Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Degree Granting Department
Hunt Hawkins, Ph.D.
Gurleen Grewal, Ph.D.
Ylce Irizarry, Ph.D.
Phillip Sipiora, Ph.D.
colonialism, femle body, feudalism, Javacentrism, politics, spiritual
This project focuses on female characters’ identity and sexuality in four contemporary Indonesian novels, selected based on historical settings highly significant to the discussion. First, The Girl from the Coast (2002) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer takes place during Dutch colonialization, and the second, The Dancer (1982) by Ahmad Tohari, during the transition of power from President Soekarno to General Suharto, a period when the Indonesian Communist Party was still active. Durga/Umayi (2004) by Y. B. Mangunwijaya and Saman, a Novel (1998) by Ayu Utami both take place during the New Order era when Suharto was president of Indonesia.
The project’s discussion focuses on how the four authors present their female characters and how they depict effects of Dutch colonialism, intensified feudalism, and repressive New Order politics on Indonesian women’s oppression. In The Girl from the Coast, Toer interrogates feudalism within Indonesian society. He believes that Dutch colonialism served to cause feudalism within the colonized Indonesian population through discriminatory colonial practices meant to divide and exploit Indonesia. According to Toer, Dutch colonialists took advantage of a certain feudalism already characterizing Javanese traditions and social structure, in order to control the lower classes, thereby intensifying native-Indonesian feudalism and causing internal colonialism. In The Dancer, Ahmad Tohari depicts how the Indonesian tradition of ronggeng (a female figure who becomes a village’s focus of sexuality and fertility) conquers and destroys a woman’s freedom and hope for her life. Next, Soeharto’s New Order politics damage her to the point of insanity. Forcibly extracted from the traditional role her village has assigned her, the government imprisons her, mistaking her dance performance at a communist meeting for political affiliation with the Indonesian Communist Party. Having been more or less brainwashed by her village into assuming a traditional identity role that she did not want, being falsely imprisoned, and then released into a possibly free new life—with no direction or support—the ties binding her to human identity are complete severed, and she loses her sanity. In the third novel Durga/Umayi, Y.B. Mangunwijaya calls on traditional Indian epics to explore how Durga the Destroyer and Umayi the goddess are at work in Indonesia, as represented by a female character who repeatedly and purposefully changes her identity, at first to survive during the 1930s and later through prostitution, for the security of financial gain. She seems to know exactly what she wants and uses any means at hand to acquire it. In the novel’s narrative strategy, she is both her divided self and the Indonesia plundered by Suharto, his family, and groups to whom he was indebted. Finally, Ayu Utami’s Saman takes place entirely during the New Order Era, during which young, educated, middle-class Indonesian women go abroad to interact with people and social customs other than Indonesia’s repressive ones. Despite certain challenges inherent to leaving one’s native land, Utami’s female characters busily detach themselves from oppressive patriarchal Indonesian social norms and religious values. They have opportunities to choose the life they want to live.
From the life of Toer’s naïve and ignorant girl from the coast, who is never named and therefore has no personhood, to Utami’s young educated women exploring sexuality and a free life outside Indonesia, there is progress, albeit often painful and punitive. Toer’s girl and Tohari’s dancer are both colonized and meet tragic endings. In contrast, Mangunwijaya’s accommodating identity shifter and Utami’s rather enlightened characters are able to improve their lives as Indonesian women because they have the individual power and authority to act on their dreams and desires. Although their choices can be difficult, painful, and even sacrificial, they are able to choose—unlike Toer’s girl and Tohari’s ronggeng.
Scholar Commons Citation
Rarastesa, Zita, "Female Identity and Sexuality in Contemporary Indonesian Novels" (2020). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.