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Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia
By Laurie J. Sears
Duke University PressCopyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
MODELS AND MANIACS
Articulating the Female in Indonesia
* * *
A woman sits down to write her journey through life. She is a machine operator at a plastics factory, a wage laborer at one of the lowest-paid levels within the hierarchy of the industrial world. It is, in fact, more accurate to use the past tense, for when she begins to narrate her story, she is unemployed, an outcast in the world of factories and, as a result, a vagrant in the social world of the Jakarta-Bogor industrial zones, a redundancy in her home village. But for the purpose of her writerly task, she projects the voice of the laborer, for it is this voice that enables her to write, growing as it does out of lived experience that has left her with a strong sense of mission. What she has learned gives her authorial intention, as it were, which is, ostensibly, to reach those who have not shared in that experience and teach them the lesson of her life. This then is the justification for her act of writing. It is a reflexive purpose, for as she articulates raw experience into a "journey," she creates out of misery a new model for behavior.
The voice this woman assumes is by no means a simple voice; she is not like those who are still ignorant [bodoh] for her voice is that of the laborer who has ventured beyond the bounds of sanctioned convention and found, to use her terms, kesadaran [consciousness] and pengertian [understanding]. It is also the voice of a refugee from the poverty and overpopulation of ruraljava propelled into an alien culture by the force of circumstances as she attempts to make her living in the big city. It is clearly an educated voice; and although to the reader it may not seem to be a particularly literary voice, it shows evidence of a familiarity with the conventional cues of Indonesian literature and a feeling for the intricacies of writerly decorum that throws into stark contrast the rudeness of experience itself. But in the narration that concerns itself with labor relations, economics and social matters, it is found, as is the voice of the woman. Although the writer herself relegates her being-as-woman to a subordinate position in favor of concentrating on her role as laborer, her most acute anguish, as well as the brief moments of her most intense pleasure, are part and parcel of being female. Yet, at the end, the voice of the woman is left dangling. Where the laborer is "conscientized"—and thus strengthened—the woman remains on the peripheries of consciousness. What we may perceive in this seeming sequestration of the female from the general role of laborer is the cumulative effects of the various articulations over time of what it means to be a woman in Javanese / Indonesian culture. As a laborer, the writer finds herself trapped in a vicious circle of poverty and disenfranchisement until she is thrown out of it by the actions of the company for which she works. Only then does she gradually learn that what she had previously accepted as foreordained fate [nasib] is largely the result of a history of human manipulation. While it does not bring her journey to a happy haven, it does open up a new horizon through a vision of class empowerment. As a woman, however, she remains trapped. Although she breaks away from the literal and figurative confinement of an imprudent marriage, she is unable to accept herself as a complete person without the comfortable, if restrictive, bonds of family. She is, in a sense, still incarcerated within culturally determined Conventions of what constitutes the "fate" of womankind—nasib kaum wanita—the fate inextricably enmeshed in the Indonesian concept of kodrat wanita [intrinsic nature of woman], in spite of her activities as a laborer, for, as a woman, she continues to accept the terms that have been articulated for her rather than attempting to articulate her own.
By articulation I mean the instance of giving voice, whether orally, in writing, or in print, to ideas and experiences, which, until they are voiced, especially in this age of competitive articulation, must remain private and thus, nonexistent as far as human society is concerned. Furthermore, articulation only makes sense when it is placed within the rhetorical context, when it assumes the existence of an audience, for articulation without an audience, though at times necessary, is, within the public function, an absurdity, a negation of the human capacity and need to communicate. Articulation is also a function of the processes involved in the formation and transmission of cognitive and experiential schemata. Thus, it is not a static object, frozen within its own absoluteness. Rather, it has a specific history that enables us to talk about a "history of articulation." At this point, it is necessary to reveal that the narration written by the laborer is in fact not an instance of public articulation. Although the writer's intention is to reach a wide public, her text remains in a state of suspense: while it has been written (in Indonesian), it has yet to be printed and published. Given the current governmental restrictions on the public dissemination of material deemed harmful to national development and stability, the work is likely to remain silenced within its own circles, to join the growing corpus of Indonesian émigré texts. Thus, the voice of the woman I shall call Ratmi cannot be said to be fully articulated.
