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3.7 WOMEN: Between Misogyny and Empowerment
Although many of the ethical ideas about the gendered representation of women in society are elaborated in the context of family values, this section devotes attention specifically to women. Women are notably absent from the world of wayang. There are very few women dalang (and none of the dalang whose work is considered for this dissertation is a woman), and female characters tend to be less numerous and speak less in both traditional and kontemporer performances.
However, many ideas about the gendered representation of women in society are articulated in the male-dominated world of wayang kontemporer. This section will consider the role of women from the point of view of the kontemporer performances, describing the ethical responsibilities that befit women. The range of positions the dalang take with respect to this issue is wide. Some present what is imagined to be the ideal role of women (often in relation to marriage) or through direct misogynous criticism. At the opposite end of the spectrum we find performances that question the normative expectation of women's behavior, or that reference public discourse on femininity.
Sungsang Bawono Balik is an example of a performance that makes a tangential comment about the role of women in marriage. This is uttered by Canggik to her daughter Limbuk in the Limbukan scene. This is the only performance considered for this dissertation that includes the Limbukan, which traditionally takes place after the adegan jejeran (first audience scene) in the traditional sequence of wayang scenes (see Becker, 1995). In this comic interlude, Limbuk and Cangik often talk about marriage. Fittingly, this is what is said in Sungsang Bawono Balik:
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CANGIK. A woman's duty is hard indeed, she should always be ready to please her husband. And she should be like a stone if her husband passes. It has always been like that.
Marriage features prominently in this performance since its protagonist, Saroja Kusuma, is on a quest to improve his looks and find a wife. But the women are mostly absent from the storyline, except for the Limbukan scene just quoted. As mentioned above, all of the dalang in this dissertation are men, and very few of the performances include female performers or female writers. The voices of women are imagined and impersonated by men. Not surprisingly, female characters are mostly silent in the kontemporer performances.
An exception is Slamet Gundono's Pertaruhan Drupadi. In this performance, Puntadewa, Drupadi's husband, loses several things in a game of dice against Duryudana. Among other things, he places his kingdom and his wife's freedom as stakes. Although he will shortly regain his wife's freedom, this performance focuses on the rage experienced by Drupadi before this happens.
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DALANG. Drupadi cried inconsolably.
DRUPADI. Why did you bet me away me without telling me, Puntadewa? Where have I failed you? In the mornings, I heat up the water before you awake. I cook the food and clean the bed. I have been like a forest at night, like a forest during the day. Then why would you put me up as a stake? You are arrogant, Puntadewa. You are only interested in money.
DALANG. Drupadi cried.
DRUPADI. [English in the original] Please Puntadewa, I am angry with you, really, I am angry. Bastard!
Afraid of the imminent threat of rape by the Kurawa, she sets out on a trip around the world, trying to find someone who can help her and protect her. And then she meets the then-president of the US, George Bush (I have quoted this exchange in Politics). Their conversation is depicted in a comical tone that highlights, rather than undermines, the gravity of Drupadi's problems:
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DALANG. So George Bush took a shower. He came out of the White House, looking arrogant and vain because he had just attacked Iraq and won the war against Sadam Hussein. Apparently his favorite music was not dance, disco or jazz, but Bendrong from Banyumas.
Bush, represented by a sieve, covered in a slendang, enters dancing Bendrong.
BUSH. Who was looking for me earlier? Who was making noise?
DRUPADI. I am the person looking for you.
BUSH. Who are you? I am busy.
DRUPADI. Are you truly George Bush?
BUSH. Yes. The President of America.
DRUPADI. I ask for your help, the Kurawa want to rape me.
BUSH. And you are asking for my help? Alright. What do I get in return?
DRUPADI. I ask for help and you immediately talk about payment. Is this really a president? I don't have anything.
BUSH. Then it's impossible. There must be something given in return, something that will benefit my country. We accept petrol, oil, we would really like some oil, even if it's cooking oil.
DRUPADI. This can't be true, I am asking for help! You are supposed to look after the safety of the world, so you should be able to help anyone. I was sacrificed by my husband.
BUSH. Oh, that's a trivial problem. I am only interested in big events, such as the presidential elections in Indonesia. Thinks like... the war between Korea and China. Your problem is insignificant.
Here, Drupadi is depicted as ultimately powerless. The only thing she can do is plead to the deaf ears of a world leader. But when she returns home she speaks to the dalang, who encourages her to take control of her own life.
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DRUPADI. I will be raped by the Kurawa! Please change the story, Pak Dalang Slamet. Please change the story!
DALANG. I cannot change that. People the world over will be angry with me. This is part of the wayang rules. You should just leave the world of wayang and look for a lifestyle that befits you. You will finally be able to determine your own fate. You will not depend on the dalang, you will not depend on the people in power, or on your husband. Go away! Search for by-ways and back routes. It is time for women not to have to depend on anyone.
DRUPADI. Alright, Pak Slamet. I will go and look for that.
