Women’s Rights in Indonesia in the 1950s: The Progression and Stagnation of the Government’s Actions, and the Effects of Class, Race, and Feminism within the Women’s Rights Movement

By Jessica Rijs

Edited by: Molly Lidgerwood

Image credit: The dream of an Indonesian peasant woman by Maasje Siwi. 

In the newly created nation state of Indonesia, women’s rights were initially incorporated in the 1945 constitution and subsequent legislation such as the equal pay act and unbanning women’s organisations. However, these initial steps received no follow through from the government. The progression of women’s rights stagnated due to inefficient government action, women not getting elected to government, and the indecision about changing marriage law. I will argue that this stagnation was because of three main contentions surrounding women’s issues. Firstly, factors such as religion created splits in the women’s movement and prevented them from appearing as a homogenous group, deterring potential for change. Secondly, class was a major contention within women’s groups and experience, although this was successfully combatted by Gerwani. Thirdly, Indonesia had deep-seated prescribed gender roles that prevented women’s involvement in the public and political sphere, thus prompting anti-imperialist feminism.

Women’s organisations worked to help establish Indonesia’s independence over Dutch and Japanese rule, establishing close ties with the government and the incorporation of women’s rights into the newly created nation state. Women’s organisations had been banned in the 1940s, and once the Japanese control was lifted the state gave back women the freedom to establish and participate in women’s organisations. This change was a huge win for women’s rights, allowing women the opportunity to convene with each other and the government to discuss women’s rights. Women’s right to vote in Indonesia was preserved by the 1945 and 1949 constitutions.  The 1955 general elections showed women’s turnout at a high rate, demonstrating women’s eagerness to utilise their right to vote.  New legislation outlawed discrimination based on sex and enacted maternity leave and equal pay for equal work in civil service. The 1945 constitution established Indonesia as a secular state, deeming it impossible for Islamic syariah law to be applied. The secularisation of the state was an important move for women’s rights, as women’s rights can then take precedence over religion. Issues such as abortion and marriage laws can be negatively affected by a religion law-based state. Women’s organisations worked closely with the government to provide services specifically linked to women’s issues, such as kindergartens, schools, mother and child health clinics, and orphanages. The government established these rights, and women working together to improve their position, was a positive start for the newly created nation state of Indonesia.

There were many ways that women’s rights were not incorporated into the newly created nation state of Indonesia. Susan Blackburn argues in ‘Gender Interests and Indonesian Democracy’ that the Indonesian “governments thought it enough that women were offered formal access to power”, as opposed to systematically tackling barriers that prevented women from accessing that power. The Dutch government had already granted women the right to be elected to parliament, but as Sulami stated, by 1938, “no woman had yet been elected to parliament, as most of them had a very low standard of education.” When a woman was elected, it was a Dutch woman, taking away the chance for an Indonesian woman to be represented in parliament.  These kinds of barriers persisted after Dutch rule. A short story by Sulami, ‘Minah’, describes the entrenched sexist views preventing girls from getting an education. Without access to education, women would not be able to get jobs that were better paid, and jobs that granted them access to power, such as in government. A ‘Report on the conditions of the Indonesian women’ by Suradi explains how women could not take jobs outside of the home for risk of a split in the family, revealing the ingrained gender roles in Indonesian society and how it prevented women from accessing power. The first female cabinet minister, Maria Ullfah Santoso, was appointed in 1946. In 1955 seventeen out of 271 members of the parliament were women, making up only 7% of parliament. Women being active participants in government is essential for the progression of women’s rights, because a government dominated by men ensures “that their gender interests prevail.” Female government employees benefitted from the equal pay and gender discrimination legislation, but most workplaces did not follow suit and enforce similar regulation, and women continued to be paid less than men and were denied promotions. Marriage law was another way women’s rights were not incorporated into the democratic state of Indonesia. Secular women’s organisations desired polygamy to be outlawed, while religious women’s organisations did not due to their relationship with Islam. The new marriage law was put on hold, for the government did not want to alienate Islamic parties. These examples reveal a stagnation in the progression of women’s rights due to the government not tackling the systematic oppression of women.

The rift between religious and secular women’s organisations was a cause for contention regarding women’s rights in Indonesia. The main point of tension between organisations was polygamy; Islamic organisations such Muslamit NU (MNU) adopting a pro-polygamy stance and secular organisations like Gerwani taking an anti-polygamy stance. There were expansive groups of women, differing in class, ethnicity, and religion, making it impossible for women to present themselves as a homogenous group. This created a problem for women’s organisations to get legislation passed, for the government of Indonesia did not wish to alienate one group from the other, or from the state. When women’s organisations united, legislation was more easily passed, as it was an organised way to present women’s issues to the government. For example, both secular and religious women’s organisations promoted women’s involvement in public life, which led to the appointment of female judges, and women in parliament. This demonstrates how detrimental the conflict between two types of women’s organisations could be, for it could result in women’s rights not progressing.

