Pride, Prejudice and Interracial Marriages
It is a truth not so universally acknowledged that a single Indonesian woman in possession of a poor fortune is in want of a Caucasian husband.
As Jane Austen’s canonic novel “Pride and Prejudice” posits, many considerations go into deciding with whom we love, copulate and procreate. In today’s globalized world, however, where transnational economic, cultural and amorous relations become more common, there is a noticeably growing trend in our matrimonial preferences: perkawinan campur or interracial marriage.
Before you deride me for Austen-blasphemy, I did not subvert her famous opening line for nothing. In Indonesia, the majority of interracial marriages involves an Indonesian woman and a foreign man. Much can be said from that observation alone, from gender-power relations, the status of women in Indonesian society, to the complex immigration and citizenship regulations on multi-national marriages.
Before delving into the present complexities of interracial marriage, here’s a fascinating feature of the practice in Indonesia: it has a resonant historical tradition.
Walking down colonial lane provides us with a telling glimpse into the tradition of interracial marriage, especially between native Indonesian women and European men. Note, the situation was specifically gendered because, at the time, European administrators, merchants and military personnel in Java were male (European women did not really come to the Indies until the turn of the 19th century). This context, as historian Ann Stoler remarked in her work, “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule”, formed gendered and racial marriage structures where, indeed, interracial unions were usually between European men and native women.
Bruijn, Gaastra and Schoffer, noted in their book “Dutch Asiatic Shipping in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries”, that between 1602 and 1795, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) sent around 978,000 men to Asia. These men altered more than the islands’ economies; they formed a uniquely racialized colonial society through their relations with native women. A culture of concubinage flourished during the VOC days where Europeans would keep a nyai (housekeeper) for his practical and sexual needs, as Stoler observed. However, interracial relations did not really hold weight unless they were recognized as legal marriages.
Here’s where my Austenian claim – that Indonesian women must be in want of a European husband – finds resonance. Colonial society was legally divided into categories: “European,” “native” and “foreign orientals,” with “European” at the highest rank. In 1641, the government legalized marriage between a European man with a native woman, documented Eric Jones in “Wives, Slaves and Concubines: A History of the Female Underclass in Dutch Asia”. Once married, wives gained full European status. By saying “I do”, a woman thus opened for herself a life of lavish soirées, plantation ownership, and, of course, legal protection. Marriage became a tool, as Austen would agree, for legal, social and economic security.
Fast forward to the present, we encounter a very different situation. In lieu of the perks of entering into a multi-national marriage, interracial couples now find themselves facing difficulty in face of the globalized context of the world today. Interracial marriage still has legal, social and economic dimensions, but now they are not only in the positive sense.
One such challenge in the present society is the legal qualms of marriages where one of the spouses is not an Indonesian citizen. Take, for example, the work of PERCA, a community of Indonesians in multi-citizenship marriages. The organization, formed in 2008, vouches for civil rights of Indonesians and their spouses and families. In April 2011, the group and similar organizations succeeded in pushing for immigration reform which protected the right of foreigners married to Indonesian citizens to stay in the country. Prior to the legislation, foreign spouses could only obtain temporary residencies (“kartu izin tinggal terbatas” or kitas). They can now apply for permanent residency.
However, the struggle is not over for interracial or, to speak in more legally meaningful terms, multi-citizenship couples. The latest challenge came from, rather ironically, the advocate of the “Indonesian diaspora,” Indonesian ambassador to the United States Dino Patti Djalal. During last July’s Congress on Indonesian Diaspora in California, the ambassador has yet to acknowledge Indonesian marriage migrants as part of the diaspora despite the fact that these Indonesian women are biologically, in addition to economically or culturally, responsible for maintaining ties between Indonesia and its communities overseas through the links of matrimony.
Marriage has indeed become more complex than Austen’s Victorian concerns. As the world becomes increasingly more globalized, we find that love (or whatever reason it is we choose to marry) is more easily facilitated across national and racial borders. No longer bound to static conceptions of race or nation, the rise of interracial marriages opens not only possibilities but also perplexing challenges to previously rigid notions like racial or national identity.
My observations, however, like many love stories and, unfortunately, marriages, do not offer a satisfying ending. Let me only conclude by inviting you, too, to question my initial Austenian claim and view interracial marriages with a slightly more nuanced and historically richer perspective.