Sasak Women Negotiating Marriage, Polygyny and Divorce in Rural East Lombok

Jocelyn Grace
  1. Rural Sasak society is heterogeneous and complex—a myriad of converging, intertwined and changing socio-economic, political and cultural processes and influences. The overwhelming majority of the Sasak population of East Lombok, in the Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggara Barat, identify as orthodox Muslims. Marriage and divorce are formally regulated by adat (customary law), orthodox Islam and national State laws and regulations, which with respect to marriage and divorce are at times contradictory.[1] In these contested areas the extent to which Islam or secular law is adhered to varies considerably according to more specific local customs and social conventions [adat], social and economic status and cultural orientation. While formal laws and regulations governing marriage, divorce and polygyny present various opportunities and constraints, the ways in which they effect individuals' decisions and actions depend on how they are interpreted at the local level. These interpretations are the result of a various and changing accommodation between competing political-ideological influences in Lombok over the past century.
  2. Marriage, polygyny and divorce are simultaneously very private and public matters. In this paper I will describe the relative degree of autonomy women living in various social situations in rural Sasak society have in choosing marriage partners, initiating or preventing divorce, and remarrying. In doing so I present cameos of the lives of some of the Sasak women whom I met and interviewed between 1990 and 1992, and in 1996. These women were of different ages, lived in different social and economic situations, and consequently had different options and attitudes about potential marriage partners, polygyny and divorce. Before focusing on the local and individual, however, it is necessary to first present a brief historical overview of the social, political and religious influences on Sasak society over the past century. Without some understanding of the broader context it is difficult to appreciate the dynamics of local village society, nor the decisions and the actions of its individuals.
  3. Working within the structural constraints imposed by State and Islamic laws, and local customs, Sasak women exercise varying degrees of autonomy. There are three key factors which stand out as determining the degree of autonomy individual women have in choosing who and when they will marry and divorce—social position, economic independence, and the existence of supportive women's networks. As will become clear from the stories which follow, women in different social positions are subject to different constraints in the decisions they make. This is not only the case with respect to marriage, divorce and polygyny, but also in the employment opportunities that are open to them, and thereby their ability to be economically independent. While there is general agreement that women's networks are beneficial to women because they 'are considered to increase women's space for manoeuvre in the face of structural constraints,'[2] Saptari points out that they can also help "reproduce the unequal structures of which they are a part".[3]
  4. Individuals make decisions and act within a complex social environment that at times facilitates and at other times constrains them in achieving what they desire. At the same time their personal attributes—their intelligence, assertiveness, beauty etc—can improve or reduce their chances of successfully negotiating in matters of marriage and divorce. Mindful of the drawbacks of generalisation in ethnographic writing,[4] I include a number of individual cases hoping to go some way towards presenting a more personal picture of the dynamics of Sasak women's lives—one which 'encourages familiarity rather than distance.'[5] It is not my intention to offer a comprehensive analysis of what is a very complex and at time contradictory subject. As Abu-Lughod has pointed out, in trying to present a coherent discussion of our subject/s, we 'risk smoothing over contradictions, conflicts of interest, doubts, and arguments, not to mention changing motivations and historical circumstances.'[6] Writing about individuals has the benefit of personalising the subject. Mindful of the drawbacks of generalisation in ethnographic writing, I include a number of individual cases hoping to go some way towards presenting a more personal picture of the dynamics of Sasak women's lives—one which 'encourages familiarity rather than distance.'[7] I hope by presenting these cameos of Sasak women's lives of at a particular point in time, that the reader will gain some understanding of their circumstances and the choices they make in determining the trajectory of their personal lives.

