Balinese Women : The Sarcastic Look (Part 2)

Culture | Written By, Jean Couteau |

When people write on Balinese love, they like to underline the romantic side, often seen from the male’s perspective. People are said to elope out of love, to bypass the parents’ unwillingness to accept the union. This occurs of course, but there are also instances when parents force lovers to break their bond – which, sadly, has ended in suicide. There are other instances when young people are married against their will for social reasons, especially among high-caste youths, which has often resulted in unfortunate affairs and other dramas. Whatever you may read about the official banning of traditional kidnapping, there are also cases when women are trapped and “taken” (juka), in other words raped, the boy’s crime and girl’s blemish being immediately “cleansed” – “prayers” and “possession-control” helping – by an official announcement and a formal biakala ceremony. As such weddings are not exactly romantic, they rarely end up as happy marriages.

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So for all those reasons, and more, it is not uncommon for Balinese marriages end up sour, or even in divorce. Men are usually on the faulty side, because “going on the prowl”, even for mature married men, is rarely frowned upon! Unfaithfulness is not a sin to men. To women, it may not be a sin either, but it is undoubtedly an insult to their legal husband. On the whole however, Balinese women have the reputation of being faithful to their men. Then again, you never know what can happen… Motorbike rides, schooling in the city and new office jobs offer plenty of grounds for sexual escapades. And once “it” happens, Balinese women have a much harder time than their male counterparts. Someone might raise the matter in a banjar meeting (sangkep), or local youths catch the culprit with her “hand in the bag.” Whatever the case, once a woman is deemed unfaithful, the decision is quick and unanimous: she must be returned home, i.e. to her father’s house, and her children let into her husband’s custody.

There are other causes for divorce than unfaithfulness, of course, particularly arranged marriages. And divorces in Bali are never a total and immediate abandon: in no case is the woman thrown out with anywhere to go. The philosophy centres around the idea that she was “taken” (juanga) from her father at marriage, so she has to be returned (ulihanga)with the proper divorce procedures. In a way strikingly similar to the marriage, when the negotiations took place under the guidance of the kelihanbanjar (headman), the same official usually accompanies the return of the woman, acting in a similar intermediary position. Potential conflicts are thus avoided. Naturally, this does not take place without some standardised explanation: “Since I took your daughter from this place,” the husband says, “it is to this place too that I bring her back” (Panakbapakjuangtiangdini, dinimasihulihangtiang. Or: “ “Father and Mother, take back your daughter and look after her, since I cannot bear her behavior anymore” (Meme bapangraksabuin, sawirehbikasiane sing nyidaangtiangNganggon).

A ritual accompanies the traditional Balinese divorce, which is basically a mirror or reversal of the one that took place during the wedding ceremony. It consists basically of taking leave (mepamit) from the gods of the husband’s sanggah (family temple). If things are done properly, the ritual should be accompanied by an offering, sorohantumpengsolas, addressed to the god of love, Semara, to ask him to split from the goddess of the moon, Ratih. A Chinese kepeng (holed coin) should also be cut in two and put on the rongtigashrine – the main shrine of the family temple. And the gods of the KahyanganTiga – gods of the three main temples of the village – should be kept informed by a pejati “notification” offering. Divorce in Bali is thus a serious matter. It is not only a separation at the earthly level (sekala) of the husband and wife, but also of the invisible forces (niskala) which underlay them. Actually it is more important to behave properly with the gods than with living family members.

Although traditional Balinese couples do eventually separate under strain, the women going back to live in her father’s compound, they usually postpone the “divorce ceremony” for as long as they can, perhaps with the hope of avoiding it altogether, particularly if the marriage was between semetons or “cousins”. Various parties – friends, parents, relatives and even the banjar -always make attempts to fix things. On the woman’s side, especially if she is considered at fault, strong pressures, social and personal, bear down upon her. By leaving her husband, she is also separating from her children. And as long as her divorce is not formalized, she is an “outsider” in her father’s house, which she left ritually to marry “outside”. The members of her own family might even address her with a lower brand of Balinese, corresponding to her husband’s status. For all these reasons, she often relents. The pressures bearing on the husband are no less impressive: “Why are you so upset with your wife?” a friendly neighbour may, “do you think no one knows of your own escapades?” (nguda ci pedih ken kurenan ci; kadencang sing nawangkenken abet ci-e; ci masihpatuhngalihmitra). Elders, sometimes sent at the wife’s behest, will tend to be more indirect: “Why do you make such a fuss over a small matter,” they will say, “wouldn’t it be better to make it up with your wife,” (Kenkenmasalahcenikbisakantipalasmakurenan; apa sing luwunganatep bin.). Since the man usually obtains the custody of the children, and is burdened by it, he may well relent too and fetch his wife back. If such is the case, there is a ready-made explanation to the whole escapade; his wife was tricked by magic, the other guy had a larger magical ring (bungkunggede) – but of course! At least this is what the consulted balian (medium) will make everyone believe. Happy Balinese couples!

All in all, the lot of the traditional Balinese woman is not an unhappy one. She is neither really ill-treated, nor subjected to the hyper-sexualization of her body that both “liberates” and “enslaves” her Western sister. She also lives in a relatively stable and homogenous environment where she incurs little physical risk to her person and almost no challenges to her personality.

All this is bound to change. In the last twenty years, modernisation has taken hold at all levels of Balinese life, and this is deeply transforming the situation and status of women. Through schooling, jobs until recently unthought of by women are now commonly occupied by them: there are women doctors, teachers, lawyer’s etc. They translate their newly won economic strength in greater social and intellectual autonomy: they rent their own rooms, buy their own perfumes and select their own mate: Balinese women are increasingly alike their Western sisters. Will it be the end of the myth?

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Jean Couteau

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