 26 portraits of famous Indonesian women in history and the owner and patron of Cemara and Galeri Museum, Toeti Heraty No­erhadi-Roosseno, for the use of the gallery.

The book review was held on the 28th of August 2019. Author Esti Susanti Hudiyono who has a back­ground in sociology and anthropology and describes herself as an activist in trafficking, HIV and inter-religious di­alogue rather than as a feminist says, “Currently of 179 officially recognized national heroes only 14 are women. The excuse is all too frequently that women who are recommended as national heroes are not layak (ap­propriate).”

Esthi disclosed that she comes from a Chinese Indonesian family where she experienced both gender discrimination as well as domestic violence. This made her very sensi­tive to issues of injustice. She sought a modern education which led her away from the Chinese traditional way of life. She was first a teacher and then became a journalist at the daily Pagi Suriah in Surabaya. Esthi then set up a foundation for the prevention of AIDS. “My work brought me in contact with thousands of prostitutes who suffered from AIDS. I also felt the stigma of being a woman, a Chinese and a Christian. So, in a sense I would call myself a hu­manist and it is through my hu­manism that I came to understand feminism.”

Prof Saparina Sadli celebrated her birthday at the symposium. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

In this Esthi is in agreement with one of the speakers at the book review, anthropologist Ro­salia Sciortino Sumaryono the founder of Southeast Asia Junc­tion and a lecturer in Thailand who asked whether women wanted a bigger slice of the cake for women or whether they wanted a fairer society for women. “Feminism fights for the weak of which 50% are women. So, in reality it cannot really be separat­ed from the desire to achieve a wider more general justice for all.”

Esthi then explained how she chose to work with Seruni. “A stu­dent of mine who is an art collector suggested that I approach Seruni Bodjawati to carry out the painting assignment of historical Indonesian women. Seruni is the daughter of well-known painter Wara Anindya and is a talented artist in her own right who has held exhibitions at home and abroad and won prizes. Esthi says that she found Seruni’s paintings to have stories and as sto­ries are also Esthi’s favoured method of expressing herself she felt an af­finity. Esthi disclosed that she and Seruni spent nearly 20 months in dialogue about feminism and Seruni acknowledges how much she learnt from Esthi. “I also received much input from Toeti Heraty Noerhadi Roesseno, who is amongst many other things a philosopher, historian, writer and feminist,” revealed Seruni.

Feminist writer N.H. Dini (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Most of the historic figures that she painted have already passed away and there are no photographs sketches or even paintings of many of them so historic research had to be conducted and at times she had to use her imagination. “As an artist it is not enough for me to master lines and colors. I also have to be able to tame the wild animal in the jungle of my thoughts. On the night I was fin­ishing my painting of N.H Dini I was very tired but just past midnight I felt an enormous urge to continue until I finished at about 3 am. Later I dis­cov­ered that that was night N.H Dini died. It was quite uncanny. I had so many such almost magical experi­ences while completing my portraits.”

The art exhibition which consists of twenty-six portraits of historical Indonesian women appearing in Es­thi’s book was launched by Indone­sian Islamic activist and politician Yenny Zanuba Wahid, who is also the daughter of former President Abdu­rrachman Wahid together with femi­nist and human rights activist Kama­la Chandrakirana.

Labour activist Marsinah was killed trying to better the lives of workers (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Oxford historian Peter Carey who is mostly known in Indonesia for his scholarly tome on Prince Diponegoro has also written a book with the title Perempuan-Perempan Perkasa Indo­nesia or Great Women of Indonesia and was one of the speakers at the book review. He explained that re­search carried out by the Eijkman Institute in Jakarta on the DNA of native Indonesians revealed that 74 % of their DNA is Polynesian/Aus­tronesian, 6% African, 5% Arabic, 6% Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese and 9% Indian. “The orig­inal matriarchal Polynesian culture was the underlying culture of Nusan­tara. The old Javanese order originat­ed from that matriarchal Polynesian base but this was greatly destroyed by colonialism and the narrow fun­damentalist views of some proponents of modern Islam. The stories of the women that Seruni Bodjawati painted and that Esthi Susanti Hudiono has written about, clearly show traces of that original matriarchal Polynesian influence,” declared Carey.

Pramodhawardani who promoted relgious tolerance and whose name is associated with the great temples of Borobodur and Prambanan. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Indeed, if we look at the period before the arrival of the VOC or the Dutch United East India Trading Company and also the early period of their arrival we find many women heroines not usually mentioned in the history books. In the earliest period of Matarm Kuno or Ancient Mataram we find figures such as Queen Pra­modhawardhani of the Sailendra dynasty who is associated with the creation of the Borobodhur temple. She was a Buddhist who married Rake Pikatan, a Hindu of the San­jaya dynasty. Their reign was a sym­bol of great tolerance as they created a form of Hindu Buddhism and their names are associated with many of the great temples of Central Java. Pramodhawardhani’s period sees a mixture of the old Polynesian matri­archal culture with the Hindu caste system. Ancient Mataram was later moved to East Java and there we find the stories of Prince Panji and his wife Sekartaji which again reflect a gender equality where Sekartaji is also free to wander, disguise herself and walk amongst the poor.

