JASS Blog Archives for May 2015

by Niken Lestari on May 31, 2015 on 7:28 am

“Your event is against Islam and Indonesia’s constitution. We demand that you cancel the event, if not, we will.” – Anonymous SMS Sender

For the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) celebration on the 17th of May 2015, we in Forum Aktivis Perempuan Muda (FAMM-Indonesia or Young Indonesian Women Activists’ Forum), along with Kojigema Institute were planning to hold a talk show which would highlight our experience with sexual diversity and to get to know transgender lives and achievements. A beautiful and proud transgender woman agreed to come as our speaker and vowed to invite some of her friends too. I was very thrilled. We in FAMM-Indonesia and Kojigema were all excited.

But two days before the IDAHOT celebration, a man called my friend from Kojigema who is also one of the co-organizers to “investigate” the event that we were planning to conduct. We sensed that something was not right about this man calling us but we didn’t pursue it.

I was the main contact person for the IDAHOT event and this fact was stated in the media advisory and press statements we sent out days ahead. The night before the activity, I received four calls from four different men who were “investigating” but were actually using threats, pressure, and intimidation to force us to cancel our activity.

The news spread as we used social media to promote our activity. We have been using social media to publicize our events in the past. But this time, our event got unusual attention. In our social media accounts, some friends, including our resource person, a transgender woman, also faced prying questions and disparaging comments. We had never experienced this before. FAMM-Indonesia and Kojigema Institute are relatively small organizations in terms of membership and popularity.

We continued to receive repeated threats and harassment from unknown hate groups a few days before the event, which led us to cancel our activity with the theme “Celebrate Our Gender”.

Being LGBTQI in Indonesia

Being LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex) person especially if you openly admit it, can be difficult in many places in Indonesia. This includes Malang City. Indonesia is a country with the biggest Muslim population in the world. Out of its 253 million people, around 87.2% are Muslims. But it also has 342 discriminative policies towards women and minority groups in the name of Sharia law.

For our IDAHOT celebration in Malang this year, we particularly used the title “Celebrate Our Gender” rather than “Celebrate Our Sexuality” as a strategy and as a step for participants to learn about sexuality without directly saying it. The idea was to invite a transgender woman in a discussion with heterosexual men who believe that “God made only two sexes”. So we thought, we could start from there. Kojigema Institute, an organization composed of people of diverse gender identities has elaborating sexual, reproductive, gender, and sexuality education as well as developing the knowledge and practice of equality and empowerment as two of its missions. And this IDAHOT activity, beyond celebrating, sought to build critical awareness by organizing a discussion on gender and sexuality.

Some people thought that we were throwing a sex ritual party. Some people said we were gathering homosexuals. The theme “Celebrate Our Gender” rang a different meaning to their ears. The phrase “International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia” was threatening their values. For these people, humane values and basic human rights, it seems, are not applicable to my friends because of their sexual orientation.

However, this is not new to us. Like everyone else, previously, I was unable to understand a person who claimed to be gay or a lesbian Muslim. I used to wonder how people of the same sex can fall in love with each other. Then I also used to think that I was a lesbian. The questioning process resulted in a richer perspective and better self-appreciation of my body and sense of power. I found and celebrated my heterosexuality rather than accept it as given.

For some of my friends in Kojigema Institute, discrimination because of their sexuality is not new. The discrimination comes from many sides, including their family. One of my lesbian friends had her allowance cut by her parents because she removed her hijab (head covering) and exuded a “masculine” behavior . Another gay friend lost the financial support of his mother after she found out that he’s gay. He then dropped out of college. He now does odd jobs to support himself. A transgender male friend was partially accepted by his family but has enormous burden to medically prove that he is biologically male – which will be very difficult. Indeed, it is hard under these conditions to come out as LGBTQI.

The intimidation we received prior to IDAHOT celebration made their situation more difficult. When we reported it to the police, they looked suspiciously helpless and asked us “politely” to cancel the event for the sake of “security and order of community”. In cases like this, it is alleged thatthe police usually takes the side of those who have bigger number of supporters and/or able to provide “security money”.

