A Discussion with Kamala Chandrakirana, Indonesian Advocate for Human Rights, Justice and Democracy

With: Kamala Chandrakirana Berkley Center Profile

January 23, 2015

Background: As a leading women’s rights expert and advocate Kamala Chandrakirana has come to see religious leaders, institutions, and beliefs as key factors in Indonesia’s efforts to achieve equal rights for women and to build a truly democratic society and polity. In this discussion with Katherine Marshall in January 2015 (by Skype), she focuses on turning points in her career and specifically on religion and women’s rights and roles in the post-1998 period (after the uprising that led to the fall of Suharto). She highlights her work with the unique National Commission on Violence against Women of Indonesia and how it fit in the broader context in Indonesia. Among the various organizations she is affiliated with is the Fahmina Institute, winner of the 2013 Opus Prize, a Muslim community action and knowledge institution based in Cirebon, Indonesia. Her affiliations illustrate part of the long-standing and dynamic linkages between the secular and the religious in contemporary Indonesia. More broadly she describes the changing role of religion in Indonesia’s political and social landscape and the importance of engaging with the topic and the institutions.

In exploring lessons from your remarkable career, can you start with the upheavals and turning points around the 1998 period?

Looking at those years and my work in Indonesia, 1998 is a good place to start. For me, context is very important, and the realities of those years have structured my own views in important ways.

My story is a story about Indonesia. The political changes in 1998 were a critical time. The central lesson of that period for me was the importance of the political environment in making advances on certain issues, such as women’s rights, as well as in shaping the realm of possibilities and constraints. It was a moment of a political opening, a change in the power configuration, and a period of euphoria not unlike the Arab Spring in its early days. It was also, for Indonesia specifically, a moment where existing structures and formations broke down. And with that our sense of the familiar and the known disappeared. That was a big shock. No sooner had we experienced a vivid euphoria about the possibility of change for the better, than we were, within a year, shocked by violence and destruction. And much of that was carried out in the name of religion.

This was a moment of realization. We had supposed that the issue of religion was “resolved” in Indonesia, particularly in terms of respect for diversity and plurality, during the early years of national independence in the mid-1940s. Religion was thus a matter of personal choice. That supposition was shattered when we saw how religion was used a justification for violence, including violence against women. In 1998, after the mass rapes of Chinese Indonesian women, we received reports that the perpetrators shouted Islamic verses as they carried out their attacks. This was happening so close to us, in our very own city, Jakarta.

That was a critical point in Indonesia and it changed my life. It was critical in the sense that it fundamentally changed the way we understood our country and society. Not long after the mass violence and rapes in Jakarta, there were inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflicts in West Kalimantan, the Moluccas and Central Sulawesi, All this changed the way we thought of religion in the life of the nation.

And it changed my life personally. Before that I was doing research, on local institutions and the informal sector, looking at a wide range of institutions in the context of development. When the rapes happened I became part of a whole new mobilization on the issue of women’s human rights. My life changed course from that of a researcher to that of a full-blown activist. I was asked to be part of a national commission which was established by the new president, B. J. Habibie, called the
National Commission on Violence against Women—more commonly known as KOMNAS PEREMPUAN. The Commission, which grew out of that moment of historic political change in Indonesia, after 32 years of authoritarianism, has since become a unique institution, nationally and globally.

How long did you serve in the
National Commission on Violence against Women? Are you still involved with it?

The Presidential Commission was unique for its time because it was not formed in terms of equal opportunities for women, which was then mostly the case for such national mechanisms in many countries. Its particular focus on violence against women and its foundation in human rights were the direct response to the 1998 rapes, while at the same time connected to an emerging global concern on violence against women as a human rights issue. At that time there was really no model of a similar institution anywhere that we knew of. So building and shaping the Commission in many ways involved a process of invention. Thus the Commission was invented over time, through its own successes and failures, grounded in the experience of violence against women in Indonesia and in the way our understanding of it evolved. In Indonesia, this meant dealing not only with domestic violence, but mainly with the violence women experienced in the conflict areas of Aceh, Papua, East Timor, and in the context of women’s migration to different parts of the world for work. Overall, the Commission came to address quite a huge range of women’s experiences. We struggled to make this national mechanism have real impact. Our work involved advocating for gender-responsive legislation based on a continual effort to grasp what it meant for women to experience violence in different contexts. Documenting what women were experiencing in forgotten and forsaken regions of the country was a crucial part of the Commission’s role, underlining its human rights monitoring function. In another sense, the Commission could also be seen essentially as a knowledge institution, focusing on understanding women’s lives, through the entry point of violence.

My work at the Commission also involved exploring what a national commission as a public institution in a newly democratizing nation would look like. Who should be its commissioners and how long should they serve? How could we ensure its accountability to the president who established it, to the Commission’s main constituents in the women’s movement, and to the public in general? I think there is much to learn from understanding the process of building credible public institutions in a democratizing society. I do believe it reflects the conscious effort by a newly empowered citizenship to play an active part, if not to say leadership, in constructing the building blocks of a genuinely democratic nation-state. The National Commission on Violence against Women would be a very interesting case study on this.

