Melanie Budianta: Sustainability Gender and Multiculturalism in Indonesia

Interview with Melanie Budianta


CRCS: How far can the narrative voice give power to people who are discriminated, especially women, in Indonesia?


Melani: The real narrative is all around us, but it is still voiceless. “Narration” could be buried alone. There are mothers who kept diary, or kept records about their daily experiences in their heart. Nevertheless, minorities are more capable in keeping their own self-censoring. However, the narrative contains knowledge that perhaps could fill the big narratives of the state. Therefore, it is important to find their narrative and voice. If the person does not have a position to voice out, it is important to find someone else to help his or her voice heard. For example, my elder sister, Ibu Yunita, if she is invited to speak in a seminar about her research about farming, he often brought along a farmer to the campus. Then the farmer speaks in the academic forum. Oftentimes, it touches many people because so far people often hear topics only from the researchers.


Another possibility is that the activities facilitate these people’s narrative to be heard. Sometimes, there is a difficult time to break down one single narrative. If a narration is channeled, it will enrich our knowledge, there will be many perspectives about the same thing. In narrative enrichment, it depends on us all to find the agency because each of us is an agency that is active in creating a narrative.


CRCS: What about the emergence of narrative novels by recent women, such as Dewi Lestari and Ayu Utami, where it able to provide narrative on women?


Melani: For example, Ayu Utami, when she published the novel in May 1998, what she wrote was another perspective of the New Order, and it was already a common knowledge but we do not talk at that time. Like how the activists were chased and the case on abuse of power, those were voiced by Ayu Utami. In addition, Ayu Utami also provided a space for women to speak about her own body although it is used by the media to express various stereotypes about women, such as the issue of virginity and the emergence issue of “Sastra Wangi”.


Actually, it was just split writers, like Ayu Utami, in fact what she said was more than that, where women have rights over her body, her sexuality is circumscribed by the patriarchal system and the state. Narration voiced by Ayu Utami was enough to give encouragement to other women to speak. While Dewi Lestari has other perspectives on the issue because she expanded the literary audience; she could catch the opportunity, the need of an educated middle-class society for an intelligent reading, it was refreshing and full of insights. Many readers who had not read the works of literature and reading these works started reading literatures.


I think that is an example of the contribution these two women. Sometimes we do not get the right language to articulate our narrative. Many people, who cannot speak in the literary way because they did not have enough education, were able to narrate their lives. The examples of Dewi Lestari and Ayu Utami are the middle class who have the cultural capital to speak about their own narratives and other people, especially women.


CRCS: What is your criticism on feminism as an approach in Indonesia, or is the idea of feminism became a new occupation for women?


Melani: The principle of feminism is justice. So, justice may not be used to invade, except if we misinterpret or wouldn’t be loyal to the principle of feminism itself. Nevertheless, the idea of feminism can be applied mistakenly, because in a relationship there are elements of power, sometimes that relationship often institutionalizes injustice. This is contrary to the principles of feminism.


But then, when we fight for women, we could have such a tendency that we have a feeling of cleverness and more intelligent than the others; we also have a feeling that we are more feminist than the other feminists, and then judge others as less feminist than us. This is what we need from criticism.


Women living in Indonesia’s environmental infrastructure have complex culture. Not everybody can choose in doing things done by others. Sometimes women in certain positions have small choices, so she could not get out of the discriminatory order; she could just negotiate and be tactical in that space. We can see it in women affected by domestic violence. Especially, if these women are economically dependent on their husbands and could not support themselves; these women could not even get out of the confines of the house, even though they have already legal rights. Many women only use tactics with regard to this condition. So, activism for women needs sensitivity to see various conditions.


CRCS: I read your very touching introduction to Ibu Toeti Herati’s autobiography. You wrote like Virginia Woolf, that a private room for women could be very political because there is a strategy in it.


Melani: Separation of space are different in each context, we cannot equate such as the one in the West. In Indonesia, the private sphere is often become a social space, like a home where neighbors could come in, there is always a celebration; the kitchen is for family gathering. So, every case we have to look at the context.


CRCS: You offer Multiculturalism as part of Cultural Studies approach, what is that?


Melani: It is not something new, because the term itself was used in the 1980s in U.S., UK and in other areas. However, it is often used in the context of cultural policy. Well, maybe what I did was put it in the context of critical multiculturalism, which uses concepts of identity to uncover the identity constructions of diversity in social discourse, such as the emergence of the idea of provincialism. So we need to read this phenomenon critically. Multiculturalism is a jargon that is confusing because it is used by practitioners to implement their policies, so what is called multiculturalism in many areas is varied, like Indonesia and Malaysia have a difference in using this jargon.


