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Reclaiming the Interpretation: Nani’s Journey

Last week, in a moment where different emotions overlap with one another — between happiness and sorrow; tears and laughters; our crackling voices and sincere prayers; the gloom and the glimmer of light reflected on our eyes — we said goodbye to Nani Zulminarni from PEKKA. We, the foundation board members: Nana Kamala, Mr. Darno, Fauzi Rachman (Oji), Dewi Hutabarat, Lusi, Iyik, and me, decided to accept Nani’s decision to continue with her journey. It wasn’t easy, trust me. Because everyone who knows her will be surprised by her decision. For us, it’s crystal clear: Nani is PEKKA, and PEKKA is the embodiment of Nani.


In her farewell speech, Nani highlighted important milestones that happened during her 20 years ‘stay’ with PEKKA. It was Nana Kamala and Scott Guggenhaim – two fatebearers, who asked for the possibility of developing a forum for poor women, who’s also the heads of their respective households. After that, for 20 years Nani embarked on her journey: conceiving, giving birth, nurturing, and raising PEKKA until now. The quantitative results are easily measured by our numbers: right now PEKKA is present in 34 provinces; with more than 69.000 members that are organized; has no less than 60 Savings and Loans Associations (VLAs or Koperasi) with billions of rupiah circulating in the platform; 42 community activity centers; more than 5000 women leaders, cadres, and paralegals; as well as women who were elected into position of power, such as village head or members of local and national parliament. Perhaps the pinnacle of our achievement is the status recognition of ‘Female Family Head’ – not only in statistical terms, but also in political terms.


Now after 20 years, Nani has prepared the organization to become an institution that will run well, even without her presence. There were no issues raised in the process of shifting her leadership. She and the core team members of PEKKA had prepared for this change to take place naturally and quietly – as they were all fully prepared for the change. This wasn’t easy, because Nani didn’t prepare her colleagues to become a mere epigone; on the contrary, she pushed her colleagues to develop their own ways. She’s been preparing for this moment in the past few years. She, for example, took on the networking roles in international communities that sometimes required her to leave PEKKA for a moment. The organizational governance was prepared as something that can be run on ‘auto-pilot’ mode. Now the time has come for PEKKA to grow alongside Nani’s three successors: Rom, Vila, and Yanto.


Me, in Nani’s eyes, alongside Dina Lumbantobing, Roem Topasimasang, and Jo Hann Tan, are among the few people whom she calls ‘witnesses of her journey’ and ‘those who strengthened her steps’. Nani has a lot of friends all across the globe that she keeps close in her heart, as those are the people that she’ll share her concerns with, and help her to keep standing strong.


To me, Nani is an adventure given form; she walked down the path of passion that is full of challenges. She’s like Mark Twain, with glasses that were specifically designed to delve further into the problems faced by women, especially women who are the head of their respective households. Thus, with PEKKA she underlines that the success of women’s leadership should never be measured by how men measure it. For Nani — and for PEKKA, since both refer to the same entity — women’s leadership should be built upon self confidence and courage, that they, their voices, and their interests, ‘matter’. That’s why Nani keeps reminding them that their interest as female family heads is worth fighting for. This might sound like a slogan, and in practice Nani needs to build their confidence by helping those women re-learning the fact that they matter. Nani begins by asking these women to listen to their own voice; thus she taught them what a voice is, how to make noise, how to amplify their voices, how to seize the chance to speak. These are the literal steps, not metaphors. Let’s not talk about how they should be speaking in public, while the truth is they are still startled when listening to their own voices.


Due to poverty and unequal structure of gender relation, a lot of women are illiterate. They might be familiar with letters and numbers, but they know nothing about the meaning behind those symbols. So we invited them to connect the words with their meanings, to write down the letters, numbers, to speak the language of the numbers so that they would understand how to write them down on receipts, and teach them how to make their own signature. It’s hard to imagine, but these are the things that we did before preparing them to become part of the community, to become a force to be reckoned with in dialogues and deliberations – from their own villages to the district level, and of course, in their own household.


PEKKA is aware that the strength of women lies in their ability to associate with one another. Women are encouraged to understand the importance of gathering and building a network among themselves – that gathering doesn’t always take shape in form of religious or cultural ceremonies, in which their presence are often considered as a mere adornment. To hack into things that often make women feel reluctant in attending gatherings, new rules were created; a meeting or gathering doesn’t have to be held in formal spaces, doesn’t require them to wear fancy clothes, and doesn’t restrict them into submitting to men. These women, like in East Nusa Tenggara, were encouraged to wear their own woven clothes when attending meetings organized by PEKKA. This ‘rule’ was also followed by Nani and other PEKKA staff – that they will be wearing the woven clothes just like what the other participants are wearing. During the meeting, the women might bring their children or grandchildren while eating betel, and speak in their mother tongue. Step-by-step, they were asked to think about the working procedures of an organization: the rules and regulations. By doing this, we managed to build their confidence as they started to voice their own opinion — and think of their voices as something important, something that matters. They were also encouraged to start saving, and create a Savings and Loans Association, or a Koperasi.


