Gender & Normativity in Post-Tsunami Indonesia


Becoming Better “Men” and “Women”: Negotiating Normativity through Gender Mainstreaming in Post-Tsunami Reconstruction Initiatives in Aceh, Indonesia, by Marjaana Jauhola.

In her transdisciplinary PhD research on the negotiation of gender norms, Marjaana Jauhola masters the challenge of applying aspects of Judith Butler’s post-structuralist theories to critically analyzing gender mainstreaming initiatives in Aceh. After the tsunami on December 26, 2004, Indonesia’s westernmost province of Aceh was a place of massive reconstruction efforts. The tsunami recovery and reconstruction initiatives amounted to approximately 4.8 billion euros. In August 2005 the Government of Indonesia and representatives of the Free Aceh Movement signed a Memorandum of Understanding that ended 29 years of armed conflict. The slogan “Build Aceh Back Better,” used by former US President Bill Clinton after he made his first speech as the United Nations Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, was the ideological framework of post-tsunami reconstruction, often used by development agencies and governments.

Referring to that slogan, Marjaana Jauhola asks if gender mainstreaming initiatives in post-tsunami responses in Aceh could contribute to building Aceh back “better.” Jauhola’s understanding follows Judith Butler’s approach to ask for the normative boundaries and subversive potential of gender mainstreaming as feminism in the post-tsunami response in Aceh. The genealogy and explanation of that complex theoretical approach handled by Jauhola in the first two theoretical chapters in a very comprehensive way.

In the first chapter, the author describes the basic assumptions of her thesis referring to Jennifer Hyndman’s and Malathi de Alwis’ examination of gender-specific humanitarianism (see Jennifer Hyndman and Malathi de Alwis, “Beyond Gender: Towards a Feminist Analysis of Humanitarianism and Development in Sri Lanka,” in Women’s Studies Quarterly 31, 2003, Special issue entitled Women and Development: Rethinking Policy and Reconceptualizing Practice Women’s Studies Quarterly, pp. 212-226). They call for a shift from “gender and disasters” to “feminism and disasters.” Hyndman hopes to increase the focus on intersections of social inequalities and to acknowledge and address how multiple social differentiations generate inequalities and reduce the potential reproduction of existing gendered, racial and geographical hierarchies.

In the second chapter, Jauhola examines the conceptualization of the keyword in this new approach namely: Feminism. Therein she is drawing upon Judith Butler’s post-structural feminist theories and a method of multiple reading to be applied to the analysis of intersectionality of norms and subversion. Special focus lies on Butler’s critique of “woman” as the naturalized focus of feminism, the discussion of normative violence and the alternative conceptualization of feminism as subversion. After a brief description of the Acehnese context in Chapter 3, Jauhola explores in Chapters 4 and 5 what she calls an “ethnography of gender policy advocacy” (p. 8), the normative boundaries and subversive potential of gender mainstreaming initiatives in the post-tsunami reconstruction aid in Aceh. The main empirical focus lays on two case studies: the radio drama production “Women Can Do It Too!”, an Oxfam International’s gender advocacy campaign produced for the tsunami-affected coastal areas in Aceh in 2006, and the celebrations of the International Women’s Day 2007 in Banda Aceh.

In Chapter 4, Jauhola critically examines how gender-concepts are defined and discussed by Acehnese institutions, activists and female Islamic scholars. Commonly referring to arguments from biology, theology and feminist theory, gender mainstreaming reiterate and normalize heteronormativity and the naturalness of sex. Subversive accounts of gender are made in performances around the celebration of International Women’s Day. They point to possible alternative formulations of the described concept of gender, sex and feminism, by articulating assumptions beyond naturalized binary sexual normativity and compulsory heterosexuality. Chapter 5 focuses on Oxfam International’s radio drama production “Women Can Do It Too!” By closely reading the intersectionality of norms, Jauhola examines how the ideal of the heteronormative nuclear family actively takes part in normalizing other social differentiations. The radio drama reproduces liberal feminist ideals of women’s political, social and economic rights. By excluding critical narratives of the tsunami reconstruction efforts and the context of conflict other social inequalities are made invisible. Furthermore, the author argues, aid project management practices construct Acehnese spatiality and temporality within linear narratives of “better.”

Chapter 6 focuses on the use of project management tools of gender mainstreaming. In this chapter Jauhola locates the analysis of gender mainstreaming conducted in Chapters 4 and 5 in the wider context of development planning and aid. Gender advocacy, Jauhola examines, reiterates developmentalist notions of village and community empowerment and aid expert knowledge as “normal” and “natural.” Moreover, the goals of reconstruction efforts are clearly the revitalization of the economy. Therefore humans matter, as long as they are productive citizens.

Coming back to the initially described call of Jennifer Hyndmann for feminist approaches to disaster relief, Jauhola is answering that demand, that gender mainstreaming approaches and the norms that are advocated through it, are “always potentially violent” (p. 241), but at the same time are constantly challenged and negotiated. Overall, Marjaana Jauhola’s dissertation is a fascinating exploration at the cross section of international politics, development studies, gender studies and anthropology, which shows empirically well-grounded the difficulties in overcoming disparities between feminist development theories and the praxis of gender-specific aid-industry.

Kristina Grossmann
Scientific Research Assistant and PhD Student
Institute of Anthropology
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

Primary Sources

The sources that Marjaana Jauhola uses as the basis for her dissertation are twofold. As theoretical framework she uses and re-reads Judith Butler’s work alongside post-colonial and queer feminist literature, and secondary literature on gender and normativity in Aceh. The empirical data of this research includes gender policy documents, interviews with gender advocates; Gender Working Group email list discussions; general media follow-up; ethnographic field notes between 2006 and 2009 and the analysis of the radio drama production Women Can Do It Too!, Oxfam International’s gender advocacy campaign produced for the tsunami-affected coastal areas in Aceh in 2006.

Dissertation Information

Aberystwyth University. 2010. 312 pp. Primary Advisor: Marie Breen-Smyth.


Image: “Street in downtown Banda Aceh after 2004 tsunami,” Wikimedia Commons.

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