Back to WhereThereBeDragons.com
The definition of serenity. Photo by Hannah Richter (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Finalist), Indonesia Semester.

Are American and Indonesian Women So Different?

Hi everyone!

This is a repost of an article I wrote for my internship at the NGO Mitra Wacana Women’s Resource Center trying to challenge the assumptions we hold — that I held before this program — about what women and women’s empowerment should look like. You can check out their website here: http://mitrawacana.or.id/?lang=en

 

After growing up in the U.S., now living in Indonesia for about five months, and interning at Mitra Wacana for three, I’ve been surprised at the similarities between conditions for women in the two countries.

On the surface level, women in the U.S. and Indonesia may seem like polar opposites.

When comparing the two, people tend to focus on the behaviors and appearances of women. Women are judged for how they dress, how they act, and how independent they are, for example.

Americans might judge Indonesian women for dressing conservatively, staying in the domestic sphere, and being seemingly submissive to their husbands. Meanwhile, Indonesians might judge American women for not covering their bodies, being too sexual, not focusing on domestic roles, or being too loud and demanding.

What I’ve noticed since being here is first, that these differences are less noticeable than I had thought, and second, that they seem to stem from differences in cultures and societal norms. There are different ways of understanding gender and gender roles, yet women in both America and Indonesia want safety, respect, and to have a voice.

There are many similarities between women’s behaviors and struggles in the two countries.

  • 51.9% of Indonesian women are in the workforce, compared to 57.1% of U.S. women
  • 17.4% of the Indonesian parliament is female, compared to 23.9% of the U.S. legislature
  • The first Indonesian woman was elected president in 2001, while a woman has never yet been president in the U.S.
  • The first female supreme court justice in Indonesia, Sri Widoyati Wiratmo Soekito, was inaugurated in 1968, while the first woman to join the U.S. supreme court was Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981, about 15 years later.

There are many issues – from sexual harassment to rape – that have a widespread impact on women in both countries, but it’s hard to have accurate statistics because many women do not or can not report these incidents.  But based on what is reported, it’s clear that these are major issues in both countries.

  • 3 out of 5 Indonesian woman and 81% of American women have experienced sexual harassment
  • 15% of Indonesian women and more than 1 in 3 American women report being a victim of sexual violence
  • 16% of Indonesan women and about 25% of women in the U.S. have reported being a victim of intimate partner violence (physical, sexual, or psychological violence from a partner or spouse)

With two countries in which women’s attitudes and behaviors seem so different, it’s surprising how similar women’s successes and struggles are.

 Just last year, a poll in the U.S. found that only 29% of American women identify as feminists. In both countries, there are both feminist movements and anti-feminist movements (In the U.S., “meninism”; in Indonesia, “Indonesia tanpa feminisme”). In both, women’s voices are suppressed; women who advocate for themselves are often seen as too demanding, and their problems are ignored.

Why is there so much judgement for women’s choices in both countries?

Part of this is based on stereotypes, which are continually built up about women who act differently. Women in each country are taught that their culture’s roles, behaviors, and values are the better choice, and if only they stick to that, they will avoid the problems faced by women in different cultures. For example, women in the U.S. are taught that being more assertive will help them achieve more political representation, and women in Indonesia are taught that behaving modestly will help them avoid sexual violence or harassment. Yet the similarities in statistics prove that it is not the behaviors of women that cause these problems, and neither culture’s prescriptions for women will solve the issues.

Of course, there is not one simple answer for these systemic issues.  But, the main culprit of sexism around the globe is the patriarchy – the system that has been constructed to empower men and subjugate women. It is this system that has created this notion of victim blaming – to judge and blame women for their own oppression instead of the overarching system.

Instead of looking at the choices of women or judging them, we should look at the system of patriarchy that is prevalent in both countries.

I think we need to stop focusing on the behavior of women and instead focus on the way that society judges and oppresses all women, and then build solidarity to break down those systems. The ideal of how a woman should be and should act may be different in both cultures, but it is universal that women should be free from violence and treated with dignity and respect.