CRCS: So, how about the power of Cultural Studies in Indonesia?


Melani: No single approach can be a panacea to solve the problem in Indonesia. CS is derived from critical theory which can make people become aware of the forces that play around people in their everyday life, especially in the contemporary urban area. CS also talks about the lifestyle of young people, identity, and cultural consumption. CS provides tools for critical social assessment and not propaganda; though behind it, we cannot escape from such an ideology of tolerance, an agreement to respect the rights of others and the favor of the marginalized people. Therefore, the sensitivity to see the power relations become the basis for CS approach.


CRCS: Looking through the lens of critical multiculturalism how is the future of parallel relationships between men and women, and the freedom of expression in religion?


Melani: Indeed, there are many challenges to deal with conservative forces-boxing humans based on religion rigidly. In addition, we see from history, social relations among religions in Indonesia were very liquid, as well as the nature of social relations that crosses borders. There are forces that try to enclose it with the signs of rigid and conservative point of view. I still believe in our people’s ability to live in diversity, because our history is so long, and actually integration of society is strong enough although there are some conflicts going on in various places, we still can trace the emergence of a variety of interests apart from the base of the local culture. So, if these dynamics can be guarded and not to be burned by political splits, I am sure that the dynamics of cross-cultural Indonesia will continue. We have learned from many things, which is not possible to make us remove what has been learned and then go backward. It means that diversity itself is a necessity that is around us, and it is present in the most basic level of society such as the family. We have differences in family background, which, based on ethnicity, are religion and others.


CRCS: What is the current biggest challenge in the project of multiculturalism?


Melani: Building Indonesia with further insight, in politics, we must think for long-term plan for our generation. This is our nation’s problems, sustainibilitas located on or sustainability in the long term. Political interests are often in short-term, thus sacrificing the interests of a more distant politics. For example, in maintaining biological and cultural diversity, this has been bought by Western capital. This temptation we should fight, with full of awareness. Our politicians cannot be “statesmen. In addition, we should have signs that allow us to keep peace and not to be conflicted by different streams. However, differences often cause divisions. For example, the issue of polygamy and the issue of Islamic Shari’a, these often divide women’s groups. We often fight among ourselves and not think in long-term. We still have a lot of homework to do.


CRCS: So what narrative is the most important to appear at this time?


Melani: For me, building the narrative on democracy for Indonesia and Indonesians; tolerant, open and ready to face the changing times, one that doesn’t lose dignity; one that provides maximum opportunities to all its citizens, without distinction of sex and religion. For me, those involved in the issue of multiculturalism is important in building it. Of course, there are other important narrative issues to be raised, such as how the state often does not work, for example, Indonesia handed over to free-market and other interests, also how to build a narrative to make countries do not repress their citizens. Our culture is often trivialized and made commodities for sale. Culture should to be a direction to determine the identity of this nation. Narrating culture can be through various ways such as fiction, memoirs, films, biographies, and scientific discourse.


CRCS: How did your parents, families and your environment shape your life, values and thought?


Melani: Many things formed my life, like in school and the family environment. Always there is a place for learning and “unlearning,” two things always happen continuously. I am also not free from historical context. I was born in the year 1954; most of my life was spent in the New Order. These processes shaped my life. Then, the important moment in history, like the year 1998, it shaped me. At that moment, in 1998, I met many activists, especially women activists working in the field. I supported the protesters who opposed the milk price hike for mother and child.


My family descended from a Chinese family and we speak Malay in our home in East Java. It is my mother-tongue. My family is very close to the local culture. When we were in Malang, we learned Javanese dance. This is what inevitably shaped my views. I also had time to attend Girl Scouts and it brought my visions on nationalism.


My encounter with multicultural people also shaped me. It turned out that my perspective is sometimes that of a racist, which I think it true, it was not necessarily true for others. In terms of people who do not behave like me was wrong for me. So, when I see people speaking Mandarin or Hokkien, I tend to see them as wrong. I really don’t have a multicultural perspective at the time. It means I still tend to judge people based on my experience. After 1998, I just learned that I was a racist and the difference of my personality with the New Order perspective. Therefore, when opposing the New Order, I also realized how the New Order construction was a part of me. I also learned about American literature, I sometimes see how bigoted the black people of toward their own kind themselves compare to whites. I see many contradictions in America alone, which became part of my learning. So, many processes will continue to run in my study that would constantly improve my position.


CRCS: Well Ibu, thank you for the time you have spent with me.



This post is also available in: Indonesian


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