Through the Eyes of Researcher: Defining Balinese Women in the Media
Here is an excerpt taken from paper written by Helen Creese, entitled “Reading the Bali Post: Women and Representation in Post-Suharto Bali”. This excerpt discuss about defining Balinese women in the media.
In March 2000, the newly-established Balinese cultural magazine Sarad devoted its third issue to the topic ‘Who Says Balinese Women are Oppressed?’ [Siapa Bilang Wanita Bali Tertindas?]. A month later another new magazine, Bali Lain, also focused its second issue on women, with its main feature article entitled ‘Not Women’s Fate’ [Bukan Suratan Perempuan]. Both publications presented themselves as being concerned with ‘Balinese culture,’ and the simultaneous appearance of two magazines devoted exclusively to gender issues underlines the central importance of the place of women in Balinese identity discourse at that time.These two magazines represent concentrated versions of the coverage of women’s issues more generally in the daily press since the fall of Suharto, and are indicators of the focus of Balinese media attention on women’s issues in the context of cultural identity formation. Sarad, more culturally conservative than Bali Lain, was particularly concerned in its special issue with refuting any suggestion that Balinese women suffered systematic cultural oppression by demonstrating the open and democratic nature of Balinese culture, at least if viewed in its own terms. Bali Lain, on the other hand, hinted at other possibilities and choices for Balinese women, although such choices generally require women to turn their backs on the (‘repressive’) cultural practices in Bali and seek alternatives in national, and occasionally international, feminist models and arguments.
In their by-lines both Sarad and Bali Lain draw attention to the problematic nature of definitions of women and culture in Bali. Their cover stories highlight the often contradictory, almost mutually exclusive, nature of much of this media discourse which seeks to recognise women’s rights to equality in the modern sense, and at the same time to restrict that equality to rigidly-defined, culturally appropriate and gendered spheres. Balinese gender values and roles are presented as supportive and nurturing, provided women behave in culturally appropriate ways, although there is little that is able to reconcile the practices and attitudes advocated with the goals of personal freedom. Within this culturally-focused discourse, rhetorical questions about the repressive nature of Balinese culture such as that encapsulated in the Sarad headline questioning the truth of claims of oppression are invariably answered in the negative. This tendency is demonstrated in the coverage of regular seminars focusing on women’s issues held in Bali and reported in the Bali Post. Articles which by their titles seem to suggest critique instead declare that Balinese culture does not oppress women.
The emphasis on cultural definitions of women in the media does not mean that Balinese writers do not hold or present alternative views. Appealing to Balinese traditional cultural values virtually precludes more secular forms of modernity. Nevertheless, certain media commentators recognise only too well the tensions for modern Balinese women in juggling the demands of domestic duties, participation in the work force, and the exhausting demands of full participation in the traditional religious and cultural adat responsibilities which provide social and family cohesion. On facing pages of the April 2000 edition of Bali Lain are two interviews with leading proponents of each side of the debate, one with the noted psychiatrist, Prof Luh Ketut Suryani, who declares ‘Di Bali Tidak Ada Perbedaan Laki-laki dan Perempuan’ [In Bali There is No Difference Between Men and Women] and the other with the Singaraja-based academic Dra Luh Putu Sendratari ‘Perempuan Bali Perlu Melawan Tradisi’ [Balinese Women Must Oppose Tradition]. Suryani’s role in the debates on gender will be discussed in detail below. Luh Putu Sendratari, a regular contributor to Kartini Day commemorations, is a persistent voice calling into question many of the normative views set out by culturally conservative writers like Suryani and critiquing their spurious arguments about the inviolable sanctity of traditions that continue to repress women.
Nevertheless, even writers who begin their essays by criticising Balinese social practices as repressive for women in similar terms to Sendratari, inevitably turn their arguments quickly away from the specifics of Balinese culture to external, national or international arenas. Thus, in the coverage of women’s issues in the Bali Post in the last five years, there exists a clear division between articles that might best be described as concerned with broad issues of women’s rights and social and political emancipatory needs and goals—a kind of ‘secular view’ of gender—and those that seek to define Balinese women in terms of their innate nature and the traditional cultural roles that dominate current Balinese identity discourses—an exclusively ‘Balinese’ religious-cultural view. This bifurcation suggests that the public media definition of a specifically Balinese female identity is not connected closely to ideas about emancipation but is instead tied to religious and cultural identities. Below I will examine in detail each of these two kinds of writing on gender.