  5. Prior to the wave of conversion to orthodox Islam at the turn of the century [Waktu Lima], Sasak communities throughout Lombok were organised in accordance with adat or customary law, and practised a syncretic form of Islam [Wetu Telu].[8] Orthodox Islam became a vehicle for attaining status and power outside the traditional system of social stratification. During the colonial period these two became competing forces.[9] On the one hand, the aristocracy attempted to consolidate and increase their power through alliance with the Dutch, and using the idiom of adat to maintain traditional popular support. On the other, outside the aristocracy others were rallying popular support using the idiom of Islam. Dutch records show that conversion to orthodox Islam was far from complete in Lombok during the 1930s, though it was progressing at an increasing rate, particularly in East Lombok.[10] A number of factors facilitated this rapid conversion, including changes to land laws in 1935 which transferred village communal land to individual holdings, 'therewith divesting the adat communities of their spiritual and material basis of existence.'[11]
  6. During World War II Japan invaded and occupied Lombok, until their defeat by the Allied Forces and the declaration of Indonesian Independence in 1945. The Dutch tried to reoccupy the islands, but were repelled, and Indonesia enjoyed parliamentary democracy under the leadership of President Sukarno between 1949 and 1957. However, economic conditions deteriorated during this period, and when regional uprisings occurred in 1957, Sukarno used the army to re-establish control and ushered in the next phase of government know as Guided Democracy in 1957. In response to these uprisings he banned both the orthodox Islamic Party (Masjumi) and the Socialist Party (PSI), with which the rebellions had been associated. Sukarno shared much ideologically with the Communist Party (PKI), and they both had a large popular base, particularly in Java.
  7. The United States, who had assisted Indonesian Independence negotiations with the Netherlands, thought he was moving dangerously to the left by supporting the PKI and thus closing the door to foreign investment.[12] According to Ransom,[13] the Ford Foundation had begun creating a 'modernizing elite' for Indonesia in the early 1950s, by funding the education of members of the bureaucracy at MIT, Cornell and Berkeley in the States. During the same period army officers were receiving training at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Bragg in the States. In October 1965 there was an attempted coup d'etat, which resulted in the fall of President Sukarno. According to May,[14] while evidence was presented at the trial of the leader of the October 1965 coup d'etat that a Generals' Council was plotting to overthrow Sukarno, it is impossible to determine whether such a plot really existed. It may, he argues, have been a rumour 'circulated either by the CIA, to provoke the Communists, or by the Communists, to incite discontented officers.'[15]
  8. After the failed coup d'etat, in Lombok many Wetu Telu were murdered, interned or persecuted regardless of whether they were communist party (PKI) supporters or not.[16] According to Cribb 'local memories report 50,000 killings in early 1966.'[17] During the chaos that ensued it was not only Wetu Telu Sasaks who died. Many Balinese and Chinese were also killed. After the wave of violence passed, orthodox Muslims, with the support of the army, used threats and violence to pressure Wetu Telu to convert to Waktu Lima.[18] During this period of turmoil General Suharto took control of the country, and later became President as leader of the newly established Golkar party. His 'New Order' government reigned for three decades until, in 1998, President Suharto was forced to resign.
  9. An awareness of the political-ideological tensions between State and Islamic laws in Indonesia, which are strongly evident in East Lombok, is essential to understanding the decisions Sasak people make about marriage, divorce and polygyny. Polygyny is a particularly prominent example of the tension between religious and secular law in Indonesia. The Marriage Law enacted in 1974 placed heavy restrictions on polygyny, while it enshrined the nuclear family as the ideal for the new modernising, developing nation. In 1983 another law was passed specifically to regulate the sexual lives of government employees, who were expected to act as role models for other citizens.[19] Under this regulation men must obtain permission from their superiors before divorcing their wife or taking a second wife, women government employees cannot marry a male civil servant who is already married, and civil servants are prohibited from living together outside of marriage[20] . However methods for getting around the rules without endangering one's position are often found in the form of sympathetic superiors who can exercise discretion as to whether to enforce the regulation or not. Suryakusuma argues that rather than regulating sexual behaviour, this 'repressive, legalistic approach induces hypocrisy and deceit…[and] has driven civil servant sexuality underground.'[21]
  10. The discursive practices of the Indonesian New Order State designed to re-construct gender roles and relations have been well documented.[22] At the same time, 'the role of counter ideologies either represented by religion, by adat [customary law] or by communal practices have always made the translation of state ideology anything but a smooth process.'[23] The actual effects that government discourse and policies have had at the local level vary considerably throughout the archipelago, where they reveal much about the dynamics of competing influences on domestic arrangements and gender relations. As Saptari states, we need to

      map the tensions of hegemonical [sic] notions of family and external interventions into family life, household structures and domestic arrangements on the one hand, and the persistence of cultural variations and local subversions, on the other. In other words, we become highly attentive to the tensions between structure and agency, culture and practice.[24]

    At the same time, the decades of New Order state saw rapid economic and social change throughout Southeast Asia, which affected rural women in varying ways. As Stivens has argued, the process of 'modernisation' has been gendered:

      gender relations are central to the making of middle-classes and modernity in the region and…representations of gender occupy a central place in the contests about meanings and identities accompanying these processes.[25]

  11. In rural East Lombok there is not one homogenous middle-class but many middle-classes, and some of the women described in this paper as middle-class may not be considered so by those in Jakarta and other major urban centres in Indonesia. Kahn, writing about Malaysia, states 'the concept of a middle-class is particularly problematic,' and argues that we need 'to examine cultural, as well as political and economic processes' when analysing the emergence of the middle-classes.[26]
  12. The research on which this paper is based was conducted in two Sasak villages which had been one before new boundaries were established in the 1970s. Socially, politically, culturally and economically they remain closely tied. They are located in the foothills of Mount Rinjani, at approximately 500 metres, and have a large river running through them. Environmentally, this area is relatively well endowed compared to the much drier areas in the southern and extreme eastern parts of the island. The population of each of the villages was approximately 10,000 in 1991, of which approximately 10 percent was under three years of age, and approximately 48 percent fifteen years or under. The sex breakdown in almost all age categories showed a slightly higher number of females than males, which is what would be expected in the absence of any socio-cultural factors which create a bias towards boys, and discrimination against girls, in the nurturance they receive during infancy and childhood.

    Figure 1. Sawah [rice fields] in the shadow of Mt Rinjani. Photographer, Jocelyn Grace.

    Marriage, Polygyny and Divorce

    Choosing a husband

  13. Up until relatively recently (1960s) pre-arranged patri-parallel cousin marriage was the preferred form for both commoners and aristocrats [bangsawan], and village endogamy was practiced. For commoners, the level of endogamy was marrying within the same or neighbouring gubuk—a gubuk being a cluster of male-related households, with a population ranging from twenty to several hundred. These days, cousin marriage is rare for commoners, and while village endogamy is still common, gubuk endogamy is rare. However bangsawan women are still expected to marry, if not their actual cousin, someone of the same rank from within the aristocracy. They are not allowed to marry commoners, and will lose their title and will be disowned by their families if they do. Bangsawan men, on the other hand, may and very often do marry commoners. Many young bangsawan women these days marry much later than their commoner peers as they often want to marry someone they cannot, and do not want to marry any of the bangsawan men they can. Nevetheless, the majority of Sasak women are now free to choose their own husbands.
  14. The traditional Sasak practice of secret elopement remains the norm, with the couple running away to the house of a friend or relative. According to Krulfeld, elopement 'maintains the fiction of bride capture,' symbolising that daughters are so highly valued that the family will not relinquish them, and so they have to be abducted.[27] If the parents strongly disapprove of the marriage, they will take their daughter home and refuse to negotiate a bride-price with the man's family. If not, negotiations will go ahead and an official ceremony and feast will be held to formalise the marriage.
  15. The degrees of autonomy the women described in this paper have in making decisions about marriage, divorce and polygyny are to a considerable extent structurally determined. At the same time each individual's personal attributes—their intelligence, assertiveness, beauty etcetera—will affect their ability to negotiate some of the structural constraints. A young bangawan [aristocrat] woman has less room to manoeuvre than her commoner, middle-class peer, and far less than the majority of women of lower socio-economic status. Gender inequalities with respect to these aspects of life are greater among the bangsawan than among commoners, and probably always have been.

