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Asian Studies: Suharto’s Fall Essay

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Updated: May 3rd, 2019


Since 1998, Indonesia which is the country with the highest majority of Muslims in the world has transformed from an authoritarian state to a democratic state. Indonesia has developed various features of a democratic state and which is indicated by such aspects as the economic prosperity, enhancement of women rights among others. This remarkable change is as a result of Suharto’s fall from power in 1998.

Suharto was the Indonesian president for more than three decades before he fell from power in 1998.Duiring Suharto’s regime, women’s rights were greatly violated.The rate of violence against women was high. The new regime has put up measures aimed at protecting the rights of women (May, 2009, 7).


Statement of the Problem

Since the poor economic growth and subsequent fall from power of Suharto in 1998, the political system of Indonesia has experienced a dramatic change. The most intense impact is the process of decentralization and democratization that was initiated between the period 1998 and 2000.Democratic reforms in Indonesia have taken into pieces the past authoritarian system.

Decentralization has also stripped Suharto from power. The new system has eroded the authoritarian institutions that were created during President Suharto’s long-term rule. The aim of this paper is to explore the impact of Suharto’s fall form power and the subsequent protection of women rights in Indonesia.

This paper is important as it demonstrates how women were restricted during President Suharto’s regime and also the reforms that were undertaken to improve the status of women. Though several studies have assessed the impact of Suharto’s fall from power, little effort has been put into studying the subsequent democratization and its effect for the women’s rights in Indonesia.

This essay will examine the impact of Suharto’s fall from power and the subsequent fall of authoritarianism, corruption, and political persecution in Indonesia, and examine the subsequent protection of women’s rights on Indonesian women.

Prior to independence, women’s’ organizations in Indonesia focused on such aspects as women’s education, the evils that are associated with forced marriages, the importance of self-worth among others. After the Dutch colonialists left in 1945, the situation changed as leaders focused their attention to matters of national interest, and as a result, women’s issues were disregarded.

The situation worsened when President Suharto assumed power in 1966 (Nashat, & Tucker, 1999, 3). During his presidency Suharto restricted women in many ways. Suharto created policies that did not allow women to make decisions regarding their households, and forced them to be subordinate to their husbands.

Most Indonesian State development programs at the time were focused on benefiting men, while neglecting women i.e. the government allocated small budgets for women development programs as opposed to that of men (Nashat, & Tucker, 1999, 3).

Women’s activities were deemed as only supplemental to family income, and household tasks were designated as their main activity. Any activity outside of the household by women was considered secondary. Women were also not afforded a level playing field with their male counterparts in politics.

They were thus not adequately represented and female politicians were appointed based on their link with well-known men in the country. Women also faced discrimination in the workplace, as most top positions were occupied by men. Additional regulations were enacted by Suharto’s regime affecting the day to day life of women.

For example, women were not permitted to travel during the night unless accompanied by their husbands or a male relative. Women were also required to wear a traditional Islamic dress and anyone disobeying this regulation risked imprisonment.

Kacasungkana (1998) suggests that at that time, many companies were unwilling to employ women and that the number of women with white-collar jobs was very low during President Suharto’s era. However, the fall of Suharto from power also saw sweeping changes for laws relating to women.

The laws were changed in an effort to promote the wellbeing of Indonesian women. B.J. Habibie, whom succeeded Suharto, brought about democracy in Indonesia by empowering civil society and also allowing women to carry out their activities independently. The status of women and their role in national life was greatly enhanced.

Summary of Indonesia and its attitudes towards women

Indonesia has for many years been considered to have a reasonably high status with regards to its women, especially when compared to most other southern East Asian nations. During President Suharto’s regime, Indonesia had a low rank on gender relations according to its gender-related development index released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 1995.

During this period, Indonesia ranked slightly below most other southern East Asian nations, such as Malaysia, concerning women empowerment, women’s education and literacy rates.

A survey that was conducted by The Asia Foundation, Democracy in Indonesia (2003)revealed that women were not given equal rights with their male counterparts and they faced discrimination based on their gender Women were dissatisfied due to the fact that they did not have same access to education as males during Suharto’s presidency(Mason, 2001, 12).

