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Weaving Solutions for Rural Indonesian Women

By reviving and popularizing the age-old tradition of weaving in 10 rural communities across Eastern Indonesia, Dinny Jusuf’s organization TORAJAMELO is curbing exploitative outward migration by providing sustainable livelihood alternatives for thousands of women.  

Dinny Jusuf, Founder of TORAJAMELO

Eastern Indonesia


Photo by TORAJAMELO

In 2007, Dinny Jusuf was ready to embark on her retirement years after a long career in the private sector and four years working as the Secretary-General on the National Commission of Anti-Violence Against Women. This government body was established by the President of Indonesia in response to anti-Chinese atrocities like the 1998 May Riots, which left 1,000 people dead and over 100 raped. Dinny, born to an Indonesian father and Chinese mother in 1956, experienced multiple traumatic episodes of violence against her community. When she was only nine years old, a failed coup, known as the September 30th Movement, led to the murder of an estimated half-million suspected communists or communist sympathizers across her childhood city of Java. In fact, the unbearable violence led her mother and siblings to eventually flee Indonesia. However, Dinny felt that Indonesia was her home, and was resolute in her decision to not only stay but to fight for other marginalized women in her country. 

At what she assumed would be the end of an emotionally arduous career, Dinny moved to her husband’s small village of Batutumonga nestled in the mountainous regency of Toraja, South Sulawesi. This region is also home to the Torajan ethnic group, known for their elaborate funeral rituals, unique religion, and colorful wood carvings. But once Dinny settled into this picturesque village, she noticed something odd: that many Torajan women returned home from their “work” abroad pregnant, only to give birth and leave again. Dinny started investigating and found out that a lack of economic opportunities in the area led to women seeking work in neighboring countries of Malaysia, Kalimantan, and West Papua. 

However, many women could not afford to migrate legally and often fell prey to traffickers, abuse, and exploitative labor practices. Dinny also discovered the women were left with meager compensation after paying exorbitant fees to illegal traffickers. Not to mention the women who never returned: the reported death toll of female migrants was more than 2,500 in 2018, according to TORAJAMELO. 

These injustices called Dinny back from her retirement and into action to provide alternative forms of employment for women in Toraja. The Torajan people, like hundreds of other ethnic groups in Indonesia, have a rich textile and artisan tradition dating back hundreds of years. In these traditions, Dinny saw a solution: employ women to weave and sell traditional Torajan textiles so they would not need to risk the dangers of working as laborers in other countries.  

Thus, Dinny began TORAJAMELO, meaning “beautiful Toraja in 2008 to curb outward, exploitative migration patterns by providing women with an alternative, local livelihood source: weaving. TORAJAMELO now works across 10 communities in Eastern Indonesia, training women how to weave and earn an income from their community’s traditional craft. Dinny and her team also provide capacitybuilding programs to further develop the women’s skills, boost cost-effective strategies, and market their products successfully. Not only has local pride in Torajan artistry and handicrafts been revived, but now thousands of women have the support and tools they need to earn a dignified living and even become the breadwinners for their families. 

Scaling Deep: Reviving Tradition for Dignified Employment

Before TORAJAMELO gained the traction it has today, there was a major obstacle to overcome: how to regain popularity and pride in the age-old practice of Torajan tenun, or woven products, on a scale that would incentivize more women to work locally instead of abroad. To make Torajan weaving economically viable, Dinny needed to shift the attitudes Torajan people held about their crafts and cultural heritage, which had been degraded due to centuries of colonial rule. 

To create a demand for Torajan tenun overseas, she trained several women in modern weaving techniques and then took their products to Japan, a market with a deep appreciation for both quality and handmade goods. Dinny joined forces with her sister Nina, who worked in fashion design, and helped to design trendy, fashionable pieces for TORAJAMELO. Soon, TORAJAMELO could be found in top department stores across Japan, and quickly gained the attention of Indonesians at home. Other trade exhibitions supported by the Ministry of Trade occurred in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Milan, and Paris, which not only highlighted the importance of preserving this tradition but also helped create a market for weavers back in Toraja. 

