Understanding Obsession With Women’s Body Through Performing Arts
On April 21, Indonesians celebrated the birth of Kartini, a Javanese writer and educator who started a school for girls on her own porch. Kartini, one of Indonesia’s greatest heroines, continues to uplift Indonesian women’s rights. Kartini’s letters to her friend, which were translated into Bahasa Indonesia from Javanase decades later, revealed what were considered shocking thoughts for a woman during the colonial era, such as her passion for women’s education, the desire to end polygamy and her spirit of nationalism.
In 2012, the spirit of Kartini still resonates in the lives of many Indonesian women. Cultural performances and events were held to commemorate her birth, one of which was the theatrical performance “Goyang Penasaran” (“Obsessive Twist”).
“Goyang Penasaran” was produced by Teater Garasi in Yogyakarta. It was adapted from a short story by a writer and scholar Intan Paramaditha and directed by Naomi Srikandi, an artist and theater director based in Yogyakarta. The duo met in 2009 at a gathering for Indonesian performing arts, and began postulating ideas for a collaboration.
Performed at Salihara cultural center in South Jakarta last week, “Goyang Penasaran” tells a story of a girl named Salimah, a famous dangdut singer with sensual dance moves that arouse male spectators and evoke vivid, sexual imaginings. Various men, from an ojek driver to an everyday street thug, feel a strong attraction toward Salimah’s voluptuousness and energetic sexual twists on stage. The experiences of Salimah reminds us of the phenomenon female dangdut singers across Indonesia have likely encountered, as men watch, leer and fantasize about them.
But in “Goyang,” Salimah is performed by a male actor who became the highlight of the play.
Set in a West Javan village in late 1990s, “Goyang Penasaran” has its roots in Indonesian horror movies of the same era. On stage, a small village slum has been constructed where street thugs loiter near a warung in a dark alley. Also among the sets are Salimah’s small house, and the stage where she performs.
The setting also depicts the realist space where women’s bodies become the object of male desire and coffee-stalls discussions in every corner of the village.
All male characters, from the thugs, rich businessmen and even religious leaders, openly proclaim their obsessions for Salimah. All of these obsessions later lead to hatred of her sensuous twists which are considered sinful by the villagers. They think looking desirously at a woman’s body is forbidden, let alone touching it. Their obsessions are articulated through misogynistic jokes occurring in public spaces (again, the coffee shop).
Yet, two male characters do not verbalize their obsessions and imaginations. Solihin, a rich and married man, wants to conquer Salimah with his wealth, but he never succeeds. Pak Haji, a religious leader in the community, condemns the act of looking desirously at women. But Pak Haji turns out to be a womanizer who also lays his eyes on Salimah and feels the throb of desire.
Eventually many of the men, fueled by stigma, rumors, jealousy and unrealized passion, attack Salimah’s house.
Salimah disappears from the village and returns with a hijab, scaring all of the thugs who now look at her differently. Her sexual twists have been replaced by her hijab, and her behavior, which sparked vicious gossip among villagers, has been replaced by speculation about Salimah’s transformation into a slightly scary, unattractive and completely non-sensuous woman.
This change gives the audience a perspective on how the society demands women’s body’s to be as they want them to be: Given a label and condemned at the same time.
In one scene, Salimah’s words to Solihin probably sum up the core message: That men like to have competition, and that they want to win many things and to possess a woman’s body.
The work of a feminist writer and director, “Goyang Penasaran” provides a provocative dialogue on stage. The creators succeeded in giving the audience a reflective journey on how society thinks about the female body.
Through the metaphor of Salimah’s body, the bodies of Indonesian women are contemplated in the larger dialogue of power. There are multiple policies that restrict women’s bodies, and many rules that forbid women from wearing certain outfits: Islamic Shariah Law in Aceh, which was imposed as a political compromise in the name of security and morality, is just one example. The debate over miniskirts is another.
Women’s bodies have always been a subject of some contention as related to social values, traditions and religion. And what’s more, the development of emerging fundamentalist groups intimidated the efforts of some art exhibitions, art products, films and performances related to gender and sexuality.
In this case, “Goyang Penasaran” is among the fresh offerings from the performing arts world that gives society a chance to examine how we face challenges from different religious perspectives that discriminate against women’s bodies.
I hope that other artists and performance groups can creatively find a new way to bring up gender, sexuality and religious issues in a realistic way.
Olin Monteiro is a writer and feminist working in Jakarta.