Australia Awards in Indonesia

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Dr Lily Y. Farid builds platform to empower women through literature

04 Dec 2020

Dr Lily Y. Farid builds platform to empower women through literature

Winner of the 2020 Promoting Women’s Empowerment Award

“There is the risk of [me] being considered as fussy and noisy, but that’s the way feminism is. It exists to challenge,” Dr Lily Yulianti Farid spoke both bluntly and fluently about the things she’s been most passionate about for decades: the worlds of literature and women’s empowerment.

A writer who has published three collections of short stories, Dr Lily’s own story began when she received an Australian Development Scholarship (Australia Awards) to take a Master’s degree in gender studies at The University of Melbourne in 2001.

Dr Lily remembered the feeling of shock during her first days in Australia, where everyone was expected to be self-sufficient. “You had to be on your own,” she said. “And critical thinking was something new for me. We were taught to never accept anything as it was, but instead we had to be able to build arguments.”

“It was emphasised that you’d never survive if you knew a bit about a lot of things. Instead, you’d need to know something so profoundly that you’d be able to articulate it,” Dr Lily, winner of the 2020 Australian Alumni Award for the Promoting Women’s Empowerment category, said.

Dr Lily credited her stance on women’s empowerment to her stint at Indonesia’s Kompas daily newspaper. A section of the newspaper, Swara, opened her eyes to feminism.

“That’s why I picked gender and development studies for my Master’s degree. And that’s when I started to learn that feminism is so extensive and diverse,” she said.

When she published her first book of short stories, Makkunrai, in 2008, she received an invitation to the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali. Soon after, she was invited to festivals in Singapore and the Netherlands. “They all became an inspiration and made me dream of building a platform that could support writers, readers and the publishing industry in Indonesia,” she said. 

When she met film director Riri Riza, she found that they shared the same wish of devoting their lives to their hometown of Makassar in South Sulawesi. Within two years, they established Rumata Art Space in 2011, an independent cultural organisation that promotes contemporary literature as well as reading and writing habits, with support from crowdfunding donations.

After attending the Winternachten International Literature Festival in the Netherlands in 2011, Lily was asked to organise the visit of several European and Middle Eastern writers to Indonesia. She took the opportunity to create the first literature festival in Makassar.

“I consulted with Riri, my husband and [the late poet] Sapardi Djoko Damono and Makassan poet, M. Aan Mansyur who gave their support,” Dr Lily remembered.

But then things took a turn. Dr Lily received a doctoral scholarship from Australia Awards in 2010 and returned to Melbourne. From thousands of kilometres away, she began to develop the Makassar International Writers Festival until its debut in June 2011.

“It was our first time, so you can imagine the topsy-turvy scene, but somehow it went really well,” said Dr Lily. “It became a cultural identity for the town, and I felt certain that this had to be an annual event.”

The festival consciously put a focus on eastern Indonesia - a region that was considered lagging behind due to lack of accessibility and infrastructure. Within years, it became a platform for established and emerging writers to connect with cultural institutions and major publishers in the country.

The festival also made sure to welcome audiences from marginalised groups and was firm in banishing the too familiar ‘all-male panel’ from its events, along with providing space for female authors in its programs. Lily made sure that organisers found women speakers for the festival, and in the end, it developed a network of women speakers and moderators.

“When you have an all-male panel, you just get half of the story. There is no female perspective,” Dr Lily said.

During her stint in Australia in 2011, Dr Lily was granted a supplementary leadership program and made use of the opportunity with an internship at the Multicultural Centre for Women's Health in Melbourne, where she gained insight on women from minority groups.

Earlier this year, Makassar International Writers Festival was awarded The Literary Festival Award in the London Book Fair’s 2020 International Excellence Awards. The judges praised the festival for developing “a radically inclusive operation transparent in its working methods and fearless in its programming”.

Always fascinated by grassroots activism, Dr Lily is now working on a post-doctoral project at Monash University where she is conducting a research under Professor Lynette Russell's leadership on the encounters between Indigenous Australia and the rest of the world, including Makassan trepangers and sea fearers in 1700 - 1907.

Dr Lily is also working on a campaign concerning Indonesia’s sexual violence eradication Bill with The Body Shop Indonesia. They’re working with three rape survivors to produce video campaign series to convey the urgency of having an anti-sexual violence law in Indonesia.

“I believe art can be a very powerful medium to reach a much bigger audience,” Dr Lily said. “I believe in telling the stories of women’s struggle with the help of new approaches.”

Her education journey in Australia has been enriched by projects including Enhancing Indonesia’s Soft Power Diplomacy through Journalism in 2017, a development program for writers and academics in South and Central Sulawesi to write articles and essays in English for Australian media. The year-long project funded by the Alumni Grant Scheme administered by Australia Awards in Indonesia reached 60 participants, and more than half were women.

When asked how everyone could contribute to the empowerment of women, Dr Lily said that there needed to be more spaces and discussions to raise awareness of gender issues.

“All parties need to be able to work together and synergise to create more discourses, to make women’s issues related to crucial topics that are traditionally dominated by males - including politics, economy, social and food security - a part of women’s daily banter,” Dr Lily said.

“We have to be part of the change. Most people just want to enjoy what change brings, and not be the risk takers.” 

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