An American in Jakarta

by Rachel Rinaldo

A million people marched through the center of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. It was late March 2003, and they were protesting the American invasion of Iraq. As a graduate student doing research on women’s activism in the world’s largest Muslim country, I eagerly followed on the sidelines. 

Photograph by Robert Wyrod, 2003 Antiwar Demonstration
Photograph by Robert Wyrod, 2003 Antiwar Demonstration

I thought the demonstration would be a great opportunity for research, and it was a cause I sympathized with. Some feminist friends waved as they marched by. But as I walked with my husband Robert, we saw no other obvious foreigners. We soon found ourselves alongside a different set of marchers. Not feminists, but young men, who shouted “America terrorist,” as we walked by. Others yelled, “Kafir,” the slur for unbeliever. As I looked down the boulevard at the stream of humanity heading our way, I saw a huge banner that read, “People of the USA beware.”

Looking back, I think I assumed my critical perspective would insulate me from this situation. I was a veteran of left wing activism. And here I was doing ethnographic fieldwork with (mostly) progressive activists. My approach was to not simply be an observer, but to partake as much as possible in my informants’ activism. But the surge of extremism in Indonesia that year drove home an early lesson of feminist research – identity and location matter, for both the researcher and her informants. I realized that I couldn’t escape my U.S. identity, no  matter how critical I myself may have been of American politics. I was an American traveling and doing research in Indonesia.

I arrived in Jakarta in July 2002. In the wake of 9/11, I wanted to study how Indonesia’s women’s rights movement was intersecting with the growing appeal of Islam. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the State Department posted warnings about rising extremism in Indonesia. I was not concerned. I had spent a year in Indonesia as a high school exchange student, and later backpacked through Southeast Asia. Robert and I had also spent the summer of 1999 taking rickety buses through far-flung parts of Indonesia, just a year after the country began a tumultuous period of democratization.

In October 2002, after getting situated in Jakarta, Robert and I went to visit my former host family in the East Javanese city of Malang. When we came down for breakfast on October 12th, we heard the news about an explosion at a nightclub in Bali. That day, we sat glued to the TV, as it became clear that it was a suicide bombing aimed at Americans and Australians (most of the nearly 200 killed were Australians).

We took a bus back to Jakarta, feeling uneasy on the 16 hour ride. Soon after, I was invited to a security meeting for Fulbright grantees at the U.S. embassy. Embassy officials told us that as Americans we were targets of extremists with links to al-Qaeda. We were encouraged to leave and given the option to switch to another country.

I left the meeting confused and uncertain. My rebellious side hated being told what to do by officials of a government whose policies I didn’t like. I also had to admit to myself that terrorists didn’t care what I thought. But I resolved to stay in Indonesia. I had invested too much in my research to leave. The Indonesians I knew were incredibly hospitable and friendly, and so I felt that the warnings were exaggerated, and that I was relatively safe because I was not living in a luxurious expatriate setting.

The U.S. embassy evacuated non-essential employees, and along with other embassies, began broadcasting news of threats to places where foreigners were known to gather. The Jakarta International School, near where we lived, closed temporarily. Extremists threatened to “sweep” Americans from the streets of Jakarta and other cities. Robert and I hunkered down in our apartment, watching the BBC.

Eventually, things calmed down. I found that the situation made for productive conversations with women activists about Islam, feminism, and global politics. They were extremely critical of American policy, but they didn’t blame individual Americans and they didn’t believe conspiracy theories about the Bali bombing or 9/11. But they told me that American actions were making feminist efforts more difficult. As America was perceived as being at war with Muslims, any funding from American donors could easily discredit activists. But more than that, activists were telling me that ideas that were perceived as critical of Islam or pro-Western were also coming under suspicion. By their account, the war on terror was converting many Indonesians to the more anti-American stance of conservative or extremist Islam. Examining how women’s rights activists navigated this situation through mobilizing the egalitarian aspects of their religious tradition became a focus of my research.

I saw how these issues played out when I visited a village in rural West Java with Fatayat Nahdlatul Ulama, one of the Muslim women’s groups in my study. They were meeting with local women to talk about reproductive health services. It was part of an important program to empower village women by providing them with better information about reproductive health. The locals asked the women’s group who I was, and so I stood up and introduced myself, saying, “I’m a graduate student from America, I’m studying women’s organizations in Indonesia.” A few women asked me the standard polite questions – are you married, do you have children. And then an elderly woman at the end of the long table stood and said defiantly, “I want to talk about the situation in America and I would like to know why your country wants to bomb Muslims.” The table grew tense and everyone looked at me expectantly. There was little time to think, and so I replied, “President Bush wants to go to war against Saddam Hussein. Many Americans like me don’t support the war. We can’t always control what the government does.” I felt a visceral anger at President Bush. At such moments, I found myself assuring Indonesians that many Americans did not support Bush’s policies, even though I knew it wasn’t quite true. Yet I felt I had to say that to protect myself and others. The village women nodded their heads at my statement, and later gave me parting gifts of food. My activist colleagues did not seem very bothered by the incident; indeed, they had gotten some hard questions of their own for arriving late. I had seen how my presence could pose a problem for them, and yet they were nothing but welcoming. A few weeks later, when the US began bombing Iraq, the head of Fatayat sent me a kind text message to make sure I was safe.

Years later, as so many Western journalists and aid workers have been killed in the current Middle Eastern turmoil, I think about how sympathetic outsiders are sometimes subject to violence. Those incidents should be a reminder of the much more daily obstacles (and dangers) that local activists and progressives must navigate. Indonesia was never that treacherous, and I have been back many times. But I have come to understand that my U.S. nationality matters. It is a social location that carries with it global power, both economic and military, and that provokes unease, anxiety, and other reactions. Despite how I see myself, when I travel some people will see me as a representative of the U.S. And what that means to them is sometimes out of my control, and perhaps not under their control either.

Rachel Rinaldo is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. Her article, “Pious and Critical: Muslim Women Activists and the Question of Agency,” is published in the December 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the article, click here.

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