Women in Indonesia


Women have traditionally been held in a high place in many cultures of the archipelago, and it was the advent first of Islam and subsequently European colonialism which helped push women exclusively into the roles of housewife and mother. Prior to the widespread adoption of Islam in the 16th century, women were known to serve as diplomats and traders. The first assertions that women didn’t belong in the public sphere came from Islamic scholars, but Islam still accommodated local tradition and therefore female ritualists and performers were still common. The number of female rulers in the region dramatically decreased starting in the 17th century, and women became less involved in trade and other activities during this time. The 18th century saw women becoming less important in religious roles and even the home; this period saw increasing Dutch control and influence. During the 19th and early 20th century, young aristocratic women were educated to be housewives and mothers, thereby adhering to “modern” Dutch standards of strict gender roles.


The royal courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta had female bodyguards who dressed in the same fashion as male soldiers, and an 18th century condemnation by an Islamic scholar from Aceh shows that this practice was known elsewhere in the region. This transgression of gender roles by women extended beyond military roles and there was a tradition of female ritualist specialists who dressed and acted as men, known as manang-bali. A similar tradition also existed until the 20th century on the island of Bali, where some women would wear men’s clothes and perform temple rituals. While these roles are less common today, it’s notable how fluid gender roles have been in the past in the archipelago.


Modern Indonesia is caught in a complicated place, and there’s a pattern of increasing Islamic conservatism in the country which contrasts with the traditionally more accommodating vision of Islam practised in the archipelago. Indonesian women might still have more freedoms than women in many Muslim-majority countries, but any vision of feminism in the country must address how gender equality can exist in an Islamic society and is not a “western influence”. Since many of the present Islamic figures in Indonesian society are bent on following a more conservative vision of Islam, it will vital to understand how to counter any attempts at taking away women’s autonomy or denying education. This is especially true when Islam is gaining more prominence than it’s ever had since independence was declared, with more assertion of Muslim identity and indeed the increasing numbers of Indonesian women wearing the hijab.

A women-only car at the front of a KRL Jabotabek commuter train.

On some islands where Islamic influence is less and traditional tribal culture is more prevalent, the model of society is patriarchal and this continues to have adverse effects on women’s autonomy. For instance, Bugis-Makassar culture in Sulawesi tends to marry off girls as young as 12 for dowries. These sorts of trends exist throughout rural parts of Indonesia, and the fact remains that local governments don’t really care to do anything about empowering women. In a country as spread out as Indonesia, it would be difficult enough to reach out across the country even when local governments are interested. Apathy and poverty seriously don’t help the status of women.


President Megawati Sukarnoputri

Overall, the situation of women in Indonesia has seen some advancements, and it’s been nearly two decades since Megawati Sukarnoputri became the nation’s first female president. In urban parts of the country, women are generally educated and focused on their careers rather than marriage. Of the government scholarships awarded in the country, more have gone to women. Government representation is not proportional to Indonesian women’s share of the population, but it’s still the highest share among the 10 most populous nations. Women account for 33% of the total non-agricultural workforce, and it would appear that there are more and more women in senior business roles as well as government ones. Since a surge in foreign investment in the 1970s, women came to be regarded as a cheap labour force for manufacturing. Women in Indonesia always enjoyed some social and economic freedoms, and it would seem that the current situation is largely a continuation of that. Capitalism, Islam, and patriarchy all have their effects, and it remains to be seen whether the status of Indonesian women will improve or whether they will be subject to further impediments in the coming years.


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