Dec 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Sex in the city

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Yatun Sastramidjaja

While reformasi battles to clean up the old bureaucracy, young urban middle class women are contending with yet another New Order legacy. Every day they confront a Janus-faced social discourse on female gender, which wedges them between two conflicting ideals of femininity. One is the notion of a woman's inherent nature, or kodrat wanita, long fostered by the New Order. The other is the more recent popular notion of 'girl power'. As young women oscillate between these two strong images of female identity, they experience serious but usually hidden inner conflicts, particularly in the area of sexuality. Whereas kodrat wanita propagates the virtues of chastity and submissiveness, girl power celebrates the joys of sexual liberation. So which way should a girl turn?

The middle class, like the New Order generally, always held to a peculiar blend of conservatism and progressiveness. On the conservative side, the idea of kodrat wanita became visible in the New Order institution of Dharma Wanita (Women's Duty), an organisation every civil servant's wife was required to join. Practically all these wives were also middle class mothers. Their prime duty was to their families, the keystone upon which the nation's welfare was said to rest. Kodrat wanita is thus defined by the reproductive role of supportive wives and mothers, which partly consists of raising daughters to become good wives and mothers too.

However, the daughters had to do more than simply become good mothers. New Order and middle class aspirations also converged in a concern with progress (called development - pembangunan) and with upward social mobility for the younger generation. In order to elevate the socio-economic standing of both their family and the nation, middle class sons and daughters were urged to pursue higher education and ambitious careers.

For girls, this meant entering a modern way of life not always compatible with the standards of kodrat wanita. This is not to say that kodrat wanita became invisible. On the contrary, it is strongly represented in all modern media, be they televised soap operas or lifestyle magazines like Femina. But it does have to compete there with divergent and far more high profile images of strong femininity. The image of fashionably cosmopolitan, self-reliant, and positively liberated young women prevails in the modern mass media.

On the face of it, young women do indeed live up to this progressive ideal. When moving in a modern public space such as the campus or big city shopping mall, their looks and attitude give them the air of independent city girls. They appear ready for take-off in exciting careers, and to have fully adopted the principle of 'girl power' so popular in the West.

Ideally, middle class girls are supposed to merge the two roles of girl power and kodrat wanita without much difficulty. Yet in reality they are often confronted by stark contradictions. The duality of the social discourse on female gender produces moral confusion, in which the distinction between 'good' and 'bad' behaviour is no longer clearly defined. Such moral conflict, 'the clash between Western and Eastern values' as it is commonly called, is evident in the stories of two girls I befriended in Bandung. A striking feature of these conflicts is that they most often revolve around sexuality.

Double standards

Mia (22) comes from a respectable, well to do middle class family, part of my extended family in Indonesia. Over the years, on my regular family visits to that country, I saw her grow into an independent-minded young woman. I became like a big sister to her - she knew that I, an outsider living in the West, would not judge her. On my last visit to Bandung, Mia turned to me more than once in despair for advice, which I'm afraid I was not able to give to her full satisfaction, as her anguish has remained until today. She had fallen in love with a fellow student, of whom her parents disapproved. In order to restrict her contacts with him they frequently put her under house arrest. Her parents had her shadowed by a relative, and made a habit of eavesdropping on her phone conversations. Mia was infuriated by this treatment, which she considered unfair and altogether hampering of her freedom. But the experience also confused her - it was wholly inconsistent with her self-image of a modern liberated girl who determines her own fate.

Mia could not see how it could be wrong to follow her own choices, or how it could be right to repress her sexuality. 'Sharing love is normal, isn't it', she said, 'everybody is doing it, and it's not like I'm a slut; but then how come I'm made to feel that way?' Yet despite her dismay, she felt uneasy about arguing with her parents. No Indonesian girl, not even modern Mia, will easily get it into her head to openly show defiance. Instead, Mia felt there was no way out but to lie. She started to spend a lot of time making up secret schemes and alibis, thus leading a double life for the sake of pursuing her own choices. In this precarious way she tried to combine her self-image of a liberated girl with compliance to kodrat wanita norms. Of course this proved to be no solution. The game of double standards increasingly depressed her. Mia began to occasionally run away from home. At the time of my stay in Bandung she sometimes came to me, too baffled to speak or cry.

Much the same conflict emerges in the story of Dian (26), another member of my extended family who comes from a similar, somewhat more religious middle class family. We were very close as small children in Bandung in the 1970s, and after I moved to the Netherlands we corresponded for many years. At first sight, Dian appears a true paragon of female chastity. A devout Muslim wearing Islamic veil and dress, she always abides by her parents' wishes. When we were children, she used to make a great effort to teach me the virtues of kodrat wanita. She was afraid that I, a girl living in the West, would otherwise be unable to become the virtuous Indonesian woman I was born to be. To me this didn't make much sense, but to her, even as an eight-year old, kodrat wanita stood for everything her mother wanted her to be.

An acquiescent woman, Dian is engaged to a man of her parents' liking, she studied a major of her family's choice, and after graduation she returned to live with her parents so they could keep a close eye on her until the wedding day. Freedom of choice, in the Western individual sense, seems practically non-existent in her life. But for Dian this is not an issue of debate. She used to tell me in her letters to the Netherlands that it was 'really for my own good' to be more restricted than I was, and that it was her woman's duty to respect the wishes of her 'superiors', be they her parents or future husband, no matter what.

But contrary to her outward appearances, Dian is not the chaste and docile woman she wants everyone to believe she is. When we recently met again in Bandung and started to catch up on each other's lives the past few years, she told me all about her private fantasies and imaginary future scenario's of a more autonomous way of life. This perfectly matches the image of an independent career woman. Even more astonishingly, she confided that she had been sexually active for many years. Not only had she shared the bed with her fiance, but without his knowledge with other lovers as well.

Despite the religious prohibition on premarital sexual intercourse, Dian says she has no regrets. In her private view, 'American style' sexuality, as she calls having intercourse with several partners, is a normal fact of contemporary life. 'These days young women are not as inhibited as they used to be', she said, 'we acknowledge having desires too, just like men do'. However, Dian is aware that her sexual behaviour is still considered a sin in Indonesian society at large. And she admits to feeling deep guilt every day, not for her sexual behaviour per se, but for being hypocritical about it towards her parents and even more so in regard to her religiosity. It is this hypocrisy that makes her feel an 'immoral' woman.

Mia and Dian both feel burdened by their double lives, yet they feel impelled to maintain it. The same goes for many other Indonesian girls I know. Sexuality is part of the 'girl power' discourse and lifestyle, yet sexually active young women are still cast off into the corner of pornography. They are called a perek (perempuan eksperimen), the Indonesian word for slut, and are accused of indifferently throwing away the integrity of their bodies and thereby disgracing their personal and family's honour. Indeed, since women's bodies are often made to represent the moral integrity of all of society, they can be accused of disgracing the nation.

Young women are hardly to blame for the moral ambiguities of contemporary social life. Neither are they to blame for the paternalistic structures still persisting in Indonesian society, that deny them an equal voice in moral debate and thus cause girls like Mia and Dian to feel they are better off maintaining a frustrating double life. Where social discourse on gender, sexuality and morality is concerned, reformasi still has a long way to go.

Yatun L.M. Sastramidjaja ( was born in the Netherlands but lived in Bandung as a small child and has made numerous family visits since then. She is researching a PhD at the University of Amsterdam, and is the author of the Dutch language book 'Dromenjagers in Bandung: Twintigers in het moderne Indonesie' (Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis, 2000).

Inside Indonesia 66: Apr - Jun 2001

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