DeMISTYfied in Djogja

Gender and politics of spirituality and power

Javanese Kekuwatan and Kesaktan

Power is equated here not only as political, but also economic,social and cultural elements that one employs to dominate, control, conduct and manage the self and others – dominating, controlling and managing being techniques of governmentality (Foucault in Lemke, the Birth of Biopolitics 2001). Governmentality is all about subjection and control whether the object of subjection be the self i.e. subjection of the personal conduct; or others and the environment i.e. subjection of the conduct of society (and nonhuman environs). Hence, both the act of exercising (i.e. deployment) of and the possession of the tool and techniques ( of governmentality is called power. Power is seen as something both ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ resources. As external, power emanate from material sources that one must possess and accumulate and apply to the objects and subjects of subjection. In most cases, external power is derived from wealth and economic means, social prestige, and heredity [i.e. Moro political philosophy refer to political assets as bangsawan (race and descent) and ilmawan (wealth and wisdom)]. Internally. power is beheld to be intrinsic within the self but dormant and potent that one need to search within often through the rigors of certain rituals and acts (i.e. the Javanese, laku, i.e. steps towards enlightenment) to stimulate its efficacy for it to deliver desired ends. And those internal resources are found by immersing oneself in theology (i.e. power as spiritual potency), and in philosophy (i.e. power as knowledge potency). The issue of power also brings to fore the issue of use of force or of its nonviolent benevolent dispersion (i.e. deployment of mercy and virtue) as the ‘source of strength’ where externalized power is often of the former and the interiorized power (i.e.potency) applies the latter. There is also the question of intention of power as malicious and malignant or altruistic and service-oriented.

Our heritage from Western theology and philosophy has resulted to a worldview of false dichotomies and dualisms: Matter/spirit; human/nonhuman nature; male/female; culture/nature; political/spiritual that the degradation of nature is attributed to the dominant Euro-American worldview, Carol Adams in her introduction to the book, The Ecofeminism and the Sacred (1993) considers indigenous and nontechnological cultures as sources for the creation of syncretic feminist spiritualities with earth-based spiritualities seen as alternatives to dominant (patriarchic) theologies with the belief that ‘incorporating diverse cultural and religious traditions within feminism is an important ethical/political question to raise about this syncretistic efforts’. Some ecofeminists among indigenous and ethnic and religious minorities would even push this line further and promote a belief [i.e. what other ‘rational’ feminists accuse as ‘myths’] in indigenous mindset as holist and non-dual, illustrating this through a supposed egalitarian economy and the naturally integrative and nonexistence of class or gender divide in indigenous and traditional cultures.

The ethnological study of Javanese power as kekuwatan (i.e. human potency) by Ward Keeler  (1987) and as kesektan (i.e. power of rulership) by Mark Woodward (1989) are interesting studies of power that draws out observations seemingly antithetical to the indigenous ecofeminists’ optimism of egalitarian power in tradition and indigeniety as necessarily liberating to women and nature. Most astounding (although not surprising) among Keelers’ findings have shown that power in indigenous Javanese spirituality bear traces of the same patriarchic and male-dominated view of dualism of politics and theology of power. The kebatinan (i.e. secret wisdom of Sufism or Javanese mysticism) tradition that considers the kekuwatan batin or potential power (also, potency, referring to the secret, hidden, interiorized or mystical power) in some categories of power as ‘good’ and therefore theologically legitimate power are categorized  as male power such as those acquired through asceticism, prophecy and mystical revelations  (i.e.appearance of saints or divine figures to a gifted) or sourced and access through the mastery of sacred wisdom or ngelmu (wisdom or knowledge of the sacred) by a male potent self, a magic specialist or wong tua. Powers accessed and exercised by female such as the prewangan (i.e. possessed and spiritual mediums) and female healers are however categorized as profane, malevolent and vulgar. Note this parallelism in Calvinistic Christian and purist Muslim traditions of denigrating female ecstatic spirituality and maladizing it as a form of medical psychological disorder to be cured and ‘normalized’ or as spiritual impurity and satanic working of witch-craft that should be exorcised or burned to death. Ironically, a male version of such experiences of spiritual ecstasy is considered as a saintly or prophetic capabilities and a divine gift to be encouraged through asceticism and piety. And even as Keeler, of course, would show and describe the power of male potency, to be autonomous and even inconsistent with godly benevolence or having no theological basis (i.e. potency as amoral and atheological), the genderedness of power  and the inequality in its male-female agency, access and deployment of potency holds true as I argued.

