The post-tsunami paradox of female empowerment in Aceh

The 13th anniversary of the tsunami presents an opportunity to reflect on the changes in Acehnese gender relations. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

The post-tsunami paradox of female empowerment in Aceh

On December 26, 2004, a tsunami struck Aceh Province in Indonesia, resulting in unprecedented destruction and loss of life. In the aftermath of the tsunami, gender relations in Aceh have fundamentally changed. Thirteen years since the Indian Ocean tsunami, the position of women in Acehnese society has arguably worsened.

After the tsunami, hundreds of international NGOs promoted gender mainstreaming in Aceh. However, the Western lens with which aid was provided tended to stereotype Acehnese women as “oppressed Muslim women” in need of saving by foreigners.

The contemporary discourse primarily portrays Acehnese women as victims, while historically Acehnese women have been represented as powerful agents – queens, warriors and leaders.

Women as leaders in Aceh

Women in Aceh historically were involved in trade, defence and leadership. In the 17th century, Aceh was ruled by four female sultanahs. The sultanahs reigned for 60 years.

After the rule of the sultanahs, the Acehnese fought a 40-year struggle against Dutch colonialism. Women were active combatants and leaders of guerrilla operations against the Dutch. The most famous heroines are Cut Nyak Dhien and Cut Meutia.

The Dutch imported a patriarchal gender ideology and criticised Indonesian women for working outside the home. However, the application of colonial policies towards women was largely limited to the wealthy and elite. Most Indonesian women continued to work outside the home as economic circumstances had made a tradition of female labour.

The majority of Acehnese people continued to live free from Dutch influence according to local traditions (known as adat). A well-known Acehnese tradition is the matrilocal residence system, whereby a bride’s parents gift her a house upon marriage. Ownership of the house provides women stability and power within the marital relationship.

The position of Acehnese women at the centre of the family and village is further established by the tradition of rantau (when men move away from the village to work). Although this is not an obligatory practice, if a husband cannot find work in his village he is expected to rantau. As their wives already own a house and work outside the home, they are not financially dependent on their husbands. These traditions place women in a strong social position with cultural authority at the local level.

The Acehnese expression for wife is njang po rumoh meaning “the one who owns the house”.

State Ibuism

In 1945, when Aceh became part of Indonesia, gender norms were significantly influenced by the new Indonesian state. Strong gender policies were implemented by the Indonesian Soeharto government. These gender policies, infamously known as “State Ibuism”, were implemented through programs such as Dharma Wanita and the Family Welfare Program. These policies categorised “men as primary income-earners and women as child-rearers and housewives”.

State Ibuism had real consequences in limiting the operation of matrifocal values in Aceh. By prioritising women’s roles as wives and mothers, these policies de-emphasised women’s roles as sisters and daughters, also known as matrilineal kinship structures. State Ibuism also placed greater importance on the role of the father as head of the household.

In modern day Aceh, a husband and wife are more likely to form a new nuclear family separate from matrilineal kinship structures. While matrifocal traditions continue to be strong in rural areas, urban and middle-class families are more likely to distance themselves from matriarchal practices in preference of patriarchal family structures.

Historically, matrilocal associations between women and the home empowered women by positioning them at the centre of the family and village. However, these associations, when interpreted in the context of restrictive gender norms under State Ibuism, may re-inforce the view that the home is the only “proper” or “acceptable” space for women.

30-year conflict

Before the tsunami, Aceh was involved in a 30-year civil war between the Free Aceh Movement (known as GAM) and the Indonesian central government. The tsunami, that killed more than 100,000 people in Aceh, was a catalyst for peace, with the Helsinki Peace Agreement finalised in 2005.

During the civil war, GAM also drew on the Acehnese tradition of women combatants. The women’s army, called Inong Balee, was emphasised in GAM propaganda. However, the leadership of the movement was male-dominated.

Violence perpetrated by the Indonesian state army (TNI) against the Acehnese was distinctly gendered. Rapes of women occurred regularly and women were abused to intimidate and emasculate Acehnese men.

Even for women who were not combatants, gender roles were effectively reversed during the civil war. When men were forced to flee, were imprisoned or killed, women became the heads of household and the community leaders. When men returned home post-conflict, women’s new-found identities clashed with and threatened men’s status in the family. This lead to a “significant increase in physical and sexual abuse in the home”.

Acehnese women were further marginalised in both the reconstruction and reconciliation processes. The negotiation process for the Helsinski Peace Agreement was “densely gendered” and excluded women’s interests.

During the post-conflict period, ex-GAM leaders attempted to minimise women’s contributions to the civil war. There was initially not a single woman among the 3000 ex-combatants listed for post-conflict compensation despite the fact that the Inong Balee were frequently promoted by GAM.

Reflecting on the shift in gender relations

Aceh’s gender history is defined by this paradox of female (dis-)empowerment, with gender relations becoming increasingly patriarchal over time. The long-term trend appears to be the diminishing of women’s social position through the shift in family structure away from matrifocal traditions. Although matrifocal traditions are still practiced in rural areas, there has been a decline in women’s cultural authority, particularly in urban contexts.

The thirteenth anniversary of the tsunami presents an opportunity to reflect on the changes in Acehnese gender relations. It is important to reflect broadly, not only on physical reconstruction efforts but also (re-)construction of Acehnese identity.

It is timely to reflect on matrifocal traditions as a unique part of Acehnese culture which should be cherished and preserved for future generations.