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We still can’t talk about the massacre
1 Jun 2010
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What you’ve got to do is take a step back from what you see as social consensus around you and try to figure out what your aspirations are, what you want in life. Then, figure out what is the distance between that and what you see around you. If you want to be free, your own person, how do you achieve full humanity?”

Saskia Wieringa.  At the time of interview in 2010, Director of Aletta, a leading women’s archive and documentation center in the Netherlands devoted to women’s rights and empowerment, cultural heritage, and academic study and research; founder of the Women’s Studies program at the University of Amsterdam; co-founder of Kartini-Asia network. Interviewed June 2010. Photo copyright The Jakarta Post.

We still can’t talk about the massacre

We were among the pioneers. In ’73 and ’4, we were a group of students, and the universities were being democratized. The university lecturers happily left teaching to us students, which gave us a lot of freedom to set up our own courses. We were coming together, sixty-seventy of us university students. We said, “Ok, what kind of courses do we want?” I said, “Let’s set up a Women’s Studies course.” Five or six of us joined in, and we did. Because there was no lecturer at the moment to help us, we submitted a reading list from all disciplines. We set it up, and we started applying the readings to our courses in University.

There was really a lot of activism involved. First we started fighting to create a position of an assistant lecturer in Women's Studies. That didn’t come about. We had to regroup, and then we staged an attack on the faculty board. They had a meeting, and we came in with black masks for our faces and water pistols. We sang. We made a protest song that there was no Women’s Studies program, and we needed an assistant. Then, I was among the first student assistants there. That’s how we did it, with these black masks for our face and water pistols. 

All of us were activists. It was natural at that moment. Everybody was at the same time a student and an activist. There was no distinction. Now, you’ve got to tell the students to be active, and it’s not natural anymore. Now, you’ve got courses like “The history of feminist thought.” For us, there was no history of feminist thought. We were discovering it and we were writing it at the same time. Our books are also classics, but it was really a spirit of discovery. It was a really interesting, beautiful period. I would not want to have missed it.

I was active in three different movements. First, the feminist movement, we were doing all the abortion marches. We also had a training of housewives. We had theory courses where we’d bring housewives together and tell them about feminist work and feminist research and feminist activism and feminist theories. There was a kind of informal school system.

Then, I was very involved in the third world movement. That was post-Vietnam. I was active in the Columbia committee, in the Cuba committee, and in the Indonesia committee. Indonesia was where I finally decided I would do the rest of my research. We tried to make them gender sensitive. It was a lot of work to try to tell them, “What about women?” They say, “Women? Are there also women?” We say, “Yes, there are women in Indonesia. Lots of them, in fact. Millions, and they’ve different problems than their male colleagues have.”

I was also active in the lesbian movement. The lesbian movement had nothing to do with imperialism or those kinds of things. It was really a bunch of radical lesbians trying to create their own niche in the world.

These three movements at that time were very different. The socialist feminist movement was very Dutch, Western and didn’t look beyond the borders at the third world, which I was involved in as an anthropologist. The third world solidarity movement had nothing to do with feminism and neither of them had anything to do with lesbianism. Lesbians didn’t want to look at the side of these feminists because they thought they were boring and heterosexist, nor at the third world solidarity movement, which they thought was old-fashioned fascist.

I remember at some time, the socialist feminists were very much anti-lesbians. We had a big abortion march. It was hot like now. We were resting on the Dam, the central square here. We always went to there. It was sort of the focus point of our activism. We were sitting there, a bunch of lesbians, and we were shouting slogans about abortion all day, and we were saying, “Why are we fighting for abortion? We don’t need abortion, do we? Why aren’t they supporting us?” There became a tension: We were always supporting the hetero feminists but when we needed them, their solidarity, they were never there. They think that we’re a bunch of separatists, and they’re not interested in joining our movement against homophobia.

Everybody was like this. It was not just the women’s movement was separatist but all the groups were separatist. Like this third world solidarity movement was not interested in feminism. They were very different groups with different discourses and very specific and separate.

It was difficult to cross barriers. I was trying to do that. I was getting very tired. I was attending all the meetings and asking all the questions, always everywhere.

They say that intersectionality is a recent phenomenon. It was not. As feminist, lesbian anthropologists, we were fighting. But our voices were not heard so much. I’ve always tried to combine them. I think the rest of my life, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. Intersectionality, it’s not a new thing. It came straight away from the internationally-oriented feminists, particularly those who are looking at the third world and working together with black migrant women and with Moroccan women. It started then.

