Abigail Limuria on Empowering Indonesian Women

By: Felicia Widjaya

With her petite figure hunched over a laptop at the side table of a bustling cafe in Jakarta, Abigail Limuria may look just like a college student. Yet the impact of her work surpasses a typical school assignment. Lalita Project was hatched inside a dorm room in Biola University by Abigail and her co-founder Grace Kadiman. In 2018, they started with a simple Instagram account. An illustration of a girl with black hair — which Abigail admitted was sketched hastily on her laptop trackpad — became the face of Lalita. Since its inception, Lalita has grown into a community of more than 13,000 followers on Instagram. Abigail and Grace have since written and published a book called “LALITA: 51 Cerita Perempuan Hebat Indonesia,” which is a collection of stories featuring 51 inspiring women in Indonesia. 

Despite Lalita’s focus on empowering Indonesian women, Abigail shies from the word “feminist.” She describes Lalita Project as a social movement, paving the way for young Indonesian girls to dream and aim high by learning from women who are trailblazers in their respective fields. As a pioneer herself, Abigail is no less inspiring. Though she has been invited to speak in many conferences and is a young, successful figure herself, she shared her experience with genuine eagerness and curiosity.

Finding the right job is a series of trial and error, and Abigail knew that her previous job at the Balai Kota was not a good fit. Now self-employed, she braved herself to pursue Lalita as a full-time career. 

Interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you first come up with the idea for Lalita?

Grace and I, who were college roommates then, talked about social and women’s issues a lot. We realized that every time we discuss gender equality, it’s always from the perspective of Western people. We wanted to focus on Indonesian women–their conditions and the obstacles they face–but we knew nothing about them because we always interacted with western literature and media. We started looking for women who did amazing things in different professions. Then we collected their stories into one medium —  Lalita Project. 

Who was the first person you interviewed?

The first person I interviewed was Najwa Shihab. Grace’s dad helped us get connected to her. It was nerve-wracking as Najwa was a professional journalist herself. From Najwa, I learned a journalist must be persistent. I started messaging potential interviewees for our book through every channel — Linkedin, Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, E-mail. If she is unresponsive, I would follow up every 3 days until I received a response. One of our interviewees, Alamanda Shantika (founder of Binar Academy and Ex-Vice President of Gojek), said she wasn’t annoyed at our persistence. Instead, it showed grit.

How did you come up with the ‘list’ of inspirational women?

We had a rough list when we first started, and the list grew with every person we interviewed. We would ask our interviewee whom she thinks is an inspiring figure but not necessarily well-known.

Abigail with Bu Sri Mulyani
Abigail (left) and Grace (middle) with Bu Susi Pudjiastuti.

Many times, cold-messaging someone can result in no response. How do you deal with “ghosting”?

I stopped taking it personally after a while. If a source doesn’t respond the first time, I would approach from a different angle, don’t send a general mass email. Make sure that the interviewee knows why you’re interested in her specifically. 

What do you hope to achieve with Lalita Project?

I do believe that there is power in seeing a role model that comes from the same background as you. There is power in representation. I want young Indonesian girls to know that pursuing a far-fetched profession is not impossible. Often times when we ask someone who she wants to be, we get the same recycled answer over and over again. I want Lalita Project to show that there are many different professions we are not aware of. 

What would you say your passion is?

That’s a difficult question. My college major was media, but for passion, I’m still looking. I’ve always known that I didn’t want a typical life — meaning that you were born, then you go to school, then you go to college, graduate, get a job, get married, have kids, then you retire and die. Personally, I want to have an exciting life — a more unpredictable, deep, and meaningful life. I think that Lalita is the closest thing I’ve done to not only lead a meaningful life, but also to make my life meaningful to others. 

Now that you’ve learned about ‘feminism’ in the US and Indonesia, have you come into a conclusion of how the term ‘feminism’ is different in the two cultures?

Lalita Project is not a feminist project per se, but it upholds some of the classic second-wave feminist values and is welcoming to those who call themselves feminist. Lalita is more about role models and learning from each other’s stories. In my opinion, the term ‘feminism’ right now is divisive. We want Lalita to be more inclusive. From most Indonesians I know, the definition of women empowerment still places high regards to women’s role as a mom and as a wife, but they also have a career. In the US, I think feminism has shifted to a “having a kid, becoming a mom, and getting married is a burden” mentality. 

Do you think the culture in Indonesia has allowed women to work to their potential instead of prioritizing their family?

In big cities like Jakarta, yes. Outside of Jakarta, I would say there are still cultural boundaries because the laws aren’t equal. In the US, systemic sexism doesn’t exist anymore. But the wage gap in Indo is very real because women are considered secondary bread-winners.

One of differences I notice is that when we’re talking about gender equality issues, there’s an external and internal barrier. In the US, people focus more on external barriers: the glass ceiling, the wage gap. They focus more on fighting the system, pressuring the government to make changes. I notice during my interviews that women here focus more on the internal barriers. One of our interviewees points out that many girls (when they’re applying for college, jobs, and scholarships) would ask her “Do you think I’m qualified for this job?” In contrast, most guys would come to her and directly ask “Can you check my application?” Women — not just in Indonesia but also around the world — tend to discount their self-worth. 

From interviewing all these different women, do you see one thing that’s common between all of them?

I think they all have this “try first” mentality. They are brave enough to  take the first step. We can’t wait for society to be perfect until we can do something. It can be better, but it will never be perfect. You will always find reasons not to move forward if you keep waiting for perfection. 

Often times, Indonesian parents would tell their daughters that they don’t need to pursue a higher education because they’ll get married and must prioritize their family. What do you think of this stereotype? 

I think it depends on the girl. We can’t really blame our parents because that’s what they’ve been taught. If you think they’re wrong then try to re-educate them in a respectable manner. Again, there’s nothing wrong if you want to have a family and focus on your kids. You can do that while pursuing other things too. There are so many successful projects started by moms like online shops and social movements. Stereotypes are just words. That may be someone else’s opinion, and you can take it with consideration, but learn to move forward with your own ideals. 

How did you learn to be tougher as a woman?

Practice and repetition. Sometimes I just have to suck it up and remember why I did it in the first place. I try to remind myself of the end goal. I have this much responsibility for the people who have helped me along the way so I need to keep moving it forward. There’s no shortcut or formula. I believe that the key to be better is just to show up everyday and give your best effort. One day, you’ll wake up and realize that you’re tougher and better now. 

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