THE 2014 AND 2019 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS IN INDONESIA set the pace for exponential growth in social media use throughout the country. ASEAN Up (2019) recorded nearly half of Indonesia’s 268.2 million population as social media users (150 million), more than half as mobile users (355.5 million), and 130 million as mobile social users. The fact that this growth is fueled by election-related political participation is reflected in Indonesians’ timelines on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and, to some degree, YouTube, where both the 2014 and the 2019 presidential elections were long-standing trending topics. Users were not only passively following election-related news but also actively expressing political opinions by commenting or posting and engaging in political campaigns to support particular presidential candidates.
Scholars have suggested that the increase in online media use has had a positive impact on Indonesian democracy. New media served as a platform for the movements that dethroned Suharto’s New Order and ignited political reformation (the “Reformasi”) in 1998 (Abbott 2001; Lim 2003). However, there is another side to online media development that demands attention. Because social media does not have the gatekeeping function of mainstream media outlets, it is difficult to control the accuracy and appropriateness of information distributed on these platforms. Fake news, defamation, and hate speech are among the terms with which Indonesian citizens and authorities are becoming familiar. Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Informatics (Kominfo) received 203 fake news and hoax-related reports in 2016, a number that alarmingly rose to reach 7,430 reports in 2017 and 14,427 reports in 2018 (Widiastuti 2018). The problem presents a formidable challenge to the nation’s legal apparatus, with a flurry of lawsuits involving users who have disseminated fake news and hate speech via social media in violation of the government regulation of electronic information and transaction.
Strong polarization in online discourse surrounding political elections is a well-established phenomenon (Vergeer and Hermans 2013; Yardi and Boyd 2010). This was the case in both Indonesian presidential elections of 2014 and 2019, when only two contestants remained in the final round: Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) and Prabowo Subianto. The 2014 election saw Jokowi and Jusuf Kalla versus Prabowo and Hatta Rajasa, whereas the 2019 election was between Jokowi and Ma’ruf Amin versus Prabowo and Sandiaga Uno. This study follows Gazali (2018) and Tapsell (2017) in pointing out how polarization during the elections drove supporters from opposing sides to express their opinions in an increasingly violent manner. Extreme speech discrediting the political opponents and mocking their supporters flooded Indonesian social media platforms. This commonly took the form of religion-based identity politics centered on defining what makes “a good Muslim,” and a related trend that involved using gendered discourse surrounding women’s proper role in the Indonesian public sphere to secure votes (Aldary and Salamah 2018; Candraningrum 2014).
This chapter is focused on the issue of gender-related online extreme speech during the 2019 presidential election. Previous studies show how Indonesian women’s status as “mothers,” a term long used to connote respect, is increasingly being deployed in the interest of certain political agendas (Amiruddin 2007; Andriasanti 2018; Djajadiningrat-Nieuwenhuis 1987; Ningrum 2018). The sacred institution of “motherhood” and its relation to politics has a long history in Indonesia. During colonial times, Indonesian women played active roles as strong mothers who nurtured the nationalist spirit in the struggle for independence (Djajadiningrat-Nieuwenhuis 1987; Ningrum 2018). Since independence, however, women retreated to an apolitical corner during the Old Order (1945–1965) and adopted the domesticated role of a subordinate (wife) to a leader (husband) during the New Order (1965–1998) (Dzuhayatin 2002). This study aims to investigate whether the period ushered in by the Reformation in 1998 and the rapid uptake of social media brought about another shift in Indonesian women’s political role. Gerung (2014) suggests, for example, that winning votes from the country’s female population was crucial to Jokowi’s success in the 2014 presidential election. Realizing the latent potential of female voters, both 2019 campaign teams were eager to include the notion of “motherhood” in campaign narratives. As a result, the sacred institution of motherhood has become the latest fodder for vitriolic exchange on Indonesian social media—a phenomenon that I argue has ramifications for women’s political agency and societal roles.
