The bus I was riding tore through the jungles of East Java in the night like some kind of iron beast. It swayed back and forth with every curve, threatening to overturn at any second. The compartment was engulfed by sound of palm branches hitting the bus' exterior before being ripped apart. I pulled my sarong around my shoulders to protect myself from the cool dampness of those predawn hours and tried to get some sleep. My attempt was in vain.
My friend, Wiwik, had dropped me off at the bus station a few hours prior. Wiwik was an Indonesian native, born in Kalimantan, who now lived in Sanur. She had a successful career with the boat company, her own luxurious apartment, and partied like a madwoman. I'll never forget the night we went to a foam party at Bounty Tavern. Wiwik and I slipped and slid around in a padded pit full of soap and danced the night away. We rode home on her motorbike a little before dawn, soaking wet and dripping with suds like two foamy ghosts in the night. Wiwik had a real passion for life. She was about as fun loving and independent as they come.
Bali has been well known for being a safe place for the blossoming of feminist ideology in Indonesia. Western women often come to this island for retreat, while Indonesian women see it as a safe haven for independence.
"In Bali I feel safe," my friend Reni explained in 2012. She had been born and raised in Bali. "I lived with roommates from Singapore and Hungary for a year, but before that I lived alone in a small apartment. I am independent. I worked in an international company on a decent position and decent salary. I have my own apartment and I can do whatever I want in Bali. Most Indonesian girls live with their parents until they get married. My parents are in Bali, but I live alone because I want to be independent."
However, I wasn't in Bali anymore. I had crossed the Bali Straight aboard the Penyeberangan Gilimanuk-Ketapang Ferry. I was the only woman aboard this local East Javanese bus who wasn't wearing a headscarf.
The dawn was breaking when we arrived in Probolinggo. This was my stop. I was trying to make my way to the Bromo volcano. An English traveler (male) I had met on the island of Lombok told me that this was a must see Indonesian phenomenon. I stepped off the bus and was instantly surrounded by a dozen men, waving their hands and grabbing at my arms.
"Missus! Missus! Do you need a ride? Missus!" They were all small men, short and thin, young and old, all vying for my attention. I backed away and asked if any of them know where I could find the yellow angkot. This was the transportation recommended in my guidebook. They told me that there was no angkot, and each one of them urged me to come with him instead. I was totally overwhelmed and running on no sleep, so I declined them all. I picked up my bags and headed inside the bus station. One of the men chose to follow me. He was short and old, with a long beard and accusatory eyes.
"Missus, where is your husband?!" he inquired further, "Are you alone, Missus? Where is your husband?" I marched on as he followed me, until I was inside the bus station. Here, I asked again for the yellow angkot. I was directed to a parking lot behind the station. The yellow angkot was like a cross between a pickup truck and a van. It was an open air mode of passenger transportation. There was no one else waiting to board, but the driver seemed happy to see me.
"Where is your husband, missus?" he asked. I told him that I was alone and was trying to get to Mount Bromo. He smiled and chatted away with his friend for a while in Bahasa Indonesian. Meanwhile, I was skimming my guidebook for answers. That is when I was approached by the driver's friend.
"Where is your husband?" he asked. This was getting really annoying. The driver told me we couldn't leave until the angkot was full. I waited two hours for the other passengers to arrive, but they never came. I had been up for almost thirty hours at this point. I was tired, and in dire need of some sleep. The sun was bright and it hurt my eyes. My head ached with exhaustion. My brain didn't want to deal with any stress or decision making. Not wanting to face the mob of men waiting in front of the bus station, I asked if the angkot driver if could find me a taxi.
A few minutes later, a man showed up with his motorbike. He was stockier than most Indonesians, with an extra round face. I got on the bike, sitting behind him, and the driver's friend lifted my bag onto my lap. The friend then blatantly grabbed my breast, and acted like his hand was stuck between my chest and the bag.
"Oh! Oh! Oh!" he cried, with a giant smile across his face. The other men were laughing. My first instinct was to punch this groper in the face, but my hands were trapped beneath the weight of my bag. My legs were at an angle that made kicking him in the groin impossible as well. I looked at him with utter disgust as the driver started his bike and sped away.
I asked him to take me to a budget local Indonesian hotel. I emphasized the local aspect, because I was set on having as cultural of experiences as possible during my travels. After all, mingling with local culture had been terrific in Lombok. We headed north on Jalan Bromo, and then took a left on Jalan Raya Banjarsari. The road was lined with grass and dirt. We passed arid landscapes of farmland and cattle herds, interspersed with the large stone structures of private homes and mosques. People stood in front of their homes, staring blankly at me with big brown eyes as we passed. The air was sticky and permeated with a grimy brown dust. I almost choked on the dirt. It stuck to my skin and coated my arms and legs like a film of damp soot.
Twenty minutes later, we pulled up to the Hotel Bromo Indah. It resembled a sullied American motel and was surrounded by nothing but miles of grainy pastures and frighteningly dead fields. I only wanted to sleep, so I paid for my room and prepared to retire. My driver signed me up to tour Mount Bromo first thing the next morning, and gave me his phone number in case I needed to reach him.
I really bit off more than I can chew with this local experience. My room had two tiny single beds and a tile floor that felt cool beneath my feet. Although it looked like the bedding had been washed, and someone had made the bed, the sheets had collected that same brown grit that seemed to hover in the air. There was no air conditioning, just a vented fan above the window. It pumped fresh dust into the room. The window covering was light, so I tried hanging my sarongs around it to block out the sun. I wanted to take a shower first, but there was no shower. There was only a tall, narrow, blue tiled tub filled with murky, grimy water. I used the plastic ladle to scoop this water all over my body in an attempt to bathe but came out feeling dirtier than when I went in. I tried to use the faucet for brushing my teeth, only to discover that it wasn't functional.
Finally, I cozied up into one of the beds and had a nice, long nap.
Late in the afternoon, I awoke to hear voices outside my hotel room. I peeked through the sarongs and curtain to see that there were a group of Indonesian men sitting on my porch, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, waiting for me to emerge. I was officially creeped out. Where the hell was I? Who were these men, and what business did they have hanging out on my porch? Had I stepped into some kind of rape factory? I picked up my phone and tried to call the motorbike driver to take me away from the Hotel Bromo Indah as quickly as possible. As luck would have it, my phone was out of minutes.
I put on the most conservative outfit I could muster, and took a deep breath. Then, I stepped outside. The men all turned to look at me and smiled provocatively, as if I had just popped out of the cake at somebody's bachelor party. I walked confidently past them and to the front office. I asked to use their phone, but the Hotel Bromo Indah didn't have one. So I walked along that long, dusty road in the late afternoon heat for maybe a mile before I found a little store.
The shop was like a side room of someone's house with a wooden counter in front and a tarp that they could pull down at closing time. The old men who worked there sold me phone credit, staring me down with highly suggestive expressions. I observed their women, covered head to toe, working in back of the house rounding up half a dozen young children. From their faces, the women appeared to be significantly younger than the men, perhaps in their late teens or early twenties.
I called my driver and had dinner at the Hotel Bromo Indah café while I waited for his return. I'm not sure if the food was any good or not, since I was too distracted to notice. I didn't want to go back to my room alone for fear that those men were still there, drinking and smoking, waiting for me to return. Once my driver had arrived, I made him escort me to my room. Sure enough, the men were still there, and my driver chatted casually with them as I gathered up my belongings. I had had enough local experience for one day.
My first instinct was to bail on this town all together, and get on the bus for somewhere else. However, I really wanted to climb that volcano. I had never seen a volcano before in my life, and I wasn't about to let a bunch of chauvinistic pigs get in my way. My driver took me to a tourist shop near the bus station where I signed up for a tour. As I waited for the van to arrive, I chatted with a Dutch couple that was also signed up for the tour. I asked the woman, who wore Western clothes like me and had her hair uncovered, if she had any of the same experiences as I had that day. She replied that her experiences there had been quite the contrary, and that the people of Java had treated her with kindness and respect. She was, however, traveling with her boyfriend, while I was unescorted.