It has now been 16 years since the Commission was established. I was the secretary general for its first five years, then chairperson for the following six years. The Commission established term limits so after serving two terms as chair, my time there ended. There is now a whole new generation of committed women and men who are leading the Commission. I feel especially proud about the fact that we managed to assure a true regeneration.

As a national mechanism for the protection of women’s rights, the Commission faced a wide range of issues over time. The issues we had to address shifted as the country’s process of democratization advanced. Some shifts in the issues were unexpected. For the first five years, the whole country, including the Commission, was focused on the violence around the country, including military violence under an authoritarian regime. There were multiple forms of violent conflicts in different regions of the country, from Aceh to the Moluccas, Central Sulawesi, East Timor and Papua. But after five or six years, a new configuration of problems dominated the nation: the rising grip of political Islam in various institutions of the Indonesian state and the increasing influence of fundamentalism and conservatism in society. We at KOMNAS PEREMPUAN had to shift our attention beyond violence to the rising phenomenon of discrimination against women in the name of religion and morality. It occurred as the country embarked on a process of decentralization.

How did the decentralization process intersect with religion?

Decentralization was a central part of the continuing reforms in our democratization process. It was aimed at breaking the strong centralized power which had prevailed for more than three decades in Indonesia. In many newly-empowered districts around the country, political elites with unprecedented resources and power had no access to high-quality research to help address the problems in their communities. Identity, in most cases religious identity, took on great importance because it was often the most convenient way to produce populist policies, in the absence of the capacity to produce evidence-based policies. It is in this context that decentralization in Indonesia contributed to the rise of discriminatory policies against women that continues to this day. These discriminatory policies mostly use religion (and morality) as their reference, and, in Indonesia, this is Islam.

A special case of this, which exists in the nexus of peacemaking and decentralization, is the product of the peace process in Aceh. It paved the way for a national law that gave Aceh the right, as a ‘special autonomy region,’ to use the sharia as the basis of its regulatory framework. Unfortunately, the way sharia law has been interpreted and codified by the local authorities in Aceh has had many negative impacts on the lives of women in Aceh. Acehnese women who protest against policies and regulations which are discriminatory against women face continuing intimidation and marginalization.

Thus, over time the focus of our work on the Commission shifted as the process of reform proceeded and new challenges arose with the choices and compromises we made along the way.

You referred in a sentence to fundamentalism, conservatism, and political Islam. In your understanding, how are these different and how are they related?

I use many terms and especially these in juxtaposition quite purposely. These are complex and multidimensional phenomena, and trying to refer to them with one single term does not help. We need to do away with simplistic labels for the very complex dynamics that are at work, even as we continue to seek ways to identify and understand the phenomena. While religion and politics have always been intricately linked throughout history everywhere, the term ‘political Islam’ has developed its own distinct meaning in today’s context. To me, by political Islam, I refer to the political agenda of groups that are advocating for a particular type of state, a movement focused on the state, on establishing an Islamic state by name or in effect. Fundamentalism and conservatism, in my mind, refer more to the community and its social dynamics. Fundamentalism is essentially linked to religion and the choice of taking a particular absolutist and exclusivist interpretation of religion. Conservatism describes more a set of restrictive values and behaviors that are practiced by society, specifically by men and women, girls and boys in their daily lives. In Indonesia, all these phenomena exist at the same time, influencing each other and making up the complex dynamics at work as I navigate my efforts to work for equality, social justice and human rights.

You spoke of the shock you experienced in seeing a new face of religion in Indonesia 16 years ago. Looking back and looking at the present situation, how do you assess what happened?

I think the biggest element of that shock was realizing how vulnerable religion is to political manipulation. That is something that up to today we need to find concrete ways to address. What has been made clear to me is the crucial role that religion and the institutions of religion play in society, in all aspects of life. That is something that I think I had always passively accepted when I was growing up in my family and in a country like Indonesia where religion has always been omnipresent. The fact that such omnipresence existed in what was mostly a secular state had shaped my view—and that of many of my fellow Indonesians—that religion and religious diversity were there as uncontested elements of the society. This was before my experiences over the past 16 years. The deeper our nation got into its democratization process, the more I have had to overcome my complacency about religion and begin my (re)education on religion as a social-cum-political institution. I have had to really embrace that understanding and integrate it more fully and consciously into my work.

Meanwhile, at the same time that the violent face of religion was presenting itself in the nation’s life, other faces of Islam were presenting themselves to me in my work on democracy, human rights and social justice. These faces were that of fellow activists and civil society organizations working for the same values and principles as I was, from within the framework of Islam and its diverse institutional make up in Indonesia.

My engagement with religion and its institutions occurred through several avenues. My experiences with Syarikat Indonesia and with the Fahmina Institute illustrate these engagements, which are very distinct.