A survey conducted by the International Labour organization(2003) revealed that the workforce among Indonesian female workers decreased from 36 percent to 26 percent from 1990 to 1999 (ILO 2003).However, the workforce among Indonesian female workers rose sharply in 1999 and more women joined the formal sector compared to the previous period (Mason, 2001, 12).

Detail on Indonesia (History and Politics)

Efforts to enhance the status and role of women in Indonesia began 12 years ago following the fall of Suharto from power. The Women’s movement in Indonesia began as a result of the struggle for education of Indonesia woman and the fight against the practice of polygamy. Prior to Indonesia gaining its independence from Dutch colonialists in 1945, Indonesia boasted of women leaders who were wise and tough.

These women leaders ruled over the Indonesian kingdoms for many years. Kingdoms that were once ruled by these powerful women leaders include the Tri Buana Kingdom and the Tunga during Kingdom of the 19th century.

Women also actively participated in the fight for independence from the Dutch colonialists, among them Marta Christian, Cut Mutiah, Nyi Ageng and Cut Nyak. Throughout the colonial period, women struggled to ensure they received the same education as their male counterparts.

Women were also opposed to polygamy during this period and also fought against being restricted from carrying out their activities in public life. These issues played an important role in uniting the Indonesian women’s activists. The struggle for colonialism and feudalism by the famous Dutch colonialist named Katrini enhanced the creation of new women’s organizations in Indonesia.

How the status of women changed from the time of independence through to Sukarno and Suharto

During the colonialism period in Indonesia, women were encouraged to become good wives and mothers for their children. ‘Good wives’ were required to organize their family and home and therefore much attention was directed towards ensuring that women managed their family affairs.

However,the situation changed in the early 1940’s and the Indonesian National Women’s Congress supported the establishment of a national assembly to enhance political representation in the country. Both men and women recognized the need for universal education.

Men supported female education as they held the view that their education would play an important role in liberating them from the hands of colonialists. Men were also optimistic that women would support the struggle for independence in Indonesia and this was a major motivation for supporting women’s education (Robinson & Bessell, 2002, 70-71).

After independence in 1945, leaders focused on defending their nation’s newly attained independence and therefore women’s issues were not given as high a priority as the period before independence (Robinson & Bessell, 2002, 70-71). However, the Indonesian National Women’s Congress (NWC) continued its activities of developing and maintaining relationships with other women’s organizations in foreign countries.

The new Indonesian government was under the leadership of President Sukarno, who addressed the well being of Indonesian women by ensuring that women were also trained for policing jobs. Many political organizations for women were established in Indonesia and this enhanced the wellbeing of women in the country.

Indonesia became fully independent in 1949 and this saw women movements being recognized as an integral part of the Indonesian National movement (Robinson & Bessell, 2002, 70-71).However, this situation did not last for long as protection of women’s rights was not given a high priority.

For instance, the Surkano government in 1952 allowed polygamy to persist despite continued efforts by women’s organizations to eradicate the practice. Also women’s affairs were marginalized following the 1955 elections as their voices were hardly heard by the top officials in the Suharto’s government. For instance, the President’s wife, Ibu Tien described women as mothers, wives and managers of their households.

President Sukarno fell from power in 1965 at a time when Indonesia was experiencing hyper inflation of about 500 per cent. President Suharto succeeded Sukarno and once again the issues concerning women were not given a priority. President Suharto focused on enhancing the economic condition of Indonesia, and thus disregarded women’s issues.

The new government under President Suharto helped to achieve economic stability in the country as inflation was brought down to a single-digit level, and the government also succeeded in setting the prerequisites for sustained economic prosperity. This achievement enabled the Suharto government to be considered an ideal agent for economic growth and prosperity (Goeltom, 2007, 235).

As Suharto’s government became more powerful it directly influenced the activities of all the political parties in Indonesia. Initially, the women’s organizations that were considered the most powerful gained support from the government. Among the women’s organizations that were supported by the government were the Dharma Pertiwi, Dharma Wanita and the Family Welfare Movement.