Another woman tries to articulate the raw experience of her life in a series of letters to her friends. She is the daughter of a petty aristocrat in Java; within her social world, a princess. Again the past tense seems appropriate: living to be but twenty-five years old, she died nearly a century ago. The notion of suspended articulation is also applicable to this woman, Kartini. For, although her letters are now by and large absorbed into the public environment of print, they were originally private letters. In these letters we find a tension between the physical format and the intention incorporated within it. Although, like the laborer's text, her letters are written, they are actually merely chirographically produced texts, anticipating but denied the public sphere of print. With the shift of power from chirographically oriented cultures (i.e., those controlled by handwriting) to print-oriented cultures (arising with the introduction of the printing press), texts produced individually and as single copies (especially before the introduction of the photocopying machine), have become marginal. Kartini was clearly aware of the restrictions upon her articulations as a woman. To a friend she explains, "I may not utter my opinion on those important subjects, least of all through the medium of the press.... What I have written so far for the public was simply nonsense, impressions of one or other event. I may not touch serious objects, alas! ... Father does not approve [of the idea] that the names of his daughters should be on all tongues; when I am completely independent [only then] may I speak my opinion."
In a later letter, the woman who has been praised for the eloquence of her articulations and her mastery of the Dutch language complains:
O! how very, very fiercely I wish to possess mastery over but one language, my own or Dutch, to be able to utter properly what I think and feel about so many things that inspire wonder in me, or those that fill me with Indignation ... sometimes my fingers itch terribly to not keep those thoughts to myself and not merely to write them down for those I trust, but also to fling them into the face of others.
But of what use would it be? People would shrug their shoulders, others would laugh and most would take no note. The confused language of an idiot or madwoman!
Perhaps it is better this way, that I don't really master the language so that I can do with it as I wish; who knows what evil the pen of the inexperienced, unwise hothead should create instead of good!
And mastery of the language is, furthermore, at the moment not very useful to me, because I may not think aloud.
In these passages we find the voice of the woman who is forced to remain at the level of the chirographic, writing letters for those she trusts, when this level has been superseded by print and relegated to the domestic sphere in the face of the firm print base of official articulation.
However, the private voice of this letter writer has been publicized far beyond the confines of her own lived geography and chronology and is to be found at present not only in numerous translations and publications of her letters and biographies but also in yearly commemorations of her birth, in ritualized invocations of her name in song, speech, and ceremony. This writer is a woman to whom tradition [adat] offered no role outside the family hierarchy: she was daughter, sister, wife, and mother, roles that were, in essence, not envisioned as being truly simultaneous. As she developed biologically, a woman was expected to discard one role in order to take on the next. Once a young girl reached puberty, she was gradually distanced from her immethate family, parents and siblings. Not long after that she was married off. And frequently, once she had children, her husband took on another wife, the first wife often being regarded solely as mother. It is not surprising that even the role of friend, a role Kartini claims as her sole source of comfort, is a tenuous one in a world where high-born women of marriageable age (the age at which they reach puberty) find themselves imprisoned in the courtyards of their fathers' palaces. In fact, it is this attenuated nature of friendship that forces her to write. Deprived of immethate contact with women who do not belong within the hierarchy of the family—and thus to whom she can relate as an equal—Kartini must write to them, as she says, in Order to preserve her sanity.
Kartini's letters are a good source of traditional ideas of what adat [customary law] prescribed as the true essence and destiny of women [kodrat, nasib wanita]. As soon as she was twelve years old, the young girl was secluded in her father's house: "My prison is a large house, encircled by spacious grounds. But it is encircled by a high stone wall and this kept me imprisoned. No matter how large the house and garden, if you are forced to live there you feel stifled. I remember how, in silent desperation, I flung myself at the eternally closed door and against the cold stone walls. No matter in which directum I walked, I would ran into a stone wall or a locked door." Until the moment they were married and moved to their husband's house, women could not leave this prison. They had no say in the choice of husband: this was determined by their parents (usually the father), often when they were still very young, and often for reasons that had little to do with ideas of their own welfare: the marriage of a daughter served mainly to enhance the social or economic standing of the father.
In such a Society, the idea of women having equal rights with men was, naturally, entirely alien. This is brought home to Kartini by her eider brother, who reminds her thus, "Younger people owe obedience to their eiders ... and young girls especially should obey their older brothers." And when she is married she is reminded of the Javanese saying "Surga nunut, neraka katut," ["Follow [your husband] to heaven, get dragged [with him] into hell"]. A girl was trained to be always in control of her behavior: "When a girl walks, she must do this in a very sedate fashion, with tiny, tidy steps, oh so slowly, like a snail; should you walk a little more quickly, people scold you, saying you are a galloping horse." And she tells about being scolded for laughing too much and showing too many teeth.