My engagement with Syarikat Indonesia started in ways that are very much connected to the Indonesian story. When Suharto resigned in 1998, a group of young NU [
Nahdlatul Ulama] members felt that they wanted to find a way to engage in the process of political reform that was just beginning. They were looking for meaningful ways to do that. This was consistent with what was happening in the whole of NU and other religious organizations as well as in civil society as a whole—a strong conviction to engage in the newly-opened political process. This group, made up mostly of men at the time, wanted to address one of what they saw as NU’s “original sins,” the 1965-66 pogrom, the anti-communist mass killings and arbitrary arrests that took place in various parts of the country. An estimated 500,000 to one million people were killed during that short period. Religious organizations were implicated, many as part of a campaign that was led by the military forces. These young men from NU felt that they had to understand and account for what happened in 1966, specifically regarding the role of their elders. They sought out survivors of the violence, many of whom had been in prison for more than a decade, without trial, and they opened a dialogue, trying to find a perspective and path, with their elders, that could lead to cultural reconciliation. The whole process was itself an exercise in understanding the complex inter-linkages between religion and politics. At one point, as they had discussions and documented the experience of male ex-prisoners, they realized that there were stories of women who were affected, and that the women’s stories were different from those of the men. Therefore they needed to work with women’s rights organizations, which, in turn, led to me and to KOMNAS PEREMPUAN.

The other trajectory of engagements had to do with the pesantrens [Islamic boarding schools] which are important institutions in the Indonesian socio-political landscape. Many graduates of the pesantrens were themselves actively involved in the pro-democracy movement during the pre-1998 authoritarian regime and embraced the values of social justice and human rights. They were seeking dialogue on these issues with others who were not from their background. That included me, as I did not graduate for that tradition, and had through my career worked almost entirely with secular institutions. Those among them who were intensively involved in addressing the issue of women’s rights within Islam set up their own NGOs in order to focus their work specifically on this. The most prominent are the Fahmina Institute and another organization, Rahima. Both work on the premise that Islam itself has to have an answer and a response to all forms of discrimination and violence against women, often carried out in the name of Islam. Both have made major impacts on the Islamic discourse on women’s rights, and both support the empowerment of the female ulama in Indonesia.

It is through this latter trajectory that I found myself in a community of women from around the world who decided to build a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family, Musawah. The movement believes that it is both necessary and possible to achieve equality and justice in the Muslim family, grounded in a new paradigm based on Muslim jurisprudence, international human rights standards, national laws and constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination, and women’s lived realities.

Is working with religion and its institutions still part of what you do?

Yes, it is still part of what I do, because it is still very much part of development, democratization, and human rights, which are the core areas of my work. They are all grounded in processes in which whole societies redefine themselves and affirm the values to uphold together, based on a fresh consensus on what they hold as important and what they want as their common future. It is about social transformation. As we well know, in the shaping of values and norms in society, religious institutions play many key roles.

How do you see the issue of secular versus religious for contemporary Indonesia?

Boundaries between secular and religious are porous. In Indonesia, the idea of a secular state is very much in the consciousness even of people who are in the religious communities, and particularly the progressive Muslims who believe in pluralism. They say explicitly that a secular state is a pre-condition for the possibility of recognizing and supporting diversity and pluralism in the country. Secularism has its own roots in Indonesia and thus should not be stigmatized as a western import. Unfortunately, in terms of analysis, people have been so focused on religion, that they are not looking clearly at the secular space. It often feels like a forgotten arena. The secular space has been viewed too narrowly in relation to religious and not enough in and of itself.

Having said that, I feel there is an urgency to establish that secularism is not, and has never been, a monolithic entity. It is always contextual. So, one cannot simply refer to secularism in the Middle East, France, or other parts of the world, and ask whether that exists in Indonesia, and conclude that secularism does or does not exist there, based on that model. That is neither possible nor wise.

What is most interesting about organizations like Rahima, Fahmina, and NU more broadly is that they believe that it is important to maintain a dialogue with people who are working in a secular space. I am engaged with them that basis. I continue to be secular in terms of the space I occupy. I’m part of Rahima and Fahmina precisely because I bring in a very different perspective. We respect the different spaces in which we all work, and believe this dialogue is necessary.

Can you note highlights of some of your other roles?

I am a mandate holder in the Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures mechanism, through the Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice. I represent Asia/Pacific in this group of five people from the five regions of the world: Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East, Western Europe and the other countries, like Australia, and then Eastern Europe. As part of the Working Group, I go to Geneva twice a year and to New York once a year for our sessions.


You are convening the Working Group’s annual session in New York this week. What’s highest on the agenda?

Issues of family and cultural life and their impact on women’s rights is a key focus of our agenda in this session. The issue of family and the idea of protection of the family generate much debate and tension in the multilateral dialogues and negotiations in various, if not all, UN fora today. In my view, there is too little acceptance of the reality of the diversity of families, and that this has severe implications on the human rights of women and men.

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