Jan 18, 2018 Last Updated 3:31 AM, Jan 6, 2018

Strong women


Joanne McMillan

Nyai Ontosoroh, the main female character in Pramoedya’s novel Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) is a remarkable woman. She is self-made, successful, formidable, at times manipulative and, most importantly, she turns notions of female subjugation and dependency on their head. Her ability to push against and past the restrictions placed on women make her an unusual female character in postcolonial Indonesian literature. But she is far from an anomaly in Pramoedya’s fiction. Indeed, the story of how she becomes the ‘native wife’, or concubine, of a Dutchman during the colonial period links her to a line of female characters in Pramoedya’s work. All of them are sold into marriage (or a marriage-like union) by their parents.

Pramoedya’s female characters often illustrate the author’s critical view of social structures and practices that place restrictions on women and force them to be subservient to men. An early example of his treatment of this theme is the short story ‘Inem’ in Cerita Dari Blora (Stories from Blora). Sold into marriage at the age of eight, Inem suffers physical abuse and unwanted sexual attention from her much older husband. She is divorced at the age of nine, thereafter largely confined to the house of her parents. Though Inem feels, understands and privately objects to her abuse at the hands of her husband, she nonetheless remains a devoted and subservient wife. Social custom, and attitudes about what is right and proper, mean that she has no other choice.

Overcoming subordination

While ‘Inem’ challenges the subordination of women, the girl who gives her name to Pramoedya’s 1960s novel, Gadis Pantai (The Girl from the Coast), begins to subvert the practice. Like Inem, the girl is to some extent a victim of the injustice of her social system. However unlike Inem, she develops and maintains an awareness of herself that transcends her fate and the expectations of her as a ‘practice wife’. While she remains outwardly faithful to her aristocrat husband she experiences and permits feelings of sexual attraction to another man, one of her husband’s guests. When the two men vacate the dining room after a meal, the girl sits in the young noble’s chair and ‘with excitement, she [feels] the trace of warmth he left behind’. She eats food from his plate, thrilled that ‘the vegetables and grains of rice had touched his lips’.

The girl from the coast also takes practical lessons and skills away from her forced marriage, such as learning how to run a household by herself. Unlike ‘Inem’, which ends with the young girl’s screams of pain as she is beaten by her family, Gadis Pantai finishes on a more uncertain, hopeful note. The girl may have been discarded by her husband and separated from her child but she is not defeated. She has gained a sense of identity that allows her a future beyond her temporary marriage.

By 1980, when Nyai Ontosoroh comes along, Pramoedya has begun to imagine ways for these young women to overcome their situation and even to triumph. Far from being dependent on or subservient to her Dutch master, Herman Mellema, Nyai soon begins to run his business, accumulate money in her own name and later become part owner of the business. ‘I began to realise that in reality I was not dependent on Mr Mellema,’ she reveals to her daughter, Annelies. ‘On the contrary, he was dependent on me.’ When Minke meets her, Nyai, and Pramoedya, have completely overturned women’s subjection to the authority of men. At this point in the story, Mellema has gone mad, and Nyai has thoroughly subdued him to her will.

However the ultimate act of subversion against women’s place in the gender hierarchy is not committed by Nyai Ontosoroh herself. It is reserved for her story about her niece Surati who, upon learning that she is to be made the concubine of her father’s Dutch employer, deliberately infects herself with smallpox so she will pass it on to the Dutchman and kill him. It is an act that impresses Nyai. ‘Surati did the right thing killing that man … That’s what I should have done, not with smallpox, but with my own hands.’ The victories of Surati and Nyai over the men they are sold to as young women are enormously different outcomes to the fate of Inem. Nyai Ontosoroh is a woman who despite her struggles, determines the course of her own life and achieves a happy ending. She marries again for love, manages a successful business and with the fruits of her labour, emigrates to France - an Indonesian woman finally taking on the world!

Joanne McMillan (jo_mc_451@hotmail.com ) is completing an honours thesis on Indonesian literature at the University of New England.


Inside Indonesia 88: Oct-Dec 2006

Latest Articles

Review: Identity and pleasure, on screen

Jan 06, 2018 - FADJAR I THUFAIL

Source: Cinema Poetica

Identity and Pleasure: The Politics of Indonesian Screen Culture invites us to embark on a visual journey of difficult episodes in Indonesian history

Essay: Masked but not hidden

Dec 04, 2017 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Credit: Erlinawati Graham

A small museum in Java is preserving a storytelling tradition, and the thoughts and feelings behind it

Essay: Getting to know you through a pendopo

Nov 13, 2017 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

A look at the journey and contribution of a longtime Australian teacher and researcher of Indonesian Studies

When a history seminar becomes toxic

Nov 02, 2017 - SASKIA E WIERINGA

Attacks on a meeting of survivors of 1965 and their supporters at the offices of the Legal Aid Institute in Jakarta in September 2017 do not bode well for human...

Facing history

Oct 18, 2017 - ELSA CLAVE & ANDY FULLER

Credit: http://www.tribunal1965.org

A witness account of the 2015 International People’s Tribunal on 1965

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

 


Lontar Modern Indonesia

Lontar-Logo-Ok

 

A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

Readers said:

  • Marriage denied
    Sayed - 30 Nov
    I am from Pakistan and living in Indonesia and I am refugee here. I have been here a long time for 5 years but still I did not get any answer from ...
     
  • When a history seminar becomes toxic
    Duncan Graham - 12 Nov
    Thanks for this detailed account - most reports have been superficial. The politics have been done well, but what about the people? I would have ...
     
  • When a history seminar becomes toxic
    Jose - 11 Nov
    Inciting violence is a purpose in itself - violence begets more violence. Turning a peaceful event into a violent confrontation serves its own purpose ...
     
  • Mining – who benefits?
    uhaibm@yahoo.com - 04 Nov
    This paper has been inspired in relation to the exploitation of natural resources, specifically the coal mining industry. I am doing some research ...

30th Anniversary Book

Inside Indonesia - 30th Anniversary Photo Book

 

Have you bought your copy of Inside Indonesia's 30th Anniversary book yet?

The book features 30 of the judges' favourite images from the 2013 Inside Indonesia Photography Competition.

Preview the book  and order your copy online (Soft cover approx AUD$23.00 / Hard cover approx AUD$35.00).