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May 18 Academy Reflections

Women’s Inclusion in Political Uprisings

Saifullah, Indonesia
Mr. Saifullah works as a community organizer at Indonesia People’s Movement Confederation (KPRI) and a member of the Indonesia Working People’s Party. He completed his degree in Political Science at the Social and Political Science Institute (IISIP) in Jakarta, Indonesia.
“As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again
Our lives shall not be sweetened, from birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses”
- ‘Bread and Roses’ by James Oppenheim, 1911


When I read history books, I mostly find men’s struggles in resistance movements. For instance, men are on the frontline in every battle, men are the initiators of political movements, and so on. Sometimes, we forget to ask: Where are the women involved in every social movement? Because the first victims of oppression are women, children, and elderly people. It is sometimes difficult for me to find stories of women who participated in political or social movements. In Indonesia, there are only a few stories about women’s contributions to political uprisings such as Cut Nyak Dhien from Aceh and Nyi Ageng Serang, our country’s national heroine.

It often happens that when the movement succeeds, the historians forget to take into account the roles of women in these movements. This phenomenon leads us to assume that men’s roles and contributions are bigger and more important than that of women’s in political uprisings and social movements. However, in reality, women often play crucial roles by supplying food, water, and Molotov cocktails. But they also take on leadership roles in social movements. In Indonesia, this was the case in the Reform Movement (Reformasi) that ended the Suharto dictatorship in 19981. A few of them were leaders of organisations such as worker unions, urban poor organisations and student organisations. Even though there were women inclusions in reform movements, no one is willing to document their struggles. In my work as a community organiser engaging with workers and peasant unions, urban poor organisations, and student groups, I have seen women’s contributions to challenging injustices and bringing about social change, even though their stories are not always documented.

I was inspired to think and write about women’s contributions to political uprisings after participating this year’s May 18 Academy organised by the May 18 Memorial Foundation in Gwangju, South Korea. Together with a group of international participants from NGOs and universities, I participated in field trips, discussions, and lectures on subjects related to human rights, democracy, and peacebuilding based on South Korean experiences. For instance, one presenter explained about the situation of democracy and human rights in Asia and made us ask basic questions like “whose rights and which rights?” In addition, there were two speakers who inspired me to write about women’s inclusion in political activities. They are Jung Hyun-ae, Representative Director of the May Mother’s House, and Lee Chun-hee, Director at Women’s Resource Development Centre. These speakers were alumni of the May 18 Democratic Uprising, and in their sessions, they explained the social and political conditions that led to the May 18 Uprising in South Korea.

I see female workers going to factories every day. They have to leave their house in the early morning and come back when the sun is going down. Even though they work very hard, they earn less than men. In addition, most of them also have to support their family and do domestic work such as cleaning the house and cooking for their family. This situation is mostly the same as female workers’ condition in Asia; women are doubly-marginalized every single day.

When I reflect the May 18 Democratic Uprising, I realize that women are able to do more than working in a factory, in the office, or do domestic work. They are bravely involved in political conflicts and do what men do. I remember when Ms. Lee of the Women’s Resource Development Centre shared her story about Gwangju Citizen’s Resistance translated by Ms. Inrae You. For instance, a mother took a dangerous risk to participate in the resistance while carrying her nine-month-old son. Ms. Lee emphasized that women workers and grass root women involved in Gwangju Citizens Resistance until the last moment.

Based on the testimonies of female participants in the Democratic Uprising in Gwangju, it is presumed that one third of the demonstrators were women2. Two women’s organisations were crucial in mobilising women to participate in the Uprising. The first was Songbaekhoe, an independent women’s organisation established in Gwangju in 1978. The members of the organisation were mostly progressive, intellectual women who were teachers, workers, housewives, nurses, university students or family members of political prisoners. This organisation focused on social problems such as worker conditions, environmental issues, and prostitution tourism. The second organisation was a labour organisation called ‘Women’s Members of Catholic Labour Youth’ (JOC). JOC members mostly were textile workers. This organisation focused on improving worker’s conditions, such as housing and workplace conditions. In addition, there were other groups who joined, such as university students who participated in the Deulbool Night school and Gwangdae (Korean traditional acrobats).

The groups which I mentioned were autonomous groups. It means that these organisations did not associate or affiliate with any political organisations at all. Meanwhile, women’s activities absolutely influenced the movement of the May 18 Democratic Uprising. Ms. Lee explained women’s inclusion in the Uprising. There were several activities what women did during the May 18 Democratic Uprising. These activities absolutely had influenced the Uprising activities. In the Uprising, Songbaekhoe members played a distinguished role. The several women, female workers, female students, women farmers of neighbouring vicinities, women street vendors, residents of slums and middle-class housewives were engaged in the struggle. The resistance of all these groups of women was organised by Songbaekhoe3. JOC mobilized their members to go marching on the street. Other women were donating their blood, handing people with food and drinks, nursing the wounded, making pamphlets, or making Molotov cocktails.

Apart from the organised women’s groups, individual housewives participated in the Uprising in various ways, such as collecting rice, money, and making placards for political rallies. One of the lecturers described her participation in Nokdu Bookstore4 that became a discussion place where student activists read books, and eventually, it became a focal point for other colleges and universities in South Korea. After the army detained her husband because of his political activities in the bookstore, she took over the bookstore and continued her husband’s activities. During the Uprising, the bookstore became a shelter for the democracy activists. In that place, activists conducted discussion on how to drive away the Martial Law Army, arrange the rally’s strategy, and publish newsletters. The bookstore had played an important part during the Gwangju Uprising. Ms. Jung was quoted as saying, “I had given everything that I had for the Democratic Uprising.” These stories remind us the importance of women’s contributions in political and social movements. Just like that of men, their struggle takes a risk. But sometimes, we turn a blind eye on what and how women sacrificed during social movements and in our daily lives. If we flashback to our ancient civilization, women have had important roles in the change of civilization. I appreciate the May 18 Memorial Foundation for bringing us to understand and explain that their struggle was not dominated by men. The Foundation recognizes that women also participated in the Uprising.

Before I conclude this writing, I ask and pose a challenge to you, dear reader: What new insights could we learn and discover if we give free space to women to write their histories?

1  Reform movement in Indonesia is known by Reform of 1998. My old friend who was part of reform movement said “young people (1998) were initiated by Democratic Uprising in Gwangju”.
2  Ahn Jean, et al., 2013, “May 18 Democratic Uprising and Women”, The May 18 Memorial Foundation, pp.53.
3  Ibid 51
4  Nokdu bookstore was the center for young activists and laborers during the Uprising. The bookstore supplied books on social science to university students in Gwangju.