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The Rice Barn Is Now Empty: Practices of Stealing and Divorcing Women in Lombok

The Rice Barn Is Now Empty by Macquarie University student Kavita Bedford is the winner of the Editors’ Choice prize in the Tharunka Non-Fiction Writing Competition 2012.

The taxi driver laughed again, showing all his teeth. “Yes. Just one month ago I helped my friend Janedi* kidnap his wife”. “Sorry, what do you mean kidnap?” I stammered, not sure whether this word had been confused in English. I was on the island of Lombok, Indonesia, catching a taxi from Bandara International Airport to the coastal town of Senggigi.

We had been talking about love for the past half hour and this seemed an extreme leap even to my jaded disposition. “Here we kidnap the woman when we like her. Don’t worry,” he said, seeing the look on my face. “Women are not kidnapped here unless they are from the Sasak or they are ugly. You are safe.” Trying hard to ignore the implications of this, I asked him to explain.

“You see, Janedi liked this girl, but she already had a boyfriend. The two of them were in love and had made a secret plan for the girl to be kidnapped at 6pm in the rice fields. But the mistake was this boyfriend told me. I knew Janedi liked her too, so we went to the rice field where they’d agreed to meet a bit earlier. We came on motorbikes and we had kris (swords). When she saw us she looked worried, but we said, no, no, don’t worry we will take you to your boyfriend.”

“She said she didn’t believe us and started to run, so we grabbed her, all screaming and put her on the motorbike and drove away. We took her to a hut near Janedi’s house. We told her ‘it’s okay now, Janedi will marry you.’ But she just kept crying. She cried all night. And this really annoyed me. Janedi is a handsome man. Not like me, I am fat—but I am charismatic. But Janedi has a reputation as a playboy, and he had chosen her and she should be happy shouldn’t she? So you know what I did…? After two nights I called her parents. I told them we had her, and said ‘do you want her to marry Janedi or come back to the village a ruined woman?’ They had the ceremony two weeks ago.”

“And what about her boyfriend she loved?” I meekly asked. “Too late!” said the fat, charismatic taxi driver with another laugh. “Although, this marriage may not last long. There is a common saying in Lombok that people get married when the rice-barn is full and divorced months later when the rice is finished.”

The taxi driver was giving me an account of the common Sasak adat (customary law) practice of kawin lari, which has been translated as ‘elopement’ or ‘runaway marriage’, and is marked by a ‘theft’ of the women.

The marriage practice varies across Lombok and has structures founded on cultural integrations of Sasak adat law and orthodox Islam. The main differences are that some are considered elopements that are ceremonial and consensual, and others, like Janedi’s ‘stealing’ (merarik memaling), are not.

A woman’s abduction is considered a prestigious act and implies she is worthy goods that deserve to be stolen. In Lombok, a worrying combination of male strategising and Islamic law allows the exploitation of the bride stealing and polygamy practices, along with a lack of inheritance rights, which places a strain on gender relationships in Lombok. The aftermath of this strain can be seen to exist in the high divorce rate prevalent in Lombok.

Legal marriage and divorce are the building blocks of legal identity in Indonesia. For these women, being widowed or divorced under local customary law also means it is not recognised by the State, which has enormous repercussions for accessing wider state benefits. Under Indonesia’s marriage law, women must have their marriage and divorce formally legitimized in court in order to be recognised by the government as the head of household. Without this, women cannot access the nation’s poverty alleviation programs nor receive birth certificates or education enrolment for their children.

Since the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime in 1998 the state has been committed to processes of decentralisation and democratisation, and for these women new opportunities to make their voices heard have moved within reach. Yet, women’s legal entitlements can only be asserted in the midst of a variety of overlapping legal jurisdictions that comprise Indonesia’s state constitution Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity). There has been recent interest by the state, international donor agencies and local non-government organisations to make sure women, who are often not ‘legally’ married under the Sasak customary practice, can still get these benefits.

Lombok lies to the east of Bali, but administratively it belongs to Nusa Tenggara Barat (NTB) province along with the island of Sumbawa. With its volcanic sands, perfect surf spots and luscious rice paddies, it is currently being hailed as the new tourist hot spot by travel guides.

Sprawled amongst the beaches are bikini clad holiday-makers from all over Europe and Australia settling into their familiar scene, haggling with beach spruikers, surfboards in tow. Amongst the reggae bars in Senggigi it may not be obvious, but NTB is one of the poorer regions in Indonesia, in economy and infrastructure, but also in education and health.

The Sasak are the dominant ethnic group on the island, constituting approximately 95% of the population all of whom are Muslim. The geopolitical location of Lombok means it is an island far away from a decentralising government—which in reality is still a centralized state judicial system.

As a result, the adat (customary law) system overrules the state law in everyday practices. This increases social regulation and consolidation of Islam in the village communities and hinders access to alternative state approaches—such as women’s access to justice including the legal documentation.

