Julia Suryakusuma on Mother, Motherhood, and Ibuism

Author and feminist activist Julia Suryakusuma shares the experiences that shaped her to become a feminist, her mother, as well as the tough choices she had to face as a mother.

  • September 15, 2020
  • 19 min read
Julia Suryakusuma on Mother, Motherhood, and Ibuism

Having the opportunity to interview Julia Suryakusuma was a very nerve-wracking moment for me. How could it not be? As the author of State Ibuism (considered a legendary text, and  one of the mandatory books for Gender and Feminist Studies), she is often regarded as the pioneer of feminist studies in Indonesia. Ibu is “mother” in Indonesian, so Ibuism is roughly,  “motherism”. Julia coined the term State Ibuism to refer to the gender ideology of the New Order regime.

I myself quoted her when I wrote my thesis several years ago. Her work spans from academic to humorous writing-style columns, socio-political and cultural issues, gender and sexuality, the environment,  philosophy, the arts, to light-hearted topics like false eyelashes. 



However, as the interview progressed, not only did my nervousness subside, but the distance that usually exists between the interviewee and the journalist vanished. A series of personal stories she recounted not only filled the information needs of my article, but also served as material for reflection, perhaps not only for me, but also for others who read her story.

Julia was born in New Delhi 66 years ago, and spent her childhood and teenage years in Europe with her parents, where her father served as an Indonesian diplomat. Having studied psychology at the University of Indonesia (1974-1976), Julia continued her studies in sociology at City University, London, the UK (1976-1979) and earned a BSc. (Honors), then took a master’s degree (MSc.) in politics at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS), The Hague, Netherlands (1986-1988).

In addition to State Ibuism, Julia has also written other books such as Sex, Power and Nation (Metafor, 2004) and Julia’s Jihad (Komunitas Bambu, 2013) an anthology of her columns.  Among others, her writings can be found at The Jakarta Post,  Tempo (English edition) and Magdalene as well as regional and international publications.

The following are excerpts from my interview with Julia Suryakusuma on August 13.

Magdalene: Can you tell us what sparked your interest in gender and feminist issues and when you started writing about it?

Julia Suryakusuma: Simple, because I am a woman. But I started as a six year old girl. When my younger brother was born, I was inspired to become a feminist, due to the sudden switch in attention of my parents to him. I come from a patriarchal Sundanese priyayi (aristocratic) family, so despite the fact that we were  a diplomatic family, my parents’  cultural values ​​were still traditional.

I started writing as a teenager. I participated in essay writing competitions conducted by  the Jakarta Arts Council in 1972 and 1973 on the occasion of the anniversary of Jakarta, and won first prize  two consecutive years. These essays have nothing to do with gender, but rather philosophy, which I have been interested in since I was 14.

I only started writing about gender only at age 27. In 1981, I was asked by Daniel Dhakidae, editor-in-chief of Prisma, then Indonesia’s leading social science journal, to be guest editor for a issue on women, which I entitled “Indonesian Women at a Crossroads”. Since then I have been “boxed” into gender issues.

I studied sociology and then politics, but never actually did gender studies. I just read up on it myself.When I wrote my State Ibuism  thesis (published as a  bilingual book only in 2011), it was to meet the academic requirements to get my masters degree.  I thought, that was that.

Then in 2005, while I was on a small tour of Australia to promote my first book Sex, Power and Nation, I met Susan Blackburn, a professor at Monash University, Melbourne, who studies Indonesia and Indonesian women. Out of the blue, she told me, “State Ibuisme has been a classic work for 20 years”. I said, “What ??”, my eyes wide in amazement.  It turned out that my thesis was photocopied and spread around. Unbeknownst to me, the manuscript turned out to have a life of its own in academia worldwide.

In your  column  entitled “My Mother, the Patriarch”, you  mentioned your  mother’s discriminatory and patriarchal attitude. But in other articles, you also described how close you are to her. Can you tell us about the different aspects of your mother-daughter relationship?

We had a kind of “love-hate” relationship and hate is just as strong a bond as love. I don’t really hate her, but  often I  deeply resented her attitude and behavior that tends to belittle women and glorify men. Our relationship was often conflictual;  I had different principles and attitudes to life, often opposite to hers.

Even so, my instinct was more to love my mother. One of the reasons is because I saw her being treated unfairly by my father which my mother also used to complain to me about. I was often used as a “trash can” by my mum, and as a target for her frustration with my father, as she did not have the courage to directly confront him.

