Book Club: Women in Acehnese Society
Today I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon launch for a book in which I was indirectly involved. In my previous post, I wrote about the ARTI (Aceh Research Training Institute) scholars who attended a seminar in Yogyakarta. This book is also an ARTI project, a compilation of recent research on women in Acehnese society titled Perempuan Dalam Masyarakat Aceh: Memahami Beberapa Persoalan Kekinian. Two out of the ten chapters were written by ARTI researchers that I advised, so the publication of this book is a moment of pride and celebration.
The title of the book in translation is simply Women in Acehnese Society: Understanding Some Contemporary Issues. In most academic environments it would be nearly impossible to publish a volume with such a broad and banal theme, but the desperate need for any research about women in Aceh based on real data allows the editors and publisher to get away with it this time. After a thorough review of the sparse social science literature on women in Aceh (less than seven pages!), name-checking the international heavyweights (Snouck Hurgronje, James T. Siegel, Jackie Siapno, Anthony Reid) and mentioning many others I have not read yet, the editors introduce the book with two basic and convincing premises that justify its publication:
- Women in Aceh are often cited for their strength and leadership, and this “social fact” tends to justify a light hand when it comes to investments in women’s empowerment or gender mainstreaming. The major problem with this, however, is that all the citations of women’s strength and leadership precede the consolidation of Dutch colonial power more than 100 years ago. Yes, there were sultanas who ruled Aceh. Yes, there were high-ranking military women leading the charge against the Dutch during the war. But any post-colonial analysis of women’s strength and leadership in Aceh is wholly confined to the domestic sphere (home ownership and management… po rumoh, and so on).
- The obvious follow-up point to the first is that the roles and status of women in any society change over time. And Aceh, in particular, is undergoing one of the most amazing historical transformations right now! These years of post-tsunami and post-conflict recovery present women (and everyone else) with radically different risks and opportunities. So now more than ever is not the time to rely upon static truisms that glorify Acehnese women of the past and allow policy-makers to ignore their current needs; not when a recent history of war crimes systematically perpetrated against women goes without truth and reconciliation, and not when fervent advocates of Islamic law seize their opportunity to restrict women’s role in politics and pass laws forbidding women from wearing jeans.
That said, the research findings in this book have a modest agenda. This is hardly a feminist manifesto. These are small projects on a limited budget for young scholars without significant social science methods training. For example my two advisees, Cut Aja Fauziah and Dr. Sarah Firdausa, both studied topics of women’s reproductive health, but from two very different methodological perspectives. Aja studied local myths about women and pregnancy in a few villages in Aceh Barat, and in the style of an old-school ethnography she catalogues the taboos and other customs that pregnant women in Aceh typically follow and how they feel about it. (“Perempuan dan Mitos Kehamilan: Studi Kasus di Kecamatan Meureubo Aceh Barat” pp.53-76) Sarah did a questionnaire-based cross-sectional study about the sexual health knowledge, attitudes, and practices of middle-school girls who attend traditional and modern religious boarding schools in Aceh Besar. (“Kesehatan Reproduksi dalam Perspektif Santriwati Pesantren Modern dan Tradisional di Aceh” pp.77-100) Both finished their fieldwork with fascinating and occasionally shocking results, but neither translate their findings into a gender-based polemic (although both could have easily done that). Instead, they suggest mundane but imperative changes in health policy and health education.
Other topics covered in this book include domestic and sexual violence, marriage law, women’s leadership in higher education and in religious schools, gender roles in a rice-farming village, and (my favorite —>) the gendered spaces of post-tsunami reconstruction housing units. My friend Azwar from Logica ensured the funding was available to get this book published. Another friend Sehat (what a terrific name!) from IAIN Ar-Raniry copy-edited the book, and Aceh’s foremost gender scholar, Eka Srimulyani, also from IAIN, along with her colleague Inayatillah co-edited the book. Today they emphasized the celebratory aspect of this book’s publication, and they should be proud and gratified with the results, but I am looking ahead, and hoping that this kind of scholarship opens up the field and raises the standard for future research in Aceh not just about women, but also about men, from a gender perspective.