At 91, loud-voiced Ibu Sap still fights for women's rights

A nation-builder and trailblazer in gender issues and human rights, Saparinah Sadli has shown that caring for others transcends generations.

In a red batik blouse and little makeup, Saparinah, who turns 91 in August, received the 2017 Roosseno Award for her lifelong fight against violence and discrimination against women.

The grandmother of two did not look tired among her friends and colleagues who wanted to take selfies with her.

Her voice was bold and loud when she gave a speech.

"Not all women have enjoyed gender equality," she told the audience.

"Many men still feel they are more superior to women. Discrimination against women has continued and the number of cases of violence against them has kept rising."

According to Saparinah, the first chairperson of the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan), gender discrimination has remained entrenched in society because people hold patriarchal values and interpret religious teachings in a way that puts women in an inferior position to men.

Ibu Sap, as she is fondly known, made a name for herself as a human rights leader by advocating for women's rights and fighting against gender-based violence in the country.

Without her efforts, Indonesia might never have formed Komnas Perempuan, an independent commission whose mission is to stop violence against women.

When meeting Indonesia's third president, BJ Habibie, she urged the government to admit any wrongdoings and apologise for sexual abuses, ranging from harassment to gang rape, against women, mostly Chinese Indonesians, during the May 1998 riots.

In October the same year, Komnas Perempuan was set up.

"As of today, sexual violence against women during the tragedy is still deemed as an allegation by the authorities," said Ibu Sap.

Komnas Perempuan recorded an increase in reported cases of rights abuses against women, from 1,248 in 2015 to 1,353 in 2016, including 1,092 reports of violence against women.

Before the Roosseno Award, she had also received the Nabil Award in 2011 for fighting for women's rights.

Habibie once wanted to award her the Bintang Mahaputera Adipradana medal, the nation's second highest civilian honour, but she declined to accept it.

For scholar Solita Sarwono, Ibu Sap is a pioneer who developed the concepts of feminism and gender equality in Indonesia.

"She does not fully agree with feminism that stimulates competition between men and women. She wants Indonesian women to put themselves as equal to men, either at home, in the workplace or in society," Solita said in a statement.

In academia, one of Ibu Sap's biggest contributions was when she cofounded the University of Indonesia's Department of Women's Studies, now known as the Graduate's School of Gender, in 1990 to start and develop research about women.

Retired, Ibu Sap, who led Komnas Perempuan from 1998 to 2004, has remained busy.

The University of Indonesia professor has yet to put down her pen. One of her latest works is Ahok Di Mata Mereka (Ahok on Their Eyes), a collection of writings by 51 public figures about former Jakarta governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama.

After Ahok was put behind bars for blasphemy, she and women activists from the Perempuan Peduli Kota Jakarta (Women Care for Jakarta City) community demanded justice for him.

"We, women, are not absent in participating in actualizing social justice for all," said Ibu Sap, who familiarized herself with women's issues after reading Half the Human Experience: the Psychology of Women by Janet Hyde.

Ibu Sap has also focused on the issue of child marriage.

In April, she attended the first National Congress of Female Muslim Clerics, which later issued an edict obliging Muslims to prevent early marriage.

"In my opinion, when we talk about early marriage, we must focus on the children. They must be allowed to say no to marriage if they have yet to accomplish what they want. For example, pursuing education," she said.

She also keeps up-to-date with current issues, including on the actions of female farmers who have fought against the construction of a cement plant in Kendeng, Central Java, to preserve the environment.

Ibu Sap, who is also the author of Menjadi Perempuan Sehat dan Produktif di Usia Lanjut (Being a Healthy and Productive Woman at an Old Age), said she currently has focused on empowering the elderly because she wants them to have a wonderful life and benefit others.

"Being healthy does not mean we do not have any diseases. It is about how we are mentally and how we adjust ourselves to the diseases that we have," she said.

She encourages the elderly, especially those who live apart from their children, to have activities to fill their days as a way to prevent them from feeling lonely.

She, for example, likes to tend to flowers in her garden or exercise to fight osteoporosis with her friends.

Ibu Sap is not lulled by people's praises about her healthy and fresh look.

"I never go to the doctor. If I did that, I would know that I have many diseases," she smiled.