More than a century after the national struggle against colonialism was first launched, many Indonesians today remain oppressed by a different kind of scourge: poverty and ignorance. A number of women felt compelled to fight this modern-day 'oppression', each in their own different way. In Poso, Central Sulawesi province, Lian Gogali built a school for women, to treat them from the trauma of the area's recent bloody communal coflict. Artist Lena Simanjuntak commits her time and energy to help marginalized groups to speak up for their rights, through theater classes she has organized in Aceh, Poso and lately, in Biak, Papua. Meanwhile, philanthropist Nila Tanzil has built 24 reading rooms throughout the island of Flores, filling them with books for the children to learn from. In celebration of National Awakening Day on May 20, Tempo English pays tribute to these and other courageous and selfless women.
School of peace
Lian Gogali has been promoting religious tolerance and understanding to Poso women traumatized by religious conflict. She has received an international award for her efforts.
Eighty women roared with laughter in the cottage of Siuri Pamona, in Tentena, Central Sulawesi. Some shared hugs. In the corner, several ladies held hands, sharing news on each other's lives. Conversations were neverending. "Some cried, fearing they would not see each other again," said Lina Laando, a participant. The wo-men had come from various parts of Poso regency, Central Sulawesi, to ce-lebrate their graduation from Mosintuwu Women's School.
The warm atmosphere at the school, held at the begining of this year, differed substantially from a year ago. "At the time they were suspicious of each other, even unwilling to speak," said Lian Gogali, 34, the founder of the school. No wonder, it was the first time women from different ethnic groups and religions gathered in Poso. All were gripped by the trauma of the interfaith conflict of 1998. It was the first time Christians and Hindus were coming to Poso, considered a Muslim region. Some are even scared that they would become bomb victims again.
Fortunately, the teachings and experiences at the women's school dispelled suspicion between religions. "I never knew those living in Bukit Bambu, because they were mostly Christians. Actually they only lived a kilometer from my village," said Yanti Udin, 33, a Muslim. "The women's school allows me to get to know them."
For her success in promoting interfaith dialogue and peace, Lian Gogali later won an award from Coexist Foundation, USA, defeating nominees from other countries. "I'm happy. It means the role of women in peace efforts has been recognized," she said.
When the Poso conflict broke out, Lian's family was victimized. Their property was looted, their house razed by fire and many were injured. At the time, Lian was studying for her master's degree at Sanata Darma University, Yogyakarta. But she went home and experienced conflict. Though sad, she said she held no grudges. "I realize religion is just used as a tool," she said. With this conviction, she then decided to write about conflict resolution for her thesis.
During her research, she found that women were the first to initiate massive pre- and post-conflict movements of peace. "Sadly, their stories have ne-ver been exposed, let alone recognized," she said. She discovered that women were the first to open the market. In the past, during the conflict, vegetables, tomato and fish had "religion." Christians refused to east fish from Poso for fear of being poisoned. Conversely, Muslims in Poso got rid of vegetables from Christian settlements. But the women didn't care. For them, it was a matter of survi-ving. Their husbands and kids needed to eat.
Hundreds of women also helped each other during the clash. Muslim housewives in Lage were hiding Christian women during attacks. On the other hand, Muslim refugees received food from Christian evacuees. "They no longer needed any peace theory. They only needed space to develop it," Lian said.
Lian felt she must help them realize that space. In 2009, she decided to return to Poso. In the beginning she managed a women's school with another NGO. However, as their visions differed, at the end of the year Lian set up her own women's school. She also asked her friend to handle the school's finances.
Then she toured villages to meet with women, getting to know their characters. She wanted to teach lower-income women as well as minority groups who did not have access to gender and peace building knowledge. That is the reason she refused to ask recommendation from village officials or elders. "They usually recommend people who just want 'sitting fee', not those who really want to improve themselves."
She was looking for several criteria. First, they must have an inclusive peace and justice vision. They are also required to have a willingness to fight for other people. But she not only invites survivors. Victims, powerless due to lack of access and knowledge were also asked to join.
With limited funds, Lian organized initial sessions on the terrace of her leased house in Pamona, along with about 25 women. At first the school did not run smoothly. Some of the women lacked commitment and left the class. She was also shaping up the curiculum. Fortunately, the program kept on going.
