Kartika Jahja is a brave, outspoken and controversial Indonesian singer-songwriter who uses music to break cultural taboos, raise awareness about sexual violence against women and girls, and empower women to feel comfortable with their own bodies.

Her hit song Tubuhku Otoritasku or ‘My Body, My Authority’ caused commotion amongst conservative Muslims in her country, leading her to receive death threats.

Later, she was named one of BBC’s 100 Most Inspirational Women in the World.

CATRIONA MITCHELL: Tika, clearly you’re very outspoken on gender issues, but was there a stage in your life when your voice was more withheld?

KARTHIKA JAHJA: I was raised in a family that values and respects opinions, so it came to me naturally to be outspoken about things I’m passionate about. But I wasn’t outspoken about women’s issues before; in fact I kind of shied away from that for a long time.

I myself am a survivor of rape. It happened to me at a very, very young age – when I was a child – and I was outspoken about many things, but I was silent about that for more than 20 years.

Was sexual violence discussed at all in your culture, at the time this happened to you?

It wasn’t discussed at all. My family was open and respectful about their children having opinions, which is rare in Indonesia, but as far as sex goes, as far as sexuality goes, we were very hush-hush about it because it was considered a big taboo in Indonesia and in my family also. So I never had the opportunity to talk to my family about what happened.

I was always scared that I would be the one to blame, and that they would look at me differently. It was always stressed upon me that you’re not valuable any more if you lose your virginity, so that’s what I believed: I’m not valuable any more so I’m not going to say anything.

I myself am a survivor of rape. It happened to me at a very, very young age – when I was a child – and I was outspoken about many things, but I was silent about that for more than 20 years.

That silence must have been incredibly hard to bear. How did you cope with this on your own?

My way to cope with that experience was to let go of everything girlie about me, because I thought that it happened because I was too girlie. I wanted everything that had to do with femininity to go away, and embrace my masculine side, because I thought that would keep me safe.

Photo by Charlie Chris Evan

But as I grew up I realized that being one of the boys, well, it’s not going to keep me safe because the violence and harassment and discrimination is still going on. So I began learning about gender issues, and about violence against women, and I started to embrace my woman-ness, to see that embracing my femininity does not mean weakness. I’d been standing on the wrong side of empowerment all this time, thinking I was empowered because I was masculine.

I wanted everything that had to do with femininity to go away, and embrace my masculine side, because I thought that would keep me safe.

When did you finally break your silence?

I came out in a newspaper, in 2013.

Why did you choose that moment?

I think the time had come: I shifted from being a victim to a survivor. I accepted that it was not my fault, and it was not something to be ashamed of. I met other survivors who came out as well. It really helped me tremendously to know I was not alone.

By speaking to a newspaper, I thought I would speak out to women who felt alone, the way I did for so many years. So that’s what I did. I think that’s how my parents eventually found out.

They read it in a newspaper?

Yeah, but we never talked about it afterwards.

So in a way the silence continued.

The silence continued. I’m sure they’ve read it. At home they are very proud of what I’m doing right now, but they never mentioned anything about that.

Did you become a singer in order to give voice to this issue?

I became a singer before I became an activist. Along the way, when I found my voice as an activist, as a feminist, I knew that I had a good amplifier through music. I can use it as a way to communicate the message.

I ended up choosing to be true to myself, but it took a long process.

And yet you have the standards of the industry to contend with, too. At the start of your career you were asked to put on between 10-15 kilos in one month because, you were told, you could either be marketed as a ‘hot singer’ or a ‘fat singer.’ What was your reaction to that?

Of course it’s every musician’s goal to be signed by a big record label, and it was the marketing people at that record label who said this to me. It was very hard, because I knew that I didn’t want to be treated this way; I didn’t want to be a product. But at the same time everyone around me was telling me, “You have to comply to that. You’re in that industry, you have to, this is what’s expected of you.”

I was 24 at the time. I didn’t have enough bargaining power or enough strength in me to say no.

I ended up choosing to be true to myself, but it took a long process.

Photo by Nicky Yuventius

How would you describe your relationship to your body now?

When I did Tubuhku Otoritasku, people put me on a pedestal: they said, “She’s the girl for body positivity. She’s totally done with her body issues.” That is not the case.

The way I was raised – the society, the family in which I grew up – stressed that it’s important for you to have an ideal body and marry someone with high stature. That’s where your value lies. I heard this every day for 30 years. To let that go is going to take a while.

 

The images below are taken from the video for Tika & The Dissidents’ hit song Tubuhku Otoritasku. The aim of the song was to start a dialogue about issues Indonesian women weren’t able to talk about before. The video features Indonesian women from diverse backgrounds, many of them Muslim, making assertive statements about their own bodies. It went viral, and caused outrage among conservative Indonesian Muslims, leading to death threats for Kartika.

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You’ve had positive responses from all over the world with My Body, My Authority, sometimes from the most unexpected places.

Yes. From Estonia, from China, from Japan, from Canada, US… The video was covered by Al Jazeera and watched a few million times. I didn’t know that the voice of Indonesian women would resonate with people everywhere. Maybe we do all have a common problem.

Somebody sent death threats by email saying, “You have shamed Muslim women by promoting nudity and Westernism.”

Have you ever felt physically endangered by using your voice as a form of protest?

Yes. I can handle trolls and insults that are on the Internet, by blocking people. We accept criticism, just not hateful comments. A lot comes through my social media. But then it came to me physically. Somebody sent death threats by email saying, “You have shamed Muslim women by promoting nudity and Westernism,” and afterwards they started strange deliveries to my restaurant [*Tika owned a restaurant in Jakarta at the time of this interview – ed]. They sent a jar of cookies, and inside it was a letter written with Arabic script. It said, “it’s halal for your blood to spill.” In a jar of cookies.

Will this kind of experience be a part of your future, for as long as you have a voice for women?

Yes. But I feel very passionate about it. I’ve got to do this. Somebody has to say something.

What helps you to counter your fear?

I have an amazing support circle. That helps. I wouldn’t be able to make it without them.

You’re talking about emotional support? Not… bodyguards?

No. I am my own bodyguard.

 

Photo by Charlie Chris Evan

Photos provided by Kartika Jahja.

Kartika can be contacted via her agent at hellodissidents@gmail.com

About the Writer

Author

CATRIONA MITCHELL is the creator of BRAVA, and the editor of Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins India, and Hardie Grant Books Australia & UK, 2016), a non-fiction anthology exploring what it means to be a woman in India today. She has an M Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin (Ireland).

 

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