wonder women of bali

It was early in our tenure here in Bali when I first noticed it. For a while, I wondered if it was the age difference. My daughter is two years older than my son and it is not unusual for the youngest to get more attention from adults, at least in my home culture of North America.

Yet, I felt sure my son’s appeal was due to something more than age. Was he really so much more adorable, so much more fun to play with than my daughter? And if neither of my children were with me, why was the inevitable inquiry from my Balinese friends and neighbors always “where is your son?” Eventually, I came to realize the answer was quite simple. He is a boy.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. Balinese culture may be communal but it is also patriarchal. Land may belong to a family, but it is held in the men’s name. When a couple gets married, they typically move into the compound of the husband’s family and it is his social status she assumes and that passes to their descendants.

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Although the domestic and social duties she takes on are vital to the family and to the community are valued accordingly, it is her husband who has the voting power in their banjar (village). In the unlikely event they later divorce, (something still shunned in Bali), the wife must leave her home in her husband’s compound and her children, if any, will remain with their father.[1]

Given this traditional balance of power in Balinese society, leadership was not a concept I tended to associate with Balinese women. Nor did their favoritism for my son raise my expectations about their aspirations towards leadership, whether for themselves or for their daughters.

Nurtured to fulfill the essential roles of maintaining social and domestic harmony in a complex social structure, girls are not typically raised to take charge or assume power. Nevertheless, some do.

I did not set out to find these women. But, they stand out from others I know, and it was this difference that enabled us to meet. Ni Nyoman Sudiadnyani is my Indonesian language teacher and I was introduced to Wayan[2] when my parents signed up for her tour while on a visit from the U.S.

Both women operate at a level of independence and autonomy that differs from my observations of, and relationships with, other Balinese women.

Nyoman showed me there is room for female leadership within the traditional structure of a Balinese community.

Elected by the women in her banjar, Nyoman’s role requires her to create consensus around decisions related to ceremonies, offerings, cooking, and other topics of direct concern to her female peers.

Creating and maintaining unanimity is key. Just like the man elected by their husbands to lead the banjar (in very different, but equally prescribed responsibilities), these women were seeking a hard worker who could mediate amongst personalities to facilitate good relationships in the community.

They needed someone who could be flexible but also organized, someone who people would be willing to listen to and take direction from.

A leadership role in the community may also be derived from achievement in non-traditional roles.

After working for a number of years in a restaurant, Wayan now partners with an expat to operate a popular tourist enterprise that relies on her expert local knowledge of the environment, some learned from books but much learned from Wayan’s mother and the community in which she was raised.

Wayan’s business acumen and her genuine enthusiasm for her work have produced the kind of financial reward that makes her an important source of income for her extended family.

Both her earning power and the sheer force of her personality make Wayan a decision-maker in her community.

Some other factors also set Wayan apart.

First, she is not married. Although she has numerous family and community obligations, without a husband or children, Wayan’s time is freed up for pursuits besides the daily time-consuming demands of household budgeting, cooking, cleaning, and childcare.

Second, she had strong family support for her education.

Born to rice farmers in 1967, Wayan grew up with very little money. But unlike many girls in poverty, both then and now,[3] Wayan’s parents sent her to school.

They did not distinguish between Wayan and her two younger brothers and sister. Believing it would allow for more opportunities and a better life, each child was educated even if it meant giving up food on the table.

As a kid, she told me, she did not think about this arrangement as equal opportunity. She just focused on school and the work she did after school (carrying bricks for her uncle’s business) so that she could help pay for school fees.

Both Nyoman and Wayan describe themselves as “tomboys” when they were young. Nyoman’s parents even sent her to dancing school in an attempt to teach her to be more feminine. However, contrary to expectations for girls in her community, she liked to help her grandfather in his metal shop and would join him out in the rice fields at night to search for eels.

She rode her own motorbike at age eleven and didn’t care that she was teased for being like a boy. To the contrary, she liked the association. Viewing males as more logical and rational, she was and still is, more likely to seek them out as friends.

