Claiming Space

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 12 November 2016. Read in Bahasa Indonesia here.)


WHEN I was in high school, the drama club put on a play that criticized the principal. The club’s leader was then called to the principal’s office and suspended. The play was inspired by N. Riantiarno’s Opera Kecoa, which was critical to the New Order—its performances were banned and attacked. In 1992 a researcher in Bengkulu reported that 27% of teenagers in the province were having sex—for his findings, his institute reprimanded him. In 1996 my family hotly discussed the 27 July incidents, but when I wrote down our discussion for a school assignment, my parents told me to delete what I’d written as it might cause problems for our family. Censorship affects very many aspects of life.

We who grew up under the New Order learned that to avoid trouble we had to police what we said in public. It was hard to learn about discussion and respecting differences—everywhere we looked criticism was met with denial and retaliation, those who brought truth to light were accused of bringing shame to the community, those who dared to be different were often silenced or ostracized. I felt there was no space for me to figure out what path might fulfill me—life was about squeezing myself to fit the mold.

After the fall of the New Order government, the media showed people demanding Soeharto’s trial, books were published investigating the version of history that the regime had taught us, books about girls embracing their sexuality… I thought it was the beginning of a total transformation of Indonesian society. People were questioning matters they had simply accepted before, from whether unitary state was the better form of government for our country to whether it was okay to haze first-year students. I thought from then on I could voice my dreams, even if they didn’t involve a husband and children… I thought it was time to challenge religious teachings that were oppressive to women… I thought people would support my friend A to come out, or my friend B to talk about what had happened to her during the ’98 riots…

Until then I never had the courage to show my writing to anyone. In 1999 I saw an announcement for a writing competition and entered a novella. It won first prize. A publisher offered to publish it. Then they told me they would delete scenes where men and women were holding hands or embracing—they believed such behaviors were against Islamic teaching. My publisher was supposed to help me raise my voice—instead, the message I got was the same one I’d received all my life: there was space for me only if I became what they wanted me to be. Right then I learned that just because the state has formally guaranteed citizens’ right to free expression, censorship was not a thing of the past.

Today, eighteen years after ‘98, there are still those who wish to force their values on others, those who wish to keep certain views from seeing light, those who refuse to share this country with others unlike themselves.

It makes matters worse that laws were passed that can be used to limit our space for exploration and expression. The 2008 Antipornography Law can have the effect of keeping artists from examining what it means to be a sexual being. Even if your goal was to stop certain criminal behavior, first you must understand what might motivate people to do such things. Laws on defamation remain the main method to silence people through the justice system. How can we investigate if a public official is corrupt when under the 2008 Electronic Information and Transaction Law we can’t share with our fellow journalists that we suspect him to be corrupt? How are we to propose an Islamic spirituality that reforms practices that are limiting women if publishers are still afraid of being charged under the Defamation of Religion law?

Even the academia is not a safe haven. Events have been cancelled at universities, sometimes due to pressures motivated by commercial interests. Screening of the documentary Samin vs Semen, about local community’s rejection of the cement industry, was forcefully disbanded at Brawijaya University. The screening of Prahara Tanah Bongkoran, a film looking into land dispute, at Universitas 17 Agustus 1945 was also disallowed. How are we to expand our minds if so many topics are ruled off-limits?

At Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 Indonesia proudly showcased its literature to the world—but at home our freedom to write, read, and express ourselves is increasingly threatened. Attacks perpetrated by intolerant groups have shut down plays, movie screenings, festivals, book launches, art shows, rallies… Often when offered space to voice their objections, the attackers refused and threatened to wreck havoc unless the event was disbanded. In many cases, the police allowed those violent acts to happen.

Last May at NT Writers Festival, Darwin, Eka Kurniawan and I discussed censorship in Indonesia. We agreed that at least we could still publish and read books freely, it was just launches or discussions that were targeted. Not two weeks afterwards, military men seized books from a couple of activists and bookstores. Last August in Bandung military men closed down a street library. This October the police took into custody members of the Malaysian delegation at the Indonesian Book Fair for exhibiting a translation of the Communist Manifesto.

Some may believe that repression is the correct way to deal with ideas that they think are not right for our country—after all, we’ve seen all our lives that disagreement was dealt with silencing or getting rid of those who disagreed. Furthermore, there is less risk for the police to side with the attackers: they avoid physical confrontation with a brutal, sometimes drunken, mob, and I haven’t heard of a case where officers were disciplined for failing to guarantee security and safety at protested events. Law enforcement officers also need training on how to uphold laws guaranteeing free expression especially in situations where expressions have crossed the line to violence and violations of other people’s rights.

For our part, we can call on our leaders to not be silent when attacks on books and discussions are happening. We need learn to handle disagreement and controversial opinions peacefully. We’re so used to policing ourselves that we may subconsciously expect others to do the same—I’ve heard many people blame the victims of repression for bringing up certain topics. There is still much resistance to expressions that challenge what we traditionally associate with being good. We’re quick to think that men wearing peci are good and women with tattoos are bad—although if we look closer the men may be preaching hateful messages and the women may be campaigning against sexual abuse. Any mention of communism or anything critical to Islam still arouses much fear and antagonism—but we can learn to voice our concerns and fears constructively.

To censor is to say certain voices are not okay. When you don’t see people like yourself represented, you may feel isolated. That’s why intolerant groups must not be allowed to dictate what it means to be Indonesian. We owe it to ourselves to take care of our diversity—to realize a country where everyone can be, and is safe to be, true to themselves.

Often we are warned, “Don’t bring up SARA.” While we shouldn’t discriminate based on religion, ethnicity, race, and other identities, turning everything related to those topics into taboos can have the opposite effect: it doesn’t teach us how to talk about the privilege one group has over others in ways that are sensitive and useful, it doesn’t teach us how to represent various ethnic identities in ways that don’t reduce them to stereotypes, it doesn’t allow us to understand each other better.

There are many taboos we need to break if we wish to better understand topics such as drug use, sex work, mental health, interfaith relationships, women who are heavy but consider themselves beautiful—how often do you see pieces written from the perspectives of those affected? Pieces that are not bullying or preaching? What we need is more books, not more bans.

If religious extremists and repressive elements within the government tell us to obey and follow rules blindly, reading widely enables us to look closer—to get inside the hearts and minds of those who are different from us. It asks us to understand instead of judge, to empathize and be compassionate.

In 2015 I went to Ubud with my parents—my novel was to be launched at the writers’ festival. After I received notice that the launch had been cancelled due to police warnings, I dreaded telling my parents. All my life, when such things happened they had told me to lay low. That was why I was pleasantly surprised when that time my mother said, “We have to call a press conference!” It goes to show that if we stand up, even a little, we inspire courage in other people.

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