    H – young bangsawan high-school graduate

      H was a young bangsawan woman who had just graduated from high-school when I first met her in 1991. H was in love with a married man who was a commoner, and her male cousin—an attractive young man who had also just finished high school—had a commoner girlfriend [pacar] whom he hoped to marry. H eloped with the man she loved, but her parents brought her back and refused to let her marry him. H and her cousin's parents forced them to marry. After the customary elopement, the wedding ceremony and celebration was held. As the story goes, the cousin's pacar sat in the front row throughout, looking at him and he at her. While H liked her cousin she did not want to marry him, and my research assistant and her friends felt very sorry for her ('kasihan'). About six months later I heard that H's cousin/husband had gone to Sumbawa to work as a foreman on a building project.

    A – young commoner high-school graduate

      My research assistant, A, had just completed high school in 1991 and was living with her family. Her father had given her a small parcel of his land to manage during the dry season, giving her an opportunity to make some independent income. When the word went out that I was looking for a research assistant, she sought me out and was enthusiastic about working with me. A's confidence and sociability, and her broad network of friends and family throughout the village, greatly facilitated our entree into people's yards and homes.

      A told me she was not interested in going on to do further study, and she just wanted to get married. We had been working together for about a month when Y, a young bangsawan man returned from his studies in Bali for the holidays. When we first met him in the village A had introduced us, and later she told me he wanted to marry her. A said they had got to known each other six years earlier, and had talked about getting married, but had decided to wait until he finished his law degree. He began visiting her at the homestay where I was living (not at her parents' home). They talked and flirted, and A said that he kept asking her to marry him.

      About a week later she told me she had a pacar [boyfriend] who was working in Central Lombok, and that Y and she were just friends. A few weeks later, talking with one of A's friends, she mentioned that people were talking about how Y was showing a lot of interest in her, and they thought it was a good match. A explained she already had a pacar who she had been with for five years, and that she was reluctant to marry Y, even though she 'loved him a bit,' because he was bangsawan, saying she could not speak their language very well.[28] A was nervous about the difference in their social status, and she said that if she married into a bangsawan family she would be subject to far greater restrictions than if she married a commoner. She was also very wary because of his father's marital history (he was said to have had as many as twenty wives over the years). She feared Y would also want to have more than one wife, as this kind of behaviour was 'keturunan'—passed down or inherited. Her pacar of five years was a government employee, which meant that he was unlikely to ever be in a position to divorce her or take a second wife.

  16. H's experience illustrates the relative lack of autonomy bangsawan women have in matters of marriage compared to their commoner peers. Even if H had the sympathy of her women relatives in eloping with the man she loved, it is doubtful if they would have supported her in making a marriage which would have resulted in her being lost to them. It is more likely they would have counselled her against pursuing such a rash course of action. If A had decided to marry Y she may one day have had to choose between accepting her husband taking a second wife or being divorced.

    N – young wife of a bangsawan man

      N was the daughter of a high school teacher, and when I met her in 1990 she was married to a bangsawan man of about her own age. At that time N was desperate to conceive a child, and when I visited her six months later, she said she thought she was mandul [infertile], adding that it wasn't uncommon in her family. She seemed resigned to the idea, and believed that her husband would certainly want to marry again if she couldn't have children. She would have to divorce him, she said, as she wouldn't tolerate [i>tahan]him taking another wife. She looked very tired and anxious, and told me it had become common knowledge that her husband was frequently meeting another woman in the next village, and that in order to maintain her self-respect she would have to leave him. A month later N left her husband, taking all her things, and she returned to her parents' home. Six months later I bumped into her husband and he told me he had asked N to come back, but she'd refused. He said he didn't mind her not being able to have children.

  17. There is a generational difference in attitudes to polygyny and divorce, which cut across socio-economic status. In the past most women did not expects to be allowed to choose their husband. However, this did not stop them going on to exercise considerable autonomy in other aspects of their lives, or taking action to resist an unwanted marriage.

    Ibu I – primary school principal and 'third' wife[29]

      Ibu I was the principal of one of the local government primary schools and the wife of the highest bangsawan man—one of the largest landowners who was in his late fifties in 1990. His first wife was his cousin, who was born and lived within the walls of the pedaleman [walled compound], as did a second long-term wife. Ibu I, another long-term wife, also lived in a house in the pedaleman. However hers was on the perimeter and faced out towards the main road. As she drove a 4WD this made for easy access. She also had a satellite disk on her roof—a very rare luxury at this time in East Lombok. Being younger, better educated and more sophisticated than his other long-term wives, Ibu I seemed to be his favourite, though he received outside guests in his first wife's house.

      Ibu I had two sons, the eldest being Y who was studying law in Bali. Ibu I managed most of her husband's land, and was actively involved in the regional livestock trade. One day I met her outside my homestay and she showed me the thirty new goats which she had just bought in Sumbawa, and explained that she would resell them at a higher price in the regional livestock market. Ibu R—the caretaker of the homestay where I lived, told me Ibu I was 'rajin' [hard-working] and inspected the rice fields she managed in the afternoons. Ibu I was well known throughout the area as a shrewd and efficient businesswoman.