Unless and until she finds the right partner, Wayan has chosen to remain single, but like Nyoman, her friends are mostly men. Not only does Wayan see herself more at ease with her male than her female peers, she finds it a challenge to stay connected to women who do not live in her banjar.

The friends she grew up with mostly married men who live elsewhere. She spoke fondly and a little wistfully of the women’s volleyball team with whom she used to play. Once her team members married, the distance and their new domestic duties left them no time to play.

A Balinese woman’s obligations upon marriage leave little room for leisure. If Western women trying to balance work and family obligations are “super women,” then the Balinese women who must tend to both of these demands, as well as their community and religious obligations are perhaps most aptly described by the Japanese anthropologist, Dr. Ayami Nakatani, as “wonder women.”[4] Nyoman, for example, struggles constantly to fulfill all of her domestic, religious, social and employment demands.

In addition to caring for her four children and other family members, Nyoman manages both the women in her banjar and her own household.

She is also the wife of a military officer and must participate in the numerous events that utilize the support of the officer’s wives.

Add to that Nyoman’s work obligations, teaching Bahasa Indonesia to tourists and expats in Ubud, and you understand why her free time is both precious and rare.

Yet I find it hard to accept the distinct roles assigned by Balinese culture in a way that Nyoman does not. To them, the question of fairness is moot and the role that women assume just is.

Still, I can’t help but question whether the harmony of the community as a whole comes at the expense of women, beginning at the earliest age. To be sure, Balinese culture is multi-layered and there is much that occurs beneath the surface that I will likely never know or understand. But, when I look around at the children, typically, it is the boys I see. In my village, it is the young men who hang out at the bale banjar.

On the soccer pitch and in the street, it is the boys who are playing football and, out in the fields, it is the boys who are running and laughing as they fly kites. At Nyepi, it is the boys, again, who are active and visible. The boys build the Ogoh-Ogoh and it is the boys who parade it the night before.

The girls might watch the building process now and again and perhaps they carry torches or the banjar’s banner in the parade, but there is no doubt they are on the sidelines, when they can be seen at all.

So where are the girls? Unless they are very, very small or en route to school or mandi, they are harder to locate. The community does not look highly upon girls who linger outside the compound too much, especially if they are alone. Nor is it considered safe.

Protected, behind those walls, the girls are playing too: hopscotch and jump rope, but also “shopping” and “house.” The boys may join in from time to time, but from the earliest ages, when the girls “play” at cooking, cleaning, washing, and of course, the vitally important task of making and giving the daily offerings, they are, in truth, learning how to manage their future community and household responsibilities.

Most Balinese girls are not raised to be confident, Wayan told me. The women in her family were different, “more powerful.”Wayan equates this power with success. And in her view, the “modern Balinese woman” is more likely to achieve such success than a man.

In her experience, a woman is more likely than a man to try a variety of jobs, to seek out jobs different from those her parents held. According to Wayan, men tend to be less ambitious and less willing to try alternatives. Ultimately, she claimed, women are more open to change in order to seek a better life.

Suppose Wayan is right. Is that because Balinese women have more to gain from change? It is hard to know the answer to that question but it seems almost certain that change is coming, the kind of change that will leave daughters who are raised with only traditional goals in mind ill-equipped to navigate, let alone lead in a modern, globalized economy.

As my son and I were walking home the other day, we paused to say hello to our neighbor’s sons and wife whom we met on the road. Although I can’t imagine it was impending globalization she had in mind, I couldn’t help but ponder the possibilities when she asked me, “Where is your daughter?”

[1] Divorce is, more often than not, deemed the wife’s fault. See Journal UNAIR, Balinese Women and Identities: Are They Trapped in Traditions, Globalization or Both, fn 8, I Wayan Suyadnya (journal.unair.ac.id) One divorcee I met soon after I arrived in Bali told me she is not permitted to see her children, ever, a predicament I have subsequently heard from other Balinese.

[[2] Because she did not want to be identified, “Wayan” is a pseudonym.3] Even today, in poor families only two girls for every eight boys attend primary school. See: baliwise.org
[4] See: journal.unair.ac.id

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