A Woman’s Work


Mother’s day in the UK is the fourth Sunday but in Indonesia it’s the 22nd of December, conflicting nicely with Christmas (not that Christmas is celebrated in Indonesia but I’m not about to give it up any time soon). In the UK, the traditional celebration is to be brought breakfast in bed by your kids along with some kind of macaroni art or painted pebble or some other kind of handcrafted goodness. Here, things are rather different.

Mother’s day in Bali, like most special days, means more work for all the women. While it’s a day to celebrate and honour mothers, they don’t get a day off. On the contrary, the events planned usually require a few weeks of preparation.

In every village in Bali there is a banjar. This is an organisation that you could think of as the village council – all important events are discussed here and preparations made for important ceremonies, weddings, funerals and the like. A couple become members of the banjar after they are married and are expected to attend meetings and be involved in the community by joining in with communal cooking and cleaning and ceremony preparation.

Being a non-Balinese speaking bule and pregnant or looking after a small baby for most of the time since our wedding, I have so far avoided most involvement in the banjar, but last mother’s day, a few days before Christmas, I went along for the annual celebrations. Every year for mother’s day in our village, a fun walk is organised. Now getting up at 5am to trek miles through the rice fields rather than being served breakfast in bed is not really my idea of fun but this is all part of being a woman in Bali.

After the walk, the women congregate in the bale banjar (like a community hall) to exchange gifts. These are all very small gifts with the emphasis being very much on “it’s the thought that counts”, or not in some cases…. I received a pair of big pink nylon knickers. Made’s aunt got a packet of noodles. The woman next to me unwrapped a box of mineral water. The previous year, Made’s mother was most unimpressed with her mystery gift that turned out to be sanitary towels.

Anyway, opening the gifts does provide a few laughs and these women aren’t going to get any presents from their husbands or children so they have to rely on each other – it’s really a tough life being a woman in Bali.

Gender bias isn’t as bad here as it is in some other countries like China or India – children are treasured whether they happen to be a boy or a girl – but still, boys are favoured to a huge degree. In Balinese culture the boys stay with the family, taking care of their parents as they grow old. Here, children are your retirement fund. When a woman gets married, she goes to live with her husbands family and becomes a part of his family. Because of this, girls are not given any inheritance and in some cases are given less education because they are not considered part of their parent’s family any more once they are married.

Women here are tough and they work hard. They get up before dawn, sweep the compound, go to the market, cook for the family and make the offerings and then they go off to work. Many cultures have traditional gender roles that involve the woman staying at home to look after the children while the man goes to work but here women are often expected to be the main breadwinner too. It’s pretty common for young women to hand over their babies to their mother in law’s care when they are a few months old so they can go back to work. After returning from work, there’s no rest – only more cooking, more caring for children, more making offerings and more community commitments.

And what do the men do while the women are busy taking care of their families and earning money? Well in many cases, not a lot. You’ll see men sitting around, drinking, playing cards and stroking their cocks. Bali is definitely a man’s world.

A ¬†year or two ago in preparation for some kind of village competition, every house was asked to display a sign listing all the duties of a good wife. This involved taking care of the home, taking care of the family, taking part in the community, working to make money. As you’ve probably guessed, there was no alternative list for the man of the family.

I was fairly shocked when I first came here to see that women do most of the heavy lifting and carrying on building sites. Whenever there’s a building project going on, you’ll see women carrying huge piles of bricks on their heads.

Women are expected to look after their husbands and take care of guests, whatever else they may be doing. Made often bemoans the fact that i don’t get up before him and bring him tea and cake, despite the fact that he never actually drinks it when I do make him tea. Of course my response to Made saying “make me tea” during the first months of our relationship (please isn’t really a common word in the Indonesian language) was “you’ve got hands, make your own damn tea!” I’m actually lucky to have married into a fairly progressive family – Made and his father both cook, clean and do other things that many men don’t. But I’m still expected to drop everything and make coffee for everyone like a dutiful housewife if Made’s friends turn up at the house – it’s just not the done thing for the man to make the coffee and we must keep up appearances…

I do think (and hope) things are slowly changing in Bali. Now women work and spend a lot of time away from home they’re exposed to more ideas and opinons. Bali is definitely becoming more westernized, particularly in the tourist areas and I don’t think that’s always a bad thing. It’s becoming less of a rarity to divorce which means more women can escape abusive relationships with less worry about being completely ostracized from society (however the husband retains custody of the children in 90% of cases).

There’s no doubt about it, it’s hard work being a woman in Bali…

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3 Responses to “A Woman’s Work”

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  1. Kaho says:

    It does sound like it’s a hard work to be a woman in Bali!!!! For you to be married and adopt yourself into the culture in Bali as being brought up in the U.K., I can only imagine that it was quite a bit of an adjustment. It’s interesting to read that in Bali, families consider their daughters married into their husbands’ families because that’s how Japanese people view marriage. I found it interesting to learn that Americans view it more as once their sons find wives, they go to their wives’ families more often and thus parents don’t get to see them as much as their daughters.

  2. Rachel says:

    Hi Kaho! Yes actually there are a lot of Japanese married with Balinese here and they seem to fit much easier into the lifestyle and culture than other foreigners – I guess that must be the reason as the cultures are somewhat similar. I do find it difficult to adjust as in the UK it is assumed that once you are married, you will move into your own home and create your own little family, rather than being assimilated into your husband’s existing family and having no home of your own. I still have hopes that we’ll move out on our own one day!

  3. Lucy Rider says:

    Hey, It really is hard being a woman in Bali – I couldn’t do it and admire you for being able to make it work. I guess this is probably one of the few things that Westernisation will bring to the island that isn’t a negative – that and the odd Starbucks latte to keep you going :-).x