unilever indonesiaIbu Pudji sits in a circle of seven old women, modestly dressed in faded blouses and housecoats. She herself dons a light blue dress, mended several times but impeccably ironed. Her dark eyes sparkle, her greying hair is tied in a bun behind her head. We have come to visit the house where they live and bring them the royalties from my book on their history. Though modest, they are a welcome help towards meeting their living expenses. None of them has a regular income from a job or a pension.


Each of these women spent 10 -14 years in jail; they are among the few survivors of the tens of thousands who similarly were sent to prison in 1965. Their crime? They belonged to the progressive movement in the 1960s – either the women’s movement, or as in Ibu Pudji’s case, the trade union. They were all imprisoned following the purge of all socialist forces in Indonesia in 1965/6. After a putsch of army officers women were accused of having killed and castrated the corrupt senior generals who were abducted by their junior colleagues. General Suharto emerged victoriously and coined these grotesque accusations. Fuelled by the mass propaganda based on these lies the army and rightwing youth gangs set about murdering some one million leftist people, and imprisoning thousands more. In this way he weakened the position of President Sukarno, and took over the presidency. Under General Suharto’s military dictatorship (which lasted from 1966-1998) all forms of leftist, feminist and even liberal thinking were prohibited. When the prisoners, at least those who survived the torture, sexual slavery, hunger and forced labour, were gradually released (only a handful of them had been tried) they found their houses ransacked, their families in poverty. Their possessions had been confiscated and their pensions were denied to them. The stigma that socialist women were sexually depraved clung to them. In fact the only sexual crimes committed at the time were the rapes and other forms of sexual torture the women had been subjected to by their prison wardens. Not wanting to burden their families with their fate, they had congregated in this house in the center of Jakarta.

I know them well, having done research on their history. So far I focused on the women’s movement. This time I sit next to Ibu Pudji, who shares her life history with me. Ibu Pudjiati Binti Mangunpawiro, as is her full name, was born 86 years ago in Central Java, a daughter of a police officer. She visited a secondary school for girls which was inspired by the ideals of Princess Kartini, Indonesia’s best known early feminist. Besides reading, writing and arithmetic the curriculum included cooking, sewing and making batik. She survived the Japanese occupation and found herself employed in the canteen of the prison of Purwodadi when the Dutch executed their second military attack. The prison authorities supported the Indonesian guerrillas and Ibu Pudji was allowed to work with the Red Cross looking after the wounded, and supplying the fighters with food. After preparing the packets of rice for the soldiers she climbed up to the nearby rubber gardens of Bucikan, where a radio had been hidden which received the news from Kebumen radio station. The rubber tappers took turns pedalling the bicycle that powered the radio accu. Ibu Pudji and other young women noted the messages down in steno and typed the bulletins to be distributed to the regional commander of the Indonesian army, Sajeh Sultan Amangsah.

After the war she led a home in Jakarta for war orphans. In 1952 she joined Unilever. She was the head of the canteen in the factory in Angke, Jakarta. She had immediately registered with its trade union. In 1957 she was elected chairperson, after Ibu Sondag, the first chair, had passed away. Happy to be able to advance the rights of the workers she managed to get the factory to adhere to the minimum wage, and to apply the standard leave for menstruation and for childbirth (six weeks before and after giving birth). In fact Unilever was a model company. It operated a medical clinic that was open to family members of their employees, and a cooperation. In 1965 she campaigned for the factory to open a crèche for the children of the workers.

In her neighbourhood her energy, commitment and skills were highly appreciated and she was elected chair of the neighbourhood committee. Although she had a good job, many of her neighbours had no such luck. Sukarno’s disastrous economic policies caused great suffering for the urban poor.

From her base at Unilever Ibu Pudji became the chair of the women’s wing of the National Trade Union. Fortified by the example of Unilever she fought for the rights of women workers all over Indonesia. Indonesia’s socialist organizations were well known internationally. Ibu Pudji represented the trade union in 1963 in Rumania, in the World Congress of Women Workers.

While this was the culmination of her international career, nationally she became famous as a member of the organizing committee of the major demonstration again the price rises in 1963. President Sukarno, who liked to portray himself as the defender of the common people, was not amused. But neither did the women gain the support of the army and the country’s right wing forces, as they later were to learn. All factories closed at the day of the demonstration. Thousands thronged in front of the office of the Governor of Jakarta on the south side of Liberty Square, demanding food for the people. At that point in her story Ibu got up from the rickety chair she occupied and gestured to the dining table “I climbed on a table in front of the office and made a fiery speech – that we, the women of Indonesia, demanded rice for our children.” To my relief she sits down again. I am not sure the table or Ibu herself would have survived had she made an attempt to repeat her moment of glory.

Then, in October 1965 it is all over. The disturbing news of the putsch takes everyone by surprise. On October 7th Ibu Pudji is picked up and thrown into prison together with thousands of other bewildered trade unionists, members of the leftwing women’s organization, teacher’s union, cultural organization, farmer’s union and members of the Communist party. She spent six years in Bukit Duri, seven years in Plantungan and the last year in Semarang. The other six ladies who had been chattering with the other guests, stop talking momentarily. They all have their own memories on hearing those names.

I drink some water, when Ibu Pudji resumes her account. ”God always provides a way out”, she says quietly. “I am a religious teacher now”. She chants some verses of the qur‘an and shows a cloth on which she has embroidered some Arabic verses. “Fortunately I am healthy”, she adds pensively.

The injustices these women suffered are not yet over. They have always fought for the social rights of women and workers but they are now left destitute. The civil servants among them have lost their pension rights. Ibu Pudji herself, who was employed for 12 years at Unilever, a private company, has not yet dared go and ask for her pension for the years she worked. They are desperately poor, they rely on charity. Would Unilever’s trade union be able to help these women? Does international solidarity with a fellow trade union member who has fallen on extremely hard times exist? I promise to contact the union in Holland.

Saskia Wieringa