Faiza Mardzoeki

A slap to the face: the struggles of Indonesian women ( from an anthology doc film AT STAKE)

My eyeballs almost fall out from their sockets after two hours of choking on such deep feelings. My sentiments had been subjected to strong emotions of gundah, sadness and anger. Churned up. That was how I felt as a new film by five young Indonesian directors came to an end: the film was AT STAKE.

Yes, this is a film that churns up the emotions. Angry: angry that so many Indonesian women still have no access to real justice; angry that Indonesian women are still controlled in almost every arena, private and public. We see how still today so many religious leaders, Islamic thinkers and doctors still sit in judgment over women.

And the situation depicted in this film has only been underlined again when we know that almost all the parties in the parliament as well as President Yudhoyono have now passed into law the new so-called anti-pornography law, a law that contains provisions allowing the state and even “society” directly to control women’s bodies, how they act and how they dress. According to Nursyahbani Katjasungka, member of parliament from the National Awakening Party (PKB), this law does not deliver the three aims it proclaims: to fight against violence against women and children embodied the exploitation of women’s and children’s bodies; to fight the domination that exploits women, children and minorities; and to fight the culture of subordination that makes women and children objects. (Kompas, 30 October, 2008) In fact these laws have been opposed by many groups in society precisely because the laws are an attempt to further control women; an attempt by the state to intervene in the affairs of women’s bodies.

On the other hand, I was so moved and proud to witness the strength, resolve and positive attitude of those women who experience injustice and power imbalance. In the face of all the disinterest from those who should care, and despite all their limited resources and other limitations, these women continue the struggle to look after and bring up their children.

Anyone accessing the data already available and all the articles and books will be very familiar with the injustices and inequality faced by women. As somebody who has been active in the women’s movement, I have seen it face to face on so many occasions. Even so, watching this film AT STAKE is like being slapped in the face and reminded that the struggle is still long and everybody needs to work harder. To feel sadness and pity is not enough a response. The protagonists in these films are not asking for pity. They themselves are remarkable people who are living their lives conscious of their responsibilities to themselves and to others. It should be others, namely, we who feel we understand the issues of women’s control over their bodies and women’s condition, who should be doing more. Political leaders, religious leaders, doctors, politicians, social movement activists must work harder, alongside these women, to struggle for equality and justice.

Yes, this is one of the strength’s of this visual media. It gives depth and understanding to data that otherwise might seem dry.


This film is an anthology of four stories. This is the best documentary film I have seen during the last ten years. It was screened before friends from the press and friends of Jurnal Perempuan. at the Megablitz Cinema on 10 December, 2008 on the occasion of the Human Rights Day. It had previously been screened as a gala premier at the Jakarta International Film Festival on December 8.

AT STAKE is a production of Kalyana Shira with Nia Dinata as producer. Nia Dinata is a woman cinema worker with a strong record of dealing with gender issues. This time she is working with Ani Ema Susanti, Iwan S., M. Ichsan, Lucky Kuswandi and Ucu Agustin. These five directors came forward partly as a result of their participation in the workshop Project Change 2008 organised by Kalyana Shira Foundation and The Body Shop Indonesia. The workshop not only focused on the technical aspects of film production but also on the issue of gender equality.

I describe this is as the best film of the last ten years (of those I have seen) because AT STAKE presents its picture of the situation of women with a story telling style that is informative and engaging. The camera angles work well and the visual depictions are vivid, life-like and realistic.

The first story is entitled “The striving for love”. This portrays two women migrant workers in Hong Kong who suffer great unrest in their hearts as they prepare to return home to their villages in Indonesia.

Ruwati doesn’t know quite what to do. Her fiancé in her village suspects that she is no longer a virgin. Ruwati must choose between retaining her virginity or her health. She suffers from a vaginal tumor. She must undergo an internal examination of her vagina and she is afraid that it may break her hymen. In Indonesian culture (among men), a woman is supposed to remain a virgin until her marriage when her virginity is sacrificed to her husband.

