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From the edge of the circle pit: Growing up punk and girl in Indonesia

Overland - April 17, 2024

Dina Indrasafitri – Circa 1999, I sat on the floor in a poorly lit house on the outskirts of Jakarta, still in my grey-and-white high-school uniform. The members of the protest punk band Anti-Military were plotting their first album recording in the next room. Scattered around me were political pamphlets, zines and books touching on the subjects of anarchism, anti-work and anti-racism.

It was the first time that two tantalising worlds that I had been dabbling in – the local, rising punk scene and left-wing politics – collided. It felt overwhelming and dangerous.

The year before, Indonesia's economy had been pummelled by the Asian Financial Crisis, and the swell of students' uprising eventually resulted in three bloody days in May. On the first of those, school was dismissed two hours early and I walked home to see people looting and burning shopping centres and newly written signs saying 'Muslim Pribumi' in front of residential buildings, a mark of the angry crowds' tendency to target Chinese people and Christians.

The protests and riots culminated with the resignation of dictator Soharto, putting an end to over thirty years of his corrupt, nepotism-ridden 'New Order' regime. Thus began the so-called 'Reformasi' (Reform) era of Indonesia. The next eight years or so of my life became a whirlwind of rallies, zine-making, discussions and, of course, punk concerts. While I also went to political events initiated by other groups, such as university students, they did not feel quite as exhilarating.

Much has been written about the history of punk's advent and rise in Indonesia. Most authors agree that he movement likely began in the early 1990s and that some kickstarts were from the more affluent teenagers who were able to afford the distinctive fashion and cassette tapes of Western punk bands, or were even privileged enough to experience the scene overseas before bringing it back to Indonesia.

From there, punk spread very quickly, traversing across socioeconomic classes. At its arguably quantitative peak, around the mid 2000s, I went to an all-punk gig that saw over 2,000 attendees, with around 900 squeezed inside a non air-conditioned sports hall in South Jakarta. By now, Anti-Military had become Marjinal and was almost a household name. Its lyrics of social criticism paired with catchy folk notes touched many beyond the punk scene and became a staple in the repertoires of many street buskers.

Happily coinciding with the rise of punk was the emergence of new 'Reformasi'-era freedoms – including that of publishing previously banned leftist materials.

Yet, while I aspired to spread feminism and social justice ideas through punk, I was confronted with some harsh realities. Plenty of members of the punk community were hardly keen on the idea of becoming anarcho-syndicalists or feminists, as evidenced by blatantly sexist behaviours which kept me on the edge of the circle pit. As most women who were part of the scene knew back then, the threat of being groped and abused was very real.

Within the punk community in Jakarta I witnessed bullying and harassment, as well as the beginnings of the shift towards religious fundamentalism described by Hikmawan Saefullah. With the perspective of time and distance, I am becoming increasingly aware of how the Indonesian punk scene simply mirrored its homeland's politics – whether in the form of increased religious conservatism or the reluctance to indulge in my ambitious revolutionary dreams.

I have been much less involved in the scene over the past twelve or so years, even more so since moving to Australia. As I strive to keep up to date on the deteriorating state of Indonesia's democracy and human rights, I wonder if the punk and counter-culture scene in my homeland is also becoming less tolerant.

Last year, news outlets posted photos of activists that were part of the Reformasi movement shaking hands with ex-General Prabowo, a man linked to human rights violations during the New Order who recently ran in his third Presidential candidacy race. Prabowo teamed up with Gibran Rakabuming, the son of current President Joko Widodo – a match legalised by an uncannily timed Constitutional Court decision to allow the passing of a bill allowing candidates under forty to run for President or Vice President. The pair won the election, although the result remains contested.


Sociologist and singer of the Jakarta grindcore band Cryptical Death, Fathun Karib, told me that the apparent return to New Order-style authoritarianism, and even our experience of being part of a rebellious rising punk and political activism scene in the 1990s, began to make sense to him when he started to adopt a historical perspective, taking into account the cycles of global capitalism:

Every once in a while, this global capitalist system requires governments with authoritarian tendencies to suppress the cries rising from the most oppressed people affected by economic crisis. What we experienced back then in the early 1990s were part of a Capitalism crisis at the end of the 1980s – it hit America and Europe first and then it hit us in Indonesia. And now it has hit a crisis point again and that is why you are seeing all these apparent return to the state of how it was (before Reformasi), and that is why you are feeling frustrated again.