I myself was an activist before I helped set up Women’s Studies here at Amsterdam University in the 70’s, and for me, Women’s Studies sprang out of my activism. We started Women’s Studies because we wanted to understand our situation better in order to be more efficient in changing the system.

How active we were when we were young. I mean, we were not always old, right? The young think that we were always sixty and walking around in sloppy clothes. But it’s not true. We were having fun and discovering the world. We thought that we could change the world. It was wonderful to be feminist in the 70’s and 80’s. Young women think that we were so boring and ugly. There’s a lot of these media stereotypes. Of course, young women now have different interests, so let them go and move and build their own movement but don’t think that we were a bunch of backwards, ugly women. We were young, we were active, we were changing the world, we were discovering ourselves, our lives, our sexuality. It was beautiful.

Now, we have a young generation coming up, but don’t denounce the older generation that went before you. I mean, the first wave thought that with political rights that the world would change. Clearly it doesn’t. The second wave thought that with sexual rights and economic rights that the world would change and emancipation would be complete. Well, it isn’t clear. Well, now, you, you’re third wave. Find out what is the problem now. We’ve got to keep thinking now, come on, how come the world doesn’t change? There’s still not emancipation.  There is still this oppression and subordination going on. Still, there is a wage gap, still sexual violence and those kinds of things. How come there is so much resistance against feminism?

Of course young feminists now have different methods. We call it Feminism 2.0 because it’s interactive, it’s on Facebook, and you’ve got different ways of organizing, and that’s great, that’s fantastic so do organize. Do build up your own ways.

What you’ve got to do is take a step back from what you see as social consensus around you and try to figure out what your aspirations are, what you want in life. Then, figure out what is the distance between that and what you see around you. If you want to be free, your own person, how do you achieve full humanity? What is the distance between you and this aspiration for full humanity? Go and analyze that. Analyze the obstacles to that. How come there is gender gap? How come the political life is dominated by masculine values? How come there are wars all over? How come nature is being destroyed? How come women’s values, like caring, are replaced by greed and aggression? How come women don’t have more influence in this world? How come Hillary Clinton is denounced when she smiles and denounced when she looks stern? Oppression is still with us.

That’s what we are collecting here at Aletta,[1] that’s what we are doing, and of course we try to be relevant and help the younger women organize themselves. I’m constantly trying to involve young women from different communities in this center and to make it into a center that’s alive, not just a dead collection of documents but one that people are happy to go to, that they think is fighting for their interests, and makes Women’s Studies alive. It’s not a dead discipline. It is being built by people with ideas. We’ve got to keep on changing the world.

At Aletta, we’ve been collecting women’s history for 75 years. We were set up in 1935 by women’s activists, so we collect material but we also produce academic knowledge out of that. We keep history alive. Now, there’s this idea that emancipation is over and finished. We keep telling everybody that’s not true. We’re collecting oral history portraits, making documentaries and using the documentaries with schools because there’s an idea that feminism is a dirty word.

There are movements that we stimulate. Sometimes we’re going back as far as women’s emancipation goes. In this religious revival from both the Muslim community and very hard-line religious Christian groups, we ask how come the feminist Christians are not stronger. I’m a Muslim. How come feminist Muslims are not getting more attention? While at the same time, as an archive, you also want to collect the heritage of even the right-wing groups.

We just finished a big research project on women in the fascist movement in Holland. That was a new thing for our archive to do because we felt ourselves to be a part of the progressive women’s movement. Some said, “These right-wing fascist women, we don’t want to have anything to do with them.” I mean, come on. We are an archive. They are an important part of women’s history. There were thousands of women members. We need to understand why. What was attractive to them? It’s very relevant to hear their life stories because it’s the same kind of attraction that women feel for popular right-wing groups now. We’ve got to analyze that in order to counter their arguments. That helps you understand their motivations and then you can talk to them about it.

Saying they’re backward, that’s too easy. These women show agency when they become members of right-wing political parties. What kind of agency? What is it that they want? If you don’t understand their aspirations, you’ll never be able to enter into a dialogue with them. As an archive, these questions are important. Yeah, and if you think the women’s movement only consists of progressive women, then you are misguided. There’s so much activism going on in right-wing groups. We say that’s not feminist, so we’re not interested, but then you never know what moves these women. You never understand them. 

I’m always saying, be the archive of all women who live in the Netherlands, right-wing, left-wing, religious or secular, migrant or I’ve-been-living-here-for-thousands-of-years, doesn’t really matter. Everybody who lives now in Holland, if they’ve done something interesting, their material should be kept here.