The aim of establishing these organizations was to provide an environment where wives could further their spouses’ careers. These organizations also played an important role in enhancing the government propaganda as far as development issues were concerned (Chowdhury, 2007, 170).

However, Suharto’s government failed to come up with policies that addressed the empowerment of women, and instead the government focused on ensuring that the status of women in the family was improved (Chowdhury, 2007, 170).

Women were required to be submissive to their husbands. Despite the fact that women were vested with the role of organizing family issues, the government of President Suharto did not empower them fully to be able to make household decisions. Most of the projects were directed towards men’s interests. The New Order system that was introduced by President Suharto saw women gain access to various development programs.

However, the budget allocated towards women’s development programs was relatively minor compared to that of men. The regime did not provide women with an opportunity to be productive as their activities were deemed as side jobs.

Women were supposed to focus on household activities and they were not supposed to join the civil service. There were only a few females in the parliament as female politicians were nominated depending on their relationships with other prominent leaders (Nashat, & Tucker, 1999, 3).

Despite marginalizing women in various ways, the development agenda of President Suharto also brought about some progress for women in Indonesia. President Suharto developed family planning programs that in turn enabled women to join their male counterparts in retail, labour markets and the public dormain.

The government also introduced programs aimed at reducing poverty among Indonesian women and in turn reducing the number of underprivileged people in Indonesia. This development program also played an important role in reducing the mortality rate, while also increasing life expectancy.

Women were also given a level playing field to compete with their male counterparts in education. The number of women who were enrolled in education programs rose significantly as a result (Robinson, & Bessell, 2002, 72).

The religious status of the country and its influence on women’s role in the country

With regards to religion in Indonesia, Islam forms the majority, with most prominent female politicians also being Islamic. Before gaining independence, Indonesian women actively participated in various Islamic organizations, but since attaining independence the situation changed as the role of women was directed towards maintaining households.

During the colonial days, the objective of women’s organizations in Indonesia was to challenge the Dutch colonialists. Also during this period, several political organizations existed that did not have any affiliations to Islam, while others were strongly routed in Islamic beliefs.

Despite the fact that the two sets of organizations conflicted with each other, they had the common objective of resisting the colonists. Indonesian women participated in the fight for independence through their women’s organizations or within their Islamic political parties. This participation saw a significant number of Islamic women jailed (Eklof, 2005, 26).

The women’s organizations played an important role in enhancing women’s participation in political activities. This was especially true during the end of colonial era where Islamic women had already familiarized themselves with addressing people in political rallies and also involving themselves in matters such as polygamy.

The leaders of Islamic political women’s groups also recognized the need for women to participate in the voting process. Men who were fighting for independence during this time also supported women and mobilized them to get involved in the struggle for independence. The nationalists also encouraged women to participate in major political projects to enhance the welfare of Indonesian citizens.

After independence, much changed as far as the politics of Indonesian women was concerned. The post-colonialist era saw a disappearance of Islamic women as influential leaders. The political framework during the post-colonialism period was different in that, there was a division once the country gained its independence.

Following independence there were several conflicts between moderates and radical Islamic groups. Radicals on their part wanted the country to be a Muslim state whereas the moderates argued that this was impossible (Feith, 2006, 136).

During President Suharto’s reign, the Islamic movement was regarded as a rising social conservatism. There were some Indonesians who viewed Indonesian women as backward due to the fact that they wore the traditional Islamic dress. Despite marginalization by Suharto’s government, the Islamic movement of Indonesian women became more complex in the 1990s.

The Islamic movement saw many women join colleges and in turn secure jobs in public and private sectors (Feith, 2006, 136). The government of Suharto encouraged women to dedicate themselves to domestic issues after marriage, but most Islamist women in Indonesia participated actively in the public life even though they refrained from mixing too intimately with men.

The Islamist movement played a vital role in giving women the opportunity to participate in public activities as activists who would bring about the much needed changes for Indonesia.

With a lack of opportunities for expressing themselves politically during the repressive era of President Suharto, the Islamic movement afforded students and women with channels upon which they could involve themselves in grassroots’ efforts of transforming Indonesian society ((Feith, 2006, 136).