Mark Woodward’s (1989) study of royal kingship of Yogyakarta and the theory of royal power or kesektan, on the other hand delves on the synthesis of Javanese tradition and Islam and explained how the spirituality of Sufism has become the guide-book of good and just leadership for Javanese kings, at least after its revival by Ratu Pakubuwana, grandmother of young King Pakubuwana II in 1726 (Ricklefs 2006). The divine-blessings and approval of kingly rule is further legitimized in the Javanese spirit cults and theory of kingship as concerns the legality of marriage between humans and spirits, most prominent of which is the inherited brideship of Nyai Ratu Kidul (goddess of South Sea) by every reigning King of Yogyakarta throughout history. This may lack the  theological basis, as various contentions in debates among ulama continues until today, in that the Qur’an is not only  normative but Muhammad’s sunnah and hadith  may be ‘essentially one of rationalization and simplification’ of Quranic precepts that Sufism bears no basis in both primary sources of Islamic syari’a since both Qur’an and hadith-wal-sunnah are ambiguous if not silent on mysticism. But with the revival and appropriation of sufism as Islamic discipline and a secret science of spirituality coveted in Yogyakarta royal house and among the Islam Jawa (i.e. kejawen) practitioners, it provided the alternative spiritual legitimacy and rationalized divinity of the royal rule. (Woodward 1989: 63, also Ricklefs 2007). Central and, I believe, important implication in Woodward’s work is that divine-gift and favor is exclusive only to privileged and elite segment of society, i.e. the royal and religious-intellectual classes, particularly those who would trace their descent to a royal  or saintly silsilah that tries to link the kings to local saints, Arabian missionaries and the house of the prophet in Makkah. This is the main principle operative in royal rituals such as the celebratory ceremonies of kesektan (i.e. re-purification of royal pusaka) and observance of Grebeg Maulud, for example.  The royal kesektan is dispersed and disseminated to the lowly kawula (i.e.royal subjects) as a form of kingly mercy and power through the rebutan (i.e. free-for-all jumble) for berakat (i.e.blessing). The perpetuation of this traditions thereby, in effect, maintaining the notion that the lower and less privileged classes in society can only be mere receivers of royal benevolence and can not by themselves transcend their wretched situation as they are disempowered to do so.

It is in view of interrogating the two gentlemen’s theoretical assumptions that I would suggest a discussion of history, politics and spirituality in Indonesian Islam might be pursued through understanding the theology of power and its execution in politics as gendered (i.e. patriarchic) and conservative if not oppressive by virtue of its privileging a certain class as I argue that the aspects of contemporaneous spiritual and political ‘potency’ so far studied and made visible (i.e. by mostly male scholars and researchers) have commonly represented traditional Islam (i.e.Nahdatul Ulama) and the modernist (i.e.Muhammadiyah) in the present Indonesian society as paradoxically one and the same, in as far as women and the oppressed segments of society are concerned, in that both traditionalist and modernist organizations embody and preach patriarchal paradigm of power, therefore not essentially modern enough to be progressive and liberative but remaining classic and traditional, and, especially in the case of Muhammadiyah, neoconservative, in its merely employing modern forms and agencies in as much as it is a modern reaction aimed to reform what it perceives to be old and traditionally ‘primitive or ignorant’ therefore ‘impure’ Islamic forms.

An exceptional study done by Muhammadiyah young woman and scholar in gender and politics, Siti Syamsiyatun (2008), attempted to use the gender lens in showing how the Muhammadiyah women youth have formed the Aisiyah as autonomous ‘daughter’ of Muhammadiyah by negotiating their own place as women and youth living the challenges of their contemporary time, wading through the tradition of patriarchy and feudal culture (i.e. not only of male-dominance but also one that privileges tradition and seniority as represented by the older Muhammadiyah women patriarchs) and asserting their identity. Yet this kind of initial attempts have so far succeeded only in describing the operative situation of politics in its secular form as organizational practice, but not dared so much as interrogating the underlying value-assumptions of its theological and philosophical foundations that entrench patriarchal politics and inform its practice, hence succeeding only in affirming the rightness of the patriarchs’ projects and view of the transformative mission of modernism as a form of neoconservatism, that of reforming of the old by updating the ‘ignorance’ in practice and ridding Islam of its ‘impurities’ but not in interrogating and dismantling the structures of injustice so that Islam might thrive the best. This is bearing in mind that reformism while a modern thought is not necessarily progressive and liberationist. An alternative reading and study, as attempted by women scholars like Syamsiyatun, must therefore be advocated and pushed further to excavate another route to the politics and theology of power by reclaiming kekuwatan and kesektan as potencies and resources for liberation of the marginal and less privileged segments of society. This I believe is not impossible as the notion of power in both its traditional and modern senses have always been consistently demonstrating human persons – both male and female – as equally having the capacities of spiritual agency and possessing potencies akin to, although not the same, as of ‘divinity’: selfless, altruistic and humanist persons guided and favored by an All-powerful and All-merciful God. In this, the indigenous feminist voices that argue for egalitarianism in tradition and spirituality might afterall be right and deserve a fair hearing.

Carol Adams, ed. (1993) Ecofeminism and the Sacred. NY: The Continuum Publishing.

Thomas Lemke (2001) Birth of Neoliberalism Michel Foucault’s Lecture on Neoliberalism and Biopolitics

Ward Keeler (1987) Javanese Shadow Plays, Javanese Selves. Pp. 38-140

M. C. Ricklefs (2006) Mystic Synthesis in Java; M.C. Ricklefs (2007) Polarizing Javanese Society

Mark Woodward (1989 ) Islam in Java: Normative Piety and Mysticism in the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, pp.53-148

Siti Syamsiyatun in Blackburn, et. al. eds. (2008) ‘Women negotiating feminism and Islam in Indonesian Islam’ in a ‘New Era: How women negotiate their Muslim identities’. Clayton:Monash University Press.


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

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