The Women of Mosintuwu: The Resistance Leader

Friday, 28 April 2017 - 11:12:10 WIB
By : Devi Asmarani | Category: Women Men We Love - 2156 hits
Making Impact


It’s a little over 7 a.m. in Tentena, a small town in Central Sulawesi; the mountainous air is crisp and the sun casts a soft glow over Lake Poso. But in the frenzied world of Lian Gogali, it feels like mid-day already. This morning she has helped prepare her nine-year-old daughter Sophia for school, cooked breakfast, cleaned up her living room, prepared the whole area for another working day, and now, she is hosting a morning show on Radio Mosintuwu, the community radio station located in the lakeside compound.

Every once in a while, during the nine-minute window when music and announcements are on auto play, she pops back into the house to cook breakfast for me, a guest in her bamboo house that she has turned into an Airbnb.

“It’s not usually this hectic,” she says, excusing herself, “but our radio announcer is late today, so I have to cover for her, and Pian, my fiancée, is out of town. When he’s here, he helps Sofia get ready and with the household chores.”

In less than an hour or so, dozens of women from villages across Poso will begin to file into Dodoha Mosintuwu, the impressive fish-shaped bamboo structure next door that is home to her organization Mosintuwu Institute, for another day of learning.

Lian seems to be managing well, looking neither stressed nor tired, though she walks with a limp from a motorbike accident a few years back.

“If my leg didn’t hurt from walking, I would’ve been faster and would probably be running around even more,” she says.

This is the first thing I learn about her: she has a network of people who support her, but when they’re unavailable, she does everything herself just as well as if they were there. This self-sufficiency also characterizes Mosintuwu Institute, the foundation she started in 2010 to empower women in villages in post-conflict District of Poso

The week I arrive, about 30 women, some of them are graduates of Mosintuwu’s phenomenal Sekolah Perempuan (Women School) and some new participants, are taking part in various trainings. Yesterday the women learned about sexual and domestic violence and how to care for victims. Today and tomorrow they are participating in the media and writing workshop, for which I have been roped in by Lian to help out.

This is another thing I learn from her: She is quick at seeing how people can contribute, and she is good at making people do things. Before I know it, I find myself teaching yoga to the women before and after their workshop, giving her daughter swimming lessons at Lake Poso, being featured as a guest at her radio talk show, and committed myself to become a regular contributor to Mosintuwu Radio’s English show.

All, of course, is purely voluntary on my part, and I was more than happy to do it, mostly because I was inspired by the wonderful things Mosintuwu has achieved. Inspiration brings out the activist in you. Her ability to inspire and make people do things is the reason the organization has made such a strong impact in communities and in many women’s lives across Poso. It is also why Lian deserves the numerous awards she has received, among them the Indonesian Woman of Change in 2015 from the US Embassy in Indonesia and the Coexist Prize from the international inter-faith organization, Coexist Foundation.

“What will happen to us?” 

For a person who was academically trained to be a Protestant minister, Lian is decidedly, “un-Christian,” at least in the ritualistic sense. She doesn’t attend church on Sundays, and she is openly critical of the hypocrisy surrounding the world of the faithful, including the clergy in the predominantly Christian Tentena and many of the villages in Poso.

“Sophia is more Christian than I am,” she says smiling, after her daughter decided she would start dinner with a prayer (something that I suspect does not happen regularly, and was done by Sophia more as a show to me, a new guest in her home).

But religion actually plays a big role in Lian’s life, coming from a family of religious clerics. Her father was a Protestant minister, her brother is a Pentecostal minister, and her sister is a church elder. She left Taliwan, her home town in Morowali, in the 90s to attend a Catholic middle school and high school in the town of Poso, the district capital.

Unlike much of Indonesia, Poso’s population is almost split in half between the Christians and Muslims. But in the late 90s, years before a sectarian conflict tore the place apart, relations between the Muslims and Christians were largely harmonious. I, myself, can testify to this, having lived in Poso with my family in the early 80s.

Later, while studying at Duta Wacana Christian University in Yogyakarta, she learned that the discipline of theology actually encourages people to apply critical analysis to religious teaching, though many would return to their dogma-filled bubbles once they finish training and enter the clergy. She did some experimenting: learning the Islamic prayers and even wearing a jilbab (headscarf) for a month, a controversial move that earned her the rector’s censure.

“I wanted to understand the Muslims. Asides from being in theatre and the cineclub, I also communicated with students from the Islamic University then,” she says. It was the start of her “interfaith” journey.
 

Though the language conveyed might be simple, the ideas put forward were very progressive, aimed at deconstructing everything the women knew and took for granted, from religion, gender, cultural limitation to political participation. 
 


