"Is she Jamilah?" The Plight of Gerwani (dewi candraningrum: acrylic on 50x60cm canvas).

“Is she Jamilah?” The Plight of Gerwani (dewi candraningrum: acrylic on 50x60cm canvas).

Saskia E. Wieringa


When in the night of October 1st 1965 six generals and one lieutenant were abducted and killed, nobody could fathom the horrendous consequences this might have for millions of Indonesians, for the nation as a whole. In its short history the young Republic had dealt with worse crises. President Sukarno had always managed to keep the nation together. Following the regional unrest in the 1950s parties were banned and some people imprisoned. But this time hell would break loose.
The times were different, the economy was in a chaos, and the tensions between the army and the Communist Party (PKI) ran high. But nobody could foresee the genocide that would follow, Indonesians killing other Indonesians by the hundreds of thousands. Immediately after the action of the G30S group, which was stopped on the order of President Sukarno, General Suharto jumped in the fray and accused the PKI of having organized the murders. He let it be known that the PKI had to be exterminated to ‘save the nation’. In a highly successful propaganda campaign the PKI was framed as atheist and hypersexual. That infuriated religious groups (both Muslim and Christian) so much that they helped the army slaughter their neighbours.
Sexual slander was a core element in this campaign. The young girls who had been present in the field where the generals were killed and buried in a disused well, in the neighbourhood of Crocodile Hole, were accused of having performed an erotic dance, and of having seduced, castrated and killed the generals. They were also said to have gouged out their eyes. In reality they were undergoing voluntary training for President Sukarno’s anti-Malaysia campaign, as thousands of other volunteers had been doing. To date it is not known who exactly can be held responsible for these absurd lies about depraved Communist women prostituting themselves and raping, castrating and mutilating the generals murdered by the G30S group in the night of October 1 1965 but they were widely believed and incited the religious and right wing militias to mass murder.

One such highly inflammatory story was the alleged confession of Jamilah, a leader of the Jakarta branch of Gerwani. Actually the name of this leader was Atikah, but when she heard of the mass arrests of leaders of organizations associated with the PKI, she managed to run away. She has never been captured and to this day nobody has heard from her On her flight she allegedly changed her name to Jamilah. The military started searching for a Jamilah. They found Jemilah, not Jamilah. Early November 4 army-related newspapers published her ‘confession’. The wording of these 4 stories is almost the same, which suggests that the statement was prepared beforehand and handed out to the press. Below I give first the statement, and then the story of Jemilah as told by her second husband.
The story of Jemilah is corroborated by women who had been in the same prison, Bukit Duri, and who had known Jemilah. I interviewed Ibu Sujinah in the early 1980s. She has since passed away. Ibu Utati, whom I interviewed recently, also confirms the story. Jemilah herself has passed away. After her death her second husband, R. Juki Ardi, a writer who himself was imprisoned on Buru Island, wrote her story down. Ardi was a friend of Jemilahs’s first husband, Pak Haryanto, a leader of SOBSI, the PKI-associated trade union. Before Haryanto was murdered on Buru island he made his friend promise that in case Ardi would be released he would try to find Jemilah. They met and eventually married, had two children and managed to survive in great poverty.
Jemilah was not the only woman to be picked up by the military for having a name that resembled a Gerwani leader on the run. The women imprisoned with Jemilah know of two other such cases, both of them in Central Java. One of them committed suicide after being raped. The other one was finally released but she was crippled for life (Ardi 2011: 101).

