Herawati Diah, Pioneer Journalist Reflects

*Jakarta Globe, 4 Feb 2009

“People flatter me when they say, ‘I thought you were only 70!’” laughs retired journalist Herawati Diah.

Dressed in an elegant top and pants, her carefully coiffed hair streaked with white, Herawati’s petite figure is almost dwarfed by the vastness of her living room, which is filled with mementoes of her past — family photographs, wooden carvings, Russian paintings from the Gorbachev era and works by renowned local painter Basuki Abdullah. With an energy and sharpness that belie her 92 years, Herawati speaks with an ebullient lilt in her voice and often breaks into soft laughter. Her face is softly rounded, webbed with laugh lines and wearing a constant smile of contentment. There is an unfazed air about her, and her stooped back is the only indication of her age.

She is a multifaceted woman, a pioneer for Indonesian women and a woman of many firsts. In her book, “An Endless Journey: Reflections of an Indonesian Journalist,” she expands on the highlights of her career as a journalist with an often bemused air.
As one of only a handful of women journalists in the years following Indonesia’s independence, she established her reputation as a leading reporter. Her husband, Burhanuddin Mohammad Diah, also a leading journalist, founded Merdeka newspaper in 1945 and the republic’s first English-language daily, the Indonesian Observer, in 1955. Herawati worked with him on both.


Merdeka changed hands in 1999 and Indonesian Observer folded in 2001.
“A woman journalist may carve a niche in hard-news fields and fight for an equal place with her male colleagues,” Herawati wrote in “An Endless Journey.”

Although Herawati continues to record her life and surroundings, these days it is only in private diaries, which she has kept since her marriage.


Born into an upper-class Javanese family to Raden Latip, a doctor for the Dutch company Billiton Maatschappij, and Siti Alimah binti Djojodikromo, Herawati’s family ties are strongly rooted in education and the media.

It was at her mother’s urging that she went to New York for her higher education. By attending Barnard University in New York City, Herawati writes, she became the first Indonesian female to study in America.


“My mother was a strong influence. She wanted me to achieve what she never experienced,” says Herawati of her mother, who was educated at a pesantren , an Islamic boarding school, and had no formal education.


Like her mother, Herawati married young. Media people surrounded her all her life and it was only a matter of time before she found her way into journalism at the age of 22, as a stringer for United Press International. Her mother owned a women’s magazine called Doenia Kita (Our World), her father was often interviewed on the radio and her uncle, Subardjo, was Indonesia’s first minister of foreign affairs and a journalist, she wrote.

“I prefer writing to talking. And I am curious,” Herawati says. As a mother of three young children, she found balancing motherhood and a career challenging, as family was as important to her as her career. But she persevered because she believed in what she was doing.


“I was convinced that this work was very suitable for women,” she wrote. “Conscience is the torchbearer of the work and success of a journalist. A journalist will fight for the trust of readers, enlarge her scope of work, and may even make a name for herself.”

Having lived through six presidencies and both the Dutch and Japanese occupations, she can recall the hardships and upheavals of the different eras.


“I still remember when the husband of a friend of mine was looking for his woollen trousers,” she writes in the book of an incident during the Japanese occupation. “His wife was forced to tell him that the trousers had materialized into a liter of rice and a couple of chickens.”


In modern Indonesia, long free of colonizers and the subsequent need for people to fight for freedom, Herawati said that she finds “a lack of nationalism” in the country’s youth.


“When my husband started the newspaper, Merdeka, in 1945, we did not need any capital. We called it modal dengkul . It means you had no money but you started something out of idealism. We didn’t want a salary. We just wanted to get people to understand we were a free country, that we were merdeka [free]. In those days, we really did not care for material things at all. Not anymore now,” she said, adding that she was disappointed that Indonesia has become besotted with individualist culture.

Seventy years have passed since Herawati started reporting. The changes in Indonesian media throughout the years are most apparent in the number of women now involved in journalism.


“They are not what they used to be. Now they are so daring! They go abroad and get imprisoned like Meutya Hafid,” she said, referring to the Metro TV reporter held hostage in Iraq in 2005. “It is wonderful. I am happy that we have gone that far, especially for women.”


During her travels as a journalist and later as the wife of a diplomat — B.M. Diah was appointed by President Sukarno as ambassador to Czechosklovakia, Britain and Thailand — Herawati met many historic figures. She recalls meeting Mahatma Gandhi in India for an All-India Women’s Congress with Indonesian delegates in 1948, and asking his thoughts about India’s future.


“When we visited Gandhi at Birla House, he received us bare-chested in his garden,” Herawati wrote. “Mrs. Suryadharma [an Indonesian delegate at the congress] opened the conversation with the question, ‘Will the Indonesian struggle succeed?’ Gandhi answered simply, ‘When you truly believe it will succeed, then it will surely succeed.’?”

She writes in her book of being invited to a National Press Day event in 1989 “as a journalist who was still active in service, although I had reached ‘a certain age.’?”
“That age criteria became a question mark for me,” she writes.


“Fine, a person who is still active at an advanced age needs to be appreciated, at least for their enthusiasm. But in affairs like these, isn’t achievement a more appropriate measure?”

Even after leaving the field of journalism, her days have been filled with many achievements, and her calendar is never empty. One of the many groups she is involved with is Hasta Dasa Guna, which Herawati translates as “80 years and still useful.” The members are women 80 years old and above who are still active. With a smile she says, “My generation is no more. I am the last of the Mohicans.
“I like to be busy. I like people. If you like people, you want to join groups. We have a small group called Lingkar Budaya Indonesia,” she said.


The group’s purpose is to separate the ministry of culture into separate ministries of tourism and culture. “How can one ministry take care of both? Tourism is about selling. Culture is what we want to preserve,” she says with ferocity. “We are fighting for that. I am hoping with the new government we can achieve that.”

Although her full life has been an inspiration to many, Herawati does not consider herself a leader. Her hands rest quietly on her lap as she acknowledges that she may be “a pioneer.”


“I push. I hate it when you start something and you stop in the middle,” Herawati says. “I like to push it until it is finished. Until it is done.”

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