Intersections: Introduction : Gender and Culture in Contemporary Indonesia
Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 19, February 2009

Gender and Culture in Contemporary Indonesia

Barbara Baird

  1. This issue of Intersections on 'Gender and Culture in Contemporary Indonesia' began in a symposium about gender in contemporary Indonesia hosted by the Department of Women's Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide in April 2007. That symposium featured presentations by two visitors from the University of Tasmania, Dr Pam Allen and Professor Barbara Hatley, and presentations from postgraduate students and staff from Women's Studies and other departments and centres in the Faculty of Social Science. Four papers that were originally presented at that symposium appear in this special issue (Allen, Rosslyn von der Borch, Sri Kosumo Habsari, Novi Kurnia), supplemented by papers on Indonesia generated from elsewhere (Carmencita Palermo and Ilmi Nurul Idris) and a paper on Asian migrant sex workers in Australia not specifically related to Indonesia (Elena Jeffreys). The issue also includes several book reviews.
  2. The social and cultural changes that have followed the fall of the Suharto regime in Indonesia in 1998 provide a backdrop to the articles included in this issue. The decade since the end of the New Order has seen an increasing public presence of women and enhanced freedom of speech for all, although neither of these phenomena goes without contest. The rise of political Islam is the source of most opposition to women's new freedoms and decentralisation has, in some regions, lead to the implementation of conservative measures which would not otherwise have found public space.[1] The interrelation of these changes with the wider sweep of globalisation and, in some articles, with the legacies of pre-modern ethnic cultures also set the scene.
  3. While Ariel Heryanto points out that changing patterns in the production and consumption of media and popular culture were evident well before the political demise of the New Order,[2] the discussions in this issue of the highly popular television sinetron (soap opera) Misteri Gunung Merapi and the film Berbagi Suami locate their objects centrally as post New Order cultural phenomena. Similarly the discussion of the anti-pornography bill that was introduced into the national parliament in 2003 and finally passed in 2008 locates the bill as a key site of debate over the competing trends in the cultural politics of the last decade. These three articles contribute to the study of popular culture in Indonesia, an area which 'has often been misunderstood, overlooked or dismissed' in Indonesian studies.[3]
  4. Sri Kusomo Habsari focuses her discussion of Misteri Gunung Merapi (MGM), a highly popular soap opera first produced in 1998, around the presence of fighting women in the series. MGM is an action series set in an imaginary mystical past where an equal number of women and men exercise supernatural powers in order to fight. Habsari uses the considerable body of literature about fighting women in Hollywood action cinema and in Chinese martial arts films to tease out an account of specifically Indonesian representations of sex and gender. She concludes that MGM offers the modern Indonesian women among its audience an expectation of gender equality albeit set in a supernatural past and in the context of the maintenance of clearly apparent difference between female and male bodies.
  5. Novi Kurnia's paper offers an in depth textual analysis of director Nia Dinata's 2006 feature film Berbagi Suami (Love for Share). The film considers polygamy (polygyny to be more specific) in contemporary Indonesia. Dinata is one of a group of film directors who are thriving in the post New Order period, making films that deal with issues relating to gender and sexuality that previously would not have found public space. Berbagi Suami tells the stories of three women living in polygamous marriages in very different circumstances in Jakarta. Their experiences differ along religious, socio-economic and ethnic lines. Kurnia teases out several themes evident in the film and argues that it offers a complex and nuanced account of polygamy that stresses women's agency and power whilst simultaneously showing how women suffer in polygamous marriages.
  6. Pam Allen's account of the RUU-AAP, Indonesia's controversial anti-pornography bill, now law, offers, among other things, a useful background to the contested atmosphere in which increasingly liberal representations of gender and sexuality are received. Its passing into law was met by widespread demonstrations of opposition as well as support. Allen's article reworks an earlier version that she published in Asian Studies Review[4] to give an updated account that focuses on the responses by women to the bill. She argues that women's public participation in the debate around the bill is both a symbol of their wider concerns about the status of women in contemporary Indonesia and a continuation of earlier strategies of resistance by women to state structures. The legacy of their opposition to the anti-pornography bill in terms of the positions and tactics that women's organisations adopted, and indeed the bill's long term impact on women's public presence in Indonesia now the bill has been passed, are matters yet to be determined.
  7. The rest of the articles in this issue on gender and culture in contemporary Indonesia are not located primarily in the 'post Suharto' time frame but pay attention to the broader impact of globalisation and/or the older framework of traditional cultural practices.