DALANG. I remember my mother and her disappointment. Could happiness arrive and pain be left behind? [...] < br /> DALANG. [Singing] Sometimes I wish to ask. What are humans in the world for? Is it only for pain? Drupadi, don't give up. When you are suffering like that, you remind me of my mother in the past. She looked after her children every day. Her twelve children were given food: tempe, tahu and sambal. And the kids were sent away to attend university and get degrees, so that they could escape suffering. My mother didn't ask for anything in return, she really did not ask for anything. She was just proud of her children's success. Sometimes misunderstandings happen. Many children forget their mothers and fathers. Drupadi, don't despair! Look at all the women in the villages, in the town and in the city suburbs. There are many strong and amazing women who did not kill themselves. They did not despair, but faced life. Go there! It is time that you don't depend on any man. And time for men not to depend on women. Life has got out of control. Strange times that began with our ancestors. [...] [singing ]Listen to this story of pain; a painful story from a bloody land. We have only prayers and hopes. Sometimes I want to ask you...and you... and you... [to the spectators] You. What is the point of living alone? If you have no friends, no brothers, no one, would you still dare to live in the world?
This is an unusual moment in the kontemporer performances for three reasons: the dalang tells a character to exit the wayang world, he talks about his own life, and he says women should take more control of their lives and not depend on men anymore. Women are presented as hardworking individuals whose efforts and suffering are not sufficiently acknowledged.
This is the only performance with such a progressive view. An almost contrasting perspective is articulated in Sujiwo Tejo's Kasmaran Tak Bertanda, which depicts women as manipulative, hypocritical and ultimately mysterious.
This performance tells the story of Bhisma, the sage and teacher of both the Kurawa and Pandawa, who, in his youth, made a pledge to remain celibate. Once, he won three women – Amba, Ambika and Ambalika – in a contest at the Kasi Kingdom, who were intended as wives for his younger brother. However, Amba fell in love with him and tried to seduce him. He rejected her and killed her accidentally. With her last breath, she placed a curse on him, saying that one day she would return to kill him. Then, in the Baratayuda war, Srikandi (the only woman to fight in the war) became temporarily possessed by Amba's spirit and killed Bhisma. In Kasmaran Tak Bertanda, while introducing Amba, the dalang candidly describes women as hypocritical:
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DALANG. Women are the only creatures in the world whom we love when in fact they laugh behind our backs.
A similar view is echoed in the words of the character Santanu, who is puzzled by his mistress' actions.
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SANTANU. Typical woman! You give them your heart and they take all your insides. If you give them the Anti-Corruption Commission they go after the police. If you give them the police they go after the president. If you give them the president they go after the jury. Typical women! They have always been the same, from Greek times to the present. From the times when there was no ministry for the Empowerment of Women to a time where there will be a ministry for the Empowerment of Men.
It seems that this view of women is distributed through Kasmaran Tak Bertanda. Not only does the dalang speak his views directly, he also has a wide range of characters echo similar opinions. We can consider one more example, Bhisma himself:
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BHISMA. The mistresses of the powerful, the world over, are the same. Typical women! The poison of the world.
And even the voice of Amba seems to ratify this view of women. While trying to defend her own intelligence against the attacks of Santanu and Bhisma, she admits to the hypocritical character ascribed to her.
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AMBA. If I were stupid, there would be no world leaders such as Sukarno, Mao or Washington. They were all created and supported by women laughing behind their backs.
Her description implies that women are more complex than Bhisma allows for, and that he himself knows nothing about them. However, as I will later show, this is hardly a defence of women.
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AMBA. Maybe you think I am the same as other women, those who like to be overpowered by men, Bhisma. You can have your way in anything you want. But you know nothing about women.
Amba means this in self-defence. However, the dalang's comments would later suggest that Bhisma's lack of knowledge about women is not peculiar to him, but because women are intrinsically mysterious, and therefore any attempt to understand them is futile.
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DALANG. I present this story to anyone who thinks that women can be figured out. I present this story to anyone who thinks that, actually, women can be figured out. I present this story to the husbands who at one point been chased away from the bedroom and who take it as hatred when in fact it was probably out of love. Women are more difficult than God. So far, I have not been able to understand women. Some women like speaking sweetly, with flowers. They act submissively but this might be a way of seeking revenge, a way of showing to God knows whom that they can control their husbands. I pity those husbands.
Sujiwo Tejo's unique perspective on the story of Bhisma and Amba adds to the essentially mysterious qualities with which women are portrayed. He suggests that, after dying on the battle field, Bhisma and Amba became lovers in the after-life.
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DALANG. The soul of Bhisma flew away from him. In the distance it was greeted by his mother Dewi Gangga. And Dewi Amba immediately followed them. This will become our secret, a secret between you [the spectators] and me, the two of us. Maybe the rest of the dalang don't know this. Not even Kresna. Call me a crazy dalang if you like. Call me a stupid dalang if you like. Let the Indonesian Association of Dalang force me into exile. I don't care, because I would rather follow the desires of my heart, of my soul. And please forgive me if this brings misery upon my family or my alma mater.
