Rendra cared about oppressed women
The sad news finally came and I attended Rendra's funeral to pay my last respects. I thought back to our first meeting in 1985 when a Dutch painter friend Bert Hermens invited me to his small exhibition and discussion at Rendra's Bengkel Teater rehearsal space. I had not met Rendra before and was impressed by his charm. After that I often spent time at Bengkel Teater and Rendra's library and he gave me two books which I kept and often referred to. The gift of these two books, The Pararaton (a translation of the Old Javanese (Kawi) text, The Book of Kings) and Dante's Divine Comedy, encouraged me to study the links between culture, politics, social science, economics, and religion. It gave me a greater insight into history, literary works and poetry in general but especially into cultural differences.
Sometimes I felt the need to ask Rendra about things important to me that I did not fully understand. So apart from being a good friend, I will always remember him as an adviser. Rendra was the first person to open my mind to a deeper understanding of tradition, culture, politics, social science and economics through his critical, alternative approach. He reminded me to 'always remember the weak and marginalised', and to be aware of and always question the establishment. Slowly but surely the seeds of knowledge grew and flourished in my inner being and imagination.
Everything that Rendra fought for, democracy, the rule of law, a re-imagining of traditional culture, and critical analysis became a focus of my thinking and something I still reflect on today. And in his own special way he also helped sharpen my understanding of gender relations. He was concerned about the role of women, the poor and commercial sex workers in particular. He discussed their problems in such poems as 'Nyanyian Angsa' (Swan Song, 1971), 'Bersatulah Pelacur-pelacur Kota Jakarta' (Unite Prostitutes of Jakarta, 1971). In the following poem 'Kenapa Kau Taruh' (Why Do You Place, 1990) he highlights inequalities between men and women and the stereotyping of women as sex objects.
Ada banyak masalah wanita
Para buruh wania masih kurang terjamin haknya.
Metode keluarga berencana
terlalu mengorbankan wanita.
Wanita nakal disebut tuna susila.
Lelaki nakal disebut Sang Arjuna.
Terhadap wanita lelaki selalu salah sangka.
Wanita cantik disangka sekadar pemandangan.
None Jakarta disangka kue ulang-tahun
yang bisa diiris dan dibagi-bagi.
Kewanitaan dan kecantikanku
selalu menjadi beban.
Sekarang aku akan mengubahnya
sehingga menjadi alat perjuangan.
Tidak sekedar mawar-mawar berduri.
Aku pun memelihara dengan teliti
kuku-kuku yang sedang panjangnya.
Bukan sekadar hiasan kecantikan
tetapi senjata yang bisa mencakar.
It's too much!
There are so many women's issues
besides her breasts.
The rights of women workers
are still not fully guaranteed.
Family planning methods
Playgirls are termed immoral.
Playboys are Arjuna, Prince of Love.
Men always get women wrong.
They take pretty women as just scenery.
Miss Jakarta is mistaken for a birthday cake
to be sliced up and shared round.
My femininity and my beauty
have always been a burden to me.
Now I'm going to change them
into tools of battle.
And it's not just thorned roses.
I'm carefully growing my fingernails too.
They're quite long now
and not just decorative
but weapons that can claw.
This was how Rendra used his poetry to shock his readers into acknowledging the claims of oppressed women in a patriarchal society. He presented images of women on the lowest rungs of the hierarchy, in the grip of poverty, unable to find work and forced into prostitution to support themselves and/or their families. The following extract from the poem 'Bersatulah Pelacur-Pelacur Kota Jakarta' shows how fearlessly he pursued those he regarded as degrading the dignity of women:
Politisi dan pegawai tinggi
adalah caluk yang rapi.
Kongres-kongres dan konferensi
tak pernah berjalan tanpa kalian.
Kalian tak pernah bisa bilang 'tidak'
lantaran kelaparan yang menakutkan
kemiskinan yang mengekang
dan telah lama sia-sia cari kerja.
Ijazah sekolah tanpa guna.
Para kepala jawatan
akan membuka kesempatan
kalau kau membuka paha.
sedang di luar pemerintahan
lapangan kerja tak ada.
