Models of gender and class in Java

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An irony of the research on women and the family in Java during the late 1970s was that few researchers, Western or Indonesian, were aware that the country was in the early phases of an Islamic resurgence. After the pioneering studies of Hildred Geertz (1961) and Robert Jay (1969), research on Javanese women and the household turned to questions of class, gender inequality, and economic development (Hart 1978; Stoler 1976; White 1976). A few years later, Valerie Hull published an important article on the changing nature of gender roles among the emerging middle class in rural Central Java (Hull 1996). Hull’s work is particularly relevant here because she examined women of similar background and age as the mothers of the young Javanese women in my own study. Her work thus offers an important baseline for comparing recent changes in women’s roles with those of a generation earlier.  By comparison with their counterparts in the Muslim world and the pre- modern West, Hull notes that Javanese women have long played a prominent role in the family and public life. For centuries, they have owned farm land, operated small businesses, and had the right to initiate divorce. When mass education first became broadly available in Indonesia in the 1950s, there were relatively few cultural impediments to women’s participation in schooling. Hull recognizes that, at idealized levels of expression, Javanese do tend to see the husband as the patriarchal head of the household.

However, as she also notes, in the actual conduct of everyday life, the husband–wife partnership is conceived of as complementary rather than �subordinating. Having summarized the conventional view of women’s status in Java, however, Hull introduces a wrinkle into the account. This wrinkle concerns the position of women in high-�status circles, especially members of the traditional aristocracy and court elite known as priyayi. As the ranks of the colonial bureaucracy swelled with native administrators in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the category of priyayi was extended to include not just aristocrats, but all Javanese employed in state administration. Clifford Geertz (1976) identified the priyayi as an important subcultural elite, distinguished by their concern for the Javanese arts, status-sensitive speech and etiquette, and, most important for the present discussion, their general lack of interest in Islamic piety. Although later scholars would point out that, in fact, many priyayi have been pious Muslims (Bachtiar 1973; Woodward 1989), Geertz regarded the priyayi as mystical relativists. To this portrait, Hull added the observation that priyayi also differ from lower-status Javanese in their family and gender organization. In contrast to the traditions of their rural counterparts, the demands of family honor for priyayi women often required that women remained secluded in their homes and not be exposed to the status-demeaning bustle of the public world. Priyayi girls received only limited education and were often forced at a young age to marry a husband chosen by their parents (Coté 1995). They were not supposed to engage in demeaning physical labor, with the notable exception of that associated with the relatively prestigious, home-based industry of batik cloth painting and production (Brenner 1999; Gouda 1995).

In evaluating gender ideology and women’s employment in Java during the 1970s, Hull discovered that rather than using education to propel themselves into heightened public activity, middle-class Javanese women seemed to be moving toward a neo-priyayi pattern of female domesticity and restricted public participation. Although they were gaining access to formal education and extrafamilial employment, women in the emerging middle class tended to be more, not less, focused on the household. Equally important, rather than developing greater influence or equality in the family, the authority of women in the new middle class seemed static or in decline (Hull 1996:80). Hull discovered that middle-class women with the means to do so opted not to work outside the home, so as to devote themselves to child rearing and homemaking. In addition, these women also tended to have more children than their lower-class counterparts. In short, among educated middle-class women, Hull saw a trend toward heightened domesticity and social insularity rather than greater equality and public involvement. These developments, Hull concluded, were evidence of diminished female autonomy and social “regress” rather than “progress”.

 

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