Women’s Suppression and Resistance through Literature

A mother takes her daughter, a six grader to an elementary school one early morning. Instead of seeing her daughter again at home after school, the child went missing and was found dead, naked and with severe injuries around her genital several days later. The teachers in that school state that this girl was sexually harassed and murdered. The perpetrator is none other than one of the construction workers that they hired to construct a new building in that school. Following the incident, learning activities were suspended. There was also no police report and no news reported of this in the media. Some do not call this murder a tragedy but as kesialan perempuan – a bad luck of being a woman. This is what they say:

“ Dina…pernah berkata bahwa selain menstruasi dan melahirkan, setiap perempuan dalam hidupnya pasti akan mengalami perbuatan tidak menyenangkan dari laki-laki. Ia menyebutnya sebagai “kesialan perempuan”: mulai dari disentuh dengan sengaja di payudara, paha, atau bokong, dicium paksa di pipi atau bibir, dipeluk tiba-tiba, dipaksa memegang atau melihat penis, hingga yang paling buruk seperti pemerkosaan.” 

[Dina…once said that apart of having her menstrual cycle every month and bearing children, ever woman in her life was at least once experienced an unpleasant harassment from a man. She refers it as a bad luck in being a woman: started from being touched in the breasts, tights, bottom, being kissed forcefully in the cheek or mouth, forcefully being hugged, to hold, or to see a penis, the worst case is being sexually molested…]

In other part of the city, a barber man’s daughter is struggling because she does not wear any head scarfs. A girl also suffers due to not wearing any head scarfs as she belonged to a different ethnic minority. In addition, these so-called morality officers start targeting women who they feel walk around in the public with improper outfits or with no head scarfs. These ladies are subjected to scalding and some are left scarred and suffer hair loss. Everyone in this place is influenced by and tries to emulate the morality police in order to purify certain beliefs. The customers who keep coming to barbershop start telling the girl’s father to reduce the use of products which contain alcohol in it. Some come with a warning, 

“Dia anakmu…dia sudah menikah? Kau tahu kan? Dosa perempuan yang belum menikah itu ditanggung ayahnya dan semua itu berawal dari sehelai rambut yang dilihat oleh lekaki lain yang bukan mahram-nya.”

[Is she your daughter…is she married? You know, don’t you? The sin of unmarried woman is borne by her father. And it is all started with a strand of hair seen by another man who is not her mahram – family member.]

Those stories are some of the stories told in a novel Bagaimana Cara Mengatakan “Tidak”?literally translated as How to Say No? in English. The novel is written by Raisa Kamila, an Acehnese born author and sets a place somewhere in Aceh. This novel may sound like a motivational book suggesting people to be able to reject one’s request. Hence the novel consists of a compilation of eleven short stories which portray the cultural dynamics and political turmoil in Aceh, one of so-considered religious-based region in Indonesia. In most of the stories, Kamila puts her spotlights in two things. The first one is the stigmatisation and intolerance that often occurs in Aceh during the time of turmoil. Several stories like Cerita Dari Sebelah Masjid Raya talking about the barber man’s daughter and Cerita di Belakang Wihara about the girl who comes from ethnic minority as aforementioned are the example. 

The second thing is the conquest of women based on what most people consider as religious values and local customs. The first example is on the story Bagaimana Cara Mengatakan Tidak. In that story, Kamila portrays how women, no matter how good they cover themselves in outfit remain vulnerable to be harassed sexually. Another story entitled Cerita dari Cot Panglima tells the story of a young man from Melayu, a census officer who happens to travel in a microbus with a reckless driver and a pregnant lady. The lady wants to return to her parents’ home after having experienced physical and psychological abuse by her husband. On the way, the car develops some problems and is immobilised, the three individuals are left deserted. People who pass by do take the risk and help them. Yet after waiting for a while, a group of people come and are willing to help as the census officer is orang Melayu and is able to recite Koran. The saddest part is how those characters – mostly men neglect this pregnant lady. When she is about to give birth, instead of putting her as their first priority, the men in the story question the officer and send the pregnant lady to the parents’ home by a motorbike. Women in most of the stories are somehow considered only as a second-class citizen.

Contextualizing the stories portrayed in Kamila’s novel in the actual situation, the discussion about women and their role in Indonesia society remain a contested topic that has become one of the main academic interests. Indonesian society abides to certain standardization when it comes to discussion about gender. This situation is lamentable but is considered understandable. The reason is simply because the formation of Indonesian women and the gender role is always intersected with the cultural values such as local customs, the state laws, and the religious values. Therefore, the violence towards women and children remain an ongoing issue and unsolved in the human right matters, because women and children are still likely seen as second-class citizens. 

As the narration focuses on the Special Region of Aceh, it is also important to highlight the statistical data in the discussion. Bintang Puspayoga, the Indonesian Minister of Women Empowerment and Child Protection (KPPA) affirmed that there were 162 cases of domestic violence and sexual harassment in Aceh in the beginning of 2020. She explained that there is a possibility that the number is underreported because most women do not wish to report the violence that they have experienced to the police. Puspayoga then mentioned several efforts by the Indonesian and local government to reduce the number yet they do not have any significance results. Supporting the argument, the data explains how from January to June 2020, there were 463 cases including 143 cases about the domestic violence towards women, 109 psychological abuse, 77 physical abuse and 13 sexual violations in Aceh.

There is an assumption that the number of cases in 2020 is lower than 2018 and 2019. In 2018, there were 1376 cases of violence towards children and women. In 2019, the number was lower as of 1044 cases in total including 503 cases of violence toward children and 541 cases of violence towards women. Though the rate of violence towards women and children decreases, it is clear that the practices of violence still exist in the society. Many cases remain unsolved and the perpetrators are often sentenced with short-term imprisonments. M. Yunus, the head of Komisi I DPR Aceh once said that most of the sexual predators and the perpetrators are sentenced according to the regional laws Qanun Aceh no 6, 2014. This certainly remains lamentable fact because even with the establishment of the Sharia laws and the Acehnese Regional Laws number 231 along with some other Indonesian Law offering the protection to women, the number of violence is still growing.  

Seeing the fact that occurs in the real life, one can say that Raisa Kamila’s Bagaimana Cara Mengatakan “Tidak”? comes as a proof that a literary work can be used as a tool to resist social injustice and intolerance. The novel, for example provides the readers with the insight on valuing humanity. It brings different perspectives in seeing the diversity among the Indonesians particularly in Aceh and giving the voice to those women who are unable to speak of the oppressions that they have experienced. Although it is a light read, it remains an entertaining story which takes on the real-life experience of oppressed women, ethnic minorities, and adds it to our Indonesian literature.