Feminist studies on gender and social media typically discuss gendered abuse targeting female users (Buni and Chemaly 2014; Citron 2011; Wotanis and McMillan 2014). Wotanis and McMillan (2014) show how female YouTubers receive greater hostile and critical feedback, as well as sexually explicit remarks, compared with male counterparts. Buni and Chemaly (2014) and Citron (2011) use the term misogynistic in describing cyber–hate speech against female social media users to argue for the urgency of developing policy in response to the issue. I argue, however, that the lenses of hate speech and misogyny do not fully capture the complex gendered negotiations taking place in campaign-related motherhood narratives on Indonesian social media. Instead, I approach the topic using the concept of “extreme speech,” which presents the “production, circulation and consumption of online vitriol” (Udupa and Pohjonen 2019, 3051) as cultural practices and social phenomena that require contextual ethnographic analysis. Understanding the wider implications of the entry of the mother figure into the domain of online extreme speech requires a context-specific apprehension of the boundaries of civility and incivility based on the country’s cultural and normative background and historical conditions (Udupa and Pohjonen 2019). As such, this study queries the sociocultural and political parameters that spur users to profane the respectable figure of the mother. It aims to describe the process through which the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable speech is being defined with respect to gender.
This study offers observations from social media to complement the previous studies on gendered social media use and online extreme speech. It forwards three cases in which women have either identified themselves or been identified by social media users as “mothers” on Indonesian social media in the context of election-related debates. While the vitriolic exchanges between competing supporters appear to challenge the sacred status of motherhood and the mother figure, I argue that they demonstrate a more complex reality. First, the image of “good women” no longer rests only on particular symbolic attire (i.e., the hijab) in digital-era Indonesia. The three “mothers” examined here all wore the hijab and were still objects of derision, ridicule, and contempt. Second, the discourse on motherhood has been successfully deployed as a political tool by both parties to such an extent that political success has become defined by which side has earned the support of the true mothers. This demonstrates the consensus that mothers are the defenders of society’s welfare and morality. In contributing to this, social media users are not widening women’s roles or challenging established gender norms but rather reinforcing them. Third, women actively joining the discussion of what should and what should not be done by these mothers shows that, in this study, women were not merely subjects but also participants in online negotiations of gendered identities and roles.
Methods and Unit Analysis
This study employs an interpretive approach that treats social activity as a text and sees human action as a collection of symbols expressing layers of meaning (Berg 2009). In line with the concept of extreme speech (Udupa and Pohjonen 2019), I maintain the idea that meanings operate within certain contexts and are intertwined tightly with identities and argue that it is crucial to understand Indonesia’s sociocultural and political situation in order to assess the ramifications of vitriolic debates on social media.
Observation of online posts tagged with presidential election–related hashtags was carried out between July 2018 and October 2018. The study focused on YouTube and Instagram posts using the pro-Prabowo hashtag #2019gantipresiden (2019 change president) and news related to it. The choice of hashtag was fitting for several reasons. First, it enjoyed immense popularity during the period of the study. The initiator of the hashtag, Mardani Ali , turned to his social media accounts to announce its higher percentage of use if compared with pro-Jokowi ones (Distania 2018). In an Instagram post (August 22, 2018), he quoted data posted on Twitter by a social media observer @nephilaxmus (August 21, 2018) and claimed that between August 11 and 21, 2018, alone, the number of tweets that were using #2019gantipresiden was 346,000 as opposed to pro-Jokowi’s 75,000 tweets of #2019TetapJokowi and 33,000 tweets of #Jokowi2Periode. Second, observation revealed that posts tagged with #2019gantipresiden commonly evoked controversial political narratives with religious and ethnic slants, as attested to by the hashtag’s involvement in a national media controversy. Finally, the Prabowo campaign in particular gave an ample spotlight to women, making the hashtag especially relevant in understanding the repoliticization of motherhood in the wake of the recent election.
Examining three cases of #2019gantipresiden posts revolving around mother figures and the concept of motherhood at large, in this study, I look at how the supporters of competing candidates positioned female identities and roles at the center of online discussions. The first case centers on an anti-Jokowi YouTube post by a wealthy mother that was refuted by pro-Jokowi mothers who put forward class-based critiques. The second case scrutinizes the “pious woman turned troublemaker” narrative surrounding well-known public figure Neno Warisman. The third case looks at the scandal surrounding Ratna Sarumpaet, a respected female activist turned hoaxer who during the data collection period was facing prosecution. Analysis of compiled data is conducted using directed content analysis, which employs existing concepts, theories, and historical explanations relevant to the research focus.