    Ibu S – elderly woman who escaped an arranged marriage

      Ibu S was an elderly but energetic and spritely traditional birth attendant [belian nganak], who judging from the fact that she had a memory of first going to school during Jaman Jepun [the Japanese period] I estimated to be in her sixties in 1991. She lived in a small bamboo house on a hillside in a small hamlet where she delivered babies and treated infants. One day she told A and I the story of how, as a girl of thirteen, her parents married her off to a man she didn't like. With great mirth and accompanying actions, she described how she had put on five pairs of celana [underpants] so he wouldn't touch her. After a week the man divorced her, and she married the man she has been with ever since.

  18. An educated woman and a government school principal would not be expected to tolerate polygyny, however Ibu I is also bangsawan and a generation older than H and A. Her marriage would have been arranged, and she would have been brought up to expect that her husband would have many wives. At the same time, her business prowess and access to capital allowed her considerable autonomy in other aspects of her life, and considerable wealth.

    Education, Class and Polygyny
  19. While gender inequalities are not as pronounced for commoner women as they are for bangsawan, at the same time there are considerable differences among commoners. Formal education is a defining factor in being considered middle-class in Indonesia, and most 'educated' young people consider polygyny unacceptable, marriage a life-long commitment, and divorce what 'uneducated' people do because they don't know any better.[30] These attitudes mean that a middle-class woman's choice of marriage partner is critical to her long-term security. Some middle-class women maintain economic independence through white-collar employment, while others are completely dependent on their parents, then their husbands.[31]

    M and L – wives of primary school teachers

      In mid-1991 M had her second child, a healthy baby boy. Her first son was three years old at the time. M's husband was the sports teacher at the government primary school, and was involved in sports and a lot of other activities outside school hours. They had a government house with brick walls and a concrete floor, consisting of a small living room, one bedroom and kitchen, with a basic outside bathroom.[32] M was born and grew up in the village, and after completing high school stayed at home helping her parents. She had been a voluntary health worker [Kader Kesehatan] for about three years, and then she met her husband who was teaching at the local school. They eloped [kawin lari] three months after meeting, and she had her first child eighteen months later.

      M didn't engage in any income-generating work, and said that it was not appropriate for her to be involved in trading or handicrafts production as she had her children and the house to take care of. Her neighbour was also married to a school teacher and had a baby, but she was the kindergarten teacher and so worked for a few hours each morning, paying a young girl to look after the infant while she worked. During a long interview with them both I said that I had visited them many times but rarely saw their husbands. They replied that they were out a lot because they were 'cari nafkah' [looking for money for household expenses]. While the salary of a teacher is enough to cover the basics of life, most men with government jobs will have a number of other business enterprises which they pursue outside of working hours to bring in additional money.

      L was a Kader [voluntary health worker] and married to a teacher at the Islamic school. She walked to the market each morning to buy vegetables, and returned home to cook, clean and look after her one-year-old son. She was from another village and had met her husband when she was at school in the provincial capital. They were pacar for three years before they married and came to live in his village, and it took her two years before she conceived their son. L said it was better to be single like A [my research assistant], because you're free to go about doing things. Once married you can't go anywhere without your husband's permission, and you have duties to attend to. We talked about marriage and divorce, and she said it was generally older men who had more than one wife, and that young women wouldn't stand for it. Women are more berani [brave, assertive] than in the past, and will object if their husband wants to take another wife, and will want a divorce if their husbands are going about after pacar. L said it would be better to kill her husband than to allow him to take another wife.

  20. Polygyny may have become more widely practiced over the half century prior to Independence because of the greater influence of orthodox Islam, nevertheless polygyny is and always has been relatively rare, with only a minority of men being able to afford to support more than one household.

    S – young divorced woman and second wife

      I met a young woman in her twenties, who when asked about her marital status, explained that she had been married and divorced, and that she was the second wife of a man from a village about ten kilometres away. She said she was very happy with the arrangement they had as he provided her with a good house (brick and tile, concrete floored) and an income which met her needs and those of their two children. He stayed with her for only a few days a fortnight. She also had an older child from a previous marriage who lived with his father nearby, and moved freely between the two households. She had completed junior high school but was content with an arrangement other 'educated' young women told me they would not tolerate. S explained that having attended high school she hadn't learnt how to plant rice, which meant that she was less able to earn a living for herself than other women in her family. At the same time her high-school education would have made her eligible to marry a middle-class man. The financial security this marriage gave her was clearly very important to her.

    Ibu R – middle-aged women's attitude to polygyny

      Pak and Ibu R were the caretakers of the homestay where I lived, which was owned by a wealthy bangsawan man from the next village. Ibu R had four children, two married daughters and two sons—one still at school the other working at various jobs. Pak and Ibu R owned some land and a small bamboo and mud floored house, and another of the same construction which they used for cooking, eating and for storage. Neither of them could speak Indonesian, and only their youngest son had been to school long enough to be able to speak it fluently.

      There was a young girl living next door (about 14 years old), whose family were related in some way to Pak R as they lived in the same gubuk.[33] She often helped Ibu R with various tasks and was treated as part of the extended family. I began noticing that sometimes when Ibu R wasn't around and Pak R was alone with her, he spoke to her in what seemed to me at first a puzzling way. While I couldn't hear exactly what he was saying (and he was speaking Sasak), the general tone and body language, and hers in response, made it obvious that he was flirting with her. One evening I picked up in the family's conversation at dinner that the girl might become Pak R's second wife. The next day I told Ibu R I thought it terribly unfair to her that he was considering taking another wife, and she was puzzled and amused, and said it was nothing to get upset about. She wouldn't mind him having another, younger wife, she said, as she was now too old to have children. But it wasn't going to happen, she added, because he couldn't afford another wife.