As a teenager I idolized my mother, despite her favouritism. I found it  easy to idolize her because she was very beautiful, charming, friendly, also to my friends. However, while growing up, I was determined not to be like her, being under her husband’s domination.

My maternal grandmother on the other hand was a matriarch – she definitely wore the pants in the house even though daily she wore sarong and kebaya. She was the dominant one in my grandparents’ family, which was not the case with my mother who was truly the embodiment of  a “Dharma Wanita” wife (the civil servant’s wives association),  whose identity and life can be said to completely follow  that of her husband.

In several articles you wrote that you were a rebellious figure, including in the family since childhood. Behind that, do you have great fears or have you experienced moments when you were really scared?

Hmm, let me think.  Often the opposite is true. My mother used to scold me for being too bold and people often  say I am  fearless. I don’t really  think so. Everyone has fear.

Like many people, I have contradictory sides: courage but also insecurity. When I was studying at Marymount International High School in Rome, Italy (1968-71), when the teacher asked questions in class, I always tried to muster the courage to raise my hand to answer. But actually in my heart, I had a deep sense of insecurity and shyness which I am sure came from always being secondary to my father and brother. But when it comes to fear … hmm, what kind of fear do you mean for example?

Maybe fear of death, or losing  someone.

I’m not afraid of death. Losing somebody? Not really. People will always come in and out of our lives. Just go with the flow.

Are you afraid of ghosts?

Not afraid, maybe just uncomfortable in certain situations. But I live alone in a big house where there are said to be spirits. I’m  more afraid of rats. Cockroaches  no, but rats, I’m sure to scream! Actually more out of disgust, not fear.

Oh yes, there was that time when I was afraid, after Ami [film director Ami Priyono, Julia’s first husband] died  in June 2001 because everyone left me not long after: the maid, our staff, my son  also got married and left. I was completely alone at that time. And a house after someone’s death feels spooky. I used to dread coming home. But gradually the feeling disappeared.

During the New Order era, I was also afraid because I had to face Kopkamtib [the Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order, the New Order’s security apparatus] because of my writing.

In the early 1980s, I was invited to be involved in a research project by Saskia Wieringa [a Dutch academic who wrote about Gerwani, the women’s wing of the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party]. She read my work in Prisma July 1981 and  was surprised that there was an Indonesian (female) writer who wrote with a class analysis. When I studied sociology, my department  was quite leftist, so it’s no wonder that class was always one of my analytical tools.

I was invited to be involved a research project involving six countries: Sudan, Somalia, the Caribbean, Peru, India and Indonesia. The project was intended to give women in these countries the opportunity to carry out research that they would otherwise not have been able to do because of the political situation in their respective countries. All the country projects were all undertaken by researchers from these countries, but Indonesia was an exception. The two Indonesian had two sub-projects meant to cover the  historical and contemporary periods. The former was done by Saskia herself, researching Gerwani (as it would have been politically impossible for an Indonesian woman to do it), while the latter was done by me, namely Dharma Wanita and PKK, the government-created Family Welfare Movement which exists in all villages in Indonesia.

Getting involved in a research project on Gerwani posed a big risk for me because at that time everything related to the PKI was a scourge for the Indonesian government. For this reason I asked Saskia to promise never to connect her research with mine.

For various reasons, I did not finish writing my research report when the project ended in 1985. I decided to do my Masters at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) based on the research I had done, where Saskia taught, and she became a supervisor for my thesis.

After I returned to Indonesia in 1987, the following year (September 1988) there was a conference in Leiden on “Women as Mediators in Indonesia”, to which I was invited. The participants were mostly Indonesians, but there were also participants from the Netherlands and other Western countries.

Some time before the conference, the papers we wrote were sent to the conference committee who then sent the papers to all the participants. It turns out that Saskia wrote a paper comparing the PKK with Gerwani, which is exactly what I asked her not to do.

By chance, one of the conference participants was the late Nani Yamin, Chairperson of the Legal Aid Institute for Women and Families (LKBHuWK) whose husband worked at Kopkamtib. She immediately gave Saskia’s paper to her husband.

So all Indonesian participants were summoned, including myself naturally, to be interrogated by Kopkamtib. Luckily, the location was  at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, not at the Kopkamtib headquarters, which reduced the tension slightly. I was terrified – how could I not be? – having to face the state intelligence agency that had  unlimited extrajudicial powers.