When the conflict between Christians and Muslims broke out in Poso in 1998, she was still in university, but she got to witness its destructive evidence when traveling through Poso en route to Morowali to attend her father’s funeral. After college, she did a stint to serve at a church in South Jakarta, where she began to see the discrepancy between the teaching of the religion and the reality on the ground. Although it was a rich church, some of its congregants were dirt poor, she observed. Upon returning to Yogyakarta, she joined the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue (Interfidei) as a researcher and it was then that she decided to pursue a graduate degree cultural studies. She borrowed the office money and applied for Religious and Cultural Study at Sanata Darma, a Jesuit university in Yogyakarta.

One of the courses that influenced her the most was “Violence and the Politics of Memory”, an analysis of the memory of violence of people in conflicts, and how it is politicized through culture and education.

“It made me think of Poso, and so I decided to focus my thesis on it,” she says.

In 2002, she began her research, staying at Christian as well as Muslim shelters for people displaced by the conflict in several villages and towns, including Palu, the provincial capital that was unaffected by the conflict but hosted many displaced Muslims from Poso.

In the course of her research, she discovered that many women remembered how Muslims and Christians helped each other during the conflict: “There were stories of Muslims helping Christian women put on headscarves so they wouldn’t be killed, and on how Christians fed the Muslims. I thought these were very interesting narratives that the outside world should be informed about.”

On the last day of her research, while waiting to be picked up by her brother at a refugee camp in Silanca, a village by the Poso River, a woman asked her: “So what is the plan after the research?”

Lian recalls her answer: “With the naivety of a student, I told her I would publish a book that would inform the world what it was really like on the ground. The woman grew quiet as she was frying her food. She looked at me and said: ‘And when the book is out, what will happen to us?’”

This question hit her hard. She knew that these women had been interviewed a lot by non-governmental organizations (NGO), researchers and the media and, yet, they seemed to be the last people to benefit from any of it. This was the question that she took back to Yogyakarta and that kept her awake for nights, until she fell ill. The doctor’s diagnosis: secondary trauma.

“I wish I could see him again”

After her thesis, Lian went on to work for SAINS Bogor, an institute that focuses on agrarian justice, to conduct research for their social and economic reintegration program in Poso. One day she was sexually assaulted by a friend, a human rights activist and a married man, which got her pregnant. When she refused to abort the baby, she was terrorized by her attacker and his family.

The assault has taught her of women’s vulnerability to sexual assault, even those who are presumably more privileged and empowered like her. It also opened her eyes to the rampant victim blaming in sexual violence cases.  If this could happen to her, what would happen to those who have no privilege of education, upbringing and economy?

In Poso, sexual violence is often settled by the village’s Customary Council or Dewan Adat, and in most cases the perpetrators are exonerated or get off with a light penalty. Some studies also show that many women and children end up having to marry their rapists.

Except for a few friends, Lian decided to keep her pregnancy a secret and to move back to Yogyakarta. At her boarding house, she had to make up an excuse for her unfathered pregnancy to her landlady, saying she wasn’t allowed to marry her boyfriend because he was of a different religion. When the baby was born, however, it wasn’t long before she caught the attention of other boarders, who complained about the late-night cries. Finally, the local neighborhood chief told her to leave the premise because of her status as unmarried mother.

It was also around the time that her book came out, and, by chance, she received an invitation to speak at the launch of her own book in Palu, Central Sulawesi’s capital city. Broke and desperate, she decided this was a good chance for her to go home for good, so she packed all her belongings and carried one-month-old Sophia. At the check-in counter of Yogyakarta’s airport, however, she found out that she would have to buy a ticket at half price for her baby daughter.

“I had only ten thousand rupiah to my name, and I could hear my name was already being called on the announcement system as the plane was ready to depart,” she says, recalling the day. After some intense persuasion, the ticket guy at Lion Air agreed to loan her Rp 400,000 (US$30) to buy the ticket, a debt she immediately repaid, but one whose immensity is not lost on her to this day.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to that man again, to see how he’s doing and to let him know how I’m doing,” she says wistfully, “but I’ve lost his number over the years.”

Eventually, this trip brought her back to Poso, where she met with her family and told them about Sofia. After refusing her family’s suggestion that she gave Sophia up to be adopted by her sister, she moved in with her brother in Tentena. It would be two more years before her elder sister accepted her decision, which would be seen as shameful in her hometown in Taliwan, and a few more years before she felt completely accepted.

“After that, the ice was broken”

Lian was working for the ASEAN Muslim Action Network (AMAN) to design the curriculum and run its Women School in Poso for a year when she decided to quit the job.