  21. Many of those with the financial means to afford a second wife during the 1980s and 1990s also held position within the government and had relatively high levels of education. Even if they were able to circumvent the regulations that restrict divorce and polygyny for State employees, many would have internalised and adhered to the middle-class sexual mores they had been exposed to through their education.[34] While the regulations may have lead to clandestine sexual relations among civil servants,[35] they have also encouraged a return to monogamy as prescribed by Wetu Telu adat prior to the mass conversion to orthodox Islam [Waktu Lima] in Lombok. It seems ironic that during the late 1960s the army pressured people to convert during the period when the New Order government was being established under the leadership of General Suharto, then this same government went on to regulate against polygyny and divorce among its employees, and promote the ideal of the modern monogamous nuclear family. This is surely one example of the complex interplay of political and ideological alliances and their changing configurations through time.

    Serial marriage and divorce
  22. While polygyny is relatively rare, serial marriage is not, and for the vast majority of the population it is considered normal [biasa] or customary [adat], and preferable to polygyny.[36] One middle-aged woman, when I asked her why serial marriage was so common, replied 'its like changing records—when you get bored, you change it.' First marriages commonly end for reasons of incompatibility or anger over the husbands' infidelities, but second marriages tend to last for many more years. According to Islamic law, only men are allowed to divorce their wives, and women who wish to divorce must ask their husbands to divorce them. A woman who has been divorced by a man will return to her natal home, and if/when he wants her back he calls her and she must return. A man can only call a wife back twice, and on the third pronouncement of divorce by him, it is final. If he does not call her back, or he has pronounced them divorced three times, the woman can marry again after waiting three months and ten days [iddah].
  23. Opinion varies on the subject of whether women can initiate divorce. Middle-class women and men maintain that a woman cannot, and if she leaves her husband she isn't really divorced. However, despite formal rules to the contrary, many of the women I interviewed said that they had initiated divorce, leaving their husband and returning to their natal home. The majority had initiated divorce because their husbands had been involved in a pacaran [seeing other women], or because they were bored and no longer in love with them. Some women returned to the marital home when their husbands called them back, or when they felt like it (e.g. when they're no longer angry). Others refused to return and from that time on considered the marriage over. It is also accepted that a woman is entitled to a divorce under certain circumstances, in accordance with a customary law [adat] agreement know as talik. If the husband has not lived with her for three months, or goes away and she doesn't hear from him for six months, or he beats her to the point of making her ill, then she has the right to a divorce. Despite the legality of polygyny, it is also generally accepted that if a woman does not approve of her husband taking a second wife, she can demand a divorce.

    J – young woman who once divorced her husband

      J was in her thirties and lived in one of the poorer hamlets, in a simple bamboo walled, dirt floor house. I was interviewing her about marriage and divorce, and just as she was explaining that she had divorced her husband once because she found out he was meeting another woman, her husband entered the house. They both laughed, and he said it was true. He then sat down and quietly listened with interest while his wife answered the rest of my questions.

    Ibu S – elderly traditional birth attendant

      One day we asked Ibu S about how things were in the past with respect to pacaran and men having more than one wife [dimadu]. She said that now there are more husbands who indulge in pacaran than in the past, and they are rarely at home because they are out looking for additional income [cari nafkah]. In the past [dulu] not many men had more than one wife, but that now a lot do. People didn't used to divorce because adat was much stronger. Now men are allowed to have three or four wives, and there are more men who are clever at finding money than in the past.

  24. Those with little or no formal eduction have not internalised the ideal of the modern middle-class nuclear family and are under no social pressure to conform to it. They earn their living through agricultural labour, trading and/or handicrafts production, and are not stigmatised by divorce.[37] The majority of both women and men feel free to marry, divorce, remarry or remain unmarried if they wish.

    Ibu M – middle-aged divorced woman

      Ibu M, A's auntie, was a middle-aged traditional healer [belian] when I met her in 1991, and had been married to another belian.[38] They were divorced, and he had another, younger wife. Ibu M lived in a modest bamboo walled, mud-floored house, and her ex-husband, his wife and their children lived next door in a similarly basic house in a repok [a small cluster of houses amidst the rice fields]. While Ibu M was from A's hamlet on the other side of the village, and on divorcing her husband would have been expected to return to live there with her relatives, she had decided to stay living among her ex-husband's family. They seemed to have a perfectly amicable relationship, and both continued to offer their services as healers to their relatives and neighbours. Ibu M treated children for 'flu and stomach complaints, while her ex-husband was renowned throughout the village and beyond as a skilled bone setter. When asked Ibu M said she didn't need or want to remarry.

    K and friends – young divorced women

      In 1991 K was a Kader Kesehatan [voluntary health worker] living in a fairly poor dusun [hamlet], and I got to know her through attending the Posyandu [health posts] each month and assisting her and others by filling out the register while they weighed babies.[39] She had first married at the age of twenty, and had been married and divorced twice. K had one young child from her second marriage, but had previously had two children who had died. She lived in her parents' one roomed, window-less, bamboo walled, dirt floor house with her mother and her brother and her child. Her father was away in Malaysia labouring for day wages at the time. A couple of months later her seventeen-year-old brother also went to Malaysia to work.[40]

      Next door to K's house was that of the Head of the hamlet [Kadus]—a large brick and tile place with a concrete floor, windows and a spacious veranda. His daughter was also a Kader, and I spoke with her and a friend of hers about marriage. They were both in their early twenties, had a young child each, and were divorced and living with their parents. Asked why, the first said that her husband was going to Malaysia and she didn't want him to go. The second said 'pacaran,' and added that he had wanted more than just a wife and got angry when she'd told him she didn't like him seeing other women. K joined us and I asked them, as they were all still young were they looking for husbands? 'Yes, but it's easier not having one.'