During the final years of Suharto’s regime, various nongovernmental organizations joined together with scholars and individual activists in an effort to promote the rights of women in Indonesia as well as enhancing the environment under which Indonesian women lived.

The efforts of these organizations were directed at bringing about political as well as social changes in the country. This objective was also shared by various Indonesians and this ultimately led to the fall of Suharto from power. Some of the issues that were addressed by these groups included workers rights, reproductive health and violence against women (Willford, & George, 2005, 95).

Women’s social issues in Indonesia

Since Suharto’s fall from power, significant changes have been made towards ensuring that there is gender equality in Indonesia. Before the fall of Suharto, the government had ratified some policies aimed at ensuring women’s interests are catered to. However, no commitments were made as these policies were overshadowed by the patriarchal ideologies left over from President Suharto’s regime.

Political transition thus played an important role of bringing significant advances for Indonesian women. For instance, the Ministry for the Role of Women in Indonesia was changed to the State Ministry for the Empowerment of Women following President Suharto’s fall from power.

This change of name was important as it signified the beginning of a new era where women are not restricted to being mothers and wives. The Ministry of Empowerment of Women has emphasized the need for greater representation among Indonesian women in parliament by establishing political networks for women.

The Ministry of Empowerment of Women has been in the forefront of transforming the role of women‘s organizations. It has transformed their role from being mere advocators of women’s rights into active forces of empowering women. Furthermore, the Ministry of Empowerment of Women has recognized the need to amend the Marriage Law of 1974 so as to help redefine the roles of women (Nashat, & Tucker, 1999, 3).

The Role of women in urban areas

The Ministry of Empowerment of Women collaborated with various political, community and religious organizations to form the National Plan Action for Women in 2000. This plan identified five main areas that required action as far as women in Indonesia were concerned.

The five areas included enhancing the quality of life for Indonesian women, creating awareness for equity and justice issues throughout the nation, eliminating violence against Indonesian women, protecting the fundamental human rights of Indonesian women and to strengthen women’s institutions to increase the number of women in parliament.

The ministry has succeeded in ensuring that these changes take place. The government has in turn provided the ministry with the required financial resources to ensure that the above objectives have been accomplished (Tremblay, 2005, 23).

Suharto’s fall from power has provided women in Indonesia with a greater role in public life. The new regime has played an important role in responding to women’s issues and also protecting women as much as possible. During Suharto’s era, sexual violence against women was rampant.

The new regime created an environment where people can disclose occurrences of sexual violence against women and has been an important step in enabling the government to take measures of protecting women (May, 2009, 7).


The fall of Suharto from power has enhanced the protection of women rights in Indonesia. Women in Indonesia have actively participated in democratic activities throughout Indonesia’s history.

This is apparent from the massive campaigns of Indonesian women’s movements before independence, the involvement of women in Constitutional debates in 1950s, the increasing number of women voters during the country’s elections and the massive protests that eventually led to Suharto’s fall from power in 1998.

Following the fall of Suharto from power, and throughout the political transitions that followed, women have been represented in key-decision making processes (Robinson & Bessell, 2002, 69-75).

Reference List

Chowdhury, A., 2007. Handbook on the Northeast and Southeast Asian economies. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Eklof, S., 2005. Power and Political Culture in Suharto’s Indonesia: The Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) and the Decline of the New Order (1986-98). Asian: NIAS Press, 2005

Feith, H., 2006. The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia. Jakarta: Equinox Publishing.

Goeltom, M.S., 2007. Essays in macroeconomic policy: the Indonesian experience. Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama.

Mason, A., 2001. Population change and economic development in East Asia: challenges Met, opportunities seized. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

May, K., 2009. Gender, Islam, and democracy in Indonesia. London: Taylor & Francis.

Nashat, G & Tucker, J.E., 1999.Women in the Middle East and North Africa: restoring Women to history. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Robinson, K.M. & Bessell, S., 2002. Women in Indonesia: gender, equity and Development. Heng Mui Keng Terrace: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Tremblay, M., 2005. Sharing power: women, parliament. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Willford, A.C. & George, K.M., 2005. Spirited politics: religion and public life in Contemporary Southeast Asia. Ithaca: SEAP Pub

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