Women Leadership in the Non-Profit Sector Case Study Series: Julia Suryakusuma

Pioneering Democracy in Indonesia

Julia’s rise as a leader and influential thinker was during the repressive New Order and early reformation era. Motivated by her desire to change the status quo and defend the oppressed, it was the perfect time for her to express herself as a voice for gender equality. Her passion, enthusiasm and bravery was the basis of taking up the challenge to be an activist on gender, human rights and democracy. Julia’s credibility as a leader grew by constantly introducing gender issues in the public agenda, which proved effective in giving her leverage with the media.

Julia initially gained recognition as a writer between 1971 and 1972 when she won a number of writing competitions for high school students in Jakarta. Upon returning from doing a BSc in sociology at City University in London, in 1979 she worked at Yayasan Indonesia Sejahtera (YIS, Prosperous Indonesia Foundation), a local NGO dealing in community health and development. As someone who had spent her child- and teenagehood living and studying abroad, working at YIS – albeit only for one year – gave her the opportunity to get know her own culture, people and society.

Then in 1981, at the age of  27, Julia was asked to be  guest-editor for an issue of Prisma , then the leading  scholarly journal in the country. The title of the issue was “Women in Indonesia: Between Myth, Reality, and Emancipation”, which  launched Julia’s career as an expert on gender issues. In 1991, again she reprised the role of guest-editor, for an issue on sexuality entitled “Sex in the Web of Power”, opening up a field of study previously unknown in Indonesia.

In 1998, spurred by the economic crisis, which quickly developed into a political crisis, with a group of several women activists, Julia co-founded Suara Ibu Peduli  (SIP, the Voice of Concerned Mothers).  The now famous SIP Hotel Indonesia roundabout demonstration on February 23, critical of the New Order government, was the beginning of a widespread movement which ultimately forced Gen. (ret.) Soeharto to step down.

Feeling the need to educate the electorate who for 32 years under Soeharto’s New Order regime had been depoliticized, in 1999, at the beginning of the reformation era, Julia founded Yayasan API (the Indonesian Political Almanac Foundation) and became its executive director. She was assisted by her son, Aditya Priyawardhana, and endorsed by a coalition of thirteen Indonesian NGOs. API Foundation’s first project was to compile a directory of political parties, which had exploded from three state-controlled ones to the astounding number of almost 200.

Unexpectedly, the first support she received was from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), a national NGO. WALHI provided the initial seed-money and institutional support. This was followed by full funding from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Within a miraculous three and a half months, the 700-page political party directory was completed, just before the June elections in 1999 – Indonesia’s first democratic election. Due to the success of the directory, the next logical step was to compile a reference book on the parliament. In 2000, Julia led a team of researchers and compiled the Panduan Parlemen Indonesia (PPI, Indonesia’s Parliament Guide), taking a year to complete. It contained the profiles of 700 members of parliament, an explanation of the working mechanism of the MPR (Indonesian House of Representatives), and a history of the Indonesian parliament from 1918 to 2000.

The PPI was launched on June 26, 2001, around the time of the general assembly of the MPR, and 20 days after the death of her husband of 27 years, Ami Priyono. The PPI is probably still the most comprehensive guide on the parliament that exists, up to now. Unfortunately, due to personal reasons, Julia had to close down the API Foundation in November 2001, so was unable to continue with the important work it was doing.

Personal, Family and Cultural Backgrounds

Julia’s family hails from Priangan, West Java, the heartland of the Sundanese people, the second largest ethnic group in Indonesia. The values her family espoused were traditional and semi-religious. Her feminist stirrings developed as a result of what she felt to be differential treatment by her parents towards her and  her brother. Growing up, her father would suggest traditional female professions for her: flight attendant, secretary, or other occupations considered ‘proper for women’. Being a natural rebel, Julia baulked at the idea. “I’ve always wanted to change the world since I was a child”, she laughs, so clearly, traditional female roles was not for her.

However, this conflict of values with her family only served to sharpen her resolve to define herself according to who she felt she truly was. Although her family did not fully support her journey, she concedes that they played a role in shaping who she is now. In retrospect, her upbringing was instrumental in putting her on the path to become a leading authority on gender and sexuality issues in Indonesia.

Ironically, it was her marriage in July 1974 at age 20, to Ami Priyono, the late film director and actor, which also helped her pursue her calling. After giving birth to her son in November 1975, Julia decided to go abroad to study in the UK, defying all opposition from her family. Her mother called her “ungrateful”, but Julia felt she had to know who she was – apart from being a daughter, wife and mother. In the Indonesian traditional view, the ultimate aim in life is for a woman to have a family – and be happy and fulfilled by it. They certainly are not expected to leave their family behind to pursue an education or career.

Ostensibly she went to London, enrolling at City University, to obtain a BSc in Sociology. But in fact it was also a journey in search of identity, full of painful stumbling blocks, criticism even condemnation for “defying nature”: motherhood and being a wife. While initially opposed to her studying abroad, Ami eventually recognized he had married a rara avis (a rare bird), and that precisely to “keep” her, he had to let Julia go in search of her own identity. Julia feels that the feminist movement needs more supportive men like her late husband.

Women as Nonprofit Leaders

For Julia, the challenges for women in the nonprofit and private sector are similar but not quite the same. Gender has become an important aspect of development work and therefore many non-profit organizations engage women with the ability to generate social impact for other women.  Indeed there are several NGOs that work on issues such as women’s empowerment, migrant workers, domestic workers, and domestic violence in which women leaders are urgently needed.

Although NGOs are deemed as being more progressive than society at large, gender stereotypes pertaining to the women’s roles still persist. For example, women are still often relegated to so-called ‘domestic activities’, such as preparing food and drinks. Sexual harassment, even rape, also occur within the NGO movement which proves that despite progressive political proclamations, traditional gender mindsets die hard.

Whether women choose to work in the public or nonprofit sector, the reality is that women have to work twice as hard to be recognized because of the negative stereotypes that are still attached to women. According to Julia “It all depends on women, whether they are willing to take charge or not.”

About Julia Suryakusuma 

JuliaBorn in New Delhi, India, on July 19, 1954 to a diplomat family, Julia Suryakusuma grew-up overseas and spent her childhood and teenage years moving around. She grew up in London, Budapest and Rome. Starting her education in London at the age of six is the reason for her native fluency in English, while her education at Marymount International High School in Rome developed her critical and analytical thinking. It was also there that she developed an interest in philosophy.

She continued to develop her career as an independent scholar and freelance writer by writing both scholarly papers and essays as well as journalistic articles, features and columns in both national and international publications. Her MA thesis, State Ibuism: the Social Construction of Womanhood (Komunitas Bambu, 2011, bilingual English and Indonesian) has been a classic for 25 years and is required reading in universities in Indonesia as well as abroad. In 2004 she published “Sex, Power and Nation”, a compilation of her scholarly works, which has also has been translated into Indonesian (as “Agama, Seks dan Kekuasaan”, Komunitas Bambu, 2012).

Julia has been writing a regular column for The Jakarta Post since 2006. Her new book, Julia’s Jihad, an anthology of columns 2006-2013, was published in English in May 2013. Julia’s Jihad exists also in Indonesia and Korean versions, is currently being translated into French, and will be translated into German, and possibly Dutch and Arabic.


The Women Leadership in Non-Profit Case Study Series is led by the Women’s Pathways to Leadership in Asia (WPLA) and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. 

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