Another figure from the Majapahit era is Queen Gayatri Rajapatni. She was the favorite child of King Ker­tanegara and was educated directly by her father and the best teacher at that time, Terevindhu. She had an enormous knowledge of govern­ment and religion and she ensured the continued pursuit of her father’s dream of uniting Nusantara. Not only did the knowledge that she ob­tained from her father prove useful to her husband but after his death she found and trained Majapahit’s great prime minister Gajah Mada and she passed that dream to both her daughter who became a future queen of Majaphit as well as to Gajah Mada. She too was inspired by the tales of Prince Panji with their stories reflect­ing gender equality.

No Puputan for Dewa Agung Istri Kanya from Tabanan who defeated and killed Dutch General Andreas Michiels (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Another fighting queen was the little-knowns Ida I Dewa Agung Is­tri Kanya, also known as the Virgin Queen of Klunkung. During her reign in the first half of the 19th century she managed to kill the famous Ma­jor General Andreas Victor Michiels who was victorious in several other provinces of Indonesia, in a night time attack. The Balinese queen was also known for her abilities in writing ballads.

Rohana Kudus, a Minangkabau journalist and educator. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

These are the women fighters in our history but there were of course also educators such as Raden Ajeng Kartini, Dewi Sartika and Maria Walanda Maramis. Many of the first professional women came from Su­lawesi such as the first doctor, Dr Marie E. Thomas, the first lawyer, Prof Mr Annie Abas-Manopo and the first woman mayor, Dr Augustine Magdalena Waworuntoe. Amongst the women who used the pen rather than the sword should be mentioned Rohana Kudus, the step-sister of In­donesia’s first prime minister Sutan Sjharir, who was a pioneer of edu­cation for women in West Sumatra. She was also a journalist who found­ed and ran Utusan Melayu a news­paper for women as well as several other newspapers where she fought for women’s rights.

Mama Yosepha Alomang, a Papua environmentalist. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Also mentioned in the book are more modern her­oines such as Marisnah the labour leader who gave her life struggling for workers rights and such environmen­talists as Mama Josepha Alomang of the Amongme tribe in Papua who fought the mining company, Freeport and Mama Aleta Baun another envi­ronmentalist from West Timor who fought marble mining companies to protect the Motis Forest.

Toeti Heraty Noerhadi Roesseno speaking at the book launch of Perempuan Mengguggat Literasi Rupa Sejarah Perempuan Indonesia or Women Protest the Narrative of Indonesian Women’s Historical Role. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Toeti Heraty Noerhadi-Roesseno, the owner of Cemara – Galeri Muse­um who is a true Renaissance wom­an active and interested in myriad subjects says that the whole event including the book and the exhibition were Esthi’s idea. “She wanted to use the gallery and I was so impressed by her enthusiasm for finding out and gathering together all the information about these unknown heroines of his­tory that I was immediately swayed by her spirit and determination.”

Raihna Boki Raja who captured a Portuguese fort in Ternate.(Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Toeti Heraty’s favourite Indonesian historical woman figure is Rainha Boki Raja, a queen and regent of Ter­nate from the 16th century whom she has researched and written a book about. Toeti Heraty who went to Goa to search for the Queen’s grave is presently mulling over the possibility of producing a film based on Raihna Boki Raja’s life. “She was given such a prominent role in life but yet ended up having such a tragic life. She may also have been the first Indonesian to capture a Portuguese fort.”

Environmentalist Mama Aleta Baun from West Timor fought against a marble mining company for the rights of her community (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Meanwhile, Esthi is of the opin­ion that in a society where all too of­ten motherhood and being a wife is placed on a pedestal but being one’s self is regarded as akin to prostitu­tion, women need to be able to tran­scend themselves to become women who are competent and free; auton­omous in the sense that they are not merely mothers, daughters and wives. It is often difficult however, for women to transcend themselves because of the lop-sided patriarchal structures in which they find them­selves. In a patriarchal society the public and the domestic domain con­front each other and are separate. In the old Polynesian matriarchal soci­ety as reflected in the Tales of Panji the public and private domain are more in harmony with each other and one also finds more gender equality. There both men and women are ac­cepted as having both masculine and feminine qualities.

SK trimurti was the first Indonesian woman cabinet minister. She was Minister for Labour. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Toeti Heraty is concerned that while for millennial women now gen­der equality is much more real than it was for her own generation, they need to be aware of some of the threats fac­ing them such as domestic violence and polygamy which is rearing its head again with the advent of more fundamentalist Islamic views in parts of Indonesian society today. Artist Seruni stresses, “One of the things that worries feminists today is how to pass on the principles of feminism as well as a knowledge of history to the younger generation of millennials. Another is how we face and look at problems of exclusivism, gender is­sues and human rights abuse today. This art exhibition is part of trying to make women especially the younger generation aware of these problems and think about how we need to face those problems and what we need to do”. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)