      When I returned briefly in 1996, K was still living with her parents, but had had another child. She told me she had a new husband who was away working.[41]

  25. Ibu M's decision to continued living in her ex-husbands' repok after their divorce, where she had a house and could make a living for herself, was unusual but defied no secular, Islamic or customary law. Similarly K and her young divorced friends chose to leave their husbands and live with their parents, returning to their extended natal family where they enjoyed the support of a network of relatives, rather than having to rely on their husbands and in-laws.
  26. While legally the children of a marriage belong to the father, in reality a number of combinations of arrangements are made when couples divorce. If still being breast-feed, an infant will always stay with the mother, however she may have to forfeit the child once it is weaned. As a general rule it is said that if it was the woman who wanted the divorce then she would forfeit her rights to the children, but the reverse does not necessarily apply. Much depends on whether the father wants to take the children or not. If he does, he will need the help of a new wife or his mother and sisters to care for them. Another common arrangement is for children to move between the household of both parents, and/or grandparents, when proximity allows, and in some cases children are allowed to decide for themselves who they will live with.[42]
  27. Ascribed and achieved social status, level of formal education and economic circumstances determine to a great extent the options women have and the degree of autonomy they can exercise in initiating and ending marriages. Underpinning these are competing cultural processes, past and present. Cederroth[43] conducted fieldwork in the 1970s on the north coast of Lombok, an area where conversion to orthodox Islam came later for most than in East Lombok. He found that with the decrease in the influence of adat [Wetu Telu] and the increase in the influence of orthodox Islam, women were gaining more freedom to choose when and whom they would marry. He also observed that this was leading to younger and more frequent marriage and divorce. Similarly an elderly Kadus, in the village about which I write, said that in the past couples didn't usually get married until they were twenty-five or thirty years old, as they had to wait for their parents to arrange the marriage. 'Now,' he said, 'young people won't let their parent choose their partners or stop them marrying when they want to, which might be as young as seventeen.'
  28. The local transition from the traditional, syncretic Islam [Wetu Telu] to an orthodox form [Waktu Lima] seems to have brought with it a greater freedom for women, but to what extent is this greater freedom a product of generational changes and what part have the interventions of the secular State played in shaping the changes Young middle-class women feel free to choose their own partners, but do not accept divorce and polygyny—even L who is married to an Islamic teacher would rather see him dead than tolerate him taking a second wife. The majority of women feel free to divorce their husbands when they feel like it, and pay little attention to the State's modernisasi agenda. These tensions in East Lombok are one local example of political-ideological tensions throughout Indonesia and the region. As Benda-Beckmann has stated:

      Polygamy has become a focal issue in ideological, religious, and political terms somewhat independently of its actual incidence…The problem is not so much whether a man is permitted to marry more than one wife; rather, polygamy is a symbol, a very important symbol, of which system has the superior validity; Islam, which allows polygamy, or the state, which wants to constrain polygamy, or the universalist western ideology or culture (Christian culture), which focuses on monogamy.[44]

  29. While all Sasaks identify as orthodox Muslims,[45] there are two clearly identifiable cultural influences and orientations in rural Sasak society—one looks east toward Mecca [Mekah] and orthodox Islam, the other looks west toward Jakarta and the secular State. Their co-existence, and the tensions between them are manifest everywhere in the everyday lives of rural Sasak society—in the material culture, and in the decisions women and men make about their personal lives.

    Figure 2. Women attend a Health Post (Posyandu) in a primary school, while a voluntary health worker weighs babies. Photographer, Jocelyn Grace.

    Figure 3. Women wait patiently while clinic staff set up equipment to give inoculations at a Health Post. Photographer, Jocelyn Grace.

  30. The following, final cameo illustrates the juxtaposition of competing discourses of the feminine to which rural Sasak women are exposed. The PKK (Family Welfare Association) was established by the New Order government with the intention that its members would implement all government policies for women at the village level. It is a parallel hierarchy to the civil administration and the wives of village leaders and government officials at all levels are expected to carry out activities and implement policies dictated to them from above.[46] Ibu Camat, as the wife of the sub-district head, lead the sub-district PKK, and it was in this capacity that she organised the event described below. It took place in the grounds of the primary school in one of the poorer hamlets.

    Ibu Camat – PKK fashion and make-up demonstration

      Ibu Camat began by explaining that the demonstration would be about clothes that were suitable for Islamic women to wear and make-up. She had brought three women from Selong (the district capital) with her, and like Ibu Camat the two wore fairly sober but smart skirt suits. The third, a beauty consultant, wore a red suit with padded shoulders, and had a fancy hairstyle, lots of make-up and jewellery. It was this woman who gave the demonstration, beginning by showing examples of headscarves and how to wear them so that the hair and most of the neck were covered. Strangely, despite no one in the audience having their head covered, she continued to talk about the need for Islamic women to cover and to wear long sleaves and long skirts. Most of the women in the audience were wearing short-sleeved T-shirts and sarongs, and included a few young mothers who were baring their breasts to feed their babies. A local schoolteacher called out and told the woman in red that she should speak Sasak as most of those in attendance couldn't understand her, but she continued speaking in Indonesian. She then gave a lengthy demonstration of applying make-up, imploring the women to spend 2,500 rupiah on eye shadow and lipstick brushes (the equivalent a day and a half's wages for an agricultural labourer). She was emphatic that they should not apply lipstick and eye shadow with their fingers, as they might have dirt on them. A women sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said (A translating), 'I wouldn't have time to do this because I go out early every morning to collect vegetables.' As the lengthy demonstration continued, women gradually drifted away.

