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

by Kavita Bedford

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Divorced Mother with Child at PEKKA in West Lombok (NTB). Photo by Todd Lavender.
The taxi driver laughed, showing all his teeth. “Yes. Just one month ago I helped my friend Janedi* kidnap his wife,” he said. “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. “Here we kidnap the woman when we like her,” he said. 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 6 p.m. in the rice fields. But the mistake was her 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). 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. 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 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 woman. The marriage practice varies across Lombok and its structures are founded on cultural integrations of Sasak adat law and orthodox Islam. A woman’s abduction is considered a prestigious act and implies she is worthy goods that deserve to be stolen. A worrying combination of male strategising and Islamic law allows exploitation of the bride-stealing and polygamy practices, along with a lack of inheritance rights, which places strain on gender relationships in Lombok. The aftermath of this strain is evidenced by the high divorce rate in Lombok.

Marriage and divorce are the building blocks of legal identity in Indonesia. For these women, being widowed or divorced under local customary law means it is not recognised by the State, which has enormous repercussions on access to 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 enrollment 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 arisen. 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 of the state, international donor agencies, and local non-government organisations to ensure that 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 it belongs to the Nusa Tenggara Barat (NTB) province along with the island of Sumbawa. With its volcanic sands, perfect surf spots and luscious rice paddies, it is hailed as the new tourist hot spot by travel guides. Amid all the reggae bars in Senggigi, it may not be obvious, but NTB is one of the poorer regions in Indonesia in economy, infrastructure, education and health. The Sasak are the dominant ethnic group on the island, constituting approximately 95 percent 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 centralised state judicial system. As a result, the adat system overrules the state law in everyday practices. 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. The biggest hurdle women face on this island is striking a balance to keep their social standing intact under the strong adat system while still 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 talk with two recently divorced women. These women talk of how they suffered through bad divorces – husbands who had migrated to Saudi Arabia or Malaysia and remarried there. Their hearts were broken by polygamy practices and they could gain no inheritance rights. Although polygamy is not a popular practice in Indonesia compared to other Muslim countries, it is more prevalent in Lombok and eastern island neighbours. It remains a sensitive and debated issue and is a source of tension between the state and Islamic law.

These women also have roles as paralegals – community-based women trained in legal aid – for the women’s non-governmentmental organization PEKKA (Women Headed Households), supported by the World Bank’s Justice for the Poor team and the Australian Government Overseas Aid Program. Based on a 2010 World Bank survey of PEKKA members, 55 percent have a per capita income below the Indonesian poverty line, and 79 percent have a per capita income below two USD and support three other dependents on average.

Ibu Lastri* is currently unpaid for her work as a paralegal while simultaneously working on a small kermaba (fish pond). She tells me, “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, who cannot afford to feed the children without the financial support of the fathers. Under the local adat the women have no education, not even the ability to read. The men have so many more rights.”

Firman* is a local tour guide who acted as my translator throughout the interview process, later becoming involved with PEKKA. He experienced problems with the power of the adat system in his village when he refused to partake in some of the smaller rituals and was excommunicated. Although Firman was critical of some aspects of kawin lari and merarik memaling, he practiced the common custom when he married his wife. Of the complexity of the preservation of Sasak cultural identity, he says, “This is a hard job to change; 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 office in Jakarta told me they have to negotiate with the Tuan Guru. “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.

As I sit on simple mats with the women in NTB, locally grown coffee is being served along with fried snacks. The women ask 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 starts to feel more like a catch-up with some new girlfriends. Local women drop by, some out of curiosity and some because they want to contribute to the discussion and offer more fried bananas. They gently tease me about being unmarried. And then the questions continue with the same jovial tone and 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? As they jokingly ask me if they can keep him, the fragility of these women’s positions and their expectations become more apparent.

*Names have been changed to protect individuals’ identities.

About the Author: Kavita Bedford is an award-winning freelance writer from Australia. She has had articles published in The Women’s International Perspective, Voiceworks, Tharunka, The Santiago Times, Revolver Culture Guide, The Canberra Times and RealTime. In 2010, she was featured as an outstanding contributor to online journalism in Iowa University’s Women in International Communication interview series (2010). She is a recipient of the WestWords Western Sydney Writers’ Fellowships to develop a writing project. She has performed her fiction work at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2011, 2012, appeared as a panellist at the National Young Writers’ Festival, and co-facilitated the Islamic Relations Forum while at university to promote a public discourse on representations of Muslims in the Australian media and cross-cultural debate She recently completed her thesis in a Masters of Applied Anthropology, which she did in conjunction with working as a research associate for the World Bank’s Justice for the Poor team in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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