Using a calm and collected tone that could not be further than the angry growling vocals I hear in Cryptical Death songs, he advised that I read the works of late French Historian Fernand Braudel, whose ambitious works highlight the roles of geography and economy, rather than noted figures and events, in shaping history. While I appreciated this suggestion, I felt demoralised by his contention that rebels and activists were simply part of the perpetual cycles of capitalism crisis.

"Everything is just made more subtle," said Mita, an advocate for feminism, environmental and land rights issues in Indonesia for over fifteen said. "Kidnappings and state violence are still prevalent."

She cited the dangerously vague nature of the Electronics and Information Transaction law among the threats to freedom of speech. And while these days the Police may not come to disband leftist or progressive discussions, the same cannot be said mass organisations, including paramilitary groups, that operate with the tacit approval of the Police.

Mita's organising and advocacy work heavily centres itself around DIY and grassroots methods that are also often employed in punk collectives such as zines, Food not Bombs and direct action. Over the years, her activism has been met with threats from both the Police and fundamentalist groups, forcing her at one point to retreat to remote parts of Central Java.

In the end, my conversations with Mita and Karib left me in a more optimistic state than my usual Indonesian news trawl.

"New collectives are still popping up, we still exchange information at gigs, in the form of zines," Mita said, "The more I learn about how many issues there are to overcome, the more I believe in the need to create a strong network."

The intimidation she faced simply encouraged her to further campaign about what a corrupt system would be capable of doing, she said,

"There is also more awareness on anti-rape and anti-harrasment culture, including at punk gigs."

I remember when these issues were first raised in the Indonesian punk community. Having been sexually harassed and discriminated against multiple times in that sphere, I was all too aware of how much of an uphill battle it would be to go against such a testosterone-laden majority. Yet the Indonesian feminist punks persist. Had they been around back then, they would have been a lifesaver for fifteen-year-old me making my way in the scene.

Thinking partly of Karib's take on Indonesia's current affairs, I asked him if he thought that we were all mere puppets of an inherently faulty system – unable to make any meaningful changes, including through our involvement in a subculture like punk.

"Capitalism has not always been there, and it is man-made after all," came his reply, to my surprise. "Music changed my life as a catalyst and it allows me to express my discontent towards political matters. Who knows, my music might be a catalyst for others or disturb those who are part of problem."

To both Karib and Mita, subcultures were welcoming gateways to their political education, regardless of how their journey unfolded from there.

"My political activism began in the university but I felt it was too sexist, patriarchal and homophobic then. I found people who resonated with me in the zine and art scene. I felt that these people in those scenes were practicing what they preach," Mita said.

And it appears that punk continues to inspire even later generations. I reached out to Ralka Skjerseth, a twenty-five-year old who was one of over fifteen Indonesian scholars scheduled to present at the 2023 Punk Scholars Network's Annual Conference and Postgraduate Symposium.

"Punk as a medium of education, especially in politics, could be a very effective resource especially for those who are unable to afford formal education in politics," she told me. "At least at an introductory level or as a way to learn new vocabularies, I think punk songs can be used as a more inclusive and accessible way to learn entry-level politics."

Both Ralka and I discovered punk at around fourteen years of age. Never in her wildest dreams did teenage punk me imagine that one day there would be a network of punk scholars in Indonesia – let alone one recognised internationally.


During the course of writing this piece I was serenaded – or screamed at, in some cases – by a multitude of punk songs, this time through Youtube instead of the rickety cassette player of my high school days. I was again reminded, as I often am when my playlist swings that way, that before I was a journalist or a university student I was a teenager trying to find out why the Sex Pistols did not fancy the Queen of England and scouring the dictionary to decipher the meaning behind Bad Religion's ridiculously verbose lyrics.

The process further cemented how much Ralka's statement resonates with me even after all these years: there are many roads leading to political activism but, for some types of people at least, punk is certainly the most appealing. If my long-lasting sentiment and the conversations I have had while writing this piece are anything to go by, then I would have to say that punk in Indonesia is, indeed, not dead.

[Dina Indrasafitri is an Artist, Performer and Writer currently based in Naarm. She was born in Jakarta, Indonesia. Her final paper in Sociological Sciences focused on the Skinhead Subculture in Indonesia.]

Source: https://overland.org.au/2024/04/from-the-edge-of-the-circle-pit-growing-up-punk-and-girl-in-indonesia