    Figure 4. A young mother decorates her walls with posters depicting some of the competing images of feminity in Sasak society. Photographer, Jocelyn Grace.

    Figure 5. Women and children outside an typical house for those who earn their living from agricultural labour and/or trading. Photographer, Jocelyn Grace.

  31. The space within which Sasak women and men have to manoeuvre, given the constraints of what is legal and acceptable within their immediate community, varies considerably depending on their socio-economic position and political-cultural orientation. Ascribed and achieved social status, religious orientation, economic circumstances, level of education and the extent to which middle-class mores propagated by the State have been internalised, determine the options that women have, and the degree of autonomy they can exercise in initiating and ending marriages. The majority of Sasak women have access to independent sources of income, which enables them to maintain a high level of autonomy in making decisions about marriage and divorce. Young middle-class women who have no source of income cannot afford to make the wrong choice when choosing a husband, given that they may be wholly dependent on him, and that they abhor polygyny and divorce. Most young bangsawan women share much in common with their educated commoner peers, including their attitude towards divorce and polygyny, however they are far more constrained when it comes to finding a husband. They may not be allowed to marry the man they desire and instead be forced to marry someone else, with the possibility that he will divorce them or take another wife.
  32. The interaction between conflicting ideologies and changing social influences in Sasak society—Islamic, adat and secular law, the ideologies of the State, religious institutions and popular culture emanating from the Middle East and the West—creates a complex picture which cannot be neatly summarised. To over-generalise would be to smooth over the contradictions inherent in a complex and heterogeneous society, and deny each woman's individuality and agency. I have described a case in which the aristocracies adat [customary law] prevailed over secular, middle-class attitudes about arranged marriage among those who are most educated. I have explored how middle-class Moslem women argue against Islamic law and in favour of secular law with respect to divorce and polygyny, and how young women are simultaneously advantaged and disadvantaged by receiving a high school education. I have shown an example of how polygyny, while being a privilege of the rich, offers some economic advantages to the poor. Women's options and the choices they make change through time, and continue to change, and for most there seems to be greater autonomy in deciding on the course of their personal lives than in the past. Sasak women, like women everywhere, make their own decisions if and when they can. However they do so within a complex and heterogenous social context where their attitudes about marriage partners, polygyny and divorce are shaped in varying ways by local interpretations of the law and ideology of adat, Islam and the State.


    [1] As they do with respect to other matters, for example the rules for inheritance of land are different under adat than they are under Islamic law.

    [2] Ratna Saptari, 'Women, family and household: tensions in culture and practice,' in Women and Households in Indonesia: Cultural Notions and Social practices, ed. J. Koning, M. Nolten, J. Rodenburg and R. Saptari, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000, pp. 10-25, p. 21.

    [3] Saptari, 'Women, family and household,' p. 23.

    [4] Lila Abu-Lughod, Writing Women's Worlds: Bedouin Stories, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

    [5] Abu-Lughod, Writing Women's Worlds, pp. 29-30.

    [6] Abu-Lughod, Writing Women's Worlds, p. 9.

    [7] Abu-Lughod, Writing Women's Worlds, pp. 29-30.

    [8] Waktu Lima means 'five times' and refers to the number of times a day people pray. Those who practise Wetu Telu, 'three times,' pray three times a day.

    [9] Judith Eklund, 'Marriage, seaworms and song: ritualized responses to cultural change in Sasak life,' Ph.D. Thesis: Cornell University, 1977.

    [10] Albert Leemann, Internal and External Factors of Socio-cultural and Socio-Economic Dynamics in Lombok (Nusa Tenggara Barat), Geographisches Institut Abt. Anthropogeographie, Zurich: Universitat Zurich, 1989.

    [11] Leemann, Internal and External Factors of Socio-cultural and Socio-Economic Dynamics in Lombok (Nusa Tenggara Barat), p. 40.

    [12] David Ransom, 'Ford country: building an elite for Indonesia,' in The Trojan Horse: A Radical Look at Foreign Aid, ed. S. Weissman, San Francisco: Ramparts, 1974, pp. 93-116.

    [13] Ransom, 'Ford country.'

    [14] Brian May, The Indonesian Tragedy, London: Rutledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

    [15] May, The Indonesian Tragedy, p. 128.

    [16] Leemann, Internal and External Factors of Socio-cultural and Socio-Economic Dynamics in Lombok (Nusa Tenggara Barat).

    [17] Robert Cribb, 'Introduction,' in The Indonesian Killings of 1965-1966: Studies from Java and Bali, ed. R. Cribb, Clayton: Monash University, 1990, p. 25.

    [18] Leemann, Internal and External Factors of Socio-cultural and Socio-Economic Dynamics in Lombok (Nusa Tenggara Barat).

    [19] Peraturan Pemerintah [PP] 10/1983.

    [20] Julia Suryakusuma, 'The state and sexuality in New Order Indonesia,' in Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia, ed. L. Sears, Durham: Duke University Press, 1996, 92-119.

    [21] Suryakusuma, 'The state and sexuality in New Order Indonesia,' p. 116.