Dr Bianca J. Smith is an Australian Anthropologist of Gender, Islam and Spirituality in Indonesia and co-edited a volume entitled, Indonesian Islam in a new era: How women negotiate their Muslim Identities. She says it is not possible to isolate Islam, adat and state law, which all regulate the lives of Sasak. Smith states these are the three main regulators in the lives of Sasak that at any time may clash, integrate, or not relate. The biggest hurdle facing women in this island is how to strike a balance between these regulators of law so their social standing remains intact under the strong adat system whilst being in a position to gain the state benefits they need after divorce.

Sitting in an open thatched hut in the rice fields in one of the small kecamatan (districts) in West Lombok, I am talking with two recently divorced women. These women are talking of how they suffered trauma through bad divorces—husbands who had migrated to Saudi Arabia or Malaysia and re-married there, women who were heart-broken from practices of polygamy in Lombok, and women who could gain no inheritance rights.

These women also have roles as paralegals (community-based women trained in legal aid) for the women’s non-government organization, PEKKA (Women Headed Households). They were part of the local level actors in the broader Women’s Legal Empowerment (WLE) project designed by The World Bank’s Justice for the Poor (J4P) team and targeted to the female heads of household.

Partnering with PEKKA, J4P launched the WLE1 pilot project in the districts of Cianjur, Brebes and Lombok Barat in 2005, which is now supported by AusAID.

PEKKA works with over 12, 000 female headed households, across 330 villages in Indonesia in eight provinces (19 districts). Based on a 2010 survey of PEKKA members, 58 percent had never completed primary school and 28 percent had never completed primary school. Fifty five percent of PEKKA members have a per capita income below the Indonesian poverty line, and 79 percent have a per capita below US$2.00 and on average support three other dependents.

Many of these women then also became the paralegals to help other women going through similar traumatic experiences, whilst simultaneously working two to three other jobs. Ibu Lastri* works on a small kermaba (fish pond farm). She also makes snacks when there are special ceremonies and sells them. Ibu Rina’s* main job was also taking care of the kermaba. She was receiving micro-finance loans for this but now, due to illegal logging there was flooding & it destroyed all their business and loan support so she solely concentrates on paralegal work.

These women, who act like a local counselling service and dispense legal advice, are not currently being paid for the role they provide. The women speak of how, despite not being paid, they place this job as a priority—sometimes even above feeding their family. When a divorce case occurs during a make-up job, Ibu Rina usually drops it. She says the case is the most important as it is for the community and for the women.

Ibu Lastri talks of how in Lombok it is so easy to marry under the local marriage practice, but because there is no official status, it is also too easy for the men to divorce them. She says, “a major problem with the local adat system is women get nothing after the divorce. The second problem is the children stay with the women and the woman cannot afford to feed the children without the financial support of the father. And under the local adat the women have no education, even the ability to read. The men have so many more rights like education.”

Sasak adat is in conflict with the differing law systems in Indonesia when it comes to inheritance claims. Under State law women are entitled to own land after divorce. Orthodox Muslim law entitles women to one third of inheritance claims. Under Sasak adat law women are not entitled to inherit or gain land and property rights. In a society with no wage-labour, ownership of land is the only way to achieve subsistence in the Sasak community. Therefore, women can rarely achieve economic independence and are always forced to rely on the men in the families.

Although there hasn’t been much literature yet written on the Sasak bride stealing practice, the works that do exist are conscious in positioning women as active participants in the adat practices. Or else, they discuss the way women are able to negotiate and play the system to their benefit. Linda Rae Bennet is at the Nossal Institute for Global Health, University of Melbourne. In her publication Patterns of Resistance and Transgression in Eastern Indonesia, she shows how modernising forces—mainly in the main city of Mataram—show a prioritisation of education that allows women to delay marriage and have multiple partners.

This is important in order to show women are not simply passive victims who should be perceived as disempowered in these situations. It also shows the way that women’s experiences are fluid and changing and open to external agencies.

Scholars are also wary the of cultural relativity minefield. They do not want to present the practice as a readymade excuse that would allow one to easily blame cultural practices or similarly, under the name of cultural preservation, excuse them to continue. Yet, despite showing an ability to manoeuvre within a system or practice, it does not mean that this is what women want. The women I spoke with were unanimous in saying one of the most difficult things for them is the unfair divorce process and emotional trauma of polygamy under local Sasak adat law. They want, at the least, the benefits the state says it can offer them so they can survive after divorce.

Firman* acted as my translator throughout the interview process and became supportive and involved with PEKKA afterwards. He was highly educated and provided an unusual male perspective on the cultural practices and situation in Lombok. He had experienced problems with the power of the adat system in his own village and when he refused to partake in some of the smaller rituals. He was ‘shamed’ and ex-communicated, and as a result is more critical towards some of the adat practices. He lives in his wife’s village in Ampernan, a small coastal fishing town, with his two small children.

