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Indonesian Women: a Male View


Like everywhere else in the world, in Indonesia each person is an individual. Nevertheless, it is possible to make some general statements about Indonesian women, as the culture and country in which they were brought up exert great influence upon their character, attitudes, even their appearance. But it is important to recognize that such statements will necessarily be generalizations and not blanket observations that ought to be considered universally applicable.

Bringing up Baby

From the time they are born, Indonesian children are treated as though they are the center of the universe. They are indulged, fawned over, and refused nothing their parents and families are capable of giving. As a result many Indonesians never make the transition to adult maturity. Many visitors and long-stay foreigners comment that Indonesians are, to express it charitably, childlike. Self-absorbed, capricious, incapable of serious work, unacquainted with self-discipline, indolent, loud; these are all are terms commonly used to describe Indonesians brought up within the indigenous culture. But children are brought up understanding that the male and female roles in life are different.

Indonesia's is a highly stratified society; one's place in it is dependent upon a multitude of attributes, very few of them earned. One's age, one's skin color, one's region of birth, one's family's wealth, background and distant relatives; all of these play an important role in assigning one's status, so it hardly astonishing that one's gender does as well. And the females of Indonesia are brought up to be deferential and supportive of the males, who by virtue of their sex are automatically of higher status.

It is important to understand, though, that all of these elements are factors in an elaborate calculation - not steps on a straightforward ladder of societal status. A light-skinned woman who employs a darker-skinned driver is clearly of higher status than he is. A darker skinned woman married to a very wealthy lighter skinned man will pick up status by osmosis and will wield higher status than her lighter skinned maid. The permutations are nearly infinite, but most male western immigrants and long-stay foreigners will tell you that, whatever their status as determined by the arcane calculus that seems to come instinctively to Indonesians, the women are wonderful.

Over The Rainbow

It doesn't take long to realize that the middle-aged white male foreigner meets pretty much all the criteria for high status. Assumed relative wealth, generally lighter skin, and the gender is right, too. Given that the women of Indonesia are generally open, friendly, and nearly worshipful of that demographic slice, and that, moreover, a higher than natural proportion of women in Indonesia is staggeringly beautiful, this country can seem like the Promised Land for some visitors.

Middle aged white male visitors are all too often overwhelmed by the positive attention they receive from beautiful, accommodating girls less than half their age. This adoration is, in its own way, genuine.

In Indonesia, there is no premium on telling the truth; being truthful is neither respected nor expected. Saying what's appropriate and behaving in the expected manner is much more highly valued. These young girls, in many cases, want desperately to be married. To be married to someone with the characteristics that accompany high status is the Holy Grail. Bearing a handful of babies that will inherit many of these characteristics will bring them recognition in their families, arouse envy in their friends, and guarantee their security and comfort for the rest of their lives. They say and do what is appropriate and expected, if they are to have a chance at the brass ring

Even more significantly, the young women are genuinely attracted to those who possess those characteristics. What we would think of as being their natural matches, young Indonesian men, in many cases, hold little interest for them. These boys, having been the center of the universe since birth, strike many Indonesian young women as immature, self-centered, whiny, demanding, and arrogant. By contrast, the foreigner who treats them with respect, who flatters them, who appreciates their beauty and their warmth, is pleased by their supportive and deferential natures, and is strong and self-reliant, is bound to seem more charming and romantic.

Fatal Attractions

Of course, some of these young women can be frightfully vain, sometimes approaching the point of obsession over their appearance; beauty is a commodity like everything else in Indonesia. A single date can create a territorial possessiveness and jealousy that would make Michael Douglas' relationship with Glenn Close look reasonable.

Once ensconced in even a casual relationship, Indonesian women expect a great deal, and extended families are part of that deal. It's important to make the terms of any relationship clear as early as possible. Many Indonesian women will be just fine with a relationship that's "just for fun". But if you become involved in that kind of a relationship, it's important that you reign in any jealousy; she absolutely will also see other men, and she will probably one day invite you to her wedding.

Different but Equal

On the other hand, if you meet the right one, she can be the dream wife that started to be endangered in the '50s and is now virtually extinct in the West. She'll cook, have a martini waiting for you when you come through the door (once you've taught her maid how to make them), and be content as your better half. If you can combine that with a true friendship and an ability to tolerate her friends and family, you'll have it made.

Indonesian women see themselves as equal in value to men. They are deferential, and supportive; your girlfriend or wife will think it perfectly reasonable that her role might involve providing the martinis, giving you massages, running a household at which you are the center. But your role will clearly be to earn a living and to pay for everything, including handouts whenever requested by the extended family. You could well find yourself putting a second cousin you've only met once through college. This isn't so much freeloading as it is the rural communism that Soeharto was so afraid of seeing formalized. At the family and clan level, the Marxist principle of "from each according to his ability to each according to his needs" is a presupposition, not a dialectically arrived at conclusion.


Indonesian women take on a different role in society from men, and it's fair to say that Indonesia shares the Eastern view that men's status is automatically higher than that of women. Nevertheless, it's worthwhile remembering that it's not cut and dried.

This country, for example, had a female head of state, something for which the US isn't yet ready, and something which when tried, frightened the hell out of the UK. Of course Megawati Soekarnoputri was the daughter of the first national dictator, Soekarno, and as such inherited a great deal of his status. As well, no one expected much of her, and with her international shopping diplomacy, palace sinetron afternoons, and all day karaoke sessions, she handily met those expectations.

In recent years, the only government minister with great integrity was Sri Mulyani Indrawati. As finance minister, she sought to clean up entrenched corruption and cronysim within the department. She started by firing corrupt officers in the taxation, customs and excise offices. She also introduced sweeping reforms that lifted foreign investment. Next, she went after tycoon and Golkar Party chairman Aburizal Bakrie, trying to bring his coal interests to account for tax fraud. It is widely believed that Bakrie's political clout resulted into Mulyani being pressured into resigning in 2010. She is now one of three managing directors of the World Bank.

The reality just may be that the future of this country lies in the hands of its women. Certainly they are intrinsically more mature and less self-absorbed than their brothers; they are more prepared to work for what they desire, and they are actually capable of recognizing needs and wishes of human beings than themselves. And they are beautiful.

Contributor: Patrick Guntensperger


  Marmalade   04 Jan 09 14:06

Read this in front of my Indonesian girlfriend and she is fuming. I hope your paths don't cross, Patrick. She is feminist, but not rampantly so and she is still really angry, despite the disclaimer. Made me chuckle though...

  okusi   04 Jan 09 15:26

how about getting your gf to write an stinging rejoinder? that patrick needs a good talking to! ;)

we do actually need other perpectives on gender in indonesia, preferrably from the "other" gender herself.

  patrick   15 Mar 09 15:50

Just out of curiosity, Marmalade, is your girlfriend really angry because the article is largely my opinion based upon observation? Or is she angry because I expressed it? Or is disagreement and and rage roughly the same for her?

Glad it made you chuckle though; while I stand by everything in the piece, I can't imagine anyone taking it as seriously as your girlfriend appears to have. Perhaps I touched a nerve.

And I'd love to meet her some time. Hear a different point of view and all that. I wouldn't get angry.


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