Gender, Victory, and Defeat


The concepts of ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’ are fundamental to effective strategy; winning, after all, is surely one of the key objectives of having a strategy for an armed conflict. In addition, reaching some accurate consensus on whether we are winning or losing provides one of the crucial steps for understanding if our strategies are working or not, and therefore whether and how they might need to be changed. For concepts so important to strategic performance, however, victory and defeat can be extremely elusive concepts. In a recent article, I examine, using the case study of Britain’s undeclared war against Indonesia from 1963-66 (known commonly as the ‘Confrontation’), the challenges in assessing the degree to which one might have won or lost a war.

One of the issues that I found particularly interesting was the degree to which assessments regarding success or failure in war often generalise and aggregate. For example, we commonly use the state as our term of reference in assessments of victory and defeat. Using that perspective it is often argued that Confrontation reflected a victory for ‘Britain’ and a defeat for ‘Indonesia’. But this sort of approach fails to account for the perspectives and experiences of specific groups, especially those of women. As my article illustrates, Confrontation involved highly variable outcomes even within Indonesia. The final stages of Confrontation were linked to an internal struggle in Indonesia one consequence of which was an Indonesian army campaign to destroy their domestic rival, the Indonesian communist party. The army’s success in doing this involved the killing of half a million communists and the arrest and imprisonment of at least a million and a half more. Many of the latter were subjected to torture and served prison terms of ten to fourteen years. This act established the army, and General Suharto, as the dominant political forces in Indonesia until the 1990s. In that sense, the army did very well from the conflict, whereas the communist party clearly lost. But what also is often missing from such assessments of victory and defeat is an analysis that takes women as a referent object. For example, in examining the fate of Indonesian communists, focusing on issues of gender highlights particular costs to women of the final stages of Confrontation.

Indonesian women were swept up in the army’s campaign partly through gender-based assumptions of political dependency: an assumption that women had no political voice separate from their male guardians. Thus, a women’s guilt often was by association. Those whose husbands were arrested or killed faced assumptions of complicity consequently faced heavy punishment. Those arrested, even if subsequently released because of lack of evidence, acquired pariah status. With ‘E/T’ or ‘ex-tapol’ (‘tapol’ being the abbreviation for Tahanan Politikor political prisoner) stamped on their identity cards, these individuals and by extension their families became effectively persona non gratain Indonesian society, excluded by their communities and by the state.The consequences of this guilt by association could be even more extreme, and might include being diambil(‘taken’) as a forced wife by local anti-communists, or as an unofficial wife, or being compelled into prostitution. Linked to this, women faced particular forms of punishment, especially those related to sexual violence. As one element of its objective of legitimising the liquidation of the Indonesian communist party, military propaganda portrayed Gerwani, the communist women’s organisation, as a brutal and sexualised organisation. Partly in consequence, those women and girls arrested, or those that were relatives of those arrested, often experienced profound trauma. Sexual violence, including rape, sexualised mutilation and torture, sexual humiliation, enforced prostitution, sexual slavery and enforced abortion were pervasive forms of punishment for women during the period.

Indeed, this army focus on de-legitimising Gerwanireflected another set of costs for women of the latter stages of Confrontation: the use of the anti-communist campaign as a means of social control. It was clear even at the time that many of those that were labelled as communists were not actually communists: rather, this label facilitated the suppression within Indonesian society of those elements considered by the military and their allies as undesirable. Gerwani, in reality, was a heterogenous organisation and many of those women involved were attracted not so much by communist ideology but simply by the organisation’s progressive attitude towards improving women’s lives. Other women were accused of being in Gerwanisimply because their socially forward-looking views marked them out to conservative male-dominated community leaders as trouble-makers. More widely, the focus in the Suharto regime’s propaganda on establishing the immorality of the communists generally, and Gerwanispecifically, helped to undermine the legitimacy of all forms of progressive women’s activism. Part of the stability promised by the military’s New Order rested upon the conception that women should play their ‘proper role’ in society, a role defined in traditional terms.

Assessing victory and defeat in war is therefore a complex and problematic task, not least because of the biases that are often inherent in our choice of referent object. Gender-based perspectives on the outcomes of Confrontation expose the sufferings imposed on women; suffering which has often been ignored because of inherent gender biases in assessing the outcomes of war.

Image: Armed soldiers stand guard in Sarawak in 1965 via wikimedia commons

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