Indonesian Social Media and Identity Politics
Heightened online political polarization in Indonesia was spurred on during the 2014 presidential campaign between the Jokowi–Jusuf Kalla and Prabowo–Hatta Rajasa teams. The phenomenon was further entrenched during the Jakarta 2017 gubernatorial election when Basuki “Ahok” Tjahya, a Christian with a Chinese background, ran for the position, and hate speech associated with his race and religion flooded social media. Studies argue that the 2014 presidential election and the 2017 gubernatorial election shed light on how capitalization of voter identity, whether religion, ethnicity, or race, is becoming a much-used political tool (Aldary and Salamah 2018; Candraningrum 2014; Gazali 2018; Tapsell 2017).
The instrumentalization of identity politics continued in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election. An extension of the anti-Ahok sentiment from 2017 is observable in the present anti-Jokowi movement, which pushes narratives that show how Jokowi’s policies over the past four years have not benefited the ummah (Muslim population) (IPAC 2019). These narratives include the alleged “criminalization of ulama,” which referred to the controversial imprisonment of Islamist leaders, and the “latent threat of communism” posed by large numbers of Chinese workers brought in to work on Chinese-funded infrastructure projects (IPAC 2019, 3).
Introduced by the Islamic Partai Kesejahteraan Sosial’s (PKS; Prosperous Justice Party) leader Mardani Ali Sera in March 2018, the #2019gantipresiden hashtag is part and parcel of this ongoing religious-ethnic conflict. Mardani argued that the hashtag represents a non-partisan and organic social movement of ordinary people who want change in Indonesia (Egeham 2018) and formed Volunteers for Ganti President (Relawan Ganti Presiden) in May 2018 to prove that PKS was not behind the movement (IPAC 2019). Protestors at large demonstrations displaying #2019gantipresiden banners in early May 2018 were joined by thousands of volunteers wearing T-shirts with the same hashtagged slogan in Jakarta, Lampung, Makassar, and other cities in Indonesia. Controversy mounted as media outlets offered long, in-depth discussions on how the #2019gantipresiden hashtag provoked disparities among Indonesians as it played around controversial political narratives based on religious and ethnic identities with a view to unfairly garner support for Prabowo before the official campaign period started.
Motherhood and Political Participation in Indonesia
Earlier studies from various global contexts have discussed the imbrications between politics and gendered identity (Kerber 1976; Lakshmi 1990; Martin 1990). These studies have a bearing on the current Indonesian case, particularly with respect to what motivates women to engage in the political arena. Kerber (1976) discussed the political participation of mothers in the United States in terms of domestic confinement when she described how the model Republican woman was a mother who treated the domestic sphere as a political frontier. The ideal Republican mother should educate her sons to be virtuous citizens and prevent her husband from any violation or lapse from civic virtue (Kerber 1976, 202). In line with this, Lakshmi presented the case of Tamil Nadu in India, where women’s involvement in politics was framed by issues that are considered “womanly”—that is, matters that directly affected the home because “home was women’s special responsibility” (1990, 82). Martin (1990) noted a similar trend in Latin American women’s political roles, with the added insight that economic crises contributed to the formation of many women’s political movements in the 1970s and the integration between the domestic and public arenas. Because they viewed children as gifts from God, Latin American women considered motherhood as a societal contribution not available to men (Martin 1990). Martin argued that Latin American women continued to justify their role in politics by presenting themselves as mothers defending their family and community from “economic change, repressive governments, and crises of legitimacy” (474) in order to protect the future of their children and grandchildren.
Women and their roles and identities had long been included in the political discourse in Indonesia (Candraningrum 2014; Gerung 2014). Women in Indonesia are bound by moral and religious identities, similar to the Latin American women featured in Martin’s (1990) article. They are wives and, most of all, mothers who are expected to be pious (Wieringa 2015), as is also the case in Tamil Nadu (Lakshmi 1990). In Indonesian popular culture, “good women” are portrayed as weak and obedient and are presented wearing the hijab. In contrast, female antagonists are usually portrayed wearing revealing clothing and thick makeup (Amiruddin 2007; Arivia 2014; Rakhmani 2017). This gendered representation carries over into politics, shaping how the public perceived Iriana Jokowi’s (the wife of presidential candidate Jokowi) decision when, nearing the end of the 2014 presidential campaign, she began to wear a hijab consistently (Arivia 2014). Uproar ensued when she removed her hijab after Jokowi’s victory, prompting the criticism that she covered up only to help her husband attain the position (Arivia 2014).
