Gisela Swaragita, Jakarta – Over the past few weeks, Indonesia's language agency Badan Bahasa has managed to irk gender and women activists alike by refusing to remove derogatory definitions for "perempuan" (woman) in the Great Dictionary of the Indonesian Language (KBBI), the primary reference book on the national language.
The agency has defended itself by maintaining that the definitions contained in the KBBI simply reflected the word's use in the common lexicon.
"The explanation for the entry 'perempuan' [...] can be used as an example of how the greater public views women and what connotations are attached to being a woman," it wrote in a statement on Feb. 2 in response to the furor.
"Any negative connotations and [associated] stigma can be changed, not by revising the entry in the KBBI, but by [reclaiming] the social connotations and stigma," the statement continued. "Only then can new entries with more positive meanings appear in the corpus, which is then naturally recorded in the KBBI."
Areispine Dymussaga, a 29-year-old Ph.D candidate at the University of California-Riverside and a University of Indonesia (UI) Indonesian studies lecturer, expressed anger at the agency's response.
"[Badan Bahasa] argues that it only records [what is accepted] and tries to remain objective, but being objective isn't the same as being insensitive," she said on Monday.
The dictionary definition has elicited widespread criticism for the negative and sexist overtones associated with the word perempuan, which appeared in the first edition of the KBBI published in 1988. It was defined at the time only as a synonym for "wanita" (adult female), which derived from the Sanskrit "vanita" for woman, a compound word meaning "(something) that is desired", according to feminist publication Magdalene.
In contrast to "wanita", a 1997 scholarly paper titled "Betina, Wanita, Perempuan: A Lexical-Semantic Study" by Sudarwati and D. Jupriono says the word perempuan derives from the root word empu meaning "master" and several other variations including "the head", "upstream", "the greatest" and "someone with expertise/authority".
The authors also noted that perempuan was also connected to ampu meaning "to support", "to govern", "to reinforce" and "to safeguard".
In subsequent KBBI editions, "perempuan" was broadened to include the definition "a person (human being) who possesses a vagina, can menstruate, become pregnant, give birth to children and breastfeed". Other definitions were added over time, with the current KBBI online including "wife" and "female (specifically for animals)", along with compound words and derivative phrases.
Later additions to the entry include perempuan geladak, perempuan jalan, perempuan jalang, perempuan jangak, perempuan lecah and perempuan nakal, all of which imply prostitution or promiscuity. Another compound word, perempuan jahat, is the equivalent of "evil woman" or "witch". These are all retained in the latest, fifth edition of the KBBI, as well as its online version.
On the other hand, the subentry "laki-laki" (man) under "laki" (husband) has just one derivative word: "kelaki-lakian" (boyish, masculine) defined as "courage; valor" or "(have the characteristics) of a man".
Intersectional feminists have protested the language agency's policy and lack of empathy for women.
"I refuse to be defined this way because as a human being, women live not to become mere sex objects or to be seen as property by their [male] partners," visual artist Ika Vantiani told The Jakarta Post in a statement on Tuesday.
In 2015, Ika set out to create a collage in an attempt to define what it meant to be a woman. She stumbled upon the KBBI entry "perempuan" while researching her art project, and has since been lobbying Badan Bahasa to change its definition.
"I have never heard, seen or read [most of those compound words] being used since their entry into the KBBI 3rd edition in 2000," said Ika, arguing that the KBBI definition was gender-biased and contradicted the etymology of perempuan.
"Imagine how many people, including students and foreigners learning the Indonesian language, open the [KBBI] only to find the word perempuan associated with words like pelacur [prostitute], nakal [naughty], jalang [slut], main perempuan [to commit adultery] or perempuan simpanan [mistress]," she lamented.
The Post contacted the KBBI's female chief editor Dora Amalia, who declined to comment.
The politics of reclaiming language is still in its infancy in conservative-leaning Indonesia, where patriarchy is still deeply rooted in the nation's history, beliefs and culture.
A number of male politicians who commented on the debate have resisted disrupting the linguistic status quo, by instead pointing to the legislature's affirmative action of reserving 30 percent of its seats for women.
However, as more women aim to break the glass ceiling and occupy positions of power, activists are convinced that the balance will shift toward gender equality to bring in a more compassionate use of language.
Philosophy lecturer Saras Dewi from UI said the language agency could achieve progress by embracing the educational component of its linguistic duties, instead of maintaining a stance of resistance.
"It is important that the [KBBI] editors take the side of social education to achieve a breakthrough in egalitarian thinking that talks about equality and justice, especially in the relationship pattern between men and women," she said on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Rainy Hutabarat of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) pointed out that how a word is defined could significantly change the way it was perceived in society.
"The definition recorded [in] the KBBI reflects the patriarchal culture in society," said Rainy. Furthermore, the definition of perempuan highlighted "the process of reproduction [...] which alienates unmarried or childless women".
She also underlined the contribution feminists had made in revising gender-biased words to be more neutral that were then included in dictionaries, while also noting the lack of contemporary idioms for strong women in the KBBI.
"Global feminists have changed the term 'female circumcision', which normalizes or legalizes [the practice] on the basis of cultural and religious traditions, into 'female genital mutilation' to make a statement on culture-based violence against women and girls," she said.
"Therefore, it is important that the KBBI editors update the usage and definition of the word perempuan."