Romi is a 29 year old Indonesian woman who works in a private villa on Gili Island in Lombok. Her daily routine involves rising at 6am to get holy water for prayer, before showering and beginning work at 7am. Like most people on the island, she takes a break during the midday heat before returning in the afternoon for the second shift of the day. She lives in the staffhouse behind the villa but goes back to Lombok for 2 days every fortnight to stay with family and rest between working stints.
She mentions that her long term plans are to work and then marry in the next couple of years, though she does not have a particular love interest in mind. She says this quite matter of factly. She explained that in her village a lot of women marry at around sixteen, some as young as twelve, something she suggested may be because of a lack of opportunities but also simply because it’s the usual expectation. In Australia it goes without saying that to marry at the age of twelve is taboo and decidedly socially unacceptable, but in Indonesia marriage ages have typically always been low (for women in particular) compared to other asian countries (Jones, 2005). In 2000 the median age country wide for an Indonesian woman to marry rose to 23, but in some ethnic groups the average age is still below 18 (Jones 2001, 2004). This is often seen as being a result of multiple factors, one being the Indonesian focus on the family as a centre of social and economic activity, and uxorilocality (typically Javanese and Sundanese) through to virilocality (Balinese and Batak) as the norms.
While most of us reading would be well versed in the distinctions between ‘law’ and manners, customs, etc., in non-western countries there is not often a clear distinction. What we can see though is that a sense of justice and it’s administration are universal in every society (Prins, 1951). ‘Adat’ law refers to the local customs and ethnicity-based laws still highly relevant in Indonesia today. As an extraordinarily diverse country, Adat laws are also mirrored in the many different Adat systems in use throughout localities within the Archipelago (Buttenheim & Nobles, 2009). Typically in local communities nominated residents are seen as ‘Adat’ experts, to be consulted in such matters if needed. These laws are still a particularly persistent influence on marriage behaviours, despite being a country in the throws of rapid socio-economic development and ‘modernization’. In fact, many scholars note a rise in prevalence of Adat law as perhaps being a reactionary push againt state government efforts to unite Indonesia through central controls at the expense of local customs (Buttenheim & Nobles, 2009). Today Adat laws are seen as legitimate sources of power, and are used in local decision making.
Interestingly enough, I found out that Romi’s parents were tobacco farmers on mainland Lombok. She used big hand expressions to explain the process of trimming back the plants and then harvesting the leaves. Last year was not a good harvest due to dry weather, though she said in a good year they can make a lot of money. When I asked if she smoked she laughed at me, saying “of course not, it’s bad for your health!”. She also had no particular opinions on Tobacco Industries, plainly saying that they are good because they create work.
In speaking with Romi and other Indonesians from a range of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, I would not like to generalise but I can see how social standing has an influence on every facet of behaviour and decision making. From what is considered the norms for marriage, through to having to make harsh decisions that impact health and wellbeing in a trade off with work and money. It’s been a humbling experience, but also one that raises more questions than answers, in a country with such complex local (Adat), state and religious (Islamic) tensions simultaneously shaping the country. I think there is value in knowing that there is much you do not yet understand, and to keep in mind that each locality has its own deeply embedded cultures and complex factors at play.
Buttenheim, A. & Nobles, J. 2009, ‘Ethnic diversity, traditional norms, and marriage behaviour in Indonesia’, Population Studies, vol 63, no 3, pp. 277 – 294.
Jones, G. 2001, ‘Which Indonesian women marry youngest, and why?’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol 32, no. 1, pp. 67 – 78.
Jones, G. 2004, (Un) tying the Knot: Ideal and Reality in Asian Marriage, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, Singapore, pp. 3-58.
Jones, G. 2005, ‘The ‘flight from marriage’ in South- East and East Asia’, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, vol 36, no 1, pp. 93 – 119.
Prins, J. 1951, ‘Adatlaw and Muslim Religious Law in Modern Indonesia: An Introduction’, Die Welt des Islams, vol 1, no 4, pp. 283 – 300.