I Am Woman is about women taking a stand against society and the patriarchal conventions that oppresses them. The world of Indonesian women is a large and hidden one, and writing and publishing stories is one way they are able to emerge from their hiding places.
The stories are fictional works but nevertheless speak to the truth and have a basis in fact and lived experiences. Although not all the stories are written by women, the protagonists are all women. All are socially or culturally constrained in some way by the structural injustice of adat customary law, by their sexuality, by their working environment, by their obligation to raise children and by their marriages. Most find ways to circumvent or overcome these constraints and exert their own individuality. The victories are not always occasions for grand celebration; indeed, they are not necessarily obvious to anyone but the woman herself, but each victory represents a significant step on her road to emancipation.
As she does in almost any discussion of women in Indonesia, Raden Ajeng Kartini (1879-1904) makes her presence felt throughout this volume. The Indonesian feminist movement itself is considered to date from the start of the 20th century with the writings of Kartini, the daughter of a Javanese aristocrat. The Kartini ideal is at the heart of Puti Wijaya’s story called simply “Kartini” in which the male protagonist is forced through a chance meeting with Kartini and subsequent arguments with his exasperated wife and feisty teenage daughter, to confront his own prejudices about the place of women in society, which he concedes are based on a mythologized and glorified version of the Kartini story.
The obligations of adat law often fall more heavily on women than they do on men, in particular with regards to marriage. The poignant tale of Casni, the nine times divorced protagonist of “The Woman from Mount Antang,” is testament to the patriarchal nature of the institution of marriage. Marrying a series of sleazy men in order to please her father, the naïve and ignorant Casni is little more than an object to be bought and sold.
As shown in the story, “In Memoriam: The Dowager Empress,” women can also exhibit power in the name of a adat law. Like Tzu H’si, the tyrannical concubine of the emperor of the Qin dynasty, the dowager empress in this story is a powerful matriarch who commands unswerving respect from her five children and their offspring. Terrorizing them all by forcing them to conduct their lives according to strict adat laws, the only escape for her granddaughter, the narrator, is to leave her place of birth and cross the Sunda Strait to Java to begin a new life. Further east in the archipelago, the seven-year-old Balinese girl in “Bunga” challenges the rigidly enforced rules governing Balinese dance, but is shunned by the caste conscious adults of her village who fear contamination on account of her being fatherless and having a prostitute for a mother.
It’s no secret that prostitution is widespread in Indonesia as a result of women seeking better paying sources of income. This equalization of women in Indonesian society has resulted in a multitude of risks such as the ever-present threat of HIV. In the story “Awaiting Silence,” the transvestite narrator has turned her potentially vulnerable position into one where she can exercise autonomy and not allow others – for example, a pimp or rival sex worker – to make key decisions about her working life. In “A Good Man,” Eli and her co-sex workers perceive themselves to be free and untrammeled, working as they do at the high-end of the prostitution business. For them, their emancipatory action is to refuse to tread the same path as their friend Lis, who has traded the precarious freedom of life as a prostitute for a life in which she is financially comfortable yet completely beholden to the man who has taken her as his second wife.
The claims of the protagonist of “The Good but Evil Ken” about the goodness of her husband belie the physical beatings he repeatedly dishes out to her. This is a universal tale of domestic violence, whereby a woman is so blinkered to her husband’s malevolence that she will use any reason to justify it and hence to justify continuing to live with him. Such persistence in remaining in a destructive marriage is also seen at its extreme in “My Father,” where the narrator, who has fled to Jakarta to escape her oppressive and patriarchal Batak childhood (11 children, most of them boys, still sponging off their parents) returns periodically to face her mother’s tears and accusations towards her father.
“Saga” is an exuberantly sexual tale of one woman’s escape from a brutal and loveless marriage into a loving lesbian liaison with her lover Aini. In order to come to terms with this daring new love, the protagonist Wan must relive an earlier lesbian love affair with a woman named Lorena. When the relationship was discovered, Wan was confined to the family home until a suitable husband could be found. This treatment of Wan after her affair with Lorena was considered the only way to “cure” her. The family’s shame is palpable in this story, although it is expressed through actions rather than words.
The stories about migrant domestic workers are the most poignant in the book. Lured by the prospect of making fast cash, whether it be Malaysian ringgit, Saudi real or Hong Kong dollars, the young women who take the long journey from their villages to an often-unknown overseas destination are assigned to an employer they know nothing about. Marni, the main character in “Porcelain Spoon,” thought that luck was on her side when she arrived in Singapore and discovered to her relief that she would not be living in a high-rise apartment and one day “float away.” Over the years, hundreds of Indonesian and Filipina maids have fallen to their deaths from high-rise apartments while hanging out laundry or cleaning windows.
“No Going Back to Saudi Arabia” as well as the unnamed protagonist in “I Want to Go Home” are melancholy tales about migrant workers who are terrified of being sent home as it would symbolize failure and a significant loss of face. While many migrant workers are free to go home regularly and shower their families with money and gifts, they do not reveal to their loved ones the dark side of life in foreign lands where, unprotected by the law, workers may be subject to rape or physical and emotional abuse.
I Am Woman is a treasury of inspiring stories about powerless women who resourcefully negotiate their complex circumstances. As deliberate political statements, they represent a wide spectrum of women’s experiences. In the face of enormous barricades placed on them by tradition, religion, marriage, work and family, these women make pragmatic appraisals of what is possible. Rather than accepting disempowerment, we witness women who are able to carve out special, successful and ingenious outcomes for themselves, all revealed in the dramatic and eloquently expressed stories in this thin volume.
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