Pushing for Women’s Progress
Yuniyanti Chuzaifah, an influential women’s rights activist in Indonesia, traces part of her worldview back to a story about a sofa.
Yuniyanti, or Yuni, remembers that as a young girl, she moved her family’s best sofa to a room inside the house and put another, less comfortable sofa outside.
“My father asked me why I did that, and I said it was so the [domestic] helpers wouldn’t sit on the best couch, which should be for his guests only,” she told the Jakarta Globe.
He wasn’t pleased.
“To my surprise, he was really upset with my answer,” she said. “He said, ‘It’s people like those helpers who deserve the best place from us. We also have to give them the best food we can share.’ ”
And that got her thinking.
“The ‘sofa talk’ was a simple thing, but it actually had a deep meaning,” she said.
Today, Yuni is chairwoman of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan). She says much of her character today is a reflection of lessons she learned from her parents.
Her father, an academic, was highly respected in their Central Java hometown, a small village in Wonogiri. With a degree in education, he was active in politics and religious affairs.
Yuni’s mother, meanwhile, was an independent woman with a batik business passed down for generations.
“They respected each other and showed us that both of them had important roles,” the 41-year-old said. “I grew up in a really pleasant environment and my intellectual character was very much shaped by my father.”
When she was 11 years old, Yuni decided to enroll in a pesantren, or Islamic boarding school, feeling that she needed to leave her small village to get the best education.
She went to a school near Mount Merapi in Central Java, which she initially chose for its scenic environs. She had no idea how much the school’s moderate teachings would shape her character.
“They used Arabic and English for daily conversations, and on Saturdays and Sundays, priests and reverends would come to study there,” Yuni said.
“It was also there where I met a lot of national and international figures, such as [the late prominent Indonesian Muslim thinker] Nurcholish Madjid and [the late former President] Abdurrahman Wahid.”
During her seven years at the boarding school, she says she learned about pluralism, especially from the cleric who served as the school’s principal.
“One of the things I admired about him was that he really respected other people,” she said. “He befriended and was nice to people who had different religious views.”
The boarding school practiced a more moderate version of Islam than others.
“Unlike in most pesantren, he never made the jilbab [Islamic headscarf] an issue,” she said. “As students, we were free to choose whether we wanted to wear it or not, as long as we put it on during school hours because it was part of the uniform. Outside of those hours, it was your choice.”
Now, as the leader of Komnas Perempuan for more than two years, she promotes women’s rights in Indonesia, a job that’s far from simple.
“We deal with layers and layers of problems,” she said. “There are cultural, religious, economic, social and political aspects to these problems.
“Especially here in Indonesia, where the cultural and religious aspects are very strong, we have to address the issues carefully and properly.”
The commission is collaborating with the Education and Culture Ministry to promote women’s rights through school curricula. They are also focusing on tackling sexual violence.
“As I said before, a lot of different aspects are involved here,” Yuni said. “Take the cultural aspect as an example. There’s a community that views rape as an act of adultery, and so the woman, who we see as a victim, is forced to marry the rapist. Can you imagine that?
“Or in another community, a rape case is considered settled when the rapist pays the victim three pigs.”
The commission invited a group of experts in the field of cultural rights to discuss the issue.
“They said that if societal norms, regardless of whether they’re based in culture, are exploitative and violate human rights, then they need to be reformed,” she said. “Instead of protecting the rights of women, a lot of regulations criminalize and victimize them.”
Still, she said, the country is making progress.
“Back in the 1990s, women had little freedom to speak their minds,” she said. “Women tended to keep quiet because family harmony was so important; whatever happened inside [the house] was supposed to stay inside. “But today it’s different. There’s this shifting paradigm.”
Komnas Perempuan has received reports of hundreds of thousands of domestic violence cases, though Yuni said the actual number of incidences is likely much higher.
“There are just a lot of women who live in remote areas and they have problems accessing the legal institutions where they can file a report,” she said. “Many of them ultimately choose not to report their case because they don’t have the money. Imagine, they might have to pay Rp 250,000 [$27] just to cross over to the main island to report their case. This is also something we’re working on.”
Despite all the work that remains, Yuni is optimistic that she will reach her goals eventually.
“It is not an easy job,” the mother of two said. “But I always remember what my mother said to us, her children: If we believe a difficult task will be easy, then it will become easy, and vice versa. Enjoying every bit of something that needs to be done is how I choose to do it.”