From chaperoned schoolgirl to gender specialist and policy activist

A demographer’s remarkable journey through difficult cultural territory

From first grade onwards, Iwu Dwisetyani Utomo, a Fellow at the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute (ADSRI), recalls celebrating the Indonesian national holiday Kartini Day commemorating the birthday in 1879 of her country’s national heroine, Raden Ayu Kartini.

Kartini was a Javanese princess who sought education beyond the harsh constraints of her day where women were secluded from age 12 while preparing for an arranged and, in some cases, polygamous marriage. Despite some slight lessoning of constraint from a loving father this was Kartini’s lot. “She was secluded,” says Iwu, “and could not continue her education. Her marriage was arranged by her family and she died after giving birth to her first son.”

While in seclusion and until she died, she did, however, continue to educate herself with European feminist literature and by pen-friend relationships with several Dutch friends and acquaintances from her school days.

“She wrote often to her Dutch friends and the letters have become a strong documentation of her thoughts about feminism. She was very passionate that women should move and develop and have education. She was a very strong character and wanted emancipation for women.”

Though an inspiration to Iwu, Kartini Day is not quite the break-through day in the national culture that she might have wished.

“Feminism and Indonesian society don’t go together,” she laments, noting that Kartini Day “is celebrated by dressing in traditional costume. It is more domestication that is promoted rather than, I’m sorry to say, feminism.”

The culture clash implied in Kartini Day is also played out in Iwu’s own life as she negotiates the tricky territory between homeland, heartland and headland.

“I want to be a woman like my culture has taught me,” she says, “I enjoy the caring and serving for my family because it is already in my heart.” But, and here comes the unmistakable, resolute qualifier, “I want to help women and I want to fight so that they can have equal rights and be able to choose what they want to do in their education and in their work.”

Iwu’s fight to achieve this end is seen throughout her many publications and research projects, marking her out as an internationally recognised gender specialist. She is currently working on two major research projects, one on the transition to adulthood and, the other, on integrating gender and reproductive health issues in the Indonesian school curricula.

“I want to see all of our policy recommendations adopted and implemented in Indonesia,” she says, already seeing some direct influence flowing from the gender and reproductive health study.

The Indonesian National Development Planning Bureau, for example, “has instructed that all authors for textbooks from elementary to secondary school are to be provided training on gender issues so that when they write the books they can be more gender neutral and promote gender equality.”

Iwu’s metamorphosis from tightly restricted and chaperoned schoolgirl (“I was often escorted to school activities by my father”) to gender specialist and policy activist is a remarkable journey through difficult cultural territory.

In her path, both blocking and empowering her, stand the forces of family, university and Government bureaucracy.

Take her mother, the daughter of a highly respected Islamic family in Kebumen, Central Java (“they were Kyai, expert Islamic teachers”), still revered years after their deaths. “Oh yes, my mother, she is my inspiration. She is a very strong person and even though she doesn’t understand about feminism and about feminist theory, she is a very independent and future-oriented person,” says Iwu.

Her mother was a teacher, the principal of an elementary school who, remarkably, didn’t “think academic or achievement in education is important.” Iwu laughs as she says this and adds that she was (she died just over a year ago) “the type of person that values expertise, if you have an expertise in any kind of field you can survive.”

She had left her teaching employment when her husband was posted to Washington for more than four-years as a staff of the military attaché. On their return to Indonesia, she studied hairdressing and opened a salon specialising in weddings. “In my country,’ explains Iwu, “it is very prestigious and highly regarded  if you are the dresser of the bride and groom. It's very complicated, it will take about four to four-and-a-half hours to dress traditionally.”

It was at her mother’s insistence that Iwu herself studied hairdressing, a bargain she struck so that she could study psychology and not science, her mother’s preferred choice.

“It was very hard as I was doing the hairdressing certificate while I was studying psychology.  But I did it, and then, I said, okay, I graduated and have the certificate! Then I directly handed the certificate to my mother.”

That grit showed in her psychology studies too and it led to her first job. She was one of five selected graduates to become a lecturer at the University of Indonesia, the country’s leading university.

It was a very prestigious appointment but with one problem, “we were not paid,” she says, laughing. “I thought, something is wrong here.”

She successfully applied to the Ministry of Population and Environment for another position. There were many more challenges, although of a different order, while she worked for the Government from 1985 to 2002. It was not the glass ceiling that was the problem for Iwu so much as the cloak of invisibility.

She returned to the Ministry after completing her PhD at ANU full of enthusiasm, and with knowledge and experience. She would raise her hand at staff meetings but would never be called on to speak. What’s more, she was placed in an area outside of her expertise.

So Iwu protested, often writing directly to the Minister, which is forbidden. “I didn't care! If I had information about population and social change and women’s issues, I would email him.” He began to recognise her name. Thereafter, when her hand was overlooked by the moderator, the minister would intervene. “Oh! Iwu, what did you want to say?”

Iwu was very happy with the situation but not so her direct supervisor. “I think he was threatened because he doesn’t have a PhD, maybe because I’m a woman, I’m not sure.” He was appeased when Iwu explained that she did not want his job.

Interestingly, she is listened to more than ever now and her work at ANU has more impact than ever it did when working in government. “Definitely, yes, yes, definitely,” she laughs.

“I can develop my ideas, discuss it with my colleagues, especially Professor Peter McDonald, develop a project grant together, then publish policy papers and journal articles. And the policy paper does really make a strong impact in Indonesia because I know how the Indonesian government works and I still have a very good network.”

“We always present our academic papers to the Indonesian government at the highest level.”

Iwu’s work has had influence beyond Indonesia. As a gender specialist, she has worked with the Asian Development Bank, Canadian International Development Agency, Australian Agency for International Development, Australian Reproductive Health Alliance, Marie Stopes International and Care Timor-Leste. Her internationally recognised publications cover issues of gender, reproductive health, sexuality, demography, family planning, maternal and child health and social change.

Iwu also plays a significant role in developing and sustaining the institutional culture and reputation of ADSRI. She is particularly valued by her graduate students. As a supervisor, says PhD candidate Lynda Wardhani, Iwu offers continuous motivation and encouragement and is a particular inspiration to her female students.

Education may have taken Iwu further than Raden Ayu Kartini could have even dreamt about but it still had its restrictions and frustrations. In her own parenting she “applied a different strategy.”

“I told my children that they can choose any field of study that they want to but my advice is that you have to choose something that you are very passionate about.” It’s a formula that seems to have worked.

“I'm very proud because now my daughter (Dr Ariane Utomo) is a research fellow at ADSRI-ANU,” indeed, they share a passionate interest in gender policy and work together on both the gender and reproductive health project and the transition to adulthood project. The project team also includes Professors Peter McDonald, Terence Hull and Gavin Jones, all very important mentors to Iwu during her time at ANU since they supervised her PhD.

Iwu’s other daughter Karina Utomo works in the fashion industry and her son Nugroho Utomo is an award-winning local architect. Like Iwu herself, he shone at University with his first job at the University of Canberra being offered to him by his lecturer but, of course, it was a paid job!


Updated:  7 November 2012/Responsible Officer:  Convenor, Gender Institute/Page Contact:  Web manager, Gender Institute