Ruwati chooses her health and goes to see the doctor and has an operation. The film depicts vividly how her fiancé holds her under suspicion when he finds out that she has undergone such an examination, Was this a real case of medical need or had she in fact lost her virginity already?

The other case was that of Rianti. She is unsure how she can explain to her family and community that she is in a romantic relationship with another woman migrant worker in Hong Kong. They are deeply in love but are worried that their families and communities will not accept this relationship. But they continue their relationship happily and with full of mutual love while working hard as maids and sending money to her family and the child she has in the village. This story is a portrait of how communities and families can still not accept a same-sex couple.

The second story is entitled “Nona Nyonya”or “Miss Mrs”. It tells the story of the trails of women trying to obtain good reproductive health services, such as a pap smear. They face being stigmatized as “women of questionable character” because they have their vagina examined. The very first question they get from the doctor is: “Are you Miss or Mrs.?” Or “Are you married yet or not yet?” If they answer that they are single, then the next question will be: “so how come you are getting a pap-smear … it is only for married women? You have a pap smear it means you are no longer a virgin. Does your mother know? Etc etc ”

These are questions of control that interfere into the private life of women and even stigmatize the woman as immoral just because she may have had sex before getting married. Using a hidden camera, one woman records a doctor lecturing her, citing God over and over again, when he found out that she had sexual relations before marriage – even calling his patient “evil”.

The third story is called “For what?” and is about female circumcision. This film makes it very clear that women are circumcised (their clitoris cut) in order to prevent them from enjoying sex; out of fear that women have sexual desire. This is made clear in the statements of the men in the film, – Islamic teachers and scholars. According to the mask dancer, Rasinah, tradition in places like Indramayu defines women who have not been circumcised will be viewed as wanton and wild and will be object of constant unwanted observation by the community.

However, according the statements of doctors, there is no health need for circumcision. This, they say, is different for men, for whom circumcision has a health benefit. Women are circumscribed as a means of controlling their bodies; their sexual desires. So it seems that there are many Islamic priests and families who circumcise their daughters when they are still babies or still very small (between 5-8 years). Most suffer traumatic pain later.

The fourth presentation is called Ragat’e’s Child (Money to Bring Up a Child). This work by Ucu Agustin breaks through all our efforts to restrain our anger and sadness. For the whole fifteen minutes we cannot but shed tears. Sadness, anger against injustice; respect and admiration for the protagonists in struggle surge inside us. The story portrays two young, impoverished women, Nur and Mira. They have been deserted by their husbands and left to bring up their children. Poverty pushed them to become sex-workers where they are forced to accept Rp10,000 ($ 1.00) as payment for having sex with each man. They can earn 20,000 to 50,000 rupiah per evening depending on how many men they service. They work in the evening in the Gunung Bolo Chinese Cemetery.

Apart from the threats to their health, they face entrapment by the “kiwir-gendakan”, (temporary boyfriends, who act also as kinds of pimps, who live with them and are prone to exploit them and beat them). They also face raids from the police. They face imprisonment, which means they will not be able to look after their children. To earn money, Nur and Mira also work splitting stones. They work hard to try to make sure their children will have better lives than themselves. The work splitting stones exhausts them. They do not want to sell their bodies at all, let alone for 10,000 rupiah. But poverty means that they must struggle on with their work.

(And I watched this film in the Megablitz Cinema in the Grand Indonesia Mall, A contradictory situation, is it not?)

This is a picture of the poverty that beats down on the women of Indonesia. This is a portrait of the faces of the moral judges who think they should control women’s bodies. These are the men who still demand virginity from women. Women are controlled and at the same time their situation is a symbol of the failure of government and of the religious leaders and the uncaring attitude of society. They are treated as nothing more than the private property of men.

There is nothing wrong in women being angry about this, in rising up and to actively struggle to win a better future.

Sisters, Its time to get angry and get more active!

Tebet, Jakarta, 15 Dec 2008)