An interview with Soe Tjen Marching by Zara Majidpour
Soe Tjen Marching was born in Indonesia. She is a feminist, academic, writer and a composer of avant-garde in Indonesia. I recently conducted an interview with Soe Tjen Marching and I asked her the following questions about herself and her work.
ZM: You are a composer but you have PhD in Asian and women’s studies. Why do you have qualifications in two completely unrelated fields?
STM: I loved music since I was young. And I loved creating sounds out of anything. My parents were quite poor when I was young (my father was imprisoned and tortured by the second President of Indonesia, Soeharto, because he was a leftist and all of our property were confiscated). So, they had to start from zero. I was born after my father was out of the prison. But my parents were fighters, so in the end, they managed to do quite well, despite all the restrictions we had to face. Only when I was 10 years old, my father bought us an inexpensive piano. Then, I started learning but I wasn't a good player. I think because I am too stubborn and have an independent mind, I would rather create the sound I wanted to hear rather than merely obeying the notes other people had written. So, I started composing music for fun, until I met a composition teacher. But mainly, for music, I have been an autodidact.
I guess, the desire to think independently has made me questions a lot of things in Indonesia, including women's rights. There is a strong relation between my being a composer and a feminist. Women, who decided to learn music, mostly end up becoming players. Why? Because players mainly take the passive part. As players, most of them have to obey the demands of composers. Who make them so? The voice and prejudice of the past are consciously and unconsciously are often still dominant. Women who try to succeed in the world dominated by men, are often discouraged. It was also this negative perspective on women which forced Clara Schumann to be satisfied with being a pianist who often played the works of her own husband, Robert Schumann. She herself liked composing music – in her own words: “Composing gives me great pleasure... there is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation”. However, her “low self-esteem” made her write in her diary: “A woman must not wish to compose -- there never was one able to do it”.
So, my music and my writing are both channels of my rebellion. For me, they are often inseparable.
ZM: On your twitter page you wrote: God? If you want me to believe in your God, you'd better know that there are thousands of formal gods in the world. So, which God? Is being an atheist a big deal in a country like Indonesia with an 85 percent Muslim population?
STM: I would rather not define myself as an atheist. I am prepared to believe in God, if there is a strong evidence of it. However, so far, I have not been convinced. So, I refuse to believe in things which have no evidence yet.
What I am really opposed to at the moment, is how the belief in God is used for commercial values and to oppress women. In this way, it is somehow similar to the belief in Santa Claus. People sell it to make money. Both can be quite patriarchal as well – the image of an old wise man does not go with my feminist ideas. If I have children, I will not make them believe in God or Santa Claus. There will be no Santa Claus or the like in my house!
Being a non-believer is hard, while in Indonesia, you must have a religion. On your ID card, you must put your religion down and I think this is discrimination. What about people with no religion?
Usually, the believers can criticize or stigmatize the non-believers whenever and whatever they want. However, when the non-believers criticize the believers or religion(s), people will get furious and even threaten us. Some of them threatened to sue us, some even sent some physical threats as well. I have received several threats, but the most disappointing one, came from someone I thought of as a good friend. This was very-very disappointing for me. But at the same time, all of my experience has made me stronger and tougher.
I am lucky in a way, because I live overseas, although my mind is often still in Indonesia. I still have really good friends there, very loyal friends who disagree with my ideas but still love me and I have a project in Indonesia. But I think I can do a lot as well, from outside of the country. And I also consider myself lucky, because my husband is supportive of my ideas.
ZM: Fighting for women’s right has a history in Indonesia, for instance an organization like Gerwani was founded in 1950 and it had over 650,000 members in 1957. What are the major problems that women in Indonesia face?
STM: Actually, in the past women’s rights in Southeast Asia were far better than the counterpart in Europe. Women in Java, for instance, had financial power. Javanese women were in control of the money in the family, for instance (they ruled the roost). In terms of sexuality, Indonesia used to be more liberal too. For instance, in the Indonesian archipelago, gender restrictions have not always been clear-cut. Several critics have noted that during the Dutch colonialism, the people of the archipelago were sexually lax compared with the then Puritan Europeans. In his book Indonesian Fertility Behaviours before the Transition: Searching for Hints in the Historical Record , Terence Hull, for instance, states that Westerners who came to Southeast Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries considered sexual practices there to be very “loose”[i].Not only were people of the archipelago more tolerant to sexual laxity, they were also more accepting of gender ambiguities, as a Western historian observed of gender and sexuality in Southeast Asia in the 1960s: “Basically, S.E. Asians are far more tolerant of personality deviation, abnormality and disorder than we are”[ii]. Source: M.A. Jaspan. Traditional Medical Theory in Southeast Asia, University of Hull, 1969, pp.22-23.