Fear is not new to us. We compromise it or diminish it. Sometimes we brush it aside as something that is “no big deal” but it is obviously disturbing and disrupting our lives. A lesbian friend  wears a hijab even if she doesn’t want to when she goes to see her girlfriend. A closeted gay man in Kojigema refused to be filmed on camera while talking about LGBTQI issues. He was willing to be a speaker only in radio talk shows. There is an assumption that if you are working for LGBTQI issues then you are also LGBTQI. In other words, you are openly declaring yourself as “out” of the closet. These are some of the situations that force them to “adjust” their “gender behaviors” in public to match the cultural and social norms

Bitter Lessons

So it was with a sad heart that we decided to cancel the event – after a thorough evaluation of our preparations and consideration of the safety of our speakers and participants. It was disheartening because our IDAHOT celebration was cancelled because of “homophobic and transphobic forces”. But we learned a lot about our context and the power relations operating in Indonesian society.

We learned that we need to use social media carefully – to identify and have better communication with our allies, to involve and create good relationship with journalists, and the last one, to fight the fear within. Being an LGBTQI is not something to be ashamed of.

In a way, we were able to highlight our case to the media by the press conference that we held the day after the IDAHOT. Dozens of journalists from around 10 media outlets in the country attended the media event held at the Legipait Cafe Malang. We also released a joint press statement of FAMM-Indonesia, Kojigema Institute and KontraS Surabaya. Through these small gestures, we want to fight homophobia and transphobia. We do not want it to become our “powerless” moment. As one of my LGBTQI friends says, “there will be ordinary people who will finally hear about sexuality and maybe feel curious to learn”.

We learned that we shall not be overcome by fear anymore. We will let them hear our voice one way or another.

About the Author:

Niken Lestari, actively involved in JASS, is FAMM-Indonesia’s national coordinator and one of the founders of Kojigema Institute.


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by on May 19, 2015 on 7:38 pm

I am a writer, and an avid reader. But I am always left thinking where the stories about me are? When do I ever read a story in which I can see or even feel me? I’m black, I’m a woman, I'm queer, and I hail from the colonially-designated geographical space called Zimbabwe on the continent of Africa. All four of these identities are complex and constructed on the back of hundreds of years of history that happened before I was even born. For most of my life, the representation of each of these identities in the media I consume is fraught—but put them all together? The picture is certainly bleak…

As a black Zimbabwean woman I am either “simple” or “slutty”, I am a “witch” or a “whore”, I’m a “vixen” or a “victim.” I rarely get to tell my own story and I never get to be the hero in your summer blockbuster. If I’m lucky, I might be a love interest—but only if my skin is of a particular colour shade, and my hair isn’t too kinky, and my body type fits an acceptable box. There is a high likelihood I will die in the first act because black women’s lives are disposable in movies as much as they are in real life. In the news, I’m the subject of vilification or victimisation, sometimes both at the same time. In advocacy work, I’m just one of the masses of poor, helpless victims waiting for someone, preferably white and Northern, to come and save me from myself and my bad decisions.

I am not alone in my thinking; and my outrage. I asked other women – part of an African feminist listserv - what kinds of stories they see in magazines or novels, on news bulletins or at the movies. Nearly every woman who offered her perspective mentioned how beauty in many post-colonial African contexts, from Nigeria to Morocco to South Africa is defined in relation to "European" ideals.

“[Black women] are also not allowed the space to be beautiful in the traditional sense (with skin often being lightened).” ~Tiffany Mugo

“We don’t often see [black] women who sport their natural hair, skin—there is a mainstream idea of beauty and all in the mainstream must adhere to it.” ~ Nebila Abdulmelik

This means, light skin = beautiful, dark skin = ugly or even dangerous. More Eurocentric features are prized over those considered to be “African”. “Good hair” (straight and long) is more desirable than “bad hair” kinky, afros, even braids and other styles that are considered too ethnic. These perceptions of beauty are so widely accepted that skin lightening creams and other body modification products have become a huge money-makers in the continental beauty industry.

