A Journey of an Inspiring Woman: Herawati Diah

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Jeannifer Filly Sumayku | The President Post

Herawati Diah’s long and fascinating journey began in 1917, when she was born into an upper-class priyayi family, which allowed her to enjoy high education and a privileged, western way of life.

While most intellectuals of the time were drawn to The Netherlands and Western Europe to further their studies, Herawati went to Columbia University and became the first Indonesian woman to obtain a degree from a respected American university.

After a journalism course at Stanford University in California — between her principal studies of sociology at Barnard College at the Columbia University in New York — she returned home in 1942 as the first Indonesian woman journalist to be academically trained abroad.

She became a stringer for the United Press International (UPI) newswire when she was 22, joined Radio Japan or Hosokyoku as an announcer, and later married the legendary journalist BM Diah, who was then working for the Asia Raya newspaper.

Herawati Diah, the late B.M. Diah and Rosihan Anwar, Mochtar Lubis are considered to be the giants of Indonesian journalism of the 1945 Generation, or what many believe to be the nation’s “Greatest Generation”.

BM Diah is the founder and owner of the newspaper “Merdeka”, which was first published in October 1945 with a personal mission and vision to enrich the intellect of post-Independence Indonesians.

Herawati is the founder of The Indonesian Observer, which was launched on the eve of the Asia-Africa Conference in 1955 in Bandung.

The daily was the country’s first English newspaper and for some time the only one until the 1960s.

Though Herawati was, as she acknowledged herself, a tomboy when she was a kid, she became a truly elegant Indonesian woman by wearing the Indonesian time-honored attire kain and kebaya on most events.

When BM Diah became the minister of information in 1968, following his stints as ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the United Kingdom and Thailand, Herawati quit as a journalist.

She went on to assume a new role, representing the country’s interests as a wife whose intellectual capacity and integrity, international experience and multilingual abilities helped to raise Indonesia’s profile in diplomatic circles.

She is a pioneering Indonesian woman. In her book, “An Endless Journey: Reflections of an Indonesian Journalist”, she shared her experience as a woman journalist. She also discusses the transition of Indonesia from a Dutch colony to an independent republic and the life and times of five Indonsian presidents.

In her book, Rosihan Anwar notes, “it’s interesting to watch Herawati’s life and career evolving pretty much in a manner that comes close to her own deep desires. In whatever field she chooses to work or carry out her hobbies, which are of a great variety, she has found inner satisfaction and complete fulfillment.”

Now in her nineties, she doesn’t suffer from senility like most people of her age do. In a recent interview with The President Post, she said that she likes to play bridge to maintain an active thought process.

On changes in the media world in Indonesia, she said: “So far the media has only partly motivated the growth of our nationalism. The media of today is now commercially-oriented. Idealism is no more prevalent in today’s newspapers. I cannot blame those working in the media, because the upbringing and the political and economic settings are so different from what we experienced in the early years of our independence. We had different values in those days. We didn’t work for a salary, but for our idealism to become a free, independent nation after 300 years of western colonialism”.

She also shared motivations for young journalists, when she said: “Journalism is a profession which is not only exciting, adventurous and sometimes even dangerous, but most of all satisfying because a journalist not only informs the public what is happening on the national or international level on a daily basis, but also she or he can influence the reader to choose what is best for them.”

She added: “As such I would like to encourage the younger generation to consider journalism as a positive career path.”

When asked about her biggest hope for the media in Indonesia, she said: “What I personally would like to see is the media taking a balanced view on news. They must check and re-check sources and stories all the time. They must also come up with more in-depth stories and respect people’s feelings and reputations.”

Herawati has established many foundations to in the realm of the nation’s culture, such as the Indonesian Cultural Partners (Mitra Budaya Indonesia), Wastaprema, and Ratna Busana. In the social field, she founded the Indonesian Women’s Association (ISWI).

She is also one of the founders of Gerakan Perempuan Sadar Pemilu (GPSP), a movement to raise Indonesian women’s level of awareness on matters related to general elections. In the course of time this organization became Gerakan Pemberdayaan Swara Perempuan, a movement to empower the voice of women.

(The President Post printed edition June-July 2010)