Friday, 3 December 2010

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman

In the service of sating an unhealthy appetite for beer last night, a friend and I began exchanging war stories of the personal kind. In actual fact, I remembered full well that a romantic involvement which had been going very well for him, had been denied in much the same way as had happened to me recently. And so, for one evening, I had a one-person support group. It's true that people get involved, they break up, and eventually they get over any lingering heartache. No bombs get dropped, and no children starve to death. Although in both our cases, we'd settled into what were the most rewarding relationships of our adult lives, and in both our cases there were quite sinister ideals working against us. 

According to the details as I know them, my friend was barred from seeing the object of his affections for one reason only; it was because he was a Westerner. I, on the other hand, was considered a hindrance to the health, wealth and happiness of a young Javanese woman because I have baggage. That is to say, her parents deemed it unthinkable that their daughter might become seriously entangled with a divorcee (in actual fact a  very long-term separatee, but it amounted to the same thing).  In my case at least, there is deep-seated hypocrisy at work. I hasten to provide all the dirt on the subject. Suffice to say, whatever my perceived failures may be as a husband, among the players involved, my shaky marital background is by no means unique.

But never mind all that, what is really depressing about stories such as these in this country is that women in their mid-twenties  can have their lives completely dictated by their parents. This is by no means the case for all women, but as it was put to me by the person whom I feel is the chief victim of a bad situation all around, women are not considered adults in Java until they are married. How can this be? She looks like an adult, she has completed a post-graduate degree, she earns her own money. How does the entrance of a male into her life, full-time, somehow validate that she is no longer a child? And of course, why is it that a man who hasn't passed any of these milestones can still be seen as having reached adulthood?

She tried hard, very hard, to be a master of her own destiny. I encouraged her, thinking time was still on our side. But in the end, her parents told her that the only way the union would be allowed would involve her being cast out permanently from the family fold. A solution which seemed agreeable enough, given the face of the family that has always been presented to me, but she was not willing to make such a gamble. And who could blame her? As casting aside everything you've known since birth over an affair would have been a gamble of the highest stakes.

These are the dictates of culture. Our story is nothing like as bad as that of the apparently commonplace  honour killing which emerged from Iraq in 2008, and given the utterly reprehensible nature of that crime, this is not a small mercy to be thankful for. But it continues to beggar belief that in an emergent democracy - which has had a female head of state - women are regarded as some kind of subservient species. Early on in our relationship, I got the inkling that I was up against an immovable object when it became known to me that the opposing team had called upon a dukun (Javanese witch-doctor), to ascertain what kind of threat I really was to their daughter, and no doubt to cast some kind of counter-spell on me. For in Indonesia, the course of true love never runs smoothly, and is often further impeded by the medieval notion that a young person in love really has been subject to spell-casting by a malignant party wishing to ensnare her. Rest assured, the closest I've ever come to the dark arts is when listening to my heavy metal albums too loudly.

Such antiquated views would seem quainter if they weren't such a disturbing reality. A popular defence for them is you just don't understand our culture. What is there to understand  in inexplicable actions? What is the point of cultural niceties whose only apparent purpose is to perpetuate a cycle of unfulfilled promise? Change is unavoidable and when people defend their mindlessness by invoking the 'C' word, they rarely take into account how different Indonesia was just short of fifteen years ago when it was the whole country being governed by strong-arm dictatorship, and not just the immediate whims of young women in love.


  1. Great post. You should read the book Mon, about two lovers in Japan who elope, and are cast out of their families as a result. Then again, that book was written in the early 20th century, whereas this is happening now.