The Kopkamtib official presiding over the meeting said, “There is a Dutch woman named Saskia Wieringa, she committed  subversion by doing research on Gerwani.” During his speech, he repeatedly addressed me, “Isn’t that right, Ibu (Mrs.) Julia?”. Always Ibu Julia, Ibu Julia – it was clear that I was their main focus.

Finally I replied, “First, Saskia Wieringa is not Indonesian, she is not under Indonesian jurisdiction so it cannot be said that she has committed a subversive act. She is free to do what she wants. Second, this is an academic event, so it must be dealt with academically. ” In the midst of my fear, I could still reply calmly.

Luckily, at the meeting there were also several highly respected senior female academic figures, including Ibu Saparinah Sadli [former dean of the Faculty of Psychology] and Melly Tan [professor of sociology at Atmajaya University], who backed me up.

Finally, at the end of the interrogation, they gave us permission to attend the conference in Leiden. We were very worried that we would be completely prohibited from going, as Kopkamtib did have the power to do that – and more. I decided to write a more ethnographic and descriptive alternative paper on rubber plantations which was also part of my research in case Kopkamtib wanted to see it. However, I secretly distributed my first, more political and critical paper, to the participants.

The atmosphere at the Leiden conference was very tense. When the conference was over, the conference organizers held a meeting to discuss what happened to the Indonesian participants before leaving. Western academics, especially Saskia, insisted on defending their right to academic freedom. A false polarization occured: the freedom of expression of Western academics versus the safety of the Indonesian participants. I was livid. I said, “Do you think we Indonesians just want safety? We also want freedom of expression!”.

When I returned to Jakarta, I was fetched at the airport by my husband Ami.  He brought a copy of the latest Tempo newsmagazine whose cover story was about Formless Organizations (Organisasi Tanpa Bentuk, OTB), the conspiracy story that communists were infiltrating various social and political organizations. The New Order regime has always tried to instigate fear of the “latent danger of communism” as a means to maintain their hold on power. Let alone at that time, at the height of the New Order’s power, even now, when communism has very much dimmed in the world, the authorities still try to stoke fear of the “threat of communism”. That’s what’s funny about it. Apparently, either the New Order still controls Indonesia today, or we just love living in the past.

At that time, my thesis was not  yet finished because Ami had had a stroke in 1987 when I was studying in the Netherlands. I was uncertain what to do, my thesis was not finished, but the black cloud of the New Order regime’s authoritarianism hung threateningly over my head. Adit, who was around 12 at the time, asked, “What will happen to you if you write and publish your thesis?”

“I don’t know, Dit. I could be blacklisted, arrested, jailed or worse,” because that was how the New Order treated people who dared to criticize any aspect of the regime.

Fearfully, Adit begged me, “Don’t do it, Ma!”

Imagine looking into the eyes of your beloved only child and saying, “No, I am still going to write the thesis.” It was really a hard thing to do.

As an ordinary human being,  naturally I have fear, and at the time, also very deep inner conflicts. If I put myself in danger okay, but to impose this fear on my family? At the same time, I also felt I should be loyal to my intellectual integrity and to my obligation as an Indonesian citizen who cares deeply for democracy and human rights. Frankly speaking, that inner conflict often occurs in my life journey.

With regards fear, I take the attitude, if you’re afraid, do it anyway.

In the end, history proved that State Ibuism became a very influential work, but perhaps not many know the high price I paid to have done it. Imagine if at the time I had succumbed to my family’s  fear.

I chose to complete my thesis. I do not regret making that choice, but until now I still feel guilty for seemingly disregarding the feelings and anxieties of the people I love the most.

In the course of engaging in your activism, have you ever wanted to give up?

No, never. Basically, I told my family, this is me, take me for what I am. Only Adit dared to speak out because of his anxiety as a child for his mother’s safety.

Quite honestly, it was an extremely tough decision to make. Actually, my parents and husband were also very worried, but they knew it was useless to forbid me because of my strong will. Often I have been labeled as being stubborn, but being stubborn and strong-willed are two different things.

The same dilemma occurred  when I joined the street demonstration of Suara Ibu Peduli (the Voice of Concerned Mothers), a group of women formed at the beginning of 1997  before the  Reform Era. The demonstration was ostensibly to protest skyrocketing prices, but behind that, also to critique the authoritarian political practices of the regime. When Adit found out that I was going to demonstrate at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout [a ban on demostrations had been issued during the special parliamentary session at the time], again he asked the question he  had asked when he was 12, “Do you have to do it?”

