by Xylia Ingham (Semester 8/Feb 1999)
University of Technology, Sydney

Indonesian society is experiencing many changes. These changes are in many ways related to the pressures of globalisation. Globalisation in one sense means an increased reliance by states on the integrating world economy. Individual states can no longer rely on trade between just a few nations, because in modern day times the world economy is increasingly integrated. This means that economic processes in the world economy have the potential to affect all national economies, whether these effects are in a positive or negative sense. Additionally, increased globalisation has also witnessed the increase in the domination of multi-national and trans-national corporations in the world economy.

The Indonesian state is no exception, and many of the Indonesian people have experienced such a deepening economic integration, and the effects of the activities of large corporations, through increased poverty. Greater reliance on cheap exports, for example, means that labour wages and standards are set incredibly low, with Indonesian’s being forced to settle for such wages and standards, in order to be able to afford their next bowl of rice. Indonesians are increasingly moving into the cities from the villages, as the cities are where the jobs are located. This is what is known as urbanisation.

Modernisation, a phenomenon often associated with globalisation, is also affecting the traditional lives of Indonesian’s. Many people, faced with new opportunities as a result of increased modernisation, such as increased access to education, and technological, and communicative advances, are simply dissatisfied with traditional life in the villages and are training in specific skills, and then using those skills to gain employment in the cities.

Whatever the reasons, cultural dynamics which for so many years have existed in Indonesian society, are now being questioned, and one of the important aspects of these changing dynamics is the changing role of women in Indonesian society. All the phenomena of a changing Indonesian society as mentioned above also affect Indonesian women. Many Indonesian women are moving into the cities from their traditional villages in order to gain paid work, both to feed themselves, and to assist their families in the villages. The recent economic crisis has demonstrated that many families in Indonesia are no longer able to rely on the incomes of just one family member, the male bapak, but are instead are only able to maintain a reasonable standard of living by ensuring that both husband and wife obtain work. The economic crisis has been far from short-lived, and thus many women are now working long hours outside the home, as a means of maintaining an adequate standard of living for their family. By no means in Indonesia is the fact that a woman works outside the home a new phenomenon. In contrast, Indonesian women have for years worked on the farms assisting their husbands, and the back-breaking work done by women on Bali, where, in fact, the majority of the labour is performed by women, illustrates this point. However, for many Indonesian women, modernisation has meant increased educational opportunities, and thus a ‘widening of horizons’ for these women. Many women are now deciding that they wish to pursue fulfilling careers outside the home, not simply as a means of economic survival, but as a means of fulfilling an individual desire to succeed professionally.

In Indonesia, the phenomena described above, that is, women moving more readily into the paid workforce, has resonance in relation to traditional cultures, and the way that traditional cultures portray the role of women, and indeed, proscribe the role of the woman in society. Take the Javanese culture for example. Javanese culture places a woman’s role very precisely in the home. A woman first and foremost is valued as a wife to her husband, and a mother to her children. The government itself, in the national ideology, identifies the role of woman most importantly as a wife to her husband, secondly as a mother to her children, thirdly as a housewife, fourthly as a contributor to national development, and lastly as a member of social organisations, particularly those concerning women. In no instance is a woman considered a human being, an individual, in her own right. In Indonesia, women who deviate from this role as wife and mother, possibly by not marrying at all, or not having children, are viewed as less than whole people, and as a less than a whole ‘woman’. If it is considered an economic necessity that a woman with children works outside the home, the woman will be constantly reminded that the most important aspect of her life and work is inside the home, as a servant of her husband and children (the Indonesian word for this, pelayan, actually does translate into servant). Her role as wife and mother must not be neglected. If a woman with children actually chooses to pursue a career, if not primarily for economic necessity, she is viewed with suspicion, and branded selfish. If there are problems in the home, with a wayward husband, or naughty children, the problem is considered to be the fault of the woman because she is working outside the home, rather than devoting more time to her ‘proper’ and ‘natural’ role as a wife and mother.

Research which I conducted on Java in 1999 certainly illustrated clearly some of the obstacles that career women in Indonesia, at least according to the Javanese culture, would face. Some of the issues raised included the fact that a woman working outside the home is actually neglecting her true and correct ‘nature’. A woman who works outside the home must be prepared to continue with her domestic chores in the home, on arriving home from work, whether this includes cooking, or playing with the children, and this double role is viewed as a consequence of the woman’s work outside the home and a situation which she must be prepared to cope with, rather than a situation that is considered unfair. A woman that works outside the home may face the protests of her husband, and very often she is forced to abandon her career aspirations, on the grounds that her most important role is that of the wife and mother in the home. Additionally, a woman that works outside the home is considered to be sacrificing the wellbeing of her children, the woman herself may feel immense guilt that she does not spend enough time at home, devoting enough time to her family. These were the views of a broad spectrum of people from the general public, who I interviewed.

By no means are such situations in relation to the role of women isolated to Indonesia. Certainly, many working women in Australia feel guilt about the amount of time that they spend away from their children. However, I feel that the situation is magnified in Indonesia, particularly because of the strength of traditional cultures, such as the Javanese culture.

The research that I conducted also included interviewing journalists to obtain their view on what they considered to be the dominant media portrayal of both women in general, and career women. This primary research was combined with a media analysis that I conducted myself, analysing newspaper and magazine texts to obtain my own view of how women are portrayed in the media in Indonesia. This aspect of my research showed me that women in Indonesia are portrayed in a very stereotypical way, with a major focus on the woman’s traditional role as a servant to men. There were often pieces in the newspapers and magazines about a particular woman who was pursuing a singing or acting career. The emphasis was always on how much time she provided for her husband and children in the home, rather than an emphasis on her achievements in her chosen career field.

The final aspect of my research involved conducting interviews with career women themselves, all of whom live in the large cities of Jakarta and Bandung. These women all work full-time and are married with children. All the women interviewed acknowledged that possibly they may have experienced problems with the attitude of their surrounding community due to the fact that they work outside the home, if they lived in smaller, closer-knit communities. However, because all these women live in the large cities of Jakarta and Bandung, they felt largely immune from the prejudice of traditional and confining opinions about the ‘proper’ and ‘natural’ role of the woman in Indonesian society.

Globalisation and modernisation mean that traditional modes of living in Indonesia are changing, and women also are adjusting to new needs and pressures, not only economic pressures, but also the need to fulfill spiritual and mental needs, such as through pursuing a satisfying career. Traditional cultures and modes of interaction are being affected accordingly, particularly, in this sense, in relation to the accepted notion of the role of woman in Indonesian society. However, it is only natural that societal changes associated with modernisation and globalisation will only continue; whether at a rapid or slower pace than previously is questionable. Traditional cultures will also adjust accordingly. Whether such an adjustment occurs at a rapid pace of acceptance, or a slower pace of resistance, will depend very much upon fluidity of cultures, and the intensity of the demands for change made by the women concerned, upon their particular culture.