False Truth: Confronting History’s Cruel Treatment of Gerwani Women

This article was published in Magdalene

September 2012, I visited for the very first time the Monumen Pancasila Sakti at Lubang
Buaya. Although this was the first time I had been to Lubang Buaya, those two words –
“Lubang Buaya” – were very familiar indeed to me, almost seared into my mind. I think I first
began to hear those two words when I was still at primary school, in the 1980s, when we sat
through Pancasila Morality classes. In the history classes we had to study the national
historical incident, namely the 30th September Movement, or as it was known in the formal
curriculum, the G30S/PKI.

The short version is that I had to remember that this was the date that the New Order was
established, that the “PKI rebellion” was crushed under the leadership of General Suharto.
We were told the story in school that this PKI rebellion was led by Aidit, that it rocked the
whole country and that it began at Lubang Buaya and was accompanied by the murder of
seven generals, who were later given the title, Heroes of the Revolution.

The museum, which I visited with a friend, comprised two areas. The main building was the
Museum of the PKI Rebellion (Communist) – – that was the name on the building’s front
signage. It was two story building, both of which floors were packed with a diorama that
gave a version of the history of “PKI rebellion”. The other area was around the Lubang
Buaya Monument, a statue of the “heroes of the revolution”, as well as there being a diorama
depicting the torture of the generals.

As soon as I stepped inside, all my memories from primary school came flooding back. As I
walked along looking at the scenes in the diorama and reading the texts that accompanied
each scene, I recognized the version as being not too different from what had been taught at
school in the 1980s. The diorama described itself as the monument to the history of
Communist treachery, from 1926 until 1965. The impression that the scenes were trying to
convey was that the PKI was brutal and sadistic and that the Armed Forces were heroic.
I looked for any information about Gerwani.

But there was not a single item of information anywhere. My memories of the story of the “G30S/PKI” from school always involve
GERWANI. Always. We were taught in class that these immoral, degenerate and devilish
women, slashed the general’s penises and gauged out their eyes. During this whole period,
from primary school until high school, I never really understood what this thing GERWANI
was. As I child then I didn’t really understand that GERWANI was actually an organisation,
whose members were all women. From the time I heard the stories of penis’s being slashed
and eyes gauged, the words “Gerwani” or “PKI” aroused feelings of something fearful and
forbidden. One avoided at all costs ever pronouncing those two words. The main thing was to

make sure to remember all the dates in case you needed to know it for school tests. The sense
of fearfulness and something forbidden were heightened even more when all the school
children were taken to the local cinema to see the film by Arifin C Noor,“Pengkhianatan G
30 S/PKI”. That was the first time I had ever been to the cinema in my home town of
Purwokerto. There must have been tens of thousands of children throughout the country
sitting, for their first time in their life, in a darkened cinema watching the bloody, horrific
scenes in the film. I still can picture vividly in my mind’s eye today the scene where a
Gerwani woman at Lubang Buaya says in the most sadistic of tones: “Blood is red, General!”

What about after September 30?

As I walked around, my mind went back to those classroom lessons. I think we were only
ever taught that the “incident” took the lives of seven generals and officers, and a young girl,
a Ade Irma Nasution, the daughter of one of the generals. I don’t think there was much else
explained clearly. There was just this vague sense of hearing that people who were thought to
be in the PKI or Gerwani were arrested. Nothing much clearer than that was ever explained.
Perhaps I was too young then to understand more. My duties then were to go to school in the
morning, the madrasah classes in the afternoon and to learn to recite the Holy Quran at night,
and that was all.

By the time the New Order government fell, I was an adult who had had the chances to
expand my horizons, by reading and by mixing with a wide range of people. I had come in
contact with many kinds of people. Among them were women who had been imprisoned as a
result of the events of 30 September. I begun to understand there was another story behind
what I had been taught at school. Beyond the story of the killing of the seven generals and the
heroism of General Suharto at that time, there was the story of Buru Island prison camp,
Plantungan Women’s Prison, prisons everywhere, torture and trauma. Sad and painful stories
of hundreds of thousands – even as many as 2 million –Indonesians suffering exile and
rejection – imprisoned, tortured and killed because they were accused of being PKI or
Gerwani.

