Balinese Women: The Sarcastic Look

Culture | Written By, Jean Couteau |

With the teeth showing “women’s lib” types of tourists around nowadays, the theme of women’s empowerment might well be coming to the Balinese table. Haven’t we all seen Balinese women carrying heavy loads, and heard of the charms of Balinese breasts, not to mention the fertility rate, offerings, family planning and even AIDS? That other half of the population, the women, might therefore be worth some important attention.

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Regarding philosophy, women in Bali have nothing to be worried about: there is gender equality. The Female cosmic principle (Pradana) is considered the complementary opposite of the Male principle (Purusa.). The first embodies the principle of Matter and the second that of Spirit. From their cosmic union, the world is born, so goes the tradition of Balinese Shivaisme.

From this lofty philosophical ground, the male/female couple of opposites are carried down the road to ever-earthlier symbolisms: God of the air (Akasa) versus Goddess of the earth (Pertiwi); God of love (Asmara) versus Goddess of the moon (Ratih); mountain versus lake or sea. Then it lands for good, the man embodying the Purusa principle (lingam) and the women the Pradana (yoni). At this level it becomes sexual: the man carries the kris (Balinese sacred knife) and looks, unavoidably, for his saung (sheath). They marry and have children: the male child is (sometimes) called “Little Testicles” (I Butuh) while the girl has to make do with “Little Vagina” (Ni Jebet). Everything, thus, is gently sexualized, with women seemingly having their own share, half of everything.

Spirit, however, always has control over Matter, and the kris is a better weapon than the sheath. Women’s conditions here are far from rosy. First there is heritage, which in Bali is transmitted in the Purusa or male line. If there is no male heir, one of the daughters’ husbands is adopted into the father’s family, so as to guarantee the proper “patrilineal” transmission of wealth and power: this is the nyentana marriage. Balinese boys, however, are usually reluctant to pick up the role, unless the girl is rich: it entails “submission” and they’re being turned into symbolic “females”.

The unequal partnership between men and women bears on concrete aspects of social life. For example: women don’t belong to the banjar (neighborhood association), nor to the desa adat (village community) as individual citizens, but are a part of a pekurenan (nuclear family). Women have therefore practically no autonomy of their own. They may have their female “corvee” (ayahan isteri) as the men have their own, but the jobs to perform are decided during the all-male assembly of the banjar or desa. Women, as a matter of rule, never live independently and always have to share someone else’s compound – their father’s and then their husband’s. They reside with their father until they are “taken away” (juanga), i.e. until they marry. Spinsters are considered as daha (virgins), and therefore, still live under the shelter of their father’s premises, having no more say than their married sisters. Do I have to add that the epitome of the women’s dependence is religious. It is to their father’s genealogical gods that young women owe their prayers and service, including the world-famous offerings. Then they marry and shift their religious duties to their husband’s gods.

From the gods, let’s shift to demons: as in most traditional cultures, women are considered to be basically impure (sebel). Not only does their menstrual period make them ritually unclean, but their sexuality itself is “dirty”. Their vagina is bluntly quoted in the classical literature as being a “year-long incurable sore, which causes the world to go “banana.” (ri tengah nikang kulit sasulpitning kidang, hana ta kani, menga ta keneng waras …. Ya ta angde wulangun iriking rat, muda, wuta, tuli ya denya. Sarasmucaya 31:438). Although “women eat twice as little food as men”, one also reads, “they are sexually eight times more resistant” (ring stri yan pinakottama dwigunaring bhuknya sangkeng puman …yan ring sanggama kastabhaga sira sang swaminya kokteng aji – Nitiçastra 13:8). We males all know this, alas! But is this why Balinese men keep such a close eye on their ladies, trying to control all the aspects of their life, their love, their marriage and even their divorce?

Regarding love and marriage, the partnership between men and women is, of course, an unequal one: women must be faithful, while men should only be “responsible”, meaning that their unfaithfulness is no cause for divorce, as long as they look after their children. Most “traditional” Balinese women expect their husbands to behave once in a while “like a youth” (nrunen), i.e. to go on the hunt. When this happens, the unhappy wife should accept it. “Women must know how to behave,” goes the saying” (Anak dadi anak luh, pang tatas ken dewek). Some women even go as far in the acceptance of their fate as giving advice to their beloved husband: “Eat your full, brother,” they will say, “but don’t bring the plate back home,” (Melahang madahar, beli, kwala da ngaba tekor mulih). In educated circles, the advice might be more explicit, and reveal hygienic worries:” If you buy sate (skewers), make sure you come back clean.” (Yen beli meli sate pang bersih aba mulih). All this shows high tolerance on the part of women towards a gender, which is said to “eat” so little.

Social control is all-pervasive in Bali, and any love affair is soon public news. There is always a good soul to inform the cuckolded party, with sneering a common way to get even with past enmities: “You cannot fulfill your husband’s (sexual) needs properly,” a woman may tell another one.” So don’t be surprised if he looks for his fare at some other place,” (Kenken nyi ngayahin anak muani nyi-ne, apa ia sings bisa ngwarung kapah-kapah.) Once the affair belongs to public domain, though, the heat gets stronger on the unfaithful man. Any “responsible” husband should do his best to hide his mistress from public view. Once his liaison is divulged in the open, its stops being tolerated, and the man may have to drop his paramour, or marry her.

If the latter is an unmarried girl, (old-fashioned) parents might actually push in that direction. What matters most to them is that the lover consents to be a “good” husband, i.e. a man materially well off enough to provide for his wife’s needs? If he is reluctant, a well-scheduled pregnancy might settle the matter, as Balinese men rarely shun their fatherly responsibility! A discreet biakala wedding service will then be held, to give respectability to the new union. Such second or even third marriage is not uncommon, even though they do not have the stamp of the state, which tries to limit the occurrence of polygamy. As for the first wife, there is little she can do, lest she be unceremoniously taken back to her father’s home without her children. So she usually accepts her fate: women are a forbearing lot, aren’t they?

The Indonesian government has been trying to limit the occurrence of polygamy. The marriage law of 1974 prohibits the taking of a second wife unless the prior agreement of the first one has been formally obtained. It also puts all sorts of hurdles to the granting of such an authorization. These legal constraints, however, run counter to a long ingrained tradition. Few women have actually the gut -and the means- to protest their predicament. And there is no reciprocity: women are never given the opportunity to turn their lovers into secondary husbands! Their lovers remain lovers. (To be continued next month).

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