The iceberg and beauty queens

24 May

This was an entry I almost didn’t post. The reasoning being I thought I would have to be bashing my host country

Instead it became a perfect example of the iceberg.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The iceberg is one of the first things we discussed upon arriving in country. I want to say it was day two. During this prep/pep talk, our Director of Programming and Training Betsy Vegso asked us to make some observations about things we had heard or seen that were different. The call to prayer was new, the way people greeted each other was different, as was how people were dressed, etc., etc.   Being that we hardly left the hotel those first few days it was limited, but it helped prove the point. We were about to encounter a lot of things that were, well, different.

She explained that the things we experience and see are only what is happening above the water. We can’t begin to understand them without further inquiry and taking the time to do so. Every day we see the tip of the iceberg in Indonesia. Yet the bulk of why people do what they do is below the surface. This was our first lesson in cultural adaptation and an essential piece of the pie in living and working abroad. Try to observe without making a snap judgment of what’s below and the reason it’s there.

I forgot about the iceberg. It was lodged somewhere in the back of my head, but I was reminded of it last Tuesday.

My alarm clock had been set for precisely 2:55 a.m. It was just enough time for me to pop up, throw on some clothes and jump in the car with my Ibu (host mother) and Bapak (host father). We were headed to Bondowoso, the capital city of our regency of the same name.

A half hour later Bapak dropped Ibu and I off at a home. We entered through the lit garage-like room that’s doors were left open to the street. We worked our way around four women sitting crossed legged on a rug in a staggered diagonal line. Opposite of them were four teenage girls masih nantuk or still sleepy, but nonetheless fresh faced. Each woman’s arm was arced in a 90 degree angle and in each of their hands was a makeup brush. In four hours’ time over twenty girls would be transformed from your average teen into beauty queens in the traditional Javanaese-Madurese sense.

At this point I had assumed that we were going to be attending a graduation ceremony. But I was a tad confused when most of these girls said they were from the tenth grade.

I tried to muster up a friendly disposition and make conversation. Sleepiness and confusion silenced me as I sat in the corner while the women spoke in mixed Indonesian and Madurese and went about their work.

I watched my Ibu. She’s like a bottle of hot sauce—small, zesty and with an unexpected kick. It was now four in the morning, and she was as upbeat as ever. She fervently and skillfully applied makeup. Occasionally she’d playfully nudge or throw a slap on the back of whoever was nearby and reciprocating her banter.

Gradually more girls began arriving and gathering in the impromptu waiting room—the living room—waiting their turn to be transformed. Foundation lightened their complexions several shades, colorful eye shadow and blush gave contour to their facial features.  Fake eyelashes were applied.  Their hair sat atop their heads, sculpted and adorned with ornaments and flowers. Last but not least in the words of Barney Stinson they “suited up” in their kebayas and long batik skirts.

At 7 a.m. Bapak arrived to chauffer them to the high school in his car so that a short motorcycle ride wouldn’t dishevel them.

Bapak, Ibu and I made a pit stop for breakfast at the Bondowoso City Square before they dropped me off at SMA 2 Bondowoso. Unbeknownst to me they had some errands to run. So I tagged along with Ibu’s friend, who I later found out was a mother of one of the contestants.

As I walked into the auditorium I still wasn’t sure what exactly today had in store for me as it was merely 8 a.m. A large backdrop banner on the stage proclaimed we had just arrived at the 2012 Miss Kartini Pageant.

So there I was, attending my first beauty pageant.

It would have been kind of sexy, if it wasn’t so awkward.

There were mixes of dangdut , hip hop, Indonesian pop, a cut from an action movie soundtrack and what I’m sure had to be the music you hear when exiting the Honey, I Shrunk the Audience theater in Disneyland. Sounds effects were spliced in for good measure. The mashups weren’t limited to the music. Traditional forms of dance were intertwined with what I assume was hip hop, though lacking the swagger to be rightfully called so. Anything somewhat risqué in these performances, ie. a boy and girl dancing together, elicited quite the response from the audience. This was especially so when said boy swung said girl in close. She physically resisted, throwing off the dynamic of it before being spun back out again.

It was part dance performance, part drama, part fashion show, but most of all it seemed to me a platform for teens to publicly show off how creative, sexy and cool they were—taking hints from modern pop culture but based on traditional themes.