Another issue women’s organisations were confronted with was the issue of class discrepancies, and before Gerwani the underrepresentation of peasant women. Women’s organisations were predominantly made up of and led by middle-class women, meaning a large portion of Indonesia’s female population were not represented. Class can define a women’s experience, and thus the kinds of rights she needs to be advocated for. Lower-class women were more concerned with issues pertaining to access child-care and food for their families than middle and upper-class women were. The advocation of better working conditions and pay for domestic workers would positively affect the lives of lower-class women, but not necessarily middle and upper-class women. Gerwani was an organisation that paid particular attention to the lives of peasant women, and from that gained a large following, accumulating 700,000 members by 1957. Gerwani called on people to support the peasant struggle, understanding the particular concerns of peasant women. Maasje Siwi outlined some of these particular struggles in ‘The dream of an Indonesian peasant woman’. Peasant women were more likely to become child brides, arbitrary divorce would affect women in a low socio-economic situation detrimentally, their children were dying from hunger and privation. This information has been delineated in a journal published by the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), written by Djenab, an Indonesian woman during this time period. This demonstrates how Indonesian women felt about these circumstances, and also revealing which stories these women wanted to tell, specifically on an international stage. It was important for these kinds of voices to be uplifted in the women’s movement. Rachel Rinaldo argues in ‘Mobilizing Piety: Islam and Feminism in Indonesia’ that, ‘The image of a woman activist during the Sukarno years was that of an unveiled and elite woman such as Mariah Ullfah Santoso.’ However, the women of Gerwani expose this to be partly untrue. While Gerwani was a secular group, the utilisation of peasant women’s voices and experiences shaped the image of their activism in the 1950s to move beyond the scope of elite and middle-class women. Gerwani’s work with peasant women highlights the importance of recognising class distinctions when advocating for women’s rights. Before Gerwani rallied peasant women, a large portion of the Indonesian population was not represented in women’s organisations, causing impediments for women’s rights.

Much contention surrounding women’s rights in Indonesia arose from the prescribed gender roles of women’s place in society being rooted in the home, and the feminist propagation of women’s rights being perceived as a Western ideal. Rinaldo states that Javanese gender ideology was influential throughout the country, idealising ‘submissive, self-sacrificing women, even though such notions coexist uneasily with a daily reality in which many women are educated and work outside the home.’ Sulami’s short story, ‘Minah’, describes how the only hope of a girl having a good life is to become a wife to a good man. Suradi explains how women have trouble exercising authority, because they have ‘male colleagues who refuse to work under a woman chief or high official.’ These sexist societal values uncover an obstacle women of Indonesia faced if they wished to participate in the public and political sphere. It also reveals that even if women did have the right to participate, societal expectations would prevent them from utilising that right. The onus of the activism in Indonesia was not always to encourage women to get out of the home. Gerwani was supportive of women who desired to stay in the home, working to improve women’s position and conditions in the home. MNU argued for the regulation of male prerogative in the family, at the same time as supporting women participating in public life. Women’s rights, especially those regarding women breaking out of the private sphere, were tied to feminism. Many Indonesian women were reluctant to identify as feminist because of the anti-imperialist, post-colonial state of the country, and the ideology’s connection to Western ideals. The WIDF sought to change this, organising activist women from colonised countries an opportunity to consolidate their Western feminism critiques. Outlined in this 1949 conference were feminist strategies appropriate for colonised, anti-imperialist countries. The WIDF conferenced on a breadth of issues. A report from a 1958 Conference relates a discussion about the movement in Indonesia against A and H bombs. This reveals Indonesian women’s wish to be actively involved in the decision making and politics of their country, and their desire to participate outside of the domestic sphere. Therefore, exemplifying the necessity for the kinds of feminism outlined by the WIDF in order to break away from the prescribed societal gender roles that prevented women from doing exactly that.

The newly created nation state of Indonesia initially granted women rights in the Constitution of 1945 and 1949, in legislation about equal pay and gender discrimination, and in the reinstating of women’s organisations and their involvement with the government. After these initial steps, the government did not follow through on implementing changes needed for the progression of women’s position in society. Most women were not receiving equal pay as men for the same work, gender discrimination persisted in society, not enough women were elected to parliament, and marriage law was not decided on. This delay in women’s progression was caused by government not enacting follow through but also because of three main contentions regarding women’s rights. Religious and secular women’s organisations disagreed fervently on polygamy, stagnating the amendment of the marriage law, and preventing women’s organisations from appearing as a homogenous group. Class discrepancies resulted in underrepresentation of a large portion of Indonesia’s population, peasant women, which the group Gerwani fought against. The prescribed gender roles of women’s place in Indonesia to be in the home was an impediment for the progression of women’s rights, along with the criticism of idealised Western feminism, which the WIDF, together with Gerwani, combatted.


Primary Sources

Hidajat, R. A. ‘A Report from a WIDF Conference Titled Indonesia’. Women of the Whole World, 1958, 52–53.

‘Our Road: Reports, Reportages, Information’. Women of the Whole World, no. 9–10 (October 1965): 38–39.

Siwi, Massje. ‘The Dream of an Indonesian Peasant Woman’. Women of the Whole World, no. 12 (1961): 22.

Sulami. ‘Minah’. Women of the Whole World, no. 4 (April 1960): 32–33.

———. ‘The Birth and Growth of the Indonesian Women’s Movement (Part I). Women of the Whole World, no. 1 (January 1959): 28–29.

———. ‘The Birth and Growth of the Indonesian Women’s Movement (Part III)’. Women of the Whole World, no. 4 (March 1959): 30–31.

Suradi, Suwarti Bintang. ‘Report on the Conditions of Indonesian Women for the WIDF’. WIDF Information Bulletin, no. 14 (1957): 27.

Secondary Sources

Armstrong, Elizabeth. ‘Before Bandung: The Anti-Imperialist Women’s Movement in Asia and the Women’s International Democratic Federation’. Signs 41, no. 2 (1 January 2016): 305–31.

Blackburn, Susan. ‘Gender Interests and Indonesian Democracy’. Australian Journal of Political Science 29, no. 3 (November 1994): 556–74. 

———. Women and the State in Modern Indonesia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

Rinaldo, Rachel. ‘Islamic Politics and Gender Politics in Indonesia’. In Mobilizing Piety. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 

Robinson, Kathryn. Gender, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia. London, UNITED KINGDOM: Taylor & Francis Group, 2008. 

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