May 28, 2018 Last Updated 11:04 AM, May 9, 2018

Women and work

Women and work
Published: Feb 14, 2010

Teri Caraway

According to World Bank data, only about half of women in Indonesia are in the labour force. One might infer from this statistic that about half of women in Indonesia do not work. Such a conclusion would be incorrect. As Michele Ford and Lyn Parker argue in their excellent introductory chapter to Women and Work in Indonesia, statistics that count only income-generating activities as work both underestimate and undervalue women’s contributions to the economy, their families and the communities in which they live. Ford and Parker also insist that representations of Indonesian women as housewives overlook the increasing engagement of women in waged work and the important contributions that their earning activities make to family welfare. This volume understands ‘work’ very broadly and pays careful attention to the interrelationships between the different kinds of work that women juggle on a daily basis.

No other book on women and work in Indonesia has the breadth of this volume. The contributors analyse many different types of work that women do in Indonesia – farming; midwifery; hotel, factory, media, mining and sex work – as well as work that Indonesian women do as migrant workers in Malaysia and Singapore. The volume also examines women and work in a variety of regions of Indonesia, including West Sumatra, Riau, Southeast Sulawesi, Lombok, Banten, East Kalimantan and the Riau Islands.

Edited volumes with such a broad scope inevitably sacrifice some depth for breadth. Yet the individual chapters, though concise, provide rich accounts of the challenges and trade-offs that women face in their daily lives. The authors also illuminate the multiple ways that women negotiate their identities in relation to the various kinds of work that they do. Evelyn Blackwood’s study of Minangkabau rice farmers, for example, carefully maps out the complexity of women’s farm labour, noting how ownership of land, the quantity of land owned and kin relationships shape the kinds of work that women do and how they interpret their identities. Women who own some land might oversee workers in their fields one day but on the next they may work in someone else’s rice field, perhaps even alongside the women who worked for them the day before. Yet some women frame their farm work not as wage labour, or as a job, but as domestic labour – an interpretation that allows them to define themselves as housewives and essentially hides from view the economic value of their work.

No other book on women and work in Indonesia has the breadth of this volume

Each chapter also makes the experiences of women a central focus of the analysis, in order both to understand better the meaning of work for women and to avoid narratives of victimisation. The authors do not sugar-coat the discrimination, exploitative relationships and low pay that many women experience at work, but the editors are certainly justified in arguing that portraying women as victims denies them agency and that any understanding of women and work in Indonesia requires researchers to value how women understand the meaning of their work.

Discussions of sex work are particularly prey to overly simplistic generalisations about victimisation and exploitation. The Ford and Lyons chapter counters the stereotypical tale of sex workers as victims. Some of the sex workers they studied in Karimun in the Riau Islands exercised a great deal of autonomy over their work lives and moved out of sex work and into the middle class by marrying foreign clients. Remittances to parents, who cared for their children, allowed the women to combine sex work with being ‘good mothers and dutiful daughters’. Yet the moral stain of sex work remained; they did not tell their parents that they were sex workers, and they vigilantly maintained the divide between their work life and family life. Ford and Lyons are careful to state that these workers do not represent all sex workers, and call for more careful and contextualised studies that document the widely varying experiences of sex workers both in Indonesia and elsewhere.

Each chapter makes the experiences of women a central focus of the analysis, in order both to better understand the meaning of work for women and to avoid narratives of victimisation

Mere descriptions of women’s experiences can, of course, lapse into vignettes that use specific voices to represent a certain viewpoint, or that present these voices independently of the historical, social and political context in which they are produced. Fortunately, the chapters in this volume endeavour to use the experiences of particular women, doing certain kinds of work in specific places, to illuminate broader issues of women’s status in the family, labour market, local community and nation. The contributors also set these selected voices within a wider political–economic context that illuminates not only the scope that women have to negotiate work relationships but also the real constraints that they face. As such the chapters are essentially thick descriptions nested in broader understandings of the historical, political, economic and social forces that shape women’s lives.

Gaynor Dawson’s chapter on transmigrants in Riau, for example, nicely shows how the transmigration policy of the Indonesian government, which relocated families from heavily populated regions to less populated and remote areas, placed tremendous burdens on women. Plagued by infertile soils, long distances to markets and a paucity of flexible jobs nearby, women found it very difficult to fulfil their responsibility for domestic work and also contribute to the family’s welfare through farm or waged work. Even men had difficulty finding regular jobs, leading many to search for work outside the transmigration settlement. The absence of husbands left women wholly responsible for farming the family’s land, fulfilling community work obligations, and providing domestic labour; women also became more vulnerable to unexpected interruptions of income if their husbands did not regularly remit money. At the same time, Dawson shows how government development policies based on male headship of households both fortify the man’s status as head of the household and systematically close off opportunities for women to participate in certain economic activities in the transmigration settlement.

The breadth, depth, thematic coherence and quality of the individual contributions in Women and Work in Indonesia make it a valuable addition to the growing body of research on gender, women and work in the archipelago.

Michele Ford and Lyn Parker (eds), Women and Work in Indonesia. Routledge: London, 2008.

Teri Caraway (caraway@umn.edu) teaches political science at the University of Minnesota. Her book, Assembling Women: The Feminization of Global Manufacturing (ILR Press 2007), examines the feminization of the manufacturing workforce in Indonesia during the Suharto era.


Inside Indonesia 99: Jan-Mar 2010

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