Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Jakarta Nightlife : The Feminist View

Gender politics in Indonesia exist on a different plane from those of the West. This country annually commemorates the work of Radjen Kartini and her struggle for the emancipation of Indonesian Muslim women. Yet it is a struggle that has by no means achieved its goals. With this in mind, empowered western women can face a struggle of their own trying to find a niche within the society here that they can feel comfortable in, a problem that is thrown into sharp relief when they try to have a night out on the town.

According to the Indonesian sociologist Julia I Suryakusuma in her fascinating new book Sex, Power and Nation,

"Indonesians deplore the influence of Pengaulan Bebas Barat (liberal western social norms) which in essence means socializing too freely among the sexes, leading to pre and extramarital sex and other immoral practices. Why they should be pinned so specifically on the West is strange, as Indonesia has its own indigenous brand of pre and extramarital sex. As such, it appears to be a way of projecting Indonesia's own permissiveness and immorality on the dominant West."

Women here are supposed to be chaste before marriage and have traditionally been emasculated to the point that they can't venture out after dark. This being the case, late night bars or discotheques are still, to an extent, demonized as the domain of the 'bad' girl. Jakarta is a more progressive place than the rest of the country and its night spots are chock solid with young people enjoying themselves with their mates. Nevertheless, many of the metropolis’ bars and clubs, even (or especially) the ones in five star hotels are full of what are euphemistically referred to as night butterflies or rather less pleasantly, chickens.

Indonesians sometimes talk disdainfully of the decadent West and the perceived immoralities of "free sex". Well, sex is largely free in the West I's certainly not as normal to pay for it as it can seem to be over here. Furthermore, the fact that sex is so outrageously “free” in the heathen West doesn’t necessarily mean there’s much of the stuff available to a lot of people. On the other hand, according to our old friend Julia,

"Despite the rhetoric of Islamic and Eastern values, most Indonesians are essentially sensual, Epicurean and aesthetic, and love sex (also talking about it), good food and beauty."

So what does your modern emancipated lady think about the town's various nightlife options? Do they sometimes feel like they are trapped in some factory farm chicken coop? Or do they enjoy diving into the strange and exotic world of Jakarta after dark? I asked a friend of mine to elaborate. We'll call her Miss X. Although her real name is Suparna Ghansham, an English teacher at a central Jakarta English course. How does she manage to navigate the virgin/whore myth emerge with her sanity intact?

“I have to say that most of the women I see around on ladies’ nights are quite a disgrace to womanhood and a slap in the face of the woman of substance. I often se them throwing themselves at white men like they were the last of the male species,” an uncompromising assessment from my friend, unquestionably. She told me that BATS in the 5 star hotel Shangri La is “A bit sleazy”. CJ’s, the extremely popular bar in the swanky Hotel Mulia in Senayan was described by my friend as being full of “Tarted up tarts and tarted up non-tarts. Sometimes you can tell if someone is professional or not; the brightness and thickness of their lipstick is always a good sign I reckon.” Retro at the Crowne Plaza? “The last time I went there I got in for free and was handed Fiesta mint-flavored condoms at the door!” Hmmm. Untitled Bar in the JW Marriot? “Full of butt grabbers galore, and the butts that were grabbed belonged to some waitresses too. I guess they think it is part of their job to be randomly manhandled.” Clearly Jakarta’s sleaze has the potential to seriously annoy your more educated and enlightened female.
The meat market factor can be unquestionably high for a nominally Islamic country.

Perhaps this week's column has been my personal revenge on the bombers. I have been discussing Jakarta here but Bali is similarly liberal in its easy going mêlée of tourists and locals. I thought writing something a bit sexy would annoy these confused individuals beyond the grave. For let there be no mistake, sexuality is one of the primary issues at the heart of this ludicrous Bush - Bin Laden clash of civilizations. Sex and perceived sexual decadence; sexuality and its repression (ironically favoured by both Bush and Bin Laden); sexual repression of females (perhaps slightly more on the Bin Laden side, that one).

Sexuality pierces to the heart of the human psyche, to the seething, tensing engine of the Id. To deny the release and sublimation of sexual tension, as the Saudi/Wahabi/Jemah Islamiah mindset does, causes desire to turn in on itself and mutate into guilty self-flagellation whilst also contributing to the persecution and repression of the objects of sexual desire by the dominant sex, i.e. the virgin or whore polarity. This is just one of the fantastic legacies that organized religions have bequeathed us over the centuries. And now, having used the word sex about ten times in two paragraphs, I risk provoking the fury of such religions; history shows us that violence is more acceptable to those of faith than sex (that’s eleven).

But soft, can we at least have a month's peace for Ramadan before we're plunged into yet another 11 month ocean of insanity. Let love reign everyone. Shalom.

Simon Pitchforth