The army version
Apart from some 60 young volunteers of the KPI’s Youth wing Pemuda Rakyat (PR), a few members of Gerwani were present at the training field where progressive young women were trained for the Confrontation campaign with Malaysia on which President Sukarno had embarked. These included Saina, Emy and Atikah. They ran away when they learnt the false stories that the army was circulating about the night the six abducted generals and one lieutenant were killed. In their place two prostitutes were picked up who happened to have their workplace at the air base. They were also called Emy and Saina. They were illiterate and had never heard of Gerwani. The ‘real’ Emy fled the country, Saina was later captured, but their two prostitute substitutes were never released until 1978, when most women political prisoners were set free. Atikah fled and changed her name to Jamilah when on the run. She was never captured, but in Jakarta both an Atikah and a Jemilah were picked up somewhere. All substitute Gerwani members were horribly tortured, and the two illiterate sex workers were made to thumbprint stories they never even read. Jemilah refused to sign any story, but a report of her activities was printed anyway. These ‘stories’ of ‘ Jamilah’. Saina’ and ‘Emy’ were highly inflammatory and helped frame Communist women and by extension all progressive people as barbaric, atheist and morally and sexually depraved. This dehumanisation campaign provided a justification for the genocide and other mass crimes against humanity that followed.
Even when Ibu Sujinah, one of the only four women ever tried in court (but not for anything related to what happened at Lubang Buaya) pointed this mistake out during her trial in 1976 no attempts was made to rectify these grave judicial errors (Wieringa 2002: 297-8). The military apparently never trusted the women to tell their own stories in court.
So what did the army newspapers say? The four articles mentioned above carried almost the same story about the ‘honest confession’ of ‘Jamilah, the ‘Srikandi of Lobang Buaya’. This young woman (15 years), they reported, was three months pregnant when she was arrested, and both she and her husband were alleged to be members of PR in Tandjung Priok:
According to these newspapers she was picked up by a PKI leader on September 29 for exercises in Cililitan: ‘That day and the following day we exercised…and at about three o’clock in the night of October 1st we were woken up…we were instructed to crush the kabir and Nekolim.1 There were about 500 people collected there, 100 of whom were women. The members of Gerwani, including Jamilah, were issued small knives and razor blades…From afar we saw a short fat person entering: he was in his pyjamas.. His hands were tied with a rede cloth and a red cloth was also tied over his eyes. Our leader Dan Ton ordered us to beat this person and then we started tabbing with those small knives at his genitals. The first, as we noticed, to beat and stab the genitals of that person was the chair of Gerwani in Tandjung Priok, called S and Mrs Sas. Then other friends followed…after that we ourselves joined in torturing that person. All 100 of us joined in this activity. Then he was dragged to the well by men in uniform…but he still wasn’t dead. Then a uniformed man ordered Gerwani to continue. The Gerwani women continued as before, stabbing and slicing his genitals and his body until he was dead.’ (quoted from Wieringa 2002: 306-7).

Jemilah’s own story as told by her husband
A few years after the death of his wife, Jemilah’s husband wrote down her story (Ardi 2011). At the age of 14, still in the second grade of junior high school in Pacitan, East Java, she was married off to a neighbour, Haryanto. It was early 1965, and Haryanto was an attractive party in the eyes of her parents, as he was a successful young man, a leader of the progressive trade union SOBSI in Jakarta. He was well-respected both in Jakarta where he lived, and in his natal village, where he had gone in search of a wife. Immediately after the marriage they left on the arduous journey to Jakarta. Jemilah had no idea about Jakarta, nor about the work of her husband. He often left her alone for long stretches of time. By September he came home even less often and clearly was becoming nervous. By late September she was three months pregnant. Her husband had been away again for the night of October 1st and when he came home he burned papers and told her he would have to leave her for some time. Politically astute he apparently realised immediately he was in danger. Later, when mass arrests had already started, he came back and informed her that she herself better had return to her native village without explaining why. He left her some money for the trip. He brought her halfway to the bus station but then became very anxious and disappeared. She never saw her husband again. He was later arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately sent to the infamous labour camp on Buru island where he was murdered.
Jemilah had already taken a seat in the minibus on her way to the bus station when she was intercepted by soldiers. When they asked her name, she answered Jemilah. They had orders to look out for a woman called Jamilah and arrested her immediately, in spite of her protests that she was called Jemilah, not Jamilah. The soldiers (with red barets) stole her money and all her possessions. She was brought to the office of the Komando Operasi Tertinngi (KOTI), beaten till she was almost unconscious and ordered to sign a statement as Atika Jamilah, which she refused. Later she was brought to the Corps Polisi Militer. There again she was terribly beaten, undressed and humiliated. Several rape attempts were made, which she somehow fought off successfully, Ardi reported. She was tortured so badly that she had given up all hope to live and indeed had rather die. She almost went mad. Women imprisoned with her tried to support her. Ultimately she was sent to the women’s prison Bukit Duri where she stayed for 14 years without ever being tried.