“I felt that the concept and the content were very Jakarta-oriented; there was no Poso context,” she says. This and the top-down approach of the program – having the village chief select the participants and paying the women to attend the school – contribute to the lack of ownership of Sekolah Perempuan, which affects its sustainability, she says. Still, she is a big believer that Sekolah Perempuan is the best way to empower women

“The women need knowledge, information, access and skills. They don’t just need training on how to survive, as some Sekolah Perempuan tend to focus on; the women also need to thrive. This way every woman takes ownership of the process, and there will be constant dialogues to further develop it,” she said.

Together with Sofyan, who has since become her fiancé, and a friend named David, she set up Mosintuwu Institute. Their mission is an economic, socio-cultural and political emancipation of the people of Poso by empowering women and children, who are among the most marginalized members of society. In 2010, the first batch of Sekolah Perempuan started in villages across the district.

Each Sekolah Perempuan, which took a year to complete, grouped women from several different villages to facilitate encounters across social, religious and ethnic backgrounds. The curriculum comprised modules on Religion, Tolerance and Peace; Gender; Women and culture; Sexual Heath and Reproductive Rights; Women and Politics; Reason and Public Speaking; Rights to Public Services; Social, Economic and Political Rights; and Solidarity Economy Management. The classes involved discussion, role playing, home works, field visits, film making and photograph taking, among other.
 

Public speaking has turned out to be a greatly empowering skill for the women and a boost to their self-confidence.


Though the language conveyed might be simple, the ideas put forward were very progressive, aimed at deconstructing everything the women knew and took for granted, from religion, gender, cultural limitation to political participation.

In post-conflict Poso when religious sentiment still lingered, the approach was also bold. In the religion module, which was the very first in the curriculum, for example, Muslim women visited a church where they got to ask a minister everything they wanted to know about Christianity, while Christian women visited a mosque to have similar discussions with the imam.

Says Martince Baleona, a graduate of the first year of Sekolah Perempuan: “In my class there were women from three different villages, two Muslim and one Christian villages. On the very first day, we were wary of our religious differences. It was only after our second session, when we visited the opposite houses of worship that the ice was broken and our distrust of each other melted away. We began to care for our sisters of other religion.”

Today 500 women from 70 villages across Poso have graduated from the three batches of Sekolah Perempuan. Most of them are low-income housewives who tend family farmlands and who had no access to education higher than high school. In fact, most only have primary and middle-school level of education. A majority were also affected by the sectarian conflicts in the previous years.

The graduates were then recruited to become volunteers in their respective villages, where they implemented their newly gained skills and knowledge. They would contribute to one or more of these programs: women and children safe house, village supervision, literacy project, village economy and the media. The latter includes the community radio and a weekly section on the local newspaper. The graduates then get further educated through various training held at Dodoha Mosintuwu.

Since 2015 Mosintuwu has changed its Sekolah Perempuan program to Rumah Belajar Desa (village learning house), hosting various workshops and training not just for women but also religious leaders and village officials. It is a shift in focus from peace building to post-conflict empowerment.

“It’s time Sekolah Perempuan evolves because the context and the needs have shifted post-conflict. I also want the women to build their own Sekolah Perempuan in their respective villages.” Lian says.

She adds: “Sekolah Perempuan is not the goal. It’s just a tool of struggle to make the women more critical. The ultimate goal is an empowered Poso.”

Mosintuwu encourages women to become the driver of village economy through initiatives such as creating and operating markets. Some of the villages have no market of their own, and villagers have to travel many kilometers away to sell their produce or buy their daily needs. Mosintuwu also helps the women develop and market their own products, from virgin coconut oils, forest honey, coffee, to bags and fashion accessories.


“Can you please control these women!”

One of the legacies of the 32-year Soeharto Regime is the community women groups Family Welfare Movement or PKK in its Indonesian acronym. It is a nationwide network of locally active semi-governmental organizations, whose activities aim to improve the standard of living of families and households in rural areas. It is also an effective machinery of state development, used for everything from providing Family Planning and health services, to disseminating ideas of women’s role in their families, communities and in the national development. Like many other New Order social engineering programs, PKK feels, ironically, communistic.

Lian understood the pervasiveness of PKK and the hegemony of its culture when she first began Sekolah Perempuan. But instead of negating it, the school co-opted the PKK language to deconstruct the rigid gender role – the “state motherism” ideology – that is the remnant of the New Order regime.

In the Women and Politics class, the women started by singing the PKK anthem, whose lyrics pretty much says that women must build prosperous and healthy families; govern tidy and beautiful households; and raise patriotic, skillful and healthy children.

