Staying True As A Javanese Woman

I am having a hard time talking about being oppressed. Even though I’ve been exposed to a lot of cultures, patriarchy still follows and I meet it in every part of the world. When I went back home to Jakarta, I felt it grow even stronger. With Soeharto’s New Order gone I was truly cornered.

While I was searching for my identity at home (in my case, Java) I found it hard to deal with the expectations that Indonesian women had to face. I became attracted to the historical ideals of how Javanese women held power during the Javanese Sultanate and felt a longing from deep down in my heart to belong to this powerful legacy, even though I was raised abroad.

When I learned about Javanese women in the past influencing both public and private domains, it was like the universe had pointed out that I didn’t need to be embarrassed about reclaiming my identity as a Javanese woman. I was also pleased to learn my local identity was very contrary to the West’s narrative of the passive Asian woman (particularly Javanese women). Javanese women were known for their feminine traits and ruled with their femininity and Javanese men (during the Keraton era) did not feel the need to subordinate these feminine traits, even when these traits appeared amongst themselves. This isn’t to say that local patriarchal rituals didn’t exist at the time which imposed gendered roles towards women, but it did not stop women from their achievements either (let’s not forget that the Dutch imported patriarchy too, through slavery and colonisation).

Javanese history consists of different reigns, from Hindu-Buddhism being introduced to the palace, to Islam becoming part of Javanese traditions and lifestyles. Back then, Javanese people were intersecting their identities with their faith and their culture gracefully and there was no need to forbid certain Javanese rituals in the place of religion. Women were allowed to participate (and succeed) in the public domain and were not forced to cover up during Javanese performances. Religion and Javanese culture walked side by side.

Javanese people were able to interpret Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and animism in such a way that it fit their philosophical beliefs, known as the Kejawen. The teachings are universal and anyone is welcome to learn about Kejawen as it embodies the process of understanding oneself within the universe, helping with contemplation, reflection and control. This spiritual practice is very much aligned with the practice of mindfulness. These Kejawen concepts were attractive to me and helped me in identifying with what it means to be a Javanese woman.

In the present day, there are not a lot of people who publicly announce that one is a believer or is practising Kejawen. Kejawen has developed a bad name, being mistaken as dark magic. Some people feel it goes against certain religious rules that the Indonesians follow. Now I see it is only the elder Javanese people who still incorporate Javanese philosophy into their way of life. I find it easier speaking about these philosophies with my elders, listening to their journeys and then relating their stories to my own experiences.

At first, I was afraid that by identifying as a Javanese woman who embodied certain Kejawen concepts, I would be mistaken for being submissive, accepting, soft and feminine. I would be misunderstood as being passive, when there is power and strength in subtlety, politeness, courtesy, initiative, emotional mastery and consciousness. This is why in some historical texts, it is easy to find Javanese royals who betrayed the kingdom who are actually working with the Dutch colony, not because they were disloyal but because they had the initiative to take matters into their own hands.

I do practice some of these concepts relating to the Kejawen sense of individuality and independence. Now, I see these traits often in the modern portrayals of Javanese women in private and public domains.

I also believe it should not be assumed that Javanese women follow Kejawen because it is demanded by our society, nor should these ‘softer’ traits be fetishized by western narratives, which pay no heed to the fact that this ‘submissive’ misconception is a result of a colonial rule that gave us no other choice.

When I did decide to stay true to the teachings my ancestors left behind, I found the interpretations and narratives from the west and from Java to be very conflicted. There seemed to be a dichotomy between the western woman at the forefront of women’s movements and Javanese women who are being left behind. In reality, Javanese women have always been able to stand up for themselves, and I am proud and unashamed to be a representative of that.

This article was first published on 22 March 2017