I decided to use the Internet café across the street. I was the only woman in the whole café. As I sat quietly sending emails, the man next to me suddenly turned to me and snapped,
"GO AWAY!" before getting up to leave. I was appalled. Was I really so unwelcome in Probolinggo simply because I didn't have a man as my chaperone? Was I not still human, with the same right to exist and move about this earth as anyone else?
The people of Probolinggo are part of an Indonesian ethnic group of predominantly cattle herders and fishermen called the Madurese. According to the book Violent Environments, Dutch colonialists, as well as other Indonesian ethnic groups, have always considered the Madurese to be excessively ruthless and violent, intent on "blood revenge". Considering their history, it is no surprise to learn that the Madurese treated me with aggression. This was especially the case with regards to my presence as a single, educated, and un-chaperoned woman. My simple existence challenged everything the Madurese knew about gender roles in society.
It is perfectly acceptable within the Madurese community to practice polygamy. Each wife has a "bride price", which is sometimes paid in cattle. The legal marriage age in Indonesia is nineteen for men, and sixteen for women. However, marriage at a younger age is permitted as long as there is parental consent. According to the UN Population Fund, a 2000-2011 study found that 34% of Indonesian women ages twenty to twenty-four married before they reached the age of eighteen. The study goes on to point out that out of these women, a remarkable 75.3% had either received only primary school education, or no education whatsoever. Another twelve percent of Indonesian women married before the age of fifteen. This trend is more prevalent in rural areas like East Java and Probolinggo. An article from The Jakarta Globe claims that Indonesian women who receive a secondary education are six times less likely to be child brides.
Originally from Yogyakarta, Feby grew up in a Javanese village. When I asked her about the role of women in rural Indonesia, Feby explained,
"Women [in the villages] can't have higher education from men. [It has] something [to do with the] pride of the man that women cannot have a higher status from him. Like my cousin. She's very smart and had a scholarship to the best university, but her family [did] not allow her to go because her brother cannot finish the high school. Most parents in [the] village think that women's roles are taking care [of] their family, cooking, cleaning, [and] raising children. Those things don't need high education. Some men also [do] not allow their wives to work because it will hurt their pride if a family has to have two sources [of income]. Many divorce[s] happen because [the] wife's income is higher than the husband's."
I asked Reni if she thought that there was a gap between Indonesian women who marry young and the women who chose education. I also asked her why she chose education over marriage in her own life. Reni replied,
"Yes, there is a gap. For me, I have a good education. I live better and the way of viewing life is different. I see life as a free person, I want to travel and do whatever I want without thinking of [a] husband or kids[s]. [It may] sound selfish, but I want to enjoy my free time as much as I can before committing to get married. I can see from many friends of mine who are married, they are happy, but [in a] different way. They are jealous if they see me traveling here and there, come to the US for studying, or do things as single [and] not married. We [will] have [a] better job than them since we have higher education and experience more life than them. That [is] also the reason why I choose education more than marriage. After all, it's for my future."
With further consideration for the threatening treatment I received in Probolinggo, I asked Feby if there were incidents of domestic violence towards women in the villages. She said that she believed so, but did not feel comfortable going into detail. I didn't want to badger her about it, however, in the 2012 interview she did comment,
"It [domestic violence, child brides] happens in societies that lack of education."
Therefore, EDUCATION is the solution for preventing both child marriage and domestic violence in Indonesia. According to Ida Rowaida, head of gender studies at the University of Indonesia,
"Structural intervention such as in law is in important, but cultural intervention such as education is more important. There are people who see gender as a threat" (Osman: 2010).
In a documentary film entitled Half the Sky, which was created to generate awareness for international women's issues, the narrator explains,
"When you educate a girl, there's a ripple effect that goes beyond what you would get from a normal investment. When you educate a girl, she tends to get married later on in life, she tends to have fewer kids, she takes better care of her kids. She has greater economic opportunity.She might create a business so she contributes to the local economy. When you educate a girl, you educate the village" (Half the Sky: 2012).
In 2003, a women's right group called Perempuan Mahardhika (Free Women) came together with the purpose of reforming the role of women within Indonesian society.