The politicization of women’s roles both in public and domestic domains has long been discussed, even before Indonesia’s independence in 1945. During the first Women’s Congress (1928), the proper role for Indonesian women was to act as mothers for their families and the nation (Ningrum 2018). The term “mothers of the nation” was subsequently used in 1935 during the second Women’s Congress in Jakarta to refer to the importance of women’s involvement in family and society. In this formulation, women are considered capable of shaping economic and social networks and functioning as pillars for the success of family, society, and the nation (Djajadiningrat-Nieuwenhuis 1987). The term later developed to become ibuism, derived from the word ibu, which means “mother” in the Indonesian language (Andriasanti 2018). She adds that during the 30 years of Suharto’s New Order, ibuism narrowed in meaning as Indonesian women gradually came to occupy the apolitical role of homemaker (Andriasanti 2018). Wieringa (2015) suggests that the “prosperous” family model, with its busy but obedient homemakers of the New Order, was replaced by the late-Reformasi Islamist model of the “sakinah” (happy and harmonious) family, with its pious wives and mothers dedicated to their husbands.
This study builds on scholarship tracing the evolution of motherhood in the Indonesian context by picking up the thread that runs from the Reformasi movement that dethroned Suharto in 1998 to the current 2019 presidential election. Today, the concept of motherhood has become a means of attracting female voters, who make up half of Indonesia’s relatively young population (Badan Pusat Statistik 2018). This discursive strategy has been particularly effective for the Prabowo–Sandiaga team, whose 1,300 volunteer groups are composed of nearly 70 percent “emak-emak” (mothers) (Tim Kumparan 2019). The Prabowo–Sandiaga team strategically portrayed vice presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno as a charming and down to earth ally of mother voters (IPAC 2019). Pictures and videos of Sandiaga visiting traditional markets and conversing with wives and mothers about food prices were common on social media platforms during the campaign period. He promoted the use of the term emak-emak to refer to potential female voters through his personal social media accounts, mentioning and thanking them along with his other supporter groups in an election-day speech that was broadcast by national television networks.
Ibu, emak-emak, and bunda all mean “mother” in the Indonesian language. While ibu has a more neutral tone, bunda is deemed as a poetic word of endearment, and emak-emak used to have the rather negative image of “simpleton homemaker” from the lower middle class. The female voters of Prabowo–Sandiaga, however, repurposed the name to connote “resilient and strong mother” and adopted it in their volunteer groups’ names, for example, Power of Emak-emak (PERMAK), Militant Mothers (Emak-emak Militan), and Mother’s Party for Prabowo–Sandi (PEPES; Partai Emak-Emak Pendukung Prabowo-Sandi).
Analysis and Discussion: Online Discourses of Motherhood
Case 1: The Common Mother
In September 2018, video posts of a woman wearing a long black hijab claiming to be a simple, concerned mother were posted on YouTube. The same video was posted by several users with handles such as “Ibu Pemberani Kritik Pedas Jokowi—Viralkan Semoga Jokowi Mendengarnya” (Brave mother gave harsh critiques to Jokowi—make it viral so Jokowi will see it) and “Pesan Cerdas dari Emak-emak Militan Buat Jokowi” (Clever messages from a militant emak-emak for Jokowi). Some users added Islamic themed music and texts in the background, for example, Bela Ulama, 2019 GP News, and Cahaya Islam with the highest number of views, 2.3 million times (in December 2018).
The videos took the form of eight- to ten-minute monologues addressed to Jokowi in which the speaker critiques his policies, particularly those related to the country’s economic situation. The video was taken at a selfie angle from the driver’s seat of the speaker’s car. She begins by mentioning the name of Allah, provides salam (Islamic greetings), and introduces herself as Utami. She continues to explain how she understands the difficulties of leadership because she manages her own consulting business and argues that throughout his four years as president, Jokowi did not rise adequately to these challenges. Utami is careful to claim that she is not a politician, not even a party member, but rather a common homemaker who also works on the side to help her husband. Voicing her reluctance to speak out, Utami plays on the established narrative of “mothers” as domestic and apolitical subjects who emerge from the comfort of their homes and enter the political arena due to a state of emergency. She describes how, as a Muslim, she has always managed to find solutions to domestic problems with the help of God, who never sleeps and takes care of those in need. She closes her monologue by casting doubt on Jokowi’s faith as a Muslim, given that she feels his policies have not benefited the Muslim population.
Utami’s complaints about the rising prices of essential commodities and US dollars that have made it difficult to feed her family and send her only son to school abroad matched opposition campaign narratives claiming that Jokowi has failed to provide for the needs of the ummah by taking away jobs and economic opportunities from the deserving Muslim population. Further, Utami’s complaint that Jokowi’s weak body gestures are not fit for the leader of a nation reproduces a gendered discourse used by other Prabowo mother-supporters: that Indonesia needs a firm leader to protect the country from threats. In this way, the sort of “feminine rationale” put forward by mother figures falls into line with the opposition’s efforts to promote Prabowo’s strength and his military background over Jokowi’s wavering leadership style and allegedly procommunist tendencies (IPAC 2019).
Utami’s video did not go uncriticized online. YouTube users posting in the comments section of the video decry her as an ungrateful rich lady who is only seeking attention, pointing out her car, red lipstick, big shiny brooch, and her big arms and body. With regard to her consultancy work, users note that she is among the lucky ones with a job. They treat her decision to send her son to college in the United States and the car from which she filmed the video as luxuries she could do without. A similar claim emerges with respect to her body, suggesting that she should eat less to lose weight and save money. Finally, they note that if she indeed had managed to solve her own problems with only the help of God, she would not need to post a video blaming others like Jokowi.
In the wake of the Utami video, other YouTube vlogs made by fellow mothers provided counterresponses and critiques through the use of sarcasm. These included videos titled “Balasan Emak-emak Curhat Tajir Berlemak Salahin Jokowi” (Response to concerned fat rich mother who blamed Jokowi) and “Jawaban untuk Emak-emak Tajir yang Nyinyir Jokowi” (A reply to rich mother mocking Jokowi).
These videos were posted and reposted by, among others, InfoForU and RSC video, with the highest number of views 550,000 times (in December 2018). Like the derisive comments section, many counterresponses by other concerned mothers critiqued Utami on the basis of her apparent privilege, claiming that they were in tougher economic situations as low-wage workers or housewives without their own companies. Sending their children to study abroad was never an option for them.
As noted in the previous section, global studies show how good mothers are often portrayed as women who are devoted to taking care of their children, husbands, and the well-being of their communities or nations. In Indonesia, this narrative of devotion is tied to the hijab, which serves as a symbol of piety. Utami cites the notion of a “good mother,” with her long black hijab, who is reluctant to speak out but compelled to for the benefit of her son and her country. Framed differently by the opposition, however, her hijab did not shield her from public judgment, derision, and abuse that presented her as a “female antagonist,” with bold makeup and not-so-modest accessories, and an ungrateful human being in general. Caught in the crossfire of extreme speech, the Utami video and its counterresponses present a complex, gendered online political landscape in which women are both the object of online bashing (Utami) and also active contributors toward defining what makes a “good mother.” In this case, the line between gendered abuse and fair critique is blurred, showing that when motherhood is used to secure political power, the mothers themselves are often complicit and persecuted at the same time.
Case 2: The Public Figure
During the lead-up to the 2019 election, Neno Warisman, a famous singer and actress, emerged as one of the core leaders of the Ganti Presiden movement (Hakim 2018; IPAC 2019) and was appointed by Prabowo himself as vice head for his campaign team in mid-September 2018 (Viva.com 2018). Having become a PKS politician and ustadzah (female Islamic cleric), Neno was especially influential in women-dominated Islamic communities and created WhatsApp groups as venues to organize the Ganti Presiden rallies and distribute regular posts that included tips on “how Muslim mothers could be more involved in politics” (IPAC 2019, 5–6). With the help of this celebrity mother figure, the Prabowo campaign was able to successfully exploit gendered narratives regarding a mother’s duty “to protect her children from ungodly communism, homosexuality, and other moral threats associated with Jokowi’s camp” (IPAC 2019,10).