But Nani’s approach doesn’t only resemble Mark Twain’s – exploring possibilities, opening up a path and finding new routes. She was akin to Musashi, the one who follows the ‘way of the sword,’ a path of resistance against those who are silencing women. She fought back against the culture that has deliberately put women aside. Hence the first thing to do is to emphasize the importance of equality before the law. By involving village officials, the civil registration department, and the religious court, PEKKA initiated the implementation of  the ‘mobile court’. Together with Pekka, she advocates for women’s right to obtain legal identity, which is the basis for equal rights in the eyes of the state: national ID card (KTP), family certificate (KK), marriage certificate, divorce certificate, as well as other documents that can signify women’s legal standing in front of the law. When educational institutions, combined with economic, social, and cultural burdens prevent girls from going to school, PEKKA opened schools for women by creating relevant curricula and an educational institution for women in villages under the name Akademi Paradigta.


And in the end, the path that Nani took was the path of a Sufi. She is a seeker of wisdom. Accompanying PEKKA’s women is part of her spiritual journey. Born to a Muslim family in Pontianak, she remembers how she walked through the shrubs for four kilometers with her brother and friends when she was a child. Each night they went to the house of a woman who taught children of her age to read the Koran, with a payment of one bottle of kerosene to light up the lamps. After graduating from elementary school, with the intelligence she possessed, she chose and enrolled herself into a Catholic school — a special Junior High School for nuns candidate, in which most of the students were ethnic Chinese and Catholic. It was under the care of the sisters that she learned discipline and set her ideals as high as possible. She channeled his joy in singing by joining a keroncong music group that performs routinely at RRI (Indonesian Republic Radio) Pontianak. Her fee, that wasn’t really much, was saved and used to buy books and other items, so that she doesn’t need to ask for money from her parents.


In Senior High School, she kept moving forward by participating in the selection of exemplary students at the provincial level, and she was selected to represent West Kalimantan in the national stage. This was Nani’s first time parting with her family and seeing the splendor of the Capital City. She and other nominees from various provinces met with the President, ministers, and state officials at that time. Her status as an exemplary student paved the way for Nani to be scouted by IPB (Bogor Institute of Agriculture), and she was admitted there without having to take a test. This achievement became the pride of her parents and sparked Nani’s enthusiasm for learning.


Nani’s journey began here. During her stay at IPB, Indonesia was entering an era of political discord, as the movement against the new order regime began to surface. Nani joined the Islamic student movement in protesting the policy of expelling a female student who wore headscarves (hijab) at a Senior High School in Jakarta. She also started to wear hijab to make her look like a senior that she admired: a gentle, smart and pious young woman. Nani was also involved in campus study groups that believe the hijab as the most important religious identity. But later on she realized that it wasn’t something that she was looking for; that faith should be accompanied by critical thinking. She also did not choose to walk down the path of religious politics as her way of fighting.

With the opportunity provided by Ms. Chamsiah Djamal and Mr. Dawam Raharjo, Nani was introduced to the NGO world. By Mr. Dawam, she was given a book that opened her horizon to gender issues: Arief Budiman’s “Sexual Division of Labor”. That book, according to Nani, managed to open her eyes and fuel her curiosity regarding gender issues. Together with Mrs. Cham, she learned about women’s empowerment and organization. Nani’s journey went further, she received a government scholarship and flew to America to take her Master’s degree with her husband and two children.

Nani’s spiritual journey is akin to the dance of Rumi. She suffered when his spouse took his own path and betrayed his marriage promise. Not submitting to the text that justifies polygamy, she took the legal route and claimed custody of her children. There, in her appreciation as a female head of family, Nani looked for meaning in her daily work to lead thousands of women as female heads of families.

Nani’s journey and the three paths that she took wasn’t perfect. She faces the world that continually rejects the presence of women and considers women’s leadership as a threat. She must follow the samurai path: to know when to strategically strike and retreat when battling patriarchy. She taught women how to speak up, to argue, and showed that women deserve to be heard. Not only they are equal to men, but they can also be superior when it comes to providing leadership, since women are able to learn from their lived experiences in caring for their families and communities.

After 20 years of building PEKKA, she has made her decision to take another path. Going beyond the three paths that she had taken, she is now trying to open up a new path, to take different steps towards her devotion to life. In this new path, she sees children and girls calling for her.

At the end of the day, we are left with no option other than seeing her off to another journey. Meanwhile for those who are left behind, she will treasure you in her heart. Nani’s journey is far from completion, yet she left a clear trail, just like what Mark Twain said, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see“. Nani’s kindness is the light which guides those who seek meaning in life from women’s experiences. See you, Nani!


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