"The conference identified three key aspects of women's oppression in Indonesia: the capitalist system, patriarchal culture, and militarism. Secondly, we identified the importance of direct participation of women in the struggle for their own liberation and, thirdly, we decided to build a mass women's organization on a national scale. We also strive for unity between the women's movement and the broader struggles of the poor majority. We also respond to government decisions or political attacks on women as they arise" (Kenny: 2011).
In 2004, new laws were passed in Indonesia with concerns to domestic violence. In 2007, further legislation was passed with regards to human trafficking. However, Mariana Amiruddin, executive director of the women's rights magazine Jurnal Perempuan, explains why lack of education has impeded the implementation of these decrees.
"No significant achievements had resulted from these laws, as 'many people do not even understand the definition of gender and women's empowerment'. There is a severe lack of awareness…In the case of trafficking, for example, 'how can people implement the law when they do not understand what trafficking is...Ask people in villages that have many cases of trafficking. They do not know anything about it'" (Osman: 2010).
In 2008, the Indonesian parliament took a huge step backwards by passing anti-pornography legislation. I had first heard about this law when I was watching the movie Perfume: the Story of a Murderer back at Wiwik's apartment. I asked why all of the nudity was blurred out (and poorly at that, there was still a nipple here and there). She told me that it was because of the anti-pornography law. Featuring 154 discriminatory bylaws, the legislation posed for major setbacks to the rights of women in Indonesia. These setbacks included sixty-four bylaws that infringed on a woman's right to free speech, as well as the right to seek equality in employment.
The bill featured notably loose interpretations that surpassed the definition of what we might consider pornography in the United States, as well as a clause allowing for public participation in its enforcement. As a result, women who do not practice ideal modesty in public can be targets of violence and hate crimes. Under law, their assailants face no penalty. Anyone resembling a prostitute in any way, shape, or form is subject to vigilante persecution.
Perhaps this explains the verbal violence that was directed at the dirty blonde haired, curvaceous woman I was proud to be. From the Madurese's perspective, my hair was outrageous. Although I wore long grey pants in the stifling heat, and a t-shirt that covered my shoulders, I still wore Western clothing, which highlighted my Western figure. Yet, I believe the harassment was less induced by the way I dressed. I think it was because I walked the streets by myself, without the company of a man. Everything about me lacked modesty - I stood out from their women like a provocative sore thumb. Since Western women had a reputation for being "easy", to the Madurese, I was automatically the symbol of pornography and sexual misconduct, assumed a prostitute, and therefore the target for public humiliation.
I spent the night in the foreigner friendly Café Lava Hostel in Cemoro Lawang. For the entire ride there, I felt an overwhelming sense of mental determination to overcome the hate and misogyny by climbing Mount Bromo. I would not let their attitudes scare me away from accomplishing such a spectacular feat.
The next morning, I climbed Gunung Penanjakan to watch the sun rise over a barren landscape of volcanic ash and apocalyptic mist. Soon, I was trudging through the grey, pumice sand dunes of the Tengger crater. There were horses for rent for those who'd rather not cross these wastelands on foot. Always a lover of animals, I stopped to pet one horse's face. That was when a German woman came up to me, laughing.
"I think that the horse likes you very much," she remarked with a giant grin.
"What, why?" I questioned.
"The moment you started petting him, he got a huge erection!" I looked back at the horse and, sure enough, this gentle creature was sporting a giant horse boner. I came to the conclusion that it wasn't exclusively human males that saw me as a sexual object in this part of the world!
I left the perverted horse and continued on to Gunung Bromo. I remember feeling so empowered that I had overcome adversity and was continuing on with my own goals in mind. I was proving to myself, and to all of those men down in Probolinggo, that I didn't need a man to roam this world, and certainly didn't need a husband to climb this volcano. I had free will.
I ascended the sandy hill and found myself gazing down into the earth through the crater of an actively erupting volcano. The volcanic ash was steadily hurled into my face from deep inside the unfathomable bowels of our planet. Not unlike womanhood, this volcano was one of nature's greatest spectacles. It was a power so strong and so enduring that no human, male or female, would ever contain it.
