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Activism through ‘masking’

How can organisations disguise campaigns as grassroots movements to challenge protected practices? Paper co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School on child marriage in Indonesia is named Best Article at Academy of Management annual meeting.

Black and white photo of a woman holding a mask away from her face to reveal a serious expression.

How do organisations oppose practices that are “guarded institutions” protected by powerful elites?

A paper co-authored by a Cambridge Judge Business School professor and a Cambridge Judge PhD graduate analyses how an international children’s rights group challenged child marriage in Indonesia through “masking” behind an “alter ego” in order to appear like a grassroots movement – and this paper was named “Best Article” published in the prestigious Academy of Management Journal at the Academy’s annual meeting this month.

The paper – entitled “Making a Change from Behind a Mask: How Organizations Challenge Guarded Institutions by Sparking Grassroots Activism” – was co-authored by Laura Claus, Assistant Professor at University College London and a recent PhD graduate of Cambridge Judge, and by Paul Tracey, Professor of Innovation & Organisation at Cambridge Judge. The paper was published by the Academy of Management Journal in August 2020.

Each year, more than 340,000 girls in Indonesia are married before their 18th birthday, 50,000 before their 15th birthday, and several thousand before they finish primary school, the paper says, and such marriages are allowed under a 1974 Indonesian law and are widely accepted and morally reinforced, especially in rural areas.

The children’s rights group – which is not named in the paper (the organisation is identified as ICO, a pseudonym) – could not openly oppose child marriage, as such organisational efforts have in the past been blocked and termed blasphemous by elements of Indonesia’s religious and political establishment.

So ICO instead pulled together diverse groups including lawyers, women’s rights organisations, universities, doctors and celebrities into what appeared to be a grassroots movement called StopChildMarriage, but was in fact a campaign highly organised by ICO.

ICO then stoked public dissent through a high-stakes event – the announcement of the outcome of a judicial review into child marriage in Indonesia’s Constitutional Court. While the judicial review failed – the court upheld the existing marriage law by a vote of 8-1, with the court’s only female judge dissenting – the verdict’s announcement “elicited public outrage from which ‘real’, independently organised grassroots activism emerged, and reform started to unfold”, the study found.

In effect, a fake grassroots movement that disguised a highly organised campaign sparked a true grassroots movement. This has since resulted in “renewed interest in child marriage among many Indonesians who had hitherto accepted the institution in an unquestioning way”, as the practice has emerged as an issue of deep concern for some in Indonesian society.

“We have shown that challenges to a guarded institution may be able to catalyse change through the crafting of an alter ego and incubation of public dissent – activities that allow for alternative perspectives on an issue to emerge, which create opportunities for grassroots activism to develop,” the article concludes. “This collective action can then take on a life of its own, with growing numbers of activists operating independently of the organisation that helped to spawn it.”

The movement gained traction by reframing child marriage through connecting it to other social problems such as poverty, gender discrimination, educational achievement and mental health, and the media began referring to the campaign participants as a “group of concerned Indonesian citizens”.

The study is based on interviews with more than 100 people including ICO members, local NGOs, politicians, Islamic scholars, activists, and a former child bride and her husband who now campaign against child marriage; the research generated more than 7,000 pages of archival documents and 23 hours of visual material including public debates and TV appearances.