    [22] For examples of these in the 'New Order' government's education, health and rural development programmes see Gaynor Dawson, 'Development planning for women in the Indonesian transmigration program,' M.Phil. thesis: Murdoch University, 1990; Lyn Parker, Gender and School in Bali, Working Paper No.4, Gender Relations Project, Research School of Pacific Studies, Canberra: Australian National University, 1993; Sajogyo, 'Local level organization in planned development: an analysis of women's participation in rural Java,' in The Hidden Crisis in Development: Development Bureaucracies, ed. Philip Quarles van Ufford, Dirk Kruijt and Theodore Downing, Amsterdam: Free University Press, 1988, pp. 230-47; Ines Smyth, 'A critical look at the Indonesian government's policies for women,' in Development and Social Welfare: Indonesian's Experiences Under the New Order, ed. J-P Dirkse, F. Husken and M. Rutten, Leiden: KITLV, 1993, 117-30; Norma Sullivan, 'Indonesian women in development: state theory and urban kampung practice,' in Women's Work and Women's Role: Economics and Everyday Life in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, ed. L. Manderson, Development Studies Centre Monograph No. 32, Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1983, pp. 147-71; Jocelyn Grace, 'Health development and Sasak women: a political and practical analysis of medical intervention in rural East Lombok, Indonesia,' Ph.D. thesis: Murdoch University, 1997.

    [23] Saptari, 'Women, family and household,' p. 14.

    [24] Saptari, 'Women, family and household,' p. 12.

    [25] Maila Stivens, 'Theorising gender, power and modernity in affluent Asia,' in Gender and Power in Affluent Asia, ed. K. Sen and M. Stivens, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 1-34, p. 1.

    [26] Joel Kahn, 'Growth, economic transformation, culture and the middle classes in Malaysia,' in The New Rich: Mobile Phones, McDonalds and Middle-Class Revolution, eds. R. Robison and D. Goodman, London: Routledge, 1996, pp. 44-75, p. 50.

    [27] Ruth Krulfeld, 'Sasak attitudes towards polygyny and the changing position of women in Sasak peasant villages,' in Visibility and Power: Essays on Women in Society and Development, ed. Leela Dube, Elenor Leacock and Shirley Ardener, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 194-208, p. 201.

    [28] The aristocracy speak a 'higher' form of Sasak, which they consider more halus— refined. It is only used by commoners when speaking to members of the aristocracy.

    [29] Ibu in Indonesian means mother and Missus.

    [30] The term used is kurang penidikan—lacking formal education.

    [31] Refering to Phillips' analysis of the emergence of the English middle-class, Krishna Sen states '"middle-class" status became increasingly dependent on the exclusion of women from productive work.' See 'Indonesian women at work: reframing the subject,' in Gender and Power in Affluent Asia, eds. K. Sen and M. Stivens, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 35-61, p. 38. While the middle-classes in Indonesia include a great many women who work, they are white-collar workers (e.g. as nurses, teachers, clerks, business women) and would not consider engaging in petty trading or labouring work.

    [32] This was one of the few houses in the village with a bathroom, which was simply a mandi and squat toilet.

    [33] Residence is vitrilocal, and a gubuk is cluster of male-related households.

    [34] Two older sons of Ibu I's husband (Y's half-brothers) who were in their late thirties in 1991, and were well enough educated to speak English fluently, had married only once and told me they did not approve of polygyny or divorce.

    [35] Suryakusuma, 'The state and Sexuality in New Order Indonesia.'

    [36] Note the various, seemly contradictory ways in which people use the word adat. For older people they refer back to a Wetu Telu adat, while a younger generation has known a different adat that has been strongly influenced by Waktu Lima.

    [37] It is interesting to compare this with a village on the north coast of Bali, where Megan Jennaway found divorce to be highly stigmatic for all women. See 'Bitter honey: female agency and the polygynous household, North Bali,' in Women and Households in Indonesia: Cultural Notions and Social practices, in ed. J. Koning, M. Nolten, J. Rodenburg and R. Saptari, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000, pp. 142-62. In Ambon, Franz von Benda-Beckmann and Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, found there to be common acceptance of divorce as in rural East Lombok. See 'Houses, people and residence: the fluidity of Ambonese living arrangements,' in Women and Households in Indonesia: Cultural Notions and Social practices, ed. J. Koning, M. Nolten, J. Rodenburg and R. Saptari, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000, pp. 102-41.

    [38] Belian is the Sasak term for a traditional healer. The equivalent in Indonesian is dukun.

    [39] Most villages have between five and ten hamlets.

    [40] Men faced considerable peril in travelling overland and by ferry to Malaysia, and as it was illegal they also risked being caught and having their travelling money and/or wages confiscated by the authorities.

    [41] It is important to note that contraception through the government family planning programme is only available from the sub-district clinic and is not available to unmarried women. Condoms are not available through the programme and are not a popular form of contraception. See Grace, 'Health development and Sasak women.' The promotion of condoms, even to protect against HIV infection, was opposed by religious clerics until very recently, as they argued their availability would encourage extra-marital sex.

    [42] Again Benda-Beckmann and Benda-Beckmann, describe a similarly flexible and fluid pattern of parenting and living arrangements after marriage among the Ambonese of Eastern Indonesia. See 'Houses, people and residence,' pp. 102-141.

    [43] Sven Cederroth, 'Islam and adat: some recent changes in the social position of women among Sasak in Lombok,' in Women in Islamic Societies: Social Attitudes and Historical Perspectives, ed. B. Utas, London: Curzon Press, 1983, pp. 160-71.

    [44] Franz von Benda-Beckmann, 'Family law and women's rights,' Law and Society Review, vol. 28, no. 3, 1994, pp. 578-79.

    [45] There is some resistance to abandoning Wetu Telu adat among some of the aristocracy in East Lombok. However they are in the minority.

    [46] While the wife of the Village Head [Kepala Desa] is automatically the head of the PKK, in the village where I lived, the Ibu Kepala Desa never attended PKK meetings called by the subdistrict head's wife (i.e. Ibu Camat), nor took any role at health posts or in other PKK activities. She was a very busy middle-aged woman who ran her own rice mill, employing her female relatives, and was able to afford to go on the Haj [pilgrimage to Mecca] in 1991.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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