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Fragrant liberation

Publication Date : 17-11-2013


After the awakening of sastra wangi (fragrant literature), Indonesian women writers have been exploring themes beyond themselves and their own lives


After the awakening of sastra wangi (fragrant literature), Indonesian women writers have been writing on large canvasses, exploring themes beyond themselves and their own lives.

From Marah Rusli’s Sitti Nurbaya to Djenar Maesa Ayu’s Mereka Bilang, Saya Monyet! (They Say I’m a Monkey!), Indonesian literature has witnessed a thriving women’s movement in the patriarchal society.

Established in the early years of the 20th century in Padang, West Sumatra, the novel was a tragic romance in which the protagonists, Sitti Nurbaya and Samsulbahri, are forced apart due to the shackles of local tradition and patriarchy against the backdrop of the revolutionary war against the Dutch.

The country’s proclamation of independence did not translate into women’s freedom or equality. It actually complicated the shackles in the name of conservative Europeanised society, religion and military pressures.

Djenar’s work, in the form of a collection of short stories published just four years after the downfall of Soeharto, was the pinnacle of the sastra wangi literary movement, which was propelled by women writers writing about sexuality, politics and urban life.

After Ayu Utami’s seminal work, Saman (1998), which openly discussed political and military oppression under Soeharto’s New Order regime via graphic sex scenes, Djenar wrote about sexual and physical violence against women and children, as well as using her craft to challenge the prohibition of women smoking and drinking alcohol in the Muslim-majority country.

The liberation of women in literature brought about by the sastra wangi movement was in some ways similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age, in which he portrayed flapper girls, women who had their hair cut in a bob, went to bars to smoke and drink and enjoyed carefree sex lives; something that was completely alien in post-World War I America, where the selling and drinking of alcohol was illegal.

Since sastra wangi was launched, however, there was no turning back in women’s literature. From empowered women who consciously surrender to commercialism in chick lit novels to religious freedom, Indonesian women began writing about overarching themes and topics.

Despite religious and coming-of-age themes that began to dominate local bookstores, women writers shed light on the anomalies created by the country’s diversity.

“After 1998, freedom wasn’t just found in journalism but also in literature,” said Ibnu Wahyudi, a literary expert at the University of Indonesia, adding that gay and lesbian themes were also found in women’s literature.

Pop-novel pioneer Clara Ng, he said, wrote on diverse topics from the dilemmas faced in a Chinese-Indonesian family (Dimsum Terakhir, The Last Dimsum) to lesbianism (Gerhana Kembar, Twin Eclipses). Another pop novel author Alberthiene Endah also portrays lesbianism in Detik Terakhir (The Last Second).

Women’s sexuality, despite its still being a major political battle in the country, is no longer the face of current Indonesian literature. Writers also explore sociopolitical issues and religion in their works.

“Women writers are continuing to widen their response to issues and things outside themselves,” said sociologist and literary observer Robertus Robet, referring to history as well as sociopolitical issues that encompass the portrayal of women in literature.

Novels like Amba by Laksmi Pamuntjak and Pulang (Homecoming) by Leila S. Chudori detail the political upheaval involving the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965.

Ibnu said their works offered alternate points of view to the familiar, politicised history in the country.

“We’re in a state of rethinking and reconsidering things. Like the 1965 tragedy, for example, we need to consider it again […] what happened in 1965 might actually be different from Soeharto’s version,” he said.

Ibnu also mentioned Entrok, a debut novel by young writer Okky Madasari, which also deals with sexuality and political issues. “Entrok actually means bra [in Javanese] but the narrative says so much about politics.”

Esti Budihapsari, an editor with Mizan publishing, said that feminism was still a key element in works by women writers. She, however, referred to the writers of the 1990s as “a spoiled generation”, compared to previous generations.

“Writers during the 1990s didn’t struggle as much as Nh. Dini,” she said, referring to the extensive social limitations the latter faced in her day. “Today’s writers have far greater opportunities and freedom to make their own choices,” she added.

Nh. Dini was a female author who wrote about women during the Soeharto era. Despite being less political, her works voiced the concerns of many women during that era, including struggles such as becoming financially independent, finding the right man and the challenges of living abroad.

Okky, who released her latest novel Pasung Jiwa (Shackled Soul) this year, said she never consciously strove to portray women’s issues in her work.

“My work always presents problems in our society. Those problems may be anything, from injustice to freedom and everything related to humanity,” she said.

She said she believed each man, woman and transgender person faced their own problems.

“However, we still have a patriarchal system and women are trapped in layers of problems. Women become the objects of rules; they are repressed and lose their rights in the name of religion or they lose their freedom in the name of tradition; while the state legitimates this foolishness with laws,” Okky said.

She added that fewer books today spoke about women and the plundering of their basic rights.

“We often see literature about women that impair and immerse the women themselves, such as when women are portrayed as objects of consumerism.”


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