Mama Sabbi and Dinny discussing how to revive "Kala Apa,'"an extinct tenun/handwoven textile motif of Toraja. Photo taken in the Regency of Toraja Utara by TORAJAMELO.

After inviting a government official to their fashion show in Jakarta in 2012, Dinny said, “He made a regulation that all civil servants, school children, and people who attended traditional ceremonies were required to wear original, hand-woven textiles from Toraja… Then, it boomed.” Indeed, the pride of traditional hand-woven textiles has returned among community members in Toraja, evident by the high local demand.

TORAJAMELO has changed the way Indonesian society regards traditional weaving, proven by the sharp increase in the value of tenun in the past decade, with some pieces even doubling in price. Through their handicrafts, TORAJAMELO has preserved 27 indigenous motifs, or patterns, and revived four.  

Meri, or better known as "Mama Itta," is the the Chairwoman of the Women Weavers Cooperative. The motif she is called "pa'binti". The photo was taken at Mama Itta's home in Pambalan village and provided by TORAJAMELO
Meri, or better known as "Mama Itta," is the the Chairwoman of the Women Weavers Cooperative. The motif she is called "pa'binti". The photo was taken at Mama Itta's home in Pambalan village and provided by TORAJAMELO.

While Dinny’s sister Nina leads the stylistic vision for TORAJAMELO, Dinny is most focused on the individual and community-level impact. Teaching women to weave not only provides women with a stable livelihood but infuses a sense of dignity and pride in their craft. Meri, the weaver pictured in the photo above, told Dinny, “I am a widow; my husband disappeared and left me. Before, people looked at me and made fun of me. But now, I can make money, I can send my daughter to school … I can walk straight now; no one can make fun of me.” Because of her earnings through TORAJAMELO, Meri now brings a pig as an offering to all rituals and ceremonies, a sign of wealth and status in Toraja.  

Dinny said, “It is all about dignity; the impact is about dignity. We think that Torajan women weavers are strong people. We do not think we need to empower them because they are already powerful…all they need is access to market and capital.” At Ashoka’s Women’s Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship (WISE), this form of impact is “scaling deep” – where ideas, patterns of behavior, and mindsets are altered. Based on sales and salaries, TORAJAMELO has successfully catalyzed a shift in society, increasing the local pride of wearing handmade tenun. 

Higher Income, Less Outward Migration

From left to right: Dinny Jusuf, Ina Benga, Nina Jusuf (Dinny's sister and partner in TORAJAMELO) discussing how to implement the color and motif pattern combination after a session of theory training. The photo was taken in Adonara Island. Photo by TORAJAMELO
From left to right: Dinny Jusuf, Ina Benga, Nina Jusuf (Dinny's sister and partner in TORAJAMELO) discussing how to implement the color and motif pattern combination after a session of theory training. The photo was taken in Adonara Island. Photo by TORAJAMELO

As TORAJAMELO’s cadre of weavers grew from ten to fifty to over a thousand, the impact was felt on a larger level; the organization was disrupting long-standing migration patterns by connecting the community to alternative livelihoods.  

Returnee stories for the purpose of weaving are now extremely common in Toraja. One woman, Ma’Olive, returned from a domestic labor job in Malaysia to weave. She has learned to weave several motifs and now accrues around 5 million Indonesian Rupiah ($350 USD) a month, an above-average wage in Toraja.  

Since TORAJAMELO was founded in 2008, it has allowed weavers to more than double their incomes. Products available for purchase range from bags to clothes to home goods, and can be shipped around the world. TORAJAMELO is helping the female weavers become autonomous; they no longer need Dinny to sell their products.  

“In the bigger picture of life, success is knowing that my work is enough,” she said, smiling. “The weavers don’t need [TORAJAMELO] anymore. I have done my part. TORAJAMELO is my purpose in life. TORAJAMELO found me. And I am never tired. I wake up very excited every morning thinking, ‘What can I do with TORAJAMELO today?’” 

2022 marked the twelve-year anniversary of TORAJAMELO. Before TORAJAMEO, labor conditions made it hard for women to stay and appreciate their village’s charms, but now thousands of women are not only able to stay, but also provide for their families. As income increases and exploitative labor wanes, tradition is also weaved back into contemporary life.  

By Audrey Lodes