After all his rantings against women, Bhisma appears to be in love with Amba. Women are presented in this performance as double-faced, manipulative and impossible to know. And men are represented as the powerless victims of hidden female power, the victims who love them against their own best interest. Kontemporer performances, despite their innovative drive to find new aesthetics and interpretations, do not always uphold progressive views on social issues. The conservative and sexist view presented in this performance does however strike a chord with contemporary viewers. These ideas are perhaps not uncommon in a country where female equality is still a distant goal and where there has been a resurrection of violence against women, with a resurgence of practices such as Female Genital Mutilation in the 21st century (Vitchek 2012: 104).
As Sonja van Wichelen notes, following Marshall Clark (2004), “the Indonesian male is torn between outdated and archetypal images of the man (such as illustrated in Javanese mythology) and new, alternative, images of the man that are more ambiguous and hybrid” (van Wichelen 2004: 91). The views expressed in Kasmaran Tak Bertanda conform to widely held notions in the early 21st century, a time when “confrontations to hegemonic understandings of the Indonesian family, gender relations and sexuality correlated with the collapse of the highly patriarchal Suharto regime” (Wichelen 2004: 91). However, these confrontations had mixed outcomes, sometimes strengthening gender inequality and sometimes opening up areas for debate. Sonja van Wichelen suggests that four key events triggered public discussions on gender in Post-Suharto Indonesia: the female presidency, new veiling practices, a pro-polygamy campaign, and contestations over public sexualities. These discussions matter because they marked important moments “through which cultural groups in society, or the nation as a whole, make an inventory of their own positions.”
The contrasting views expressed in the performances of Slamet Gundono and Sujiwo Tejo are part of this inventory of positions. However, direct comment on the four events identified by Wichelen is mostly absent from the kontemporer performances discussed in this dissertation. The exception is an appearance by Minul Darah Tinggi, a character who represents Inul Daratista, in the performance of Wayang Kampung Sebelah.
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MINUL DARAH TINGGI. And we will shake it together and warm up the night. I am sorry if I speak like this, but this is my style.
Inul Daratista is Wichelen's prime example of contestations over public sexuality (Wichelen 2004: 92-99). A singer and dancer from East Java, Inul ignited a national controversy because of her sexy dangdut dance moves called goyang (shaking). In the early 2000s, she was banned from performing in different cities and became involved in a fierce public debate with Rhoma Irama, the creator of dangdut and an Islamic proselytizer who saw in her dance moves a perversion of the music which he invented. Inul responded directly to the criticism, in a style perfectly captured by the wayang puppet above, which helped fuel the debates and frame them within larger social discussions about the role of women in society.
The phenomenon of Inul and the discussion on pornography are symptomatic of a country in transition. In times of political change, ‘morality talk' seems to induce a sense of stability or restored order and as such compensates anxieties of post-1998 chaotic and disorderly times. (Wichelen 2004: 92).
Ariel Heryanto identifies different moments in the controversy triggered by Inul Daratista:
  1. In 2003 the issue caught fire when her performances were banned by the Indonesian Council of Ulamas.
  2. In April 2003 she engaged in a controversy with the father of dangdut, Rhoma Irama.
  3. 2004-6 were characterized by an anti-climax and disappearance of the debate from the public sphere.
  4. In 2006 the debate re-emerged in the context of the controversy about the anti-porn bill.
This chronology leads Ariel Heryanto to believe that the controversy was also a matter of timing: earlier she would not have been that provocative. He hypothesizes that the controversy she triggered was not only due to the erotic character of her dance but also to her usage of an eastern Javanese idiom and etiquette, in speaking in ngoko to audiences (Heryanto 2008: 22). In Wayang Kampung Sebelah, she is presented as defiant and self-assured, which perhaps signals her importance as an alternative role model in the aftermath of the controversies just outlined.
The excerpts above correspond to a wide-ranging inventory of positions on the gendered representation of women in society. On one hand, their conventional representations are ratified either through praise or criticism. On the other hand, such conventional images are challenged, with narrative twists or by referencing topical discourses on women in Indonesia.
Pertaruhan Drupadi is the most progressive of the performances considered in this section, and Kasmaran Tak Bertanda is the most conservative. Yet, both serve to illustrate the tensions of contemporary figurations of femeninity in Indonesia, as they represent the opposite ends of a continuum along which we can place the other performances, despite the fact that their positions towards women are less explicitly articulated.
The whole gamut of aesthetic innovations I analyze in Chapter 2 is present in this section on women, with no single omission or dominant tendency. Once again, as has been the case in the previous sections, we encounter an sharp distinction between aesthetic and ethic innovations, casting them as separate artistic adventures. The most progressive performances in one realm can be conservative in the other. But ultimately, what this also shows is a wide array of positions, as well as inner diversity within those positions. The performances that address the role of women show one of the greatest degrees of divergence in the perspectives they articulate. They are equally heterogeneous in their usage of aesthetic possibilities for inventiveness. Yet, these two areas for exploration don't map onto one anther through simple equations of meaning. And it is perhaps in that lack of direct correlations that these performances are truly contemporary. Java is undergoing rapid sociocultural change, but that change is not uniform nor is it directed in a single line. A universe of competing and internally disjointed perspectives is the cultural reality of Java. These works of wayang kontemporer help represent, create and problematize this variety.