Lola, a 34-year old woman from the suburbs of a large Indonesian city, was studying in Melbourne when she first started having sex. Like others who took part in a study I was running about the sexualities of unmarried Indonesian women pursuing education overseas, Lola felt empowered by travelling and studying abroad, yet constrained by intense sexual policing from afar. Despite her distance from home, she felt she was under constant surveillance by family and society, both those in Melbourne and Indonesia. She was used to discrimination and gossip that marked her as ‘too old’ to be unmarried and childless and ‘too free-spirited.’ But now she was worried her mother, family, neighbours, church and community at large would discover her secret sex life. Surveillance, including the perception of surveillance, restricted her sexual independence and autonomy even in Australia.
In the summer of 2017, I worked closely with 16 single Indonesian women between the ages of 18 and 34 from all over Indonesia who were studying in Melbourne. My research focused on their experiences of mobility, sexuality and womanhood. This community of women, like Lola, spoke of feeling constantly monitored, scrutinised and policed by others and feeling as if they were surrounded by security cameras. Even though only five of the women reported they were having sex, surveillance had a profound influence on the way all 16 women lived their lives.
Surveillance manifests in several ways. Indonesian media devotes significant attention to scrutinising various ‘sexual subcultures’ such as rock music and fashion trends to encourage the general public to stigmatise sexual deviance. In one example, neighbours in Banten forced themselves into a private home and accused a young heterosexual couple of having sex. The couple was assaulted, stripped naked and paraded in the streets while neighbours hurled insults and food at them. Other examples include neighbours intervening when young couples sit too close together, parents scrutinising daughters’ social media accounts, or strangers following and gossiping about women in malls. Women living overseas see this in the media and are impacted by it.
One striking thing in the women’s stories was how they managed in strategic and nuanced ways the intense sexual and gendered surveillance they felt they were under. While powerful norms about gender and sexual piety endured in their everyday lives in Melbourne, filtered through their Indonesian communities, the women were cautious and calculating in their sexuality. They hid their romances from friends and family, kept different sets of clothes for Indonesia and Australia, manipulated social media, and tinkered with the visibility of their personal and social lives overseas. Some women had sex, but kept this choice hidden from everyone. Although many of the women felt freer overseas to make decisions regarding their bodies, romantic lives, social circles and aspirations, they also recognised fear of judgment dictated much of their lives.
‘It’s about the fear of judgment’
Judgement and speculative gossip about women’s sexualities spreads fast within Indonesian communities, often with harmful consequences. Women might be labeled ‘bad women’ if perceived as defying sexual and gendered expectations. As Sukma, 34, described it: ‘bad women, of course, are the ones who go out with their friends all the time, spend a lot of money on clothing, wear too much makeup and wear nail colours. If the colour is too bright, they will call you a whore’.
All women mentioned ‘being talked about’ or judged. Agnes, 27, said ‘your neighbour or your community will know you are not married yet and you will be talked about’ if they suspect sexual immodesty. Agnes, Lola and others cited widely publicised stories of women being publicly caned, beaten by male family members, raped by male strangers, paraded naked through city streets, subjected to ‘virginity tests’, and having sewage poured over their heads after being accused of sexual indecency.
Murni, like Lola, was in her early thirties and studying in Melbourne. She was a Christian woman dating and having sex with an agnostic South African man. For both Murni and Lola, the ethnic and national differences between themselves and their sexual partners posed a challenge as they were expected to date and marry Indonesian men who shared their religion. Regardless, Murni felt her partner was ‘the right person to be with,’ yet she felt a ‘contradiction inside’. Murni described herself and other sexually-active single women as ‘used goods’ who were no longer ‘good enough to become a wife’. This scared her. At 32 she was under significant pressure to marry and have children. She continued, ‘what I can sense is that women are always the ones being judged, you know? [It’s] unfair.’
Neither Lola nor Murni had ever told anyone, except me, about their sexual relationships. Lola was afraid to even seek access to sexual and reproductive health services for fear someone in the diaspora might see her entering a clinic or buying condoms at the convenience store. This put her at increased risk of unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection. She felt, however, the risk of judgment and gossip was greater than the risks to her health.
Lola described her fear of taking birth control pills: ‘I know you can take pills or whatever, but even to consider it, I was still feeling stigmatised by myself. Like, since I am using the pills would people think that I am sexually loose? You know, I still feel afraid that people will judge me. I know that people won’t know if I don’t tell them, but since you must use the pills every day, I was thinking about the practicality of it. Like, I would have to take the medication at the same time, so would people notice the habit?’ She continued, ‘because we don’t talk about sex [in Indonesia], it feels like we are on our own’.
‘You have to maintain a facade’
Fear of being deemed a bad woman pushed the women to carefully manage gossip and judgment, protecting their reputations. Strategic secrecy was the most powerful weapon in their arsenal. For some, secrecy was thrilling and empowering. They associated secrecy with autonomy and independence. Rhea, 29, said, ‘I felt like I had control over my life. I could do the things I liked’. However, the burden of baring secrets could also be challenging and isolating.
Lola illustrated these challenges in a story about her mother. One day Lola had briefly let her guard down, ‘carelessly’ posting a picture on Facebook of her wearing shorts. Her brothers told her mother, who aggressively chastised her by phone for ‘exposing’ herself. Afterwards, Lola admitted she ‘blocked all her family’ from her other social media accounts and ‘filtered’ Facebook – where she connected with her family – more carefully: ‘my family judges me quite harshly in terms of what I wear, so I tend to post things where I am wearing ‘decent’ clothes…or [filter] anything that shows I have a boyfriend’. She continued, ‘it’s just hard to be yourself in that context…here [in Australia] I have more sexual freedom to express myself with my boyfriend. But at home [in Indonesia], it’s different. You have to maintain a facade.’
Murni echoed Lola’s sentiments, saying ‘I cannot trust people. My friends and family back in Indonesia, they don’t know about [my sex life] because I know if I talk about it, they will judge me. They will say “you are being a whore, you are being a slut” […] and it’s my personal choice, you know? It’s up to me.’ So she kept her sex life to herself.
Many women felt shame and guilt for their secrets; they wanted to be free to make their own choices about their love life, share their experiences with loved ones and feel supported. Surveillance, fear and a sense of obligation limited women’s ability to freely make sexual decisions. These limitations adversely impacted on their overall wellbeing, preventing them from accessing social support and adequate sexual health. While many women defied expectations and achieved a sense of sexual autonomy, they also hid their actions and rarely felt safe or comfortable confronting the larger forces that restricted them. Lola’s self-described ‘double life’ in Melbourne felt simultaneously free and authentic, but also isolating and dishonest. Indonesian women, like all women, deserve the right to choose what’s best for them without fear of violence or discrimination.
Alexandra Lloyd (email@example.com) recently completed her master’s degree in Anthropology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. She is currently working in Indigenous rights and governance. This research was partially funded by the Southeast Asian Women, Family and Migration in the Global Era research program (SSHRC Insight Grant 435-2013-0079), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives (UVic), the Centre for Global Studies (UVic) and the Faculty of Graduate Studies (UVic).