  8. Carmencita Palermo's article concerns a form of traditional cultural practice, Balinese dance and performance, that, like electronic and other more modern forms of media, may well feel the impact of the anti-pornography legislation. Indeed, Balinese leaders were immediately outspoken in defying the new law. A combination of different cultural and religious traditions and dependence on the tourist economy mean that Balinese people are particularly concerned by the bill's prohibitions on bodily display.[5] Palermo's focus, however, is not on the immediacy of national politics but on the distinct albeit related timeframe of modernisation and its links with the emancipation of women. Her article draws on her involvement since the mid-1990s with Balinese masked dance-drama, topeng, and documents and analyses the increasing presence of women performers over this period. She locates this development in the context of the transformations wrought through globalisation and modernisation present across many Asian societies. Indonesians who return after having lived and worked overseas, foreigners who come to Bali to learn dance and the opportunities to perform overseas are all factors that have encouraged local women to become performers of topeng. The overlay of post New Order developments, including regional autonomy and a conservative cultural discourse in Bali, add to the complex mix of forces that Palermo observes and reflects upon. Her analysis of interviews with women who perform topeng teases out the constraints and the possibilities that surround their performance work. The presence of Palermo's paper in this issue is indebted to Barbara Hatley, in more ways than one. An article based on Hatley's presentation on women's theatre in Indonesia at the Flinders University symposium had already been earmarked for inclusion in Issue 16 of Intersections[6] so she suggested a paper from Palermo for this issue of the journal. Hatley had supervised Palermo's thesis and assisted in the translation of a thesis chapter into the article which appears here.
  9. Ilmi Nurul Idris discusses another aspect of customary practice in Indonesia—marriage. In this sense her article provides a companion piece to Kurnia's analysis of Berbagi Suami, the anti-polygamy film. Idris draws on fieldwork conducted among the Bugis in South Sulawesi between 1999 and 2001, and on return visits made between 2002 and 2005, where she investigated practices of 'illegal' marriage and divorce. Her article is a detailed account of these 'illegal' marriage practices among the Bugis, and the different social circumstances that will lead some people to marriages that are not sanctioned by law or formal religious protocol. It traces the intricate interweaving of national law, Islamic dictate, Bugis custom and social necessity in one part of contemporary Indonesia and considers the position of women in particular in this complex social/cultural network.
  10. Two articles in this issue discuss the lives of women who have left their own countries as labour migrants. Rossi von der Borch's article concerns Indonesian women who go to Singapore to be employed as domestic workers. In fact her article is equally about a cohort of female, mostly white and Western, expatriates who employ them and draws from interviews conducted in Singapore in the early 2000s with both groups of women. Its focus is the negotiation undertaken by both parties around food and meals—whether domestic worker and employer eat together or not, if so—when, and how they feel about whether they do or don't. She writes about households where the employer is described as 'good' and the migrant domestic worker is 'successful,' arguing that analysis of the negotiations in these relationships can teach us much about how best to respond to the ethical and subjective challenges of a structurally unequal world.
  11. Elena Jeffreys' article is also concerned with labour migration and structural inequality, but her focus is on the bigger picture of governmental response rather than intersubjective negotiation. She discusses Australian government responses to trafficking and the implications of this for migrant sex workers. In Australia these women are most likely to come from Thailand and China, with a growing group migrating from South Korea. Jeffreys, like von der Borch, foregrounds the agency of these migrant women and argues that we should avoid analyses and policy approaches that override their subjectivity. In this context she rejects positions that are fundamentally, often morally, opposed to sex work, arguing that government anti- trafficking measures are often effectively anti-sex work and have negative effects on sex workers. Indeed government immigration policies which make entry into Australia difficult in the first place may play a part in pushing sex workers to trafficking-like pathways. Jeffreys' article is a timely intervention into a current process of review of government approaches to people who have been trafficked. After a decade of anti-sex work rhetoric she is hopeful that a human rights and labour rights approach to migrant sex workers can be embraced by the Australian government.
  12. I would like to thank all the contributors to this issue, the readers who all reviewed articles in timely manner and most of all Carolyn Brewer, the editor of Intersections. As previous guest editors have acknowledged, Carolyn's skill, editorial savvy and patience provide the bedrock on which this important journal is based.


    [1] Barbara Hatley, 'Hearing women's voices, contesting women's bodies in post New Order Indonesia,' in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, no. 16 (March 2008), online:; Ariel Heryanto, 'Pop culture and competing identities,' in Popular Culture in Indonesia: Fluid Identities in Post-Authoritarian Politics, ed. Ariel Heryanto, Oxon: Routledge, 2008, pp. 1–36.

    [2] Heryanto, 'Pop culture and competing identities,' p. 8.

    [3] Heryanto, 'Pop culture and competing identities,' p. 5.

    [4] Pam Allen, '"Challenging diversity": Indonesia's anti-pornography bill,' in Asian Studies Review, vol. 31, no. 2 (June 2007):101–15.

    [5] Jason Tedjasukmana, 'Indonesia's new anti-porn agenda,' in Time World, 6 November 2008, online:,8599,1857090,00.html, accessed 23 February 2009.

    [6] Hatley, 'Hearing women's voices.'


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