The case of Jemilah is one of several in which people were imprisoned because of a mistaken identity. Jemilah had no idea about politics. Her first husband did not feel it necessary to enlighten her about national politics and his role in that. She was so young and inexperienced. She had never even heard of the PKI, let alone Gerwani yet during her interrogations she was often called ‘lonte Gerwani’, Gerwani whore.
Her interrogators tried to make her confess that she had joined the exercises at Lubang Buaya, and that she had received an award as a Gerwani heroine. They tried to force her to admit that she had participated in lurid dances while torturing the generals. Even when heavily beaten by soldiers she refused to sign any statement of the sort. Her interrogators groped her thighs and belly (‘I bent over so that he couldn’t grope my parts which I so value … my prohibited parts… but I couldn’t resist him, my strength was all gone’ (70-1). She is tortured so badly that her baby is stillborn.
Rapes were common, although the women resisted it as much as they could: ‘All political prisoners got their turn. Mbak Endah was tortured in the worst way. She had to be brought to the hospital. She tried to defend her chastity against five soldiers who interrogated her. Her face was scratched open with bayonets when they tried to subjugate this young mother. Their anger was showered over her whole body ( p 92).’ Mbak Endah later committed suicide.

At one time Jemilah had decided that she would let herself be killed by her torturers. So they would carry the sin of killing her and she would not have to kill herself, which was strongly prohibited by religion. So she had resigned herself to dying when she was again brought to the ‘abattoir, where five low class soldiers were awaiting me I knew what that meant… “take off your clothes…so we can have a party together, my Srikandi…”’ A thin soldier approached her but she fought him off, refused to take off her underwear and at one stage managed to kick him in his crotch (successfully, it is torn – sobek) and bite the hand of another till it bled profusely. She was then beaten so heavily that she became again unconscious. She was saved by an officer coming in who told the soldiers to stop, as she was ‘a special prisoner who is still needed’ (p 93-5). Several bones were broken and her feet crushed and broken; she bled profusely from many wounds, her hair was torn from her head, she couldn’t see as her eyes were too swollen.

Apart from the heavy torture inflicted on her, including sexual torture, Jemilah was also forced to hold a rubber knife (arit). This was the kind of knife the generals were said to be killed with. Her torturers told her: ‘…Gerwani dog…you can choose… I rape you or you follow our orders. (77)’ Jemilah had never seen this kind of knife. It resembled the kind of knife her father used for cutting the rice, but it was smaller. ‘Take it. This is the tool you used to cut out the eyes of the generals in Lubang Buaya (bid)’, the soldiers snarled. She had no idea what was expected of her, took the knife and was brought outside under a rambutan tree, where she was photographed as ‘proof’ that she had participated in the events at Lubang Buaya (78).

When Jemilah was finally discharged, she was only 28. She had lost her baby, her husband, all her possessions and was heavily traumatized. Only when she had been released she realized that the story that the military had made up about her had gone viral. All over the archipelago people were told that Gerwani women had castrated the generals. Even until now there are many who believe that Gerwani women were depraved.
1 Common terms at the time. Kabir stands for kapitalis birokrat, bureaucratic capitalists, Nekolim is a term Sukarno coined, neo-colonialism and imperialism.

News paper reports
Angkatan Bersenjata November 5 1965
Duta Masyarakat November 6 1965
Sinar Harapan November 6 1965
Berita Yudha November 7 1965

Interviews with Ibu Sujinah (cell mate) in 1983 and 1984, Jakarta
Interviews with Ibu Utati Koesalah (cell mate), September 2014.

Ardi, Juki R. (2011) Aku bukan Jamilah. Jakarta: Kompas Gramedia.
Wieringa, Saskia E. (2002) Sexual Politics in Indonesia. Houndmills: Palgrave/MacMillan

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