However, because of several influence, also after the coming of religions, especially Christianity and Islam), the view of sexuality changed. At the moment, I think there are several problems for women. Mainly, it comes from patriarchal values plus the fundamentalist tendencies of religions in Indonesia.ZM: Indonesia has a reputation as a country with moderate and religious tolerance but in recent years we have seen another picture. Bomb explosions or threats by a radical Islamic group led to the cancellation of the concert of an American artist. Do you believe that radical Islam is rising in Indonesia?
STM: When we say “moderate” and “tolerant” – these two words are always ambiguous. Moderate and tolerant to what? And Indonesia, like any other countries, is complex. The government can be moderate and tolerant to certain things, but not to others. For instance, since Soeharto was in power, there was hardly any toleration of atheism or Marxism.
At the moment, the Indonesian government seems to let fundamentalist groups roam rather freely. Many believe that there is a strong connection between these fundamentalist groups and the government. So, in a way, the government may not be a fundamentalist Muslim, but they use these groups to be the bulldog, to attack people who are too critical to the government.
In addition, there seems to be a lot of money invested to develop fundamentalism in Indonesia. There are cheap books which encourage fundamentalism, for instance. However, agnostic, atheist and non-believers are also growing. These people are quite supportive of my project. I have founded an organization, which publishes magazine called Bhinneka and also administers several online discussions. We try to promote pluralism and critical thinking. We encourage criticism, especially of topics which are considered “sacred”. Because when things are considered sacred, they can usually be free of criticism, and this is dangerous. For this reason, we encourage criticism to anything considered “sacred”. And because of this, we have received scolding and so many stigmas as well.
We also have several Facebook groups, with a total member of around 12,000. Not all the members agree with what we are doing. Some of them hover around only to scold us. But I am used to it. I just keep going with my ideas, and I feel that this is the only way for me. This what makes me happy in life.
ZM: In Aceh, which is under Sharia law, the Sharia police wilayatul hisbah are checking people’s, especially young girls and women, private matters like their clothes, etc. As a feminist, why has radical Islam become so powerful in Aceh?
STM: I am not an expert of Aceh, I am afraid. But I think, this has a lot to do with the growth of fundamentalist Muslims in Indonesia. During Soeharto, these fundamentalist Muslims were repressed, because there was no freedom of expression then. After Soeharto stepped down, the fundamentalist Muslims, the liberals, the feminists can voice out their thoughts more freely. They are no longer under so much scrutiny. But this is the consequence of a democracy with no awareness of and respect to human rights or equality. Now, fundamentalist Muslims seem to go stronger. For instance, fundamentalist groups can just stop discussions on topics they don’t agree with.In Surabaya in 2010, I was involved in ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association) Conference, and the fundamentalist group came and threatened us. The police did not do much. They suggested us to leave the hotel and cancel the conference. But this was not the worst. Several people from religious minorities have been attacked, beaten up and even murdered. For instance, in 2011, three Ahmadiyah people were killed. After pressures from activists, the government finally took the murderers to court. However, they only got 3-6 month imprisonment.
Now, compare this with the imprisonment of Alex Aan. He only stated his conviction as an atheist on the internet. I think, expressing your opinions or ideas on the internet is more civilized than yelling in the street or voicing out your belief in a loudspeakers, like what several religious people have done in Indonesia. However, what Alex Aan did was apparently considered an offence, and he has been sentence to 2, 5 years. Can you see the difference?
This interview was translated into Persian (Farsi) and published in Shahrzadnew website.
[i] Terence Hull. Indonesian Fertility Behaviours before the Transition: Searching for Hints in the Historical Record (
p.4. Australian National University
[ii] M.A. Jaspan. Traditional Medical Theory in
Southeast Asia. , 1969, pp.22-23. University of Hull