Proper womanly behavior was enforced among young girls mainly by other women, including older sisters, who were, in fact, often considered to exercise the main control over their younger siblings once these had been brought into the enclosure. Younger sisters were expected to crouch down low on the floor when their eiders appeared, and when summoned, were to crawl toward them on their knees, eyes to the ground. They could never address their older sisters merely by their names but had to use the term mbak [older sister]. They in turn were constantly reminded of their inferior position by the term dik [younger sister]. This hierarchical system of appellation and deference ensured that each girl was locked into a position shared by no one eise. Perhaps one of the most significant of Kartini's observations has to do with this type of isolation of the women. She herself was fortunate in that she was able to insist that her two younger sisters dispense with the adat-prescribed deference toward herself, even though her older sisters continued to demand traditional formalities. Describing the normal state of affairs to her Dutch friend, she writes: "[Y]ou should see how it is in other kabupatens [districts], how the brothers and sisters live next to each other. They are brothers and sisters because they are children of the same parents; no other bond aside from the blood bond holds them together. There are sisters who live next to each other, and ... you could not tell that they felt anything for each other at all." What is important to understand out of all this is that, once they reached puberty, women were not merely kept isolated from men, they were also—and more devastatingly—kept sequestered from each other. Puberty for a girl meant the gradual loosening of family ties to prepare her for her eventual ejection from her father's house into that of her husband. She was forced to give up her old family roles to assume entirely the role of wife. When Kartini was about ten years old she heard a Dutch schoolmate talk about what she wanted to be when she grew up. The little Javanese girl then asked her father what she was going to be. To this question, her sister replied, "You're going to be a Raden Ayu" [a wife]. When she grew older and found out more about the role of wife, she also found out about losing the role of wife. A man was expected to have several wives. Often the older wife would be put to pasture when she had borne him several children, and thus her "useful" life would end. She might be set up in her own pavilion or kept in the house, but she would no longer be fully wife. Often, she was not even able to be a proper mother, as her children were commonly looked after by a "specialist" maidservant, the biological mother having had little training in actual child rearing. In fact, Kartini's own mother is something of a mystery herself. In her letters Kartini rarely mentions her biological mother. Her formal "mother" is her father's garwo padmi [official wife], who seems to have had little to do with the children of the first wife, garwo selir (often thought to be a concubine, even though they were legally married according to Islamic law), a commoner, who was Kartini's mother. In fact, neither of the two women seems to have had much to do with any of the children. When Kartini talks about how much she loves her orang tua, it is always the father she refers to. And when the word mother is used in an affectionate manner, it is often the Dutch moedertje (literally, "little mother," an affectionate diminutive) and addressed to her Dutch correspondent. Significantly, the semiofficial biography of Kartini published by the Department of Education and Culture contains a major mistranslation. When Kartini writes "little mother ... how your daughters long to be with you," the biographer uses this quote as an example of how much Kartini loved her own mother. And where the Indonesian text repeats the formula "ibu-bapak," in a section demonstrating her affection and respect for her parents, in the original letters quoted, Kartini speaks only of her father. Furthermore, in a short essay written in commemoration of Kartini's elevation to the status of "national hero" [pahlawan nasional] in 1964, her sister Kardinah feels it necessary to emphasize that their biological mother, Ngasirah, was legally married to the father and was allowed to stay in the house even after he had married his garwo padmi, a woman of aristocratic descent, Kartini's formal "mother."
Bringing into immethate proximity two women separated by a hundred years gives us a view of the changes that have taken place in Indonesian society, particularly as far as women are concerned: primary education has become mandatory for boys and girls alike; forced marriages are no longer considered acceptable; women are not merely allowed to work outside the home, they are exhorted to participate in "development activities" by a government that is clearly aware of the importance of female labor in an economy that is becoming increasingly integrated into the global marketplace. But more importantly, juxtaposing these two women writers reveals an essential irony in the relationship between them. As Kartini, the princess, has been turned into a role model, the private voice of her letters augmented and rearticulated for a public she had not envisioned, the image of Kartini thus fashioned has created a new kind of prison for women like the lower-class laborer. It is the fiction of Kartini rearticulated over time that determines the behavioral area within which Ratmi, as woman, must operate.
There is a song that every schoolchild learns, one of the so-called lagu wajib [obligatory songs] sung to accompany official ceremonies:
Ibu kita Kartini
[Our mother Kartini
A true princess
A princess of Indonesia
Fragrant is her name.]
Excerpted from Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia by Laurie J. Sears. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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