Perhaps I’m misjudging how awkward I was at that age, but I couldn’t help but think how differently a performance like this would have went in America where youth bleed with confidence. The students were no doubt creative but lacking the performing skills and bravado to make it as impressive as it could have been.

One by one each class performed their sequence.  One particular number was action packed. Students scattered about shooting randomly into the air and at the audience with fake guns. Apparently they were gangsters or people of the generally no-good variety. To my horror a girl was fake slapped to the ground by a male classmate.  Each class enacted something a little different, but every performance had an air of mystery and suspense.

The pinnacle of each performance was when the Miss Kartini contestant was revealed. Sometimes she was carried in on a homemade platform. Other times she was hidden behind a screen—or in one class’s act a human size birdcage. When she arrived, she’d inspire peace and awe. She’d totter forward on five to six inch platform heels striking poses here and there and avoiding tripping or getting lost in the fabric and jewels dripping from her.  Some girls were more graceful than others, many having mastered just the right amount of coyness.  Then there were those who weren’t really into the whole subtle thing. They were outrightly attempting to seduce the audience and judges.

I was standing behind the judges table and found myself looking away several times, uncomfortable with the underage girls sexing us with their smoky eyes and smirks. Was I the only one that felt remotely uncomfortable?

Each class performance and contestant was just as elaborate as the next. I was particularly intrigued by the spirit fingers emphasized with tinfoil  Edward Scissorhands-like appendages.

At first I was impressed with it all. But as things progressed I started feeling unsettled. Raden Ayu Kartini, the namesake of this contest, is a national figure celebrated for her early role and efforts to promote women’s rights and independence. Was this what she was really about? How was glamming up our young gals and flaunting them in their half-filled bustiers, supporting Kartini’s cause?

I started to get on the defense, assessing everything as further proof that this was all backwards. Why is there an all-male judging panel? What qualifies them? And why are they eye level with these girl’s midsections?!  Why did one representation portray a strong act of violence towards women? Why was every performance centered on a complete reverence and almost worship of beauty and not truly heroic qualities?

I couldn’t discern if they were being glorified or objectified. And which was worse? I wasn’t appalled by the fact that we were rewarding beauty; we were at a beauty pageant after all.  But couldn’t this Kartini thing include more of what she was actually about? Especially considering this wasn’t an arbitrary contest people had chosen to enter but because it was a schoolwide event.

What was I not getting about it?

Amidst all of this, I started recalling other experiences in Indonesian concerning gender roles and expectations.  Just that morning I had seen an Indonesian woman smoking for the first time since being here. For men it’s a norm and considered a typical aspect of socializing—for women, not so much.  I once joked an unclaimed pack of cigarettes in the teacher’s room was mine which turned out to be quite successful as far as my jokes go here because it was quite laughable. This smoking woman was a badass in my eyes, breaking down culture norms and whatnot.

This glitz and glamor is also a completely different image from everyday women. I often see girls around this same age, fresh out of high school or likely dropouts lugging around tots and breastfeeding on the bus. My Nanek (host grandmother) tells me her highest education was completing junior high school. My Ibu made it through high school and was supposed to go to college, but then she met my host father and didn’t have to work. (I took this as a positive for her. And obviously sometime later after the kids had grown she started her own makeup and hairdressing business that she is currently doing.)

Recollections of observations on women’s roles in Indonesian society commence:

In almost any culture women are appreciated for their beauty. Indonesia is no different. The media also portrays a highly sought after image for what is considered a beautiful woman. Long hair, white skin, a pointy nose…every culture has it’s own “ideals” of beauty.

There are these traditional roles as wife and mother where tender of household chores and children are highly valued and limited educational opportunities and inequalities are accepted (not necessarily correlated but they seem to be, at times, here.)

Then there are the women who take on what I would consider to be more traditionally male-dominated roles that include physically demanding or labor intensive work, but without the benefit of a culturally accepted cigarette on their “cigarette break.” In Ubud I saw women deconstructing and reconstructing a portion of a sidewalk and a store.  In my area it isn’t uncommon to see women working in the fields. And just last week on an early morning bike ride, I saw a group of women crouched on the side of the main road breaking apart boulders and crushing gravel to become asphalt. At least one had a toddler within arm’s reach and several other young children were playing in the pile of rocks nearby.