On July 29, 2018, the controversy that had been building around Neno came to a head when she was blocked from exiting Hang Nadim Airport, Batam, by a protest against the #2019gantipresiden movement. A little over a month later, she ran into a similar problem in Pekanbaru, Sumatra, when the Indonesian police prohibited Ganti Presiden activities for disturbing the peace. By December 2018, there were 6,047 posts tagged with the hashtag #nenowarisman on Instagram. Among these were photographs and a short video of her using the cabin crew’s microphone before a Pekanbaru–Jakarta flight to apologetically explain the flight delay because they could not disembark in Pekanbaru (Jordan 2018).
In the comments on these posts, Jokowi supporters were quick to speculate on Neno’s true motives for being actively involved in politics. Claiming she was no longer a popular actress, users remarked on the shift in her persona from a beloved heroine in her films and television series to a troublemaker. The posts played on the betrayal trope that forms part of the established motherhood narrative in positioning Neno as a pious woman who was committed to the well-being of her community but now cares only about her own selfish agenda. Comments like these often used abusive language to refer to Neno, calling her a “goblok” (moron), #jandabiangkerok (troublemaking widow), and “a power-hungry woman.”
In contrast, Prabowo supporters during the media controversy addressed Neno as “bunda” (a term of endearment meaning mother). Seeing her as a pious mother persecuted by an abusive regime that had violated her right to freedom of speech and compromised Indonesian democracy, supporters created posts with messages of encouragement, such as “We are with you, Bunda Neno.”
As in the first case, the Neno Warisman controversy showed that women’s greater involvement in politics leaves them subject to gendered abuse and, at the same time, acceptance on gendered terms. Whereas pro-Jokowi users framed Neno as a pathetic woman with postfame syndrome who abused her public status, Prabowo’s supporters portrayed her as a militant mother who bravely defended democracy and the right to freedom of speech for the good of her home nation. Despite wearing the hijab, Neno—like Utami—was not immune to disrespectful abuse online, suggesting that with greater visibility and agency on social media comes greater scrutiny and policing of women’s bodies, behaviors, and status.
Case 3: The Female Activist
On September 21, 2018, Ratna Sarumpaet, a well-known human rights activist, claimed that she had been assaulted in Bandung, West Java. The claim went viral after pictures of her swollen, apparently beaten face were disseminated online. Prabowo himself visited Sarumpaet, who was a vocal supporter of his campaign, and afterward held a press conference during which he expressed his sympathy and demanded an investigation into the “cowardly attack.” Numerous other politicians from the Prabowo–Sandiaga coalition turned to Twitter to voice their anger and concern, calling the assault an “attack against our mother, our grandmother” and suggesting that it was a fundamental flaw in the country’s democracy that led to the shameful event.
After an investigation by the Indonesian police, however, the news broke that Sarumpaet might be making up the story. On October 3, 2018, she held a press conference admitting the fake story and revealing that her face was swollen due to the plastic surgery she had undergone during the week of the alleged attack. She told the press that she initially told the lies to avoid telling her children the real cause behind her black-and-blue face and became concerned when the story made it outside her home and caused a public uproar. During the press conference, she apologized, calling her fabrication an act of “stupidity” and explaining, “I don’t know what came over me . . . it was an imaginary tale given by the devil to me,” and “I am just a human being; a woman admired by so many people can also slip up” (CNN Indonesia 2018). She addressed her apologies to Prabowo, “the person whom I fight for and I dreamt to be the leader of this nation in the future,” and fellow militant “emak-emak.” She added encouragement for emak-emak to go on fighting in the line of struggle: “Ratna could be somebody, could be a nobody. But you are Indonesian emak-emak who will keep on fighting” (CNN Indonesia 2018).
Following the incident, there were 19,800 posts tagged with #ratnasarumpaet on Instagram, many of which also included the hashtag #hoaxterbaik (best hoax). The case was also under close observation by mainstream media through their social media accounts. Solopos.com’s Instagram account published a survey captioned “Ratna’s Hoax Effect” on October 29, 2018, that argued Ratna’s story had created a potential shift of voters away from Prabowo (Solopos.com 2018). Other media such as Liputan 6’s (2018) Instagram account published chronological facts of Ratna’s case with the title, “Facts behind Ratna Sarumpaet’s Fake Report of Assault” on October 3, 2018.