After three months, Lian managed to secure funds from a Dutch organization. So she expanded her network. She thought it was not enough to open in Pamona alone, with its Christian majority. "Whereas I have an interfaith basis," she said.
Lian toured the region until she established schools in 14 villages. The parti-cipants or students in each place came from different ethnic groups and religions. But do not imagine a fancy building. To overcome fund shortages, Lian taught in the homes of residents and on their terraces, and even on the fields.
Later on she gathered around 125 would-be students for two and a half days in Poso for the school opening, before starting instruction in their respective villages. "I wanted to show them that they weren't alone," she said.
A women's school has eight curri-culum modules to be finished in ten months. The subjects taught were tole-rance and peace, gender and political issues, public speaking and economic development. Through this curriculum, the members are called upon to dispel pre-judice, suspicion, traumas, and grudge; build self-confidence as well as mutual trust; and promote cooperation.
Women joined for various reasons. Lina wanted to learn about diversity. "I can thus learn something about ot-her religions like Islam and Hindu," she said. Yanti wished to help female victims of domestic violence. "I want to be able to tell husbands to stop without being regarded as intervening."
According to Lian, the subjects observed as most successful in eliminating suspicions were the religion, tolerance and peace modules, which are taught for about two months. This mo-dule enables participants to visit diffe-rent worship buildings, during which they can ask anything about them.
This session has opened the minds of housewives. Lina, a Christian, used to think that jihad was cruel. "An imam explained that jihad is to defend what is right instead of killing at will as people say," she said. Yanti also came to realize that the riots in Poso had been caused by unscrupulous people rather than religion. "I'm no longer easily provoked"
After that first two months, the wo-men made fast progress. They remin-ded each other to attend school. They also asked around if someone did not attend the courses.
The other favorite subject is speech and reasoning training. Yanti truly felt the benefit of the instruction. "I've become a bit bolder," she said. When her neighborhood unit head was found pilfering rice aid for the poor, she reported it to the district chief. "Previously I had never thought to do that," she noted.
To maintain the women's spirit, Lian routinely patrols each village. Whereas this is a hard task for her. During the school year, she was using crutches. Her feet were broken and suffered infection. "I have undergone nine surgeries," she said.
But, the women's spirit kept her excited. The mother of one child is pleased to see her students find a safe and open space to speak. Housewives experiencing violence also have a place to share their feelings. Gradually, ethnic and faith differences have become irrelevant. They were speaking to each other as women.
However, not everything runs smoothly. Funds are still lacking and Lian must finance office activities by conducting research and working as speaker.
Another hindrance is, sometimes women are not allowed to attend school by their husbands or families. They are regarded as following futile and unproductive courses. Meanwhile, some others are busily engaged in new activities or have moved.
But the 80 graduates have made rapid progress. At their graduation ceremony in Tentena, they agreed to devote themselves to society by building a house for the protection of women and children. Even though it has not officially opened, so many women are already pleading their cases. "Unfortunately, we are still in training, so we cannot help them yet,"said Lina.
Another group agreed to build community industries such as those producing palm-leaf brooms and fish abon (shredded fried fish).
Each woman also has her own plan. Lina Laando wants to run for the post of chief of the communal council. She says it upsets her that women who are victims of violence in her area are often forced to pay fines if they wish to get a divorce. "The communal council frequently doesn't side with women," she indicated. Yanti is busy as a National Democratic Party member. She's assigned to recruit other housewives. In addition, other women offer themselves as village head candidates or join development planning consultations. "For me, their courage is already remarkable. We'll continue to guide them and give them political knowledge," Lian added.
After the first batch of the Mosintuwu Women's School, Lian has been increasingly busy, indeed. While guiding graduates of the first batch in various activities, she is also preparing the second batch to start in June. This time the schools will be set up in 21 villages due to rising demand. Her ambition is to hold the Poso Women's Congress next year. She is also engaged in the Sofia project, which is a mobile library for children.
But looking at her students' progress, she did not mind working hard. She witnessed a huge transformation. "At the beginning, they felt that they were victims, then survivors, and at last they became agents of change," she said, "I did not plan it."
What has made her students progress so fast? According to Lian, women of Poso have always had the strength, but had not been given a safe environment to develop it. The housewives have another view. "Lian is the heroine. She imparts her knowledge and spares her time for us. Without her, we wouldn't be as we are now," said Lina.
No. 41/12, June 10, 2012
Lina Gogali, sharing experiences with visitors.