The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, November 14, 2006



“Never underestimate the potential of Indonesian village women. And never doubt their intelligence.

“The only difference between them and people in the city is chance. The chance to get a broad education. The chance to encounter different people and ideas. The chance to travel.”

Now opportunities are becoming available as more women from the regions seek higher education or go overseas to work. And according to Dra Doni Rekro Harijani they’re returning home with ideas both good and bad – but which are changing Indonesian rural life.

Doni, 67, who was trained as an educator and administrator, has published a book on the issue – The Work Ethic of Village Women. This is based on research she conducted while her husband Soetrisno was the regent of Nganjuk, about 150 kilometres south west of Surabaya.

Her study was undertaken in Karangsemi, where women specialise in handicrafts, usually making plastic handbags.

“I don’t know why I chose that village,” she said. “I’d never been there before but I felt drawn to it. It’s a mixed farming area and not well off.

“Most of the women are mothers, wives or daughters of landless farm laborers,” she said. “Many earn more than their men but they play down their income and achievements to honor their husbands.

“They are seen as the second provider in the family and just claim to be helping their husbands. My research showed they often get up to double their husband’s income.”

Doni said the lives of rural women were changing as three major influences impacted – education, the media and work overseas. However she said not all experiences were beneficial.

On one occasion she overheard young women chatting on their way home by plane from Hong Kong.

The maids were talking about boyfriends and urging one to ‘try before you buy’, meaning to check compatibility prior to marriage by living together. This practice, regarded in Indonesia as a Western evil, is usually known as ‘free sex’.

In some overseas countries maids are treated as equals by the family and sit together at meals. “That would never happen here,” Doni said. “The distance between the maid and the mistress is not too great, but it’s still there.

“Workers who have gone overseas have seen how other people live and the way that women are treated. They read newspapers and magazines. They watch TV. Back in Indonesia the women want a better life.”

Now her husband has retired to live in Surabaya, Doni teaches home economics at a vocational school. Next year she’ll go to Suriname (the South American republic and former Dutch colony) to teach the descendants of Indonesian laborers the elaborate make-up arts used in Javanese weddings.

Doni said life for village women was hard. They were expected to do all the domestic chores, care for the family and earn money.

One of the things they could not do was refuse their husbands’ sexual demands.

“In Javanese culture each gender has its responsibility,” Doni said. “It’s just expected. It’s not ordered. It’s automatic. The pressures are social.

“There are no rape-in-marriage laws in Indonesia and it’s impossible that a wife could refuse sex however tired she might be. It’s her role to obey – she can’t plead a headache!

“I once asked a group of men: ‘When you wake up in the morning do you ever fold the blanket?’ Not one confessed to ever doing that simple job. It’s difficult to change the mindset of men and women. It’s happening, but slowly. Step-by-step. It depends on the individual.

“The old proverb banyak anak, banyak rejeki (many children, good fortune) no longer applies. Women know that a large family means low education and poverty. They fully understand the need for family planning.

“Girls now marry older and teenage pregnancies are getting rare. Unfortunately marriages sometimes take place with a couple that’s related. They want to keep their land and other possessions in the family rather than share with outsiders.

“This can lead to children being born with handicaps like deafness, and birth defects.

“Money is status. It helps give women independence so if there’s a dispute in the marriage she no longer fears being kicked out and becoming destitute. However some estranged couples stay together, maybe sleeping in separate rooms, to preserve the social conventions. Divorced women still have status problems.

“Close communal living also puts constraints on domestic violence because it’s difficult to hide from neighbors.

“Working with the local government we introduced a credit scheme where families were able to borrow Rp 1 million (US $110) to start home enterprises. The annual interest was about one per cent. This was a success.

“Things are now much better than ten years ago. The quality of life for the women and their families has improved. One woman has become the first from Karangsemi to get a university education.

“Village women have a strong work ethic, but they suffer many cultural and social constraints. They need encouragement from the wider society along with moral and material support to help them feel more confident.

“Many things still need to be done. Next time you go to a shopping mall look in the up-market boutiques.

“You’ll see handicrafts priced for Rp 400,000 (US $44). Maybe the women who made them have been paid only Rp 20,000 (US $2). They don’t have anyone who can promote their work.

“When I started doing this my friends asked why I was bothering. My husband had a good position and status. I didn’t need to work and study.

“But it’s my duty to share my education and knowledge with others.

“If we don’t do this our learning is like a big tree – but one which carries no fruit.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 November 06)