I’m also a full professor at the University of Amsterdam. I’m an Asian specialist. My topic is sexuality, gender and women’s same-sex relations, cross-culturally. I think it’s the only chair in the world that just specifically focuses on women’s same-sex relations and that’s great. My work on same-sex relations has been all over the world. I’ve done research in Latin America, some more research in Africa, but particularly in Asia. I’m an Indonesian specialist originally.

I’ve always been giving courses in Indonesia, trainings, at the request of the groups there, and lately I’ve been working more on sexuality research, working with lesbian groups there. That’s a dangerous and not welcome research topic but we’re continuing with that.

My biggest work, I did research in Indonesia on the genocide of the ’65-66 period. It is the one genocide that is totally unknown outside of certain circles, and it’s still being felt in Indonesia, socially, politically, culturally. Socialist young girls were accused of seducing, castrating, and murdering the generals there. Of course, it was the young officers who murdered them.

Sueharto,[2]he engineered this campaign of sexual slander against socialist women. Thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls were accused of seducing sixty-year-old generals and castrating them. It was one of the most successful campaigns of sexual slander and mass propaganda in the world. In the wake of this campaign, a million, maybe two—we don’t know—people were murdered. Socialist people were murdered, both women and men, in a frenzy of killing, like you had in Rwanda.

I was actually invited by survivors of this massacre, “Please tell our story for us because we can’t do it.” So I did. This story was totally unknown at that moment. It blacklisted me from Indonesia. I was blacklisted from 1986 to 1998. It was very dangerous research, very difficult research in the middle of the dictatorship. I couldn’t do any awareness-raising because I had to keep my research secret.

For a long time, I couldn’t do my PhD. I couldn’t finish it because I couldn’t go back to Indonesia to check it with my informants. We had made an agreement. I promised not to release anything without their consent. I had to go back but I couldn’t. I can’t tell you the details because I still can’t reveal them, but at some point I went back undercover. For three weeks, we sat in a house. We didn’t go out. It was too dangerous. People knew me at the time, and it was not a good thing to have the word out that I was around. They checked my research and I could finally write my PhD, Sexual Politics in Indonesia.

In 1998, when the Sueharto regime fell, I could go back to Indonesia. My thesis was published after 1998, so I could reveal the full names and details. We still can’t talk about the massacre in Indonesia. There are still too many people around who were involved in it and bragging. They’re bragging that they’re still so proud of massacring communists. It’s still not possible to talk about that, but we’re going to try.

I’ve been writing about it. My thesis was about it and there’s a film now on the topic, Women and Generals. It’s not yet released. We had some showings in Indonesia, which was very emotional, last April. It’s a beautiful film, very powerful. My partner and I, we were narrators in this film. It’s based on the book, Sexual Politics in Indonesia.

Actually by nature, I am more of an academic than an activist. I’m happier when I sit at my desk then when I walk the streets with a banner over my head, but I’ve done all this writing now and nothing’s changed. So, I think I’ve got to go back to the streets in my old age and try to get this genocide better known.

I’m also a co-founder of the Kartini-Asia network with my partner. She’s a women’s rights activist and a lawyer in Indonesia. It’s a great network. We try to bring together academics and activists. We feel that that’s a very promising relationship. We ground our research in activist demands for information and train activists with knowledge, so they become better informed and better able to use the tools that are developing. We have regular trainings.

We also have regular conferences, but we do it when we feel that there is new work coming up. We do not want to do a conference because we plan a conference. We want to do a conference when there’s really something new to be said.

It’s not easy. Actually my work in Indonesia, my work with Aletta, I find they tear me apart. I can’t work on Indonesia from Aletta because it’s not easy to combine my work on Indonesia with my work for the Dutch women’s movement.

Aletta is very Dutch, Western, which is a conscious decision of ours. Our idea is that archives should be kept where they were set up in the first place, unless they are threatened by extinction. For example, the Indian women’s movement, if their archive is kept here, Indian women can’t do research on their own archive. We’d rather have archives in the country themselves than collecting them here. Our mission is indeed to promote women’s emancipation, to fight for women’s emancipation, but our base is here.

 In the beginning here, I was really happy to be back in the Dutch women’s movement because I’d been wandering around since the early 80’s. It’s nice to renew my acquaintances from those years. I thought it would be good to go back to my roots in the Dutch women’s movement. I thought I would be able to combine it with my work on Indonesia, but it’s too difficult. It’s two lives. I’m moving to Indonesia now.

Indonesia is my future.


[1]Aletta: The Netherlands oldest and most complete archive of the women’s movement.

[2] Sueharto:The second President of Indonesia.

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