Revolusi para pemimpin
adalah revolusi dewa-dewa
Mereka berjuang untuk syurga
dan tidak untuk bumi.
tak pernah menghasilkan
lebih banyak lapangan kerja
Kalian adalah sebahagian kaum penganggur
yang mereka ciptakan.
The politicians and senior civil servants
are a tight bunch of rogues.
Their congresses and conferences
wouldn't run without you.
You must never say 'no'
because of the terror of hunger
the yoke of poverty
and your long futile search for work.
School diplomas were useless.
The section heads
could only open the doors of opportunity
if you would open your legs.
And outside government
were only run-down businesses
with no vacancies.
The leader's revolution
was a revolution of gods.
They fought for heaven
and not for this earth.
A revolution by gods
has never produced
for the ordinary people
You are a part of the proletariat
Using strong images and forthright language he described how women were turned into mere 'lubricants' for business transactions or to smooth the workings of bureaucracy. In the meantime the godlike elite - the politicians, bureaucrats and technocrats - only managed to create fresh problems and new ranks of unemployed. And the status of women became increasingly threatened.
Women and religion
In patriarchal societies women have always been under pressure. But the attitudes of religious ultra-conservatives, both Muslim and non-Muslim in contemporary society has increased this pressure. In the name of upholding religious values, they abuse women's rights and treat women at times as less than human, as is the case under the anti-pornography bill, a law which objectifies women and portrays them as a threat to public morality. It would appear that the ideology of the patriarchy is growing stronger day by day. As radical and ultra-conservative Muslims alike transform the symbols of religion into instruments of power, women have become scapegoats in the bid to control religion and the state.
The treatment of women at the hands of religion was Rendra's focus in the poem 'Nyanyian Angsa', even though the context here was not Islam but Roman Catholicism, his faith at the time he wrote the poem:
'Kamu telah tergoda dosa.'
'Tidak tergoda. Tapi melulu berdosa.'
'Kamu telah terbujuk setan.'
'Tidak. Saya terdesak kemiskinan.
Dan gagal mencari kerja.'
'Santo Petrus! Pater, dengarkan saya.
Saya tak butuh tahu asal usul dosa saya.
Yang nyata hidup saya sudah gagal.
Jiwa saya kalut.
Dan saya mau mati.
Sekarang saya takut sekali.
Saya perlu Tuhan atau apa saja
untuk menemani saya.
Dan muka pastor menjadi merah padam.
Ia menuding Maria Zaitun.
'Kamu galak seperti macan betina. Barangkali kamu akan gila. Tapi tak akan mati.
Kamu tak perlu pastor.
Kamu perlu dokter jiwa.
'You were led into sin'
'Not led. But I have sinned greatly'
'You were deceived by the devil'
'No, I was forced by poverty.
And my failure to find a job.
'By St Peter!'
'By St Peter! Father, listen to me
I don't need to know why I sinned
I realize my life has been a failure
My soul is confused
And I am going to die
But I am terribly afraid
I need God or whatever
to befriend me'
The priest's face reddens
He points as Maria Zaitun
'You are some sort of wild tigress
Maybe you are mad
But you are not about to die
You do not need a priest
You need a psychiatrist.
In the culture of patriarchy men lead and women must follow their commands. When women dare to challenge this by putting forward their own claims men feel threatened. Inevitably society will stigmatise these women as wild or crazy and needing even tighter control to protect the status quo.
Rendra understood this problem, even though he too practised polygamy and had mistresses. His style and behaviour earned him the affectionate title of 'Burung Merak', the Peacock, that proud and colourful bird displaying his charms with pea-hens trailing after him. But - with all his strengths and weaknesses - for me he was a great writer, friend and defender of the downtrodden, and not simply a charismatic man.
Arahmaiani (email@example.com) is an artist & writer. The translation of 'Kenapa Kau Taruh' used here is by Suzan Piper, and the translations of 'Bersatulah Pelacur-Pelacur Kota Jakarta' and 'Nyanyian Angsa' by Harry Aveling.