Are Feminism and LGBT part of Indonesia’s Identities?

News report tensions in Indonesian political theatre as decision-makers are proceed to revise the Indonesian Criminal Code. Human rights activists as well as other opponents are concerned how the Code may curtail the rights of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans) group. Some of the proposed revisions become controversial subject as they are viewed as an attempt to criminalize consensual sex outside marriage as well as same-sex relation. This is a legitimate concern as rising fundamentalism has put pressures on the government to marginalize the LGBT group even more.

Whereas homosexuality is not legalized, except in Aceh, it remains widely stigmatized, placing the LGBT people as a marginal group. Apart from the LGBT group, feminism and feminist movement are also often prejudiced as a liberal and a product of Western values. However, this is not true.

While feminist movement has always been fighting for women’s equality, the movement has been inclusive towards other marginalized groups, including the LGBT group. Partly driven by the intersectional approach of feminist movement, the inclusive character of feminist movement is in line with ongoing interrogation of feminist scholarship to destabilize the concept of gender. Feminist scholarship in different subfields (e.g. feminist economics, feminist geographies) has become interested in woman identity formation and how it serves those who have the power under a patriarchal society. This is largely attributed to and is parallel with the body of feminist scholarship that proposes gender as a performativity. It becomes clear why feminists recently reject the gender binary. The gender binary, as feminists argue, underpins the cis-heteronormativity (i.e. setting cisgender and heterosexual relationships as a norm) imposed under patriarchy, which in turn marginalizes a person whose identity does not fit in.

While we have seen the growing feminist scholarship elsewhere, the productive knowledge production within feminist scholarship still largely takes place in the West. However, it is a mistake to claim that feminism and feminist movement are products of Western values. In the same vein, it is also misleading to say that LGBT and non-binary people become more accepted thanks to the productive knowledge as well as liberal perspective in the West.

In order to explain this, I have to point out the recent attempt to decolonize curriculum. The call for decolonizing curriculum was originally started in Cape Town, South Africa, following the students’ protests on university fees and students’ demands to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes Jones. Both moves were parallel as they demonstrate institutional racism as well as white privilege and white supremacy. The demand for decolonizing curriculum was then picked up by students in Cambridge, UK, before it spilled over elsewhere in international level.

What does it mean to decolonize a curriculum? It basically means rethinking the cannon. Through the course of our education, say, from primary school to university, we have been taught mainstream theories, paradigms and philosophies. We might have taken the knowledge we acquired for granted. It may never occur to us to whose purpose the knowledge actually serves, or how people have different ways of knowing. This indeed touches ontological and epistemological questions on knowledge and knowledge production. Some might classify, for instance, Western thinking and Eastern philosophies. Nonetheless, we have to acknowledge that Western thinking remains the mainstream knowledge. This also applies on how knowledge is produced. In the decolonizing curriculum, subsequently known for decolonizing knowledge, critics point out how Western theories and Western’s way of knowing become the mainstream ontology and epistemology are associated to Western imperialism. This means that, although colonialism was our past, colonial legacies remain intact in what we consider as knowledge and our ways of knowing. This applies into every subject of disciplines, including feminist scholarship.

In the attempt to decolonize feminist scholarship, feminists argue how colonization is a gendered act. This means that gender is both social and colonial construct. Colonization and Western imperialism brought along the imposition of cis heteronormativity as a way to sustain patriarchy. This argument is backed by several feminist studies that reveal how in many pre-colonial societies gender variance differs to the gender binary imposed under Western colonization. In Yoruba society, it is even argued that gender had not existed. As a gendered act, feminists argue that Western imperialism and colonization intensify patriarchal system in the colonized worlds.

In this context, Indonesia serves as a case in point. During the colonial period, the Dutch brought along the concepts of modernity and motherhood. Many of Dutch policies towards the East Indies were shaped by values, norms and discourses around modernity and motherhood as a way to normalize cis heteronormative patriarchy. While Islam had by then already influenced the gender system in certain areas in Indonesia (e.g. in many parts in Java), and Catholics brought along during Portuguese colonization in East Flores and its offshore islands, it was Dutch colonization that brought a full-fledged cis heteronormative patriarchy. This was even substantiated with the Protestantism, which accompanied Dutch colonization (although in the case of the Batak society, Protestantism had already predated Dutch colonization). As a result, the early modern Indonesia embodies gender binary system shaped by the intertwining factors of colonization and religious dogmas. Later on, the colonial legacy of modernity and motherhood strongly influenced many of policies during the Suharto administration (see discussion on State Ibuism by Julia Suryakusuma).

Not surprisingly, many traditional Indonesian ethnic tribes, including the indigenous people, practice gender system, which to certain extent deviates from the cis heteronormative patriarchy, alongside their modern and religious-influenced identities. We might be familiar with the matrilineal system in Minangkabau society. Matrilineal clans can also be found in Alor, Kerinci, Wemale, Sakai, Ocu, and Lawangan societies. The Acehnese also practices matrifocality. In Bugis society, the practiced gender system even does not comply with gender binary. The society recognizes five genders, namely: makkunrai (cisgender men), oroané (cisgender women), bissu (androgynous shamans), calabai (transgender men), and calalai (transgender women). Some ethnic tribes traditionally recognize the role of shamanism, which often involves androgynous feature. Despite being a patrilineal society, the Toba-Batak people still consider women as an important foundation in assigning role of the ethnic members in their kinship system, the so-called Dalihan Natolu. The list could go on.

As a result of Dutch colonization, religious dogmas, and the authoritarian regime of Suharto administration, the originally deviant gender system practiced by ethnic tribes in Indonesia has already been compromised in order to comply with gender norms imposed by the state and religious authorities. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to consider women’s equal position as well as the existence of transgender or non-confirming gender are products of the Western values.


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Hariati Sinaga

Hariati Sinaga

Decolonial feminist, labour activist, kopsus lover