May 20, 2024 Last Updated 3:18 AM, May 20, 2024

The winds of change

The winds of change
Published: Jun 09, 2012

Men in Pekanbaru and Makassar are slowly changing their minds about domestic violence


Pam Nilan

A Rifka Annisa pamphlet asks men if they really love their wives
Pam Nilan

Most men in the cities of Pekanbaru and Makassar regard domestic violence as quite normal. In the words of a market trader in Pekanbaru, ‘Domestic violence happens inside the family. It’s only natural.’ A military man in the same city said ‘If I were to beat my wife, I would have the right because I was teaching her how to behave properly. A gang member from Makassar claimed that ‘you have a lot of guys who fight with their girlfriends’. An ojek driver from the same city acknowledged violence against women in his neighbourhood, adding that ‘it happens when men get drunk’.

Unlike these men, people in Indonesia more generally are reluctant to talk about violence against women, especially violence that takes place in the home. Instead, violence against women remains a private matter – a view justified by the belief that a man has the right to control and teach his wife. This is supported by traditional values and religious beliefs in many regions which reinforce the inferior status of women. Indeed, despite rapid economic growth, gender inequalities and injustices remain, including violence against women. In 2009, 143,586 cases of physical violence against women were reported. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Indonesia currently ranks 87 of 134 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index and 9 of 18 Asian countries on the same index.

Where they do talk about domestic violence, men tend to say that that the behaviour of the woman provokes the man to strike out. Indonesian newspaper reports about domestic violence convictions also often imply this opinion. For example, in Jakarta a case was reported in which a man dragged his wife along behind his motorcycle to punish her for not putting enough sugar in his tea. At trial the judge commented on the women’s failure to fulfill her duties as a wife. A form of domestic violence also occurs in the world of business, where some male bosses regard their female employees as being rather like their wives. According to one businessman, if some woman tempts a company director, it makes sense that ‘later he hits out at his secretary, if she is slow-moving and brings a dirty plate, or fails to offer him a cigarette’. In short, the man often has diminished responsibility for domestic violence in the eyes of other men.

Economic pressure

Another form of provocation is financial. Economic pressures are commonly believed to lead a man to commit violence in the home. An NGO activist in Pekanbaru explained that ‘violence is especially likely for those men who are unemployed and are weighed down by the demands of the wife’. A government officer in Makassar described in detail how economic hardship led one man to murder his wife after she nagged him to give her more household money. Women who earn more than their husbands are also at risk of being beaten. Several men said that if the wife has a high income she neglects the home and fails to serve her husband, thus giving him grounds for chastising her with violence, and thereby regaining his male power in the household.

Men also thought marital infidelity caused conflict in a marriage and could lead to a man striking his wife. According to a security police officer in Makassar, ‘if the husband has been unfaithful, she gives him hell’ – and he retaliates with blows. It is usually men rather than their wives who have extra-marital affairs in Indonesia. There is cultural pressure on men to prove their virility that does not necessarily disappear after marriage. But there are also stories about women who were beaten merely on the suspicion of having an affair.

Verbal violence against wives and girlfriends is clearly regarded as a normal part of everyday life. Many men believe that women deserve what they get. A university lecturer in Makassar said that in his local community ‘the most usual form of violence is snapping at her and reprimanding her’. A political activist in the same city admitted he could well understand how a man came to abuse his intimate partner: ‘when someone quarrels and gets very emotionally worked up like that I can understand how he uses very bad words and insults the woman’. He added that when the woman cries ‘that winds him up even more’.

Working for change

However, men are slowly becoming aware that violence against women is wrong. A few men interviewed in Makassar and Pekanbaru admitted that Indonesian cultures traditionally favour men over women. Some deplored violence against women and were aware of laws against it. For example, a security police officer in Makassar claimed that domestic violence ‘would not be carried out by any man who knew about the regulations against it’. A private sector clerk in Pekanbaru said he was horrified by domestic violence, adding ‘it is really taboo to strike women and female children’. The gang member in Makassar cited earlier – who was fond of fighting with other men – readily identified verbal abuse of a woman as violence. He said ‘it is violence if a guy yells at his girlfriend that she is a whore’.

Initiatives of government agencies to combat domestic violence have played an important role in these changes. Under the central government’s Zero Tolerance Policy, for example, public servants are required to attend training workshops on domestic violence. Specific guidelines have also been developed for police and health workers. As a result, men working in these kinds of occupations are now more likely to be aware of laws that prohibit violence against women. Elsewhere in Indonesia, some NGOs work directly with male perpetrators of domestic violence. However, there are no programs like that running in Pekanbaru or Makassar.

Contemporary work/life trends in Indonesia may also influence men’s attitudes in coming generations. The Indonesian female labour force participation rate is already nearly 55 per cent, and Indonesian female workers now earn almost 50 per cent of male earnings. Population growth has also slowed due to a relatively low fertility rate. Reduced childbearing and increased income will not necessarily decrease violence against women. But, if widespread enough, they promote a shift towards a ‘partnership’ model of marriage rather than the patriarchal one.

Two incomes are now needed to achieve a middle class lifestyle. Moreover, divorce rates are rising. The need for economic partnership between spouses in a dual-income household may well encourage men to re-evaluate whether they have the right to command and physically discipline their working wives. Of course there is a risk that men will respond to these changes by going in the opposite direction towards the hyper-masculine ideal represented in Indonesia today by civil militias, jihad groups, gangs and in many forms of entertainment. The stakes are indeed high but the next generation of Indonesian women should not live in fear of domestic violence.

Pam Nilan ( teaches sociology at the University of Newcastle. The data was collected 2009-2011 during an AusAID-funded project on masculinity and violence in Indonesia.


Inside Indonesia 108: Apr-Jun 2012

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