In her seminal book The Second Sex from 1949 my hero, the french existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, argues that a woman is per default considered “the other.” Women are defined as relative to men, and thereby as subordinate to men. Despite the fact that the book was written over half a century ago this point still seems to be topical.
As I have just written about deconstructivism in my upcoming book Anti-trend – Durable Design and the Art of Resilient Living, and hence dived into the deconstructivist theory of french postmodern Philosopher Jacques Derrida I have become increasingly aware of the benefit of critically analysing and dissecting the words we use without giving it further thought: words that might contain inherent oppression, hierarchies, or other unfortunate connotations. For example using the words like man or mankind in stead of human being or humankind seems objectively speaking odd. It emphasises de Beauvoir’s point on women being considered “the other” or “the second sex”.
“The woman is no victim of a mysterious fate: she should by no means assume that her ovaries condemn her to live eternally down on her knees.”
Simone de Beauvoir
In De Beauvoir’s writings feminism was part of a larger project of social justice and human rights. Oppression and inequality can have many faces, which are certainly not at all purely linked to gender-issues. But, nevertheless gender-issues and women’s inferiority to men is still an actual and important topic to shed light on and to discuss.
One of UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals is solely devoted to gender equality and contains goals like: ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls, eliminating all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation, and ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life. These goals emphasise the fact that even now, in year 2019, we are still dealing with immense inequality between men and women.
“Recent data from 106 countries show that 18 per cent of ever-partnered women and girls aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical and/or sexual partner violence in the previous 12 months. The prevalence is highest in least developed countries, at 24 per cent.”
Sustainable Development Goals No. 5
Nobody chooses an oppressive society, community, or culture; we are born into them and either enslaved or benefitted from them — depending on whether we are expectedly the oppressor or the oppressed due to our innate identity or societal status. However, no matter if we are born into privilege and hence benefitting from oppression, we have an obligation to fight it, or at least to question it.
Escaping oppression and fighting against injustice takes a lot of courage, as one risks being expelled from the community and marginalised. Therefore, most people choose not to rebel. There is too much at stake.
Nevertheless, recently I met a real rebel: a women, who is willing to risk everything to fight for her case and oppose oppression. Meeting her felt like such a privilege that it has taken me quite some time to find the right way to describe her courage as well as digest the impact of her mission.
But here we go.
A couple of months ago I drove for several hours together with my friend Nungki to reach a small village in the dry region of Karangasem in east Bali. Our destination was a shelter for children and women with the Indonesian name “kelompok perlindungan anak dan perempuan” (“protection group for children and women”), which is founded and run by an amazing powerhouse of a lady, Ibu (Mrs.) Ni Wayan Suparni.
This is Ibu Surpani’s incredible story. It is a story of hardship, empowerment and unbelievable drive. The following is written in collaboration with Nungki, who has helped me interview Ibu Surpani in Balinese and translated everything for me.
Ibu Surpani is usually called Mamak Surpani or just Mamak (Mamak means mum in the local dialect). She was born in Buleleng in the northern part of Bali and grew up in a very traditional family. Her parents could not afford to give her an education; she would have to help with the household and only finished primary school. She got married to her husband when she was 15 years old. Her husband worked for the infantry army and was stationed in Buleleng at that time, and he is much older than her. Together they have three children.
When her children were still young her husband got stationed in Karangasem. As an army wife she followed her husband to rural villages, and she started talking to and making friends with many of the women who lived there. At first she just listened as a friend to their stories of domestic abuse and violence, but the more she heard, the more she felt inclined to do something. And hence, she started joining events held by the Social department in Bali – and here she met many inspiring people, who encouraged her to actively engage in protecting women and children.
Her first “case” was a pedophilia case in year 2002. She was drawn into the case, as it happened in Karangasem, and because the social workers from Denpasar needed someone familiar with the local culture and customs of the region in order to provide effective help. However, because Ibu Surpani at that time didn’t have an education she was only able to offer them her social and cultural assistance.
After that case, she started following around social workers who were active within women’s and children’s protection, and she became convinced that providing help for those in need was her destiny. But in order to be able to fully engage and make a real difference, she needed an education.
And so, since she had only gone to elementary school as a child, she needed firstly to graduate from junior high school and high school, before she could pursue a law degree. Now she is a fully qualified lawyer. In her own words:
“It was a hard and long journey, but I believe that if you put your mind in to it, you can do whatever you want. Just keep going. There will be sun after the rain.”