He had previously worked with street children and his current work as a tour guide also meant he was aware of other systems and cultures. Firman was concerned with the number of broken homes and high divorce rates on his island. After his mother, his father re-married three times and he said he hated it when his father practiced polygamy. It said it undervalued his mother and disappointed all the children.

Although polygamy is not a popular practice in Indonesia compared to other Muslim countries, it is practiced at a higher rate in Lombok and eastern island neighbours. It remains a sensitive and well-debated issue and is a source of tension between the state and Islamic law. The 1974 marriage law restricted polygamy and promoted nuclear families.

In 1983 a new law was passed in which the state regulated civil servants’ relationships by requiring them to acquire permission from seniors for matters related to marriage, polygamy and divorce. Yet, despite state sanctions, in practice men and women in Lombok continued to engage in polygamy practices which placed a further strain on the delicate relationship between the state and Islamic law. The recent high rate of Sasak youth migrating to Malaysia for labouring work also contributes to the high divorce rates as many men take a second wife while abroad.

Although Firman was critical of some aspects of kawin lari and merarik memaling, he practiced the common custom when he married his wife. “My wife was the sister of my best friend from East Lombok. I was 25 and she was 20, quite young. The first time I saw her going to the mosque. It is normal when we do kidnapping that women go out to mosque after 6pm maghrib so it is a good time to do this. Before she got there, I prepared my motorbike and took her. I didn’t have any friends helping me, I only told one of my aunties to tell her family. My friend didn’t know I had taken his sister and he told my auntie’I will kill the man who took my little sister’. And then after two days my auntie told him it was me. Oh my god, he cried for a full day. Because this was about what he promised his mother, he’d told her he’d keep his sister and planned for her to have an education and even maybe have a job. He wanted her to have a good life. And then I took her and he was really disappointed at the beginning…”

Firman also said the practice played an important role in the preservation of the Sasak cultural identity. “This is a hard job to change this; it is a tradition from many years ago. It is about dignity for the man…Families want to keep tradition. Culturally there are reasons to do this. It’s only a problem when it’s not arranged so well or the man is bad to the woman.”

The Muslim religious leaders, Tuan Guru, exercise enormous social power in Lombok. Even the local government has to submit to the authority of the Tuan Guru to carry through important projects. One of the facilitators of PEKKA’s head Jakarta office, Ibu Ouemi, told me of the strong power the religious leaders have in Lombok and how they must negotiate with their system to ensure women get access to the state documents and benefits. She says it is an ongoing, complex negotiation.

“The influence of Tuan Guru is very strong over there (in NTB). Whatever the Tuan Guru says, the people will follow him, especially in the remote areas. So that’s why PEKKA tries to work with the informal leader, the formal leader and the religious leader to speak about the justice issue… We discuss this justice issue with them… It’s not easy. It’s not easy. We told them how many became the victim of this (kidnapping practice) but they said, ‘Ok. Although we speak here 24 days and 24 nights we cannot change this customary law as it’s already been here for several hundred years.” However, the women at PEKKA are hopeful as they have already made some progress over the years. They have gained support from some of the religious leaders who now empathise with their trauma. The leaders support their need for legal documentation and view it in the wider context of “social harmony” or the society’s well-being.

Back in Lombok, sitting on simple mats with the women, locally grown coffee is being served in abundance along with fried snacks. Growing almost within arm’s length of the hut where we are gathered is a frangipani tree; the hint of sweetness mingles with the short waves of fresh air that stirs the otherwise oppressive heat. The women are asking me all about the dating and marriage practices in my own country.

Where did I meet my boyfriend? What does he think of me wandering about? The women are open and talkative and it’s starting to feel more like a catch up with some new girlfriends. Does he care if I am studying at a higher level than him? Local women drop by, some out of curiosity and some because they want to contribute to the discussion and offer more fried bananas they just made. They gently tease me about being unmarried. And then the questions continue with the same jovial tone, all smiling faces. Does he let me voice my opinion? Have a banana. Does he ever beat me? More coffee. Would he force me to marry him? It is only as I continue answering these, and they, after every response jokingly ask me if they could keep him, that the fragility of these women’s position and their expectations all come back to me.

*Names have been changed to protect individuals’ identities.

Kavita Bedford s a freelance writer from Australia who has had articles published in Voiceworks, the Women’s International Perspective Online Journal, The Santiago Times, Revolver Culture Guide, The Canberra Times and RealTime. She is part of the Westside Writers’ Group and has performed her fiction work at the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2011, 2012 and appeared as a panellist at the National Young Writers’ Festival. She is currently completing her thesis on international development in Indonesia in a Masters of Applied Anthropology.