Indonesian women coordinate gender activism online

Indonesia is starting to take notice of women's rights and gender equality.

Violence against women and gender activism became a central issue in Indonesia in the lead-up to the 2019 election. A growing backlash against the movement developed, influenced by the polarising rise of religious identity politics in the country. Campaigns such as ‘Indonesia Without Feminists’, launched by conservative women’s groups, framed the gender rights debate as blasphemous and influenced by Western ideals.

It was in this contentious climate that two large, co-ordinated women’s marches took place in 2019. One on 8 March to mark International Women’s Day, just prior to the election, and the second to mark the third annual Women’s March, rescheduled to take place after the 17 April election to avoid politicising the event.

Both events flooded the streets of Jakarta with activists and supporters. With the theme of #beranibersuara (#daretohaveavoice) – a deliberate response to the #Indonesiatanpafeminis (#UninstallFeminism) campaign – the April march drew an estimated 4,000 participants, doubling the turnout of 2018.

For Dr Monika Winarnita, an anthropologist teaching in Asian Studies at La Trobe University, the growing importance of these events and gender issues in Indonesia is a sign of how successful they are becoming in the digital media environment.

“Both major candidates, Widodo and Prabawo, made the women’s vote an important part of their presidential campaign, and a key focus of their different social media strategies,” says Dr Winarnita. “Indonesian women are making their voices heard. They have learnt how to effectively use social media platforms for their gender equality campaigns, to speak directly to where it matters, and to stand up for their different beliefs and rights.”

Dr Winarnita was drawn to online women’s activism in Indonesia while looking at the activities of redundant female journalists. These journalists were setting up their own media channels to tell their stories online, deliberately targeting gender and minority audiences, and focusing on issues relevant to them.

“Former journalists are finding themselves servicing what would traditionally be called a niche audience, and can easily tap into a much bigger online community,” says Dr Winarnita. “These news services and social media networks are thriving where traditional news providers are struggling to engage with an online audience.”

“Gender activists in Indonesia are making the most of this growing online community. It provides the opportunity for a diverse media landscape, one that can target specific demographics and tailor news for an audience.”

Dr Winarnita and her international research collaborator Adriana Rahajeng Mintarsih at Universitas Indonesia interviewed female Indonesian journalists and digital activists who were working in this emerging landscape. These women were using channels, such as the online Jakarta feminist discussion groups, to mobilise the population ahead of the two women’s marches.

“The marches engaged women from all sorts of backgrounds, across ethnic and religious divisions but also groups such as disability communities, the LGBTIQ community,” says Dr Winarnita. “They used the social media hashtag #metoo but also others which are more applicable to an Indonesian context such as #gerakbersama or #movetogether. By doing this during public events they were able to maximise the exposure on their issues.”

The diversity of the online social media networks allowed a broad range of groups to co-ordinate and participate in the women’s marches in Jakarta. The events included participants from trade unions seeking better working conditions for women free of harassment, and other organisations with a common focus against sexual harassment and violence, support of sexual and gender minority groups, diverse religious groups, and many individuals who were marching for the first time.

“The ability to align the interests of multiple groups has been crucial to countering the backlash in Indonesia against the feminist movement,” says Dr Winarnita. “It also drew attention to issues such as the stalled deliberations on the bill on the elimination of sexual violence, prevention of child-marriage and reduction in discrimination of sexual and gender minorities.”

A strong online network also allowed the Indonesian diaspora to be included in these online activist discussions, drawing global attention to what would previously have been just a local issue.

“There are more than eight million Indonesians living overseas, and if they retain their citizenship they’re eligible to vote, which a majority in Australia do,” says Dr Winarnita. “The voice of this population matters. In the 2019 election 74 percent of the diaspora voted for Joko Widodo, and during the election there were very strong campaigns online amongst these communities for both the major parties.”

Another beneficiary of this trend was a new party, the Indonesia Solidarity Party (PSI), led by Grace Natalie, a ‘double minority’ Chinese-Indonesian Christian woman based in Jakarta. The PSI campaigned for gender equality, rights of marginalised groups, and also strongly criticised religion-inspired regional regulations. In some areas of the diaspora they received an overwhelming majority vote, outpacing all the major parties.

While gender activism in Indonesia has benefited from strong social media networks, Dr Winarnita acknowledges that these communities can become stuck in their own ‘algorithmic bubble’ - with an audience feeding on posts and news stories that are only of interest to them, reinforcing their ideas, and sometimes missing larger issues.

This forms the basis of Dr Winarnita’s current study on digital citizenship and the Indonesian diaspora in Australia with Dr Nasya Bahfren, a senior lecturer in Politics, Media and Philosophy at La Trobe University. They have found that women from both majority Sunni Muslim and minority groups felt that the various Indonesian online social networks they belong to, particularly on WhatsApp, had at times become toxic environments during the election, where they were harrassed or silenced when expressing alternative views.

“When a community confines themselves to the story themes and news sources that are shared within their own social media network, they’re very rarely going to have their mind changed by news stories that aren’t endorsed there,” says Dr Winarnita. “With the rise of fake news this is a problem that members of all online communities are confronting.”

Photo credit: Gavin Height, La Trobe Honours student, Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy

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