The shelter that she now runs was actually initially a present from MNCTV (one of Indonesia’s biggest TV channels). Ibu Surpani was interviewed by MNCTV about her activism and social work, and in June 2012 a team from Jakarta visited her in Karangasem to experience her in action.
A while hereafter she was informed that she was on the top 10 of MNCTV pahlawan Indonesia (MNCTV Indonesian Heroes). There had been 700 candidates! They invited her to Jakarta to be interviewed by the judges, and they also interviewed people who she was, or had been working with. And then, around October 2012, she was given the shelter as a gift.
Since then, she has run the “protection group for children and women” by herself with the occasional help of volunteers. The shelter is open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, as Ibu Surpani lives there herself. The shelter was created for women and children, who have been victims of abuse and domestic violence, but anyone who needs help is welcome. The victims can stay for free for as as long as they need too. Food and all of their needs are taken care of; all they need to do is to heal, as Ibu Surpani puts it. Both legal and psychological assistance is provided for them, while they are staying there, free of charge. Ibu Surpani mostly takes care of all the expenses herself. She gets a little help from the government as well, but it usually isn’t enough and it is only provided once a year.
In order to finance the shelter, Ibu Surpani works as a lawyer outside the shelter at times, usually with divorce cases. For a woman in need of a divorce, getting a lawyer in the region of Karangasem is a challenge. So Ibu Surpani usually offers her service, and allow for the women to pay however and whatever they are able to. Once a women sent her a package of vegetables and 500.000 Indonesian rupiah (around $35) as payment.
It might sound corny, but for me it is not about the money. It’s about the feeling I get when seeing the look on their faces, when they understand that; yes, someone is there to help them! That feeling for me is worth the hardship, and worth even more than one billion rupiah.
Victims of domestic violence are often reluctant to leave their abuser, because they don’t have anywhere to go, and they don’t have anyone to turn to. Ibu Surpani’s goal with the shelter is to encourage victims to save themselves and to let them know that there is a place to go, and that there is someone, who can help them get through the darkest time of their life.
When Nungki and I visited the shelter, there were three women and two children living there, but only a few months earlier there were six women staying there. Some of the women have now moved on, and have found good jobs in Denpasar. Ibu Surpani is not surprised that the women at the shelter are showing strength and independence, because, as she says; most of them were the main breadwinners of their families, which is actually often the reason for their husband’s abuse, because it makes them feel jealous and inferior.
However, some women need more time and more healing than others. One of the women, who has been at the shelter for a long time is Ibu Wayan in the below photo.
Being a women’s activist in a patriarchal culture can be challenging. And Ibu Surpani has faced her share of threats from the victims’ husbands’ families, who have felt that she interferes with their personal, domestic life. In Bali, anything that happens inside someone’s marriage is considered their personal business. And Ibu Surpan says that to an extent she agrees; except when force and violence is present!
“So yes, I’ve been threatened, insulted, and confronted a lot of times. I usually will not budge, but one time they (the victim’s family) tried to hurt my family, my husband to be exact, and I almost gave in. I won’t go into the details, but it involved the institution he was working for. I asked for a divorce so that he didn’t have to face this problem, but he chose to resign instead. At that time I was somehow surprised by his decision, because in our marriage, there have been many times when he didn’t support me, but I guess people can have a change of heart, and I thank him for his support.”
Ibu Surpani says that as a woman and mother, she always feels sorry for and worried about the children in a domestic violence case, because no children should see or experience anything like that. Furthermore, children copy what their parents do, and hence, the child could get the impression that abuse and the exploitation is normal behaviour. Therefore, the children of domestic violence victims should be getting psychological assistance alike their mothers. This is something that the shelter hopes to be better at providing in the near future.
When Nungki and I asked Ibu Surpani about her hopes for the future, she answered that she feels a little worried, as she is getting older, and not many young people are interested in working in this field, as it provides very little money and enormous emotional challenges. Her hope is that the government will be more attentive and committed in relation to supporting women and children in the future. Because as she states: in Bali, women are the backbone of the economic sector, and the children are the future, so we have to protect them
In Bali there are no women’s shelters run by the government. But for many reasons there is a big need for sanctuaries like Ibu Suparni’s. I am still digesting the stories I heard and the images they put in my head, when I visited the shelter and spoke to the women that stay there. And, I am overwhelmed with gratitude that rebels like Ibu Suparni exist. She is brave, fierce, and willing to do whatever needs to be done, despite the fact that her actions most often lead to disapproval in and exclusion from the local community, which in Bali is immensely important to the individual.