“No, I don’t have to, but I want to.” At that time he was 22 years old, but still scared because of his mother’s actions. He was essentially asking me, “Why are you taking risks for something that is not clear – democracy – whatever it is, at the expense of  family, and me?” Every time I remember that, I still cry. I made a very difficult decision. Luckily the risk I took paid off: I came out safely from the experience.

It’s not the first time I’ve had to make a really tough choice. Maybe the first time was when I decided to go to school in England and leave Adit who was then only 10 months old. You can’t imagine the admonishments people hurled at me. They  thought I was some kind of  monster, what kind of mother could leave her 10 month old baby?

Was there a support system to take care of Adit at that time?

Of course there was. Adit was born in Germany, until he was four months old we lived with his grandparents, then back to Indonesia where we lived with his father and my mother-in-law. I brought him back to Germany  in my second year of university, and he lived again with his grandparents for one year, between the ages of one and a half and two and a half. When Adit and I first returned to Indonesia in early 1976 after he was born, I had been accepted as a student at City University in London. When Adit was in Indonesia, he was taken care off by his father, my mother-in-law and a nurse. I usually returned to Indonesia twice a year.

When we make choices, even if it’s done confidently and firmly, it doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult and that it doesn’t hurt. Leaving my first and only child, who wasn’t even yet a year old, was very hard, and I really felt guilty.

But I had my considerations. I was someone’s daughter, then someone’s wife, then someone’s mother, but who am I? Even though I have been known as a writer since I was 18, as a fashion model since  I was 17, I was also an assistant to Arief Rachman who was teaching English at TVRI, the only television station in Indonesia at the time. But just because I already made a name for myself, I still felt that I didn’t know who I was. So ostensibly I went to the UK to go to university, but actually it was an existential journey to find my true identity. Three years is not a short time. But I knew that if I didn’t go, I would be restless, resentful, unhappy, and felt intuively that most likely my marriage to Ami would end.

Society molds and even brainwashes  us to play certain roles. For women, they have to be good daughters, wives and mothers. For me that is not enough. Many people were angry with me because I dared to go against mainstream stereotypes and norms. It was actually really hard to accept other people’s criticism, but there are times when we have to pay a heavy price to be true to ourselves. For example, the stigma that I was a bad mother haunted me for a long time.

How did you go through the days after making that tough decision?

When I was in London, I often had nightmares. Once in a dream, I went back to Indonesia, a little boy approached me. I opened my arms to hug him, “Adit? Oh, you are not Adit!” Every time a little boy approached me, but each time it was not Adit. My parents and Ami just looked at me coldly with their arms crossed.  In the dream. I was desperately screaming, “Where’s Adit, where’s Adit?”

The after effect of nightmares like that would last for days, making it difficult for me to concentrate on my studies. In the sociology department and my dormitory in England, I was known as “the Indonesian woman who left her baby”. It’s a universal stigma, mothers leave their children. When a man who is a father goes away duty (to work, study) when his child is a baby, no one admonishes him, “How can you leave your baby?”

It happened almost 45 years ago, but it’s still very emotional and painful to remember.

In essence, I reject the stereotypical roles that society dictates  – and often, forcibly imposes – on women. Well, I paid very dearly for my rejection. But maybe I was a pioneer too because afterward more women left their families and children to study. Now it is more commonplace.

I am curious, when you lived abroad for a long time, studied there as well, but in the end you returned to Indonesia with all the confusion and differences between the values ​​of society and what you believe, why did you choose to remain an Indonesian citizen and live here?

Most Indonesians pop out from their mother’s womb and automatically become Indonesians. Because I grew up everywhere, I feel at home and can live anywhere, but I chose to be  Indonesian, whatever I do, it’s for Indonesia.

I still remember when I was in elementary school, I saw in a children’s book which had an illustration of workers building toll roads. I said to myself, “One day I will build many toll roads for Indonesia”. I did not know that in the end what I built was a highway of ideas, knowledge and critical thinking. At the time, I was focusing on physically building  roads which of course is very much needed by many people. But thinking  about it now, the idea of building roads was very symbolic.

It’s true that I am often considered strange, precocious too. When I was around 10 years old I saw my reflection in the mirror, and I asked myself, “Who would you be if you were not Indonesian and born in a different era?”.

So it seems that since I was little, I have had a very clear and strong sense of self, sense of mission, and nationalism, and the desire to serve my country and people. 

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Patresia Kirnandita

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