Ratna Saptari retires: anthropologist dedicated herself with heart and soul to Indonesian workers' and human rights
Ratna Saptari is since 2007 Assistant Professor at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology. She has always been involved with issues of human rights and Indonesian workers' rights. This August she retired. But she won't sit still. She continues her voluntary work and wants to finally take the time to write her work. 'I always found it significant to relate anthropology with the activities that one does outside the university. That’s how you get an understanding of how to look at things.'
Being raised in a privileged family in Indonesia, Ratna Saptari discovered at a young age the inequality between people. In high school, she started questioning the position and treatment of ‘babu’: domestic workers. 'I think that was the time when I started to develop an anthropological view and it was the root of my activism'. During her studies at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, she was asked by friends to help out with discussion groups for female workers. This was under the authoritarian regime of Soeharto. 'They couldn't talk about topics like menstruation or maternity leave with men around, so that's why the female-only groups started. We didn't dare to call it feminism at that time. Feminism was something considered western. But looking back at it,
We didn't dare to call it feminism at that time. Feminism was something considered western. But looking back at it,
you can certainly call it feminism.
Working and labour rights
Ratna has been working on labour rights ever since. She researched three generations of women working in the cigarette industry in Indonesia. She has also been involved in the Indonesian Migrant Workers' Union in the Netherlands. Many Indonesian women coming to the Netherlands are undocumented. 'They are lied to by agencies and villagers who promise them a bright future in the Netherlands. They need to pay a high amount for a visa. Because they don't speak the language they don't realise it's a tourist visa that they get. So when in the Netherlands and the visa runs out, they become undocumented, by default. Some of these stories are very sad.'
The first time Ratna came to Leiden was during her master's in 1983. It was a sandwich programme that allowed her to study partly in Indonesia and partly in The Netherlands. She felt Leiden was at that time rather conservative and traditional, so she decided to do her PhD on land issues at the UVA. She went back to Indonesia afterwards but the University of Indonesiawas also very conservative at that time. That didn’t match well with Ratna’s activism and social character, so she moved back to the Netherlands and held a Post-Doc position at the University of Nijmegen in a project on social security in Indonesia. After that, she coordinated the multi-country research programme on Changing Labour Relations in Asia (CLARA) at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam.
Indonesian Migrant Workers' Union
Ratna will keep continuing her work at the Indonesian Migrant Workers' Union in the Netherlands. The Union promotes the rights of migrant workers. For example, they organised that also undocumented migrant workers got a covid vaccination, together with other organiszations such as Doctors of the World. Ratna literally brings her activist work home sometimes. Several people were accommodated in her home. Some people stayed a few days or a few weeks, like a woman who needed to escape from her violent husband. One family stayed for four years. 'They were snitched in by the neighbours because they lived in a sub-rented house. The people discussed with the original residents but this family suffered as a result. So my husband and I took them in. Sometimes you need to act.'
While talking to Ratna, she mentions several times she doesn’t feel she deserves any extra attention because she didn’t get big grants for the institute. But she did write extensively on gender and labour relations, workplace politics and domestic workers. And in the field, she made a huge impact. She is involved in Watch65, an association which campaigns to end State impunity of the 1965 genocide in Indonesia, after she became involved in the Dutch-based team of the IPT65 (International Peoples Tribunal 1965) held in The Hague in November 2015.
I brought my experience to the classroom in courses like Gender Studies, Social Movements and Urban studies. I told my students about the stories of the workers.
Two different worlds combined
Officially these are two different worlds, inside and outside academia. But in practice it was combined in a way, Ratna says. ‘I brought my experience to the classroom in courses like Gender Studies, Social Movements and Urban studies. I told my students about the stories of the workers. Not many know about the undocumented, although it surrounds us. Also the history of genocide and sexual violence as can also be seen in other countries and this also became part of the discussion in the Southeast Asia course, comparing the Indonesian and Cambodian genocide’
Leiden has changed since Ratna came for the first time in 1981. ‘The Institute is currently dealing academically with various political and cultural issues involving power relations. Teaching methodology has also been very instructive for me, not only in how to do research but how to read analytically. All this knowledge I try to pass on when I am in Indonesia. I will miss my colleagues. We have a very good atmosphere here and I have a very good relationship with everyone. I liked the co-teaching and the sharing of academic and societal knowledge. You get to know your colleagues better and learn from each other’s experiences. I really enjoyed it here, I could teach some of the topics that are important to me and that are relevant academically and societally.’