21 December 2011

Tired of Being Victimized, Some Women Fight Back

Activists rally in Jakarta in September after Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo said women in short skirts invite rape. (JG Photo/Safir Makki) 
Kartika was waiting for a bus when a man shouted at her from inside a small food stall across the street, “Look at those boobs!” 

Knowing she was the only woman present and seeing that a number of men inside the eatery were looking at her, she crossed the street and walked into the place. 

“I was very angry and I demanded to know who shouted at me,” the 28-year-old photographer said. “Of course, nobody dared to speak. They all tried to look innocent.” 

It was not the first time Kartika was the target of such commentary. 

“Once I was in a hurry and walking past a group of men, car mechanics, on the street when one of them said something that made me turn around and give them a look that told them they were impolite,” she said. “To my surprise, one of the men yelled at me and started calling me animal names!” 

Kartika is tough. She went home and returned ten minutes later with a big knife she often uses when trekking in the forest. 

Enough is Enough 

Her family tried to stop her, telling her men “just do that sometimes.” But she had had enough. 

“What he did was offensive,” she said. With her younger brother walking behind her and the knife in her hand, Kartika went back to the workshop and asked for the man. 

“Everyone, with an innocent look, said they had no idea where he was,” she said. “I knew he was hiding somewhere inside so I just said to them, ‘Tell that coward I am still looking for him. I still remember his face.’” 

Kartika was fed up, she said, because too often women are targets of sexual harassment and she is tired of feeling like a victim. 

“It is not because you have big boobs, a curvy body, a beautiful face or wear tight outfits that men harass women, it is because they are too stupid to understand that what they do is offensive and unbelievably rude,” said Kartika, whose outfit of choice for most days is jeans and a loose-fitting shirt. 

“From the many bad experiences I have had,” Kartika said, “I can say that most of these guys are not well educated. Not that well-educated people don’t do such things, they might, but this is based on where these things have taken place. 

“Regardless, women can’t let men get away with this. We have to confront them. Show them that we are not weak like they think we are.” 

‘I Punched Him’ 

Nataya, 23, echoed the sentiment. She once got into a physical fight with a man who sexually harassed her younger sister and then tried the same thing with her. 

“We were walking to a nearby supermarket one morning, my sister was in front of me. Then a man coming from the opposite direction, walked past her and just poked her in the butt. I was shocked and then he was trying to do the same thing to me,” she said. 

“I shouted at him, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ He said it was an accident and he didn’t do it intentionally,” she said. “I told my sister to call the police while I punched his chest and shouted like a mad woman for ten minutes.” 

Panicked, the man tried to hit her back. 

“That was when I finally punched him in the face,” she said. 

Both Nataya and Kartika said they also did not understand why people standing nearby when such things happen tend to just watch and do nothing about it. 

The media is replete with reports of sexual assaults these days. Public transportation such as the busway, trains and even taxis become scary places for women because men sometimes strike out inside a vehicle. 

“After the culprit has gone, people start to ask what happened. Yeah, like it was going to make things any different,” Nataya said. “People like that need to learn their lesson. And those of us who become targets, have to give them that.” 

Too Many Victims 

However not all women are brave enough — or maybe foolish enough — to force a confrontation like Nataya or Kartika. Many keep the discomfort inside themselves for fear that people will instead point fingers at them for “dressing provocatively” or say they are inviting rape by wearing a short skirt, as Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo said not long ago in response to the rape of a woman on a bus. 

“When it happened to me, I was too angry, shocked and scared to say or do anything,” said Yasmin. 

The 23-year-old marketing officer at a Jakarta hotel had just returned home to Indonesia after spending a few years studying in Australia and was still readjusting to life here. 

“What shocked me the most was when I became a victim of sexual harassment,” she said. 

“I was taking a crowded bus home from work when I realized that a man standing next to me was repeatedly rubbing his penis against me. At first I thought it was his bag or something. I looked and found that it was not,” she said. 

All Yasmin could say was, “What do you think you’re doing?” 

“I think it was a bit loud because people were looking at us but they didn’t do anything,” she said. “I was scared and my heart was beating so fast. I just got off the bus.” 

Yasmin said that she was embarrassed when she realized what had happened to her. She could not tell people about it or how she reacted. 

“I guess I would find it really difficult to shout, ‘Stop rubbing [your penis] against me!’ But seriously, deep down inside I know I should have done that and fought back against that guy.” 

Vivi Widyawati, an activist with an NGO network called Perempuan Mahardhika (The Alliance of Free Women) said virtually every woman has a story of being harassed by men — strangers or not. 

“Men seem to have a hard time getting away from centuries of patriarchal culture here. What women can do is speak out. It will take time but that’s what it takes,” she said. 

Education, Vivi believes, is the only way to fix the situation. “Our education curriculum has a gender bias. There is still an elementary school textbook that portrays women just as homemakers staying in the kitchen. That particular textbook has been used for generations,” she said. 

At the elite level, she added, the law doesn’t adequately protect a woman’s right to be free of harassment. 

“I know even women’s rights activists need to sit down and define what is harassment, otherwise men can play around with the law because it’s not clear,” she said. 

But just as other societies worldwide are changing, Vivi said, Indonesia will catch up. 

“There is hope. Harassment is not natural and I believe it is really a problem of culture. When men are raised in a patriarchal environment, they will see women as subordinate,” she said. 

That is, until they meet up with Nataya or Kartika.

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