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The Conditions of Indigenous Women in Indonesia

Women’s resistance in indigenous societies is a reflection of the persistence, fortitude, and courage that has been rooted in culture and tradition for centuries. It is an inspiring portrait of how women, amidst the rules and norms that feel restrictive, have found ways to confront and transform existing societal structures.

In many indigenous communities, women are often confronted with systems focused on patriarchal traditions. They are restricted in terms of land ownership, decision-making, and other social and economic rights. However, the portrait of women in customary societies is not only about inequality, but also about the struggle to gain their rights and change society’s views. They began to actively challenge the implementation of patriarchy, playing a role in social and political movements aimed at changing unfair regulations and supporting gender equality.

However, the resistance of women in customary law communities also often faces great challenges, such as being faced with stigma, intimidation, and even violence in their efforts to achieve their rights.

This condition is the basis for KEMITRAAN, through the Estungkara program, to take the initiative to discuss the problems faced by indigenous women by holding an interactive discussion on September 26, 2023 at Gadjah Mada University. The discussion featured Syaiful from Karsa Institute, Hasna Songko from the Kulawi Indigenous Women, Samsul Maarif, a lecturer in Anthropology and CRCS UGM, and chairman of Barisan Pemuda Adat Nusantara (BPAN), and Michelin Sallata as speakers.

Hasna Songko shared how in the mountains where they live, the relationship with the forest is one of the most important things in daily life. But the situation these days is increasingly worrying, not only because most of the territory has been taken over by the national mining industry, but also because the indigenous young generation tends to ignore customary activities. This has caused the principle of mutual cooperation, which is the main foundation of the life of the Kulawi indigenous people, including managing agriculture, to be increasingly threatened.

But seeing the younger generation who are often not involved in our daily activities, is one of the biggest challenges so that they lose valuable opportunities to learn through life experiences,” Hasna said.

In addition, indigenous communities still have strong patriarchal values. Boys are often prioritized, especially in the division of property. In fact, before the arrival of the Dutch, Kulawi traditional women held an important position, even taking the lead in several aspects of life, for example as a forum to seek opinions in solving problems or making important decisions. They were not merely considered as complements in the deliberation process, devoid of a valued voice as they are today.

However, Kulawi indigenous women have begun to be involved in the advocacy and decision-making process, especially in fighting for indigenous peoples’ land rights and sustainable environmental preservation.

As an indigenous community in Koh Tulawi, we have begun to fight the negative impacts of the mining industry, and in the process, we have gained knowledge and awareness from friends in NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) that we possess the right to determine our own fate, and not just to submit to the rules set by the state,” she explained.”

At Karsa Institute, Syaiful explained that since 2010, his organization has been committed to assisting the Kulawi indigenous community. Efforts have begun by helping the community gain access to basic rights such as education and welfare. Not only that, assistance is also provided in terms of dealing with conflicts related to territorial recognition and their rights to access the forest.

On the other hand, indigenous communities also require assistance with increasingly massive changes. For example, the opening of roads and the introduction of technology such as cellphones and the internet have brought both positive and negative impacts. Therefore, assistance in dealing with change, called ‘estungkara,’ is an important step. Although challenges remain great, Syaiful remains optimistic. In an effort to redefine the role of women and achieve better changes in society, concrete steps such as mentoring, dialogue, and women’s empowerment are key.

Echoing the sentiments of Hasna and Syaiful, as chairman of Barisan Pemuda Adat Nusantara (BPAN), Michel Sallatin added that when women lose their role and space for participation in indigenous communities, the loss is not only experienced by themselves, but also for the entire community. Sometimes, women are even considered as negative symbols, even though adat has systems and rules designed to maintain.

She also added that it is important to listen and understand the wishes of indigenous peoples, which are not always in line with the development agenda dominated by urban communities. Women should not be considered tokens in the quest for equality. Too often, indigenous women make great sacrifices but are ultimately ignored. She and other young people from indigenous communities believe that women have the potential to lead change.

“In the face of this situation, it is important to spread awareness, provide education, and provide the necessary support to fight for the rights of indigenous peoples, especially the rights of women. It is the duty of the younger generation to actively engage in environmental protection and the preservation of their indigenous cultures, as well as to trigger positive changes in the dominating paradigm,” Michel concluded.

The narratives explained by several speakers according to Samsul Maarif, a lecturer in Anthropology UGM, illustrate the complexity of the role of indigenous women in social structures and how their contributions impact the discrimination they experience in their environment. In this context, indigenous society is not only a system of rules, but also a spatial ecology that emphasizes the relationship between humans and nature. Women in indigenous communities have an important role in maintaining this balance.

However, Samsul sees that indigenous women are often faced with challenges of discrimination and exclusion. Patriarchy is dominant in indigenous politics, and the focus on survival often prevents indigenous women from dealing with stressful situations from outside groups. Even within indigenous communities themselves, hierarchy has become part of the system, with women often at the bottom. All of this is compounded by existing state power structures.

The importance of understanding these complexities is so that we can begin the journey towards more equitable recognition for women in indigenous communities and embrace the contribution of indigenous knowledge in addressing global challenges such as climate change. The Constitution gives recognition to indigenous peoples, but in practice, the issue of indigenous peoples’ rights is often complicated,” Samsul added.

The dominating economic paradigm, Samsul said, often damages the environment and affects indigenous peoples through evictions and development that destroys ecosystems. Existing bureaucratic structures can also be an obstacle in indigenous peoples’ efforts to achieve their rights. Therefore, civil society and other non-governmental organizations must work hard to assist indigenous peoples in their efforts to obtain their rights.

Campuses and academics have an important role to play in changing views and paradigms. Knowledge production on campuses often tends to refer to the western paradigm and the hierarchy of man over nature. However, getting to know indigenous peoples and understanding how they maintain a balance with nature can help change the way students view the world. It can also promote the inclusion and recognition of indigenous peoples in a broader context. To fight for the rights of indigenous peoples and the women within them, there needs to be a better understanding of the complexities of indigenous peoples, cooperation between institutions such as Karsa Institute, and a paradigm shift on campus and in the general public. These are the first steps in building a more inclusive and sustainable world.