These stories were never taught to us at school. Gerwani and Indonesian women If
from our mouth come the sounds: “GER-WA-NI” the memory that always first comes to
mind is of those immoral women dancing naked before they slashed the generals’ penis’s and
gauged out their eyes. This was the official classroom story. Even today, a women seen as
being too daring, going out too late at night and so on, might often be labeled a ‘gerwani’
woman. But perhaps the impact is different if we say, more slowly also, the full name “Ge-ra-
kan Wa-ni-ta In-do-ne-sia” – the Indonesian Women’s Movement. Perhaps the reader may
want to know more or even can imagine that there was something different to all this.
Gerwani is the short acronym for Gerakan Wanita Indonesia, – Indonesian Women’s
Movement – a movement that is a valid part of the Indonesian nation’s historical experience.
It was the biggest women’s organisation in Indonesia (maybe even in the world) with 2.5
million members. Their activities included literacy programs, running kindergardens and
advocating equality between women and men. Politically, Gerwani supported the programs
and policies of President Sukarno. Umi Sardjono was Gerwani’s President and Sulami was
the secretary-general.

Sexual Political Slander.

If Gerwani was an organisation whose activities comprised advocating the emancipation of
women and supported the Sukarno government’s policies, why instead was it pictured as
being this brutal and immoral group? This picture of Gerwani was not only spread through
schools and a film, but all media. It was pervasive. Millions of children throughout Indonesia had to be utterly convinced of its truth. Later I learned, however, that the accusation of
slashing the penis’s and gauging the eyes of the generals was a total lie – a conscious lie,
repeated over and over again. In the 1980s the autopsy report by the Armed Forces own
hospital on the generals was found and published revealing that there was no slashing of the
private parts or gauging out of the eyes. I read myself the translation of each of the autopsies
published in Cornel University’s Indonesia journal.

The generals had indeed been shot dead,
and some had other minor injuries. But the sadistic torture by Gerwani women had never
taken place. I had been lied to at school, along with millions of other children. Rather,
according to the research of Saskia E Weirenga, a professor at the University of Amsterdam,
it was indeed the members of Gerwani – thousands of them – who were tortured and sexually
abused after their arrest, in prison. Based on research and also interviews with Gerwani
survivors, she found a pattern of horrific sexual abuse, including rape, forced oral sex, being
forced to dance naked while being photographed. Sulami, in a filmed interviewed, told of
how she had to stand naked while soldiers through knives at her, just missing. This was a
form of terror aimed at all the 2 million members.

The Future?

How could all this have happened? Kok Bisa? How come? How come? How come? How
could it be that in Indonesia, this country I love so much, there could have been the mass
killing of our own people and the vicious slander of women who were just striving and
struggling for what they believed in. This question haunts me day and night? To disagree, to
campaign against an ideology and viewpoint one doesn’t agree with, that is a part of political
life and such rights should be protected by the law. But why did some people want to carry
out this brutal and sadistic mass annihilation. Why? Gerwani members and their families
have suffered great trauma as a result of the discrimination and stigmatization they have
experienced after they were released from prison. There is a deep and widespread stigma:
“Immoral and bad people and families: PKI”. The ongoing anti-communist and black
propaganda, as well as concrete discrimination, has been sustained this for four decades.
As one of the indoctrinated generation who for a long time accepted the official version, I
started to meet survivors and victims, and their families. I read more books based on
scholarly research have all helped show me another reality. I have also gone back and read
some of the newspapers of the day, reading horrific and bizarre lies and stigmatizations even
in so-called reputable newspapers?

I visited the Plantungan Women’s Prison Camp site, where Gerwani women were imprisoned
for more than a decade. Talking with the survivors has revealed so many tales of horror and
inhumanity, many of the experiences inflicted on them precisely because they were women.
Women and their sexuality were so often held to be the cause and origin of all chaos. What
the Gerwani women experienced was a crime against humanity that has never been
acknowledged and rarely spoken about. There are women who were members of Gerwani, or
accused of being members, who still survive today. After their release from Plantungan
prison camp, they still suffered stigmatisation and discrimination. Many of them now are in
their twilight years; they are aged in their 70s, 80s, or even 90s.

A truly great nation, a great people not only celebrate their heroes, but also have the honesty
to recognize the evil and injustice that have been perpetrated and which has caused so much
suffering among the people. A great people is one that can learn from its mistakes