I spent the next day on a local Indonesian bus so crowded that I had to sit on the dashboard. Pressed against the windshield, clutching my purse, I watched the world go by one highway at a time. I suffered a barrage of new "where is your husband" questions. I found the most entertaining response was to answer with another question, the same question.
"Where is your husband?" I said. They would ask me again, and I would simply repeat. This generated a lot of puzzled looks and usually confused the men enough into leaving me alone.
At every stop, a new group of musicians would board the bus and climb through the bodies while playing their songs. They made folk music utilizing flutes, bottles filled with rice as shakers, voices, guitars, and ukuleles. At the end of every song, they collected tips from the passengers and got off the bus in time for a new group of musicians to board. It was mostly men that played on this bus ride, but I remember one woman boarded the bus by herself and sweetly sang a capella, or without accompaniment. I thought that perhaps her unaccompanied music reflected the unaccompanied lifestyle that she and I preferred.
At Surabaya, I transferred to another bus. This is where I met Fajar. At first I was afraid to talk to him, because I assumed he was just like every other man I'd met in Java. Fajar was actually a well-educated Javanese university student who was studying engineering in Surabaya. He turned out to be one of the most genuine and respectful men I had ever met in all of Southeast Asia.
Fajar invited me to visit his home town of Madiun, where he politely set me up at a pleasant hotel. I realized that the next day was Easter Sunday because there was a church holding services down the street from a mosque. Fajar took me on a motorbike tour around the breathtaking mountains and agricultural patchwork of Central Java. We spent the afternoon hanging out at the crater lake of an extinct volcano. Fajar was very intrigued by my idea to start an organization that would bring music education to the children of Indonesia once I got back to the United States (now known as Music for Lombok). He encouraged me to succeed in my endeavors and to share education and creativity with the children of his nation.
Fajar was incredibly kind and respectful. He saw me as a human being, and not as a sex symbol. It saddens me to think that I almost missed out on hanging out with Fajar. On the bus where I'd met him, I had been quick to pass judgement. Having only spent a few days in Java, I had been quickly conditioned to avoid all eye contact and behave defensively towards Javanese males. I think Fajar recognized my behavior, which is why he was quick to discuss education. It was the first thing he brought up that could set him apart, and allow him passage to my personal fortress.
I believe that there is a direct correlation between Fajar's high level of education and his regard for the opposite sex. This is why it is important that everyone in Indonesia (and all over the world), both male and female, have access to diverse information and improved education. I am so glad that I met Fajar, because he reminded me that there are men who respect women as equals and relish their friendships. Let's all stand together for global learning and progress. We can make the world a much better place.
Kat Vallera - NomadiKat Travel Media
The majority of this post is an excerpt from the book, Around the World in 80 J's, now on Amazon.
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Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women. Prod. Joshua Bennett. Perf. America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Et Al. Show of Force, 2012. Netflix.
"Indonesia."Indonesia. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. http://www.law.emory.edu/ifl/legal/indo….
Kenny, Zoe. "Fighting for Women's Rights in Indonesia." Direct Action. N.p., 30 Mar. 2011. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.http://directaction.org.au/issue30/fighti….
"Madurese."Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.http://www.thefellowship.info/Missions/Globa….
"The Madurese of Indonesia." The Madurese of Indonesia. Bethany World Prayer Center, 1997. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.http://www.prayway.com/unreached/peop….
"Number of Child Brides Down in Indonesia: UN | The Jakarta Globe." Number of Child Brides Down in Indonesia: UN | The Jakarta Globe. Jakarta Globe, 13 Oct. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/home/number-of….
Osman, Nurfika, and Ismira Lutfia. "As Indonesia Celebrates Kartini Day, Observers Say Women's Rights Lacking." The Jakarta Globe. N.p., 21 Apr. 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/home/as-indone….
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Dir. Tom Tykwer. Perf. Ben Whishaw. Constantin Film Produktion, VIP 4 Medienfonds, Nouvelles Éditions De Films, 2006. DVD.