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Feminist Icons of Indonesia: Julia PEREZ

Julia Perez strong women feminism Indonesia
Wonder Woman fighting the patriarchy and extremists (Photo credit Galih W. Satria)

Some may argue that it is an unusual choice to start the Indonesian feminists series with Julia Perez (JuPe) rather than for instance Raden Adjeng Kartini (next time), but JuPe stood, and still stands, for women's right to be free to choose how they live and love, and is a modern - and famously controversial- feminist icon in Indonesia.

A feminist icon and a sex symbol

Brought up by a divorced football player mum on little money, Javanese-born JuPe started her career as a model in Europe thanks to her foreign husband. She was nominated one of the '100 sexiest women in the world' after her layouts in the men's magazines FHM and Maxim. On returning to Indonesia, she developed a flourishing acting and singing career, particularly in the popular music form Dangdut. She was also a successful businesswoman, talk show host, and even ventured into politics. She died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 37.

Empowering female sexuality

Known for her sexy outfits and her straight talk about female sexuality, JuPe stands for women's right to do what they want with their bodies and their life. She became known for her outspoken statements against Muslim clerics who deemed her 'pornographic'. Her debut album 'Kamasutra' had a free condom given with it. One of her most famous and controversial songs 'JuPe prefers 69 '( JuPe paling suka 69 ) brought her a lot of attention and a little censorship on certain popular radio channels. Her deep cleavage and open talk about sex in her TV shows led to an official letter from the Indonesian broadcasting commission (KPI) warning the network against producing 'sexuality explicit content'. In a country where ' good' girls dress demurely and wear a headscarf, JuPe jumps out as the 'bad girl' in charge of her own body and sexuality. A clearly terrifying message for the more conservative males in power.

Julia Perez feminism indonesia
Not your run of the mill activist: Sexy but strong (photo credit soundcloud)

Conservatives, Controversy, and activism

Indeed, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) were among such people. They threatened to denounce JuPe and other female celebrities to the police over 'vulgar' online content. In response, JuPe publicly stated she would change nothing about her sexy outfits and that she wanted to remain sensual. The FPI nonetheless thanked her for toning down her attire (why? We'll never know.) but must have heard her message loud and clear since they tried to have her banned from performing in Bandung city for the crime of being a 'temptress'! The FPI also successfully campaigned to have Lady Gaga's concerts banned in Jakarta, JuPe publicly urged the performer to ignore the ban but to no avail. After the FPI threatened violence at the gigs, Lady Gaga's comment was 'There is nothing holy about hatred'. The concerts did not go through.

JuPe also campaigned for condom use, becoming the ambassador for National Condom Week, an event that was sadly cancelled by the conservative factions. However, she continued to use her online social media popularity (1 million followers) to encourage condom use and AIDS prevention. Through her online presence, JuPe supported the bill to eliminate sexual violence in Indonesia after a school girl's brutal gang rape put the issue in the spotlight.

Julia Perez feminism indonesia
Also seen in hijab on some days. (photo credit KIBRISPDR)

The singer who got into politics

JuPe was courted by eight political parties to become Regent of Pacitan regency in East Java province even though she had never visited the area. Reactions differed from opponents saying politicians were putting inexperienced celebrities up for their parties to win votes; and supporters countering she was a great candidate, free of political corruption and opposed to the conservative Islamic factions.

During the 2014 Presidential elections, JuPe at first offered to marry the divorced candidate general Prabowo but ended up supporting the winner Joko Widodo, saying Prabowo had broken her heart as he was already taken.

JuPe also publicly supported the controversial political figure Ahok in the run for the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. He was accused of then jailed for supposed blasphemy, conveniently putting him out of the race; he would have been the first elected Chinese Christian Jakarta Governor if he had won.

Indonesian female Role Model

By being an outspoken, funny, unashamedly sexy feminist activist, JuPe is a role model for Indonesian women - and men, men have a big role to play in ending sexism -. Who knows what she would have achieved if she had lived just a little longer but her legacy lives on, as one of the most famous feminist icons of Indonesia.

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