“For women of colour, the concept of ‘beauty’ is often imbued with racist standards of beauty that dominate Western media and culture. One merely has to open a glossy magazine or walk down the aisles of a supermarket in Harare and look at the faces you see on certain kinds of body lotion or shower cream—to realise that ‘beauty’ and ideas of beauty are political. … Famed Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong’o articulates poignantly the experience of being a black African woman, ‘I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned.’” ~ Dudziro Nhengu, The Business of Beauty & Body Politics

While these ideas of “beauty” are not without complexities—they are just the beginning of the story as Tiffany Mugo, a feminist writer says, “Black women are often oversexualised or victims which is infuriating.” This hypersexualisation covers a broad spectrum ideas of what black woman should and should not be allowed to do, think, feel and be. From pervasive images of motherhood and women as nothing more than machines for reproduction to women as sexual objects that exist solely for male pleasure. These images affect women around the world but there is something striking about how these ideas of woman-hood play out in contexts like Zimbabwe or South Africa.

“Often it is the problem that black women are seen as not being empowered and any that are an anomaly rather than the norm. The ‘black woman’ [if we can use this generalised blanket term for how the diversity of black women is so often diminished] is a victim of culture (please see most stories on the girl child within Africa), the 'good woman' who is married and heterosexual and seeking to have children (often witnessed in local newspapers in form of how to guides and articles shaming women for seeking alternate paths).” ~Tiffany Mugo

What happens when we break the rules?

In Southern Africa the development industry has generated and perpetuated specific images about black women as victims who are incapable of being agents of change in their own lives. These images are often part and parcel of how development and non-governmental organisations write and think about the people whom they represent. The truth of the matter is that we live in a world where women are seen as less worthy than men. In this world, women (men, too) are subject to rules and restrictive binaries: good women” vs. “bad women””. These rules proscribe behaviour, defining everything from what is appropriate in terms of dress to how and with whom we choose to have sex. It’s hard to confront and overcome these rules whatever body you have, and this is truer for black women. For South African activist and co-founder of SAY-F (South African Young Feminist Activists), Wanelisa Xaba, as a woman “you become aware of how your body is read... It’s [particularly] complicated for black women because we’re criminalised or we’re hypersexualised, either way our bodies are being read. In Johannesburg a few years ago a woman was stripped in a taxi rank. And there was a lot of this ‘respectability politics of dress’, that if women have to dress in a certain way and if they don’t, they ‘deserve’ to be raped or attacked or shamed. It’s policing women’s bodies and [in South Africa I find] I’m monitored because I’m a woman but I’m also monitored because I’m black.”

For many of us, the consequences of stepping outside of the “rules” can be violence, backlash, discrimination and stigma.

Fighting back against stereotypes

It makes me mad. But in the madness, there are black women, across Africa, who are fighting back against these negative and destructive stereotypes. Nana Darkoa, the founder and curator of Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women uses her blogging platform to shatter stereotypes that African women are just passive actors when it comes to sex. Her blog is a virtual safe space where the complexities and challenges of African sexualities can be discussed by black African women. Zanele Muholi, a prize-winning visual artist and activist harnesses photography to reaffirm that there are many different ways to “be a woman” and to “be a black woman” whatever one’s sexual orientation or sexual identity. Fungai Machirori, a Zimbabwean photographer, journalist and JASS ally uses HerZimbabwe, a pioneering web-based platform to disturb the narratives about women in Zimbabwe and create a forum for women to share their stories and experiences.

So, yes, the picture is bleak in a lot of ways. But there are growing pockets of rebellion, women who are pushing for and creating a diversity of stories because at the end of the day that’s all we are asking for: the right to write, tell, create our own stories and the space to recognise, in whatever way, the people looking back at us in those narratives.

Photo: Clutch Magazine, "Pretty", a documentary series by un-ruly – a digital beauty platform dedicated to Black hair. The documentary explores how beauty differs across the globe.

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