There’s also this new idea floating around of a modern Indonesian woman. She is educated, savvy, independent. My host sisters seem to fit that profile a bit more. My older host sister went to a vocational high school because she was interested in working in tourism. She has pretty good English skills and now works in a tutoring office as a receptionist five days a week. Her husband has a variety of small businesses and partnerships depending on the time of year, but she seems to have more steady work and thus a more steady income. My other host sister graduated from University of Muhammadiyah Malang and just got her first job at a bank after nearly a year of looking for employment. Her fiancé who graduated a bit earlier is currently unemployed (and possibly has been for longer than she was.)

I could go into my observations of the division of household duties, but in an effort to keep this somewhat succinct I’ll exclude that for the time being. To sum it up my host family divvies up household responsibilities much more equally than I had imagined before coming here, though it still appears to me that the men have much more leisure time than the women.

Ibu’s friend to my left was fanning herself with the kind of orientalesque fans you see in 99-cent stores or Asian supermarkets and assume they’re just novelty items or some kind of décor. She leaned over, interrupting my thoughts. Beaming she told me her daughter was up next. She was to emerge from a flower. Then she showed me a few photos taken on her cell phone earlier that morning. The girl was pretty, elaborately dressed in a bright green outfit and posing near a tree in what I assume was their home garden.  As she proudly displayed the photos, my heart softened and regardless of my inner struggle I was rooting for her daughter to win this thing.

The fifteen girls lined up on the stage in what I thought would be the conclusion, my attention again diverted to my former preoccupation. This would be my chance to test my theory. The girls that made me uncomfortable with their lusty looks were no doubt the ones the judges would choose; after all they did have the most confidence. I singled them out on stage and waited for my assumptions to be confirmed.

They were not confirmed.

Just then Ibu arrived prompting me to go home. When I told her how interesting this all was, she insisted we stay.

Round two began and girls that didn’t strike me as the obvious choices from earlier began the question and answer portion of the contest. So… there was more to this.

I had a hard time understanding the questions, though this round was much shorter than the previous. Soon we had only five contestants left and were in the midst of round three.  This time they had to respond to questions in English.

Again I had trouble understanding what was being said but as the woman to my left’s daughter stepped forward the question addressed to her was quite clear:

“If you had to choose between being a career woman and a house wife, which would you choose and why?”

The mother told me “Insha ‘Aallah” (god willing) her daughter would be able to answer in English.

After a brief pause her daughter said she would choose the career woman because she wanted to help make the Indonesian woman more independent.

Now that’s what Kartini was talking about.

Not that Kartini was about neglecting traditional roles, but rather embracing the importance of education and opportunities for women.

The question asked to the next contestant: “What is one thing you have done recently for yourself and for others?”

The contest was clearly based on more than looks. In the end the girls who had best shown the complete package: intelligence, character, compassion, grace and beauty were the ones that came out on top. The girl I was rooting for placed second.

So that’s my iceberg story. If we hadn’t stayed through the second or third round I wouldn’t have had time to break down these notions that were taking root based on my immediate reactions and observations alone.

A few more anecdotes/notes:

  • This all took place at international school (I’m still not sure what that means.).  One in which a male student I met a few weeks prior was preparing for a debate competition in which he’d discuss feminist issues like why laws in Indonesia prohibiting underage girls to marry should be enforced.
  • There are a lot of contradictions here, but there are a lot of contradictions in American society as well.
  • The issue is further complicated by things like location (some areas are more traditional then others, some areas more modern) and class (some women just don’t have the same opportunities available to them.)

All in all I was just hoping to share some of my observations and thoughts I’ve struggled with in trying to make sense of my experience being a woman in the U.S. versus the role women seem to play here. I don’t think it’d be inaccurate to say woman volunteers have a different experience than male volunteers, regardless of the Peace Corps country. But I also don’t think I am regarded as the typical Indonesian woman is…I’m somewhere inbetween because of my “higher” foreigner status. So once more I’ve got a whole lot more questions than answers but seeing the way gender roles play out here has certainly intrigued me and sparked quite a bit of contemplation and thought on the subject, especially so on this particular day.

One Response to “The iceberg and beauty queens”

  1. Keith Ritchie May 25, 2012 at 3:13 am #

    Great…nice waor…you have a book in you when this is all said and done….

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