After singing it, however, the women were led to break down the song line per line critically. In the end the women came up with their own proletarian-sounding anthem:

Come, village women
Let’s move and speak up
Together we progress
For peace and justice

“These women have changed so much,” says Lian. “In the beginning they had no confidence, afraid that if they spoke out they would be judged or admonished. Now they’re so vocal.”

The Mosintuwu women can now confidently sit in village’s town hall meetings, face-to-face with their village head, treasurer and secretary and even the local councilors to argue about the Village Law. Often they have more knowledge about the law than the officials, allowing them to take part in drafting the villages’ medium-term development plan.
 

“The challenge of religion is for us to deconstruct the system and mechanism of patriarchy and feudalism with new interpretation."


But they weren’t always so vocal. In the beginning, despite their newly gained knowledge, the women found that they were still unable to express their thoughts, especially when dealing with people who are seen as superior economically or status-wise in their communities.

Says Lian: “The Reason and Public Speaking part of the curriculum was added in the middle of the first year of Sekolah Perempuan. I was told by some of the women that they had attended a talk on gender given by women officials in the Synod, but what was being said was different from what they learned about gender at Sekolah Perempuan. However, they couldn’t argue with the officials, who were condescending to them because they were less educated than the synod women.”

Public speaking has turned out to be a greatly empowering skill for the women and a boost to their self-confidence. In 2015 in the village of Didiri, 15 of Sekolah Perempuan’s graduates decided to back a candidate in the village chief election. The women went on a guerilla campaign, knocking on doors to canvass for their candidate, so much so that the incumbent went to see Lian and asked her to rein them in. In his words, the women were “too militant.” The incumbent lost in the election, and the new village chief has since appointed some women to head important bodies in the village.

“My own experience has shown me that women have the power and ability to do a lot, but often they are limited by their lack of self-confidence and their fear. So I push them. I also equip them with the technical skills – like computer, writing, public speaking – because often these technical skills are the obstacles that hold them back.

Instilling a sense of professionalism to women who have no experience in a professional setting can be a challenge, she says. But an even tougher challenge is that working with the women means having to deal with their families, especially their husbands, who have control over them financially and physically.

“If their husbands say they can’t go to a meeting, there’s nothing they could do. In the beginning, I got so many calls and text messages from angry husbands. It has gotten better now because we have a stronger bargaining position with the government and the community leaders. It also helps that it’s all women here in Mosintuwu, so the husbands have no reason to be jealous. Still, it’s constant negotiations,” she says.

“I just teach them to resist”

Despite Mosintuwu’s success, Lian remains a controversial figure of sort, particularly in the conservative Christian community of Tentena. She doesn’t belong to any church and her fiancé is a Muslim. She also openly raises a daughter without a father.

“At some point, they started talking about intervening to protect me from converting to Islam,“ she says, chuckling. But Lian is still occasionally invited to give sermons, and from the pulpit, she would infuse her sermon with ideas like gender equality and economic justice.

As a survivor of physical, sexual and psychological abuses, she has experienced the way culture and religion can side with the perpetrators and help maintain the culture of abuse. In domestic or sexual violence cases, religious leaders often put the burden on the women, or merely offer prayers to mollify the victims. Also church’s refusal to accept divorce pressures women to stay in abusive marriages.

“Problems like poverty and violence are swept under the rug, and everyone pretends that everything is fine. But the dust is still there, and once a while it makes us sneeze,” she says.

Mosintuwu has begun to engage leaders of all religions (including Muslims, Christians and Hinduism) in Poso to encourage them to come up with a more just and inclusive interpretation of religious teaching.

“The challenge of religion is for us to deconstruct the system and mechanism of patriarchy and feudalism with new interpretation. This challenges me to always go back to the study of theology.”

What she started merely seven years ago has evolved into a true grass roots movement whose members have become effective agents of change in their communities. From providing protection to domestic and sexual violence survivors, running libraries for children in villages, making women the engine to village economies, to involving women in village politics and development – the success has provided every reason for her to wake up and be inspired to work hard every morning.

She realizes it all boils down to one thing: Resistance.

“What I do, really, is teaching women to resist, because there is no other way but to resist. The system is too corrupt, the culture too erosive – too ill,” she says.

“But in resisting, we have to be smart. I learned from other movements, like those in Latin America, that the key is to do this together.”

Read Devi’s take on what Indonesian women can learn from the US election and follow @dasmaran on Twitter.

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Devi Asmarani, Chief Editor
Devi is a functional introvert who enjoys mild socializing and dancing to hip hop music every once in a while. She cries when wowed by a movie, a song, a book, an article, a poem, a speech, a TV commercial – basically any work of human's mind that has been exquisitely created.
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