DeMISTYfied in Djogja



Should new clothes be sewn for the emperors’ women I wonder who would take the challenge to do the task, and, if there are, are they in a position to force-dress the princesses?

On Grebeg Maulud occasion, we visited the Sultan’s palace, or Kraton, in Yogyakarta excited to view the pusaka (i.e. royal heirloom) that were believed to be the source of the kingly power and sovereign authority over the kingdom up to the present (i.e. King Hamengkubawana X is also the present Governor of the State of Yogyakarta). For a small entrance fee, we were honored with a guided tour and admired the museum of wax dolls dressed in various costumes depicting the many personalities in a Javanese court. The main attraction was a vast collection of royal transportation. There was a line of kereta-kereta, of royal carriages and carts, mostly imported from England and Holland that dated as far back as the 18th century, and at least two vintage cars (a Ford and a Mercedes), shining and still in fine condition, we were told. On seeing the display of prince and princesses, a Muslim sister (jav. mbak) expressed shock to see that the women during the time of kingship, despite the wide Islamization in the royal house, were not modest enough. The married women wore see-through jackets and tight long blouses on top of their kain batik that were narrow and long and provocatively hugging the hips, while the single women were virtually ‘topless’ in their kemben, with only a string of jasmine garland hanging from the neck and a strip of the same unsewn fabric wound around their busts fastened by a wide band. Further, while the king went around town in large and comfortable kereta, a western carriage, the women’s ‘rides’ were wooden boxes. The interesting influences of Hindu and Buddhist art are also prominent in the box’s designs of carved posts and slotted walls brightly painted with flowers and birds and outlined and frilled with satin curtains and a gargantuan wooden Garuda (i.e. eagle) menacingly guarding the side by the passenger’s entrance. This ‘trip-box’ was hoisted on two long poles apparently to be borne on the shoulders by male slaves. With only few inches wider than a bird’s cage and no more larger than a dog’s house, a corpulent woman or one over 50 kilograms would have to be forcibly squeezed into it and therein bear being stuck rigid for the length of the trip. The roof was low that the occupant must have to assume a prone position or recline rather than sit erect. These were interesting insights into how gender (roles) was defined in the olden time, Mbak suggested, although she did not directly accuse of any practice of gender inequality but the women’s countenance was so much against Islamic modesty, she disapprovingly concluded.

My simple rejoinder to this is that skimpily-attired women were not anomalous with Muslim protocols during the time. Why? Because women were not even visible as humans then. However, one should not make mistake into thinking that women were not valued. To the contrary royal women used to be placed in pedestals, and were so adored and cared for, as one would in modern time, an adorable toy-cat, say a blue-eyed Siamese. But women generally were many notches lower in humanity than men notwithstanding their royal status. One might wish there were progressive hermeunetes around to re-read and deconstruct the ideals of the Qur’an which was already read during the time (i.e. sufi teachings and kitab were also read and translated into Javanese then by mystics and men freshly arrived from hajj in Mecca), but even if Amina Wadud, Ibuh Sitti Mulliah, Asma Barlas and Fatima Mernissi were born in that tempoe duloe, at best, they would have been resigned to be delivered in the same trip-boxes, as Qur’an was accessible only to a few, and meaning, men. Remember these were times when women and children were commodities pirated and sold in the slave-market. So the poeteri –poeteri pampered at the royal house were much much more privileged than their kawula sisters. And I think they enjoyed their status and felt glorified treated that way, too. Yet generally women did not befit the same honor of having too much religion as men or of possessing deep piety more than the basics required to be respectable members of the royal house, so there were lesser expectations from them in terms of fulfilling religious duties (i.e. to the exception of few women such as Ratu Paku Bawana, whom I so admire that I shall deal more lengthily in my next entry on her efforts to revive sufi literature in the 18th century). That is, if women ever counted as human at all, or if they ever appeared any more significant before the religious’ eyes. This could partly be, I suspect, having to do with the assexuality and ascetism of most mystics (i.e. in which Javanese Islam was molded in) and, mostly, in the general attitude towards female sexuality as merely biological and a reproductive function which single and dependent women were considered ‘unripe’ for. So aside from being dutiful daughters, single and dependent women guarded their chastity and primed themselves to be potential mothers and good wives to honorable (and rich) men, hence, on appropriate and proper occasion, they needed to show some skin and that was to be counted as performing religious duty, as well. I hope Mbak wouldn’t be so shocked, but even in present day where classical Islamic shari’a is still the ‘rule’ for many, this particular injunction on women has not really changed. Muslim woman is enjoined to be salihat (pious) by being ganitat , that is , to be subservient to men and to satisfy her husband. And all the above depended still in one important ‘if’: if ever women were at the slightest chance unveiled from the mists of social invisibility.

