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International conference highlights women's issues in contemporary Indonesia

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The conference featured keynote addresses by the female CEO of OCBC NISP Bank and a HP Executive and dozens of speakers from the U.S., Australia, Europe and Southeast Asia.


In February 2019, the UCLA Center Southeast Asian Studies partnered with the Indonesian Women Alliance to convene an international conference at UCLA focused on addressing the empowerment of women in contemporary Indonesia. The goal of the conference was to showcase research that delved into the various socioeconomic, religious, or cultural factors that have advanced or hindered women’s issues and rights in Indonesia in recent decades.

Over the course of the two-day conference, 18 scholars, researchers, activists, and graduate students from the U.S., Australia, Indonesia, the Netherlands and Singapore presented their work on topics related to the evolving role of women in Indonesia. The speakers elaborated upon the progress made within the country over the years to expand and improve the position and status of women, but also brought up the many challenges that still remain.

The panel presentations, moderated by UCLA graduate students, discussed topics such as female leadership and activism in urban agriculture, land reform, fisheries, trade unions and creative industries; Indonesian domestic workers abroad; women in higher education, the contemporary music scene, and the art world; female activists and religious leaders; their contribution to social networks and political campaigns, the women's movement, and feminist legal theory.

The program also included a distinguished invited speakers’ panel which featured Parwati Surjaudaja, President Director of OCBC NISP Bank and Sonita Lontoh, Global Head of Marketing of Hewlett-Packard. Both speakers discussed the many achievements made so far in increasing female representation in the professional environment and responding to the barriers and obstacles that women face in the workplace. Furthermore, they gave advice regarding how to maintain work-life balance and empower other women in the workplace.

The first day of the conference concluded with a special screening of an edited selection from Bitter Honey (2014), a documentary produced by anthropologist and filmmaker, Robert Lemelson, and edited by Chisako Yokoyama. The selection focuses on a polygamous family comprise of one husband and four wives in Bali, Indonesia and portrays the emotional and social implications within the household and larger Balinese community.

The film shows how constraints of a patriarchal society prevent these women from voicing their struggles and protesting the conditions of their domestic lives. It also draws attention to the work of activists, community leaders, and legal experts in taking measures to support these women and triggering a wider conversation about contemporary polygamy and women's rights in Indonesia. Lemelson and Yokoyama were present to answer questions and discuss the process of gaining the trust of the families to make the documentary and the range of responses and reactions from different audiences, community organizations and government agencies to the film.

The second day of the conference culminated with a panel featuring members of the Indonesian Women Alliance - Jennifer Kussoy (Federal Reserve Bank of Los Angeles), Nana Firman (Greenfaith), and Agnes Muljadi (a Los Angeles-based ballerina and social media influencer). The three Indonesian women shared stories about their respective journeys in pursuing personal growth and development, achieving success in their careers, and serving as community leaders. While they see luck as playing a significant role in each of their careers, they admit that one of the biggest challenges is having to constantly prove themselves to others in order to break stereotypes about being a woman in their fields and industries.

The conference was attended by over 165 students, faculty, staff, and community members from UCLA and other institutions. It was co-organized by Dr. Juliana Wijaya (Indonesian Studies Coordinator, UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies), Nguyet Tong (Assistant Director, UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies) and Melany Lintuuran (Indonesian Women Alliance) and sponsored by the UCLA Indonesian Studies Program, funded through a gift from Julia Gouw, with support from the Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia in Los Angeles.


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