Tue, 08 Mar 2005

Being a women is a paradox

Mateus Yumarnamto, Surabaya

The president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summer, has stated that the lack of female professionals in the sciences and engineering might be due to the differences between the intrinsic aptitudes of men and women resulting from biological factors (The New York Times, Feb. 18). These provocative remarks have stirred a public debate and fueled widening differences on campus -- which could threaten the position of the Harvard president. These kinds of remarks, especially directed against women, are considered taboo in U.S. society, which values equality of the sexes.

In Indonesia, where male domination is deeply rooted, such remarks, or worse, are barely noticed by the public, even if the remarks come from a prominent figure. Some people are proud to be bestowed with "polygamy awards" -- which explicitly place women in a subordinate position in society. Simply put, these sort of people view women as fragile creatures who need the protection of men, and who should content themselves with mothering and cheering up the home.

Whatever the case, I would never dare to say that Indonesian women are weak. They are strong, even stronger than the men in certain ways. We don't have many women CEOs, women taxi drivers or becak drivers, and less than five women ministers. But can we say that the lack of women in top executive jobs is brought about by their "bad genes"?

Being a woman is a paradox, especially in Indonesia. This paradoxical existence is clearly portrayed in Ahmad Tohari's Bekisar Merah, and Mangunwijaya's Burung-Burung Rantau. Both writers describe women as birds. In these novels, the use of the bird metaphor is meant to symbolize freedom and slavery at the same time. They symbolize freedom when the birds have strong wings so that they can wander in the sky and have unlimited power to explore the universe. They symbolize slavery when they are put in cages, ready to be sold in the bird market.

The bird metaphor symbolize's the fact that Indonesian women live in two worlds. In Romo Mangun's Burung-Burung Rantau, an energetic and active woman, Netty, tries to find her own identity by exploring the boundaries of her very existence as a woman. On the other hand in Ahmad Tohari's Bekisar Merah, Lasi is trapped in a golden cage crafted by a powerful man named Handarbeni.

In both of these realms, Indonesian women are to be found living and struggling. They live in two worlds: (1) struggling for freedom -- which means challenging men's power, and (2) living in peace -- which means accepting the fate of being cooped up in a beautiful gilded cage placed in a garden full of flowers, lulled by the peaceful burbling of a stream.

Indonesian feminists, who are aware of their disadvantaged position in society, often choose the first route by adjusting their struggle so as not to offend the most sensitive aspect of the male mentality: the feeling of superiority. Here, "bad genes" turn out to be beneficial. With this strategy, the subtle power of women has the strength to change their fate.

Unfortunately, many women in this country have no power at all since every facet of their lives is shaped by the male-dominated culture in which they live. In rural areas, women work harder than men as bread winners. Many of them are forced to work abroad in countries where men look down on them and have no respect for them at all. In a country where women are not allowed to vote, there is no hope for foreign female workers. Probably, they will get the money they came for, but will be robbed of their dignity.

Is fate determined by "bad genes"? Hedda Gabler, in one of Ibsen's plays, tries to defy fate. She challenges male-dominated society by exploring her feminine power. But power is often described as a tiger and those who try to rule the tiger often tragically end up in the tiger's mouth. So does Hedda. As a women who confronts male dominated society directly, she proves incapable of winning the war.

Anyway, Indonesian feminists do not proclaim a war but instead subtly struggle to find an equilibrium. Women do need the respect of men, but not in the way Handerbeni describes in his beautiful poetry. Both sexes have inherited both good and bad genes. What we need to do is to respect the differences. Both have the same chances of changing from ugly cocoons into beautiful butterflies provided they have the same space to grow in. Thus, there should be no disputes about whether certain traits come from "good" or "bad" genes. Just give people the same space in which to grow and equal chances to choose.

The writer is a lecturer at the Teacher Training and Education School of Widya Mandala Catholic University in Surabaya. He can be reached at mateus@mail.wima ac.id