(Antara Photo/Wahyu Putro A.)

Young Lombok Women Fight for Equality Through Literature


DECEMBER 15, 2016

Jakarta. Recent tensions surrounding religious and ethnic intolerance in Indonesia can place individuals with alternative or liberal views on the sidelines, sometimes suppressing those views altogether.

Such is the reality for several young women on the island of Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, when it comes to voicing unconventional perspectives on identity, sexuality and self-expression through writing.

Female writers of short stories and poetry in the provincial capital of Mataram are often prevented from expressing opinions that contradict or offer an alternative to social norms, in fear of retribution from the social milieu.

Other writers might commonly craft tales about a conventional romance between man and woman, for instance, that reinforces values of a moderate, religiously devout and patriarchal social system.

Amid the island’s relatively conservative attitudes on topics such as marriage, gender roles and sexuality, those who transgress are a limited few.

One youth pushing back against normative values is Ismawati, known as Isma, a short story writer who imbues her female protagonists with agency and individuality.

Her characters stand in stark contrast to the notion of a typically “good” and subservient wife who stays at home to support her husband, keep the house clean and look after the children.

"A woman whose career is at home can be excellent, but problems arise when a man creates restrictions or can’t accept that his wife is more successful or productive at home than he is at the office," Isma said.

"[With my writing] I want to give people a slap in the face… [conventions] are just conventions," she added.

Her writing reflects a desire to undermine tendencies of overbearing masculinity in marriage, in the family and in society.

"My desire to write is satisfied when I write about things like [marriage dynamics and gender equality]. We [women] don’t have to be afraid of anything."

Several unpleasant experiences in her family when she was a child became the impetus for much of the 23-year-old’s writing, such that she attempts to blur the line between reality and fiction to make readers question established truths.

"I can’t deny the influence of my youth. [My childhood experiences] are what I wish to put into words. Even now they still exist in my head like a black fog."

Graduating from the University of Mataram (Unram) with a degree in Indonesian literature in 2016, Isma has published stories in both Suara NTB in West Nusa Tenggara and Banjarmasin Post in South Kalimantan.

Another young writer who does not let social norms restrict her creative output is Baiq Ilda Karwayu, better known as Ilda. By writing she attempts to individually explore her own sense of self, separate from the expectations of society.

Ilda, a 23-year-old graduate of English language education at Unram, does not discuss gender roles or societal discontent too much in her poetry, instead preferring to reveal the intricacies of place and locality in metropolitan Mataram and regional Lombok.

"I identify with nature. The poems I write are also often about nature and place."

Her ideas and self are preserved in her poetry, she continued. "I take pleasure knowing that when people read my work in the newspaper, they may not know whether I’m a man or a woman… they don’t look to gender, but [reflect on] the topic at hand.”

She drills to the core of the island’s tendency for a conservative approach to issues through her personal writing philosophy and in published opinion pieces.

Ilda, a Muslim, also experiments with her appearance and dress by sometimes not wearing a hijab — not necessarily to gauge the response of friends and acquaintances, but to explore her own spirituality and the meaning of the hijab for herself.

"I don’t have any issues with the use of the headscarf for myself. I don’t feel any repression or intimidation from others."

Both Isma and Ilda agreed that the conditions for women in Lombok are not conducive for offering something different from the traditional stream of thought, and need a shakeup.

"There’s an unwritten rule: if you’re female, it’s expected you don’t find a career outside [the home], don’t pursue higher education, [because] the most important thing is finding a partner," Isma said.

"Plus, if you don’t marry in your twenties for instance, that’s extremely harmful. That's a lot of restrictions, actually."

The path toward acceptance of alternative views lies with the open and honest discussion of different perspectives and points of contention. For Isma and Ilda, writing is at the forefront of this effort to create a dialogue between parties.

"If we try to act individually, I’m certain we can’t [find success]," Ilda said.

"[I wish a woman] is not viewed through any kind of label," Isma added. “She must become human. Women must become human.”

The writers’ opinions were gathered as part of a student research project during August-October 2016, conducted as part of the requirement for a Bachelor of Arts (Honors) from the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia.