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Ratna Sarumpaet, a voice for Indonesian women

Ratna Sarumpaet

Ratna Sarumpaet, a voice for Indonesian women

Born 16 July 1949, Ratna Sarumpaet is an Indonesian women’s rights activist and a theatrical producer, actress, film director and writer.

Sarumpaet was the fifth of ten children of Saladin Sarumpaet, Minister of Defence in the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia rebel government and Julia Hutabarat, a women’s right activist. Sarumpaet born into a politically active Christian family in North Sumatra.

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Sarumpaet moved to Jakarta, finishing her high school and by 1969 she was studying architecture at the University of Indonesia but dropped out and joined the WS Rendra theatrical troupe.

This troupe was the inspiration of Willibrordus Surendra Broto Rendra (WS Rendra), an Indonesian poet, actor, director and political activist.

His troupe is called Bengkel Teater and still performs around Indonesia. He was one of few poets who had courage to express their resistance to the power of Suharto under his own name.

Sarumpaet and Rendra worked together for two years, resisting Soeharto’s New Order by performing and reading their poetry until Sarumpaet left the troupe and began to work in television.

The first major epiphany in Sarumpaet’s life which led her to become politically active was the murder of Marsinah, a female labour rights leader from East Java which forced her to explore issues of political repression which she the wrote about in a stage-play based on the murder.

The murder sparked a period of political activity for Sarumpaet. who was obsessed with the case, including seeing Marsinah’s face while writing the play.

Sarumpaet later reported the way the murder was conducted, with Marsinah raped and mutilated and then discarded in a forest, “symbolised the deep, trivialising contempt which men, especially powerful men, feel towards women who dare to speak out”.

These was followed by several other politically charged works, several of which were banned or restricted by the Soeharto Government.

Increasingly disillusioned by the autocratic acts of Soeharto’s New Order Government during the 1997 legislative elections, Sarumpaet and her troupe led pro-democracy protests by performing with a coffin labelled Democracy.

For their action they were arrested and held for twenty-four hours.

On 11 March 1998, Sarumpaet and eight others were arrested and jailed for seventy days for spreading and attending an “anti-revolutionary” political gathering.

After her release, Sarumpaet continued to be active in pro-democracy groups.

In December 1998, Tokyo-based Asia Foundation for Human Rights, awarded Sarumpaet the Female Human Rights Special Award.

In 2003, Sarumpaet was selected to head the Jakarta Art Board (Dewan Kesenian Jakarta), a position she held until 2006.

Two years after her selection, Sarumpaet was approached by UNICEF and asked to do a survey of child trafficking in Southeast Asia and promote awareness of the problem.

After discovering the extent of the problem, she wrote the play, Pelacur dan Sang Presiden (The Prostitute and the President), spending six months interviewing prostitutes in Surabaya, Surakarta, Garut and Borneo in preparation.

The play was shown in five different cities in 2006 and was received warmly.

Also in 2006, Ratna Sarumpaet organised the seventh triannual Women’s Playwright International Conference in Bali.

Sarumpaet released her first written work of fiction on 10 December 2010, in commemoration of Human Rights Day.

Entitled Maluku, Kobaran Cintaku (Maluku, Flame of My Love), the novel is about the love of a Christian woman and Muslim man set amidst the Maluku sectarian conflict.

It delves into the causes of the conflict, including poverty and provocation by the armed forces in creating civil unrest.

Sarumpaet, along with the WS Rendra theatrical troupe, supported resistance to Suharto new era by performing and reading their poetry.

Ratna Sarumpaet is a woman who has had the courage to speak out about women’s right and issues with Indonesian democracy.

She played an active part of the campaign that succeeded in bringing about the end of the New Order, culminating in the resignation of President Soeharto.

Ratna Sarumpaet has been a great inspiration to Indonesian woman and girls who are increasingly finding their own voice to protest against injustices against women.

By Kathy Sulemon, May 2013

For more information about Ratna Sarumpaet and to find out more about how you can support her work, visit her website or visit her Facebook page.

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