Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 23, January 2010
Michele Ford and Lyn Parker (eds)

Women and Work in Indonesia

Asian Studies Association of Australia, Women in Asia Series
London and New York: Routledge, 2008
217 pages; ISBN: 978-0-415-40288-0(hardback); price: $150.00

reviewed by Petra Mahy

  1. Much has been written about state constructions of ideal femininity in Indonesia, most notably by Julia Suryakusuma,[1] Saskia Wieringa[2] and Kathryn Robinson.[3] Particularly under Suharto's New Order regime, ideal women were submissive, chaste wives and devoted mothers – fulfilling their God-given biological nature or kodrat. New Order programs for development and modernity had profound effects at the domestic level. Government policies almost always assumed the existence of a modern nuclear family that had a male head of household who was the main wage earner and where women were primarily performing the domestic work of caring for the family. The woman was located as pendamping suami, or her husband's helpmeet. Where women were earning money, it was assumed that this was merely as a supplement to their husbands' income. The ideal New Order woman was one who bolstered her husband's career by being active in women's auxiliary organisations, but did not 'work' herself. While towards the end of the New Order, there were some movements towards new ideals of gender equity and new media images of wanita karier , the modern career woman,[4] the middle-class housewife was, and mostly still is, idealised as the model Indonesian woman. Of course, beyond the state, religious and local versions of prescribed gender roles may reinforce or modify state hegemonic discourses.
  2. The chapters in this edited book, Women and Work in Indonesia, engage with constructed norms of Indonesian women's roles at the level of women's lived experiences and perspectives on their work and other activities. This collection successfully avoids assumptions of victimisation by tracing women's strategies of engagement with, and sometimes resistance to, ideals of femininity as they face the reality of ensuring economic survival for themselves and their families and try to develop their own sense of self-worth. Readers seeking explorations of gender and work, evidence of how meta-narratives may be received and reinterpreted on the ground, or general knowledge of life in Indonesia will all find much of interest and value in this book.
  3. This volume contains fascinating ethnographic detail of Indonesian women's lives crossing employment sectors, classes and geographical regions. The chapters cover farming women in West Sumatra (Evelyn Blackwood, Ch. 1), transmigrant women in South Sumatra (Gaynor Dawson Ch. 2), midwives and traditional healers in Southeast Sulawesi (Simone Alesich, Ch. 3), tourist hotel staff in Lombok (Bennett, Ch. 4), factory workers in Tangerang (Nicolaas Warouw, Ch. 5), women coal mine operators in East Kalimantan (Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt and Kathryn Robinson, Ch. 6), media workers and journalists (Pam Nilan and Prahastiwi Utari, Ch. 7), migrant Buginese women who work in Malaysia (Nurul Ilmi Idris, Ch. 8), sex workers in Riau (Michele Ford and Leonore Lyons, Ch. 9) and migrant domestic workers in Singapore (Rosslyn Von Der Borch, Ch. 10).
  4. I will describe here just some of the themes and examples that I found particularly salient in this volume. A central theme is the constitution and definition of 'work' itself. While some of the chapters describe activities that are considered to be self-evidently 'work,' such as journalism or mining, other fields of employment are less clear-cut. Blackwood describes how Minangkabau farmers defined work as something that is done with a regular salary like office work or civil service. Men were often defined as petani aja (just farmers) due to the devaluation of farming and farmers' distance from middle-class norms. Farming women often rework the concept of housewife to incorporate their own productive activities into the New Order category of housewife but still do not see themselves as 'working' in the same way that a wanita karier might. On the other hand, the sex workers interviewed by Ford and Lyons insisted that what they do is 'kerja' or 'work' and argued that what they do is not the same as who they are. Their pronouncements may be seen as resisting the dominant idea that prostitution is an immoral state of being rather than a legitimate income-producing activity.
  5. Women may have moved into many modern, industrial sectors in Indonesia, but as some of the chapters show, their inclusion is often underpinned by notions of women's natural personalities. For example, in Lahiri-Dutt and Robinson's chapter, mining is strongly seen as men's work although a small minority of women work as mine truck operators in East Kalimantan. A mine manager explained that the company liked to employ women for their docility, patience, ability to put up with repetitive work and therefore have a better safety record than men, although paradoxically the numbers of women working in the mine remains low. Similar notions about women's docility and obedience support women's employment in factories (Warouw). Women journalists, although generally discouraged from the profession, are sometimes preferred for tasks that require patience, perseverance and the fact that they are considered as not being intimidating to informants (Nilan and Utari).
  6. The link between women's sexuality, work and reputation is also a strong theme throughout the book. An ideal woman is not only a virgin if still single, or faithful if married, but must give the impression of being so. We learn that transmigrant women who might wish to leave the area to seek waged work are prevented or discouraged from doing so as they would be away from the protection and supervision of their husbands and communities (Dawson). Women, particularly married women, are discouraged from being journalists because of the odd hours, frequent travel and the need to appear to put husband and children first (Nilan and Utari). Female hotel workers in Lombok can gain a reputation due to their proximity to Western male tourists and hence often become the objects of heightened sexual aggression from local men (Bennett). Domestic workers in Singapore must also contend with assumed sexual availability and the tendency to equate their situation with sex workers (Von Der Borch). Of course, many women find ways to circumnavigate such restrictions, for example by flexibly interpreting the requirement to travel with a male relative or muhrim in order to go to Malaysia to work (Idris).
  7. In all, this is an absorbing collection of accounts of different forms of women's work in Indonesia and the interaction between ideals of femininity and the reality of women's day to day working lives. My only suggestion is that an additional study of the domestic work of 'ideal housewives' and how they perceive their own activities might have further contributed to challenging the idea that 'work' is necessarily only paid labour outside the home.


    [1] Julia Suryakusuma, 'State Ibuism: appropriating and distorting womanhood in New Order Indonesia,' in Sex, Power and Nation: An Anthology of Writings 1979-2003, ed. Julia Suryakusuma, Jakarta: Metaphor Publishing, 2004, pp. 161–88; Julia Suryakusuma 'The state and sexuality in New Order Indonesia,' in Fantasising the Feminine in Indonesia, ed. Laurie J. Sears, Durham: Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 92–119.

    [2] Saskia Wieringa, 'The birth of the New Order State in Indonesia: sexual politics and nationalism,' in Journal of Women's History, vol. 15, no. 1 (2003): 70–91; Saskia Wieringa, Sexual Politics in Indonesia, Houndmills: Pargrave McMillan, 2003.

    [3] Kathryn Robinson, 'Indonesian women's rights, international feminism and democratic change,' in Communal/Plural, vol. 6, no. 2 (1998): 205–23; Kathryn Robinson, 'Women: difference versus diversity,' in Indonesia Beyond Suharto: Polity, Economy, Society, Transition, ed. Donald K. Emmerson, Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1999, pp. 237–61; Kathryn Robinson, Gender, Islam and Democracy in Indonesia, Routledge: London and New York, 2009.

    [4] Krishna Sen, 'Indonesian women at work: reframing the subject,' in Gender and Power in Affluent Asia, ed. Krishna Sen and Maila Stivens, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 35–62.


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