But note that this was not a ‘gender trouble’ as in the modern-day fuzz of Rutherford or Irigaray over unbridled freedom of the female body that is so much underscored as identity problem and a cause for alarm by liberal individual rights advocate. The feminist and individual rightist ideology maintain that being human is a fulfillment of individuality and self-hood, and freedom is founded in a completely autonomous self radically dismembered from the burden of historic tradition and de-socialized from the intimate links to primordial social matrices such as the clan and ethnic families. This can also be viewed in terms of the modern notion of the ‘secularized’ body, but I would not wish to pass any judgment on this so-called ‘secularism’ as either one of progress or decline of values in the time being, neither would I be prepared to debate if ‘godliness’ really meant the end to the selfish-ness of individualism. Anyway, the ideological context in the tempoe duloe was different, selfhood and individuality was not prized because people valued belongingness to the intimacy of the families and clans so they held-on to the integrity of the social matrices at all cost, more than they would trouble themselves searching for individuality and self-identity. Anthony Giddens (1991) and Daniel Lerner (1958 in Arquiza 1997) shared in the view that selfhood and identity were not a problem for ‘traditional man’(sic) as they had less chances for social mobility and had low self-projective abilities – which as was observed in the case of sea nomadic people in southern Philippines, self-projection and opinion-making (i.e. subjectivity) were multiplied by travel, and in more recent times, by information and media technology (Arquiza 1997)[i]. The ‘opening of frontiers’, that is, the East, by colonialism from the West, also “discovered” the individual and the self who was commodified as slave, owned and disposed in trading, and alienated and cast-away from her primordial ties and fully objectified – and therefore alienation became a great psychological burden of a traditional human person who was now in a liminal state transiting between tradition and modernity. Accordingly, social alienation gave impetus to the need for individuality and self-identity. So the social predicament of women were the same with that of children, the old, the differently-abled and generally the lowly kawulas (i.e. royal subject). It was simple economic inequality of class division and productive/reproductive role ascriptions with the politically and economically powerful on top of the ladder, and the religious and mercantile class coming next, and so on – a salient characteristic of feudal society.

Yet why do some modern women of today, many of them with much education and really good lives and claiming to be feminist and empowered, still believe that women’s real emancipation is in the bedroom, the nursery and the kitchen? Are they wrong or just terribly backward? My honest opinion is NO. It is just that there are at least two princesses looking at the same garden from different windows. And while one princess seems to be seeing only the flowers and admiring its beauty, the other also sees the weeds and worries that if those weeds would take up so much of the soil’s nutrients, the beautiful flowers will wither away. And while still debating how to make both weed and flower co-exist peacefully, princess two is fascinated by the fruiting trees and begins to wonder if she might climb it and taste the fruits. Meanwhile, all that princess one will need are her eyes to see, while day-dreaming about her prince charming, perpetually suspenseful, she is also hopeful that her prince would come to bring these flowers cut and beautifully arranged in a vase to brighten her bed-chamber or enliven the dinner table. She can care less about fresh fruits when a fruit-salad or ice-cream is sumptuously being chilled in the fridge by the chamber-maid (i.e. probably princess three being punished by the Emperor?). Meanwhile, princess two, despite having the eyes, nose and other senses open, is also thinking about acquiring the skills and building energy to be able to climb a tree and possess its sweet fruits. And even if she has all these, she still has to first figure out how to get down from her tower-room and step out into the sunny garden.

One need not be a rabidly addicted and obsessed feminist to play the second princess. Any toiling woman (i.e. one earning her keep) feeling the brunt of inequity in the social ladder would not be a fool to perpetually wait for a prince, who might just be lurking around the corner thrysting with a beautiful bad witch (i.e. a fourth princess who used to be roommate of princess two but was banished by the Emperor for attempting to usurp the throne) and both conniving to snip off Rapunzel’s long hair (sorry, she is not part of our princess characters).

In the final analysis, it all redounds to the issue of what the woman actually expects from the world, how she perceives her role and whether she chooses to act or not on that role. In our modern time, many women still consider themselves the emperor’s toys and keep themselves locked-up in their royal towers contented in being waited by the charming prince. But I would like to believe that it is a willing and informed choice (i.e. which unfortunately is more often not the case) and the women are happy with their choice. Or should new clothes be sewn for the emperors’ women? I wonder who would take the challenge to do the task? And, if there are, are they in a position to force-dress the princesses?

[i] Arquiza, M.Q. Mass media exposure and self-projection of indigenous communities in Western Mindanao. Quezon City:Ateneo de Manila University.1997. M.A. Thesis.


About Mucha Q. Arquiza
Supports the preservation and promotion of indigenous knowledge systems

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