Women Lead
August 19, 2021

Naked in Beijing: A Tribute to Environmental Hero Emmy Hafild

From frolicking in the local river in the midst of the seminal 1995 UN Conference on Women, to working together in a political project in the reform era, the late environmental activist Emmy Hafild has been a true friend for feminist author Julia Suryakusuma.

by Julia Suryakusuma, Columnist
English
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What was the basis of a friendship between Emmy Hafild, an environmentalist, and Julia Suryakusuma, a feminist? So much they actually overlap.

I knew Emmy since the early 1990s in the various NGO activist meetings we both often attended. From the moment I heard her speak, I was immediately impressed – by her intelligence, her articulateness, her decisiveness, and her courage.

My friendship with Emmy over 30 years was intermittent, but there were two significant moments in our relationship.

The first was in China, when in 1995 we both traveled to Beijing to attend the 4th United Nations Conference on Women. Emmy and I were sponsored by different funding agencies, but, somehow, she invited me to join her group which consisted of WALHI (the Indonesian Forum for the Environment), and Solidaritas Perempuan (SP, Women's Solidarity, an NGO for women domestic migrant workers).

At first we were in Beijing, at the main conference, where security was extraordinarily tight. We tried to enter one of the main events, but we were barred. They said we had to have a certain pass, which was only given to government NGOs (GoNGOs) women. 

The security team of the organizing committee (OC) were so paranoid, they suspected that NGO activists were going to demonstrate naked! We heard they had prepared pigeons and blankets to counter this. When the women activists took off their clothes, the security officers would also release the pigeons into the air so when everyone looked up, then they would swiftly cover the women's naked bodies with blankets! 

Because of the perception that NGO activists were “trouble-makers” we were segregated to Huairou, an hour away from Beijing. 

One of the advantages of being in Huairou was that it was close to the Great Wall of China. So we took the opportunity to visit it, explore the Chinese countryside, eat at the house of a local, and visit a nature resort, where we found a pristine river. Suddenly, Tati from SP took off her clothes, and plunged into it. At first, we just gawked at her, but then we followed suit, playing happily in the water like children. We finally got the chance to get naked, in Huairou, away from the interference of the Beijing Conference security officials! 

At Huairou, Emmy made an exhibition of ikat cloth from East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), complete with the women weavers. She was passionate about NTT's weaving tradition, which still used natural dyes and traditional ceremonies that protect the earth. She realized patriarchy and capitalism are detrimental to the lives of women, so we need to fight back. The relationship between the environment and feminism was clear for Emmy.

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Women’s Movement in Reform Era

My second intense interaction with Emmy was in the early stages of the Reform Era in 1999. At that time the number of political parties had suddenly mushroomed to 180 - a reaction to 32 years of tight controls on political activities, which included  limiting the number of political parties to only three. 

I felt this was the time for the women's movement to be brought into mainstream politics, if women's voices and feminist perspectives were to be heard. Partly inspired by EMILY’s List – a US resource of progressive female candidates, I decided to make a political party directory which I called the Almanac of Political Parties (API). 

I conveyed my intentions to activist friends in various NGOs. My idea was supported by 13 NGOs which became members of the API Consortium, one of which was WALHI, which at the time was headed by Emmy. 

WALHI helped with funding: seed money before we got bigger funds from the Dutch Embassy and the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP).

Finally, the API directory was published just before the Legislative General Election which was held on June 7, 1999: 730 pages with profiles of 141 political parties, 10 essays by local and foreign experts, and a chronology of political events. 

I felt that the beginning of the Reform Era was the time to underline the importance of political education in Indonesia, to make the political system more open, and to allow access to knowledge to enable the people to control the government. 

My vision synched with Emmy’s, who felt it was time for a convergence between activism and electoral politics. Hence WALHI’s involvement, as decisions regarding the environment are ultimately made at the political level.

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There was another event that Emmy initiated that I also felt deeply connected to, but wasn't directly involved in. 

The 2017 regional elections (Pilkada), when Basuki Tjahaja Purnama alias Ahok was defeated as governor of Jakarta because of racial and religious issues, incensed Emmy. At that time, she had become a member of the Nasdem Party.  

On June 3, 2017, Emmy announced the Second National Awakening Declaration. The first is commemorated every May 20th to mark the founding in 1908 of the Boedi Oetomo political society, regarded as the inception of Indonesian nationalism. Since 1948, it had been celebrated as the Day of National Awakening. 

When I received the invitation to the  Declaration, I was very excited to attend as essentially it was about the women’s movement supporting human rights and democracy.   

Writing this tribute piece for Emmy has been very painful. I feel so grieved and bereft to lose her, as a dear friend, fellow activist and also as an environmentalist.

On August 9, 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report by 234 scientists. Its verdict: “code red for humanity”. The changes that are occurring widely across all continents, very rapidly, may be irreversible over millennia. 

In 1999, Emmy was named one of the Heroes of the Planet by Time Magazine. But Emmy was also an ardent feminist, a hero for human rights, anti-corruption, transparency and good governance, a warm and supportive friend, but critical when necessary. She truly embodied the democratic spirit. 

This rare human being has now left us physically. But her spirit, passion, love, devotion and commitment lives forever in our hearts and minds and hopefully will inspire us to continue where she left off.


Julia Suryakusuma was born in New Delhi, India, and has lived in many countries in Europe. She has written on various issues including gender equality, social justice, Islamic revival and state control. Her books include Sex, Power and Nation (2004), Agama, Seks dan Kekuasaan (2012) and Julia's Jihad (2013), a selection of her English language columns between 2006 and 2013.