Pictures and memes of Ratna’s swollen face continue to remain “viral” after her confession. Her positive personal image as a vocal human rights and feminist activist and mother role model who managed to balance family and politics has been irrevocably tarnished. The support from Prabowo’s coalition turned into disowning and distance. Some Jokowi supporters on Instagram took the opportunity to reprimand Prabowo for his lack of wisdom and rational judgment in believing Ratna’s hoax. Ratna was sentenced to two years of imprisonment in July 11, 2019, for violating Article 14 of the Criminal Code on hoaxes and for misleading the public. She was given a conditional release on December 26, 2019, after serving 15 months of a 24-month prison sentence.
In this case, the façade of the “good Indonesian mother” was again revealed to be a sham. Given that Ratna was among the brave and pious army of emak-emak, like Utami and Neno, the betrayal was felt most by Prabowo supporters. Interestingly, as in the first case, the narrative that mothers are to be the defenders of society’s welfare and morality seems to have been taken over by average Indonesians who take the role of moral police online. When Ratna admitted that she had betrayed this “sacred duty,” online users subjected her to public ridicule all the more severely because she knew the rule and led other women to follow it but eventually broke it herself.
In this study, I set out to investigate how Indonesian women’s political role may have shifted following the Reformation in 1998 and the rapid uptake of social media. Both 2019 presidential campaign teams acknowledged the potential of large numbers of female voters, although the Prabowo team was more proactive about including “motherhood” in presidential election narratives. Investigating several of these motherhood narratives, this study found that they often sparked contentious debates, drawing in supporters of both campaigns and different genders. Framing these exchanges as extreme speech, this study followed the ways in which the boundaries between acceptable or unacceptable speech were transgressed and redrawn, taking into consideration Indonesia’s cultural and normative background and the historical conditions of women’s political participation.
The cases presented in this study show women who fit the ideal Indonesian construct of the mother or “good woman,” from an average mother devoted to her family, to a pious public figure with a good reputation, to a fighter for human rights and justice. All three women wear the hijab, a symbol of religious and moral appropriateness. Although popular culture continues to celebrate the hijab as a symbol of feminine purity, the cases in this study show that is changing. The images of all three “mothers” examined were subject to irreverent, vulgar, and caustic extreme speech that seemed to shatter the ideal institution of motherhood. Indeed, the cases showed how the platformed environments of social media seemed to accommodate mental distance for users and facilitated the use of the motherhood construct as a political tool. A kind of battle of narratives between the opposing supporter bases of Jokowi–Ma’ruf and Prabowo–Sandiaga split the images of the women between an average sophisticated mother versus an ungrateful fat rich lady, a pious heroine of democracy versus an attention-seeking former actress, and a human rights activist versus a hoaxer granny. Even though these discourses discredit the motherhood institution both claim to respect, both parties seem to be able to detach themselves from the obligation, particularly when the women’s agendas are not in line with those of their political patrons.
Revisiting the historically shaped construct of motherhood in contemporary online political discourse, I argue that although social media provides women with the opportunity for greater political engagement and public visibility, the traditional notion of motherhood, and the gender relations that go along with it, are largely preserved. Social media users are ultimately not widening women’s roles or challenging established gender norms but rather reinforcing them. Indeed, the only justification for their active role in politics—that the women featured in this study had recourse to—was their status as mothers defending their family and community from economic crisis, unfair governments, and moral threats. As soon as they were discredited and shown not to be true mothers in one way or the other, their public validity was undermined. This sort of restricted participation was especially visible in the Prabowo campaign, which consistently forwarded the notion that a good mother is a believer in God, able to balance the role of homemaker with her thriving career, and first and foremost, devoted to her children and husband. The success of this discourse suggests the rise of a movement of conservative Islamist women in post-Reformasi Indonesia (Kartika 2019; Wieringa 2015).
Nevertheless, the advent of social media has meant that women coming from relatively diverse backgrounds are able to publicly participate in a contemporary political environment where gender is a pressing issue and means of establishing rapport, setting the boundaries of political alignment, and gaining support. While the ideal construct of motherhood is upheld and women are either attacked or lauded on the basis of it, it will become increasingly important to observe how they themselves manage these strictures in maintaining a public presence online. In the cases discussed, women are not merely the objects and victims of this gendered discourse but also participants in the ongoing negotiation of gendered identities and roles in digital-era Indonesia.
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