“We try to decolonize beauty standards”

Yes, the Black Lives Matter protests also create conversation in Indonesia, says Hera Diani halfway through our conversation: “And that’s a good thing because it relates to the issue of Papua and racism against the indigenous people.” Furthermore, the awareness of diversity in media in Indonesia also refers to women issues, a topic Hera and her co-founder Devi Asmarani are focusing on at Magdalene. It’s not that they witness a huge shift since the outrage on social media platforms in the last few weeks: “the consciousness about those issues is still low in Indonesia. There is still work to be done in that sense”.

Hera Diani, co-founder of Magdalene.co.

Hera is a journalist, author, managing editor and co-founder of independent web magazine Magdalene based in Jakarta. She has over twenty years of experience in media and will share her thoughts about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on feminism, the increasing interest in decolonization and the perspective of Western media on Asia. First thing first, how is she personally coping during this global crisis?
The question is a heavy question. I asked my friend the other day who said ‘I think I’m not ok’. It feels inappropriate to complain, that feeling is shared by many people. We’re grateful that we’re still healthy, that the family is ok, that we still have our jobs, but at the same time we’re feeling anxious, tired and exhausted as well. That’s why the question is getting heavier.”  

Do you personally feel exhausted and anxious?
“Yes! It’s been said a lot about working mothers. The pandemic adds a lot of burdens, I have never been so exhausted in my life.” 

“The headlines are even more worrying saying the pandemic could kill working mothers, could set feminism back to the fifties.”

What do you do to take care of yourself?
I make time to do exercise, do yoga, that helps. I play music, watch mindless tv shows, to put the brain off work issues. The pandemic makes me think a lot about being a mother and how society still sees motherhood. The New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine now also write quite a few articles about the topic. About how it is mothers and not fathers who shoulder the vast majority of child care burden and continue to do so in this global crisis. The headlines are even more worrying saying the pandemic could kill working mothers, could set feminism back to the fifties.” 

Does it change something in how you approach your work?
“At Magdalene, we always give a platform to voices that are unheard of, that aren’t given space in the mainstream media. During the pandemic, we created this page called Safe Space. It’s mostly about domestic violence but we also talk about how mothers face a lot of challenges due to working from home. So we didn’t change a lot, we just created more space to talk about those issues. It’s worrying because even friends of mine are thinking about quitting their jobs because they can’t deal with the weight of their responsibilities. When there is a choice about jobs, it’s usually the women who quit.” 

How do you cope with that personally?
“A little bit of background: I’ve been divorced for two years. I’m co-parenting with my ex and that’s going quite well. At least during the day, I can focus on my work. But for my boys’ education I told the teacher I’m sorry but I don’t think we will participate in schoolwork and all that right now, because we don’t have any help. Like Alan Soon said in the interview you did with him two weeks ago: for the first time in my boy’s life, I let him watch the iPad and have a lot of screen time. I feel guilty but it’s the only way we can do our work. I just hope it won’t affect his brain (laughs).” 

It’s helpful probably to hear other parents also struggle with that.
Some parents seemed to do great, like doing video calls, doing a lot of assignments, making schedules with their children and it made me feel a bit insecure. But then it turns out many parents actually can’t cope at all and most of them have given up on their children’s education for now.”

“We obviously don’t want the cyberattacks to occupy us that much, we just want to do our work and not think about censoring ourselves.”

Is Magdalene’s new project ‘Safe Spaces’ an example of how a crisis also brings new opportunities?
We have a hard time obviously because of this pandemic, in terms of revenue especially. So we did a salary cut for the top levels and even though we struggle to find more earnings, we, fortunately, received a couple of grants as well. That’s a relief. In positive ways, since we are digitally based, it gives us a lot of opportunities to do different projects.  We’re seizing the moment to create new things. That’s why we came up with Safe Space and why we create more diverse content on social media. At the same time, we had a series of cyberattacks which hit us hard.” 


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Chatting with Hera Diani in The Inclusive Journalist group on Facebook.



How do you deal with the cyberattacks?
“The attacks put us on our toes, we walk on eggshells, we’re constantly questioning ourselves ‘what will be the response if we publish this?’. We obviously don’t want that to occupy us that much, we just want to do our work and not think about censoring ourselves. It’s ok for us if you don’t agree with our content, but don’t take us down. It’s a crime actually. So at least once a week we have a big meeting, and ask each other how we’re doing and emphasize the bigger picture – a lot of our reporters are still very young and really anxious about these attacks – and return to our vision, which is to give a platform and voices to the vulnerable groups.
It helps to have a network of journalists and media associations to support us in this. We weren’t the only ones who got attacked. Another women-focused website, Konde, got attacked because of a discussion about a sexual violence perpetrator and platforms publishing about the Papua issue are being targeted as well. The silver lining is that we have new audiences now who recognize us and are curious about our content and it turns out we have quite a lot of supporters as well. That’s the positive side that keeps us going.”

There is a lot going on in the world right now, the COVID-19 crisis, the Black Lives Matter protests, what is your perspective on these topics?
“I’m really interested in this conversation about race, people are starting to question about colonialism and how that in a way still has an effect and still exists. Even questioning food bloggers who always use Asian recipes without mentioning where they come from. At Magdalene we focus on women issues and beauty standards, we try to decolonize beauty standards centring fair skin and straight hair. The industry is very white oriented. So that’s a value we like to question. While the conversation is getting bigger, the awareness of media diversity is still very low in Indonesia. Just last night, we called out the media for showing the face of a child who was the victim of sexual violence. There is still work to be done in that sense.”

Did you ever face racism yourself, personally?
She takes a few moments to think and then: “Yes, definitely yes. The mild one, ‘oh, you’re Indonesian, how come your English is good?’. That’s kind of a mild harmless statement but it is also an underestimation of people from Asia and positions English as the superior language. I work as a consultant from time to time in international donor agencies and there are also instances of racism that I face there. Indonesia is very diverse in ethnicity so I also face prejudice about my ethnicity.
One thing that became my pet peeve is how Western media still use Asian names in the wrong way. For example, a lot of Asians just have one name and don’t have a surname. Western media should realize that not everyone in this world has a surname. They seem to see the world through their own standards and perspectives and this is just one simple example of that. Twenty years ago I was a reporter and that was going on. And still, nothing has changed.” 

What do you think is a solution?
There should be a shift in perspective and Western media should become aware that the world is so large and diverse. It’s good that we have a conversation about media diversity. But it’s been going for I don’t know how long and there is little change, if not any at all. So we have a long way to go. At Magdalene, we strive to put diversity and pluralism in our content and advocate for it in the media. We work hard to survive despite the fact that very few other platforms talk about women issues and diversity. We call out media from time to time on Instagram. And in some cases it works, they pull out the content or they give sanction to the reporters and to the editors also. The big media, of course, don’t care but at least they’re aware of what we are doing.”

What are your next plans?
“Our dream is to become a big impactful media organization. Right now we just try to survive the pandemic and planning to have a meeting outside of Jakarta. We will rent a house with the team and relax for a bit.”

Newsroom diversity has gotten new urgency since the Black Lives Matter protests due to the killing of George Floyd. Inclusive journalism is a common thread in my career in media. Being a white female journalist, I’ve learned the importance of educating myself on the topic of systemic racism. I notice how much the Global North (where I’m from) can learn from the Global South if it’s about diversity, inclusion and equity. Therefore I’m interviewing journalists and media entrepreneurs who either work in or together with countries outside of The West. To learn from their approaches and insights.

This is the second piece. Read the first one here, with Alan Soon co-founder of The Splice Newsroom.