As an Asian woman who is an Indonesian Javanese bred and raised abroad, I have had my difficulties understanding my identity, as it is a mix of everything that I went through in my developmental years. My parents are Indonesians who are both Javanese bred and who spent their time working abroad. I have lived in Iran, India and Nigeria until I was 10, which qualifies me to be called a "third-culture kid," a person raised in a culture different from that of their parents for a large part of their childhood.
I have found that each of these places bears a resemblance when it comes to defining the gender construct. These countries, even today, still uphold the traditional gender roles when it comes to defining the ideal woman. Nonetheless, to experience the vibrant colors and customs of each country I have lived gave me an insight of the struggle of womanhood.
My Indonesian upbringing is only limited to the family environment; while in school, I was exposed to life with different cultures and customs. When I went back to Indonesia, I went through a culture shock. I was a teenager and had a hard time fitting in and defining my identity because I could not find myself having the same interests as my fellow high school students. I had different tastes in everything because there was a huge economy gap between my friends and I; I was considered a snob and a spoiled rich kid for being able to live abroad. It was hard making friends. But I have learned to get used to their way of thinking.
As soon as I started to understand their way of thinking, I was caught between a patriarchal society and my thoughts of free will. My mother said I was a stubborn person and that it would be hard for me to find a husband as I was too opinionated and that I could not be tamed. My mother insisted that I be the kind of Javanese woman that she is. A friend of mine from Hungary defined her as a "real" Javanese woman — one who is able to manage her behavior and make sure her family stays together, one that she does not cause any harm that will ruin her family’s reputation.
As someone who has had the chance to live abroad, the experiences I've had have encouraged me to dream and aspire to become the person I wanted to be, someone who could travel freely again and experience a variety of culture. But when I try to fit into the society here at home, I've been faced with men who saw me as nothing more than a prospect to be their wife.
I am a dental student, and female dentists in Indonesia are admired for the wrong reasons — not because we are smart and physically tough for being able to bend over for hours and deal with patients, but because we are expected to have to work and stay pretty while looking after the family and making sure the food is prepared when the husband gets home. I’ve had questions from men such as, "Can you cook?" "Will you wear a hijab when we get married?" "Will you stay at home after marriage?" "Will you work from home?"
I've been taken aback by this. Is this how Indonesians really think? That no matter how much work she has, a woman cannot ask to divide parental duties with her male counterpart? This made me wonder whether it makes me "Indonesian enough" if I don’t follow how the majority thinks.
Furthermore, even though Indonesia is a multicultural and multiethnic country, people still choose their partners based on ethnicity.
Javanese women are known as very calm and delicate, while I am the opposite of calm and delicate. I am loud and careless. I wasn’t raised in a Javanese environment except only when we got to visit our relatives in Java. Yet in the eyes of the majority, I am not Indonesian or Javanese. I am deemed as someone who is western-influenced even though I was raised in countries that are still very patriarchal.
I've had no definition of the identity I hold, yet I yearned to know about the heritage that runs through my blood. It took a long while to finally realize that I found bits of my Javanese heritage through learning Surakarta-style Javanese classical dance, originated in Central Java, Indonesia.
Javanese classical dance is known to be very slow and delicate yet detailed. The main pose of the Javanese Dance is to mendak, a pose which requires the dancer to stand while bending her knees. Most of the movements of the dance require this position. When I got deeper into learning the philosophy of the dance, it came to my surprise that the pose stems from the fact that, back in the day, women weren’t allowed to stand taller than men.
However, even though it had a patriarchal background, I had fallen in love with the moves.
I love how delicate and detailed the dance is. It is slow and full of grace. It’s like meditating. In meditation, you have to restrain from responding to the bodily sensations that come during meditating; in Javanese dance you have to move within the discomfort of the movement and produce an elegant movement.
I could finally connect myself to being Javanese by mastering the Javanese dance.
The women who have been practicing Javanese dance in my group range between their late teens to their fifties; the dance teacher is above sixty. They are empowered women who also hold high positions in their workplace. They are the opposite of obedient and submissive — they are the ones in control of their lives
Javanese has a long history of putting women subordinate to men, but it also has a long history of women warriors in the Sultanate era. Women soldiers, called the Prajurit Estri, have been taught archery and how to fight. Their main duty was to guard the Sultan’s family while other male soldiers fought in the battles. Javanese women have also controlled the sultanate palace back in the day. They are in control of the treasury and in guaranteeing the succession line. They were also a part of the bureaucratic influence. And even though these women are as tough as history tells, we aren't known by these traits. Javanese women are known to be obedient and submissive. This saddens me because the Javanese women I know from my daily life are hardworking ones who rely on themselves.
It was very conflicting at first. Being Asian-Indonesian-Javanese had me cornered in a place where women are considered lower than men. But as I yearned to know my identity, I got to know that there are lots of things that have been my identity all along; not long after that, I found feminism through my intersecting identities. These identities have empowered me in understanding my capabilities as a woman. As conflicting as it seems to be able to intersect these identities and my love for Javanese performance, which turned out to be very patriarchal at first, I have found myself an identity that filled the void of a third-culture kid. Being a third-culture kid in and of itself has become an identity for me as it enables me to explore myself and has made me discover my feminism.